Tips for saving money on rent

Tribune Content Agency

Leigh Wilson once owned a home. She agrees that, for many people, home ownership is the American dream.

But, she adds, it was not for her.

“I need to be able to move on,” Wilson says. “So, I’m a serial renter.”

The 41-year-old and her Airedale terrier, Bailey, packed up and left Chicago in late summer for a 10,000-mile road trip through the Southwest — and ultimately a new address. While Bailey sniffs out dog-friendly activities and hotels for his mom’s blog, campfiresandconcierges.com, Wilson ponders where to live when the trip concludes.

Data from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and other places suggest that Wilson and fellow would-be renters won’t have an easy search. The nationwide rental vacancy rate is low, and while availability varies by market, finding rentals in Wilson’s new favorite zip code could be challenging.

More U.S. households are headed by renters than at any point since at least 1965, according to a Pew Research Center analysis this year of Census Bureau housing data.

The number of households renting their home has increased significantly from 31.2 percent of households in 2006 to 36.6 percent in 2016, Pew reports.

And many are paying a lot. Rents across the country average $1,231 per month, but rents in more affordable places are about half that.

According to Money magazine, San Francisco has the highest rent. The median cost of a one-bedroom rental there is $3,590. New York comes in second at $3,340 and Boston is next at $2,310.

If you want an affordable place to live, try the Midwest.

Of the 10 cheapest places to rent an apartment across the country, nine are located in the nation’s midlands, according to data compiled by ApartmentList.com.

In many of these cities, if you shell out $1,200 a month in rent, you can get a luxury condominium downtown or a three-bedroom home with a back yard and a garage, CBS Money Watch reports.

But if the Midwest isn’t an option, how can tenants avoid paying rents that will have them eating packaged ramen all year? Here’s some advice from renters and landlords:

Start your search online. The online apartment listing industry is very competitive and this benefits renters.

You can use various filters to come up with apartments in your price range and desired location. Zillow, Trulia, Zumper and Apartments.com are just a few that can get you going.

Move during the off-season, which is October through March, suggests Ryan Coon, co-founder of rentalutions.com (for DIY landlords) and a Chicago landlord.

“Rents are lower then and landlords are more willing to negotiate to avoid vacancies,” he says. “Yes, rent is negotiable, especially with a smaller company, when the guy you’re talking to is the decision maker.”

If vacancies are few in your area and you’re applying to multiple landlords, you can spend a bundle on application fees, which average $40 to $70 each, says Coon. Tenants can buy an online profile at rentalutions.com for multiple use. It includes credit history and background check information for landlords. The one-time fee is $45.

Rents are based partly on square footage, so save money by getting a smaller place. Perhaps you could save by moving into a studio apartment or you could ditch some monthly expenses like a gym membership. You could even choose a high-rise building that has a gym on the premises.

Renters also must brace for the annual swat known as the rent increase. The prospect of a rent spike is a concern to Wilson because she plans to stay in her rental for at least a few years.

Before you sign the lease, try to find out if your new landlord has off-the-chart rent hikes. If you know someone who rents in the same building, you can ask him or her. You also can simply ask the property owner how much the rent is likely to increase each year.

Better yet, if you are a quiet, responsible tenant and the owner appreciates that and wants to keep you around, will he or she be willing to not raise the rent each year? It pays to ask.

If a rent increase is likely, remember that you are locked into your rent as long as you’re under a lease. If you sign a longer lease, you will stay at your current rate longer.

If the building is new and the management company is looking to attract tenants, a free month’s rent might be thrown in to sweeten the pot, which could soften any increase when the lease is renewed.

To keep the rent low, you also could negotiate a trade. In lieu of a rent increase, agree to take on one of the chores that the landlord farms out, such as shoveling snow or cleaning empty units.

This is a business deal, so be professional. Research the value of the service you would provide and be ready to argue you’re offering something vital.

Fostering a relationship with your landlord can help ensure you’ll have no surprises, say Matthew Massee and his wife, Yinyi Zhan, who rent an apartment in Salt Lake City.

“We don’t want to move because the landlord is awesome and fixes things promptly,” Massee says. “And he doesn’t want turnover. So before there’s an increase, we’re going to talk about it.”

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