Local rental agents talk housing market ahead of Sept. 1

Woldeyonas, 23, is a rental broker, and this is her time. Beginning in May and extending through the summer, students, young professionals, and other renters flood the market seeking apartments ahead of Sept. 1, when the majority of leases in Boston turn over. Rental brokers depend on this four-month period for as much as 80 percent of their annual earnings, they say, and renters depend on them to find homes in an impossibly tight market.

“It’s housing. Everything is urgent,” said Woldeyonas, who works for RE/MAX Destiny brokerage in Cambridge. “If something comes up at 10 o’clock [at night], you have to attend to it.”

For many renters, working through a broker has become a necessary, if not always happy, part of finding apartments in a region where the vacancy rate is below 1 percent.

Boston and New York are among the few cities where renters, instead of landlords, usually pay broker fees, typically one month’s rent. (New York is considering legislation to require landlords to pay the fees). Those fees can add thousands of dollars to the already onerous cost of renting an apartment, which often requires prospective tenants to put down first and last months’ rent, as well as a month’s rent as a security deposit.

To lease an apartment that goes for the average rent in the Boston area — about $3,200 a month, according to listing service Boston Pads — tenants leasing through a broker would have to come up with nearly $13,000.

A rental on Trowbridge Street in Cambridge. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Jared Highlen, 33, and his wife, have been renting in Boston since 2017. They’ve paid brokers fees on two apartments and expect to pay the fee again as they search for a new place before their lease ends on Sept. 1. But, Highlen said, he’s not really sure what they’re paying for.

He does much of the research, combing through listings online and scheduling showings. But if the apartment he finds is listed by a broker, he and his wife have to pony up another month’s rent.

“That seems a little bit exploitative to me,” said Highlen, a university adjunct professor who lives in Brighton. “You’re paying them in the end for having their name on a listing and maybe letting you into the apartment to see it once.”

“It seems like the realtors are really working more for the owners and the landlords,” he said.

Brokers, however, say they earn their money. They often work with renters — particularly students, parents, and others from out-of-town — from the beginning of the search to the signing of the lease. That can involve several showings, filling out applications, negotiating with landlords, and dealing with disappointments.

It might also include getting clients past the shock of Boston rents, among the highest in the country. Boston area rents are up 19 percent from 2022, according to Boston Pads.

Boston’s ultra-low vacancy rate hasn’t made things any easier for brokers. Rents, and hence, commissions are higher, but volume of rentals is lower. Many as high mortgage rates have discouraged homeowners who locked in low rates a few years ago from selling, the high upfront costs of renting make tenants reluctant to move, meaning even fewer available apartments.

Boston Pads estimated the vacancy rate in the Greater Boston area at 0.8 percent at the end of June. A healthy market has a rental vacancy rate of about 6 percent, according to The Boston Foundation, a civic group.

“On a rental agent’s side, it’s a volume business,” said Eric Rollo, managing partner and broker at The Agency, a real estate brokerage. “They’re just churning as fast as they can to get more and more renters into apartments.”

Rental brokers make about the same amount of money as an entry-level job in other professions, according to Bilien Woldeyonas.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Lev Borinski, a rental agent at The Agency, said it’s a 24/7 job at this time of year. His calendar is booked solid, but he still needs to find time when a last-minute showing becomes available. It can take days to get listing agents, overwhelmed with inquiries, on the phone.

“That’s a big challenge, right now, even to schedule a showing,” he said.

Reacting quickly is key in a market in which vacancies don’t last. As of June 28, the median time an apartment stayed on the market had fallen by 18 days from last year, to 27 from 45.

The competition means that clients are frequently rejected as tenants. Rental brokers must show clients several properties before they can make a deal. And they don’t get their commission until a lease is signed.

“Rental agents aren’t really guaranteed anything,” said Jared Clement, director of leasing at Charlesgate, a local real estate services company. “If you take a client out and show them a few apartments and they decide to not rent, you don’t really get paid.”

You’re also unlikely to get rich renting apartments, brokers said. Commissions are often split with listing agents. Firms typically take a cut, too. Woldeyonas, the RE/MAX Destiny broker, said most rental brokers earn pay similar to entry-level jobs in other professions.

Working in rentals is viewed as one of the first steps in building a career in real estate, and succeeding comes down to relationships, hard work, and commitment, industry officials said. It’s a people business, which means building connections is crucial.

“You really get what you put into the industry,” said Clement. “If you’re dedicated and diligent each day, there’s a lot of opportunity to get a lot of leases signed.”

Esha Walia can be reached at

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