The Washington Post

Rentals’ well-kept secret


Jessica Carty of Urban Igloo, left, helps prospective tenants find rentals. Landlords, not tenants, are charged a finder’s fee. (Jason Hornick/For Express)

Pay thousands of dollars to a rental broker to find you an apartment? No way. This isn’t NYC. It’s D.C., where property owners — not renters — pay four-digit sums to fill their units.

That’s what Stephanie Enaje, 29, discovered when she started looking for an apartment this summer. She was relocating from Houston to teach first grade at a charter school in the District, and she suffered sticker shock when she saw what apartments around here cost. “All the [new buildings] popping up were out of reach for me,” Enaje says.

While searching online, she stumbled onto Urban Igloo (877-445-6632), a “rental locator” company. With their help, in less than a month, Enaje found a one-bedroom condo unit on Capitol Hill in her price range, and she moved in on Aug. 1. Best of all, she didn’t pay a penny for Urban Igloo’s assistance; the landlord did — a standard fee of one month’s rent.

Brokers are not as popular in Washington as they are in other rental markets, such as New York’s, where potential renters line up for apartments, and brokers are known to charge them fees equaling one- to three-months’ rent, says Doug Culkin, CEO of the National Apartment Association. In the D.C. area, apartments are being built faster than renters can fill them. That means that property owners — of anything from high-rise apartment buildings down to English basements in rowhouses — are willing to pay such agencies as Urban Igloo and The D.C. Apartment Co. (202-600-9500) to find them qualified renters.

“We offer basically an apartment matchmaking service,” says Eric Suissa, director of sales for The D.C. Apartment Co. Licensed real estate agents at these companies work one-on-one with renters just as they would if they were helping clients buy homes. They find out such things as the number of beds and baths clients want, whether they need a pet-friendly building, if they want a quiet suburban neighborhood or a place in the city near restaurants and a Metro stop.

For Washingtonians who work nonstop or for those relocating to the area, a rental agent can save time and headaches. “The people we get are very transient, and they want help making a decision,” says Rick Gersten, CEO of Urban Igloo, “because they just don’t have the time to go apartment to apartment on their own.” Rental agencies get to know clients’ needs and do the sleuthing for them.

To help landlords, agencies post rental ads on their own websites as well as such sites as Zillow, Trulia and Craigslist. The agencies screen candidates to find appropriate apartments and then either put the client in touch with the building’s leasing specialist or bring the client to tour the property themselves. Agents can even hand over the keys and manage paperwork and payments.

No matter how hard agents work, the building owner pays their fee only if their client signs a lease. Fees usually equal one month’s rent. But if property managers show the units instead of the agents, the building might only pay a fee equal to two weeks’ rent.

Some property managers are grateful for the agency’s screening process. “They weed out people looking for different-sized units, the people with pets or people that are looking for a brand new building,” says Joe Schaefer, community director for the Connecticut Park Apartments (2828 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-234-7555), who lists his vacancies with both Urban Igloo and The D.C. Apartment Co. “They’re not sending anyone that’s walking in being shocked by what I have to offer.”

Urban Igloo has been in D.C. for five years and The D.C. Apartment Co. for three years, but many renters aren’t familiar with such services. When Nina Palmer answered an ad on Craigslist in October for a studio apartment on 14th Street NW, she didn’t realize that she was calling a rental agency. Urban Igloo had posted the ad on behalf of the property manager. “At first I thought it was a little sketchy,” says Palmer, 27, “because having lived in Asia for a little while, usually when you have a go-between, they’re in it for something.”

Once the agency explained the details of what they did, Palmer gave it a try. After leaving messages for other apartments and getting no response, “when [the Urban Igloo agent] got back to me pretty quick, I was overjoyed,” she says. That same day Palmer met with the property manager and got the paperwork started.

The experience left her with a good impression. “When I look again, I’ll use [an agency],” Palmer says, “because I just don’t have the time to fool around with Craigslist.”

A Specific Search

One downside to working with rental agencies such as Urban Igloo and The D.C. Apartment Co. is that they only show properties run by a landlord who has agreed to pay their fee. That means you won’t learn about every available apartment out there. If you prefer to be sure you haven’t missed any rental opportunities, you might try a company such as Apartment Detectives (202-362-7368), where you pay a fee (starting at $350) for a rental agent to look through all properties in a given area.

Outsider Insight

When Jamie Grigg’s lease was up and she was searching for a new apartment earlier this year, she went on a mission online to figure out whether her place was the best deal she could get. “Everyone else gets on Twitter or Facebook in their free time,” Grigg says. “I happen to get on Craigslist.” That obsession led her to create the blog Exposed Brick D.C., where she shares her views on different apartments up for rent in the region. Since September, the site has gotten well more than 100,000 hits.

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