Boston BrownstoneRecently Boston made the Forbes list of the worst cities to rent an apartment in. From my recent experience helping an international transferee find an apartment in Brookline (one city over), I can tell you that high rents are just the tip of the iceberg.

Boston and its immediate surrounds have a very definite rental season. Because of the high number of students who flock here each year to go to college or do internships and residencies at one of the many hospitals, peak season for renting is between July 1 and Sept 1 of each year. The bulk of apartments become available in June, with a second wave becoming available for September 1 occupancy. Add to this the number of professionals that come to this area to work in high tech and bio tech, and you have a lot of people vying for a limited supply quality housing. If you are restricted geographically, or you have a dog, finding an apartment is that much harder.

This year the number of apartments that became available in June was far lower than in past years. With an uncertain economy, more people decided to stay put rather than upgrading their living situation. The renters market is extremely tight this year and landlords, property managers and listing agents are taking full advantage using tactics that many consider unusual at best, unethical at worst.

Case in point – my transferee found an apartment in the perfect location. The apartment was actually a condo owned by a foreign investor. We were shown the apartment by the property manager who told us that the apartment was available July 1 for $1650, but if that was too soon (2 weeks away) it could be rented for $1700 starting July 15. My client put in an application for the apartment for July 15 at $1700.

The next morning we were notified that the application was accepted and that a lease would be forthcoming. At the end of the day we were told that another application had been presented by someone willing to rent the unit starting July 1, also for $1700. My client could still get the apartment if he was willing to start renting on July 1 or 7, or write a check for $400 and move in on July15. My client was uncomfortable with the situation and decided to continue looking for something else.

So we scheduled another day of apartment hunting and my client decided on something else. He was able to get floor plans to the apartment so he could be sure all of his furniture would fit, and then requested an application. Of course there was an unexpected wrinkle. The listing agent wanted his fee upfront with the application and insisted my client sign a document stating that the fee would be refundable if the landlord pulled out of the negotiation after the application was accepted.  If however the applicant declined to sign the lease the broker would keep the fee. REALLY!! In my not so humble opinion this is just a broker trying to make up for the limited movement in the market and reduced commission potential, and from my reading of MA rental laws this kind of thing is potentially illegal. But what can you do? If you refuse to the demands you lose the apartment, if you agree to the terms you may lose several hundred dollars. How many apartments can you walk away from before there’s nothing reasonable left to rent?