Can Massachusetts Landlords Charge an Application Fee?

Application fees are one of those areas where inexperienced landlords follow common sense instead of the law, and pay penalties as a result.

The law for property owners and managers is clear. It states that prior to the beginning of a tenancy, no lessor may require payment for anything except first, last, security, and locks (MGL Ch 186 Section 15B).

Application fees, pet fees, cleaning fees, amenity fees, and all other charges are forbidden. But wait.

Largely because the realtors have a better lobby than we do, brokers can charge application fees (254 CMR 700). This means even though both landlords and brokers may incur costs in screening tenants, only brokers can charge for credit checks or other background searches. As landlords, we are legally obligated not to charge directly. We are free to recoup the cost of tenant screening with rent collected.

This substantially muddies the waters, because the average renter doesn’t know the difference between a lessor and a broker. Renters ask everyone if they charge an application fee, as if it were okay for everyone to do so. Landlords are not brokers, so we cannot charge a fee.

What about when the tenant pays for their credit report?

Some tenant screening services allow a tenant to log into a website, pay for their credit score, and have it sent to the landlord. Surely this is okay, because the landlord doesn’t collect the fee? No.

The law has been in effect since the 1970s. As of June 2017, according to research conducted by Record Title, the law office of Stanley Komack, there had not been case law in MA about tenant screening services where the tenant was asked to pay an online service that sent credit information to the landlord.

However, in the opinion of Attorney Komack and five other attorneys on his local bench-bar at that time, operating in the Western Division of the Housing Court, landlords would be putting themselves at risk if they require (rather than request) that a tenant use such a screening service where the applicant pays. As of when we last updated this article, we think this is still the case.

Landlords should not require their applicants to pay a third party.

What if I reject the applicant so I'm technically not a lessor?

While that might be technically how the law reads, consider that the courts have equity powers. This means whatever the law says, a judge can decide against you if they think you are being unfair. It seems unfair to us to charge people for an apartment they aren't even getting. Better to conduct the free screens first, and only pay for a third party background check once it appears that the applicants will qualify. The cost of the report is the cost of doing business.

What if I’m my own broker?

We are not aware of case law that permits a landlord who is also a realtor to act as their own broker. The court would probably enforce the least favorable interpretation of the law, which is that a landlord-realtor is a landlord first and may not charge an application fee.

The law is very clearly negative against lessors. It says "no lessor shall charge." So it doesn't matter which other hats you wear. But if you want more detail, read on.

Essay on Massachusetts Rental Application Fees for Landlords and Brokers

This section by Peter Vickery, Esq., Legislative Affairs Counsel

Massachusetts landlord tenant law spells out the list of charges that landlords may ask tenants to pay at the start of a tenancy: first month’s rent, last month’s rent, security deposit, and lock-change fee. M.G.L. c. 186, §15B. That is all. Landlords are not allowed to request additional charges. What about an application fee?

Longview Place in Waltham, one of the properties that triggered the class action suit. Editorial Use

Although it is not a state court ruling, landlords should take note of the federal district court decision in Perry v Equity Residential Management, LLC, a 2014 case about the legality of up-front application fees. The tenants alleged that the fee was unlawful. The judge found in favor of the tenants and awarded them treble damages and attorney’s fees.

Attorney Richard D. Vetstein’s Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog describes the case clearly and discusses its implications for landlords: “Application fees are very much widespread, and I would counsel landlords and property managers to think twice about charging them under any circumstance.”

Licensed brokers

But what about brokers, the people who help connect property owners with would-be renters? May brokers charge application fees? Yes, so long as they are licensed. The law provides that “no person shall engage in the business of finding dwelling accommodations for prospective tenants for a fee unless such person is a licensed broker or salesman.”

The licensing requirement is important. In 2007, the Superior Court allowed a class action to go forward against a management company that hired a broker whose license had expired. The tenants claimed it was illegal for the management company to charge them a fee for the services of an unlicensed broker (Woodruff v. Niles Co., Inc.). So landlords beware: If you employ the services of a broker, make sure that the license is up to date.

