Monday, May 17, 2004

NEW YORK - It’s a renters’ market in many areas this year. Low interest rates have lured many families to buy homes, leaving a lot of vacant rental units throughout the country and making it difficult for landlords to raise rents.

Still, consumers need to shop carefully to find a place they can afford — with a reasonable security deposit, no surprise fees and a lease that protects their interests.

It’s not always easy.

Jason Getz, a fund-raiser for the World Wildlife Fund, has been searching for an affordable place in suburban Washington.

“I was looking at big buildings, some with luxury apartments and good amenities,” Mr. Getz said. “But there were fees everywhere.”

Some buildings demanded $50 application fees to process papers and run credit checks, he said. One wanted a nonrefundable $150 “holding fee” to save a unit for him.

“Then there were move-in fees, nonrefundable of course … a parking fee of $25 per month per car … and a $75 fee for a basement storage locker,” Mr. Getz said.

He has since changed strategies, following up on newspaper ads and searching for leads on Web sites, including the community bulletin board, which has apartment listings for a number of U.S. cities.

William Friedman, chief executive of Tarragon Realty, which owns and manages rental properties from Connecticut to Texas, said that because a lot of units are available nationwide, “rents are not cast in stone.”

That means, he said, tenants can try to negotiate a lower rent or seek other concessions, especially if they’re willing to sign a lease of at least 18 months to two years.

“We might be willing to put a new refrigerator and stove in the unit, or retile the kitchen or throw in Internet service,” Mr. Friedman said.

Although landlords have started giving price concessions, he said many hesitate to give big price breaks — say $500 off the first month’s rent — because “that’s worth more to the people who stay the shortest amount of time,” and those aren’t necessarily the best people from a landlord’s point of view.

Mari McQueen, associate editor of Consumer Reports, said apartment hunters should try to check out prospective landlords by talking to their tenants or to residents in neighboring buildings. They also should aim at holding their rent to about 25 percent of their take-home pay, she said.

“You don’t want to stretch too much, especially if you’re trying to save to buy your own home someday,” she said.

She urged tenants to get leases — rather than taking the apartment on a month-by-month basis — for their own protection.

“It could keep you from a situation I heard about lately, where a landlord was hit with higher water bills and was coming to the tenant practically every other month trying to raise the rent,” Miss McQueen said.

She suggested consumers read the lease carefully, especially provisions about the size of the security deposit and the conditions for refunding or withholding it. The norm on security deposits varies by market, with some landlords requiring the equivalent of one month’s rent, some two month’s rent and others even more.

Gina Gesmond, a public relations specialist in Chicago, said she found a lot of apartments available after she decided earlier this year she was tired of living with roommates and wanted a place of her own. She checked with companies and followed up on ads in a Chicago weekly.

“I live in Wicker Park, and I wanted to stay in the neighborhood,” she said. “So, in between appointments for work, I drove around at look for ‘for rent’ signs.”

One of them turned out to be attached to a one-bedroom apartment in a three-story building with high ceilings, hardwood floors and a fireplace.

“It was so much better than anything I had seen that I was even willing to go over my budget for it,” Miss Gesmond said.

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