For most people, it would be unthinkable to buy a car without negotiating at the dealership. Why, then, do so few people bother to negotiate their rent? Perhaps it’s because we think of our apartment rent in the same way we think of dinner out at a restaurant — the price is simply non-negotiable. Except sometimes, rent is negotiable … the trick is negotiating in the right way. But what’s the best way to go about it?
The answer depends on your specific situation: the city, the building, and even the time of year. First, we’ll look at some of the factors that determine how much work you’ll need to do to negotiate a better deal. Then we’ll explore some of the strategies other tenants used to successfully lower their rental payments and security deposits.
The Big Picture: Your City’s Housing Market — Before you decide how much of a rental break to ask for, consider the housing market in your city. In places like San Francisco and New York, the vacancy rate is extremely low. Landlords know that plenty of tenants are searching for apartments, so they have less of an incentive to negotiate with you about your rent. This doesn’t mean that a discussion about a rent decrease will be fruitless, but you’ll have to give the landlord an incentive to haggle with you. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has much higher vacancy rates. A landlord in a city like this has to consider the possibility that an apartment might go unrented. Offering a discount to a tenant is preferable to having no tenant at all. The higher the vacancy rate in your city, the more bargaining power you’ll have with potential landlords.
Timing is Everything — Most landlords work on a predictable schedule, starting leases on the first day of the month. If your target move-in date is September 1, a landlord will be much more likely to negotiate on August 25 than August 3. Of course, many of the best apartments have been snatched up by the end of the month, but you never know what can happen. Potential renters back out at the last minute and current tenants decide to leave suddenly. It’s probably not worth waiting until the last minute in the hopes of snagging a good deal, but if you happen to be viewing apartments right before the new lease is set to begin, you’ll have significantly more leverage.
In cities that attract large numbers of college grads, time of year is important too. From June to September, recent grads look for long-term leases and current students on summer break come to town for internships. Having recently accepted job offers, many of them don’t have the time to comparison shop. This is the worst time of year to negotiate your rent. Everywhere you turn, you’ll find a recent college grad that doesn’t know or care that he or she is being overcharged.
Size Matters — Large apartment complexes are usually managed by multiple entities: the rental agent, the super, a management team and the actual owner, which might be yet another management company. It’s hard to know who (if anyone) can actually offer a rent decrease. Even extremely effective negotiators make little headway if they never get to meet with the person who has the authority to change the rent payment. With smaller buildings, it’s a different story. The landlord probably sets the rental rates and shows prospective tenants around the building. You’re far more likely to have success in a smaller building.
Strategies that Work
We spoke with landlords and tenants in buildings large and small and asked them to share stories of successful rent negotiations. Here are a few of the things that worked.
Do Your Research — If you live in a city swarming with newly minted college grads and young professionals willing to fork over half their monthly paycheck on the rent, you’ll have to work a bit harder to get that coveted rent decrease. The more information you have about the apartment complex and rental rates in similar buildings, the better. Before you meet with the landlord, try to determine how much current tenants are paying for similar apartments. If you know about a comparable building in the same neighborhood, do some comparison shopping to find instances of similar apartments being rented for less. Use these rental rates as the starting point for negotiations with potential landlords.
It’s Okay to Show Off — Make an effort to show the landlord that you’re a model tenant. If possible, contact old landlords and ask them to serve as references. You can even order a copy of your credit report and bring it to meetings with landlords. Nearly every landlord has a horror story about a tenant who behaved erratically, paid the rent late, or damaged the apartment. The more evidence you can show that you’re not that problem tenant, the better. Most landlords recognize that charging higher rent isn’t worth it if the tenant is unreliable or otherwise nuts.
Be Polite and Friendly — Trying to negotiate won’t do much good if your landlord thinks you’re acting pushy and entitled. Most landlords are looking for agreeable, affable people who won’t cause trouble. No matter how hard you bargain, it pays to stay pleasant. Annie, a 25-year-old teacher, took a tour of a small Los Angeles-area apartment with a landlord who said he was looking for “nice” tenants. She agreed to have tea with him and his wife after the tour. “I indulged him by listening to him talk about his theory of kindness and being a good human being,” she remembers. “After I said ‘uh huh’ about 50 times, he said that he thought that I seemed like a nice person.” When she raised the idea of reducing the rent by $40 a month, he told her, “I’ll cut you a deal.”
