How to Negotiate a Break on Rent

The downward trend in rents has me thinking it's time to ask my apartment manager to reduce my rent.

It’s the first of the month, and you know what that means: The rent is due. But if the cost of your rent gives you sticker shock each month (as mine does), you may be able to get relief.

The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a decline in rents in Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco and other major metro areas, as folks either leave city life for the less-dense suburbs or move because they can’t afford their existing rent. And although I don’t plan to abandon the D.C. area and return to the Michigan suburbs, the downward trend in rents has me thinking it’s time to start negotiating with my apartment manager.

Know your market. Before I moved to my most recent place in the summer of 2018, I tried to negotiate a lower rate with my old apartment manager. I liked where I was living, and I thought I had a good case for a break. I was never late with the rent, and management rarely heard from me unless it was a real emergency. (My electricity went out a couple of times during the winter, and I woke up without heat.) I was unsuccessful, however, in part because I didn’t research the rental market around me.

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“Tenants should look around when their lease is up for renewal and see what rent prices are in comparable communities to get an idea of the market,” says Amy Hedgecock, owner of Fowler & Fowler Realtors, in High Point, N.C. Knowing the rates in your area will help you set realistic expectations when you ask for a break, or let you know if you’re already paying a below-market rate, she says.

If you’ve lost your job or encountered other financial difficulties, provide your landlord with as much documentation as you can to show why you deserve a break. For example, provide pay stubs to show your hours have been cut, or your unemployment benefits check if you’ve lost your job. You should also provide photos to show how well you’ve maintained your unit. Rent negotiations won’t go far if you’re always late paying your rent or don’t keep your apartment clean.

The type of landlord you have also matters. A large apartment management corporation may have more flexibility to lower your rent than a mom-and-pop landlord who relies on your rent to pay the mortgage and property taxes.

Tenants who are able to move when the lease is up have more leverage, Hedgecock says. Landlords typically don’t want to lose out on rent payments while they fix up the unit and find a new tenant.

Post-negotiation checklist. If your talks are successful, get everything in writing. All parties need to know how long the rent reduction will last and any other stipulations, such as an agreement to stay longer than your lease requires.

If your negotiations are unsuccessful, don’t pack up and leave if there’s still time on your lease. Breaking a lease could make it more difficult for you to find another apartment. If you’ve found cheaper apartments in your area, your best bet is to wait until your lease is up and then move.

In the event that unemployment or another financial crisis leaves you with no choice but to break your lease, tell your landlord you’re having money issues and need to move out. Then, clean the apartment and “sweep yourself out the door,” says Hedgecock. It will help the landlord turn over the apartment and make your departure more amicable.

Even though my last attempt at negotiations left a sour taste in my mouth, I’m going to give it another try when my lease is up for renewal next summer. I’ll research comparable rents in my area before I ask for a lower rate. My big landlord may not play ball, but nothing ventured means nothing gained.

Rivan V. Stinson
Ex-staff writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Rivan joined Kiplinger on Leap Day 2016 as a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. A Michigan native, she graduated from the University of Michigan in 2014 and from there freelanced as a local copy editor and proofreader, and served as a research assistant to a local Detroit journalist. Her work has been featured in the Ann Arbor Observer and Sage Business Researcher. She is currently assistant editor, personal finance at The Washington Post.