In cities where rent control reigns, housemates can hope to find some security in an unpredictable housing climate. But in Washington State, rent control is illegal, meaning even if your landlord can’t increase the rent during the lease term (without an army of lawyers, at least), they can set the rent price to whatever they want for the next leasing period. So when hunting apartments for rent in Seattle, you’ll need to know what’s allowed, what’s not allowed and how to win over landlords like a pro. Here’s what experts say about finding affordable apartments for rent in Seattle and locking them down.
Apartments for Rent in Seattle: 101
Rent Control and Rent Stabilization
First, a quick overview of rent control: Rent control is a strict regulation of rent, and it’s a rare and precious thing for few cities. It’s impossible to rent a rent-controlled apartment now because once the original tenant vacates it, the unit most often becomes rent-stabilized. Rent stabilization controls rent in a manageable way for both renters and landlords. This usually applies to buildings built during a certain time period (1947 to 1974 in NYC, for example), and relies on the state of the local economy and inflation to regulate the allowable percentage increase on rent. This allows landlords to increase rent to keep up with the market without doubling to tripling it overnight.
Sounds great for renters, right? Well, it’s also a highly controversial issue, especially in Washington, where the politicians are split on the subject. Many believe it wouldn’t make a difference in making apartments for rent in Seattle more affordable and that rent control is a “failed economic policy.”
Chuck Hattemer, CMO and co-founder of OneRent.co, says that while rent control might look good on paper, it poses new challenges for property owners and renters alike in notoriously rent-controlled areas like San Francisco.
“The primary issue we see is that owners of rent-controlled units have little to no incentive to perform maintenance or upgrades on their units on a regular basis,” he explains, comparing current events in San Francisco to a hypothetical rent-controlled future for Seattle.
“Maintenance costs are unregulated, and therefore the numbers just don’t make sense if you wanted to invest $5,000 into renovations but can only raise the rent 1.6 percent and earn an additional $200 a year or something along those lines.”
Hattemer argues that the lack of rent regulations Seattle is a more beneficial system, allowing investors to renovate old or undesirable buildings to market levels, and charge the standard rent. And the renters?
“For a certain portion of the population, they’re OK with rent raises because they know (and expect) that the owner will invest in improving their unit in order to match a higher rate,” he says.
A Slippery Slope
So where does that leave renters? On a slippery slope, to say the least. Though the lack of rent control essentially frees up the housing stock, it doesn’t help in a tight rental market. And according to Seth Stephens, a professional landlord at Renters Warehouse of Seattle, there is a lot to consider when you hit the local rental market — the first being a shortage of supply.
“The biggest hurdle facing the Seattle area is lack of homes on the market and the cost of them,” he says. “A quality home is being rented in a matter of hours or days with multiple applications, making it tough for tenants to find that perfect home.”
That’s not surprising, considering the vacancy rate in the area can vary from as high as 4.6 percent to as low as 1.4 percent, depending on the neck of the woods you’re renting in. And availability is just one of the issues.
“The average two-bedroom in Seattle is $2,400 monthly,” Stephens continues. “As you get into the surrounding areas, you see those prices drop, but it’s still not exactly affordable.”
These are some of the reasons local renters have been crying out for the return of rent control in the last few years. In a market based on inflation and government-regulated control, the rent might be more adaptable, and so would the renters.
As it stands, Stephens says that owners have had to catch up to the market, and tenants looking for apartments for rent in Seattle may very well be suffering because of it.
“We’re seeing many owners who have had tenants for three to four years and have no idea the market is up $300 to $800 monthly,” he explains.
[bctt tweet=”When they actually raise rents, it becomes difficult for the average tenant to find that extra cash in their monthly budget.” username=”ProLandlord”]
Considering a month-to-month tenant must only be given a 30-day-notice before a landlord can raise the rent, it’s important to know a few key things about apartments for rent in Seattle.
Negotiating, Communicating, and Rooming Up
If you’re wondering what’s a renter to do in a no-rent-control-high-demand-low-supply market, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Here are some great tips to navigate the rental market in Seattle (or anywhere, for that matter).
1. Sign a Longer Lease
According to the Washington Tenants Union, a landlord cannot change any aspect of a lease during the fixed-term period except by mutual agreement. So the longer your lease term, the longer you can hold onto a great deal. In many cases, landlords prefer tenants who are willing to sign longer leases because it offers them security as well. (More on that in the next section.)
And to really find a great deal? It’s all about getting in early, says Hattemer.
“You’ll want to look in areas that are still developing and on the up-and-up. This will mean that you can lock down a long-term lease in an area that is going to have lots of new development, job opportunities, new restaurants, new things to do, new public transportation, and more.
“In Seattle specifically, look at neighborhoods such as North Queen Anne, Magnolia, or West Seattle.”
2. Negotiate With Your Landlord
Yes, this is totally allowed and always recommended. Apartment prices aren’t fixed, and you may be surprised at your bargaining power. Negotiate the rent before you sign a new lease and before you resign an old lease, keeping in mind your strong suits.
“Tenants who have low-debt-to-income levels, stable jobs, and good credit are still the ideal tenants for an owner, so taking care of your finances will help in negotiations,” recommends Stephens.
“The other part is your flexibility — if you can do a longer term lease, this will allow an owner to justify dropping the rent or being open to certain terms a tenant might want.”
Keep in mind that landlords aren’t picky just for any reason. The better you present yourself, the better your bargaining power.
“It’s important that the renter demonstrates that they understand this property is an investment and thus the owner is financially motivated,” adds Hattemer, who also reccommends offering additional incentives deposits for pets.
3. Communicate With Your Landlord
Remember when we said landlords are human, too? Keep that in mind when trying to build a good repertoire.
“A landlord has two major concerns: They want rent paid on time and their home to be taken care of,” Stephens continues. “If you can accomplish these two things, you can keep an affordable home and have a good relationship with the landlord.”
And to ensure timely maintenance and a well-kept residence, it’s vital to keep your landlord up to speed about any issues.
“Landlords appreciate tenants that are proactive, flexible, and patient,” adds Hattemer.
4. Room Up
And a final word to the wise: There’s a reason why average renter household size has increased in 11 of America’s largest metros. If the landlord must raise the rent to keep up with the market, find someone to chip in on the bills to help you hold onto affordable apartments for rent in Seattle. If nothing else, splitting your rent with housemates is a tried and true method to keeping rent manageable.