Ask any tenant: The credit check is probably the most feared part of a rental application. The credit report offers landlords a cold, impartial and unblinking view of all your major purchasing and spending activity over the decades. Every financial mis-step is right there in black-and-white for all to see.
As professional landlords, my colleagues and I have reviewed hundreds of credit reports from applicants looking to owner finance or lease-purchase a home. If you look hard enough, certain patterns emerge: Most unsuccessful home buyers get in trouble in just a few critical areas. We see it all the time. If tenants only knew which expenses to avoid (or at least control), then maybe they wouldn't start down the wrong path in the first place.
Now, I've made some of these mistakes myself: No one is born a landlord. But if more than a few of these apply to you, you may be killing your chances of ever owning a home without even realizing it. Here are the top 6 high-risk expenses we urge you to stay away from until after you've bought a home:
Premium cable – Now that TV stations have switched to digital broadcasts, a cable subscription is almost a necessity in most households. And yes, there are plenty of sensible reasons to have access to a few key cable channels for news, sports, and entertainment. But we've also seen far too many folks go nuts and order hundreds of channels they don't need and never watch. Here in Atlanta, Georgia, the Comcast Cable "Digital Premier" cable plan costs over $50/month more than their basic package. Added up over 5 years, that's a whopping $3,000 that could have been a down payment on a house.
High-tech television – For those of us who can recall when color TVs were a novelty, this latest national obsession with ginormous widescreens and 7-speaker digital sound is almost laughable. Less amusing, perhaps, is seeing that huge plasma TV sitting on the curb along with all the worldly possessions of a recently-evicted tenant. Maybe it's just coincidence, but there seems to be a definite connection between expensive consumer electronics and financial distress.
Sparkle and bling – Back around 2005, nearly every bad credit report we saw featured an unpaid jewelry store charge account. Now, it's bad enough wasting serious money on gold and diamond trinkets. But to purchase this stuff using store credit and then default on the payments is financial suicide. Surely we can all agree that there's no must-have item anywhere to be found at the local Jared or Zales.
Fast food – We've all been guilty of swinging by the take-out window or placing a late-night delivery order when we're too tired (or lazy) to prepare a meal. But after adding up the cost of a year's worth of greasy burgers or mediocre pizza, you may well decide that keeping a jumbo bag of snack food in the house is much easier on your wallet and your stomach.
You should also know that when you bounce a check on the local Domino's Pizza, it's going to show up on your credit report. And if you can't be relied upon to fund an $18 pizza, you can't be too surprised if a landlord won't approve you for home ownership.
Mobile overkill – The cell phone has gone from flashy frill to absolute necessity. Most of us honestly can't even imagine life without our mobile: It's our link to the world. But, if you allow your cell provider to seduce you with GPS, unlimited texting, and high-speed Internet access, your monthly mobile bill can transform from a $50 lifeline into an hulking $300 anchor dragging you to the murky bottom.
Automotive excess – Atlanta, like Los Angeles, is definitely a car town. Folks here form a close personal bond with their vehicles. We get that. But when your credit report shows that your late-model Mercedes was recently repossessed, we count that as two strikes against you: One for not paying on time, and another for your poor judgment.
In the end, it's all about priorities. We're looking for families who are seriously committed to owning a home. Show us you can focus on that for a couple of years. Once you're a homeowner, then you can conspicuously consume (like the rest of us) until the cows come home.