It is very important that you review and understand your credit report, ideally before you apply to rent a home, to see if there are issues on your credit report that are a problem, such as judgements, bankruptcies, errors or other issues.
What is a Credit Report?
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a credit report is a statement that has information about your credit activity and current credit situation such as loan paying history and the status of your credit accounts.
Most people have more than one credit report. Credit reporting companies, also known as credit bureaus or consumer reporting agencies, collect and store financial data about you that is submitted to them by creditors, such as lenders, credit card companies, and other financial companies. Creditors are not required to report to every credit reporting company.
Lenders use these reports to help them decide if they will loan you money, what interest rates they will offer you. Lenders also use your credit report to determine whether you continue to meet the terms of an existing credit account. Other businesses might use your credit reports to determine whether to offer you insurance; rent a house or apartment to you; or provide you with cable TV, internet, utility or cell phone service.
Obtaining and Understanding a Credit Report
You can access your free credit report from the three bureaus once every 12 months by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com by calling 877.322.8228 or by mail: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. You will be able to see reports from the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Information may vary in each report so it’s essential to look at all three. Additionally, Maryland law gives its residents the right to access a free copy of their report annually, meaning you can access your reports from the three credit bureaus twice per year for free.
What if you don’t have any credit?
Sometimes people with disabilities do not have any sources of credit. Not having credit isn’t as bad as having bad credit, but it’s still not good. Landlords want to see from your credit history that you are reliable in paying your bills. If you don’t have credit, a landlord could deny your rental application.
There are many ways to establish credit that are safe. Many websites provide advice on establishing credit and often recommend getting a credit card, buying one or two things each month and paying them off before the end of the billing cycle. You can also get a cell phone account in your name which will establish credit. Two good resources for more information on establishing credit are listed below:
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a set of toolkits to help people with financial issues called “Your Money Your Goals.” You can access their guide to “getting and keeping a good credit history” here:
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has a resource called “Money Smart.” The FDIC’s Money Smart financial education program can help people of all ages enhance their financial skills and create positive banking relationships. First released in 2001 and regularly updated since then, Money Smart has a long track record of success.
What Might Damage Your Credit Score?
If you have outstanding unpaid bills, especially money owed to a previous landlord or to a utility company, it is very important that these be addressed by paying them off or by setting up a repayment plan.
Setting up and maintaining utilities is necessary for renting a home and complying with a lease. If you owe money to a utility company, even if it isn’t the company that will provide utilities to your new home, you will probably not be able to set up your utilities. If you set up a repayment plan and make regular payments on time, you may be able to overcome this barrier. Also, some community organizations will help people with low income pay utility bills. Your local Center for Independent Living (CIL) will likely know who you can contact.
Money Owed to a Previous Landlord
This is also a significant barrier to housing. If you owe money to a previous landlord, your application to live in a new home will probably be denied. Creating and sticking with a repayment plan may help you to overcome this barrier.
If you’re thinking about filing for bankruptcy, be aware that bankruptcy laws require that you get credit counseling from a government-approved organization within six months before you file for bankruptcy relief. You can find a state-by-state list of government-approved organizations at www.usdoj.gov/ust – the website of the U.S. Trustee Program. That’s the organization within the U.S. Department of Justice that supervises bankruptcy cases and trustees. Be wary of credit counseling organizations that say they are government-approved but don’t appear on the list of approved organizations.
Strategies for Overcoming Poor Credit
People with disabilities are entitled to receive a “reasonable accommodation” to overcome barriers that are directly related to their disability. With regard to credit, some people with disabilities may have bad credit because they have large medical bills they are struggling to pay, they lost their job due to health issues or their credit was affected by some other disability-related reason. If this is true for you, a reasonable accommodation can be requested asking the landlord to overlook your credit due to your disability. It is best to make this request in writing and to include an explanation of the circumstances that have affected your credit. It is not necessary nor advisable to disclose medical details about your disability.
Medical documentation of the need for the accommodation will probably be requested. This documentation can be provided by a healthcare professional with sufficient knowledge of your disability to verify the need for the accommodation, such as a doctor, nurse, therapist, social worker or case manager. The medical documentation must be in writing.
Poor credit history doesn’t mean you can’t get credit. Creditors set their own standards and not all look at your credit history the same way. Some may look only at recent years to evaluate you for credit and they may give you credit if your bill-paying history has improved. It may be worthwhile to contact creditors informally to discuss their credit standards.
Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, online, or on the phone. Many universities, military bases, credit unions, housing authorities and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family also may be good sources of information and referrals.
Reputable credit counseling organizations can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget and offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors discuss your entire financial situation with you and can help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.
Resources for Financial Education and Empowerment
If you are looking for more information on managing your money, below are two resources for education and assistance:
Your Money, Your Goals!
This toolkit from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a full course curriculum with handouts, worksheets and a Companion Guide specifically for people with disabilities.
FDIC Money Smart
Money Smart – A Financial Education Program from the FDIC is a fun way to play games while you learn about various financial topics.