How To Negotiate Your Lease (And Win!)

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002_L36C8741_ClairePepperPhotographed by Claire Pepper.
Last year, I moved into a giant one-bedroom with level floors, six windows, three closets, and no mice. It’s wonderful, and I love living there. This came after four years of your standard apartment nightmares: roommate tension, pest infestations, and unwelcome sexual advances from landlords. It was time to stop settling, and really like where I lived. I found an apartment, fell in love, and after some negotiation, agreed to pay $1,325 a month for it. That’s much more than what I’d normally pay, but for once, I needed real closet space. I deserved level floors.

Then the thing that happens to most of us occurred a year later: I received a renewal lease with a drastic rent increase I wasn’t prepared to pay. First-year leases are priced low to fill the unit quickly. Then landlords assume you’ll be too broke and/or lazy to move, so they increase the price, make their money back, and don’t have to paint the walls again. So far, you’re losing this game. Luckily, it really is possible to satisfy both parties, as long as you have some room to negotiate.

Negotiating seems like it’s going to be all power play and body language tricks — saying things like, “You’re breakin’ my balls, here!”

In reality, it’s a discussion about how to make both you and your landlord happy — they don’t want you to move out, they just want more money and not to have to find a new tenant. I have no advice about how long to draw out the negotiation, whether to low-ball, or when you should accept a final offer. You’re the best judge of what you can afford, what’s fair, and how much negotiating you are willing to do. Here are some tips.

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Start The Conversation
A good opener is, “I received the renewal, and I’d love to stay in the apartment, but the suggested increase is too high for me. I’d like to discuss the terms and find something we’re both happy with.” Whether you call/visit/email depends on how accessible your landlord is, and how good or bad you are at talking to people.

Know What Your Apartment Is Worth
Request a rent history for your apartment (in New York City, this is a standard request of the housing authority; I’m not sure about other cities). Ask your neighbors what they pay, check out similar apartments in the neighborhood. Then mention that either your apartment isn’t worth what they’re asking for, or that you could easily find a similar but cheaper place. If you really want to get into it, research your local rent laws and guidelines, and check that the increase is legal. Your landlord might stress that the increase is below what’s legal — that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate, and certainly doesn’t mean you have to feel grateful.

Learn Something
Even one small thing about the market that works in your favor. Find out if property values went up or down in your neighborhood, and find out how that compares to the national or city average. Another great one is vacancy rates — an increasing vacancy rate in the area is a major vulnerability for your landlord.

Show Off What A Great Tenant You Are
You don’t even have to be that great, you just have to point out the bad things you haven’t done. Note that you haven’t burned the place down, bounced a check, disturbed the neighbors, snuck a pet in, or broken a window. If you have done these things, you’ll get no judgment from me, but you should skip this point in the negotiation.

Try To Extend Your Lease
Many large realty companies don’t offer multi-year leases because vacancy and replacing tenants isn’t a big threat for them. But, for smaller companies or families, guaranteeing that you’ll stick with them might be worth more than an increased rent.

Offer Money Up-Front
Like tip number five, this usually won’t help you out if your landlord is a large company, and/or super rich. But, for small companies and families, several hundred in the pocket is worth more than a grand spread out over a year. Offer to pay your first three months up-front in exchange for a lower rent increase. On a related note, you can also offer to push your payment date to before the first of the month.
009_R29Apartments-40_RachelleManningPhotographed by Rachelle Manning.
Provide Services For The Home Or Building
This could mean that you offer to make some repairs on your own, or that you agree to be on-call for helping out other tenants. This requires being handy, as well as having a flexible schedule.
Brainstorm: Become an informal doorman, and commit to being around during the work week to sign for everybody’s packages. I have not heard of people doing this, but I would pay money for that.

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Come Up With Some Requests
Would you be willing to pay the increased rent if they’d just replace those awful, drafty windows? Or the crumbling grout in your bathroom? What if they agreed to bring an exterminator twice a month instead of once? How about access to the backyard? If you can’t get your landlord to budge on the money, they might be willing to do something else. This is a good time to think of new perks along with maintenance items you weren’t sure you had the right to ask for.

Not all of these tips are going to apply to you. Pick and choose what makes sense, and work it into a nice little email, letter, or script. Here’s an example for you.

August 6, 2012

Dear Landlord,

I am writing in regards to the renewal of my lease at XX Xth Street, apartment X.

Since moving into the building last year, I have been a consistent tenant with a great payment record. I have not incurred any late fees or bounced any checks, with the exception of an incident in July when I was subject to identity theft. This issue has been resolved, and I believe it is noted in your records. Additionally, I have not damaged the unit in any way or required extra maintenance. I’ve really enjoyed living there and take very good care of the space.

The rent in the lease renewal paperwork is a 13.2% increase from what I am paying now, which is quite large, and I believe unfair. My monthly payment would jump from $1,325 to $1,500 (and would then increase again the following year). This increase would cost me over $2,000 in the first year alone. At this rate, the cost of moving would be significantly lower than staying put. Also, for $1,500 per month, I could rent an apartment of similar size in the same neighborhood with newly refurbished appliances and surfaces, or in an elevator building, or with in-house laundry facilities.

I suggest structuring the renewal lease in one of the following ways:

1. A two year lease, with monthly rent of $1,350, with first three months of rent paid up-front on October 1.

2. A two-year lease with monthly rent of $1,375, wherein the landlord agrees to replace window locks and reimburse tenant for cleaning supplies for the building lobby (the building lobby smells of cat urine consistently). Additionally, I would be happy to alter the terms of my lease to reflect a payment deadline on or before the first of each month. Currently, late charges are not applied until the 10th.

Since my original lease was accepted, my credit standing and financial stability have improved significantly, indicating how responsible I have been, and will continue to be. By keeping me in the building at the rates I suggest, you are ensuring a full, on-time rent payment each month and a much greater chance of securing another two-year lease in 2015. You will also save yourself the hassle and cost of finding a tenant in October, after the busy season of apartment hunting has already come to a close.

I look forward to continuing the conversation and hearing from you shortly.

Sincerely,

Ellen Smith

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That’s the letter I sent a couple weeks ago to my landlord. I had to call and pester a few times to get a response, but when I heard back, they were willing to take $1,400 per month, and they agreed to take care of the cat urine smell! For me, that was worth staying in the same place. Moving is the worst, and I’ll happily pay $75 per month not to do it.

The Billfold — which, mind you, is not another personal finance site — aims to do away with the misbelief that talking about difficult money issues is uncomfortable. Instead, they've created a space to have an honest conversation about how we save, spend and repay our debts. Or, why we'll buy a dozen oysters before we pay our rent.