How to Get a Better Deal On Your Rent

Written by Davis Nguyen 

After graduating college a few months ago, I moved to San Francisco to start a job I am truly passionate about. As excited as I was, I knew that San Francisco has the most expensive median rent in the United States. I had to figure out a way to make the post-college life I wanted work with the budget I had.

To save on rent, most new graduates will use cost saving measures such as turning all common spaces into a room, sharing a room between two people, living further away from downtown, or living in not so safe/quiet neighborhoods.

My bedroom is 140 square foot, sits on a safe and quiet street, is located between two popular streets in San Francisco, and only 15 minutes from where I work in downtown. I have 3 housemates, but everyone has their own room and we have a common space.

Typically, median per-person rent for a place like this is $2,500.

My rent is only $1050.

If I can negotiate rent in San Francisco, I am certain no matter where you are living or moving to, you can negotiate, too. Just use the strategies my housemates and I used.

How to Get a Better Deal on Your Rent

1. Make a Good First Impression

Our first open house tour was a disaster. We expected to show up, see a few people, sign an application, and wait to see what happens. We arrived and saw about 40 other people (and it was only the first hour!). Competition was intense.

So, we decided to change our approach. Seeing that the landlord or agent had 40 or more applications to read, interview, and background check, we decided to make it easier for them.

We would arrive at every open house with a "Get to Know Us" packet that included a personalized cover letter; a generic application I made with a short biography of each of us, where we came from, and why we were each moving to San Francisco; our resumes; our job offer letters; our credit report and score; our bank account statement; and a list of reference of previous landlords.

2. Leave Yourself Enough Time

When you are in a rush to sign a lease, you are happy to sign almost anything even when other cheaper and better options are available if you continued looking. I flew to San Francisco four weeks before my work was supposed to start, where I wasn’t making income and couch surfing between friends a few days to a week at a time.

Though I wasn’t making income, I saw my four weeks as an investment to find an affordable place. If you wouldn’t take the first job you happen to get an offer for, why would you do the same for a place you will be spending the next few months or years? Leave yourself time to search, and view the money and time spent as an investment.

3. Have Your Non-Negotiables

When we started looking for a place to live, we made a list of things that were absolutely not negotiable. Our list included: rent under $1800 per person, a safe and quiet street, and no more than 30 minutes from work. Everything else was a “nice to have,” like big rooms, furnishings, a washer/dryer, and being near foody streets.

When we had our non-negotiables, we knew which houses we were willing to view and which we weren’t. This made it easy to say no to open houses and offers, because it was not worth our time.

4. Remember: It is NOT about you, it is about your landlord

The landlord only cares about two things: if you will pay your rent on time and if you will make her life easier. She doesn’t care if you have the money today (other people will have money too), she doesn’t care how beautiful you think her kitchen is (she wants to know if you will care about it).

When I found a new posting on reddit or craigslist, I would immediately call the landlord. Instead of “selling myself,” I would ask them what type of tenant they are looking for, what problems they had with past tenants, and how they moved to San Francisco.

After each 20 minute call, I would take the notes I took during the call and made sure my rental application reflected what I learned. If a landlord had a problem with a past tenant being loud, I mentioned how we don’t plan to host parties; if a landlord was looking for tenants with stable jobs, I mentioned how our contracts were for at least one year.

Using this tactic alone, we ended up getting offers from every house we applied to even when the landlord had more than 2 dozen other applications to choose from. This is all because we took the time to get to know the landlord and his or her concerns.

After we found the perfect place to rent, my new landlord Amy and I spent a week talking about how we could be “no problem” tenants. She offered to lower our rent from what she was planning to charge. This was all possible because I started asking, “How can I help my potential landlord?”

I'd love to hear from you in the comments: What strategies have you seen or used to help you find a place in a new city?

About Davis

Davis (@IamDavisNguyen) graduated from Yale University in 2015. He currently lives in San Francisco and works at Bain & Company. When he’s not helping CEOs transform their companies, he is helping recent graduates figure out the type of life they want for themselves and helping them get there.