How to explain rental history?
March 28, 2014 4:02 PM   Subscribe

I am looking to rent a house, but my rental history is a bit spotty: I moved every six months for the last 1.5 years due to life circumstances, and one of my past landlords will probably not give me a good reference through no fault of my own. How do I deal with this?

I have great credit and have no problems proving I can pay my rent on time and in full. However, two years ago my boyfriend and I moved from our apartment (where I had lived for three years, two of them with him) to a wonderful house in town owned by someone who managed a few properties. We paid our rent on time and in full and I loved the place. However, my ex was abusive and I left him six months after moving in to this house with him (hooray).

When I left, he must have done something to the apartment, because I contacted the landlord recently to see if he had any new places to rent and he told me not to call him again and hung up on me. My abuser was violent towards objects and likely did damage to the house (I do not know for sure; I left him and the house at the time, but he had done a good amount of damage to our apartment that we fixed before moving out). The landlord did not take a security deposit and my guess is that my ex left him to deal with and pay for damages.

Anyhow, I would prefer just not to list that house on any rental applications, because the landlord may not have the real story about the damage and likely thinks I am partially or fully to blame. There was no damage to the house when I left my abuser. However, I do not want to lie on a rental application, and my credit report lists the address anyhow.

To complicate matters, after I moved I was unable to afford my rent and six months afterwards I got a roommate. Now, I have to move because our apartment complex switched managers and is undergoing renovations. I've stayed here a year, but I only lived in my last two places for six months each.

I have found a place that I really like, but it is owned by an individual person in town - much like the house I had with my ex. I'm worried about the way my rental application looks, especially because there is a lot of competition for rentals in the area where I live. I do not want to get passed over for places that I like because of my rental history. I also don't really want to tell my potential future landlords most of this stuff, and I certainly don't want them to contact my previous landlord where I lived with my abuser. I never got a restraining order and there's no record (other than my extensive therapy records, I guess) of my abuse.

Is there something I can do to take care of this or explain this that doesn't require me talking about being abused by my ex, or is this just part of the price I have to pay (two years later) for living with a guy who made damaging things (and people) a common occurrence? Or am I entirely over-thinking this, and it won't be a red flag to future landlords? I think it would be a red flag, but maybe I'm wrong. For what it's worth, I never broke a lease, I just moved three times in a year and a half.
posted by sockermom to Human Relations (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would just list the apartment on the disclosure but perhaps not list the phone number or name of the landlord. I doubt anyone is going to go through that much trouble digging up references if your other ones are good, especially the most recent one.

This also depends on how competitive your rental area is. Some (most?) places won't even check references as long as you show a paystub and/or checking account statement.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 4:12 PM on March 28, 2014

You're probably overthinking. As long as your credit and criminal record are good, and your rent-to-income ratio is healthy, it probably won't even matter.

Avoid putting the number for that one landlord. If they come back and ask for it say it was an ex and you're not comfortable with any further contact. (Yeah, that's a hedge. Take it anyway.) Offer to get a letter from someone who knew you at the time if you need a character reference - they will likely decline this.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:15 PM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I work with landlords all the time. People rarely actually call landlords. Especially if he's not your most recent previous landlord. If your really uncomfortable botch his number by a digit or two so the person doing the application has to call you to get the correct number.
Make sure that if you were on the lease with your abusive ex that the landlord did not sue you for damages or evict you. That will show up on your credit report and that will cause all kinds of problems.

Many people have reasons why they move. Roommate issues, change of job , family member needs help and you want to be closer , school. Just pick a plausible one and stick to it.

Good luck !
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:41 PM on March 28, 2014

Best answer: As an individual landlord, I'd probably do a background and credit check first. Would anything show up there? If not, I'll call the landlords I can reach. As long as the most recent one (or someone I can reach) gives a good reference, I'd be okay, especially if the person otherwise checks out (steady income, personal references, no felonies, etc). I will definitely call your employer to do an employment verification.

I don't really care why you moved or how often as long as you didn't break the lease. Or if you did, you paid the fines.

I wouldn't worry too much about it. Lots of people rent because they want the flexibility or because they can't own, so you're not expected to have a spotless financial background as a tenant. (Actually, a lot of people who own also don't have spotless financial backgrounds, but that's a separate thing.)
posted by ethidda at 5:01 PM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I also have a weird recent history for somewhat different reasons and like you, I was concerned that it would impact my ability to rent. My credit score, income, and length at present job were far more important than landlord references, which they didn't check anyway.

I wrote a note to accompany my application, explaining why I had an out-of-state ID despite working here for 3 years, and why I had no landlord but also no fixed address. I'm glad I explained that because he mentioned those were indeed red flags.

You might try a similar note, but keep it brief and professional. I wouldn't mention the abuse at all; landlords may shy away from you if they think he might show up and cause trouble.

Also, I got massive points for typing the application rather than hand-writing it. Apparently I was the only one who had ever done that.
posted by desjardins at 5:51 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I've never had prospective landlords call previous landlords. If I were you I would just skip that apartment when you list previous places you've lived. Six months is short enough that it could be easily explained by extended travel, living with family to save money, etc. I think that landlords who call for reference just kinda want to get a sanity check. Agree with desjardins that they are more concerned with your ability to pay. Bring a copy of your credit score and a deposit check and I'm sure you will be fine.
posted by radioamy at 9:37 PM on March 28, 2014

I think it's reasonable to address this directly in a brief, dispassionate way on your rental application, and perhaps offer alternate character/rental references to balance it out.

I'm a landlord too. Most of the people I've rented to have either been people I know personally or ones with ironclad personal references from people I know. That said, the advice I've heard about renting to random people is that it's absolutely necessary to talk to previous landlords--and that the landlords who are not currently renting to the tenant are likely to give the most honest information. If someone is a real headache as a tenant, the current landlord will be highly motivated to get them out and so give a falsely favorable report, so prior landlords carry higher weight.

The more people you can present as being willing to vouch for you, the better.
posted by Sublimity at 5:16 AM on March 29, 2014

The last time I rented, it was at one of those large rental complexes. The managers were only interested in my credit score and income. They did not call my references at all.

Note that this was in an area that was not super-competitive. I think that in a place like San Francisco they probably do check references, because that market is insanely competitive. YMMV.

I would say that in a market that is not too competitive, most landlords are going to be far more interested in your credit score and income. You say both of those are good. So unless you have a legal record against you (landlord sued or evicted you) I wouldn't sweat the references.

Unless the vacancy rate is very low and landlords can pick and choose (see: San Francisco), IME, most landlords don't want to spend time tracking down references for an otherwise good candidate (employed and with good credit) because they lose money when a unit sits vacant. Again, this was my experience. But tl;dr: I don't think references are a big deal when renting.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:28 AM on March 29, 2014

Are you prepared to stay at the new place a couple of years? If you can sign a 2-year lease, that should move your application to the top of the pile. Most landlords will be mostly interested in your credit score and income.
posted by Ostara at 11:36 AM on March 29, 2014

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