Credit information: Major credit reporting agencies

Landlords will generally conduct credit screening as part of the process of evaluating potential renters. While everyone should know, in general terms, what their credit report will look like, it remains wise to check before the landlord does.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, consumers can check their own credit report for free once every 12 months with each of the three major credit reporting agencies (CRAs), also called credit bureaus. These companies are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

The timeframe is 12 months rather than once a calendar year, so renters who checked their credit reports with Equifax in June 2007 would be unable to do so again until June or July 2008, unless they were willing to pay.

The agencies generally gather information from the same types of sources, but specifics do vary, so a report from one will not be identical to a report from the other two. Differences are typically small.

There may not be a way to know in advance which agency a given landlord will contact, so it can be difficult to remain current, but fortunately for renters any landlord who rejects a prospective tenant based on credit information must say so, and the applicant can then request a free report from the CRA to ensure there are no mistakes.