The time has come to upgrade your space. Too bad you got dinged a couple of times on your credit report for bills left unpaid. (Hey, it happens!) But does that mean you’re out of luck when it comes to locking in that new lease? Not necessarily. We checked in with a credit expert, but also someone at a property management firm to find out exactly how to get an apartment with bad credit. Trust us, it’s a lot less daunting than you think.
Before You Apply, Do Your Homework So You Know Where You Stand
Bad credit, no credit—there are still ways you can get approved for a lease. But before you get to the point when you’re filling out a rental application, you should have a sense of where you stand so you know what to expect when your future landlord goes to run a credit check. Free sites like Credit Karma or Lending Tree make it a breeze to quickly generate a report. Using one ahead of submitting an application for a rental also gives you an opportunity to clear up any discrepancies—or, worse, inaccuracies—that may be the reason your score took a hit. (That $50 copay that went unpaid four years ago because you moved and never got the bill? The time to look into that is now.)
More importantly, getting up to speed on your credit score before your landlord asks for it puts you on the offense instead of the defense. In other words, it positions you to explain the low number right when you submit your application versus defending it after the fact. (More on this later.)
How to Get an Apartment with Bad Credit
1. Submit Your Application with References
To a future landlord, a stellar rental history can carry more weight than a perfect credit report for a number of reasons. For one thing, a recent reference proves that you know how to be a good tenant (no raging parties, no excessive damage), but also that you always paid the rent in full and on time. To provide a reference, simply include the contact info of your most recent landlord with your application. (Bonus points if you submit a letter that spells out your amazing track record, too.)
If this is a first apartment, there are still work-arounds. Get a reference from an employer or a colleague, even a teacher—someone who can vouch that you are a reliable and dependable person.
2. Show Your Cell Phone and Utilities Payment History
Per Colleen McCreary, Chief People Officer and financial advocate at Credit Karma, showing your future landlord your cell phone and utility payment history can help offset a bad credit report. “The goal is to show other places where you make regular payments on time without late fees,” McCreary explains.
3. Provide a Recent Bank Statement
Even though your credit is sub-par, you can prove you’re good to make payments on time by showing a recent bank statement as evidence that you have a strong financial cushion. This could be a checking account, a savings account or both. Ideally, you can demonstrate to a future landlord that you have several months’ worth of rent payments set aside and ready to access in the bank.
4. Offer to Pay More Upfront
What better proof that you’re good for the rent than to pay for multiple months up front? Hey, you have it in your savings designated for this anyway. Typically, first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit is required. Up the ante—and show you’re good for the rent—by paying an extra month or two ahead of schedule.
5. Submit a Solid Letter of Employment
Yes, this is similar to a reference, but a letter of employment not only speaks to your character, but it includes your current salary. (This is meaningful to a future landlord because if you’re getting paid, the odds are good that they’ll get paid, too.) In many cases, landlords require that your salary is 40 times the monthly rent. If you’re moving in with a roommate or partner, your combined income should be 40 times the rent amount.
6. Get a Co-Signer or Roommate with Better Credit
Last resort: You can offset a bad credit report by getting a cosigner or roommate that has a better credit report. This gives you time to improve your credit score and build a solid rental history at the same time. Just remember with a co-signer, they’re on the hook to pay rent should you miss a payment, so you want to be certain they understand the terms of the agreement before they sign on the dotted line.
How to Explain a Bad Credit Report
As discussed above, you should know your credit score—good or bad—before you submit an application for a rental. That way, you can be upfront about where you stand with your credit before your future landlord runs a credit check themselves. “Don’t wait for the report to come back to set expectations with the landlord,” says McCreary. “Share how you’re proactively working to improve your credit so they know you have a plan.”
Some examples: Say, you’re a recent college graduate and you’re still working to build your credit, you can let your landlord know that. Or if you have a few dings on your credit report, but you have a plan to tackle those and improve your score, share that info, too, so they know you’re working hard to reach a better standing.
“Having a candid conversation early on in the process may help build trust between the two of you early on and prove you aren’t trying to hide a bad score,” McCreary adds.
Another reason to volunteer this info? The reason for your bad credit matters a lot to a landlord. “A bad credit score can hurt any application, but we really have to look at all the components of a credit report to best understand the overall score,” says Joyce Iskander, who works at a real estate development and management firm. “What is most important to us is the general trend of payment activity in the last two to five years. If an applicant was late in college debt payments more than five years ago, but has demonstrated a solid financial standing ever since, then we tend to be more forgiving.”