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What to do if you can't pay rent

Key takeaways

  • As soon as you realize you won't be able to pay your rent, consider reaching out for help.
  • You could talk to a housing counselor, apply to rent assistance programs, and even ask your landlord for ideas.
  • You might be able to get money from local or state programs to help cover your rent, a rent reduction to make your monthly payments more affordable, or legal assistance to help you stay in your home.

If your current financial situation makes it impossible to pay rent on time, help might be available. Here are the steps you should take when you realize you can't pay rent.

What happens if you don't pay rent?

First, a quick reminder: When you rent a place, you enter into an agreement with the property's landlord that you will submit regular payments to live there. If you're late or miss a payment, you might face fees—you can see the penalty amounts in your lease agreement. And if you consistently miss payments? "A tenant that fails to make their rental payments can face eviction by their landlord," explains a spokesperson for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). That's why it's important to know your options before you miss a payment.

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What to do if you can't pay your rent

According to the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, a smart first step is to visit Legalfaq.org. This site, created by Stanford Law School's Legal Design Lab, can tell you about laws for tenants and landlords in your area. It can help you find local housing assistance programs too.

Other moves to consider

  1. Reread your lease.

    Remember all that fine print on the lease you signed? Give it a good review. See if the lease agreement mentions anything about the process your landlord will follow if you're late or miss payments. The lease might also let you know the steps to follow if you expect to fall behind on rent later.

  2. Tell your landlord.

    As soon as you realize you might have trouble paying your rent, consider notifying your landlord in writing, suggests the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. If you'll have your rent money soon, you've been on time every other time, and you don't anticipate being late again, you could ask your landlord to extend the deadline for this rent payment, with a reminder of your past track record. Or you could ask them for suggestions for local assistance programs that other tenants have used. Just check out your local laws first or consult with a lawyer to make sure there are no downsides to giving them a heads up.

  3. Seek out a reputable housing counselor.

    Consider looking for one as soon as you know you won't be able to pay, but definitely once you're "behind on rent or received a demand for payment, an eviction notice, or an eviction lawsuit," says the HUD spokesperson. "A HUD-approved housing counseling agency can help the tenant understand their rights and explain how to take advantage of financial assistance that may be available." You can use HUD's search tool for HUD-approved housing counseling agencies around the country. These free counselors can also help find legal aid organizations if you need.

  4. Apply to rent assistance programs.

    Your HUD-certified housing counselor can help you find and fill out applications for assistance programs, but it doesn't hurt to look on your own too. For example, there are state and local rent assistance programs that might be able to cover your monthly rent payments for several months, even a year or more, if you meet eligibility requirements, such as having an income a certain percentage below the area's median. Religious and secular charitable organizations might also be willing to help you make rent payments.

    To find a program in your area, use the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's rental assistance search tool. According to HUD, "some US territories and Tribal Nations might also be able to provide emergency rental assistance to renters struggling to pay their rent." For more information, visit Treasury.gov.

Can you negotiate rent?

A good time to get a discount on your rent? Before you sign your initial lease agreement—or when your lease is expiring, and your landlord wants to lock you in for another year. While you can try to negotiate your rent down at other times, landlords may be unlikely to drop the amount you previously agreed to pay. And your landlord has the right to refuse any reduction. That said, a rent assistance program might be able to help you get a rent reduction, especially if your landlord isn't providing all the services promised. For instance, if electricity is included in your rent and it's been out, it might be easier for you to get approved to pay less.

Can you pay rent with a credit card?

Your landlord has the right to choose whether they accept credit card payments for rent. If they allow it, they might pass on the processing fees to you, which could make your rent payments even higher. Plus, you want to be careful about using your credit card to make rent payments if you're already struggling to cover your bills. Credit cards tend to have high interest rates, and you ultimately have to pay everything back—with that high interest factored in. Consider going through the rental assistance channels before opting for paying by credit card, which should be a last resort.

Can’t make other payments? Get steps to help cover those bills and more in the Fidelity Smart MoneySM Playbook: How to help crisis-proof your life.

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