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Navigating Today’s Rental Market

Last fall, as the rental market floundered, Caleb Valentin decided that the moment had come to move out of his mother’s house in Staten Island …

Navigating Today’s Rental Market

Last fall, as the rental market floundered, Caleb Valentin decided that the moment had come to move out of his mother’s house in Staten Island and live in Manhattan. The options were stunningly good. He found a two-bedroom on Avenue A and East 12th Street in the East Village for $2,000, and rented it with his cousin.

But a year is a long time in the New York rental market, and none so much as this year. Mr. Valentin, 29, has since lost his job as a mental-health therapist, and recently learned that his rent will spike to $3,400 a month when his lease comes up for renewal at the end of September.

“We weren’t expecting that. We thought that maybe there would be some kind of limit,” said Mr. Valentin. But a landlord can raise the rent on a market-rate apartment like Mr. Valentin’s to any amount so long as the tenant is given proper notice.

Without a job, Mr. Valentin cannot afford the rent hike, and his roommate cannot make the rent on her own. “It’s crazy that we’re being pushed out so suddenly,” he said.

Mr. Valentin is among the thousands of renters who streamed into Manhattan as rents plunged last year, getting a rare opportunity to live in neighborhoods that would ordinarily have been out of reach, like the Village, Chelsea and the Lower East Side. But now, as workers and students stream back into the city in huge numbers, landlords are rapidly raising rents as pandemic leases expire, signaling what may be the end to a brief moment where rents felt attainable.

“The market has shifted and it is a very strong landlord-friendly market,” said Gary Malin, the chief operating officer of Corcoran. A year ago, many apartments languished on the market for weeks and landlords doled out months of free rent to get anyone in the door. By contrast, this summer, “there are more tenants in the marketplace now than I’ve ever seen at any one moment,” Mr. Malin said.

But the recovery is not an even one. Renters are racing to desirable neighborhoods, sparking bidding wars in places like the West Village. But areas farther out, or far from parks or open spaces, are still lagging. All of this is shadowed by growing concern about the Delta variant and what it might mean for the city’s recovery.

In July, new Manhattan lease signings were up 54.7 percent from a year ago, according to a Douglas Elliman market report, which also found that rent concessions were down 7.6 percent. But rents overall are still down. In July, the median rent in Manhattan was $3,208 a month, down 3.4 percent from a year ago, and down 10.8 percent from 2019, when it was $3,595 a month, according to Jonathan J. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers and Consultants and the author of the Douglas Elliman report.

“This market is one of the most polarized, fragmented and segmented markets I’ve ever tracked,” Mr. Miller said. “And as a result it’s very hard to apply a brush-stroke comparison.”

At the Listings Project, a weekly newsletter of no-fee apartments, the rents are still reasonable, but listings are moving fast. “We have a lot of ‘seeking listings’ from people from all over the world, all over the country, seeking a Manhattan apartment,” said Stephanie Diamond, the project’s founder.

For Mr. Valentin, the new competition at a time when he is out of work leaves him with few options. His roommate may move to Queens or Long Island. Mr. Valentin might move with her or leave New York for Denver, Austin or Baltimore. He’s not sure. For now, he’s waiting. “We still have September,” he said. “Even though it’s stressful, we want to enjoy our last couple of weeks in the city.”

For renters who are discovering a market far more competitive than it was in 2020, there are still options. You just have to know where to look.

Not All Neighborhoods Are Equal

In neighborhoods like Astoria, Sunnyside, Sunset Park, Inwood and Washington Heights, the median rent in the second quarter of 2021 for a two-bedroom was less than $2,200 a month, according to data provided by StreetEasy.

In Upper Manhattan, demand is up, but rents aren’t. “People are coming and renting, but we’re not seeing the same bounce back of prices,” said Karen Paul, the head of rentals at Bohemia Realty Group, which has offices in Washington Heights and Harlem.

Some types of uptown apartments are particularly slow to rent. “Nobody wants studios anymore,” Ms. Paul said. Renters “just want more space because they’re there all the time and they have to operate their whole world out of their apartment.”

Consider the Concessions

Concessions are harder to come by this year, but they still exist, particularly when it comes to broker’s fees. Once the bane of a renter’s search, they are now the exception. In July, 75 percent of rental listings on StreetEasy were advertised as no-fee apartments.

The dreaded broker’s fee, which can cost a renter as much as 15 percent of the annual rent, has been in flux since early 2020, when New York State briefly banned it. That decision was quickly blocked by the courts, and in May 2021 the state issued new guidelines clarifying that broker’s fees are legal.

But a no-fee apartment isn’t necessarily cheaper than one with a fee. On a no-fee apartment, you won’t hand the broker an enormous check, but you may end up paying the cost in the form of a higher monthly rent, as the landlord absorbs the fee into the rental calculation.

“It will get translated back into the rent,” said Nancy Wu, a StreetEasy economist, describing no-fee listings as “just another way of advertising.”

Some landlords are still offering a month of free rent, but that discount is spread out over the term of the lease. So when the lease comes up for renewal, any rent increase is based on that higher base rent, not what is known as the net-effective rent. To stave off a sharp increase, ask for a two-year lease instead.

Consider other ways to reduce your payments, too. Find out if the building charges an amenity fee for its gym, for example, and ask if it can be waived or reduced.

Go Farther, Go Big

People have been gravitating toward apartments with outdoor space and to areas with plenty of open space, like the Brooklyn waterfront or in Fort Greene or Park Slope, driving up rents in those areas. Find an apartment that’s a subway stop or two from a prime destination, and the price may come down considerably.

The same goes for size. Choose a larger apartment and fill it with roommates, and you could bring your costs down.

“If you’re not moving to a popular area and you are considering a three-bedroom, a four-bedroom, something that might not be everybody’s cup of tea for whatever reason, then that is where you’ll still have some lingering price benefit,” said Noble Novitzki, the chief operating officer of Nooklyn.

More Uncertainty Ahead

Typically, rents dip in the late fall and early winter, as fewer people move. If you can wait a few months to rent, landlords may lower rates to fill vacancies. But the pandemic throws a wrench into that equation: Many companies that intended to bring workers back to the office in September have delayed those plans because of concerns about the Delta variant.So rather than a September rush, the market may see a rolling return of workers, “pushing some of the activity that would have happened in September further down the calendar into late fall and the new year,” Mr. Miller said.

And so, the rental market may continue to surprise renters for months to come.

For weekly email updates on residential real estate news, sign up here. Follow us on Twitter: @nytrealestate.

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