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Some issues can make renting tricky — but not impossible

Ross Nover, who runs his own design business, knew it would be tough to rent an apartment without a pay stub, so he used a K-1 tax form to prove his income. (Jason Hornick/For Express)
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When self-employed graphic designer Ross Nover, 30, applied for a one-bedroom apartment in Adams Morgan with his girlfriend in March, he wasn’t expecting the process to be smooth sailing. He’d left a full-time job to freelance and then start his own design business with a friend, and he knew his future landlord would ask him for a pay stub.

Without standard pay stubs, Nover had to get creative to prove to the management company that he could cover the rent. He ended up using one of his tax forms — the K-1 form, which showed how much income he was responsible for paying taxes on — to help him land the apartment in April.

“It was a little different, but luckily we had that,” he says of the K-1 form. “They didn’t really run me through the wringer or anything.”

Not getting a regular paycheck — for example, if you freelance or run your own business — is one issue that may make it harder to qualify for a new place. Landlords want to know that you have a steady income and will be able to afford your rent each month. But, like Nover, renters may find that landlords and apartment companies are more flexible and forgiving than they might assume.

“When it comes to screening tenants, there is obviously some science behind

it,” says Thomas Carcone, new client representative at property management firm Agon Management (1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW No. 190; 202-417-2046). “But there are so many different factors that go into the evaluation process.”

Income requirements

Renters who have multiple or seasonal sources of income, like working retail during the holidays, can still get an apartment if they can document how they’ll pay the rent.

In D.C., it’s actually illegal for landlords to discriminate against a particular source of income, says Jeremy Boardman, owner of property management company Urbane Results (1232 M St. NW; 202-465-4690).

“It can be a job, it can be child support, it can be a housing voucher,” he says. As long as it’s valid, steady and well-documented, landlords or property managers have to accept it, Boardman says. But be ready with the documentation, he says. Urbane Results requires that the rent and any fees don’t add up to more than 30 percent of an applicants’ gross income.

If you don’t have a pay stub, you can show a landlord your income with a letter from your employer, copies of freelancing contracts, a copy of a student loan or scholarship, or a copy of your tax returns, property managers say. 

McLean Robbins, 29, a freelance writer and digital strategist who rents a one-bedroom with den in Arlington, has income from various sources, but was able to use the W-2 form from just one of her clients to qualify for her last apartment.

“In my instance, the largest W-2 from my biggest client has always been big enough to serve as a full-time income,” she says. For renters who don’t work full-time or who have just lost a job, it will be hard to rent a place on your own. Carcone says it’s common to have someone else with a full-time job co-sign the lease. Unlike a roommate, a co-signer doesn’t live with you but takes on full liability if you can’t pay the rent, as if the lease were their own.

For Gerard Moreno Poole, a 60-year-old guitarist and vocalist, proving a steady income has always been a challenge. At his last apartment in Alexandria, he co-signed the lease with his brother  – but now the musician has opted to avoid the hassle altogether and live in his RV instead.

Bad credit and debt

Apartment companies will usually run a credit check on prospective applicants, and bad credit is probably the most common reason for a tenant getting turned down, Carcone says.

But bad credit need not be an automatic disqualification, Boardman says. 

“A lot of times there’s a story behind it,” he says. 

Carcone and Boardman say if the bad credit was the result of something other than not paying bills on time, such as a recent divorce, companies can be forgiving. 

“If everything else checks out besides the credit score, we would just open up a dialogue and ask if there was a specific reason their credit score might be affected,” Carcone says. 

Boardman says his company also can be forgiving when bad marks on the credit report were caused by medical debt or student loan debt, as long as the prospective renter can explain them. 

If you have a special situation or know your credit score might be low because of a divorce or lots of student loan debt, Boardman recommends emailing or calling the property manager or apartment company about this before you apply. 

Your credit report also shows if you owned a home that was foreclosed on, which could raise flags when re-entering the rental market. But Carcone says companies consider the facts on a case-by-case basis. 

Just because a renter couldn’t afford the mortgage, doesn’t mean they couldn’t make rent at a cheaper place, he says, and the income paperwork would show this.

The pros and cons of small landlords

If you have a tricky renter issue, is it better to rent from a big apartment company or an individual who rents one or two properties? 

It depends, rental experts say. 

Small-scale landlords are less likely to run a background check or check for evictions and other legal issues, and may not even run a credit check, says Thomas Carcone, of Agon Management. 

“Owners of an individual property aren’t going to have access to the same types of systems as a property management company,” Carcone says. Sometimes small landlords will ask prospective tenants to get their own credit reports to submit with their applications. 

But smaller landlords may not understand that tenants can’t be turned down because landlords would prefer a different type of income source or a different type of renter. 

“They don’t understand the law,” says Jeremy Boardman. His property management firm, Urbane Results, recently dropped a client who refused to rent to a group of young professionals because they wanted to rent to a family instead. “You can’t discriminate based on whether they’re a family or not,” he says. “Some of our clients want to discriminate against undergrads, but that’s another protected status and you can’t discriminate against that.” E.B.