Renting 101: Negotiating with Your Landlord

Negotiating is perhaps one of the scariest aspects of dealing with landlords. This is because, for whatever reason, American culture is almost completely devoid of bargaining. In fact, it’s almost taboo: if you walk into a store in the U.S., you expect to pay the list price. No American negotiates the price of a duvet cover at Target, or the price of a box of cereal at Food4Less. It’s just not done. Which means that, collectively, we have almost no practice haggling.

This lack of experience puts you at a disadvantage when negotiating rent. And so, while we here at My First Apartment have covered negotiating before, I’ve been asked to give a refresher course, as well as point out some salient aspects of the current market. So, let us begin!

First, I suppose I have to burst a bubble: if the market is tight, you’re not going to have much leverage when you’re looking for new places. In Chicago, where I currently live, the rental market is extremely tight – rentals are snapped up within days of being listed. And, if a landlord has a five people willing to rent at the list price, why would he or she lower the price for you? It simply doesn’t make sense – in fact, the reverse can happen. Alissa and I looked at a place last year. We liked it and thought about filling out an application. But then the landlord initiated a bidding war between two other interested parties. He ended up extracting an extra $200 per month in rent from the winning bidder!  Good heavens – landlords will take what they can.

That said, don’t think there isn’t hope. When the market is slack, landlords are losing tons of money if they have units vacant for months at a time. Do some research and figure out what the market is like in your area – usually you can do this by viewing a few places, asking how long things have been on the market, and looking at the rate of turnover on your local listing boards. For example, if landlords are happy to show places, and you never have any showings cancelled because the place has been taken already, you may have a chance to bargain, particularly if the building you’re looking at has several open units.

They key to negotiating is to start cautiously, but confidently. Don’t be so brash or obnoxious about wanting to pay less that the landlord immediately gets defensive. But, also, don’t be so timid that the landlord doesn’t take you seriously. It’s a fine line to walk, I know. A good way to get the right amount of confidence is through research – What are other properties in the area renting at? How many units are currently available in the building? What amenities does the place you’re looking at have/not have that might reasonably raise/reduce the rental price? Once you know these things, it will be easier to talk with a landlord about what price you think is fair – and the landlord will be more likely to seriously consider your offer.

That said, once you have a place, the negotiating tables are turned – when your lease is up for renewal, you have a lot of leverage, provided you’ve been a model tenant. Switching out tenants every year is a pain for landlords, and often costs them significant time and money, since either the landlord him- or herself has to show the place to multiple potential tenants, run credit checks, select a tenant, and make the place move-in-ready after you’ve left, or the landlord has to pay a broker or agent to do those things. It’s a hassle a landlord would rather avoid. So, if your lease renewal includes a raise in rent, try to bargain it down, particularly if you actually want to stay. Odds are you’ll get a reduction of at least twenty or thirty dollars a month, if not more, simply because the landlord would rather stick with what’s easiest.

Finally, if you have a persistent problem with your apartment, such as a mouse, or a leaky toilet, that the landlord has promised to fix but never actually gets around to, you can call him or her up and negotiate, as Alissa recommended in one of our previous columns. Tell your landlord that you’ll have the problem fixed yourself, but that you’d like the cost of the repairs to be deducted from your rent. It will often work, particularly if you mention (politely) that your landlord has failed to live up to his or her responsibilities.

So, just like any other human interaction, there is room for bargaining with landlords. It might be nerve-wracking, but if you’ve done your homework and stay confident and calm, it may very well be worth it.

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Author My First Apartment

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Alex has rented in Minneapolis, Queens, Brooklyn, and now Chicago. He can kill rodents and roaches when required, and loves picture-hanging projects. If you're ever in town, give him a shout.

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