How to choose apartment references

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By 

Yejean Kim

Updated

June 21, 2022

How to choose apartment references

How to choose apartment references

You’ve settled on an apartment and made up your mind to apply, then a request on the rental application gives you pause: Please provide up to three personal references.

First, it’s important to note that it’s normal to feel intimidated or daunted by such a request. You shouldn’t feel bad if you are initially taken aback, but rest assured that asking for personal references on rental applications is relatively common. The landlord or property manager asking for references isn’t a referendum on your character or an indication of your viability as a tenant. It’s simply another opportunity to further impress the landlord or property manager and prove what a great tenant you would be.

That being said, it's important to choose the ideal people to serve as your personal references.

References to look for

The best personal references are those who can serve as a credible source of information on your rental history and personality. These individuals should be comfortable vouching for your character, and ideally, how you would be as a tenant. Even if they can’t comment on the latter point, they should at least be able to discuss you as a person as well as your sense of responsibility. Below, we’ve listed some groups that can serve as good personal references for rental applications.

Former landlords and property managers

It’s pretty obvious, but the best personal references for a rental application are the landlords and property managers you’ve rented with before. This is because your prospective landlord or property manager is much more likely to trust someone in their field. Additionally, having a former landlord or property manager who is willing to vouch for you speaks volumes about how you are as a tenant. Former landlords and property managers are excellent personal references because they can assure your prospective landlord that you pay rent on time, follow the apartment rules, and are easy to work with.

Some property management offices (and landlords) may have special rules or procedures they like to follow when handling references, so it’s good to check with your former leasing office before asking.

Current or former employers

Another great group that can serve as personal references are current or former employers. This could be the head of the company, a manager, or your supervisor within the department. Since our homes are so personal and such an important part of our lives, it’s easy to forget that the landlord/tenant relationship is very similar to a professional relationship.

In order to have a good rental experience, the involved parties often need to work together to accomplish important goals, there are certain rules and procedures to be followed, and clear and effective communication is crucial to success. You likely practice these skills everyday in the workplace, so it makes perfect sense to have an employer vouch for you.

Having a current or former employer serve as a personal reference for your rental application can also reassure your prospective landlord or property manager that you will be able to pay your rent and maintain your home since you are responsible enough to maintain employment.

Current or former coworkers

Personal references from your workplace don’t always have to be your supervisors, either. It’s fine to have a trusted current or former coworker listed as a reference on a rental application. While their endorsement likely won’t carry as much weight as one from someone higher up, coworkers are still seen as a trustworthy source since they regularly interact with you.

Professors or teachers

If you’re a student, it can also be helpful to have a professor or teacher as a reference on your rental application. Like employers and coworkers, a professor or teacher is privy to your work ethic and how responsible you are as a person. At the very least, professors and teachers are often seen as reliable, mostly impartial character witnesses.

Mentors

Even outside of academia, mentors can also be a very good reference for a rental application. If you are active in certain communities, charity organizations, or other groups and have a mentor you trust, they can likely vouch for you to a prospective landlord.

References to avoid

Unlike the groups noted above, these next groups are not likely to be very helpful for your rental application. While it’s good to have people who know you well vouch for you, beware of those who know you too well (and are therefore biased) or anyone you’ve had issues with in the past.

Close family or friends

It’s tempting to think of your family or friends as good references. After all, they’re likely to know you very well and have probably spent a good amount of time with you. However, to most landlords and property managers, close family or friends are not good references because well, they’re too personal. Your family and friends probably want you to find the perfect apartment, and they’ll likely do whatever it takes to help you become a tenant when you do. As such, most landlords will view family and friends as too biased to serve as good references for your rental application.

Significant others or partners

Significant others or partners aren’t ideal references either. Even if they won’t be living with you, landlords and property managers are unlikely to consider your partner a reliable, unbiased source of information, so it’s best to avoid listing them. If your partner is also moving in with you, they’ll likely also need references of their own.

Former landlords and employers you are not on good terms with

Depending on your relationship, landlords and employers can either make or break your rental application. If you left your former rental arrangement under less than ideal circumstances, you shouldn’t ask your former landlord or property manager to serve as a reference. This is because they could take the opportunity to discuss any issues from your rental history with the prospective landlord or property manager. If you left on acrimonious terms, this won’t do you any favors.

You should also avoid asking former employers to be a personal reference if you aren’t on good terms with them. This includes any jobs you had to leave suddenly, were terminated from, or didn’t excel at.

While most people aren’t likely trying to sabotage your rental application, it’s best to err on the side of caution when choosing your personal references and to avoid pulling any from the above groups.

Special considerations

If you’re a renter with some special considerations, personal references can be very important. This is because a personal reference letter can provide the landlord or property manager with further information or clarification about any issues. Your recommender could also potentially serve as a resource for the landlord or property manager’s questions.

Some considerations you should likely inform your references about include not having any rental history, renting with bad credit, or renting with a criminal record.

When you don’t have any rental history

Not having any rental history can seem like a big hurdle when choosing references, but it simply means you don’t have the option of choosing a former landlord or property manager. Anyone else can vouch for what you might be like as a tenant provided they have interacted with you and know your character.

When you have bad credit

Personal references can be very helpful if you have less than stellar credit. Most landlords and property managers run credit checks to get a better idea of a tenant’s financial standing. If you are renting with bad credit, a strong personal reference can provide the landlord or property manager with extra assurances or answer any questions they might have regarding your spending habits.

When you have a criminal record

If you have a criminal conviction or arrest record, personal references can vouch for your character. They can also serve as additional sources of information should the landlord have any questions. As such, if you do have a criminal history or arrest record, you should carefully consider which personal references to list on your rental application.

Additionally, It’s important to note that those with criminal histories are not considered a protected class by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). However, according to a HUD memo from 2016, landlords are still prohibited from denying rental applicants based on their arrest record, banning everyone with a criminal history, or conducting background checks on certain tenants and not on others. Landlords are also supposed to consider tenants with a criminal history on a case-by-case basis and to make their decision based on facts rather than fear or stereotypes.

As such, you should rest assured that as long as you’re upfront and honest, a criminal record can’t be the sole reason a tenant’s rental application is denied.

TL;DR

To recap: the best personal references are those who can provide an unbiased portrait of your character and behavior as a tenant. Former landlords and property managers who you have a good relationship with are ideal references, but employers, coworkers, professors and teachers, and mentors can also be great personal references for rental applications. Conversely, you should avoid asking anyone who may be biased such as close family and friends, significant others and partners. You should also avoid asking any former landlords or property managers you don't have a good relationship with. Personal references are also a great supplement for rental applications when you don't have any rental history, bad credit, or a criminal record, since they add an extra dimension to your application.

Final tips for choosing references for your rental application

Once you’ve chosen your references, remember that it’s common courtesy to give them as much advance notice as possible that you will be needing their help with your rental application. Most people can’t write a rental reference letter on short notice, so make sure to prepare any information they may need. Another alternative is to send them a template for inspiration or to collect their contact information and list it on your application.

If you’re looking for an apartment in a particularly hot area, it’s worth preparing your personal references well ahead of time so you can have them ready to go for your rental application. Again, if you view personal references as another chance to show your landlord or property manager what a great tenant you will be, it’ll take some of the pressure off. Best of all, having strong personal references is another way to make your rental application stand out from the crowd.

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