Even if you haven't found the perfect rental just yet, understanding the application process in advance will make everything a lot less stressful. Every building and landlord will have a slightly different approval process for prospective tenants, but the goal is to make sure you have the ability to pay rent on time and won't endanger other tenants.
What documents do I need for the application?
You can prepare a rental application days, weeks, or months before you find the perfect place—and doing so is the best way to make sure you get the apartment you want. While specific forms may vary, nearly all landlords will want to review the same general things: your income, your credit score, and your criminal background or eviction history (if applicable).
Rental application form
Most landlords will ask you to fill out a standard rental application that looks something like this. The form asks for your complete social security number, which is used to run your credit and background. The landlord does this using a third-party credit agency and a background check service. Your background check will surface criminal history or history of eviction on your record.
Pay stubs, tax documents, and employer letters
Any landlord—small or large—wants to be sure that you'll pay the rent on time each month. Most landlords will ask for pay stubs and copies of your tax returns. If you're not getting pay stubs from your employer already, then you should ask for any kind of receipt of payment on company letterhead. It should list the date that you were paid and the amount. You can also ask your employer to write you a letter confirming your income.
If you’re moving to start a new job, have your new employer provide you with an offer letter on company letterhead. If you work freelance, get signed copies of contracts with your clients, download your most recent bank statements, and circle the incoming payments from these contracts. Make sure they correspond to the numbers on your contracts as much as possible, and you can also collect your most recent outgoing invoices.
If your income comes from sources other than full- or part-time employment or freelance work, you can also ask for a letter from a certified public accountant and add this to your application.
A copy of government-issued identification
Every rental application will require a copy of your government-issued photo ID to verify your identity. This can be a driver’s license or passport.
To further verify your identity (and character), some landlords will ask to see letters of reference from people you have previously rented from. They may even want references from people who know you personally or people you have worked with. You can contact your past landlords and ask them to write a brief letter vouching for you and outlining what you were like as a tenant. Get at least one letter from a landlord you have rented from before. You can complement this with a letter or two from personal references.
Do I have to pay a fee to apply?
Some kind of non-refundable fee is almost always required to apply for a rental. The purpose of an application fee is to cover the costs associated with running your background and credit check, so make sure that the application fee you are being asked to pay isn't much higher than the cost of these third-party services (typically somewhere between $30-40).
Some states and cities even cap application fees—check your local laws to make sure you’re not being overcharged.
You can try asking if the landlord in question will refund the fee if you're not accepted, or if any part of the fee can be applied to your rent or security deposit if you are approved, but the answer will likely be no.
What are some reasons my application might get rejected?
Your income is too low.
If your annual income isn't enough to reliably cover rent payments, then a landlord will likely reject your application or ask you to get a guarantor. Most landlords expect you to make 40 times the monthly rent on an annual basis (or two to three times the monthly rent on a monthly basis).
You have a poor credit history.
If your application is not approved for a reason related to your credit or background check, you have the right to know why. The landlord is required by federal law to serve you with something called an "adverse action notice" that must include:
- The name, address and phone number of the consumer reporting agency that provided the report
- A statement that the decision to reject the application was the landlord’s and not related to the consumer reporting agency
- Information detailing your right to argue the accuracy or completeness of the report
It should also let you know that you can get a free report from the same agency if you request it within 60 days of receiving the notice. If you’re having trouble finding an apartment because you have bad credit, check out our tips for renting with bad or no credit.
Your criminal history suggests you might endanger the safety of other tenants.
It’s illegal for a landlord to have a blanket policy of rejecting applicants with criminal backgrounds. That is considered discriminatory. However, if something in your criminal history makes it likely that renting to you would put the safety of other tenants in question, your landlord may refuse your application on those grounds.
Does a landlord have to tell me why they rejected my application?
It depends. If a landlord denies your application for any reason unrelated to your criminal background or credit report, they are not legally required to tell you why. However, if a landlord wants to be clear that they have not violated the Fair Housing Act—which prohibits a landlord from rejecting a rental applicant based on race, religion, and other protected categories—they may tell you why they rejected you if you're persistent enough.
Is it possible to change a landlord’s mind?
If your application is rejected, try talking to the landlord. It’s possible—especially if you’re dealing with an independent landlord and not a management company—that you will be able to assuage their concerns through a conversation. They may ask you to provide more documentation. If you love the apartment, it’s worth asking if there’s anything you can do to change their mind.
My application was approved—now what?
Almost every landlord will require a security deposit upon move-in. Check the laws in your area to see if your state limits the amount that a landlord may charge as a security deposit. Local law may also describe how a landlord is required to store your security deposit, or if they must give you a receipt when you pay your deposit. Although it can vary, the standard security deposit amount is equivalent to one month’s rent.
It's less common, but some landlords may choose to charge a non-refundable move-in fee instead of a security deposit. A move-in fee is intended to cover the costs associated with changing tenants and preparing the unit for a new person to live in it, like changing the locks on the doors. Unlike a security deposit, a move-in fee will not be returned to you when you move out of the unit.
Often, a landlord will also require you to make a payment towards the rent when you sign a lease. Some landlords will not ask for this, but in more competitive rental markets, it’s a common practice. You may be asked to pay first month’s rent, or, in some cases, first and last month’s rent.
You can start preparing an application for a lease at any point—even before you find the perfect apartment. Start by logging into Flip, where you can order a credit report, figure out whether you need a guarantor, and request reference letters.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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