Rents are dropping steadily and landlords no longer have the last word—being a renter has never been so sweet. Best of all, it may stay that way for a while, so if you’ve been considering the move to Brooklyn, you may find that West 79th Street one-bedroom well within arm’s reach.
After speaking with several real estate brokers and professionals who work with Upper West Side rentals, I determined that renters have a lot of leverage these days. Landlords are begging for business, trying to avoid leaving properties vacant, and you, the renter, should take advantage of a good situation. Not that you’ll be able to find something for $1,000 a month (this is still, after all, the Upper West Side), but prices are lower and there’s plenty of negotiating that renters can do to tilt the situation in their favor.
Many renters use brokers to find landlords, and vice-versa, so if you go the broker route, Chris Randolph, a real estate salesperson at JC DeNiro, suggested going through referrals whenever possible.
“If you’re new to town or have never looked for your own apartment, ask for the manager of a real estate office and explain your situation, then request an experienced agent,” he said. “Putting the manager on the spot is a good thing, he or she will be more aware of your situation.”
Building a relationship with a broker or manager can help negotiate a rate that’s lower than an apartment’s listed price—a concession that’s becoming pretty standard in this economy, according to Randolph. He also recommends working with smaller brokers, as the tenant is more likely to receive good “hands-on” treatment. (Randolph, coincidentally, works for one such small broker.) However, one trade off with these companies is the smaller scope that the firm has in such a large city.
Right now, finishing a deal quickly is also very attractive to brokers, who saw very slow business over the holiday season and are facing a lull before the market gets hot in June, when college grads and summer interns descend on the city. Renters who are willing to sign as soon as possible will receive more attention and get better concessions in closing a deal. “An old Brooklyn adage,” said Randolph, who grew up in Carroll Gardens, “is that fast nickel is better than a slow dime.”
Of course, nowadays many people bypass realtors altogether and rely on the Internet wonderland of Craigslist postings. By far the most up-to-date and convenient listing tool available (newspaper classifieds are quickly outdated and are often realtor-heavy), Craiglist searches are not an exact science, since scams and bogus listings must be filtered out (try selecting the Manhattan tab and searching “Upper West Side” in any fields available). Still, searches of neighborhood apartments with no broker fees or sales by owner often produce more than 1,000 listings. Searching for rentals with brokers and fees is also possible, further broadening your scope. At the very least, Craigslist is a useful gauge of what to expect when it comes to pricing.
Big firms like Citi Habitats often do not allow brokers to speak with the press, but my friend Andrew Gordon recently left the company to work independently and was willing to speak candidly. He covers many areas of Manhattan, including the Upper West Side, and was one of many to point out that renters should start by negotiating the broker’s fee, with the goal of not having to pay one at all.
“More likely than not, a landlord will agree to pay the broker fee to get their apartment rented,” he said. “They may also be willing to throw in a month’s free rent.”
For cheaper rents, the area between Columbus Avenue and Broadway has always provided better deals regardless of the economy, as well as the mid-rise pre-war buildings along Amsterdam Avenue, according to Gordon. The high rises on Central Park West and on Riverside Drive remain at higher and steadier prices, as they are still desirable to a certain echelon of renters.
“The walkups without doorman services are typically less expensive—now you can find a one bedroom for as low as $1,700, whereas a high rise on Central Park West will still pick up $2,500,” Gordon said. “Those buildings with studios and one-bedrooms are more likely to give better deals.”
Just last year, these $1,700 apartments were renting for as much as $2,200 a month, according to Gordon.
Adina Azarian, who owns Adina Equities, says $1,700 is the new pricing standard, having just rented some one-bedroom spaces for that much on West 79th Street. She says that many owners are also now offering substantial renovations or amenities that were unheard of a year ago. Landlords are willing to install dishwashers and new blinds for new tenants, or even paint an apartment before the move-in date. Before the change in the economy, none of these offers would have been made.
In smaller brownstone buildings, renters can find all kinds of quirky concessions, like free iPods or paid gym memberships. Some landlords even offer free months rent—but usually at the end of a lease, thus extending a year to 13 months.
Azarian finds the gimmicky offers unhelpful and the 13-month lease to be more or less a sham. The “free month” is usually at the end of a lease, and so one ends up paying for a full year anyway, with no up-front savings. Additionally, moving to a new apartment, retrieving a security deposit or signing a new lease may be complicated by the extra month’s commitment, so Azarian recommends focusing on more important and substantial agreements.
“Move-in dates are negotiable, which was never the case before,” she said. “Now if you’re working on a deal and you don’t want to move in until March 15, a landlord is much more likely to eat up the extra weeks so as to sign someone definite.”
She also suggested negotiating the brokers’ costs, such as waiving the typical $100 application fee and the cost of the credit check. Brokers are in the same boat as landlords in terms of attracting clients.
Ipods and gym memberships aside, pricing on the Upper West Side has not changed unilaterally, as the prime areas seem relatively less affected by fluctuations in the housing market. Luxury housing is still popular among those who can afford it. Gary Jacob, an owner of luxury rental manager Glenwood, points out that his prestigious Upper West Side property, the Grand Tier, on Broadway and West 65th Street, has not lost much business.
Stephen Kotler, an executive vice president with Prudential Douglas Elliman, echoes the view that the higher-end apartments are not losing much value. A building with studios and one-bedrooms has to market much more aggressively than those offering family rentals with three or four bedrooms, which are still in high demand (there are about 10 to 15 percent more one-bedrooms available than a year ago, according to Kotler). Smaller apartments are also often individually owned, unlike larger and more luxurious properties often owned by investors.
But even some investor properties and developments have opened up. Riverside Boulevard, which stretches along the Hudson River from West 66th to 71st streets, for example, has a lot of vacant investor-owned units.
“These properties are competing with each other for tenants,” Kotler said.
A quick search showed a disparity in prices for Riverside Boulevard one-bedrooms, ranging from $4,200 a month to as low as $2,400. While these are still luxury prices, the latest listings promise “no fees” and all sorts of amenities—hardwood floors, granite countertops, fitness centers and free parking are usually standard.
Kotler also points to the Upper West Side “pockets” where renters are most likely to find vacancies. The area south of West 72nd Street is likely yield good choices, as is the mid- and upper-90s. In between, the market is much tougher, as there are fewer rental apartments available.
Despite the economy, Prudential Douglas Elliman is moving forward with plans to open two new high-end, residential rental buildings in the Park West Village area near Columbus Avenue and West 97th Street. One of these will be above the new Whole Foods supermarket. These luxury doorman buildings will arrive in March, and create even more space in what seems to be a fairly open market.
While some feel that the high-end rental market has been relatively immune to price drops when compared with smaller spaces in brownstones, Louise Phillips Forbes, an executive vice president at Halstead Properties, sees things differently. People who would normally buy an apartment are waiting for prices to drop further and have decided to continue renting a seven-bedroom apartment on West End Avenue, for example. But instead of paying $15,000 a month, “nobody will go above twelve,” Forbes said, which represents a significant drop.
She explains that potential buyers—of investment properties that will be rented out, and of homes—are waiting for the market to hit bottom, forcing current owners to rent their luxury units at reduced rates.
Translated, this steady supply of vacant rental apartments should keep rents low (by luxury standards), either because owners waiting to sell are collecting rental income until the market tips in their favor, or because investors with newly purchased apartments are looking for a return. Either way, the renters win.
“Everything is backed up and the entire rental market is on a pause,” Forbes said. “It is a buyer’s and renter’s market.”
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