NEW YORK (MainStreet) Depending on where you live, if you rent an apartment through a real estate agent, you might have to foot the bill on their commission. Broker fees paid by the tenant are found in cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago and can cost up to a whopping 18% of one year's rent. That's why, in an effort to attract renters looking to avoid a pricey broker's fee, many real estate websites are now advertising what's known as "no-fee" apartments.
"A no-fee listing means the tenant is renting directly from the landlord without a broker, or that the tenant is using a broker but the landlord has agreed to pay the broker's fee," says Lee Lin, co-founder of RentHop.com, which advertises both fee and no-fee listings. Other sites offering no-fee listings include Craigslist.org, NyBits.com and NoFeeRentals.com.
While a no-fee listing might sound like a surefire way to save money on the apartment of your dreams, there are some caveats that renters should keep in mind. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you decide if a no-fee apartment is right for you.
What Type of Building Do You Want?
If you're looking for a larger building with multiple apartments, you'll likely find a good number of no-fee listings, since you can often rent units directly through the building's management company without the need for a real estate broker. However, if you're seeking a smaller building in a city where broker's fees are common, you might not have as much luck finding no-fee options.
"It's harder to find a small, walkup brownstone with just a handful of apartments that is listed by a management company, since they are typically owned by a smaller landlord who will let a real estate agent handle the rental process for them," says Kathryn Blaze, a real estate agent for Fenwick Keats Real Estate in Manhattan.
How Well Do You Know the Area?
If you're already familiar with the city where you're looking and have a good idea of the type of neighborhood and building you want, it might make sense to consider no-fee listings that don't involve a real estate agent, says Blaze. However, if you're not familiar with the area and/or don't have the time to conduct research yourself, it might be better to work with an agent even if you're required to pay a fee.
"For a lot of people, especially relocation clients that simply do not know the city and do not have a lot of time to find a place, apartment searching can be a really time-intensive process in terms of determining neighborhoods you want, seeking out buildings and scheduling appointments," says Blaze. "In that kind of scenario, it is always beneficial to have an expert who can guide you through the process and really take control to simplify things for you from start to finish."
Are You Really Saving Money?
In theory, the whole point of renting a no-fee apartment is to save you money, but sometimes the money you're saving on not paying a broker's fee is hidden into the cost of your rent.
"Generally speaking, no-fee apartments [in New York City] on an apples-to-apples basis carry a higher monthly rent than a fee apartment," says Robb Pair, founder of Harlem Lofts Inc. and president of the Manhattan Association of Realtors. "When I price a unit that is a fee unit, it's typically 12% to 18% less expensive than no-fee units."
To determine if a no-fee apartment is actually saving you money, research the rents of comparable units in the area that do require a broker's fee. If the rent of the no-fee apartment is higher, do some basic math to figure out whether, in the first 12 months, it will cost you more, less or about the same amount to rent a unit with a broker's fee. You might find that the apartments with a broker's fee will actually cost you less for the first year.
Can You Negotiate?
If you fall in love with an apartment that does require a broker's fee, you can occasionally bring down the cost of the fee if you try your hand at negotiating. If you're successful, it might be worth taking the apartment instead of finding a no-fee listing that you might not like as much, especially if you plan to stay for a few years. Just be aware that there may be risks involved in negotiating.
"Broker's fees are certainly negotiable, but in a tight market like the one we have now, the negotiating can easily lead you to losing the apartment," says Lin. "That's pretty painful given how hard it is just to find an acceptable place to live."
If you do plan to take the risk and negotiate, it's best to wait until you've built a relationship with an agent and are in the final stages of securing a deal.
"You don't want to negotiate up front, because the broker might tell you to get lost," says Lin. "Wait until the very end of the process when you've already been working with the broker for a while and you've found something you like."
You should also make sure that you have all of the necessary documents required to sign a lease ready ahead of time, such as proof of employment, bank statements and your most recent tax return.
"If you have this done in advance, the broker's job is half done and they know you are a serious customer, so they may likely consider reducing their fee as a result," says Pair.
Written by Kristin Colella for MainStreet