Searching for a rental home or apartment can be a daunting and time-consuming task. So to save time and energy, you decide to have a company take care of the search for you. You do some quick online research, and then tell the prepaid rental listing service (PRLS) company representative what you are looking for in a rental, pay them a fee for a list of rentals matching your criteria, and find that dream rental in no time.
Sounds easy enough. The problem? There is more to the PRLS business than meets the eye, and scams are common. To avoid getting scammed and to get in the door of the rental you’ve been looking for, consumer education is the key.
Watch for red flags
Unfortunately, not all PRLS businesses are on the up and up. Here are some common problems and scams to be aware of:
- Unlicensed companies
- False advertising
- Lists of rentals that are not available as advertised
- Lists contain properties that are not for rent or do not exist
- Lists do not meet a consumer’s requested specifications
- Failure to provide refunds
Before handing your money over to a PRLS company, it’s best to understand whom and what you’re dealing with. A PRLS provides prospective tenants with listings of residential real property for tenancy while collecting a fee at the same time or in advance of when the listings are supplied. In order to legally conduct business in California as a PRLS, the company must be licensed by DCA’s California Bureau of Real Estate (CalBRE). Always check the license to verify the company you’re dealing with is in good standing. If the company is not licensed, do not conduct business with them!
Look before you sign
Before any PRLS company accepts a fee for rental listings, it must provide you a written contract that includes detailed information, including:
- The amount of the service fee
- A description of the services to be performed in exchange for the fee
- Specifications for the rental unit that you want the service to find for you
- The expiration date of the contract, which is no more than 90 days from the date it is signed
- The small claims court remedy available should any issues arise
If you have a problem with a PRLS company, you may not be able to recover all of your money or time, but you do have rights and should fully understand them. Keep in mind it is always good consumer practice to do research before conducting business with any company. Ask friends and family you trust for recommendations of companies they have had good experiences with. It is also a good idea to research the company online and check with the Better Business Bureau.
You are entitled to a full refund if you have not received within five days of signing the contract three available rental listings that meet the property specifications listed on the contract. You are entitled to all fees you paid, minus $50, if the service does not locate a rental for you or if you find housing on your own within the timeframe of the PRLS contract. You will have to provide documentation in order to receive a refund. If the service failed to locate a rental property for you, you will need to provide documentation proving that you have not moved and still reside at the same address. If you found a rental on your own (without the assistance of the PRLS), you will need to provide documentation of your new address. If documentation cannot be provided, a statement of the facts should be prepared and submitted to the PRLS company. If the PRLS company does not issue a refund, a court of law can award you the refund, plus additional damages, up to $1,000 (Business and Professions Code section 10167.95). The quickest way to obtain a judgment in these cases is through small claims court.
The mission of CalBRE is to safeguard and promote the public interests in real estate matters through licensure, regulation, education, and enforcement. To check a license, file a complaint, report unlicensed activity, or for more information about PRLS, visit http://www.calbre.ca.gov or call (877) 373-4542.
Prepaid Rental Listing Service Information