Renters say expensive application fees and other unexpected costs make finding housing in Utah even more difficult

Some renters question the fairness of charges; others suggest a cap on the number of applications a landlord can collect per unit.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah student Kambry Woodbury has experienced her fair share of different types of renter’s fees that landlords are charging for housing.

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As renters look for places to live in Utah’s hot housing market, many are finding their search is complicated by new or increased fees.

Some report spending as much as $100 per person on application charges. Others say they were ignored by a prospective landlord after paying to apply. Added expenses include as much as $300 in administrative fees and $200 lease initiation fees, renters told The Salt Lake Tribune in an online survey.

And the list of fees can extend even further depending on the property management company. Some require renters to pay a fee for their parking space, for the keys to on-site laundromats and gyms, for maintenance of common grounds and security.

Others require renters to sign up for mandatory media packages for TV and internet. One renter reported being charged $20 for using a property management’s online portal to submit an application.

These costs can make the already expensive process of moving nearly impossible for some renters.

Wendy Gilbertson, who has moved twice in the last 12 months, said that she and her family were “within days of being homeless” after ending their lease at an apartment in Magna. After months of being rejected for units because their credit score was deemed to be too low, Gilbertson said, she began to look for a motel to stay in with her husband and teenage son.

“It is absolutely terrifying,” Gilbertson said. “It is keep-you-up-at-night stress when you’re trying to worry about where you’re going to be staying.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Renters who responded to the Salt Lake Tribune's renter's fee survey reported paying a long list of fees as a part of the application process.

Gilbertson works from home as a medical coder for Hill Air Force Base. The prospect of not being able to work in a motel because of spotty internet was a “terrifying thought,” she said.

Unable to afford a score of application fees, she tried a service called Rentler, which charges one amount to apply to multiple available units online. But after paying $39, she discovered that many of the listed units required users to apply through the property management company’s website — requiring an additional fee.

“You just come to a point where you’re done with playing everybody’s games,” Gilbertson said. “That’s exactly what it feels like. It feels like a game to see who can get the most money out of you.”

Gilbertson eventually was able to rent an apartment in Magna after the landlords of the complex gave her the chance to explain the issues with her credit score. But the stress and financial costs that came with braving the market left her with the desire to never move again. “You run out of money applying for apartments,” she said.

She feels lucky to have been the first one to apply for the three-bedroom apartment her family lives in now, she said, after seeing “horror stories” on Kearns and Magna Facebook pages from people who ended up without housing.

Renters question the fairness of some fees

South Jordan resident Shelby Livingston said she once applied for a vacant house with five of her friends. They pooled $210 in total, $35 per person, and sent an application to the property management company. About three minutes later, Livingston got an email saying it had been denied.

That didn’t make sense, she thought — how could the company have run background checks for six people in that amount of time? She asked for a refund, but it refused and eventually stopped responding to the group’s messages.

One of Livingston’s friends disputed the charge through Chase Bank, and only then were they able to get their money refunded. Other renters haven’t been had the same fortune.

When Kambry Woodbury graduated from high school, she wanted to move into a house in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood with two friends. They found a listing online and paid $50 each for an application fee and $40 each for a background check.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah student Kambry Woodbury has struggled with fees charged by landlords. She is in a good situation now with a landlord in the Avenues, she said.

The landlord promptly rejected their application and told Woodbury it had been denied because they didn’t want college students living in the house, she said. As she looked for other listings, she kept seeing advertisements for the house. With each repost, the price was elevated slightly.

“It’s almost like they were just having people come look at this super sweet deal of a house that is super cute up in the Avenues just to get people’s $90 for application fees and background checks until they find someone that will pay the rent they really want,” Woodbury said.

Fees can make it infeasible to cast a wide net for potential units, especially since some companies won’t allow you to see a unit without applying, said Salt Lake City resident Ty Singer. And he also has questioned the legitimacy of some charges.

He has notifications set up on his phone to alert him when his background or credit report is pulled. At least three times, Singer said, he has paid a property manager a fee to have his information checked, but received no notification that the landlord had actually pulled the reports.

Singer has tried presenting his own background check and credit report when applying, he said, but property managers have said they have to conduct an independent search.

He is couch surfing at friends’ places for now. He feels landlords are driving renters away with expensive fees.

“Part of that makes you hesitant to move into these places,” he said, “because it’s like, ‘Man, if you’re charging me all of this up front, what kind of experience am I going to have living there?’”

‘Pretty par for the course’

Before moving back to Utah from the East Coast, Calen Smith requested a rundown of fees from the property management company that approved him to rent an apartment. The company sent him a template email with a few fees, he said.

