“Dear Resident!!” the e-mail began. “It’s that time of year again!”
“We have enjoyed working with you throughout the year!” it said, and went on breathlessly to inform me that “your landlord has chosen to renew your lease.”
Then came the reason for all those cheerful exclamation points: They were raising the rent. Again.
The message, a form letter from the property management company that oversees my dingy and impossibly small Boston studio, arrived this spring, when I had been in the place just under a year. In that time, the rent had gone up once already, from $1,550 to $1,600. Now, they wanted $200 more.
Clearly, the landlord understood the calculus that I or any local renter must face in this situation: Which pain is worse — handing over another $2,400 a year for a paltry apartment you might not even like? Or enduring the smoldering hellscape that is Boston’s rental market on the off chance you might find something better?
In almost any other situation, I would have acquiesced; I had suffered through apartment searches in Boston before and was in no hurry to do it again.
But I looked around that evening — at my charmless, 180-square-foot cave without the luxury of a real refrigerator, the couch jammed into the only place it would fit, blocking the bathroom door and requiring a contortionist’s flexibility whenever nature called. Paying even a dime more for it was an indignity I was not prepared to accept.
And so, despite every internal impulse to the contrary, I decided to join the wretched ranks in Boston who each year take the same tortured odyssey toward a Sept. 1 lease — a quest that in my case would prove as soul-crushing and demoralizing as anything I could have imagined.
That night, I knew only resolve: I was going to find an apartment.
* * *
I am a thirtysomething man, and my living standards have never been particularly high. I’ve made a home of an ant-infested apartment in a run-down complex in central Florida and a basement in Kansas. I’ve used sweat shirts as bath mats and spent an inordinate number of nights on air mattresses.
So as I opened my laptop to begin my search that night in the spring, my criteria were similarly modest: All I needed was a place to lay my head, a studio or one bedroom, preferably within walking distance or a short subway ride to the downtown office where I work.
I entered those hopes into Craigs-list’s search filter and knew immediately I was in trouble.
The rents were staggering — significantly more than the last time I’d poked around a year or so earlier. The going rate for a studio in one of the city’s central neighborhoods — the North End, South End, downtown, Back Bay — looked to be about $2,000 a month. One bedrooms were fetching $2,200 or more.
Still, I’d managed to find deals before. I felt confident I could do it again.
In the coming days and weeks, I settled into a routine. Each morning I spent 30 minutes perusing the handful of apartments a real-estate-savvy friend was kind enough to pass along, then sent a half-dozen e-mails attempting to schedule viewings. During lunch breaks, I scoured Craigslist and Zillow with the hope something new had appeared on the market. At night, I checked again to make sure I hadn’t missed any late-day listings.
It was slow going. Most of the e-mail inquiries I sent out seemed to disappear into the ether, garnering no replies. The few responses I did get were perfunctory inquiries that led nowhere.
But finally, something materialized, and I scheduled my first in-person showing — a one bedroom in the North End, for around $2,000 a month. I was optimistic, up until I arrived.
It was raining. Heavy construction equipment hammered at a street project that didn’t look like it would be wrapping up anytime soon. The apartment was in a brick tenement down a narrow alley. An agent showing the place opened the door on a small, plain room. In the corner, an impossibly narrow spiral staircase made of plastic led to a bedroom in the basement. I white-knuckled my way down, imagining the bones I’d break with a misstep, then thanked the agent for her time.
It didn’t get much better in the coming weeks. There was a studio unit without an oven (“But it does have a working stove-top,” explained the agent showing the unit). And another place too small for the couch that represents approximately one-third of my furniture collection.
An apartment near Massachusetts General Hospital seemed promising enough, until, during my brief peek into the bedroom, a Red Line train thundered by the window. It looked, and sounded, to be no more than a few feet away.
I expanded my scope. I tried Cambridge, then Somerville. When those yielded few results, I raised my monthly rent cap — first by $200 per month, then another $200, before finally conceding that if I wanted to live anywhere near this part of the city, I would need to pay more than I had any business paying. We’re talking well over half my monthly income.
The search took on the feel of a second job. I rearranged weekend plans on the off chance a realtor might get back to me about a showing. I ducked out of work early to look at apartments that, without fail, looked far inferior to the curated photos on the listing.
Then one morning, in a fit of desperation, I entered my phone number into a real estate website in order to view an apartment listing, which is how “Alex with Berkshire Hathaway Warren Residential here in Boston” came into my life.
* * *
Anyone who has attempted to rent an apartment in Boston in the past decade is keenly aware of rental agents. If there is a species more loathed among apartment hunters, it’s unclear what it might be. And yet, it can seem impossible to rent an apartment in the city without one.
