(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY With more people renting and vacancy rates dropping from their 2009 high, being an apartment hunter in the rental market is no easy task.
Rental vacancies are down to 4.9 percent - the lowest they have been in a decade, according to Reis, Inc., a firm that tracks real estate data. Rental rates have also jumped, rising 6 percent over the past year. That's squeezing renters from both sides, according to Lee Lin and Lawrence Zhou, founders of RentHop.com, a website that offers free access to no-fee apartment listings, along with advanced search parameters.
When the rental market starts squeezing renters with limited availability, renters tend to take units that they might not otherwise consider, Lin said.
Instead, renters need to focus on what amenities they want, and start thinking about those amenities with price tags. For example, Lin did a statistical analysis of his listings in New York City and found that for every 100 meters closer to the subway, an apartment will cost the renter an extra $40 to $60 per month.
"Everyone has a different set of priorities and preferences," Lin said. "Some people are willing to pay an extra $200 for a terrace and I'm in the exact opposite. Know what you want and make sure you're not overpaying for features."
Renters also need to remember the little things, like asking about cell phone reception (be sure to test it out) and whether the windows actually open. Unlike home buyer walk-throughs before closing, there are no inspections for renters, so treat any showing as if you're inspecting the unit.
Don't forget these ten questions renters often forget to ask:
- How's your cell phone signal? You don't want to be forced to have all phone conversations while hanging out your window or the one tiny corner where you manage to pick up a signal.
- How big are the rooms, really? Bring a measuring tape. You and the leasing agent or landlord may have different opinions on what room size comfortably fits a queen size bed.
- How's the water pressure? Don't forget to ask the follow up, including is the shower pressure weak? How long does it take for the water to get hot in the morning?
- Is the rental noisy? Be quiet for a minute and listen for ambient noise, such as weird fans, generators, barking dogs, loud trucks, trains or noisy neighbors.
- How is the view? Are there enough windows to provide you with the natural light you want? If the curtains are closed, pull them open to check out the view. You might not want your living room overlooking your neighbor's bathroom.
- Is the air fresh? If you're looking at a high rise or a garden unit, sometimes the windows can't open or open just a bit. Make sure you have enough fresh air.
- How fast is that elevator? If there's an elevator, check the capacity. Is it single shaft or super slow? Are there separate elevators for garbage or taking your pet out?
- What are the amenities? Get the details on amenity offered as part of the rent. For example, some buildings come with public areas or workout facilities. Check the hours before you make the gym a deciding factor in your lease.
- Who handles deliveries to the property? If there's no doorman or superintendent, what will happen to all those UPS or FedEx deliveries that come while you're at work?
- What is the heating situation? Because people often rent during the summer, they neglect to ask about the heat, Lin said. Find out if the heating is individual or shared, such as an uncontrolled radiator, and find out the costs.
And here's a bonus question to ask: If you're renting a single family house instead of an apartment, you should ask who is responsible for maintaining the exterior of the property. Some landlords expect the tenants to mow the lawn and shovel the snow, while others do it themselves so they know the property is being maintained correctly.
These responsibilities should be spelled out in the lease so there's never a question about who is supposed to do what.