Rent

How to get a break on your rent or other perks even if your lease is not up

The impact of the pandemic means your landlord may agree to a reasonable rent reduction mid-lease if you are struggling.

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Maybe you are a tenant who is struggling to make rent or maybe you've hunkered in the same New York City apartment throughout the pandemic and aren't necessarily looking to move. Either way, it can be grating to hear of all the perks you're not able to advantage of because you are staying put—like signing a new lease with a low rent or a concession like three months free.

In recent months, NYC landlords have been lowering rents and piling on the freebies in order to fill a record amount of vacant apartments. Last month, the Manhattan median rent for leases with concessions was $2,868—its lowest in nearly a decade. And nearly two-thirds of all Manhattan leases came with a concession, according to the Elliman Report. 

But in this market, with so many New Yorkers leaving the city, the advantages are not just for new renters. For the most part, it's more economical for landlords to retain existing tenants rather than turn over apartments and bring in new tenants. So even if your lease is not up and you don't have plans to move, you also may have some opportunities. The following are some scenarios where you may have some leverage.

Rent reductions and free rent

Because of the unique situation caused by the pandemic, it might be possible in some instances to renegotiate your rent in the middle of your lease term. Typically, you only have an opportunity to do this when your lease is up for renewal, but with so many apartments vacant in the city—close to 16,000 at the last count—landlords are making exceptions. 

"Landlords do not want to add to the growing number of vacancies so you’re seeing rent reductions and in some cases, periods of free rent to appease residential tenants in place who might be struggling," says Michael Romer, co-founder and managing partner at Romer Debbas. He says he is mostly seeing periods of free rent being offered as well as situations where landlords are deferring payments for those who are in financial difficulty. He points out it is a dilemma for landlords because they still have bills to pay.

"There’s only so much free rent you can give—however, the situation with Covid and the situation regarding evictions means landlords don’t have many options right now so they’d rather work out a deal and keep a tenant in place as opposed to losing the tenant completely," Romer says. 

It's not a given that you'll get a concession mid-lease. Smaller landlords might have fewer options than larger buildings with thousands of units that can better weather the storm. "You have to do a little bit of research to confirm what is actually the case—that the rental market is extraordinarily renter-friendly," says Scott Harris, an agent at Brown Harris Stevens. He suggests finding out what you could get for an apartment of the same size in a different building in the neighborhood. "In doing that research you can come back empowered to have that conversation with the landlord," he says.

Some landlords will be more prepared for these types of conversations than others. Harris says there's a chance a landlord who doesn’t live in the city may be putting their head in the sand and hoping their tenant stay in place at the same price. Doing your research and pointing out to your landlord that there are 10 comparable apartments in similar buildings in your neighborhood offering lower rents or free months will stand you "a good chance" of getting what you want, he says.

Winter is a difficult time for landlords to find tenants and this year, the coronavirus makes it especially tough. "It’s the lowest point of the rental season," Harris says. "Landlords know if they don’t have an apartment rented now, it’s going to be a cold winter—they are pretty vulnerable," he says. 

A longer lease might give you a lower rent

Harris says he has encouraged landlords to show tenants some flexibility and in many cases that has paid off. They've told him they are grateful they showed flexibility and had renters who stayed in place rather than broke their leases. 

One way to sweeten negotiations for a lower rent or free months is to offer to sign a longer lease, says Mihal Gartenberg, an agent at Warburg Realty. She puts it like this: "Let’s say you have six months left on your lease, your landlord will face uncertainty in six months. This is why it makes sense to suggest, 'What if we change my rent for the next six months and I’ll re-sign with you for another two years?' This way, your landlord is getting certainty without having to go out-of-pocket for broker fees and routine maintenance such as painting in case you move out."

Keep in mind you are legally locked in at your current rate but creating a more certain future for a landlord could be very appealing.

Negotiating upgrades and renovations

If you have a lot on your plate you may not want to move but you also might not have the stomach for negotiating a lower rent in the middle of your lease. Asking for a paint job, a new sink, or new faucet might just be more palatable to some renters, Harris says. "If you don't have it in you, in this fraught moment, to ask for a rent reduction you can ask for something non-monetary," he says.

This is a time for tenants to think about how they can refresh their apartments since so many people are spending more time at home says Becki Danchik, a broker at Warburg Realty. She points out landlords are required to paint an occupied apartment every three years if the tenant requests it, and says she's seen some people exercising their rights and asking for their walls to be refreshed.

Harris says this is something renters should absolutely consider. It's also a way for a landlord to improve the apartment going forward. "They might have wanted to do it but they’ve always had a tenant in place," he says. 

As with all negotiations, he emphasizes the importance of keeping it polite and not getting greedy. "You do have to maintain a reasonable relationship with your landlord. If you like where you live, you don't want to create a situation where you have to leave to take advantage of the rental market," he says.

Asking for flexibility in other areas

Even rental buildings with strict no-pet policies are showing some flexibility in order to keep tenants who have decided to get a cat or dog. Pet adoption hit an all time high early on in the pandemic, providing comfort in isolating times. In a stronger rental market you might expect a percentage increase in the rent for bringing a dog home, but now there's more leverage for tenants to avoid penalties for pet ownership as landlords try to retain tenants. 

Some buildings have weight restrictions for dogs and this may be another area where it’s worth asking for some leeway. 

Getting rent credits from referral programs

Landlords who offer rent credits to tenants who bring in friends that then sign leases is not a new concept. However, many rental buildings have more inventory available than usual, meaning it's possible your chances of bringing in a friend to your building and getting a rent credit for the introduction might be higher. It's worth asking your landlord if they offer this kind of deal even if they don't advertise it. 

Be warned, genuinely referring a friend is fine but the line can blur easily if you start advertising your building on social media and telling followers to reach out to you before they contact the landlord. This could arguably be seen as operating a real estate business, for which you need a license.