Welcome to America! The U.S. Fair Housing Act provides that landlords can’t discriminate against you as a potential tenant. You can’t be denied housing simply because of your race, religion, or national origin. However, the process of renting as a newcomer to the United States can still be daunting. The process may be different from where you’re coming from, whether that’s Australia (where rents are often quoted on a weekly basis) or Scotland (which banned rental fees a few years ago). Here are five tips to help you as you swim through a sea of ads to sort your EIK (eat-in kitchen) from your WIC (walk-in closet).
Where to look
There are nearly as many ways to find rental properties as there are rental properties. Consider reading print ads and online ads as well as spreading the word through your social media circles. In nearly every city, Craigslist.org runs local sites that have active rental listings. Other rental sites vary in popularity by city -- in Los Angeles, for instance, Zillow is a good source, while in New York City, realtor.com has a great many listings as does StreetEasy (also owned by Zillow). Since real estate is so local, speak to future colleagues and classmates and ask them how they found their current housing.} You can also hire a real estate agent (clarify who pays the fee -- you or the landlord?), and post on “intranets,” or housing boards, run by your company or university. You will have the best luck if you are open to more than one neighborhood or type of housing. Let friends know if you are looking for a “long-term” lease (a year or more) or a “short-term” lease. When you see a rental price, ask whether it includes furniture. Clarify also who pays for what utilities -- heat, hot water, cooking gas, Internet. Finally, ask whether the landlord charges a fee to apply or to handle the application.
Remember that when a property was built affects what it will be like to live in. In U.S. cities, typically “pre-wars” (apartments built before World War II) usually have thicker walls and tend to be quieter, but they also often have smaller windows and smaller closets. “Post-wars” (apartments built after World War II) often have bigger windows, better storage, and more modern heat (and sometimes air-conditioning) systems. However, they also often have lower ceilings and they can tend to be noisier. Consider the climate of the city you’re moving to -- if you’re moving to Dallas in the winter, remember that it will get hot in the summer, so you’ll want features like a screened porch and air-conditioning. If you’re renting an entire house, look at the age of its major systems. Repairs are often the landlord’s responsibility, but you still don’t want to spend any of your time living under a leaky roof.
Bring your documents
Landlords will want you to show a proof of identity and a proof of ability to pay. To prove identity, bring an official ID with your photo on it. (Most landlords will accept a passport or a driver’s license.) To prove that you can pay, bring an “employer letter,” which states your job title, the dates of your employment, and your salary. If you are a student, bring a letter confirming any grants or scholarships you have. You can also negotiate a larger “security deposit” -- the deposit is money that you give the landlord up front. If it is not used for rent, your security deposit should be returned to you at the end of your lease term. Make sure that your lease outlines exactly how the return of that money will work. Note that some locales limit the amount of a rental security deposit -- New York City, for example, limits security deposits to one month’s rent.
If you're new to the U.S.
There are a number of tactics to use if have no U.S. Credit history. You can supplement your application with a reference letter from a previous landlord. This letter should say that you were a tenant in “good standing.” It should note that you paid your rent, and also include the dates of your tenancy. If you have no previous landlord, bring a reference letter from a teacher or friend. The letter should say how the referrer knows you, and that you are responsible and dependable.
Your landlord may use a credit service to screen potential tenants. The screening will pull up your former addresses. It will also search for bills that are unpaid or past due; court cases that are a matter of public record, and for sex offense crimes. Ask the landlord if he or she uses Yardi, Intellirent, or First Advantage -- these are all companies that accept an international credit history from selected Nova Credit-enabled countries like Australia, Canada, India, Mexico and the UK. Learn more here.
How to pay
Most landlords will ask you to pay your rent in U.S. dollars from a U.S. bank. (The mechanism -- whether it’s check or credit card or bank transfer -- is a matter that can be negotiated between you and the landlord.) Often a landlord will ask you for a co-signer, who can show U.S. assets, or a guarantor, who agrees to pay your rent if you don’t. Nova Credit offers a partnership with TheGuarantors, a company that offers a lease guarantee service. You simply pay a percentage of your annual rent—typically 7%-10% if you’re coming from outside the U.S.—and the lease guarantee will help you get approved for your desired apartment even if you don’t meet the landlord’s other application standards. If you do arrange to pay from foreign funds, make sure both sides understand how long the funds transfer will take.