But when he arrived in person, Smith said, the company required him to pay fees that weren’t previously listed, including for common area maintenance, security cameras and a media package of cable and internet through a deal the company had arranged with Comcast. He felt he had to pay the fees and sign the lease, he said, because he was already there.

“It’s pretty par for the course as far as every other time I’ve ever had to rent in Salt Lake,” Smith said. “[Landlords] don’t really care about accommodating renters because there’s always three more people in line to take a place.”

Livingston said she had a similar experience, a year after her friends got their application fees refunded through Chase Bank. On the day before her lease for a house in South Salt Lake City began, Livingston texted the owner to make sure she was withdrawing the right amount of money for the first month of rent. The listing had specified $1,325 per month.

But he replied and said that the price had changed to $1,450, she said. “We were so stuck,” Livingston said. She agreed to the new rent and lived there for a year.

At the end of the lease, she paid $300 for a cleaning company to go through the house in an effort to recoup the $800 deposit. When the deposit check arrived, it was for $106. “We lost money on the cleaning company,” Livingston said with a laugh.

To combat surprise fees and price hikes, Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, and Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, introduced SB68 in Utah’s last legislative session. While the new law requires residential property owners to disclose fees and accurate rental amounts to renters, little oversight exists to ensure departing renters are getting a fair percentage of deposits.

Woodbury also struggled to get a deposit returned. After being rejected for the Avenues house, she was denied the chance to rent other places because of her lack of credit or rental history, she said.

With the start of her first college semester approaching, she found a room on Facebook Marketplace for $350 a month. “That was really the only option that I had,” Woodbury said.

But the opening hadn’t been posted by the property management company, her new roommates told her; they had decided they could split the rent with another person by listing a small, unused space as an additional room. The roommates asked her to pay rent “under the table” directly to them, she said.

When she eventually moved out, she was only able to get her deposit back from them after threatening to tell the property manager about the deal, she said.

Woodbury has since started working for Understanding Us, a nonprofit organization that offers tai chi classes and other support for people who are unhoused in Salt Lake City. Some people served by the nonprofit are able to afford rental application fees only after they develop a disability and start receiving Social Security funds, she said. And then, disability checks barely cover rent, and having a disability often means being unable to work or drive.

“Growing up, I was really privileged and never had to worry about money,” she said, “so to work with this community has been a really difficult adjustment emotionally. I’m seeing how heartbreaking the world is right now.”

Looking for solutions

Many renters said they wanted property management companies to place a cap on the number of applications they accept for a unit, to prevent people from wasting money applying when they have no chance of being approved.

One suggested creating a system where renters pay a universal application fee to assemble the information landlords need to vet applicants. Renters said they appreciated companies that allow them to fill out one application for every unit that the company has available.

Paul Smith, executive director of Utah Apartment Association, said landlords use application fees to pay for office labor, including calling previous landlords, and criminal and credit background checks. Administrative fees and lease initiation fees can cover the costs of conducting inspections and redecoration, he said.

The market determines how much property management companies charge tenants to apply, Smith said.

“If people are setting fees that are too high, they won’t get takers,” Smith said. “Some people are obviously charging more than others, but the market usually works those things out.”

Renters often waste their money on fees because they apply for places they don’t qualify to rent, Smith said. He recommends tenants ask for the company’s rental criteria up front and ensure they meet the requirements before filling out an application.

“Hard to house renters,” like those who have a criminal background or poor credit, should avoid applying for units with just the hope that a sympathetic landlord will overlook the issues with their application, he said.

Landlords are required by law to only accept application fees if they have a vacancy, and can only consider one application at a time, Smith said. That means the key to finding a unit is to be the first to apply.

Renters “have to be really diligent” about searching, Smith said. “They’ve got to be first. If you’re first, and you qualify, you get the place.”

Smith said he doesn’t think a government mandate setting application fees or a cap on the number of applications a landlord can accept would be effective. He instead championed services that charge one fee to send a renter’s information to multiple landlords, like Rentler is intended to do.

“Let’s let technology, startups and innovators solve this problem for us,” he said.

There are options for prospective tenants who are struggling right now, Smith said. The federal government awarded the state $400 million in stimulus as part of the Utah Rental Relief program. The funds can be used for rent, fees, deposits and utilities, he said, and anyone who earned less than 80% of the annual median income in their county can qualify.

Few people have taken advantage of the funding, which is available on a first come, first serve basis, he said. Renters can apply at rentrelief.utah.gov/.