Buying an apartment is out of reach for many. But getting on a lease isn’t so easy either––especially if there’s something fishy on your credit score.
Jonathan, a historian, planned to move to Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC last spring. He and his partner, a lawyer, were both getting jobs there.
He found the perfect building. “I was like, this is the complex I want to live in. It’s affordable and in walking distance of the metro,” said Jonathan, who preferred his last name not be published.
They sent in an application for the apartment, which was managed by a larger company. But their application was rejected, in part because of his credit report.
“My credit score is not great but also not horrible, it’s fine, in the high 600s,” Jonathan, 26, said. But he was surprised when the management company cited medical debt on his credit report, which he didn’t know about.
“I thought perhaps there was some sort of mistake,” he said. He checked his credit report, and figured it may have been from a procedure he had back in 2012. He was surprised to see it on his report six years later.
“It must have fallen under my radar. I was in college and not paying attention to that sort of thing,” Jonathan said.
Landlords often run a credit check on apartment applicants. The report is widely used to signal whether you’re likely to pay your rent in full every month.
It tells landlords “their place is going to be taken care of, and they’ll sleep better knowing they’ll get paid every month,” said Chase Peckham, a Certified Financial Planner who runs the outreach arm of Debt Wave Credit Counseling in San Diego.
Even if you’re earning the threshold income, your credit report, and your score, matter––especially in a competitive market.
“Landlords are only trying to make sure they get their money so they can pay their bills,” said Herman Tide, a representative for APRA Property Owners Association in Brooklyn, NY. “Especially if you have a few people applying for the apartment, you take the people with the best history.”
Almost half of landlords said credit scores were in their top three priorities when renting a unit, according to a survey from TransUnion, one of the three largest credit reporting bureaus in the U.S.
Landlords have legal protection to reject applicants based on their scores. In federal law, the Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate based on legally protected categories, such as race, gender or disability, but doesn’t reference credit score. That can be true locally. In New York, one of the country’s most competitive rental markets, the New York City Human Rights Law prohibits housing discrimination against any person based on lawful source of income but does not look at credit report or score specifically.
“Credit data, like credit scores, remain a critical part of a New York landlord’s screening arsenal — whether it comes to selecting a prospective tenant for either a commercial or residential space,” said Lucas A. Ferrara, a Manhattan real estate attorney and adjunct professor at New York Law School. “It’s a pretty good barometer of whether or not the rent will be paid, and whether it will be remitted on time; which is really what most landlords are worried about.”
In the short-term, here’s how to get an apartment with a rocky credit score.
- Take control of your credit report. Before you start applying for apartments, “go buy your FICO score or go to your bank. Some banks will give you your score now,” Peckham said. Even though you might not know which kind of report your future landlord is pulling, it’s still a “good way to gauge where you’re at now,” Peckham said. And if something on your report doesn’t smell right, bring it up with the credit reporting agencies––TransUnion, Equifax and Experian––with help from a financial literacy advisor, if need be. The investigation should finish within thirty days, according to the Federal Reserve.
- Ask someone to be your guarantor. Some landlords will accept a guarantor to co-sign on your lease. This person needs to be earning enough to cover your rent if you fall behind on a payment.
- Be prepared for a higher security deposit. Renting with a low or affected credit score can be costly. Landlords might require heftier security deposits up front, ranging from 1-3 times your monthly rent.
- Look for apartments that aren’t managed by larger companies. It’s standard practice for management companies to do a full background check, including your credit report. But individual landlords can be easier to communicate with, so you can explain anything on your credit report. And they might prioritize your monthly income more. This worked out for Jonathan––he and his partner wound up renting the apartment next door to the one he was rejected from; it was owned by an individual and who didn’t ask about a credit report, Jonathan said.
Long view, here’s what you can do to boost your credit score:
- Build a positive payment history by doing the following:
- You can gradually boost your credit score by becoming an ‘authorized user’ on a friend or family member’s credit card, so long as the primary account holder makes their payments on time every month.
- You can also get a student credit card from your bank. “If you use it once a month and pay it off every month, you’re keeping your credit low, and you’re showing a payment history. That’s the fastest way to build your credit,” Peckham said, and you can always upgrade your monthly limit to a non-student account later.
- Or you can apply for a secured card. Find a secured card where you put a few hundred dollars down as collateral, in exchange for a credit card with a low limit. They report your credit history, so you can use this to build up your track record, said Kaya Ladejobe, a Certified Financial Planner and founder of Earn into Wealth Strategies. To find the best secured card option for you, see the tools on Nerd Wallet and Bank Rate, which have scales to tell you the best cards given your assets and credit score.
- Pay off debt by going beyond the ‘minimum’ monthly payments. Debt makes it harder to make those payments. Debt is common; around 4 in 10 adults under 30 have student loans, and Americans carry more than $1.3 trillion in debt. But not paying it back is a problem for credit agencies. “Minimum payments are not going to get you out of debt anytime soon,” Ladejobe. The sooner you can pay off your balance, the less interest you’ll have to pay on it––and the sooner you’ll be out of debt, which will boost your credit score, and your chances of landing your new abode.