Real estate generally slows down during the winter months. Kids are back at school. People have started new jobs. With Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays on tap, most people aren't eager to pack up and move until at least the New Year. Even then, it can be hard to find great tenants.
For example, a buyer purchased a two-family home in a great neighborhood just north of Boston in the early winter. He had one 2-bedroom unit and one 3-bedroom unit. Both were in decent condition. The units were a little dated and definitely small, even by typical city-living standards. He explained that he was having a hard time renting the units. Was his asking price too high? How could he get these units filled? His carrying costs were starting to add up.
His frustration was understandable: Leasing during the off-season isn't easy, but there are certain tricks we've learned over time that can fill vacancies faster—even in the dead of winter.
Filling apartment vacancies during the winter can seem daunting, but people always need housing. They find new jobs, get divorced, or have children and need more space at all times during the year. Follow these tips to steer those people in your direction.
Include pertinent information in your listings, and be comprehensive. Are utilities included? Is there on-site parking? Don't put it on the prospect to track down information, particularly if you're looking to lease during the off-season.
It's easier to rent 1- and 2-bedroom units than 3-bedroom units. So, using the buyer's case as an example: the rooms in his 3-bedroom unit were really small, so a solution would be marketing the 3-bedroom as a 2-bedroom plus an office. The price he wanted was still very reasonable for a 2-bedroom, so this strategy would help him capture those looking for a 2-bedroom unit who might be enticed by having the third bedroom as an office, nursery, fitness room, etc.
People are busy. If you want to lease an apartment quickly, consider hosting an open house (or two—one on a weekend day, one on a weeknight). This gives people an opportunity to tour the unit without having to set up individual appointments. Most people think open houses are only worthwhile when you're selling your home; but in our experience, renters like the convenience of open houses, too.
The two units the buyer was trying to lease were a bit out-of-date. The kitchen has traditional oak cabinets with outdated hardware. A coat of white paint and new hardware would give the kitchen a more modern, fresh look. Upgrading appliances too can go a long way—it's easy to find a replacement stove on Craigslist, one that's relatively new and in good condition, but is being discarded by someone who's upgrading to stainless steel. Use the time to also swap out the light fixtures for a more modern look. These are easy upgrades that can be made in just a few days, but will present the vacant unit so much better.
If you've been considering adding a washer and dryer, now's the time to pull the trigger. Consider springing for a coin-operated washer and dryer that can be shared by residents, or if your space and budget allow, consider installing a stackable washer and dryer set in each of the vacant units you're hoping to rent. Residents will be sure to appreciate the added amenity, and you can charge more in rent.
We know that most people aren't looking for apartments during the holiday season, so if you're looking to fill a vacancy quickly, you might want to offer an incentive. For instance, you could offer 25% off rent in December for anyone who leases before January 1. Your carrying costs will likely outweigh that concession if a unit sits vacant. Getting someone in the door with a temporary discount is better than not having anyone at all.
Big apartment communities often throw in a few additional "sweeteners," but it's something that smaller building owners can do, too. Free cable, or a $250 gift certificate to a local supermarket or grocery store can make or break it for someone who's comparing your apartment with others in the area.
When the phone rings, answer. When someone emails you, respond quickly. If someone has questions about your rental, get back to them with answers as quickly as possible. It increases the chances that they'll choose your rental over another. In addition, enhanced communication will show prospects that you're a reliable landlord, which bodes well for the future.
Some landlords get hung up on a standard 12-month lease. However, if you're looking to fill a unit during the winter slowdown, consider offering more flexible lease terms. Perhaps someone is moving to the area on a short-term job assignment and needs a 6-month lease. Maybe a family is interested in moving to the area, and would feel more comfortable with an 18- or 24-month lease. As a general rule of thumb, we like to stagger lease expirations and schedule them to end during peak leasing season (May through August). This will help you to avoid off-season leasing next time around.
If you're struggling to fill a vacant unit, it's tempting to accept the first person who shows interest. This is a huge mistake that can be costly down the road. Keep your standards high when screening prospective tenants.