Abundance of options gives renters a wide choice of amenities

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As a first choice for young people on budgets, the apartment market isunrivaled . . . inBaltimore and elsewhere. But a continuous evolution in apartment options -- physical and financial -- now presents a broader-than-ever range of alternatives for apartment hunters to consider.

Innovative floor plans, and the almost feverish development of recreation features where open land will allow, appear to be some of the features ahead in 1990s apartment styling. This year's Baltimore area market seems to continue the trend of diversification.

Architectural styles, increasingly, dictate changes. Some designs now veer in the direction of duplexes. Double floors, two-story vistas and lofts with overlooks add glamour (once confined only to the most expensive high-rises or condos) that is hard to match by any single-floor flat of the same floor area.

The single-level units now being marketed are, however, far from lacking in innovations, especially the recent warehouse-loft conversions with their 11- or 12-foot ceilings, solid masonry walls and interesting window patterns. Often, the lofts and the harbor-area conversions of other commercial buildings by nature produce varied floor plans and intriguing interior architectural surprises not duplicated by conventional single-level apartments.

The "extra" options offered to renters have become similarly diversified. Some newly launched communities offer a choice of wall color schemes for new movers. A waiver of security deposit or fees for bringing pets along may be typical in some units. Another option for new apartment renters, about as old as the business of renting, is a month's rent free.

In at least one spot in the metro area, maid service, a once-common amenity for apartment-hotel operations, has reappeared in a new midrise apartment center.

Equipment and appliances have become more sophisticated. In the past decade, once rare luxury items like in-home laundromats and fireplaces for each unit have been included in much quality construction. Other options include built-in microwave ovens, cable TV, miniblinds, ceiling fans and intercom systems in units. Bilevel living room/dining room areas that add definition and drama to interiors are features of some designs.

"From where we sit, the apartment market is good," says Jan Weinberg, vice president of marketing for Signature Management of Baltimore, whose Tindeco Wharf and Carriage Hill Village are well-known rental havens.

Ms. Weinberg says that rental rates have stabilized while vacancy rates have remained firm, as a result of the recessionary facts of life: "People can't afford to move or to buy." It's also true, she says, that traffic to new units has slowed considerably throughout the metro area.

John Martonick, immediate past president of Baltimore's Apartment Owners and Builders Council, a unit of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, sees the apartment supply in the metro area tightening up as the recession crunch continues. Occupancy rates are expected to rise, he reports.

"We expect, as has happened in the past when our brothers in the single-family building industry are suffering, we in the multifamily industry seem to do very well. If the economic situation deteriorates as rapidly as it appears to be doing, I would expect our vacancy rates to be declining into some very low numbers," Mr. Martonick says. He adds that sooner or later, however, his industry will face a real problem "even though the demand is going to be there." That's because "it is virtually impossible for any builder or developer to get monies to build additional units at this time. We may face a real housing shortage at all levels of income soon," Mr. Martonick concludes.

Traditionally, the town house market and its prices have disciplined what apartment managers can charge for space that is roughly equivalent. When mortgage payments for $100,000 town houses were the equal of rents for town-house or large apartments, many Baltimoreans preferred to buy because of the tax advantages. Now that home prices and mortgage rates have escalated, prices for deluxe rents have been allowed to advance, say some market observers.

This trend has helped to push the average deluxe two-bedroorental to about $650 to $750 a month. For instance, at the new Estate town house community in Pikesville (developed by Questar Communities) the debut rental range is from $600 for one-bedroom units to $825 for two-bedroom units.

Such housing, especially in the suburban areas or near thharbor, can offer a variety of outdoor activities -- health clubs, pools, hospitality centers with gardens and decks, putting greens, tennis and, in the case of waterside communities, docks.

Whatever course the economic future takes, the Baltimore rentamarket truly can now supply almost any range of housing options for young and old, which was hardly the case a generation ago when only the garden apartment or high-rise format was expanding. Today the market features a multiplicity of apartment types, from small new executive flats to multiroom deluxe settings, many in freshened up masonry buildings with oak flooring and security systems. Hardwood floors, rather than wall-to-wall carpeting, along with the new decorator accent on -- area rugs, are popular in deluxe units.

One housing option in short supply in the market: conventional town-house, garden or highrise rentals in moderate price ranges for senior citizens who require large, stairless single-story housing with a minimum of bedrooms and electronic frills and a maximum of living room and dining areas for entertaining, with walkout privacy and garden frontage.

One probable trend in the future market: The continued escalation in the price of gasoline will make apartments in locales that offer walk-to-work convenience favored choices, including sites at the harbor and near employment centers such as Towson, Pikesville, Glen Burnie, Owings Mills or Westview. The same will be true for apartments within a few minutes' drive time of subway stops.

First-time renters should beware of two possible booby traps in picking a place to live. Be absolutely sure of how much, if any, of a utility bill the owner will pay. Another pitfall is the seldom-realized fact that the apartment owner insures only his building and its equipment, not the furnishings and other contents of your rental home. Rental policies, contrary to popular opinion, are obtained easily. A third must is to check the apartment community's rules on pets: Some admit small animals, some outlaw all.

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