House-hunters can find homes on their own. So can renters who are not quite ready to take the leap into home ownership. But do you really want to go it alone? Why not let an agent do the legwork for you?
Hiring an agent to help with your search for a rental apartment may be a big-city phenomenon, especially in places like New York and Chicago. But real estate agents everywhere can help renters find suitable accommodations just like they help buyers find houses.
And perhaps more importantly, they can make the search much easier.
To hear Lee Lin of RentHop.com tell it, using agents to find a rental -- a house in a nice neighborhood, perhaps, or an apartment close to work -- is becoming more common. There are any number of reasons for this, most of which ring true whether you are renting or buying.
"The main reason to use any real estate professional is to save time and utilize an expert's knowledge of the market that can take decades to build," says Lin, co-founder and CEO of RentHop. The site sorts apartment listings in the New York City, Boston and Chicago areas by any number of variables, including location, doorman and elevator.
"The best deals change daily, and market trends can be highly localized to specific neighborhoods or even streets within the same city. And every case still requires a scheduled physical inspection of the premises."
While it's a given that agents can relieve you from a lot of legwork, they also bring other benefits to the search. Often, for example, a trusted agent develops a personal relationship with a particular landlord or staff member. And as such, he or she may learn about upcoming availabilities before they are officially listed.
Good deals are hard to find for people who spend a few weekends a year looking for an apartment or house. But agents are in the trenches every day, all year long, previewing this place and that. They know who's willing to negotiate, for example -- and not just on the rent, but on other lease terms such as the security deposit.
Some landlords prefer to deal with agents or would-be tenants who come through an agent. That way, the landlord doesn't have to do as much of the paperwork or screening. And with vacancies falling practically everywhere, competition is fierce for decent places, so it helps to have professional representation.
Moreover, according to Lin, many landlords are still low-tech. There is no universal database of rental listings in any city, he says.
"Even today, the industry still relies on spreadsheets and faxes to transmit listings to brokers and listing directories. Newer sites like RentHop allow consumers access to direct aggregations from many landlords, but there are always some listings that slip through the cracks."
Still, not every real estate agent wants to work with renters, and not all of those who do are experts in the field. Some will want to push you into a place as quickly as possible and collect their commission. So look for an agent who specializes in rentals, or who specializes in properties in the particular neighborhood or community where you'd most like to live.
Another way to find a good rental agent is to ask if the brokerage has a corporate relocation department. Often when companies are moving their employees about, people, especially those whose job shifts are temporary, prefer to rent rather than buy. So a relo agent needs to have his or her fingers on the pulse of the rental market as well as the purchase market.
Rob Weiss, director of business development at RentHop, also suggests asking landlords or property managers to suggest a decent agent. They know the good ones and can help point you in that direction, or at least give you a running start.
In addition, some websites screen agents and landlords, scoring everyone in the system on variables such as how quickly they respond and how well they close deals.
In many cases, the landlord will pay your agent's commission, or at least a finder's fee. But how much the landlord is willing to shoulder and how much you'll have to kick in is open to negotiation. Whatever the cost, though, it may be worth it if the agent has helped you find a great place with little or no effort on your part.