The rental market in the Portland area – and I assume most places right now – is garbage, with low vacancies and inflated rent prices. Finding a rental with poor credit has especially gotten a lot harder. Low-income housing is all by wait list and slum lords willing to forgo a background check don’t seem to exist anymore. Even if you can afford the move-in costs somewhere, there is no guarantee you’ll be approved.
I recently found a new apartment for my little family and consider myself a bit of an expert on apartment-hunting. I hope that my advice can help someone else who finds themselves in the stressful situation of having to move without great rental or credit history.
First off, get organized. I suggest going a little woo-woo to manifest those good vibes. While I don’t necessarily believe in the law of attraction on the face of it, your mood does translate to your success in almost any endeavor. I begin every apartment hunt by purchasing a cute little notebook for keeping track of potential rentals. Organization is obviously practical – remembering which places you’ve called, where you’ve left messages, jotting down specific rental criteria – but keeping your mood up is important too. (If a project feels futile my brain will just refuse to engage it!)
I keep a list of rentals I’ve called, along with the days and times I’ve called and called back, with notes about their amenities and specific rental requirements. I also deal with stress by writing things out. During my most recent apartment search I did a ‘stream of consciousness’ page where I fleshed out all of my concerns and anxieties about finding a place, then listed solutions for each possible setback. I cannot overstate how useful that was for me. It freed up my brain to fully focus on the task at hand. Whether you stick strictly to recording dates and phone numbers or devote the margins to doodles and affirmations is up to you, but I do highly recommend a dedicated notebook.
Staying organized and attentive to your mental health will also help you make a good first impression on your quest! Depending on the specific management, the first person you talk to about an apartment may be able to influence the process a little or a lot. Making a good impression could get you some wiggle room on credit requirements or even a lower deposit. Even an assistant could slip your application to the front of the line just because they like you, or give you a call back before other applicants. Look polished and professional, act kind and confident. Establishing a rapport increases your odds of landing a place.
Dig deeper than the most popular apartment-hunting websites. Apartments.com, Rent.com, Zillow, and of course Craigslist are all good places to start but not everyone lists there. For whatever reason, sometimes the more obscure rental websites will have listings that don’t pop up anywhere else. I found our current home by typing “cheap apartments Portland” into Google and opening each result in its own tab. Eventually I ended up on a site I’d never heard of before — For some reason it was the only place management had decided to list their small complex. “Low income apartments”, “apartments bad credit” and similar queries can also bring back promising results. “Felony friendly” may lead you to places with slightly more lax criteria for renting, whether or not you are actually a felon.
You can also ask your network to recommend places. Local Facebook groups are a great place to ask potentially thousands of people for housing recommendations.
I do nearly all of my apartment hunting online but I definitely recommend looking in person if you have the time and resources. Smaller places sometimes don’t advertise online at all. Ask friends and family to keep and eye out for vacancy signs.
Touring in person is also a good way to rule out scams and other bullshit. Legit renters will actively want you to come check the place out. Anyone who puts off showing a rental is probably bad news.
Ask pertinent questions upfront and don’t submit an application unless you’re confident you are going to be approved, especially if you are paying an app fee! Most rental management companies list their specific rental criteria online. If you’re worried about some of the criteria, ask about their flexibility. Some places will simply ask for a larger deposit if you fall short on their criteria while others are more strict. Disclosing potential issues upfront saves both of your time and allows you to explain any issues before they pop up on a background check. (Anyone in PR will tell you, it’s important to be the first one to frame the issue!)
Don’t write off a place without seeing it in person. If a potential rental meets your primary criteria (price range, number of bedrooms, part of town) don’t dismiss it based soley on the online photos. Our current apartment looks a bit like a cheap motel from the outside, and the photos of the interior that were posted online were terrible. The place is a lot nicer in reality, and a lot of the details we love weren’t visible from those photos. If a property checks the most important boxes, take the time to see it with your own eyes before you reject it based on a poorly-lit picture.
If your credit, criminal or rental history isn’t great, be prepared to put down a hefty deposit. Yes, that is easier said than done. Still, you should do everything you can to make sure you have those extra funds on hand should you need it. As a last resort you can always organize a fundraiser for yourself. (I recommend YouCaring for this. Just don’t spam people with your link – Posting once every few days is fine – and be honest about your situation and where the money is going.) Some people do look down on personal fundraisers but trust it is a million times better than borrowing money from friends or family.
My last little bit of advice: Do not rent above your means. A couple years ago we rented a house that we couldn’t really afford and we are still paying for it in various ways. Your dream home will not be your dream home if you’re too stressed out to enjoy it.
A few more resources:
211 is available in all 50 states – and Puerto Rico, as well parts of Canada! – and may have helpful local resources or suggestions.
Here in Oregon, Rent Well offers a 15-hour course on how to be a responsible tenant. Some renters will work with a poor rental history (even evictions) if you are a Rent Well graduate.
Also in Oregon, OneAppOregon.com lets you pay ONE application fee, then matches you with rentals you qualify for. I’d recommend them if your credit/rental history is decent but not stellar.