Willing to pay less (rent) for a better Minnesota

At one time, if you could stand the cold winters, Minneapolis offered a great quality of life at a reasonable price. But those of us who rent in Southwest and surrounding areas know all too well that rents have been on a tear in recent years, making that life seem like a distant memory.

Fortunately, recent rises in vacancy rates may put renters back in the driver's seat. As this newspaper recently reported, vacancies in Southwest have been ticking upward, as the economy and job market have weakened. We as renters have an opportunity to cut ourselves a better deal, and we should take advantage of it while we can. In a reversal of those all-too-popular yard signs I, for one, am "Willing to Pay Less for a Better Minnesota."

Landlords were quick to raise rents during the boom years, citing market demand. Fair enough. There are few who value free markets more than I. I just want to make sure that the same rules of supply-and-demand are applied now that the tables have turned. We renters need to put aside our Minnesota Nice and cut a better deal.

If you won't do it for yourself, then do it for low-income renters. Just like a rising tide lifts all boats, so will an ebbing tide allow us all to get a little closer to rock bottom.

Here's how to make this happen:

1. Understand. When going into a rental situation make sure you have knowledge of the local market. Research different apartments and plan to look at a lot of different places before committing to one. Go in knowing that landlords are helpless to change vacancy rates and can only fill units by lowering the rents in their buildings. Most important is simply the awareness that landlords are finally ready to bargain again. And when you ask them about the rental market don't believe them when they say, "Well, it's been pickin' up the past couple o' weeks." It hasn't!

2. Speak up. Speaking up seems easy enough in principle, but there is something about the culture here that holds it taboo. But speaking up doesn't mean that you have to be rude. Simply asking, "What kind of incentives are you offering right now?" will show that you see an asking price as merely a starting point. And don't forget to make sure that potential landlords know that you're looking at other places.

3. Bargain. In this market, you should get something out of a rental negotiation. Whether it's free miniblinds, cable or a parking spot, don't take any offers as they stand. Few apartments are so perfect that they couldn't use a fresh coat of paint, the floors refinished or the fridge upgraded. Once the lease is signed, your leverage is gone, so bargain for whatever you can ahead of time.

4. Remember. If you have a hard time speaking up, just think back to a couple of years ago. Remember when landlords weren't returning calls or were skipping appointments to show apartments? I do. Let their past lack of courtesy fuel your current lust for a deal.

Take me as inspiration. My own landlord swore that if he ever saw this article published, he would exercise the pet clause in my lease and start charging me extra for all those mice living in the walls. But I don't care. It's time for the chickens to come home to roost -- and on new carpeting.

Tony Harvath (AGHarvath@aol.com) is a hard-boiled renter near Lake Street & Nicollet Avenue.