Don’t Be Afraid to Negotiate

Persuading a landlord to sweeten a rental deal isn’t as hard as you think

When Anna Smith, 29, moved from Los Angeles to D.C., she and her boyfriend had a typical Washington-area real estate experience: First, they looked at a dingy basement apartment without a kitchen, then they saw a bedbug-infested place downtown. And then, there was a sunny studio in Columbia Heights.

“Hardwood floors, a closet that could be a reading nook, it had everything,” Smith says. “I loved it right away.”

The problem? Smith and her boyfriend’s salaries did not meet the minimum income requirement for the place. Instead of giving up, Smith asked the rental office if anything could be done.

“They found me a cheaper studio with the same things I loved about the old place,” says Smith, who moved there in April. It was, however, on the ground floor, which meant the rent was lower.

Negotiating with landlords was a trick Smith had learned at the sublet she’d been staying in — she was living in a one-bedroom but paying for a studio, thanks to a deal she worked out with the landlord.

Anyone who has tried to rent in or around Washington, D.C. knows that lessees usually don’t have the upper hand. In 2011, only 15 percent of building managers said they were willing to lower rent for a tenant, down from 69 percent in 2009, according to Rent.com. But agile negotiators can still get themselves some perks — the key is communication.

“It never hurts to ask,” said Chris Swanson, a co-owner of Evolve Property Management, which rents properties across the city. Swanson said he’s worked with new tenants to paint a wall the color they want for free before move-in. Other times, he’s found potential tenants a place in the same building with such perks as wood floors or more light but charged them the same price as a less-desirable unit.

Prospective tenants often have more luck getting fees waived than out-and-out asking for a rent reduction, says Amy Rose Dobson, an editor at the real estate website CurbedDC.

Ask if parking rates can be lowered, or activities fees can be cut. If you’re strapped for cash during a move, some landlords allow renters to pay their security deposit once they get their money back from an old apartment, Dobson said.

Not all negotiations are equally fruitful. “Real estate is hyper-local,” Christina Aragon, director of strategy and consumer insights at Rent.com, said by email. “You really need to understand the market dynamics in the particular neighborhoods where you are interested in living to negotiate successfully.”

Aragon recommends gathering information about what similar apartments in a neighborhood are renting for, and noting whether the apartment you want has fewer amenities than a similarly priced unit in the same building.

She also advises tenants to stay flexible. Landlords are often trying to offload a particular type of property — they could be having trouble renting out one bedrooms or apartments without many windows. If you take that off their hands, building managers may be more willing to lower their price.

Another option is offering to sign a longer lease if you’re confident you want to stay in the place more than a year. It offers the landlord more security, so he or she may be willing to concede on other things.

Christopher Parnes, a lawyer at Wilmer Hale and former intern at the Landlord and Tenant Resource Center at Georgetown University’s Law Center (Dcbar.org), has helped solve dozens of landlord issues. He says the best time to negotiate is when you’re re-signing a lease.

At that point, the landlord has a relationship with his or her tenant, and finding a new tenant would take time and effort. If you want lower rent, free parking or a better deal on utilities, this is the time to negotiate it.

As Parnes puts it, that’s when “a tenant has all the bargaining power.”

 
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