High prices and low vacancy rates have created a distinct sense of competition for many Seattle area renters, particularly in the lower-income and under-30 demographics.
Hopeful renters dot the sidewalk along Dexter Avenue North, arriving more than a half-hour early on a warm August afternoon for an open house near Lake Union.
Fifteen minutes later, before the property manager has arrived, a line of nearly 20 people has formed. They are here in response to an online ad promising a four-bedroom, pet-friendly, single-family home for $1,300 a month — a rare bargain for a house in Seattle, especially this close to downtown.
The crowd is largely young, with several groups of college students and a few young couples, with attire ranging from shorts and flip-flops to slacks and ties.
The house doesn’t offer much curb appeal. Wedged between an apartment building and a converted four-plex, its charcoal-gray wood siding is mostly shaded by large trees, and it would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. Judging by the condition of the paint and the rickety wood steps leading to the front door, it has seen better days.
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“I’ve gotten pretty used to living in old houses like this,” says Seattle University law student Graham Ralston, 24.
Ralston and his roommate, Ryan Shane, are second in line. They’ve been looking for a place for about a month, trying to find a decent house for under $1,500 a month. Well-kept rentals are “really hard to find in a price range for kids our age,” says Shane, also 24, a communications and computer-science major at the University of Washington. “That’s why we got here early.”
Sense of competition
High prices and low vacancy rates have created a distinct sense of competition for many area renters, particularly in the lower-income and under-30 demographics.
Those seeking to spend less than $1,500 a month, especially in urban Seattle, must act quickly when a high-quality apartment or house becomes available in their price range.
“If you see anything on Craigslist for a decent price, it’s gone in a day,” says Steve Spencer, 23, a student at Seattle Pacific University and another early arrival at the Dexter open house. He’s lived at his current home for two years and says “prices have gone way up” in that time.
Based on data from Dupre + Scott Apartment Advisors, a research firm that provides rental-market statistics for the Seattle area, Spencer’s perception is accurate.
Despite modest declines in home prices, homeownership is still out of reach for most renter households: The median price of a house in Seattle was $428,500 in August, down from just over $500,000 a year ago. Among renters, more than 21,000 Seattle households — about 19 percent — already pay more than half their income in rent, Dupre + Scott says.
Most are low-income households, and nearly all earn less than 50 percent of the median income ($40,453 for a two-person household).
Demand for rentals is similarly high on the Eastside and in suburban areas.
Marge Iverson, who has owned rental houses with her husband for 35 years, received two responses within 10 minutes of posting an ad for a three-bedroom house in Bothell’s Finn Hill neighborhood.
“We’ve rented for a long time and never had the response we’ve had this time,” she says. “The rental market is really good for us right now.”
Rents going up
Because of the demand, rents continue to increase.
The average rent for a studio apartment in Seattle in spring was $861 — 11 percent higher than the year before. Rents for a one- and two-bedroom apartments have increased about 10 percent since last year — to $1,015 for one bedroom, $1,569 for two bedrooms.
Seattle officials say increasing rental prices are due to a number of factors, including a slowdown in apartment-to-condominium conversions.
The slowdown has decreased the number of affordable homes, forcing more would-be buyers to continue renting. And there is little relief in sight: Analysts predict a 17 percent increase in area rents from April 2008 to December 2010.
Given the high cost of renting, many lower-income or single-person households have to look hard to find a comfortable home at an affordable price. And when they find one, they may have to compete against a number of other prospective renters to secure it.
To improve their chances, some renters arrive early to open houses, bring all the information necessary to fill out an application on the spot, and even send personal backgrounds or “tenant résumés” to landlords.
For more expensive rentals, competition for landlords’ attention is less fierce.
Renters willing to pay more than about $1,500 a month have significantly more options and less competition. Half an hour after the beginning of an open house in Greenwood — a three-bedroom upper portion of a house, including a separate unit, being offered at $1,575 a month — a single renter arrives to check it out.
Candice Czubernat, 29, says she doesn’t feel like she has to compete like she did three years ago, the last time she moved.
“Now the problem is dirty, gross places for a lot of money,” Czubernat says.
Another higher-end rental, a well-cared-for, beautifully landscaped house near Seattle Pacific University, was listed for $1,800 a month for the main floor unit and $900 for the daylight basement. Almost an hour into the open house, only one group of four interested students had stopped by.
The owners, a middle-age couple with a son who recently graduated from SPU, are moving to Pittsburgh and already bought a home there. They tried for several months to sell the house but finally gave up and decided to rent it out for a year.
The $2,700 total monthly rent, they say, covers their mortgage and is not intended to bring in a profit.
Exactly what qualities make up the ideal tenant may vary by landlord, but demonstrating financial responsibility is universally important. Nearly all owners and property managers run credit checks on applicants, and many base their decisions solely on credit score.
Jason Sexton, 24, is one of the early arrivals at the Dexter open house. He works for a property-management company nearby, and because of his occupation, can run his own credit and background checks. He commonly brings copies of each when he looks at rentals, hoping to make things easier for the landlords and gain some competitive advantage.
Nonetheless, he has been turned down for two apartments because of negative items on his credit report.
Many landlords say they rely only on background and credit checks.
Lara Dethlefs, an attorney who owns three rental properties in Seattle and Burien with her husband, says she’s mostly looking for applicants with good credit but takes all information under consideration. If two tenants with equal credit scores apply, and one takes the extra initiative to send an e-mail or make a follow-up phone call, she says, it might affect her decision.
The property-management agent for the house on Dexter, Ridge Marshall of Ewing & Clark, says his company tries to offer fair prices on all their rentals and considers many factors in selecting tenants.
“A lot of people buy these old houses and totally renovate them then try to rent them out for $3,000,” Marshall says. “There’s not a lot out there for people who can’t pay that much.”
He says his company tries to be reasonable. For example, he won’t charge an applicant for a credit check if he doesn’t think the person has a good chance of getting the place. His perceptions of a renter’s personality, needs and responsibility from a face-to-face meeting play a substantial role in his selection process.
Iverson, owner of the Finn Hill house in Bothell, says she and her husband also try to keep prices fair. Their three-bedroom house in Bothell is listed for $1,150.
“Oftentimes the people looking in this price range have blue-collar jobs,” Iverson says. “They tend to be honest, hardworking people, and we feel good offering them an affordable place to live.”
Stephen Ateser arrived for the Dexter open house at noon — an hour early. The 21-year-old design student from Seattle Central Community College hoped to get an early audience with the property manager, but the occupant asked him to come back at 1 p.m.
He and his roommate went down the street to get lunch and came back at 12:45 to find more than 15 people in line ahead of them.
He has looked at one rental — a smaller, more expensive house in Wallingford — and it “was disgusting,” Ateser says.
On this day, he has his checkbook in hand and references at the ready, and he is prepared to fill out an application if he likes the house.
About 15 minutes after he went inside the house, Ateser walked back down the front steps. He noted a large crack in the wall by the stairs, “and there’s some mold along the walls, some kind of rot.”
Nevertheless, Ateser had an application in hand.
“We’ll take just about anything at this point,” he says. “Even if it’s kind of gross, we’ll still apply.”