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The fine art of negotiating a lease

That apartment lease price can come way down if you're bold enough to bargain with the landlord.

It happens all the time. A person walks into an apartment rental office intent on signing a lease. The landlord barks out a price and the tenant signs the lease, no questions asked. Meanwhile, the landlord is laughing all the way to the bank.

But it doesn't have to be that way. By asking a few questions, a tenant can save hundreds of dollars in rent and even get some extra amenities thrown in.

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You drive a hard bargain
Roll your sleeves up and bargain," advises Ed Sacks, a Chicago-area mediator and author of the "Chicago Tenant's Handbook" and "The Savvy Renter's Kit." "You ask the landlord, 'How much?' The landlord says, '$1,000.' You offer $850. The landlord counters, 'Well, that's ridiculous. I can't go below $900.' It's old-fashioned hardball."

In order to gain negotiating power, a prospective tenant should do some research.

"You should look at the area and ask about the number of vacant apartments available," recommends Beverly Roman, publisher of BR Anchor Publishing in Wilmington, N.C., and author of the "Insiders' Guide to Relocation." High or low vacancy, "It still doesn't hurt to ask [for a price concession]."

Sacks points out that a landlord's willingness to come down in price is often tied to supply and demand. If there are a lot of vacancies, it's a buyer's market, and a perfect time to negotiate the bottom line. If the number of apartments available is tight, then the landlord holds the upper hand -- and will often be as hard-line at the negotiating table as the Teamsters Union.

"In the Northeast, it's a seller's market, no question," argues Fran Katzanek of Bristol, R.I., author of "Reality 101," a post-graduation guide to life for twentysomethings. "It's rough. There's always somebody right behind you. The Pacific Northwest, San Francisco and Los Angeles are highly competitive as well."

Students at the University of Pittsburgh can relate, says Robert Hopkins, of the university's Housing Resource Center. Finding themselves rookies in the game and in a tight housing market, the landlord's price is "take it or leave it."

"We don't have much luck in getting the students to negotiate," Hopkins remarks. "There is a perceived notion of a lack of power for the student. ... I have never heard of anybody at the student level getting a change of rent or negotiating conditions. ... Landlords know they can turn a student away. There isn't much of an occupancy problem."

Hopkins admits that a better situation is in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where the "For Rent" signs hang for longer periods of time. This situation allows renters to negotiate on more level ground for such things as signing a 13-month lease for the price of 12 months or a free cable television included with the rent.

Renting rules

Look for an apartment that offers 24-hour maintenance. You never know when something vital will break down.

Poker face
"If you don't ask a question, you'll never get another answer," adds Hopkins. "At worst, you still have the terms and conditions that they originally offered."

To help win the bargaining battle, author Sacks recommends that renters bring in competing advertisements for comparable new and old apartments in the area. You will have some negotiating leverage to compete with the landlord's offering price. If the landlord offers a 1000-square-foot apartment for $900 a month, and the renter has a competing ad in hand that prices a similar-size unit in the area at $850, it's game ... set ... match for the tenant.

Another place where the tenant has some bargaining power is in a new apartment complex, where management is anxious to fill up vacancies as soon as possible. In this situation, Roman suggests asking for a construction discount, if the hammer and nails are still banging, or a moving-in special if the building is complete but still empty of residents.

Ask for the moon
"The main mistake tenants make is not asking for enough," says Tom Blakeman, owner and broker for Blakeman Properties, a tenant's agent firm for renting homes and condominiums in Houston.

"You can ask for anything you want," insists Sacks.

There are other ways to gain in negotiating, besides haggling on price, that can save you money on the bottom line and add some nice perks to your environment. If you are thinking of staying for several years, negotiate a longer lease term for two or three years. You might not get a lower rent price, but you can save money by locking in at your current rate, without the worry of a rent increase after a year in the apartment, Sacks advises.

Also, look to bargain on amenities. For example, an apartment complex might throw in a health club membership, new carpeting, fresh paint and wallpaper, if you open your mouth and pop the question.

Some renters will use peeling wallpaper and paint as negotiating ploys. Renters can mention the problem to the landlord during negotiations, and state that they can live with it for, say, $100 a month off the rent. A landlord, looking to avoid expensive repairs, may be receptive.

Working for a living
Another way to save on rent is to offer to perform routine maintenance work around the apartment complex in exchange for a price cut. A renter can perform duties like mowing the lawn and vacuuming the hallways as a barter deal for cheaper rent, according to Sacks.

Finally, for those that are current tenants with leases coming due, don't be gun-shy on balking at the owner's asking price. Good tenants who pay their bills on time and are not a nuisance to neighbors are valuable to landlords.

"With a replacement, a landlord has no idea how it will work out," states Sacks. "Dependability and trust are leverage. ... The landlord avoids the cost of having the place empty and having to fix it up. ... It will probably be the landlord's loss if you move out."

If all else fails, just remind the landlord how popular it is to buy a house these days. And then make a counteroffer. The worst they can say is "forgetaboutit." Of course, in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest and California, you probably already know the answer before the question is asked.

-- Updated: May 12, 2004




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