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Negotiate your lease like a pro

Standard-issue beige walls just don’t work for Kerra Michele Huerta. So whenever she moves into an apartment, she always tries to strike a deal about painting with her landlord.

“Most of the time the landlord has to paint the space anyway between tenants,” says Huerta, 31, a D.C. interior and event designer and blogger. So she always asks if she can paint the rental herself or choose the color that her landlord is having it painted.

“Don’t be afraid to ask,” she says. “I’ve never lived anywhere where I didn’t negotiate the terms of my lease.”

Negotiating may be easier than you think. Landlords want to find good, stable tenants, so if you seem like a good candidate, they may be willing to work with you on some points. Here are five tips on how to negotiate additions or changes to your lease.

Know whom to ask

You’ll have better chances of success when negotiating with an individual, private landlord than with a large apartment complex.

“Private owners have more flexibility if they want to get their unit rented,” says Mikki McIntyre, chief operating officer of the D.C. Apartment Co. (202-600-9500), which connects apartment searchers with available rentals. “Large buildings run by property management companies have specific guidelines for leases, and they don’t tend to deviate from those.”

Know when to ask

New tenants should bring up any must-haves or deal breakers with prospective landlords early on in their rental search, so both parties have time to discuss the issues.

“It can look sneaky if the first time you’re bringing something up that’s incredibly important to you is when you’re signing the lease,” says Grace Langham, vice president of Nest DC (3634 Georgia Ave. NW No. 3; 202-540-8038,, a property management firm that works with tenants and individual landlords.

But you don’t have to be a new tenant to request changes or additions to your lease.

“A good time to negotiate is when you already have a good relationship and the landlord wants to keep you as a tenant,” says Marc Borbely, founder of the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center (406 Fifth St. NW, Suite 300; 202-681-6871), a private law firm representing only tenants. “You’ve built up goodwill that could be valuable.”

Know what to ask

Lease start dates, rent prices, and things like pet or subletting approval tend to be areas where landlords are willing to negotiate if the prospective tenant seems to be an otherwise great fit.

“I would say that nothing is impossible, but some things are always going to be easier to negotiate than others,” Borbely says.

If you’re renting a condo, the condo association may have rules that are non-negotiable. So it’s always good to learn if your requests would even be possible.

Be ready for give and take
If you’ve found the perfect apartment but it won’t allow your pet Chihuahua, offer to do something on your end to help the landlord change his or her mind.

“If you want a pet, you might have to give something in exchange, like a deposit,” says Dorene Haney, a D.C.-based attorney (202-759-4845) who focuses on landlord-tenant and other housing issues. “It’s never a bad idea to ask, ‘What would it take for me to do this?’ ”

When Huerta wanted a new oven and microwave for her current Dupont Circle apartment, she worked out an arrangement to split the cost with her landlord.

“I first asked him to just replace them, and he said no,” she says. “So I kept making offers. Most people are willing to meet you at least halfway.”

Get everything in writing

Regardless of how big or small the deal is, you need proof that you and your landlord have come to an agreement. So make sure that changes and additions are made — and that everything is initialed and properly included within the lease document.

“That way, if there’s a problem later on, you don’t have to just say, ‘Well, someone told me it was OK,’ ” Haney says. “The written lease is what’s going to control things.”