Move-in deals to jump for: Buildings lure renters with signing incentives, but which are worth it?


April 26, 2012

Moving is expensive. Just ask civil engineer Amy Park, who recently funded her own move from Dallas to D.C. for a new job. When the Ellicott House apartment complex in Van Ness (4849 Connecticut Ave. NW, 888-849-1201, Ellicottliving.com) offered to waive her security deposit and move-in fee, plus take $185 a month off the $1,925 rent for a one-bedroom apartment, Park jumped at the deal.

“It helped me out a lot to not have those upfront expenses,” says Park, 44. “And I probably would have kept looking if I’d had to pay $1,925 a month.”

More and more apartment complexes are offering incentives like these to get prospective tenants in the door. Waived fees, free parking, or one-month’s free rent are common deal-sweeteners. Tenants could also be allowed to move in a few weeks before their lease officially starts. Some complexes get a little more creative, giving Visa gift cards, plasma TVs, or iPads to folks who sign a lease.

“It’s a competitive market out there,” says Rich Lauletta, chief marketing officer for the DC Apartment Co. (202-600-9500), which helps connect renters with available properties. “Every renter has plenty of choices. In order to remain competitive and get a renter to commit, concessions and incentives are a good part of it.”

For apartment complexes, these incentives help fill empty units. They are common in new buildings where landlords need to get a lot of new renters quickly. In some buildings, the concessions might be specific to certain apartments that are hard to rent because of funky sizing or other flaws. You might also see these kinds of concessions in buildings in less desirable areas or at certain times of the year.

If you’re looking for a place, keep in mind that what you might see at one time of the year may not be around a few months later. “Seasonality really affects concessions,” says Debbie Kaplan, chief operating officer of apartment-finding service Urban Igloo (877-445-6632). “During the summer, when demand is greater, you won’t see as many concessions as you do during the winter,” she says.

Apartment-hunters may be tempted to snag alluring incentives as quick as they can — and that’s what landlords are counting on. But take the time to weigh the true value of the deals and make sure they’re really worth it. A free iPad is nice, but it won’t change an awkward layout or the tininess of a bedroom.

“You have to ask yourself, is this really a property that I want to move into?” says Nancy Simmons Starrs, president of apartment-locator firm Apartment Detectives (202-362-7368, Apartmentdetectives.com) and an agent with Prudential PenFed Realty. “If you don’t like the property, don’t rent there.”

Park genuinely liked the unit she’d be renting. “It was the largest one-bedroom I saw for that price range that was newly remodeled, and the building had a lot of amenities compared to other buildings for that same price,” she says. The concessions she received simply sweetened the deal and persuaded her to sign on the dotted line.

Up-front perks can mean surprises down the road. If tenants get a discount on rent, both they and the complex should have a clear understanding of how things might change when the lease term ends and prices shoot up. “Properties need to be careful if one month’s free rent is amortized throughout the year,” says Kaplan.“Renters might experience sticker shock when it’s renewal time, and landlords run the risk of losing them.”

No matter what it may be, an incentive is only truly worth it if it benefits a renter’s bottom line. “Keep your priorities in mind,” says Lauletta. “A renter might get excited about something like a free flat-screen TV, but their priority might be the total out-of-pocket cost of a move. Weigh the actual value of an incentive and compare it to your priorities and what would benefit you the most.”

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