By Mackenzie Dunn

Published on September 13, 2018

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Photography by Brittany Ambridge

For those of us who aren’t quite financially ready to make the jump into home-ownership, the prospect of renting a property can be just as exciting as it can be nerve-racking. How do you know what you’re getting? When should you look? What should you budget? Should you use a broker? Then, once you finally settle on a place, how do you go about furnishing it and personalizing it? So many questions, so few reliable answers. Luckily, we’re here to help you figure that out.

The good news is: renting does not equal throwing your money away. It’s an excellent option for many young adults living with roommates or families in search of a new place, without the additional costs involved  when buying a home.

That being said, we’ve all heard our fair share of rental horror stories. From difficult landlords to not-so-ideal moving situations, it’s best to enter your rental (whether it’s your first or you’re hoping it will be your last) as well-informed as possible. Ahead, we compiled the best and worst advice we’ve gotten when it came down to scoring a new rental, along with input from the experts to help dispel the most common tenant myths. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll rent comfortably, knowing that you have all the facts straight.

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Photography via iStock

Myth: “It’s best to rent during the off-season when the prices will be cheaper.”

There is an ongoing idea that the timeframe during which you start looking is a huge factor in the kind of place you score. Depending on the season, the typical peak for renting real estate is from May to August, when school is out of session, and the weather is more conducive to a smooth move. It’s not uncommon to see prices on the higher side during these months, which is why sometimes experts will advise looking earlier or later in the year. But life doesn’t always work based on the best seasons, and sometimes you just need a place ASAP.

Real estate agent Rebecca Brooksher of Warburg Realty makes a valid point by noting that, “Prices may be lower in the off-season, but there is also less inventory.” She adds that the lower prices won’t matter much if none of the choices out there are the right home for you.

“The worst time to look is when you don’t have all your ducks in a row, you just ‘need’ a place, and are scrambling to find it. The right time is when you know the ideal property and neighborhood, have your paperwork ready and are excited about the prospects.”

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

Our associate digital editor, Elly Leavitt, personally agrees: She found that being prepared to jump on the best opportunity left her and her roommate with the most options (and the best odds) for finding a place that would work for them.

When the market is this competitive, there isn’t really time to take a couple days to second-guess yourself,” Leavitt notes. “After having someone sign the lease on an apartment while my roommate and I were literally touring it with a broker, we started going to showings with all the necessary paperwork to submit an application on the spot if needed. The logic was that it’s better to spend about $100 on an application fee and later decide whether or not you want the space than waiting a few days until you’re ready and losing out on your potential dream home altogether.”

But if you can wait it out, Alexander Boriskin, a real estate agent at Douglas Elliman, says there really is a better chance of finding a deal. “Historically, there are times where the rental market slows down,” he says. “At this time it is possible to negotiate a better deal and find a rental concession that a landlord may be offering in order to stand out from competing listings.”

Just keep in mind that the market conditions matter just as much as the potential to score big during an off-season. Boriskin explains that if you’re looking to rent at a time when there is an oversupply of rental inventory, you may even find landlords who are offering 2-3 months of free rent, willing to pay a broker fee or waive application fees. It’s all about timing.

“When the market is this competitive, there isn’t really time to take a couple days to second-guess yourself.”

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

Good advice: “Make sure you know exactly what you want.”

While you are waiting or preparing to find the best property that will fit your needs, one of best pieces of advice our social media editor, Alyssa Clough, has gotten was to make a list of her must-haves.

“Whether you’re living with a roommate or solo, it’s important to make a list of things ahead of time that you must have, and the things that would be nice, as well as the things that aren’t a priority to you,” she says. “If you’re working with an agent or coordinating with a roommate, this will make things much easier and waste a lot less time.”

Clough says it was helpful to be strategic and honest about all of her non-negotiable apartment must-haves. Do you want to spend a bit more for amenities like washer/dryer availability, having an elevator instead of a walkup, and a kitchen with a dishwasher? Is location or living in an ideal neighborhood the most important to you? Consider this an exercise in prioritizing what is most important to you and will be helpful in the long run.

 “It’s important to make a list of things ahead of time that you must have, and the things that would be nice, as well as the things that aren’t a priority to you.” 

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

Myth: “An agent or broker isn’t necessary.”

While everyone has their preferences, this is one that naysayers feel pretty strongly about. Extra expertise can definitely be helpful, but is the extra fee worth it? Our experts would argue yes, mostly because an agent will take the majority of the guesswork out for you, and can navigate what may seem like uncharted waters for first-time renters.

