Business & Economy

Rent Race: 9 tips to score a great place to live (and how to avoid a nightmare roommate)

That’s The Rental Girl leasing agent Ellie Ellie Balderrama-Hernandez, who started the rent crawl two years ago. On a recent Saturday morning, about 15 couples came out to see a coveted one-bedroom Los Feliz pad listed at $2,095 a month.
That’s The Rental Girl leasing agent Ellie Ellie Balderrama-Hernandez, who started the rent crawl two years ago. On a recent Saturday morning, about 15 couples came out to see a coveted one-bedroom Los Feliz pad listed at $2,095 a month.
Kristen Lepore/KPCC

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If you’ve been looking for an apartment lately, you know one thing: It’s really hard to find a place in Los Angeles. 

L.A. has more renters than any metropolitan area in the country (52 percent). That’s higher than the share of renters in San Francisco and even New York City.

"The quality levels that renters are expecting now are so much higher than what they were expecting 10, 12 years ago," said Liz McDonald of The Rental Girl, a leasing agency with branches around L.A. 

But it's always been a competitive renters' market for Angelenos. "The Los Angeles real estate market consistently increases in value, ... so, basically, rents are going to go up and vacancy is always really low," she said. 

That doesn't mean you can't get that rental you've got your eye on. There's hope. Here's how to increase your chances of scoring a place. 

1. Try a rent crawl — and sign up for every other rental website

The Rental Girl began hosting rent crawls on Saturdays two year ago. It's like a pub crawl, but instead of bar hopping, you're apartment shopping. Yes, it gets weird; everyone is sizing up their competition. The good news is, you can knock out several open houses in a day. Contact The Rental Girl — or sign up for its VIP list — to see what's on the docket. But don't limit your options. Check RadPadCraigslist, Zillow, Trulia, Westside Rentals and every other site that regularly updates listings (read about more here). Facebook groups are great, too. 

2. Renting is the new buying; get organized

Laura Noxon and her boyfriend, Jesse Cooper, have been looking for the perfect place to rent on and off for an entire year. They've even got a spreadsheet that they use to keep track of every contact they've had with each of the landlords. Noxon said she also likes to note "what day I first emailed them, whether or not I actually talked to them, whether or not I set up something." And the list goes on. (Listen to this audio for more on them.)

Will they get the place? Follow Laura and Jesse's race to rent. 

Do you really like the place, according to its online profile? Ask the landlord for an application ahead of time. (Here's what it'll probably look like.) And try to schedule and appointment before the open house. 

The bottom line is: Looking at hundreds of places online is obviously overwhelming. And if you're not on top of it, someone else who is will probably snag the place. 

3. Present a near-perfect application packet (with a cover letter) 

"You're not the only cat that is qualified," said The Rental Girl realtor Ellie Balderrama-Hernandez, who leases homes in Los Feliz, Atwater Village and Silver Lake. "Every part of the application process is an interview process, basically."

That's why you need proof of funds, references and even a cover letter — in addition to an application. Yes, that's what it takes to stand out these days. 

Realtor Anselm Clinard of Nourmand & Associates always tells his clients to write a letter on intent. Why? The landlord needs to know: "I'm a stable person; I take care of myself; I'm not going to burn this house down." Seriously, though: "In a competitive situation, a well-written letter saying why they love the house can go a long way," he said. He suggests stressing two points — your personality and trustworthiness. 

And don't let there be any surprises! Do a credit check ahead of time. Get a feel for your situation and be ready to explain if the numbers aren't so great. 

Oh, and last but not least: Don't present each of these things separately. One neat file please, people. No wrinkled papers or missing documents. 

Are you more of a visual person? This handy video should do. 

Watch me if you want to rent in L.A.

4. Put on your game face. And get that Hollywood headshot ready 

In L.A., scoring a rental is like landing an acting gig. Landlords are deliberately pricing the rent lower than market value to drive up the price and bring on a bidding war.

In addition to cash flow, you’ve got to look the part. That entails a photo, according to Jen Berg, who leases homes in the Pasadena-area for The Renter Girl. 

Clinard agrees. Including a photo shows a "certain level of organization," he said.  But don't stress. A professional head shot isn't necessary. Your best profile pic will do. 

5. Pets needs packets, too

It's not as easy to find a place when you've got a pet in tow. The Rental Girl encourages its landlords to rent to tenants with animals. But first — if you want to be considered — you'll need to get the dog or cat its own application that looks like this: 

This is a real thing

"We ask for a picture of the pet. Ideally, we would like to meet the pet. We want to know the breed, the age, how many, the names," said McDonald. "We have pet references, so we like to see, 'Is there a dog walker, who the vet is.'"  

Clinard said he's also found that a lot of homeowners don't want to want rent to people with pets. "Cats can actually do a lot of damage to a property," he said. And aggressive breeds are especially hard to sell, he added. That's when a meet-and-greet can really help your chances. 

6. Avoid being a red flag 

Do your best to avoid these scenarios. 

  1. Bad credit — "Someone can be super cool and likable and have a good letter, but then have some pay-off situation with the IRS," said Clinard. 
  2. Shady references — Let your references know they'll be getting a call. Prep them on who's calling and when. Also, landlords say they want to talk to other landlords. So put down the owner of your previous place if possible. 
  3. Too many moves — If you've lived in a ton of places over the past year or two, that's no good. High turnover in living situations — or even employment — can indicate that you're not reliable. 

If you can't avoid one of these, let the landlord know ahead of time. It's better he or she hears the news from you. 

7. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is

Beware of scams on Craigslist, said Angeleno Margie Delez. She recalls a time when someone listed her South Pasadena home on the site — but it wasn't for rent. 

"I was selling my house, ... and I got people showing up at my house demanding to see my house for rent," she said. "I had people get really nasty with me."

The house was listed at an unusually low price. Be on the lookout for similar posts. 

8. Think outside the box if you want less competition 

"We're in an appreciated market right now," said Clinard. Echo Park and Silver Lake are becoming very expensive to live in, he said. So you may want to consider other nearby 'hoods. 

The Rental Girls says you'll get the most bang for your buck in Koreatown, Los Feliz, El Segundo and Palms. L.A. Weekly also suggests Cypress Park and Historic Filipinotown. Curbed L.A., on the other hand, says cheaper rent is available in Mid-Wilshire, North Hollywood, Highland Park and Leimert Park.

Either way, you'll need to find out what's right for you. Here are tips on how to stalk a neighborhood.  

And once you've found the right spot: These leasing agents told me offering a longer term will give you the upper hand. Landlords don't want high turnover. The longer you're willing to stay, the better – so let them know. 

9. Let's talk roommates

About 50 percent of all working-age adults in Los Angeles have at least one roommate (more on that here). And frankly, that sometimes sucks. That's why we've created this handy quiz to find out what cohabitation style is best for you. 

In the meantime, if you have a tip to share about the race to rent, let us know on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #rentrace. You can also share your story and become a KPCC source here.

(Quiz by Daniella Segura)

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