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Getting Started: Tips for finding an apartment you can afford

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

November 9, 2015


If you’re a renter looking for an affordable apartment, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

In a recent survey by Rent.com, an apartment listing website, 88 percent of property managers said rents increased over the last 12 months. Looking ahead to next year, 68 percent said they expect rents to climb by an average of 8 percent.

The number of available apartments has not kept up with demand. According to the latest U.S. census data, the national vacancy rate for rentals dipped to 6.8 percent from April to June, the lowest level since 1989.

"Until the rental housing supply catches up with demand, we’ll continue to see this tight, really tough market for renters," said Niccole Schreck, senior brand manager at Rent.com.

To improve your odds of finding a place you can afford, consider these tips.

—Search in the off season. The majority of leases are signed from April through August. Delay your apartment search until the winter and you may be in a better position to snag a deal.

"There’s less inventory, but you tend to have more leverage because fewer people are looking," said Dan Hang, vice president of rentals for Zillow Group, which manages housing search websites.

One tactic Hang suggested for those looking during the winter: In exchange for slightly lower rent, offer to sign an 18-month lease rather than the usual 12 months. That way, the next time the lease is up for renewal it will be during the peak summer season, which should appeal to landlords.

"The landlord will have more confidence about renting out the unit at that time, and that may just help you be able to negotiate a lower price," Hang said.

—Be prepared. As you’re looking for apartments, have your paperwork ready, including a copy of your credit report, recent paystubs or an offer letter from your employer, and contact information for previous landlords.

Also, be ready to put down first and last month’s rent, plus a one-month security deposit.

"Show the property manager or landlord that you’re serious and not going to waste their time," Schreck of Rent.com said. "Being organized will also signal that you’re a person who is likely going to pay rent on time."

—Know the market. Even though rents are rising nationally, market conditions will vary by city — even neighborhood.

Developers trying to fill newly constructed buildings, for example, might offer one month of free rent and other promotions, said Ishay Grinberg, founder and president of Rental Beast, an apartment search website with listings in Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and other major cities.

And to compete, landlords of existing buildings nearby may be more willing to keep rents steady.

"A concentration of new inventory can help stabilize a market," Grinberg said.

—Get a co-signer or roommate. To be approved for an apartment, you have to show you’re a worthy tenant. That generally means having a strong credit score, monthly income that is three times the monthly rent and good references.

Fail to meet those requirements and you’ll likely have to get a guarantor (such as a parent) to co-sign for the apartment or be willing to put down a hefty security deposit.

Keep in mind that a guarantor’s income will need to be four to five times the monthly rent, rather than just three times.

"The income has to be higher because it’s assumed that guarantors have their own housing costs to pay," said Andrew Woo, manager of growth strategy at Apartment List (www.apartmentlist.com/il/chicago), an apartment search website.

The alternative: Get a roommate.

"You’ll always get a price break on a two-bedroom apartment that you split with a roommate," Woo said.