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It's almost an American tradition: Kids in their 20s without credit histories have long turned to their parents to co-sign for them -- for a first credit card, a car or an apartment lease. Now the credit crisis is turning that tradition on its head.

Financial advisers, credit counselors and lenders across the country say they've seen a surge in middle-aged parents with damaged credit who have asked their adult children -- usually in their late 20s or early 30s -- to co-sign loans and leases for them.

"I'm seeing this a lot more now than I did two or three years ago," says Laurie Giles, an elder-life-planning attorney in Shelton, Conn., and the author of the "What Now?" book series. "A lot of times, it's parents who had stable jobs for 20 or 30 years who got used to living on credit. Then they're suddenly downsized, and they don't have strong savings built up, or their savings went down with the market. And their house isn't worth what they thought."

No one tracks statistics on how common the practice is, and most lenders consider such information proprietary. But LeaseTrader.com, a nationwide car leasing marketplace, reports a 29% increase over the past two years in the number of parents asking their children to co-sign for them when shopping for a car lease.

"These are people who can afford to take over the lease payment but have issues qualifying for credit," says Sergio Stiberman, the CEO and founder of LeaseTrader.com. On average, the parents who get help from their children are taking over a payment of less than $399 a month, he says.

Most loans small

The kids-helping-parents practice is most common with smaller loans such as those for cars and furniture, and for apartment leases -- not for mortgages, credit counselors say. Parents are also asking their grown children to co-sign on low-interest credit cards they can't qualify for by themselves. Some are so desperate that they secretly steal a child's identity to qualify for credit, says Elizabeth Schomburg, the senior vice president of Family Credit Management, a Chicago nonprofit credit counseling agency.

So what should you do if your parents come to you with a request for help? Tread carefully, experts say. Before you co-sign, make sure you consider the implications. (See the six questions to ask before you say yes at the end of this article.) Then be prepared to pay if they can't.

"What children have to be very aware of is that this can backfire on them," says Bruce McClary, a certified credit counselor and spokesman for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a nonprofit in Richmond, Va. "Just because you love them and trust them, you can't predict their financial future and how they'll react if they run into a tough spot and can't pay. Then it's on you."

Guard your own credit

Even if your parents make all their payments on time, the decision could still hurt you the next time you need credit for yourself -- if you're trying to get a home mortgage or a car loan, for example.

At CredAbility, a nonprofit credit counseling center based in Atlanta, one client who was about to buy her first home came in asking why her credit score was low, says Mechel Glass, CredAbility's director of education. The woman had a car loan, very little credit card debt and made all her payments on time, Glass says. But she also had a $10,000 loan she had co-signed for her parents.