Whether you're a young person on a budget, or an "empty nester" searching for a smaller living space, Baltimore's apartment market offers a wide range of options for apartment hunters to consider.
As the result of a trend toward diversification, many area apartment communities feature innovative room layouts and an emphasis on recreational amenities such as swimming pools, workout rooms and bike paths. Once-rare luxury items such as security systems, fireplaces, hardwood floors, mini-blinds, ceiling fans and intercom systems are now common in quality developments.
While the familiar one-, two- and three-bedroom garden apartment remains prevalent in the Baltimore area, there is still plenty of architectural variety to be found. Multi-story town houses with lofts and skylights, duplex apartments with double-story views and warehouse-loft conversions have all gained in popularity in recent years.
Beyond innovative floor plans, many apartment developments offer renters sophisticated "extras" such as fitness rooms, snazzy common areas, kitchens equipped with microwave ovens, the availability of copier and fax service, and a washer and dryer in each apartment -- just to name a few of the inducements being offered.
Why the rush to entice potential residents?
The answer is simple: The Baltimore area's apartment vacancy rate is high compared to only a few years ago. Experts estimate the vacancy rate at seven to ten percent, versus a "good times" rate of two percent.
So it's a buyer's market for today's apartment hunters. And the inducements apartment-complex owners are offering to potential renters often go beyond a month's free rent or a reduced security deposit.
"Overall, the apartment industry is looking at increasing service to renters -- and offering more," says Chris Devlin, the president of Baltimore's Apartment Builders and Owners Council, a division of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.
"For example, many apartment developments offer the use of the rental office's fax, copier and notary services -- and will even do minor typing chores. The facilities are already there, so it's a natural."
The high vacancy rate persists in spite of a slowdown in the construction of new multi-family housing, because low interest rates make it easy for young people to purchase a house.
"Many people in the 21- to 40-year-old range are able to purchase their own home," says John Martonick, a past president of the A.B.O.C. "We've lost a significant number of residents to home ownership."
With less demand, monthly rents in the Baltimore area have remained low, Mr. Martonick says -- typically $475 to $600 a month for a two-bedroom, fully-equipped apartment. While new properties are rare, that doesn't mean an apartment hunter will spend time looking at run-down units: To remain competitive in a tight market, many older apartment complexes are being updated to attract renters.
"Apartment hunters are looking for the best quality they can find," Mr. Martonick explains. "Structure, grounds, maintenance, swimming pools, community halls, a gym on site -- things that give a homey atmosphere in an apartment-type atmosphere and layout."
Yet with all the incentives offered by apartment developments -- including maid and concierge service at the high end of the scale -- it's easy for apartment hunters to lose sight of the bottom line.
"Caveat emptor -- buyer beware -- to all that," Mr. Martonick warns. "Don't fall into the trap of allowing the glitz to get in the way of good quality."
He offers advice to people in the market for an apartment: "Make sure what you're looking at is of sufficient size -- compare it to where you now live," Mr. Martonick says. "And make certain the rent is within your budget. A good rule of thumb is that your gross income per week ought to pay your monthly rent."
It's important to keep your priorities in mind while shopping for an apartment. Is the development close to schools, shopping and recreation? Apartments in locales with walk-to-work convenience are increasingly popular, especially near the Inner Harbor and employment centers such as Towson, Pikesville, Glen Burnie and Owings Mills. Other locales that should increase in popularity with apartment dwellers will be those near subway and light rail stops, says Mr. Martonick.
When shopping for an apartment, check the reputation of the management company that runs the apartment development. "Don't be afraid to knock on someone's door and ask them what they think of the apartment management," Mr. Martonick recommends. "Any kind of management worth its salt won't object if you do that."
First-time renters, especially, should be aware of some potential pitfalls that can occur when choosing an apartment: Find out who pays the utility bill and whether or not your furnishings and belongings are covered by the apartment development's insurance. Rental policies, by the way, are cheap and easy to obtain. And don't forget to check the apartment community's rules on pets.
Some final advice: Read the lease carefully before signing. "Ask questions if there's anything in the lease you don't understand," Mr. Martonick advises. "A quality landlord will answer any questions."