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posted: 10/12/2012 4:08 AM

How tenants can get an edge in today's tight rental market

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Apartment vacancy rates have plunged in many areas, but savvy prospective tenants can take a few easy steps to improve their chances of snaring the next rental unit that comes along.

Q. We just had our second child, so now we're looking for a larger apartment or small single-family rental. We're not having any luck, though, because the rental market in our area is extremely tight, and there are 20 or sometimes even more than 50 applicants for every vacancy. We're at our wits' end. What can we do?

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A. First, if it's any consolation, millions of prospective renters across the country are having the same problem you are.

Rental vacancy rates nationwide have plunged to a mere 4.2 percent, according to the National Association of Realtors, with cities ranging from Portland, Ore., to Minneapolis and New York City reporting vacancies of a scant 2.2 percent or less. Much of the drop can be explained by the dearth of new construction in the past several years and, sadly, by the millions of families who lost their homes to foreclosure and now are competing against each other for every new rental that becomes available.

Landlords in the tightest markets can afford to be choosy about which applicants they approve. To better your chances of snaring the next vacancy that comes up, make sure your credit score is as high as possible by avoiding any major purchases in the next few months. Make up any delinquencies now, and be sure to pay your upcoming bills promptly.

Also get a free copy of your credit report by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling (877) 322-8228 to ensure there aren't any errors in your file that could drag your overall credit score lower and give the landlord cause for concern. If there's a mistake, take steps to fix it immediately, because it can take at least a month to clear the problem up and another month for the change to be reflected on the report.

Take copies of your credit report along with you each time you file an application. Also, bring along copies of a few of your most recent paystubs and bank statements, and perhaps even a copy of your W-2s and latest tax return (especially if you are self-employed). Most landlords today want to ensure that applicants monthly earnings are at least three times the proposed monthly rent, and the documents can provide the proof that they need.

It also will help if you can provide a reference letter from your current landlord that states you're a quiet and dependable tenant who has always paid the rent on time. A reference from your employer can help, too.

Prospective tenants in the hottest markets shouldn't even attempt to bargain for lower rent. However, the landlord might look more favorably at your application if you're willing to sign a long-term lease for a year or two rather than insisting on a month-to-month arrangement. Offering a hefty security deposit, plus an amount equal to a total of the first and last month's rent, could improve your chances of getting the rental, too.

Q. We are thinking of retiring abroad. Many of the ads we have looked at, particularly in semirural areas, say the home sits on 1 "HA," 3.5 "HA," etc. What does HA stand for?

A. It stands for the word hectare, the standard unit of land measurement in parts of Canada, South America and much of Europe.

A hectare is the equivalent of about 2.47 acres -- roughly the size of a football field, if you include both end zones.

Q. If I form the type of inexpensive living trust that you often recommend, will it become a public document that everyone can see? I don't want some of my relatives or the general public to be able to see how I want my house and other assets distributed after I die.

A. Don't worry. A living trust is a private document that, unlike a will, does not have to go through probate and therefore won't automatically become open for public inspection while you are alive or after you die.

This privacy aspect is an often-overlooked benefit of creating an inexpensive trust. By keeping your final wishes and assets secret -- only the person you choose to administer your estate will eventually know about them -- you will tend to discourage family disputes or even lawsuits after you pass away.

Real estate trivia: The 146-year-old cast-iron dome atop the U.S. Capitol has 1,500 cracks in it, some large enough to alarm federal architects. The fissures would cost $61 million to repair.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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