“While you don’t necessarily need one when renting, it is a full-time job to do the searching,” says Warburg Realty’s Rebecca Brooksher. “You would need to know the blocks you are targeting and have the time to do the scheduling and searching. If you already have a full workday, find someone you trust to weed out the duds, schedule the appointments, help organize the complicated paperwork and make it an enjoyable experience.”

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

It’s true that the search can easily become exhausting if you’re doing it all on your own, but many people want to attempt it on their own for the sake of saving on broker’s fees. However, Agent Eric Mendelsohn of Warburg Realty says that while opting out of using an agent may save you initially, it could cost you more time, money and opportunity in the long run.

“While a well-informed agent is not the low-cost solution, an agent with knowledge can be the low-risk solution and will help save you time,” he says. “An experienced agent has a good understanding of each landlord’s reputation, which ones to rent with and which ones to avoid.”

If you are a renter with bad credit or none at all, if you have a large dog, if your income doesn’t equal 40 times the monthly rent in NYC and/or you need an out-of-state guarantor, a knowledgeable agent will only show you apartments that you’ll have a chance to rent. You won’t waste time seeing listings that won’t work out in the end.”

Not to mention, agents do this for a living, so they are here to help. From properly preparing your paperwork to negotiating with potential landlords, they are ultimately there to serve you and your needs (that’s why you’re paying them!).

 “While a well-informed agent is not the low-cost solution, an agent with knowledge can be the low-risk solution and will help save you time.” 

“I’ve probably annoyed every real estate agent to bits with my incessant questioning on everything from trash disposal to whether or not painting is allowed, but it’s worth it. It’s their job to be knowledgeable about the property and you need to go into signing without having doubts!” says Leavitt.

Myth: “You can’t negotiate the rent.”

When it comes to buying, people abide by the mantra: negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. But somehow, when it comes to renting, many believe that what you see on the listing is what you’ll have to pay. Once again, this is something that’s best done by a well-trained agent, but overall it’s important to know that you can most definitely attempt to work around price, even when it comes to renting.

It doesn’t hurt submitting an offer for negotiation, especially in this market,says Kemdi Anosike, an agent at Warburg Realty. But knowing things like comparable appraisal characteristics (comps), days on the market, and competition of similar spaces in demand will determine where you should come in with that counter price.

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

Myth: “Location is worth more than square-footage”

Depending on where you live, certain areas are going to be more desirable than others. Often times, we receive advice from others telling us to go for a property because of it’s incredible location, even if it may not be right for our needs. Our chief revenue officer, Beth Brenner, recalls a time where she took this advice while looking for her first apartment post-college.

Opting to pay less rent, Brenner agreed to sleep on a pull-out couch in the apartment, foregoing the only bedroom in the space by giving it up to another roommate.

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I hated the living room,” Brenner says, “it’s so important to have your own personal space. It got quite aggravating to see my roommate close the bedroom door for privacy when I didn’t have a door to close or a way to have any ‘alone time.’ Better advice would have been to offer to pay more and grab the bedroom or, worst case, split the bedroom in two.”

And if you do opt to go with the smaller room, there are ways you and your roommate can calculate how to pay your rent based on room size, so you can tell if it is actually worth the sacrifice.

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Photograhy by Cody Guilfoyle and Aaron Bengochea
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Photograohy by Cody Guilfoyle and Aaron Bengochea

“It’s so important to have your own personal space.”

Good Advice: “Make your mark on your space.”

Perhaps one of the most common rental myths and advice we seem to receive from various sources is that you absolutely cannot personalize a rental space because you do not own it. We would like to go on the record here and say that this is usually false. Yes, if you do choose to go ahead and make changes that involve nailing things to the wall or painting a room or two, you will need to restore those areas back to the way they were upon vacating, but that certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t personalize it while you are living there and paying rent.

Our social media editor totally transformed her Williamsburg one-bedroom with creative pops of primary paint and plans on adding a backsplash, painting the cabinets, and figuring out a fix for her countertop surface—with permission from her landlord, of course.

“I have seen renters that have been willing to upgrade the apartment with new floors or a new kitchen at their own expense,” says Eric Mendelsohn of Warburg Realty. “They need to notify the owner of the changes that will be made, but owners generally agree to improvements, especially when they aren’t paying for them.”

And if all else fails, check with your broker. They are the ones who can help negotiate terms like this into your lease agreement, but generally, things like painting and nailing, which once seemed taboo to do in a rental, are pretty accepted nowadays, so you can get to making your place feel like it really is home.

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Photography by Aaron Bengochea

See more real estate advice:

This Is the Worst City in America for Home Renters

Should You Rent or Buy? We Have the Answer

4 Reasons Why Renting Isn’t Throwing Money Away