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Tight on money? How to barter for rent

By Virginia K. Smith  | November 17, 2016 - 8:59AM

If you're willing to shovel this winter, you may be able to shave some money off of your rent.

Even in a city where cash is king, bartering still has its place among New York renters. According to the Wall Street Journal, some have apparently managed to get free or reduced rent in exchange for services, like running errands or setting up a Web site. Want to try it? We spoke to a landlord and tenant who've been there, as well as a real estate lawyer, for tips:

[***This story originally ran in October 2014 and was updated in November 2016.]

Indie landlords want your help: It's a delicate arrangement that seems to happen almost exclusively in buildings with mom-and-pop landlords. Owners who don't have a management company (or even a full-time superintendent) at their fingertips, or the red tape of a big corporate structure, stand to gain by coming to a mutually beneficial agreement with a tenant. "Most property management companies charge quite a bit, so if you can convince your landlord that you can do the same job, there's a real incentive for them to essentially have you manage the building," says a small landlord who has written for Brick Underground under the pseudonym Craig Roche. That said, don't try and ask a big rental company, like Glenwood or Related. You wouldn't even want that job.

Trust counts: It's not exactly bartering, but it make sense that you'll likely end up with fewer dramatic rent hikes if the landlord likes and trusts you. "In a small building, a tenant who is helpful and cooperative is worth so much more than someone else that they end up getting a significant discount that can add up to a couple thousand bucks a year," explains Roche. 

That said, Roche says he occasionally asks tenants to chip in around the building on jobs like painting and either pays them outright or knocks it off the rent. "If you have someone you’re willing to work well with, you’re just not going to raise the rent as much as you would for another tenant," Roche says adds. Being a respectful, reliable tenant who pays the rent on time (and is willing to occasionally pitch in around the building) can go farther than you'd think. 

Be your own super: Dave, a 27-year-old who rents with two roommates in Bed-Stuy, gets a $50 monthly discount in exchange for minor work around the building (the setup was actually his landlord's suggestion when they moved in). The benefit is mostly long-term, though, as his landlord promised to tie annual rent hikes to the guidelines for rent-stabilized apartments, even though their place is market-rate. "The discount is a pittance for the work involved," he says, but the landlord has also set Dave up with freelance photography work and made unsolicited upgrades to the apartment free of charge, in addition to keeping the rent raises low. "He's a nice guy, so it's reciprocal."​

In Dave's case, he and his roommates are responsible for taking out the building's trash, keeping the front of the building reasonably clean, and shoveling the sidewalk when it snows. "I guess technically we should have a super, but there are only two apartments in the building," he says.

This can work in larger buildings, too, and if you take on more duties, the discount should be larger. While you'd have to hammer out the particulars with your landlord, a super's duties would likely entail collecting rents, letting utilities workers and city inspectors into the building, and potentially working on minor repairs. "It’s not very skilled or very hard" work, says Roche. "The main thing is being available. Being a landlord is a 24/7 job, so just having someone you trust as a backup person is major" when problems with the building come up.

Now, before you declare yourself to be on call, be sure to come up with either an hourly rate for services rendered or an agreed-upon decrease in your monthly rent. Keep in mind that you'd be saving them the cost of a super's entire salary, or the 10 percent of building rents charged by a management company, meaning you can probably get a lot more out of it than $50 a month.

Put all your talents to work: "If there’s some specialized skill that you have that a landlord needs and that you have extra time to supply, it can’t hurt to ask," says Roche. For example, one Bed-Stuy renter we covered renovated his landlord's brownstone in exchange for a $1,000 monthly discount (and is currently on the hunt for a new, similar arrangement). A tenant in the WSJ article built her landlord a website, helped him sell furniture online, and taught him how to use his camera, all for $20 an hour that would go toward reducing her rent. Roche recently borrowed a pattern cutter from a resident to make new numbers for the building, and notes, "That tenant's rent is about 10 percent lower than other people in the building." 

Get it in writing: All this sounds idyllic and very neighborly, right? The major potential pitfall here is that almost all of these arrangements are informal and unwritten. "The IRS considers barter arrangements to be a form of income, and no one on the planet generally reports it, especially not if it’s a small amount of money," Roche notes. This could come back to haunt you if tensions develop with the landlord. Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations (and Brick sponsor), explains, "If you have a written lease that defines you should pay the higher amount, it will be very hard to prove there was an oral modification to the contract. " If at all possible, he advises to "get the terms of the arrangement in writing, and have them be very detailed and specific."

Of course, there's a good chance the landlord would prefer to keep things off the books. If you're willing to take your landlord at his or her word, get to sweeping the sidewalks, and enjoy the discount while it lasts.



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