How to Improve Your Credit Score to Get Approved for an Apartment

Ruth Shin

CREDIT SCORE

Credit Score path

Finding out your credit is not great can be a demoralizing blow, especially if you’re actively applying for something important like an apartment, car loan financing, a line of credit, a mortgage, or even a job. As impossible as it seem to prop up your credit, it can be done with some smart management and patience. The best part is that you don’t have to hire an expert in order to reach excellence.

Understanding Your Credit Report

First thing’s first. You will need to pull up your credit report. Each person is allowed one free official credit report once a year. You can do so by going to annualcreditreport.com. You can also monitor your credit regularly by using third-party free services online. Educating yourself on how your credit-worthiness is determined is vital to understanding how you can fix it. Your FICO score is determined by five key components. The first two are the most critical and make up the majority of your score--that is your payment history and your percentage of utilization in relation to your full limit.

Credit Score Factors

Payment history35%
Amounts owed30%
Lenght of credit history15%
New credit 10%
Types of credit used10%

Payment History

If you’ve been late less than 60 days once or twice on credit card payments, it’s not going to have a huge impact on your overall score and even if your number took a dip, it will bounce back fairly quickly once you start making consistent payments in the following months, although it takes about five years to completely cycle out. Once you hit the 90-day lateness threshold, the impact will be catastrophic to your credit score and can stay on your record for at least seven years.

Balances

Second, your total balance versus your limit should be at 30% or lower. For example, if you have five credit cards and a total combined limit of $50,000, you should be around $15,000 in debt across those cards, but ideally less. If you have high balances on your cards and you are only paying the minimum, you’ll need to change your payment habits and start paying them down beyond the principal. Once you start making progress with your balances, you should notice your score improving month after month.

Other Factors Affecting Your Credit

The length of your credit history, the number of inquiries, and also the number of accounts you’re managing will also make an impact on your score. On average, the longer your credit history, the higher your score is likely to be (of course, if you are perpetually late or delinquent your score won’t be good).

Another negative impact comes from the number of “hard” pulls on your credit report. Every time you apply for a credit card, a loan, or a rental property, your credit report will be pulled. Each pull causes your score to drop. If it’s just one pull, the effect is negligible. However, if there is pull after pull and you are not allowing any recovery, it will raise a red flag to any potential creditor as to why there are so many inquiries into your credit.

Hard Pull Vs. Soft Pull

Hard PullAny credit inquiry that stays on your record and affects your score. These usually include credit checks for rentals, car loans, credit cards, and mortgages.
Soft PullThis credit inquiry does not appear on your history nor does it affect your score.  These usually include preapprovals for credit cards, mortgages, credit increases, and background checks for jobs.

The average American holds about seven different credit accounts. If you have just one credit card, you can still have a good score with good money management. However, to improve it further, you’ll need to have additional accounts. If you are able to juggle many accounts successfully, it will show that you are a credit superstar.

Derogatory Remarks

A sixth factor that may affect your credit standing is derogatory remarks. This is not an official category. However, any derogatory remarks will often result in serious drops in your score and it just looks bad for any creditor to read this on your report. These can be collections, bankruptcy, civil judgements, tax liens, and foreclosure.

Repairing Your Credit 

If your score ranges anywhere from 300-600, you know what it’s like to be turned away from certain opportunities. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It won’t be an easy quick fix, but with some hard work and becoming a responsible bill-paying adult, in a year’s time you should already see some major improvements. Whether it’s from irregular payments or overspending, or a combination of factors, it is possible to eventually reach the credit pinnacle.

FICO Credit Score Ranges

Credit Score RangesCredit Quality
300-559Very Bad
560-649Bad
650-699Average/Fair
700-749Good
750-850Excellent

Delinquent Payment History

If you’ve been late frequently in the past or even just once for 90 days or longer, the solution will take some time. Your new goal should be to never miss another payment again. If you have trouble remembering when to pay your bill, you can sign up for automatic monthly alerts, automatic payments set-up through the credit card/loan company or through our regular bank. If need be, schedule your payments on your calendar, or choose a day of the month you will pay that will work with every payment deadline of every account you hold.

Besides, your credit cards or loans, you should be paying off your utilities, rent, and medical bills. These things can also go into collections if you hold off long enough. Collections will most definitely appear on your credit report under derogatory remarks and have a devastating impact on your score.

