When Craig Hanna was apartment hunting last month, he found it a more relaxed experience than he was accustomed to.

Hanna, having lived in the Washington area for five years, has rented apartments both on Capitol Hill and in the suburbs. This time, he was moving back to Capitol Hill, close to his job as a congressional aide, and found the softness of the area's rental market apparent in the atmosphere if not in the actual rental prices.

Hanna, 28, said he visited several apartments he saw advertised in the price range and neighborhood he was considering before deciding on the one he wanted.

"I saw some places I was moderately interested in," he said, "but I said 'I'll check and see if I can get a better deal.' ... Two or three years ago, it was more like a fire sale on a weekend."

When he was looking at apartments back then, there often were "four other people sitting in the same apartment filling out applications," he said, "so it put more of a sense of urgency. {This time} I never felt the sense of urgency to go ahead and grab the first thing that came down the pike."

While Capitol Hill and other centrally located areas have not fallen victim to the softened market to the point of lowering rents to attract tenants, landlords said the volume of inquiries responding to an available apartment has dropped for some less than perfect places.

Stress-free housing searches are just the surface sign of a downturn in the local apartment rental market that is empowering renters with a bargaining leverage they never had before.

Outside the District of Columbia and closer to the Capital Beltway, overbuilding of apartment complexes has caused supply to outstrip demand, leaving many landlords in a marketing battle for tenants, who are taking more time to educate themselves and shop the market until they find exactly what they're looking for, and at the best price.

Arnie Applebaum, whose firm, Adler Publishing, has published the Apartment Living Guide since 1960, said he sees people "shopping around to see what is being offered. There are quite a few similar apartments, with the L-shaped combination living room and dining room.

"So one of the things the consumer is conditioned to do is look for the best deal: Reduction in security deposit, free rent, cash back, in effect it's all reducing the rent," he said.

In that guide and in the classified rental listings of The Washington Post, a marketing war is being waged. Buildings promote their elegance, safety or excitement and advertise special offers, including freeBuildings promote their elegance, safety or excitement and advertise special offers. health club memberships and a host of activities, free utilities, free parking, rebates and rent reductions.

Apartment Locators, which manages more than 19,000 apartments in the Washington area, held a six-week sweepstakes to celebrate its 25th anniversary and to attract attention to its buildings. The grand prize, free rent for a year, was followed up with various prize giveaways.

Also, reduced security deposits and the option to cancel a lease after 30 days were offered to anyone who signed a new lease during the sweepstakes, said Ken Klimpl, an assistant vice president with the firm.

"We have to be more competitive than we were two years ago," Klimpl said. "But the biggest thing that we're doing is increased service; the product is basically the same ... . People tend to move when they're not satisfied."

When the giveaways ended, Klimpl said he decided to make the security deposit and satisfaction guarantee policy a standard practice.

But lower rent still is the bottom-line attraction for most prospective renters, many companies are finding.

When Paul Donnellan, who works for an automobile industry trade group, found such a deal, it convinced him to sign a lease at a building that otherwise would have cost him too much.

Donnellan, 24, said he started looking for a one-bedroom apartment in Arlington along Metro's Orange Line after he got his first big raise.

He looked at about six different places to get a sense of what was available and concluded that to afford to live by himself, he would have to move further out in the suburbs. But a rent rebate ad changed his mind.

He eventually signed a lease at Arlington Courthouse Plaza, a new building at the Courthouse Metro stop.

"I had a sense of the one-bedrooms in the area. I thought they were about $850 {a month}," Donnellan said.

"This one was a little more, but I saw in the paper that they were having a $600 rebate, and that's $50 off a month {for a year}, which I think makes a difference ... . This rebate allowed me to get the best apartment ... in the area, I think."

Indeed, many of the rent reductions are in higher-priced buildings, where landlords are finding themselves in competition with newer buildings for fewer tenants than they had expected.

And with so many buildings offering the same amenities, the competition doesn't end with rent considerations. Marketing efforts are being increased to catch the would-be renter's eye, as are advertising budgets.

The Manor, a building in Silver Spring, installed wall-to-wall carpeting in some apartments that were not carpeted to be more competitive.

Maureen Simmons, the building's resident manager, said that the $600 rent rebate special, which has been in effect for a year, is a successful way of attracting newcomers. Simmons also said that the building's atmosphere also is emphasized, as is the fact that the staff members each have worked there for at least five years.

Simmons said that they have to focus on the quality of the building's amenities because "customers are becoming a lot more aware that the market is softer," and are shopping for the best deal.

Novera King said she read the apartment listings in The Post and apartment finders guides for four months before choosing the Manor building in May.

King said that besides the rent rebate, she was attracted by the building's facilities, including a swimming pool, tennis court and playground for her young children.

"You can more or less sense from the ads," said Joan Bowe, the building manager. "People don't offer to give away $600 if they don't have any vacancies. Renters are being very selective, because they realize there are plenty of apartments on the market."