How to Save on Rent

In recent years, the proportion of Americans who rent their home has increased, while the proportion who are homeowners has dropped. This trend, along with other broad economic factors, has contributed to a notable rise in rents. The median rent in the U.S. is $904 per month, and nearly half of all renters pay 30% of their income or more on their rent, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Most economists consider housing costs above 30% to be burdensome. More newly built rental units are coming onto the market, however, they rent for a median monthly cost of $1,290. This amount would be unaffordable to the majority of renters, demanding nearly half of the median renter household’s income.

But don’t let these numbers scare you back into your relatives' or parents' basement. If you look long and hard and wide enough, and are willing to make some concessions, it’s still possible to find cheap apartments for rent. Nearly 28% of U.S. renter households currently pay less than $700 for housing, while just 14% pay more than $1,500 a month. If you are currently a renter who wants to whittle back those payments—and it’s a worthy goal since housing is typically a household’s single biggest expense—consider the following strategies to save money:

Commute Longer

While many factors go into rent levels, an important one is distance from good job opportunities. In other words, if you’re willing to commute longer to work, you’ll probably get a much better deal on your rent.

Commuting comes with its own costs, of course. You need to factor in your daily car expenses. We'll use the IRS estimate of 57.5 cents per mile as a benchmark - this includes all cost such as depreciation, insurance, repairs and maintenance and gas and oil. Just add in any tolls you pay. If you take public transportation, add up those monthly expenditures instead.

Here’s how one housing and commuting decision might play out for a person deciding between a $2,000 apartment closer to their workplace, and a $1,500 abode farther away.

High Cost Rental Close to WorkLower Cost Rental Farther Away

Monthly Rent

$2,000$1,500

Commuting Costs

$117$375

Monthly Rent + Commuting

$2,117$1,875

Annual Cost

$25,398$22,500

Savings

n/a$2,898

There’s also the question of the value of your time. You can think about it in a few different ways. If you’d be able to actually use the commuting time to earn more money by working those hours, value them at the hourly rate you would earn.

If you wouldn’t be able to convert that time into money through work, consider what expenses you might be able to cut if you had that time back. Would you cook meals more often--spending $15 on groceries for dinner rather than $30 on takeout? Would you clean your own house instead of hiring help? Could you pick up your child from day care earlier, and save some money there?

On the other hand, maybe your commute has some nice benefits, such as exercise from walking or the chance to answer emails, catch up on the news, read books, sleep, talk to loved ones or listen to podcasts or audiobooks.

However, if your commute involves driving for 45 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or subjects you to unpredictable train delays, the added aggravation is another kind of cost. Because the circumstances of both housing and commuting can vary so much across the country, you need to look closely, from all angles, at your options.

Find a Roommate

Perhaps you’ve just landed an amazing job in San Francisco. Congrats! Here’s the bad news: it’s currently the most expensive city in the U.S. for renters, with the median asking rent for a one-bedroom apartment at $3,500. Your new job would have to be paying you $140,000 per year in order to afford that rent without it becoming a burdensome housing cost, based on the 30% rule of thumb on rent expenses.

One common solution is to find someone to share the apartment with you. The following table compares housing costs for a person in San Francisco who lives alone compared to sharing an apartment or rental home with a significant other, or a roommate.

Live Alone in 1BRCouple in 1BRRoommate in 2BR

Total Rent

$3,500$3,500$4,680

Your Portion of the Rent

$3,500$1,750$2,340

Estimated Household Expenses

$250$250$250

Your Share of Household Expenses

$250$125$125

Your Monthly Housing Costs

$3,750$1,875$2,465

Your Annual Housing Costs

$45,000$22,500$29,580

Annual Savings Compared to Living Alone

n/a$22,500$15,420

The best scenario is to share a 1-bedroom apartment with a significant other, so you can also share the bedroom. This would allow you to comfortably afford the rent on two individual salaries of $70,000 per year for example. But all is not lost if you happen to be single; even finding a regular roommate and upgrading to a 2-bedroom would save you a bunch, based on the $4,680 median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.

Having a roommate can also mean splitting other household expenses, like cable and internet, renters insurance, cleaning supplies, and the holiday tip for the superintendent. Also, roommates can share the household work, like house cleaning or pet-sitting or lawn care. Sure, roommates can also leave dirty dishes in the sink, host annoying guests or monopolize the bathroom; but if you can find yourself a good one, you’ll end up financially better off.

Negotiate Your Lease

Your negotiating power is probably limited in the current tight rental market, but it doesn’t hurt to ask! You’re likely to have the most power to alter some of the rental terms in your favor right before you sign the lease.

Once you’ve seen the place, applied for it, passed a credit check and are ready to commit, the landlord wants to seal the deal. Now is the time to ask if there’s any chance she could sweeten the terms. In past rental markets when owners had to compete for good tenants, they may have thrown in one or two free months of rent, free parking, or offered a two-year lease instead of one to eliminate the tenant’s concern about a large rent increase 12 months from now.

If you’re renewing the lease of a home you are already renting, you can also ask for a two-year lease, as a way to avoid a potential rent increase next year. Your argument? It will save the landlord the risk of needing to find a new tenant in a year. This process usually costs the owner a few months’ rent, plus expenses to repair and repaint the apartment.

When you ask for these kinds of concessions, you might even dangle the news that you’ve just heard about an enticing alternative to the current apartment. If the owner won’t budge, there’s usually no harm done and you can continue forward with the original terms of the offer. Unless you really do have an enticing alternative?

Swap Services for Shelter

Whether you’re searching for a new rental, or struggling to pay for the one you’re living in right now, you can ask your landlord to accept services in exchange for a discount on the rent. Explain why you need a bit of a break – maybe you just lost your job, or your wife is pregnant. Then, offer some value in return. Could you mow the lawn and weed the garden in your apartment complex? Could you mop the floors of the building each week? Or take the trash and recycling to the curb every Tuesday?

If your strengths do not lie in property management, you can get creative here. You could watch the landlady’s child for a few hours after school, or take her dog to the park every day. You might deliver a home-cooked dinner three days a week. Or she might be happy to knock $150 off your monthly bill if you relieve her of the chore of moving her car for street-sweeping twice a week.

Move to a Cheaper Part of the Country

This might seem extreme, but is worth considering if you’re not overly attached to your current geographic location. Make sure you’re aware of all of the expenses besides rent, though. For example, if you need to buy a car once you move from Chicago to Provo, Utah, those additional costs might wipe out any savings you get on housing. Also, if you’ll need to buy plane tickets to visit your family in Connecticut once you move to Seattle, add that in too.

Before you make an overly hasty move to escape insane rents, consider that where cost-of-living is low, salaries tend to be low too. Depending on the proportions, a lower salary might still wind up leaving you more in your pocket at the end of the day. Make sure you can really improve your financial situation by moving, all things considered.

Comments and Questions