How to rent with crummy credit (© fStop/SuperStock)

© fStop/SuperStock

Did your credit slip during the Great Recession? If so, you're far from alone.

In July 2010, credit-rating company FICO announced that at least one in four Americans had a credit score below 600 out of a possible 850.

More than one-third had scores below about 650, which is the historic dividing line between what's considered "prime" and "subprime."

Those aren't just abstract numbers, especially for people who are looking to rent an apartment or house. Your credit score, along with your gross income and employment history, are the main things a landlord will check when deciding whether to rent to you.

"Landlords are hesitant to rent to people who have something (negative) on their credit report," says Virginia Sullivan, head of consumer education at Bills.com.

How do you know if your credit score is bad? Here's a quick primer on the numbers: Your FICO score can range from 300 (the worst) to 850 (sterling). Don't expect to see 850, however, even with perfect credit; 825 is about the highest anyone ever seems to get. Don't have 825? A score between 775 and 825 will net you about the same benefits, experts say.

But for those not hitting the high 700s, there's room for improvement.

What do you do if you've missed some credit-card payments, lost your home to foreclosure or otherwise seen your credit battered?

Fear not, the experts say. It may require a little more work, but you can still get a roof over your head without necessarily spending a lot more money. Here's how:

1. Avoid the credit check entirely. Not every landlord requires a credit check. Smaller, mom-and-pop landlords who may have only a few units don't always bother with credit checks — as opposed to larger management companies that require credit checks. If you do find a smaller landlord, you've avoided the problem. These landlords may also be more sympathetic to your situation, especially if it was caused by the recent economic upheaval, Sullivan says.

Where do you find these landlords? Try Craigslist, local bulletin boards and the classified ads of your local paper.

There are other ways to find landlords who don't require the checks. Ask your local tenants' rights group if it has a list of these landlords around your city, says Mike Piepsny, executive director of the Cleveland Tenants Organization, a tenant-advocacy group. Social-service organizations also may keep these lists to help people who are trying to get back on their feet, Piepsny says.

One last way to avoid the credit check: Jump in with roommates who are already established in a house or apartment and whose credit has been vetted, says Ed Sacks, former "Apartment Watch" columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a mediator who helps navigate landlord-tenant disputes.

2. Know the score. "Know what your credit score is; you'd be surprised at how often there are errors on your credit report," Sullivan says. Your true credit may be better than the number says: A 2004 study from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that a quarter of credit reports had mistakes that could trigger a denial of credit. A more recent study from the Policy & Economic Research Council, however, says that less than 1% of disputed credit scores led to an increase of at least 25 points.

Be sure to check your score before landlords start asking for it, and make sure corrections have been made, she says. The government lets you access your credit report once a year for free here.

3. Give your best excuse. If you have a real smudge on your credit report, the law allows you to submit a 100-word explanation to be included in your credit-bureau file, Sullivan says. When landlords, for instance, pull your full credit file, they can also see the explanation. Not only does the note give some explanation for why your credit has a ding, but putting a note in your file "also shows you care," Sullivan says.

Note: Make sure you submit the note to all three credit-reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.