The number of renters has swelled nationwide following the collapse of the housing bubble. Some renters face stiffer competition for vacancies and higher rents. All renters who take the time to study the quirks of their particular market will fare better.
Here's what you need to know if you're a renter.
Rent is negotiable, according to Damien Barr, co-founder and CEO of KangaRent.com, a rental brokerage based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Landlords don't always advertise this fact.
"Everything is negotiable, including the rental price," Barr says. "However, it definitely depends on your local market. If your market is turning around listings in 48 hours, the likelihood of getting a lower price is low. On the flip side, if the unit has been on the market for a month with no movement, that's a pretty good indication that you have some negotiating room."
To secure a reduction, Barr advises prospective tenants to show the landlord they're serious about renting by being ready to sign a lease as soon as they agree to the tenant's offer. Tenants trying to persuade their current landlords to reduce rent face a tougher battle because walking away isn't as easy.
But, says Barr, if you can convince your landlord that waiting for another tenant will be costly, you just might be able to knock a few bucks off the monthly bill. Of course, taking that approach can have its risks, and if it backfires, you might end up paying the higher rent or moving.
Renters with pets customarily have had to pay deposits for dogs and cats. Some landlords charge monthly fees for each animal. Pet rent typically runs about $25 per month, but in some markets, renters shell out $100 or more. Still, savvy renters don't pay both fees, says Jennifer Chiongbian, an associate broker with Charles Rutenberg Realty in New York City.
"I would keep looking if the landlords are getting you on both ends," Chiongbian says. "It should be either a deposit or rent, not both."
If the landlord insists on a deposit or rent for the family pet, Chiongbian advises prospective tenants to negotiate. Just keep in mind that the landlord has the upper hand in a tight real estate market and can afford to say no.
"But it doesn't hurt to ask," says Chiongbian, who adds that, "negotiating with a smaller landlord usually has more of a positive outcome."
Security deposits (typically one month's worth of rent or more) have two functions. They protect landlords from tenants who skip out on rent, and pay to repair damage beyond wear and tear. Veteran renters know there's a difference between being entitled to the refund of a security deposit and actually getting it back.
To improve your chances of getting your deposit returned, Chantay Bridges, a real estate specialist with Clear Choice Realty & Associates in Los Angeles, says tenants need to be proactive when moving into and out of an apartment.
"It's a good idea to videotape the apartment before moving in, and take before and after photos," Bridges says.
Renters should also document repairs, upgrades or any changes to the premises while living there. When moving out, renters should insist on a final walk-through with the landlord, and they should have a witness present in case there's a dispute later.
Bridges advises that tenants familiarize themselves with their jurisdiction's rules regarding security deposits because laws vary by state. Make a timely written request for the return of the security deposit.
Apartment hunters usually have a pretty good grasp of what to look for in terms of buildings, amenities and locations, but they should take some time to vet landlords. Doing so will give renters insights into landlords' customer service styles, and help them choose buildings where repairs are dealt with quickly and professionally, according to Vicki Negron, an associate broker with The Corcoran Group in New York City.
"The only silly question is the one we don't ask," Negron says. "This applies to management companies and landlords, too. Check with the neighbors to find out about the landlord, but (remember) not everyone loves their landlord, so season the neighbors' responses with a few grains of salt."
Apply common sense when looking at the property, Barr says.
"If the property has dirty carpet, has not been professionally cleaned and things don't work, this is a very good indication that you may be walking into a negative situation," he says.
Often, landlords charge $30 or more to run a credit check. The fee might not be that big of a deal if you apply at one apartment. But renters in competitive markets, as well as those who have less-than-perfect credit histories, may end up applying multiple times.
"There are a bunch of ways to avoid these fees," says Matthew Heisler, a landlord and real estate agent at Heisler & Mattson Properties in Westborough, Mass. "You can pull your credit report yourself -- independent landlords and some management companies will accept that. Also, if one half of a couple has the credit to afford the apartment, then only one person should apply (because) two applications cost more."
Ask if the fee can be applied to the rent, says David Vivero, CEO of RentJuice, an online rental platform based in San Francisco. "Rental application fees are always at the discretion of the property manager or brokerage, and no fee is the same," says Vivero.
Although it's tempting to think of your apartment as your own home, you don't have the right to make changes without permission. But you're not totally out of luck if you wish to paint the walls, upgrade fixtures, or make other small improvements.
"For cosmetic fixes (like new paint) just ask, the worst they will say is no," says Gary Malin, president of Citi Habitats in New York City. "If you are a solid applicant, or a current tenant in good standing, they may likely oblige (because) landlords value good tenants."
Of course, if the landlord says no, then a tenant who decides to make the changes anyway will almost certainly incur a fee. That usually means losing the deposit, and depending on the lease, paying damages in excess of the deposit. Don't make big changes without the landlord's permission.
Low credit scores and a history of foreclosure make renting harder, but not impossible.
"Keep in mind that landlords are only looking out for their bottom line," Malin says. "If you do not pay rent as promised, eviction proceedings (can be) a long and expensive nightmare for landlords."
Malin advises prospective tenants to be upfront about their finances. Letters of recommendation from past landlords and employers can help a tenant qualify.
Make your case in person, if possible, Bridges says: "Many times if the representative (or owner) and you hit it off, they may forgo some of their traditional requirements."