By Nina Malkin
Mar 22, 2022
If you’re shopping for a rental right about now, you might be surprised by how much has changed. Rental prices—which plummeted during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in cities—have shot up nearly 20% over the past year nationwide. Meanwhile, with all housing in short supply recently, the rental vacancy rate hovers around 5.8%, the lowest it’s been since the mid-1980s.
All of this means that the 116 million renters in the United States face stiffer competition than ever, and they have less leverage with landlords than just a year or two earlier. What’s more, pandemic-related eviction moratoriums are ending and many landlords might be eager to make up for losses.
“It’s definitely a landlord’s market, and landlords are more cautious about who they rent to,” says Rodney Fentress, owner of the property management firm Keyrenter Hampton Roads in Chesapeake, VA.
Translation: It’s tougher than ever to find a nice, well-priced rental right now, and renters who aren’t aware of what’s changed may be left in the dust. So we’ve outlined the new rules and realities renters should be aware of, plus some advice on meeting these new challenges.
Old rule: ‘First month free’ rent deals abound
New rule: Freebies have all but disappeared
Remember the “15 months for the price of 12” deals on new leases, or the “Wi-Fi included” offers? During the depths of the pandemic, such perks were par for the course to lure prospective tenants. But they’re no more.
“In today’s competitive market, landlords no longer need to offer incentives, such as including gas and electric or a ‘first month free’ policy,” Fentress says.
In fact, renters today might have to pay extra in the form of surcharges for amenities such as “tenant advantage packages,” which might include gym access, concierge services, or monthly HVAC filter delivery. The good news is these extra fees are often optional.
Old rule: You don’t need a real estate agent to find a rental
New rule: In a hot market, a real estate agent can give you the edge
By the time potential renters see a listing online in this market, it’s often too late—the place is taken.
An agent will be scanning listings and jumping to get your foot in the door. Plus, Susan Strawgate Code, an associate broker at Houlihan Lawrence in Briarcliff Manor, NY, says a pro will know how to complete the application and present clients in a way that makes them more attractive to landlords.
While many agents charge a fee to secure a rental, you might find it to be money well-spent.
Old rule: Tour properties with the landlord or leasing agent
New rule: Schedule a self-guided tour
During the pandemic’s onset, landlords and their agents began shying away from doing in-person showings for safety reasons. This led to the development of technology that allows prospective tenants to self-tour, typically gaining access to rentals via an electronic lockbox.
“Online screening processes and automated showing systems are the way we do business now,” Fentress says.
Take advantage of this convenience; but if self-guided touring is more than you can accommodate, ask about live and recorded video tours, which let you walk through a property without, well, having to actually walk through it. This might be enough to help you decide whether to apply for the space or whittle down what you want to see in person.
Old rule: The lease includes the whole household, even pets
New rule: Expect to pay extra for fur babies
While pet ownership surged during the pandemic, pet-friendly properties have become more scarce. Landlords who do allow animals may be charging for it.
“Be prepared to pay between $25 to $75 more per month per pet, possibly along with an increased security deposit,” says real estate agent Dj Olhausen, of Realty ONE Group Pacific in San Diego.
The landlord wants that additional money to cover the damage and disturbance a pet could cause.
Also, some newer apartment buildings and complexes offer pet amenities, from on-premises dog runs to walking and grooming services. Yet don’t be surprised if certain properties put size restrictions on potential pet residents. Some might allow only smaller canines, for instance, of 40 pounds or less.
Old rule: Sign a one-year lease
New rule: Negotiate a lower rent with a longer lease
In the past, the standard was a 12-month lease. Then, the tenants would be offered the option to renew and negotiate over how much of a rent increase they’d face (if not mandated by law).
Today, you might see a swing toward longer, more affordable leases as the initial offering.
“A longer lease term in exchange for a lower rent may be attractive to a landlord, as it will minimize future expenses by having no vacancy guaranteed for a longer period,” explains real estate broker and landlord Bill Samuel, of Chicago’s Blue Ladder Development.
Old rule: Pay a penalty if rent is 10 days late
New rule: Fees sneak up sooner and more often
As part of the general tightening up of the market, there’s been a crackdown and intensification of fees and charges.
“Fees for late payments may be increased and kick in earlier—after five days instead of 10,” warns Code.
“In our area, the credit check fee [when you complete a lease application] used to be limited to $25, but it just went up,” adds Code. “And if there is a fee to the management company to process the application, that may be borne by the tenant as well.”
Old rule: If you need repairs, prepare to wait
New rule: Repairs should be done in a timely manner
In the past, you might have to suffer from a leaky faucet or drafty window for a while, particularly if you paid your rent late. But now, protections are rising in certain areas, which means such problems are fixed promptly.
“Various reforms pertaining to renters and landlords went into effect in 2022, including a new California law that prevents placing preconditions on what are known as habitability complaints,” points out Cristina Ortega, founder of Mrs. Property Solutions in Los Angeles. “This protects renters from a landlord demanding that rent be paid in full before complaints will be addressed.”
Even if you don’t live in California, this new mandate may spread through new laws or merely new mindsets. Today more than ever, landlords want to keep tenants rather than deal with turnover.
Bottom line: Renters shouldn’t be afraid to demand repairs be addressed in a timely fashion.
Old rule: Unless you totally trashed the place, you’ll get your security deposit back
New rule: Document everything to get your money back
When you move out of a rental property, it’s likely that the place has endured some wear and tear. But these days, landlords may be less lenient about the dings, scrapes, and stains you leave behind.
“Landlords are looking to increase their margins on the move-out, so renters should be sure to do a complete video walk-through prior to moving in,” Olhausen says. “Document every room, including carpet, paint, hardwood flooring, and bathroom areas. Have a record of any cosmetic flaws or damages, and report them right away.”
Also, keep receipts for rent paid. Having this proof will put you in a better position to get back every penny of your security deposit if your landlord is reluctant to pay out.