Negotiating with your landlord may seem like a lost cause, particularly when your landlord is a corporate management company that seems uninterested in making any accommodations for little old you. But as in any effective negotiation, the key is to make every negotiation end with what seems like a win-win for both you and the other party. Here are the negotiation tools you need to break the logjam.

To be effective in landlord negotiations, start by considering the landlord’s interest. If you think the landlord cares only about the monthly rental price, think again. Here are just a few of the pressures on your landlord’s mind–and wallet:

  • Lost rent from the time gap between tenants
  • Parking fees, if relevant
  • Costs of cleaning the apartment between tenants
  • Renovations, including new appliances or other expenses fixes (especially if the previous tenant was there for several years, since most landlords do improvements every 3-5 years and only between tenants)
  • Utilities expenses, regardless of whether included in your rent (if included, it just means the landlord has built in an estimate of utilities’ costs, and the landlord takes on a risk that you’ll use more than expected)
  • Cash flow (cash in the landlord’s hands now is worth more to the landlord than getting it later, not only because of the present value of money, but so the landlord can reinvest immediately in other building expenses)

Additionally, the rent figure itself is based on a few key factors:

  • The mortgage payment for the condo or apartment building, if any
  • Condo or homeowner’s association fees, if any
  • Comparable rates of other apartments in the area

With these factors in mind, we can craft a strategy to negotiate lower rent while still giving something back to the landlord.  Start by doing your homework. Read the lease carefully; every term in the lease exists there for the sole purpose of helping the landlord control income and costs, so every term is a potential point of financial leverage. Next, research comparable rents in the area. Check Craigslist for rental prices of other comparable units today, and get a sense of year-over-year trends with tools such as the Zillow Rent Index (more information here). For example, the Zillow Rent Index tells me that median rent in Washington DC has dropped 3.1% over the last year, as of this writing.

Next, craft your negotiation strategy, keeping in mind that to get lower rent you have to give something back to the landlord. Here are some ideas:

  • If you found lower rent in comparable units on Craigslist, or if you found data on Zillow showing rental prices are decreasing in your area, share this with the landlord and ask for lower rent given what’s happening in the market
  • Agree to give a longer notice time before termination than what the lease requires (gives the landlord more time to find a replacement, which reduces the lost rent from the gap between tenants)
  • Agree to a longer lease term (helps landlord defer the expenses between tenants)
  • Offer to prepay a few months in advance (better cash flow for landlord)
  • If utilities are built into the rent, ask to pay the utilities yourself (not only removes the landlord’s risk that you’ll overconsume utilities, but if you consume less than expected, you’ll keep the difference)
  • If the lease includes a parking space but you do not have a car, offer to give up the space (in big cities, the landlord can make hundreds of dollars per month by renting the space to someone else)
  • If the lease allows smoking but you are a nonsmoker, offer a commitment not to smoke in the apartment (reduces cleaning fees when moving out)
  • If the lease allows pets and you don’t have pets, offer a commitment not to have pets (again, reduces cleaning fees)
  • If you have spotted old appliances or other fixes, offer to keep the old stuff or take on the cost of repair yourself (allowing the landlord to defer costs of renovations)
  • If the landlord has other units unoccupied, negotiate a deal for referrals (e.g. you get a percent of your month’s rent back for each successful referral)

Preserving a good relationship with your landlord is important, so just as when you are negotiating with a friend, it is important to keep emotion out of it. Each of the strategies outlined above are fact-driven, which is critical to ensuring your negotiation does not become antagonistic. Your goal is merely to present a reasoned argument for lower rent, or better yet to offer something in exchange for lower rent, so there is no need to be aggressive. By showing the landlord that you are being fair, you will have a better chance of getting a fair deal in return.

(Thanks to users “bstpierre” and “avernet” at money.stackexchange.com for their suggestions.)