Vacancy rates are rising for rental homes and apartments in cities across the country – and that puts renters in a prime spot to negotiate.
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“Rental demand has been battered by still-elevated unemployment, as well as some renters opting out of expensive markets with their ability to work remotely during the pandemic,” said Jeff Tucker, an economist at Zillow.
Landlords are eager to fill their properties and many are willing to strike a deal, either through a rent reduction or incentives like offering free months’ rent or no fees. They are also more willing to work with a current tenant to keep them in place.
“Some landlords are offering concessions, like one month of free rent,” said Hal D. Gavzie, director of leasing at Douglas Elliman in New York City. “It could be one or two, even three months. We’ve seen as many as four months free.”
Compared to last year, typical rents are down 4.6% in New York, 4% in San Francisco and 3.8% in San Jose, according to Zillow. Typical rents are also down in cities like Boston; Washington, DC; Chicago; Austin; Houston and Denver.
If you are seeing rents in your neighborhood falling or you’re looking for a new apartment, here are some ways to negotiate for a better deal.
Do your research
“I think it is helpful for a tenant to know what the neighbors are paying,” said Dana Karni, managing attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston. “A lot of that is available online. It doesn’t take a lot of sleuth work to look at listings and find out how the landlord listed their most recent vacancies.”
With that data in hand, ask if your rent can be adjusted. Be prepared to demonstrate your strong track record with rent payments and give any examples of how you’re a reliable tenant worth working with.
“A tenant should walk in armed with as much information as possible and see what a landlord is willing to do,” said Kadeem Morris, a staff attorney in the housing unit at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. “A lot of landlords have been willing to work with tenants during this time.”
If you are looking for a new place, you should know what kind of incentives are being offered at properties in your price range. In Manhattan, for example, the share of new listings with concessions from landlords, like a few months of free rent or no broker’s fee, were greater for lower priced rentals in August, according to a report from Douglas Elliman and appraiser Miller Samuel.
Knowing the lay of the land can be one of the strongest predictors of a positive outcome, said Calum Coburn, chief executive of the Negotiation Experts, which provides negotiation training.
“I can predict who will win the negotiation in simulations and it comes down to who is better prepared,” said Coburn. “Too many people focus on the face-to-face conversation. But, by that time, you’ve already either won or lost, based on your preparation.”
Listen for what your landlord wants
Even before you begin the discussion, take stock of what you already know about your landlord, Coburn said.
Do they value the personal connection they have with you? Or do they prefer that you get right to the point and want to know the bottom line?
“If you take the time to step into the landlord’s shoes, you can understand better what they want,” he said.
Take every interaction with your landlord as feedback, said Coburn. Look for differences between what you want and what your landlord wants and you may find a solution that suits you both. Those are areas where you could reach a deal.
Are they bringing up the term of the lease often? Perhaps they are more interested in having a tenant in there for a longer amount of time.
“If they are interested in time and you are interested in money, your interests are not aligned and you can strike a deal,” said Coburn. “Then they can give you a longer contract, and you can get lower rent.”
Coburn recommends coming in with a specific offer that is lower than what you might expect to get, although there is a point where your offer may be too low to get a serious response.
“Do ask for less,” he said. “If your rent is $1,000, even if you would be thrilled to pay $900, try $875.”
Throw out some terms and see how the landlord reacts. That can give you clarity for your next round of negotiations, Coburn said.
“The landlord is likely to respond to the things they don’t like,” Coburn said. “You’ll know that is the obstacle and be able to work from there.”
Choose your words carefully
When planning what you’re going to say, lay out several compelling facts and end with a question, Morris recommended.
“If you’re looking at a unit, or you just moved in, you should be able to say: ‘Everything on this block is $1,000 and you’re asking $1,500 for a comparable unit. What can you do for me?’ Leave it as an open-ended question,” he said.
Or if you’ve been a long-time tenant, highlight that, he said. You could say: “I’ve been a tenant here for four years, I’ve never been late. My income has been reduced and I see the apartment next door to me is renting for $1,000 and I’m paying $1,500. What can you do to help me out?”
Understand, of course, the landlord’s answer could be ‘nothing.’ But there’s no downside to asking, said Morris.
Asking to change the terms of your lease may seem like a tall order if you’re struggling to make rent, but you might have more leverage than you think, said Karni.
“You can say, ‘I may leave here. You’ll have your empty unit with zero dollars to collect. Let’s find a better route. Let’s negotiate.’”
If you are successful in getting your rent knocked down or changing the terms of your lease, you will want to put that in writing, said Karni. It isn’t necessary to draft a new lease, unless it is required in the original lease, she said. Just get the modification in some kind of writing, even if it is an email or text message. If it is handwritten, you’ll need a signature.
“All too often what one party thinks they heard and agreed to is not what the other party contemplated,” she said.