High Balances and Large Debts

If your problem stems from having high balances on your cards or perhaps even maxed them out, then you will need to make a plan to pay them down. Taking out a loan whether personal, mortgage or student loan might mean you technically have a high balance, but actually won’t impact your credit score the same way. In fact, if you are paying down your loan(s) faithfully every month, it will raise your credit score. Credit cards are a different deal entirely.

Strategies for Success

If you are having trouble managing high balances across your credit cards, it’s time to get organized and plan a monthly budget to start paying down the principals. Draw up a financial plan for the month to reduce spending, reserving funds to pay down your debt. Record when your payment deadlines are and set one or two days per month when you will make payments. They should be more than the minimum amount due. You can also strengthen your strategy by paying more down on cards with high APRs and/or the largest balances. You’ll benefit from paying down those debts faster, but be sure you do not neglect your other cards in the process. Just remember to put an alert in your calendar or set up automatic payments from your bank.

The Personal Loan Solution

One way you can consolidate your debt is to calculate your full debt and take out a personal loan (granted your credit score hasn’t suffered too badly to qualify for one) and pay off your debt, just leaving the loan to pay off. Likewise, if you can qualify for a credit card with 0% APR or a very low one, you can try to transfer your balances to that card. In this way, you just have to pay one loan or one card. There are also small origination fees to consider for a personal loan.

Popular Personal Loans Lenders

LenderLoan AmountTerm
Upstart$1,000-$50,0003-5 Years
Payoff$5,000-$35,0003-5 Years
Lending Club$0-$40,0003-5 Years
Avant$2,000-$35,0002-5 Years

Debt Consolidation Solution

A debt consolidation loan is very similar to taking out a personal loan from a bank, but with the sole purpose of paying off your credit debt. It will continue to keep your credit lines active, but you will have to continue to monitor your own spending on these lines. The downside is that there are a number of fees involved with this including origination fees, late fees, etc. However, it may improve your score right away as credit card debt has a negative effect on your score, whereas a paid-up loan is seen as benign. You’ll need at least a 580 to qualify for any kind of debt consolidation loan.

Debt Management and Credit Counseling

Credit Counseling services may give you peace of mind when it comes to debt, but you may be forced to close all your lines of credit which will be even more detrimental to your credit history. Expect a charge for their services, which include consolidating your payments into one monthly payment (that is divided and allocated to each account) and negotiating rates or your debt with each company. Nevertheless, there isn’t any evidence that these services are actually effective in negotiating anything. As a matter of fact, you yourself can call up your credit card company and see if they can come to some kind of payment plan or lowered APR rates to help get your balances under control. Any kind of debt management or credit counseling plan is not likely to help your credit score and probably result in hurting it, and so is not recommended.

Bankruptcy

Filing for bankruptcy is a serious decision and should be made with the utmost caution as this is a solution that will affect you for years, even if you will get out of debt. It should be used as a last resort with your back against a wall. The good news is that once you do file for bankruptcy, you won’t have to wait the full 7-10 years for you to reach a good credit score.

Chapter 13 bankruptcy doesn’t exonerate you from debt, but you will be allowed to formulate a payment remittance plan over 3-5 years, which may involve wage garnishment. At the end of the payment plan, the rest of the debt, if any, will be expunged. This type of bankruptcy will stay on your derogatory remarks on your report for seven years, but with solid payments and good credit management, you can get a score in the 700s in just four years. It’s also a good way of saving your home from foreclosure.

Chapter 7 bankruptcy involves taking all your assets such property, vehicles, and other valuable possessions, and selling them off to pay your debts. Certain assets may be exempt. Even if you don’t have assets and the creditor has not received payment, the debt will still be written off. You must qualify for this type of bankruptcy by going to credit counseling and proving that you make less than the state’s median income. This type of bankruptcy will remain on your report for ten years.

No Credit or New Credit

If you don’t have any credit or just opened up a line of credit, it will take some time to build it up to that magic number. For new credit-holders, make sure that you are paying off your balances or paying off most of them every month. In about a year’s time, you’ll see pretty decent numbers. At that point, you should consider opening up an additional line of credit or two. However, don’t overdo it. Two important reasons are that you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew, and that repeated credit inquiries will cause your score to lower. If you’ve only been managing one card, ascertain that you can successfully manage two lines before you take on any more.

If you’ve never had a credit card before, you can sign up for a secured credit card. You will need to pay more money upfront as a deposit, which can be used to recover any delinquencies on the account. However, if you want to start off your credit history right, you need to make faithful payments. The credit limit is usually small. however, once you’ve managed your secured credit card well for about a year, you’ll be able to apply for a conventional or unsecured credit card. An unsecured credit card is also a great way to rebuild your credit.

