A landlord in San Francisco recently wrote letters to tenants that said if their FICO credit score was below 725 or they made less than $100,000 a year, they would have to move out. A media dust-up ensued and the landlord retracted the letter. While this is an extreme case, it just goes to show that good credit is increasingly linked to your ability to secure housing.

Tight Market for U.S. Rentals

The National Low Income Housing Coalition announced in their Out of Reach 2014 study that San Francisco was the most expensive rental market in the country, with a cost of rent that requires an individual, “to earn $37.62 an hour to afford a decent two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent.”

According to a 2013 Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University report, more than half of the nation’s renters need to spend more than 30% of their income on rent – in 2000, 38% of respondents spent that amount. The real estate site Zillow found huge increases in Chicago (up to 31% of income spent on rent, from a historical baseline of 21%) and New Orleans, which increased to 35% of income from a historical average of 14% (data from 1985-2000).

In many areas of the US, the rental market is incredibly tight. Competition for apartments is serious, so if you want a roof over your head it is more important than ever to make sure your credit is as strong as it can be. Landlords check your credit using services like First Advantage, CoreLogic SafeRent and Tenant Data Services, and you have a right to see the report if they reject you because of it.

The first order of business if you are wondering where you stand is to check your credit scores and reports. You can check your credit report for free once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com. Beyond that, you can use a free site like Credit.com, which provides two free credit scores, an explanation for why they are what they are, and provide you with an action plan for improving them.

Practical Advice

Now what should you do if your credit score is in trouble? There is a wealth of good advice for improving it (and here’s one resource for that), but that takes time and if you’re in need of an apartment soon, you are probably short on time to raise your score.

The first piece of advice is simple: be honest. If you get to talk to the landlord or manager and you know he or she is going to pull your credit, tell them about any blemishes before they find out on their own. Explain the situation, and highlight the areas within your credit report that demonstrate that you’re not a risky tenant. Explain to them what you’re doing to fix the situation. They may not like the blemish, but they’ll likely appreciate your honesty and integrity.

If you can afford it, offer to pay some of the rent in advance. In many markets, landlords require three months’ to a year’s rent paid in advance to get a rental application approved if you have bad credit.

And here’s a common-sense tip: find out if — like the San Francisco landlord who tried to require a 725 score — the management of the unit you’d like to rent has a score threshold you must meet. If you know they are going to check your credit score, and they aren’t going to accept you based on what they will find there, look elsewhere. As tight as the market is, there are still landlords who do not check credit reports, or who will listen to your story and base their decision on a number of factors.

The bottom line is that while the market is competitive, you can still get a great place to live and save a lot of time if you know what your limits are and use them to your best advantage. As Albert Einstein said, “once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” Only in this case, you might want to consider working around them.