For the uninitiated, this is how it works: Apartments on sites like Craigslist and Zillow are typically marketed by rental agents or brokers. The phone numbers or e-mail addresses on the ads are theirs. They make the appointments and unlock the doors to give the five-minute tours. But here’s the thing: Though they work on behalf of landlords, it’s the renters who pay their fee — usually equal to a month’s rent.
Coming on top of the other upfront cash that renters must fork over to get into an apartment, those fees quickly become prohibitive. For a one-bedroom apartment in Boston, averaging around $2,500, the typical charges of first and last months’ rent, security deposit, and a broker’s fee add up to $10,000.
“It’s crazy-making,” says Andrew McLaughlin, a 36-year-old East Somerville resident who estimates he’s spent $6,000 on broker fees after multiple moves in recent years. “It’s a total scam. It’s exploitative and gross, and I’m deeply, deeply bitter.”
It also seems to be almost unique to Boston — both the phenomenon and the entire lack of civic conscience about it.
Even New York City — the only other major city where tenant-paid broker fees are a common practice, according to those in the local real estate market — has recently taken steps to curb it, proposing legislation earlier this year that would put a cap on the amount a broker can charge a would-be tenant.
For reasons well beyond the cost, many tenants in Boston complain about brokers. Tom Naughton, for instance, said he once agreed to rent a place in Mission Hill with some friends after the broker told them that the landlord would be finishing the unit’s unfinished basement and hanging two flat-screen televisions before the group moved in. When that day came, the basement floor was still dirt and the TVs were nowhere to be found.
“You don’t even know if he was ever even told any information to that end,” Naughton says. “They can basically say whatever they want.”
Some take a more forgiving approach to the rental industry. “There are many rental brokers that are volume-based . . . and for them, it’s ‘how many can we turn?’ ” says Eric Rollo, a realtor with William Raveis R.E. “But there’s a good majority, even, who are there as a tenant’s advocate, to earn the tenant’s money and not necessarily just collect a check.”
My own encounters didn’t exactly leave me with warm feelings.
A number of the brokers and agents I dealt with seemed less interested in helping me than in collecting a commission check by whatever means necessary. And in luring me along. More than once, I responded to posts for appealing apartments at attractive rents, only to be told: That apartment actually just rented this morning, but I have some other units I’d love to show you.
High pressure was another hallmark. With the urgency of an emergency room surgeon, several brokers showing me apartments insisted that whatever pitiful unit I happened to be viewing at the moment was a hot commodity and wasn’t going to last long and so it was imperative that I act now.
No one I met along this trail of woe stuck with me quite like Alex with Berkshire Hathaway, who is not a broker but whose job is to connect would-be tenants with agents. After obtaining my phone number, he began inundating me with text messages, which — though I never responded — would continue to arrive for months, as many as six times a week.
On April 12: “I’d like to set you up with a specialist so that we can figure out the next steps. What day would work best for you?”
On April 14: “Don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s me. I can sometimes come on too strong — real estate is just so exciting!”
On April 17: “Dugan?”
* * *
Two months into my search, a kind of rental Stockholm syndrome had begun to set in.
Places that would’ve been laughable in any other circumstance started to become perversely desirable. One afternoon, standing inside another shoebox unit, I found myself reasoning that, Hey, at least it has a refrigerator.
Thankfully, I eventually came to my senses. But after months of intense searching, I was no closer to finding an apartment than I’d been at the start.
Making matters worse, Aug. 31 — the day I had to be out of my own apartment — was drawing uncomfortably close. At one point, facing the real fear of having nowhere to live come September, I considered sending a pleading e-mail to my current landlord asking to stay, no matter the cost. Anything to put an end to the misery.
Then, a miracle.
I was sitting in the office, mentally compiling a list of friends with sleepable couches, when I happened to overhear a co-worker. He was talking about a tenant in his building moving out.
For a moment, time froze. Then I acted on pure animal instinct. Put me in touch with the landlord, I blurted. And then I basically stood over his shoulder while he composed an e-mail and sent it.
The landlord wrote back, eventually inviting me to a weekend showing.
The place was nice, the landlord excellent. Like every apartment in the city of Boston, it was wildly out of my price range. As I signed a lease a few days later, I did so with the knowledge that I would be unable to responsibly afford a pizza or movie ticket for at least the next calendar year.
But I had a home — one with an oven and without a plastic staircase — and that alone felt like something close to victory.
A month or two later, as I was arranging the particulars of my move — basking in the knowledge that I would be able to go at least the next 12 months without speaking to another rental broker — my cellphone buzzed with a text message.
“Some folks prefer to meet in person,” wrote Alex from Berkshire Hathaway. “When can we grab a coffee and get to know each other better?”