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Rent is the biggest expense in most household budgets, and when it goes up unexpectedly, it can break the bank. Rate hikes aren’t usually illegal, and for landlords to keep pace with ever-increasing expenses, they’re even necessary, but what should renters do when they can no longer afford their current space?

Determine if the Increase is Legal

In select areas, the law prohibits first-year rent increases, even without a lease. Other states have specific length-of-notice requirements, and rate hikes that are retaliatory because of a legitimate complaint are illegal. If an increase isn’t by the book, renters should talk to an attorney specializing in tenant’s rights before paying. Paying the new rate just once is, by law, agreeing to the new terms.

Negotiate with Empathy

Landlords prefer to avoid the expenses associated with high occupant turnover. Tenants may be able to put the brakes on a rate hike by pointing out the value of timely rent payments and a hassle-free relationship versus the cost of advertising, screening new applicants and taking the risk of being saddled with a problematic new occupant.

If a landlord’s expenses have risen sharply, however, they may have to sacrifice valued tenants to make ends meet. If a rent increase makes sense after a talk with the building owner, an offer to meet halfway is more likely to be successful. Alternatively, asking for a longer lease term that guarantees the next increase will be years away is always an option.

Move On

If the rent increase is too much for financial comfort, moving on may be the best solution. For tenants who absolutely can’t pay the new amount, paying at least the current cost while looking for new digs buys some time. If the situation is messy, the landlord could pursue a 30-day notice to quit or a no-fault eviction to force either the higher payment or a quick move, so tenants should be prepared to exit timely before giving notice.

Rent hikes are sometimes unavoidable, so it pays to prepare. In tight markets, tenants who need a good reference should save enough to cover an unexpected increase, but should also be aware of their rights and not be afraid to negotiate when necessary to stay in a place they like.