What if you, the landlord, are also a licensed broker? In a helpful overview of the subject, the Greater Boston Real Estate Board refers to the 1983 case of Samia v. McElaney in which the Housing Court held that a broker could charge a fee so long as it was “separate bona fide business operation” and not simply the landlord wearing a different hat.

As with the Perry v. Residential Equity case, Samia v. McElaney is not an appellate state court decision and not a binding precedent. But it likely influences the way judges think about (and rule on) disputes about broker’s fees. So landlords should take it into account in deciding whether to wear two hats: landlord and broker.

Broker regulations

Like other licensed professionals, brokers have their own governing body called the board of registration. The board’s regulations set out certain detailed requirements, including the steps that a licensed broker must take when dealing with prospective tenants (254 C.M.R. 7).

In addition to holding a valid license, the broker has to tell the applicant in writing the amount of the broker’s fee, the time and manner of payment, and whether it is contingent on the owner and applicant actually entering into a lease or rental agreement. The applicant needs to sign the written notice. If the tenant refuses, the broker has to record the refusal on the notice. This has to happen “at the first personal meeting between the broker... and the prospective tenant.”


Licensed brokers can charge fees to prospective tenants so long as the brokers comply with the board of registration’s regulations. Can landlords who are also licensed brokers do so? Although there is no Massachusetts appellate decision that answers with a definitive “no,” prudent landlords might well prefer to err on the side of caution.

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22 Responses to Can Massachusetts Landlords Charge an Application Fee?

  1. Kathleen Gunning says:

    What if the landlord or another individual collects the applications and fee, but has a realtor screen the applications and runs the credit checks. In this case, would it be acceptable for an application fee to be charged?

    • Doug Quattrochi says:

      I am not an attorney, but I believe the underlying links provide the answer: The law forbids owners from taking anything other than first, last, security, and locks. The regulation allows licensed brokers to take a fee under a specific process. The process you outlined — owner takes fee and hands it to realtor — doesn’t seem to be permitted in law or regulation. =/ We always advise caution, talk with an attorney in greater detail and you may get a better answer.

  2. Theresa F says:

    I am being asked by my potential new landlord to pay a broker fee because he is also a broker in Dorchester where his rental is located.

    It sounds from the above information that if a person is both a landlord and a broker that he would not be allowed by law to collect a broker fee.

    Can you please confirm this is the case. Thanks.

    • Doug Quattrochi says:

      Hi Theresa, Unfortunately, the article will have to stand on its own, we can’t give advice particular to your situation because we’re not attorneys!

  3. Abbie C says:

    “At time of writing, we were awaiting receipt of the results of a case where this matter was heard and decided against the landlord. Landlords should not require their applicants to pay a third party.”

    ^What was the name of this case mentioned by the author in the article?

  4. Matt says:

    You should make this post like into a definitive guide or something. I bet a lot of your new readers that come to this site would want to be able to find this post. It’s too good to keep secret!

  5. Michael Pace says:

    But nobody’s stopping you, Mr. Quattrochi, from interviewing a lawyer before publishing this article. Then we wouldn’t need to hire lawyers individually.

  6. Captain Obvious says:

    Did you even read the article? Maybe you should try doing that before you scroll straight to the comments and ask a question that’s been answered in the actual article.

    TL;DR: don’t ask others to do the work for you if you’re not going to offer payment.

  7. charles says:

    I live in a 2family. can my landlord charge a parking fee? mine does 50.00 a month. never paid for parking were I lived before.

  8. John D says:

    “At time of writing, we were awaiting receipt of the results of a case where this matter was heard and decided against the landlord. Landlords should not require their applicants to pay a third party.”

    What case? I’ve never heard of this! It’s as if property owners have no rights in this state anymore.

  9. Maria says:

    In MA, if landlords are unable to charge an application fee, then what is the best course of action for landlords to gain necessary background information when considering a prospective tenant? Paying application fees, out of pocket, appears to be a very costly item for landlords, thus limiting the quantity of potential tenants able to be considered for the apartment!

