I’ll cover a lot of information in this post, from listing agents and commissions through move-in, but if you’ve been here before and are ready to jump right in, start by checking out the rental links to the right or use my handy real estate search tool.
First, a big disclaimer: My business is focused primarily on working with home buyers and home sellers. I include rental properties and information on the apartment search on my site so that renters can take advantage of my easy-to-use search tools and have a more successful rental search. I’m happy to provide information to help you in your rental search, but I don’t serve as a tenant’s agent, so if you’re in the market for a rental, I’m not a good fit to show you rental properties. For renters, I only provide online tools and information to make your rental search easier.
The Northern Virginia rental market is strong, and good rentals don’t sit on the market for long. You may think that the “market is strong” is an all-too-common refrain for some in the real estate business, but it applies in many of our local rental markets. The steady influx of government employees, military personnel, technology workers, and students with short term housing needs provides demand that makes for vibrant rental activity. If you want to find the right rental at the right price and avoid getting frazzled, you need to understand the ins and outs of the rental process.
You Need To Work With An Agent That Is Not the Listing Agent
I believe in a simple, straightforward approach, so at the outset let’s tackle an issue on the minds of a lot of renters: who is the listing agent and how are commissions handled? I’m not the listing agent for the vast majority of rentals that appear on my website. Listing agents represent the interests of the landlord. If you opt to work with a tenant’s agent, that agent should represent your interests exclusively. That agent’s commission is entirely paid by the landlord. If I were to represent tenants, it would make it difficult to serve both landlords and tenants to the extent of my abilities. I’ve found that wearing 1 hat works best. If I try to wear 2 hats at the same time, I’d probably look silly.
Given that the landlord pays both the listing agent’s commission and the tenant’s agent commission, you’ll begin to wonder why anyone would ever try to navigate a treacherous rental market without representation. It simply doesn’t make any sense.
You should be represented by an agent to find the right apartment efficiently and with minimal stress. Unfortunately, most renters do not opt to develop a relationship with one agent, and that fact helps to discourage agents from spending a lot of time on rentals. Although I recognize how valuable it is to have an agent representing your interests, I also recognize how difficult it can be to find that agent.
To find the right rental, you’ll probably look at several properties. Consider 2 scenarios: you can contact multiple listing agents (who aren’t representing your interests), repeat your story multiple times, and on your own try to coordinate seeing multiple properties in a convenient manner, in an area that might be unfamiliar to you. Or you can tell your story once to an agent representing your interests and pass off the worries of arranging showings in an efficient manner. The first scenario is perfect for people that like to take on stress and favor activity over results. The second scenario – having an agent represent you – is for people who are focused on getting a positive outcome – finding the right rental – with the least hassle.
My 2 scenarios are actually a little inaccurate. Renters that opt to search on their own are even worse off than I described. As an agent, I have access to our area’s multiple listing service, which is updated in real time and contains more information than other data sources. Keep in mind that no matter where you search for rentals, the original source is our local multiple listing service. For example, the listing information I display on my website comes from that service, but there is a lag time before my software pulls the latest data. That lag is the same for every data source that a non-agent might use; the lag might be different, but it’s always there. So if you are searching for an apartment or rental on your own, you’re doing it with stale data. It’s comparable to try to stay on top of fast-moving current events by reading a newspaper that’s 2 days old. Have you ever run out to see a rental only to discover it was rented days ago? While you might never eliminate that unfortunate situation, if you work with an agent with access to the latest data, you can minimize the chance that it happens.
To recap, here are the reasons why you need to work with an agent that is not the listing agent:
- A tenant’s agent will represent your interests – not the landlord’s interests
- You won’t pay a commission – that commission is paid by the landlord
- A tenant’s agent will arrange showings in a convenient and efficient manner using the most up-to-date information
- A tenant’s agent can help you review your lease and explain anything that’s unfamiliar to you
But as I said above, while I recommend you work with an agent other than the listing agent, it’s often to tough to find that person. I don’t have easy solutions to that problem, and despite my advice, many renters opt to try to navigate the rental market on their own.
Understand The Rental Process To Produce a Positive Outcome
I’ve observed this simple truth about the rental market: those that understand the rental process and work within it are more likely to have a positive outcome than those that try to chart a new course. Here are the issues that come up over and over in completing a successful rental search:
- For our metro area, all rentals listed with a real estate agent are on the same multiple listing service, and there is just one. You can save valuable time by finding one easy-to-use search tool and sticking with it, as opposed to checking every site with an apartment listing. Looking for rentals on multiple web sites is not increasing the rental listings you can evaluate, because all rentals listed with real estate agents come from the same multiple listing service. I’ve worked hard to make my real estate search tool powerful yet easy to use, and my data is updated every day.
