Now, Renters Have Room to Maneuver

Jennifer Samples left Atlanta last fall, leaving behind a $750-a-month, 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment built a century ago to house Coca-Cola workers. It was, she recalls, not charming 100 years old but "slumlord 100 years old." Now, she's back in town. And for her money (she's looking in the $700-to-$950 range), she has her pick of new apartments with wall-to-wall carpeting, swimming pools, and 900 to 1,200 square feet. What a difference four months--and an apartment glut--make.

After an economic boom that had landlords pitting prospective tenants against one other, renters are now in charge. In the right market, and especially for luxury units, a savvy renter can snare a home for 10% to 20% less than a year ago.

The reason: A slow economy, lots of apartments started in flusher times, and mortgage rates that encourage renters to buy have pushed up vacancy rates. Atlanta, at 10.5%, has one of the highest, says Reis, a real estate research firm based in New York. Austin, Tex. (11.6%) and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. (11.3%) also have darkened windows. Even cities in sunny Florida have rates approaching 9%.

Landlords are offering one, two, even three months' free rent. Some of the best deals can be had in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area, where landlords are so shaken by the dot-com bust that they're accepting 12.8% less in rent than a year ago in San Jose, and 10.3% less in San Francisco, according to Reis.

In shopping for the best rate, know what your money should buy. Go on the Internet or watch newspaper ads for specials. A real estate agent specializing in apartments can help you sift through the offerings. In places like Manhattan, where the renter has historically borne this cost, ask the landlord to pick up part or all of the fee. For real savings, check areas where several new buildings are competing for tenants, advises Michael Moran, a rental specialist with New York's Corcoran Group.

Since winter is slow, a landlord will be eager to fill any vacancy now. If you're willing to move in a week or two, a landlord might give you a bigger break. Signing a longer lease may win a discount. If the landlord won't come down on rent, perhaps he'll waive the application fee or throw in free parking. With smart shopping, maybe you'll be able to spring for champagne for that housewarming party.

By Carol Marie Cropper

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