Starting the search for your next home online -- whether it's a rental or purchase -- has become commonplace, if not completely expected. But when it comes time to tour homes and narrow your options, it may seem like only homebuyers have the advantage of calling on a real estate agent to help them through the process.
But renters shouldn't sell themselves short.
Many real estate agents will gladly represent a renter searching for his or her next place to lease -- it's just a matter of connecting with the right professional who's familiar with rentals in your target area.
Real estate agents involved in lease deals often collect a commission or finder's fee from the landlord -- typically equivalent to one month's rent -- when a qualified renter signs on to move in. But in some parts of the country where finder's fees aren't common -- Seattle, for example -- agents will instead collect a flat fee of a few hundred dollars or more from the renter, depending on the level of service.
By enlisting the help of an agent, you get all the benefits available to a homebuyer: professional experience, local knowledge and an understanding of your budgetary constraints.
"The biggest benefit is, first and foremost, the personal touch. I think it's something that's been lacking over the last five or six years in the real estate industry, especially on the rental side," says Justin Cleary, CEO of the Philly Apartment Company, an apartment rental agency in Philadelphia.
Cleary says his company receives about half of its business from individuals moving to the Philadelphia area from out of town.
"The other 50 percent are people that just don't want to bother sitting in front of a computer for days and weeks on end, trying to narrow down places. And I think the biggest difficulty is getting in to see properties," he says.
Seattle Rental Group is a similar business with an apartment-finding service that specializes in employment relocations, which not only offers availabilities and sets up appointments for tours but introduces soon-to-be residents to the Emerald City.
"They help people with a crash course of the area -- if you're interested in the closest grocery stores and what kind of people live there," says Kim Reidy, director of relocation for Seattle Rental Group.
Still, leasing an apartment or home is far easier than buying a home, and many renters choose to go solo when searching for and leasing a place. As a result, professionals dedicated to the renting process are less common. Cleary says the Philly Apartment Company is one of the only apartment brokers in the Philadelphia area.
Fred Thompson, director of the Property Management Division for Re/Max 200 Realty in Orlando, Florida, says he doesn't see many real estate agents taking renters through the entire process in his market. Most renters, he says, find the single-family homes for lease from Re/Max 200 online and reach out directly.
"They may have a Realtor or sales agent open up a house and show it to them, but there's not really any tenant representation as far as leasing the property, and there's hardly [any] room on the listing price to move," Thompson says.
Housing shortages aren't specific to the buy-and-sell market. High demand for rentals throughout most of the U.S. means available apartments and homes for rent are going fast -- and rents are rising quickly.
In the state of Washington, the legally required notice to move out is just 20 days, where most places require between 30 and 90 days. Short notice combined with a fast-moving market means renters have to act fast and be strategic to find the right apartment or house. Reidy notes an agent helps to streamline the inquiry process so the renter can focus on narrowing options.
"As a real estate agent, we can access the key box and therefore eliminate the appointments and just kind of show up," she says.
"They may want to be ready to go to their bank and get a cashier's check or money order for the deposit or first month's rent," Thompson says.
Here are six reasons you may benefit from using a real estate agent to help you find your next rental.
Your location calls for it. If you're going to be living in the heart of downtown in a major city, having a professional on hand would be helpful -- and in a competitive market like New York City, a real estate agent is necessary to help you get appointments to tour available spaces.
You're relocating to a new city. As someone unfamiliar with a city's layout and neighborhoods, it could be a major advantage to call in a pro who spends their days scouring neighborhoods for available homes and apartments. Some employers also include agent representation as part of their relocation packages.
You're busy and can't look yourself. Whether you can't make it to your next city until your move date or you simply have a lot of important meetings, enlisting the help of an agent can eliminate that time crunch you've been struggling with.
You want to rent a single-family home. Unlike apartment buildings where a property manager is often on site, single-family home rentals can be harder to find listings for and schedule tours. A real estate agent will have access to the local multiple listing service and will know which houses are for rent, and should be able to get you access in a timely manner.
You want to rent in a mom-and-pop building. Similar to the single-family home rental issue, a desire to rent in a smaller building owned by a private investor may make visiting the property more difficult. A real estate agent with knowledge of all the buildings in the area and familiarity with the local investors will make it easier to find out if there's an open unit in that quadplex or three-floor walk-up.
You're having trouble scheduling a tour. If calls or emails to a property manager go unanswered, or you make it to the leasing office just after closing, it's a real estate agent's job to make that connection for you. With an agent representing you, it might be possible to schedule an after-hours showing or ensure the property manager knows you're serious about your inquiry.
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