They’re the bane of a renter’s existence: those only-in-Greater Boston (and New York City) payments for the privilege of renting an apartment in what is already one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.
The vast majority of apartments in Boston and nearby cities are listed and leased through real estate brokerage firms, with middlemen showing the units, screening the tenants, and charging (typically) the equivalent of one month’s rent for their troubles.
Most of the time, a broker’s fee is paid by the tenant, along with a security deposit and the first and last months’ rent, which can make signing a lease cost about as much as a year of college.
But landlords can pay the brokers’ fees, too. It’s just that in a rental market as tight as Boston’s, they don’t have to. They can make the tenants pay.
But there’s hope.
The surge of apartment building openings in and around the city is loosening Boston’s housing market a bit. Landlords, some of them anyway, feel compelled to compete, and sometimes that means offering a break on the broker’s fee.
A recent survey by Rental Beast, a Somerville-based apartment website, found that 20 percent of small landlords and 30 percent of property management companies in Greater Boston are willing to at least consider covering the broker’s fee to land a good tenant. That figure is higher than it has been in several years, said Rental Beast’s president, Ishay Grinberg.
“If I’m a prospective tenant, this is a good time to try and negotiate the broker’s fee,” he said.
But how? Here are a few strategies that might pay off.
Most brand-new apartment buildings and many large buildings run by big national chains such as AvalonBay and Equity Apartments have their own on-site leasing staff. You can walk in, see a place, and rent it on the spot.
“They can go directly to the tenant,” said Mike Valencius, an agent with Team Frank Celeste Gibson Sothebys in Charlestown. “They don’t have to include brokers at all.”
What’s more, if you catch a building that’s still in its initial lease-up phase, you can often wrangle a concession — one month’s free rent, occasionally more — that big developers offer to help fill their buildings. So instead of paying 13 months’ rent for 12 months of housing, you might only pay 11.
But there’s a catch: New apartments aren’t cheap, and the big national chains tend to charge higher rents than the mom-and-pop landlords — even after you throw in goodies like an in-house gym.
And those free-month deals only come the first time you sign on the dotted line.
“So if you ever want to renew,” Grinberg said, “there will be a massive markup.”
You can also be your own broker, and sift through the hundreds of apartments that landlords post themselves on Craigslist. Craigslist can be a mess, however, and the starting point for many a wild goose chase. But it’s one way to cut out the middleman.
If online classifieds are too much for you, try an even more old-fashioned route: a walk around the neighborhood.
There are still landlords around who will stick a for-rent sign and a phone number in the window, and wait for a call. There are no guarantees you’ll find what you’re looking for, but at least you can stretch your legs.
And don’t forget your friends. The odds are slim, but if you know someone who’s moving out of a killer apartment where you’d love to live, ask to talk to the landlord, and skip the search altogether.
“That’s kind of the dream,” Valencius said.
Time the market
Thanks to all the students (and twentysomethings who still live like students), Boston’s rental market is extremely seasonal. Competition is stiffest in the spring and early summer, for leases that turn over on Sept. 1.
By October, many landlords are looking ahead to a long, cold winter and getting antsy about the money they’ll lose if their apartment sits empty. If you want to cut a deal, fall is your time to strike.
“Once the holidays start up, around Thanksgiving, tenants are really able to negotiate. You may even be able to get the base rent down,” Valencius said. “Owners get desperate.”
The best way to get a landlord to cut you a break is to make life easy on them. When you visit, come with paperwork already filled out, references, pay stubs in hand, and a check — one that you are ready to sign on the spot, for the right price.
“Say ‘I’m capable. I’m qualified. I’ll do this right now,’ ” Grinberg said. “ ‘But I need some help on the fee.’ ”
Presented with such an offer, some landlords might take the bird in hand and agree to cover the broker’s fee to wrap things up quickly. But they won’t wait around, Grinberg warns.
In a market this tight, there’s probably going to be someone else stopping by tomorrow.