- Many rental units are occupied. As much as you might like to see an apartment on a moment’s notice, that doesn’t happen very often. Just as you would want others to respect you as a renter, good agents will need to give reasonable notice before showing an occupied property. Therefore, if you were planning on seeing a rental on short notice, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment.
- Even vacant rentals can take time to access. The rows of lock boxes pictured above are a common sight in busy rental communities. Sometimes, the lock boxes are poorly labeled, require combinations that have to be tracked down, or in some cases don’t include all the keys necessary to access a particular apartment. Gaining access to an apartment takes time.
- Rental listings are on the market now, and landlords would like to rent them in a reasonable time, which is typically less than 30 days. If you’re looking to rent more than 30 days from when you start your search, you’re not likely to find many landlords willing to accept your lease offer. Some occupied properties are on the market with a “move in” date in the future, but landlords must wait before putting a rental on the market until near the end of an existing tenant’s lease, so most properties are on the market close to when they are available. You’ll typically want to start your preliminary “looking around” about 30 to 45 days before you’re ready to start paying rent. If there’s a wide range of options that fit your tastes and budget, that time period can be reduced to as little as a few weeks.
- Similarly, if you would like to see an apartment which probably won’t be available when you’re ready to sign a lease, busy agents will be reluctant to show it because they realize it will be off the market before you could move in.
- Don’t lock in on a single property too soon. Many rental listings don’t come with a lot of pictures. Despite this, a lot of renters decide before heading off to see a property that it is the perfect fit. That’s premature, and it leads to disappointment.
- Don’t think you need to see every rental to make an informed decision. If you spend too much time looking, you run the risk that a desirable rental is snapped up by someone else while you’re checking out properties that aren’t a good fit. It’s important to strike a balance – be deliberate but be opportunistic.
- Renting an apartment or home typically involves a rental application, which comes with a fee that can range from about $40 and up. Rental applications allow landlords to check the credit of potential tenants prior to signing a lease. You should only submit an application for properties in which you have a genuine interest.
- Consider the rental application as your written offer. Tenants often ask whether a landlord will accept a particular term or condition before submitting an application. Real estate, like many businesses, starts with a written offer. Therefore, the best way to find out what a landlord will accept is to have a genuine interest in a property and put it in writing. Most landlords are savvy enough to know that you’re not a serious prospect until you make a written offer. As a tenant, if you have a serious interest in a rental and want the landlord’s consent to a special term or condition, you’ll want a written response from a landlord.
- Landlords place reasonable restrictions on renters, such as whether they’ll accept pets or smokers. It’s important to tell your tenant’s agent about these factors so that he or she can find rentals that are a good fit for you.
- Understand the real cost of a rental property. That’s more complicated than it sounds because rental properties sometimes come with a variety of fees, such as move-in fees, elevator fees, pet fees, homeowner’s association dues, and water access fees, just to name a few. If you’re not familiar with all of the fees associated with different types of real property, it’s easy to be blindsided by an unexpected fee.
- Review your lease carefully and take the time to understand it. A lease is an important legal document that will govern your use of the rental property. There might be terms or conditions that are unfamiliar to you or raise uncertainty over how they might be applied. Don’t hesitate to raise questions with your tenant’s agent. The only bad question is one that goes unasked.
- Identify any “punch out” items agreed to in the lease that need to be completed before you move in. These “punch out” items are usually small repairs. A common lease in Virginia gives you an opportunity to address issues with the landlord that you discover after you move in, so you’ll have a chance to resolve these items.
- Enjoy your new home! When the search is done and the paperwork is filed away, it’s time to kick your shoes off and enjoy your new place. Or maybe it’s time to lace up your running shoes, head outside, and enjoy Northern Virginia’s outdoor environment.
With a more thorough understanding of the Northern Virginia rental market, you have a better chance of finding the right rental. The smart decision is to use a real estate professional to find your next apartment or rental home.
Hopefully, even though I’m not able to show you rental properties, my online tools help you in your search. I’ve built a site that makes it easy for renters to compare properties. My data is easy to access and is updated daily.
To get started on your search, you can check out my real estate search tool with all properties or visit my predefined links for rentals in the sidebar to the right. Best of luck in your search!