Guide to Rental Housing in Tight Markets And Your Credit Report

Silent Way's Guide To Rental Housing in Tight Markets

And Your Credit Report

- here's how to make it suck less -

It's nearly impossible to find an affordable place to live in cities with tight rental markets such as San Francisco and New York. There are not enough places, and too many people looking. The prices of rental units in SF skyrocketed throughout the late 90's, and the vacancy rate plummeted. Then, in mid-2001, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel, and prices finally started to drop, continuing downward since '02. I went through this grief too many times and I wouldn't wish this search on anybody, so I'm posting this info to help folks through the mess.

The first thing to do is order a copy of your credit report so that you actually have it in your hand to show landlords. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!! Having it in-hand (before a landlord orders it) separates you from the masses, gives you a strategic advantage, and allows you to check it for errors.

Go to one of the websites listed below to get a report with your history as recorded by the "big three" credit reporting companies. This takes a few weeks by mail, so do it NOW, or get it quicker online. You can get all three reports for $30-40, or just one for around $10. Since you don't know which company a landlord will use, getting all three reports is the safest bet. If you find errors or you need explanation after you get the report, call that company.

Here are the companies, who all offer 3-in-1 reports but with different credit scores and layouts:

Company Phone Info about the credit score given
MyFICO   This is the official FICO score
Equifax (800) 755-3502 or (800) 219-1251 or (800) 723-9958 Offers "Beacon" score which is FICO/Fair Isaac
TransUnion (800) 241-2858 or (800) 680-7293 or (800) 680-7289 Score is called "Empirica" or "TransRisk"

(formerly TRW)
(888) 397-3742. Explaining your report: (800) 583-4080 "CreditXpert" or "Plus" score.

P.O. Box 2002, Allen, TX 75013
Innovis   Not a 3-in-1 report. About the mysterious Innovis.

The "credit score" is a numerical scale of your overall credit-worthiness, on a scale of 330-830 or 300-850. This score is more useful for loans/mortgages than rental applications, but is always good to know. According to Equifax, "more than 70% of the 100 largest financial institutions use FICO scores to make billions of credit decisions each year, including more than 75 percent of mortgage loan originations." This infers that the scores given by other companies are not as useful. (FairIsaac is the company that invented the FICO credit risk score.)

These "big three" credit reporting agencies each keep track of your credit seperately and supposedly don't share the info with each other. (Interesting, since you can buy a copy of all three reports from any of them.)

This raises the issue of privacy. Be careful about handing out too many copies of your entire financial profile, particularly your Social Security #. connects you directly to a free report from each of the three companies. But these free reports don't include your credit score, just your history. You can get this pared-down version free once a year. It's a good idea to stagger each of the three freebies by a few months, as a regular checkup.

For a 2006 article on the latest credit industry score system and the risks to consumers, read this article. For more about protecting your privacy see Silent Way's Guide To Protecting Your Privacy.

When applying for a place that is for rent, the most important thing to do is to separate yourself from the crowd. In order to stand out from the other desperate souls, you have to be fully prepared before you walk into the place with a "renters resumé." Use this application form as a first page. This lists all the info from the generic application form that every landlord uses, it makes you look organized, and it's easier than filling out forms for every potential landlord. You should add extra pages with details to make you look like a better candidate, highlighting any net worth, job stability, Nobel Prizes, etc.

It's probably worth signing up with a paid rental locator service, particularly if you can't spend the necessary 8 hours a day working to find a place. See below for links.

It's a good idea to know your rights as a tenant, and to understand Rent Control laws, which change after almost every election. In San Francisco, visit the SF Tenants Union for rent control law info, and read the official law text at the SF Rent Board. In New York city, check out the Rent Control resources at Tenant Net and For the rest of New York State, rent control info is here. Also, check out this list of other rent-controlled cities. Apparently, these California cities all have some form of rent control: Los Angeles, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, Campbell, East Palo Alto, Hayward, Palm Springs, Santa Monica and West Hollywood. Be careful, because certain properties in cities with Rent Control are still NOT covered. (Example: single-family houses in San Francisco which the renter moved into after 1/1/1996.)

One thing to remember: NEVER give thirty days' notice to your old landlord until you find your new place. You will probably underestimate the time it takes to find a place, and how much your new rent is. It is definitely worth it to pay overlapping rent, or you will not have the time to find a place that you like. Or worse, you're out on the street, and although the rent is cheap there, your roommates are lame. I made this mistake once. Then, I was forced by a greedy landlord into doing it a second time. This really screws up your possibilities!

On craigslist, bookmark the URL of each of your searches. Then open up a tab in your browser and periodically refresh each tab. There are built-in methods and addons for Firefox that let you bookmark all open tabs, open a folder of bookmarks with one click, reload all tabs, email all open tab URLs, etc.

Also, check any new San Francisco place you rent against the list at the SF Tenant's Union to see if the landlord must rent it at a low price due to previous Ellis Act or "Owner Move In" evictions.

Here are a few good web starting points for the search:

Start with Craig's List, which has hundreds of new postings each day,

There are more classified links in The Silent Way Directory- Housing classifieds section Visual GoogleMap of Craigslist For Rent/ For Sale listings

UC-San Francisco Online Housing Services:

SF Chronicle/Examiner:

San Francisco Bay Guardian Classifieds:

California Institute of Integral Studies renters resources: Rentals + Resources:

There are more classified links in The Silent Way Directory- Housing classifieds section