  10. Becky E Phaneuf says:

    With respect to landlard/tenant fees, the above reference suggests that “amenity fees” are not appropriate. I have experienced charges to use a laundry room where tenants pay to use rental washers and dryers. My grievances are not addressed by legislature…it seems that the cost of common use area (laundry room), cost of electric, water, and rental of machines is passed onto tenants inappropriately because there is no separate metering. I also see separate cost for parking at some properties.

    Another issue, is property owners managers using third party software programs to collect rents and tenent maintenance requests. I was just charged a convenience fee to pay my rent with my debit card/visa payment/ACH checking account. I thought this was not allowed in Massachusetts.

    Please advise.

  11. REBAmem says:

    Regarding application fees, a licensed agent or broker can charge an application fee as a service as part of an apartment search that’s not tied to one specific dwelling. For example, I am a tenant looking for an apartment and I go to a real estate agency, the agency can charge me a fee to perform a background check and a one size fits all application, which may be submitted to multiple landlords. Also, the background check fee amount must come out of the full brokers’ fee. The brokers fee + any application fee can not exceed an amount equal to one month’s rent. Per recent case law, amenity fees may be charged, as long as they’re 100% voluntary. For example, if a tenant rents in a building that has parking available, they can not be compelled to pay for a parking space separately if they do not want or need it. Same goes for in-building health clubs or pools, etc. The way around that is to make them “free” and then charge a higher rent. Similar to the application fee, pet deposits can only be charged if the sum of the pet deposit plus the security deposit do not exceed an amount equal to the first month’s rent. If I recall correctly there’s currently a discrepancy in the case law regarding pet rent itself, but I would very strongly advise against charging it for the same reasons cited in past cases stating the statute strictly limits what may be charged.

  12. Stephen says:

    I did read the article. So am I to assume that in MA, a broker (working for a landlord) can require 1st, last, security and broker fee all equal to one month’s rent (example $2200 rent x 4 = $8800)? Even though the renter did not hire the broker to find the place? Isn’t this a fee the broker charges the landlord to do their leg work renting the place?

  13. Fidan says:

    I couldn’t find an answer to my case: I am the landlord. The broker took the broker fee from me. The broker also took broker fee from the tenant stating that the landlord doesn’t pay the broker fee. I believe this is a misconduct and we should be refunded, and his license should be revoked for lying to the tenant on the grounds of his fee.

  14. Fidan says:

    The broker took one month’s rent from the tenant and half a month from me( we initially planned to have a year lease and he wanted to change full month to me, but I asked him to lower the fee to hapf a month since the contract is 6 months. I belive he got 1.5 months of broker fee, which is illegal

  15. Ally P says:

    If a landlord DOES in fact charge an application fee ? I was charged a $250 application fee prior to my tenancy beginning. I have the $250 charge on my bank statement but what is my legal recourse in recouping those charges? Is there any legal penalty for a landlord under the law? I see that landlords are forbidden to request anything besides first, last security (all equal to one months rent) as well as a key change lock. But what is the legal recourse once this has already happened? Is there a specific financial relief or process prescribed to take corrective action, please

  16. E. OBrien says:

    There is something shaky about the apartment complex I just applied to. First their voice recording calls it an “application” fee but the site says it is an application deposit and then they will ask for one month’s rent. Do I get to deduct this amount of $500 from that? When I try to contact the office for this info…I don’t get a response.

  17. Uno Online says:

    I had three apartments in Boston and was never made to pay last months rent, just first month, security and broker fee. She’d use the last months rent and get back the security assuming she didn’t trash the place.

  18. Haley says:

    My question is in regards to application fees ($50 non refundable) when it is via a separate broker managing multiple properties. How do I prove they have used the fee appropriately and how do you know they are not scamming accepting multitudes of fees to cover rent on these self serve viewings w/o ever actually renting the apartment? I’d like to know how long the apartment has been on the market as well as how many applications (is there a cap)? How do I report fraud. Seems to me the 11 year old company owned by two have only 5/6 year old positive reviews for homeowners and 2 week to 3 year reviews all negative from potential tenants being charged and never hearing a word back as well as from actual tenants dealing with verbal abuse and aggression.

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