Is Now a Good Time to Rent a New Apartment?

Q: I live in a one-bedroom in Washington Heights, Manhattan, with a lease expiring in April. My management company says it won’t raise my rent if I renew, but won’t offer a rent reduction either. I’d love to live in the East Village, but the apartments I’ve seen are more expensive and smaller than what I have now. So, should I stay or move?

Rents continued to fall across New York City through the end of 2020, with the median rental price in Manhattan down 14.4 percent year over year to $2,957, according to a Douglas Elliman report. But the fourth quarter of 2020 also saw huge numbers of new lease signings — in Manhattan, they nearly doubled from December 2019 to December 2020 — possibly signaling the end of the slide. So if you don’t act now, will you miss an opportunity to score a deal? Not necessarily.

“The natural assumption is all these people are flooding back in or moving around, that we’re coming to a close of the window,” said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers and Consultants and the author of the Elliman report. “I’ve been describing this as a baby step in the right direction, but it does not imply imminent recovery or stabilization in rents, and the reason for that is all the metrics remain fairly dire.”

Among those metrics: Listing inventory in Manhattan remains triple what it was a year ago, so there are still more apartments to find out there.

Since rents are down across the spectrum, make sure you’re not overpaying for your current place. Check online listings for comparable units in your building and neighborhood. Check the rental history, too, to see if they’ve come down. Depending on what you find, have another conversation with your landlord.

“Landlords know how competitive the market is and they want to keep their tenants,” said Nancy Wu, an economist at StreetEasy. You might be able to negotiate a concession, like a month of free rent, new appliances or access to storage. Find out what you can get, even if you don’t ultimately stay.

If you’re intent on living in the East Village, it might fit better with your budget now. In December, the median rent on a one-bedroom there was $2,394, a 17.4 percent drop year over year, according to StreetEasy. (By comparison, in Washington Heights, one-bedrooms had fallen 4 percent, to $1,875.)

Keep in mind that you’ll still get less for your money in the East Village because you’re paying for location. “There are going to be a lot of trade-offs,” Ms. Wu said. “Think long term, think about what you want not just now but once the pandemic is over.”

Even if rents are cheaper, not all of the discounts are equal, so pay attention to the fine print. A month or two of free rent sounds nice, but the discount is spread over the term of the lease, so if you want to renew, the cost will jump significantly. Your savings will be deeper if you find an apartment with a lower base rent. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, even on a listing that already has concessions — ask if you can get a rent reduction, apartment upgrades or free access to building amenities.

Next, calculate your moving costs, like movers or new furniture. Once you find an apartment you like, and can compare the costs, the answer might become clear.

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