In the Hunt for Rentals, Should You Use a Broker?
By June Fletcher
The Wall Street Journal
March 12, 2010
Q: I'm hunting for a rental apartment, and it seems that real estate agents get ticked off if they find out you're talking to more than one. One agent has been fairly helpful so far. But when I show her ads that others have listed, she often takes a few days to respond. While I'm waiting, should I call the other agents in the ads? And should I call ads listed by owners, to avoid paying a Realtor fee?
—Jersey City, N.J.
A: I understand your dilemma. Despite all the technological advances of the past decades, the way most agents and buyers get together still reminds me of a 1950s teen romance. You're the ingénue, who meets a few agents, goes out a few times, then waits by the phone for a call. The agents are members of the football team, who are ready to dazzle you for a few dates, but just as ready to drop you if you don't commit to a more serious relationship.
Who can you blame them? In the beginning, agents must audition for your business by wooing you with their knowledge of the market, listening to your design and decorating preferences, and running up gas bills showing you listings. Whether they admit it to you or not, they all know that you're also "dating" other agents, at least when you first start home shopping. But at some point, just like a suitor, they want to know whether they're wasting their time.
Of course, you have the prerogative to choose the agent with whom you have the best chemistry. And you shouldn't allow yourself to be guilt-tripped into working with someone who doesn't respond quickly to you (though you should ask her why she is slow getting back to you—she may simply be trying to arrange an appointment to show the unit). Whether you continue your commitment with this agent or break up with her, you should tell her what you are doing and why. Even if you decide that she's not the right agent for you, if you are honest with her, she'll respect you—and your reputation with other agents will remain intact.
Meanwhile, it's up to you whether to respond to for-rent-by-owner ads. People rent places without using agents all the time. If you are an experienced renter with solid knowledge of the neighborhood, it may be a good idea to avoid brokers and their fees. However, if you haven't had much experience as a renter before, this may not be advisable. A good agent with a granular knowledge of the neighborhood can steer you away from problem buildings that have a history of maintenance issues, like mold or mice. She may be able to help you negotiate more favorable terms on your rent, security deposit or lease length. And perhaps most importantly in these troubled times, she can also help you avoid signing up with a landlord who is in some stage of foreclosure or otherwise in financial distress, so you don't wake up someday to find a notice to vacate because the property is being sold at auction.
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