Is the Rental Price Right? To Find Out, Evaluate Features

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My nephew Daniel, a film major, just called with great news. After a long, difficult search, dozens of phone calls and several showings, he thinks he has found the apartment of his dreams.

One problem. As a first-time renter, he wasn't sure: Did I think the price was right? Could I point him in the right direction?

How do you know if the rent fair? What gives a place value? It depends on several factors, including location, rent control, style, configuration, size and amenities.

* Compare units.

Rents vary widely by location, even by street, so base your comparison to an area that's comprised of only a few blocks.

Drive around, looking for phone numbers posted on properties. Look for buildings of similar size and age to compare value and determine which ones are under rent control.

If you're calling from an ad, ask, "When was the place built?" Generally, anything built on or before 1978 is under rent control in Los Angeles.

If you have the exact address (including apartment number), you can call the Registration Section of L.A.'s Housing Department at (213) 367-9136 to see if it's registered (for Santa Monica call [310] 458-8751; Beverly Hills, [310] 285-1031; and West Hollywood, [323] 848-6450). Currently, the annual rent-controlled unit increase maximum is 3%. The L.A. City Council has been fond of that number for several years, with a review every June.

Anything built after October 1978 is exempt from rent control. Unless a lease is in force, your rent can be raised any amount, anytime, with proper advance notice.

When comparing places, be sure to find similar styles. Windows are a good barometer of age and style. Some eras favored wood windows, others aluminum sliders.

* Consider configuration.

This refers to the number and ratio of bedrooms to baths, is part of the value test too. Generally, the more bathrooms, the higher the rental value.

For example, a two-bedroom, two-bath unit is more expensive than two bedrooms with just one bath.

Before you take the plunge, bear in mind that a bath can be a half, three-quarter or full. A half bath is just a toilet and sink; three-quarter also includes a shower and full includes a tub.

* Check out amenities.

These are anything that create comfort or convenience--and value. Parking, laundry, appliances, yard or balcony and elevator are just a few examples.

Probably the single biggest amenity affecting value is parking. The spectrum ranges from private, two-car garages to gated parking to carports to street parking. The more private, secure and convenient the parking, the higher the price the unit may be.

Always get promised parking in writing on the lease (most leases have a specific clause). Be sure the parking space, if assigned, is specifically spelled out--including size, location and number of vehicles you can park. Why in writing? Because an oral promise is only worth the paper it's written upon. A personal washer and dryer inside the apartment is prime. The other end of the spectrum? No laundry facilities in the building. The further you have to haul your socks, the lower the comparative rental cost should be.

As for appliances, the more, the merrier (and the higher the rent). Usually, stoves are included since they're tricky to move. Refrigerators are not always included, so ask if the unit includes one. Built-in dishwashers are sometimes scarce in older buildings.

Yards and balconies will run you extra, as do places boasting fireplaces. Elevator buildings, which have controlled access and intercom, usually boast the most amenities and command the highest price. Throw in a pool and you're usually going to pay a premium.

Basic utilities, typically gas and electricity, are usually paid by the tenant. Water is usually billed to the owner. Any other utilities the landlord covers is a bonus.

Electrical use anywhere within the unit (plus the porch light sometimes), will be on your tab. Stoves and heaters typically use gas, and hot water tanks vary. Some properties have one tank that services the whole building, which is billed to the owner. If the unit has its own tank, you'll be in hot water privately, including the bill.

After all was said and done, my nephew heaved a sigh. He's nearly done with college and still enduring lectures. But I think he got the picture.

I hope he calls back soon. I still have to explain security deposits, lease pointers and so much more.

*

H. May Spitz is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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