Popular Secured Credit Cards

Credit CardNotes
Capital One® Secured Mastercard®
  • No annual fee, and all the credit building benefits with responsible card use
  • Unlike a prepaid card, it builds credit when used responsibly, with regular reporting to the 3 major credit bureaus
Discover it® Secured Card
  • No Annual Fee, cash back on every purchase, and helps you build your credit with responsible use.
  • Your Secured Credit Card requires a refundable security deposit up to the amount we can approve of at least $200 which will establish your credit line.
OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card
  • No credit check necessary to apply. OpenSky believes in giving an opportunity to everyone.
  • The refundable* deposit you provide becomes your credit line limit on your Visa card. Choose it yourself, from as low as $200.

Collections

Collections may be a complicated issue to remove from your credit report. At times, simply paying it off will not remove this from the derogatory remarks section. Sometimes the same collection can appear twice on your record if your creditor has “farmed” out the collection task to a third party collections agency, rather than selling it outright to one. However, when your collection is sold to a third party, it appears with a more recent date as a new collection. Both situations can be hugely harmful in their own ways so the best strategy is prevention.  

Whether your creditor farms out or sells the collection to a third party, once you pay off the collection, you will need to contact all parties involved and have them remove the stain from your record. Previous FICO scoring models may not cycle out these collections in a timely manner, including medical collections, which you need to be wary of because some credit reporting venues are still using older models. However, the FICO 9 model will bring your score back up after paying off a collection and medical collections will no longer have such a heavy-handed impact.

Quick Fixes to Prop Up Your Score

If you’re looking to apply for something big in the next few months and your score just needs a small boost, here are some great strategies to see improvements in just a month or two. These are great tips if you don’t have a significant number seriously late payments.

Get Errors Corrected on Your Credit Report

This seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of people actually don’t realize that there may be errors on their report. They won’t always be easy finds either like an erroneous collection. You might need to look through the payment history report from each account and get the correction made through the credit card company and then corrected with the credit reporting bureau whether the error was through Experian, Transunion, or Equifax.

Pay Down Balances

Paying down any balances, whether you are over 30% of utilization of your credit or below, is a great way to prop up your score right away.  You can do this by paying more out of your own pocket or taking out a small personal loan. Another method is to create an illusion of sorts. If you don’t have the funds to pay down your debt in a meaningful way or don’t want a credit inquiry on record, you can always call your credit card companies and ask to increase your limit. Just be honest that you want to improve your credit standing. As long as you have made payments on time with the card company and that it’s been a while since they increased your limit, there isn’t any reason why they shouldn’t fulfill your request. If everything is in order, they should only be performing a soft pull to approve you. To hit it home doubly, pay down the debt and ask for an increase.

Open Up a New Line of Credit

If you can’t get your credit limit expanded, just open up a new line of credit. One inquiry should only impact your score minimally as long as you have a good length of credit history as well as no other recent inquiries and no delinquent payments. The new line of credit should have a positive impact, especially after utilizing some of it and paying it down. While some may view a new line of credit as another opportunity to mess up, you can view it as a new opportunity to show your credit-worthiness and that you can manage your credit wisely. The more accounts you have that you are paying down each month the bigger improvements you should be seeing.

Credit Takeaways

For someone with a history of failed payments, repairing credit will be a long-term project but it is achievable. Even if your credit is in the 400’s to 500’s, with hard work in paying off your debt and keeping payments faithful, you can see a significant increase within a year’s time, and might even be at a decent standing in two. Continuing on that path, you can have good or great credit in less than three years.

No matter how bad the damage is, in most cases, you will be able to repair your credit on your own without the help of a paid third party. It just takes an organized plan and good money management (which is what your credit score is an indication of in the first place). If you’re having issues getting yourself financially organized, ask a friend or family member to help you bring your expenses and budget into full view and help execute a fiscal plan.

Understanding what affects your credit and how the system works is key to achieving excellence. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you know what your next steps are and have the patience to see it through. Checking and monitoring your report is another important aspect of improving and repairing. You can find out how to monitor your credit by reading up on How to Check Your Credit Score. You'll learn how you can review each account in detail and how you can specifically improve with instructions specifically tailored to your credit history. Most credit cards now also come with free snapshots of your FICO score when you log into your account online, which is a great quick way of getting a good idea of where your credit is at.

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