More than Money — Even the nicest landlords won’t budge unless you give them an incentive. Think about what you can offer your landlord (besides more money) that might make them willing to bargain with you. Many of the successful negotiators we spoke with saw an opportunity and took it. Here are some of the things they offered:
- Genna, a 24-year old lab tech, negotiated a $50 monthly decrease in exchange for painting the peeling walls of her New York apartment herself.
- Adam, a 31-year-old paralegal from Boston, lowered his monthly payment by $50 in exchange for shoveling snow from the steps and walkway. “The landlord was really old,” he remembers. “I figured it was worth a shot.”
- Dave runs a computer consulting company out of his Brooklyn apartment. When the landlord of his 3-family townhouse mentioned that he wanted wireless Internet access, Dave offered the password to his own network, in exchange for a $60 monthly discount. “The funny thing is that he could have saved more money by doing it himself. I think he just liked the fact that I offered.”
- While in college, Dan and his roommates knocked $400 off a $1,000 security deposit by re-tiling the sagging ceilings of their Providence, RI apartment themselves.
- Allison, Rosie and Julie decided to be proactive when their prospective landlord mentioned that their apartment could use some work. “We asked him to reduce the rent and we told him that in return, us three lovely girls would decorate the apartment better that he could imagine.” He reduced their monthly rent by nearly $100. “We also convinced him that adding a dishwasher to the apartment would make the place more attractive to future prospective renters, so he bought and installed one for us!”
Each of these renters offered a service that the landlord clearly needed and used this as the starting point for a rent negotiation. It’s also important to note that in each of these cases, the building had 40 units or less and the renters dealt directly with the landlord, who had the final say on rental rates in his or her building.
The big apartment complexes we contacted all gave us the same story, saying that rents were determined by market rates and that rates were non-negotiable. The big guys may be more difficult to bargain with, but they’re not necessarily impossible. In some cases, it’s a matter of seeing an opportunity and taking it. One tenant told us about a successful rent negotiation for a three-bedroom apartment in a large, luxury complex on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I had seen other apartments in the complex before visiting the building with the rental agent,” said Alex, a 30-year-old medical resident. “The apartment they showed us was a mess — the floor needed to be re-tiled, the kitchen needed new appliances and the walls needed a coat of paint. I told the agent that this apartment just wasn’t up to their standards.” Alex and his roommates used the apartment’s poor condition to their advantage. “I told the agent that they could put off making their repairs for another year if they knocked $200 a month off of our rent. I didn’t actually expect them to go for it.” To his surprise, the complex representative called that night to accept his offer.
Negotiate the Terms of Your Lease for a Better Deal — Landlords want tenants who are reliable sources of income. They may be more willing to negotiate with you if you can help ensure that your income moves into their pockets as reliably as possible. Some ideas to propose include:
- Paying the first few months’ rent at once in exchange for discounted rent.
- Setting up automatic withdrawal from your bank account so that the rent payment always comes on time.
- Signing a longer lease with a penalty for early departure. You may be able to negotiate a decrease based on the longer lease alone, or avoid a rent increase during your second year of tenancy.
Your New Lease is Negotiable Too — We spoke to plenty of people who didn’t try to negotiate a lower initial rent, but were able to talk their landlord out of raising the rent on a new lease. Negotiating your way out of an increase is much easier if you’ve paid your rent on time and kept the apartment in good condition. If you think the proposed increase is too much, tell your landlord you’re not sure you can afford the hike and you may have to look elsewhere. Then keep to your word. Shop around and let your landlord know about better deals you found in the area. It may not be worth it to your landlord to lose a reliable tenant for a relatively small jump in rent.
The tenants we spoke with seem to have had the best luck by simply being honest. Boris, a 51-year-old government worker sat down and wrote a letter to his long-time Washington, DC landlord after a proposed rent hike was announced. “I told him that I understood his position. Things were getting more expensive and that the rent needed to go up. I just said I thought it was going up by too much.” The landlord made an exception for Boris, cutting his rent hike by 75 percent.
It’s Worth a Shot
All successful negotiators had one thing in common: they made the effort to negotiate in the first place. Really, there’s not much to lose. Stay polite and professional and the worst thing you’ll hear is “no.”
Have you had success negotiating rent decreases? Have you tried any of the suggestions above and been turned down? Share your strategies and ideas in the comments section.