For the past nine months, I’ve worked as an on-site leasing agent for a major Manhattan landlord. Every day people come through my office in various stages of frustration, looking for a suitable place to call home. Having sat on both sides of the table--I personally have rented three apartments in three years, so I understand what a colossal pain finding a place in Manhattan is--I’ve learned a thing or two about how to go about securing the best apartment on the best terms.
The on-site leasing agent at a rental building represents the landlord, not you
Because he or she works for the landlord, not you, an on-site agent is not going to volunteer all of the information at their disposal. For example, if you come in to my office looking for a one-bedroom apartment and I have 10 one-bedroom vacancies, I am only going to tell you about two. Maybe three if I’m feeling generous. This is because landlords don’t want prospective tenants to know how many availabilities they have because it decreases their bargaining power and undermines your sense of urgency. If I show you three apartments and you like one of them, you’re going to feel more compelled to put in an application on the spot than if I had rattled off all 10 choices to you. That’s why it’s important that you explain clearly what your apartment priorities are so that I pick the right two or three apartments to tell you about.
Extras & price reductions only come to those who ask
Because I represent the landlord, it’s up to you to try to secure the best possible deal. There may be some negotiability or extras available, but I’m not going to offer unless you ask, so always ask.
For instance, you could always ask if there is room in the price and if the landlord will hear offers. Ask how long the unit has been on the market (though if it has been sitting you may not get a truthful answer). If a unit has been vacant for several months the landlord may be much more negotiable on the price than on a unit that has just come up, even though there may be no discrepancy in the quality of the apartments. The landlord I work for, while sometimes firm on pricing, will generally accept $100 off the monthly asking rent. We had a unit on the market for several months and they ended up accepting an offer at a full $1,200 below the $7,000 monthly asking price, just to get someone in there.
If they’re not willing to budge on the price, it’s possible there may be other ways to sweeten the deal. Many rental buildings have health club or pool facilities available at an additional charge. Ask to see if they’ll throw them in. The worst they can say is no.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this kind of strategy can backfire in a hot rental market, so be sensitive to the environment that you’re in. If you try to nickel and dime the landlord too aggressively, you may be viewed as an undesirable tenant and be less likely to accept your offer. This applies especially to small landlords, where emotions may come into play more.
However, if you’re negotiating for an apartment through a large landlord’s leasing agent they’ll generally be willing to rent to you if you hit their bottom line (and their income and credit requirements). The rental market has definitely tightened since last year, but I predict deals will persist at least until the market revs up again in the spring so go for every dollar while you still can.
Understand incentive structures
In the current market, some landlords are offering incentives to stimulate business. Landlords will sometimes offer to pay your broker’s commission and give you a free month, but more commonly they offer a free month’s rent OR a 1 month brokerage commission. If a broker takes you to a no-fee building, you may be missing out on a month’s rent savings that you would have gotten if you had went on your own.
This is not meant to deter you from using a broker. Finding an apartment in New York takes a lot of time and effort, and if you aren’t willing to devote hours on end to research, it’s not a bad idea to have someone handle it for you, particularly if it’s your future landlord that ends up footing the bill.
In terms of the on-site leasing agent’s compensation, the typical structure is a base salary plus a small commission for deals closed. Some on-sites work on a salary only basis, but this is somewhat more rare. In contrast to a traditional broker who only gets paid if you transact, on-sites are far less invested in the deal. Of course we want to get the apartments rented because that’s our job, but generally we have enough interest in our properties that the sentiment is that if you don’t rent the apartment then someone else will. I tend not to dish out the hard sell too often, unless it’s a high priced apartment that has been sitting for a while that I know the landlord is very eager to rent.
If you use a broker, use an experienced one
The barrier to entry to get your real estate license in New York is almost laughably low. Make sure the agent you’re working with knows what they’re doing. The best broker to use is one who has done a lot of business in the neighborhood and ideally the building(s) you’re interested in. They’ll have relationships with “the on-sites” and may be able to get you a better deal because they’ll know the right questions to ask. If you already know which buildings you’re interested in, I would recommend going to the building directly. However, if you’re unfamiliar with the area or don’t have a lot of time to devote to the search process then enlisting the help of a broker is probably a good move.
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It’s business, not personal
If there’s competition for a particular unit, people tell me all kinds of things to try to persuade me to give them the apartment over the other interested parties (which, by the way, is not within my power). They talk my ear off about how nice they are and how much they love the apartment and how the building is so perfect because it‘s close to Susie’s school, a stone’s throw from Bob’s office, and around the corner from Nancy’s favorite Pilates studio. None of this matters to the landlord (or to me, despite my feigned interest).
Our policy gives priority to the first application that comes in, so if you really want an apartment, get your application in as early as possible. If we have simultaneous applications (sometimes one will come in via fax or email at the same time that someone is physically filling one out in the office) the landlord will give the apartment to the tenant who can move in the soonest, has the biggest income, and the best credit. Period. They don’t care how nice/pretty/important you are. They don’t care what race/age/sex/religion you are (discriminating on those bases is illegal and most landlords are very scared of being hit with a discrimination suit). As long as it’s by legal means, they don’t care how you make your money, just that you make enough of it. Try to avoid getting into any landlord-tenant lawsuits, because if we see that on your background check you will likely be turned down. The same goes for arrests for anything more serious than a parking ticket.
Be upfront about bed bugs
Surprisingly, most people who come through my office don’t ask about bed bugs. I assume this is because I work in a luxury building and people generally associate pest infestations with lower rent kinds of properties, even though, as the saying goes, bed bugs don’t discriminate.
In compliance with the new law that was passed, we provide a bed bug disclosure form at lease signing that indicates whether the building has had any history of bed bug infestation, on what floor(s) the infestation took place, and if and when the situation has been eradicated. But if you wouldn’t feel comfortable moving into an apartment or building that has had bed bugs issues in the past, don’t wait until you get to the lease signing to bring it up. Ask about it up front.
On the flip side, I have heard of landlords asking potential tenants if they have ever had bed bugs and requesting affidavits swearing that they do not have bed bugs in their current residence. My company doesn’t do that as of yet but I imagine that if any applicant were to admit to having a current bed bug issue, their application would be denied. You could of course lie, but if you report bed bugs at a later time, your landlord will more than likely check with your previous landlord to verify that there was no prior history. If they find out that you lied they will no doubt stick you with the extermination bill.