Its vacancy rate, meanwhile, is a low 1.6 percent. Even its high-end Palisades of Towson, an apartment tower that opened last August with rents ranging from $1,200 a month for studios to $2,390 for the priciest two-bedroom units, is leasing at a brisk 25 apartments a month, Cohan said. The complex comes with an automated garage that parks residents' cars with the swipe of a card, as well as a heated rooftop swimming pool.

"For the highest price point in the market … we're very encouraged by that rate of absorption," Cohan said.

Continental Realty Corp., a Baltimore company that owns and manages apartment communities with an average rent of about $900 a month, said it also is seeing signs of improvement. Demand is on the rise, so the company can be more selective about tenants, requiring higher credit scores and overall financial wherewithal.

"We've increased our standards," said Cynthia DeFrancesco, Continental's executive vice president. "We've also increased the thresholds for our security deposits."

The swath of the rental market that's harder to measure is the thousands of Baltimore-area houses, rowhomes, townhomes and condominiums that either have tenants or are on the market to get some. Improved trends for apartments aren't necessarily helping these smaller landlords because the rough housing market cuts both ways here. Many owners who can't sell have opted to rent, increasing supply.

Vikki Taylor, a property manager in Long & Foster's Columbia office, said rents are on the rise compared with late 2009. But Lois Foster, a Baltimore real estate agent who helps people find homes to rent and manages properties for owners-turned-landlords, said she's seeing rents of $200 to $500 less a month than owners could have gotten two or three years ago. There's just a lot of competition, she said.

Business, though, is booming.

"I've always had a steady flow, but this year has been better than all the rest," said Foster, who has run Property Management Service Associates for 12 years.

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

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