Rental applications are fairly straightforward. You’ll fill out your name, contact info, and employment and rental history. But you’re not alone if you pause when you get to the section about credit.
Perhaps the application asks you to share your credit reports or scores, or you have to give the landlord permission to check your credit. And the kicker – you often pay a fee for the credit check.
If you know your credit reports and scores aren’t quite perfect (most people’s aren’t), you might be worried that your application will be outright dismissed. It’s a possibility, as it’s certainly more challenging to find a rental if you have poor credit.
However, there are a few steps you can take to increase your chances of getting approved:
1. Know what landlords are looking for
Jerri Mitchell owns JNM Realty Group, LLC, a property management company that manages over 400 multi-family and 60 single family homes, in addition to commercial properties. She says that once she understood what actually impacts a credit score, she started focusing on the applicants’ credit reports rather than scores.
Mitchell isn’t alone, either. Many landlords and property management companies care more about specific types of negative marks in your credit history than your credit scores.
For example, late payments from several years ago on accounts that are now current might not be a concern. Similarly, late payments or even a collection account for a medical bill could be a low priority as many people struggle to pay bills following a medical emergency.
However, if you have a lot of recent late payments, a collection account for unpaid rent, or have been evicted in the past (which could be checked with a tenant screening service), you might have trouble getting accepted even if you have high credit scores.
2. Check your credit reports
You’ll want to know what you’re working with when it comes to your credit history, and you can start by getting free copies of your credit reports and reviewing them closely.
You likely have three credit reports, one each from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You can request one free copy from each bureau every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport. If you’ve already gotten your free report, you can pay for another copy from each credit bureau, or you could use a different resource to get free copies.
For example, Credit Karma lets you review your Equifax and TransUnion reports for free, and Experian has its own free program that you can use to review that report.
If you see something that doesn’t appear quite right, perhaps an account that you don’t remember opening or a late payment when you’re confident you paid on time. Quick tip – paying within 30 days of the due date is “on time” when it comes to credit reporting, even if you’re technically past the due date and wound up paying a late fee.
You have the right to dispute any errors you find on your credit reports and ask the bureaus to correct the mistake. CreditDash can also help analyze your credit reports for potential errors and prepare the dispute forms.
3. Check your credit scores
Even if credit scores aren’t always a top priority, some companies or landlords might use a credit score as a quick way to evaluate your credit history. A lower score may indicate you haven’t paid past bills on time, and a property manager might worry that you won’t be able (or will choose not to) pay your rent in the future.
You might not know exactly which credit score type the landlord will check, but all consumer scores are based on the information in one of your credit reports and many credit scores are calculated with similar criteria.
Many companies give you free access to your credit scores, including banks, credit unions, credit card issuers, and personal finance sites. Here’s a list of free options.
If you have a low score, be prepared to have a more difficult time getting approved and have explanations for the negative marks that led to the low score.
4. Make sure your application matches your credit history
As you fill out your rental application, make sure you at least include all the required past employers or addresses that the landlord can see on your credit report. Generally, these are the jobs or homes from the past two years. A mismatch might be a red flag for property manager, who might think you’re trying to hide something.
5. Look for rentals that aren’t managed by large companies
If you have poor credit, you might find it’s much easier to get approved by a small property management company or individual landlord than a large company.
Corporate property managers may have strict policies and look for applicants who pass their criteria without considering your specific circumstances. Smaller companies and landlords may take a more nuanced approach.
For example, Mitchell says even if there was a relevant negative mark in someone’s credit history, she’d consider a written explanation for what happened as long as the incident took place at least a year ago.
6. Get personal recommendations from past landlords
Landlords are most concerned with how you’re going to treat the home and whether you’ll pay your rent on time. While credit can be an indication of your financial situation, it’s only part of the picture.
If you have a history of being a good tenant, ask your previous landlords for written recommendations and include these with your application. You can also list the landlords as references, but proactively getting their recommendations could be a more effective way to show that you’ll be a good tenant.
7. Offer something extra
Finally, you may be able to make up for a poor credit history in other ways. “If they are borderline, we will either ask for a co-signer or collect a higher security deposit,” says Mitchell.
A security deposit is a refundable deposit you give to the landlord. While you’ll need to come up with more cash right away, you should receive the full security deposit back if you leave the rental in the same condition it was in when you arrived. (Here are some helpful guides about what to do if a landlord doesn’t want to return your security deposit.)
A co-signer is someone who will be legally responsible for paying the rent if you’re unable to make a payment. A co-signer with good credit and a high income could help you get approved. However, be careful about who you ask. Even if you’re unable to pay the rent due to an illness or accident, the co-signer could still be stuck covering your rent or with negative marks on their credit.
You don’t need to wait for the landlord to ask, either. You could offer a larger security deposit or include a co-signer on your initial application.
8. Keep working on your credit
Whether or not you’re trying to move right away, you can also commit to improving your credit going forward. Having good credit won’t just make moving easier, it could help you save money on insurance, make it easier to find a job and be especially important if you ever decide to buy a home rather than rent.