In the city, room for rent is scarce Desirable housing is snapped up as soon as it goes on market

Many renters turned away

Canton, Fells Point and Inner Harbor are popular areas


February 04, 1996|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

As some leasing agents tell it, it feels more like midtown Manhattan than Baltimore in trying to find prime rental housing downtown. The most desirable homes and apartments get snapped up as fast as they come on the market. Waiting lists are common. Prospective tenants meet in Realtors' offices as complete strangers and leave as roommates.

They say if you're looking to rent, move fast. That apartment you read about this morning might be taken by tonight. The condo your agent plans to show you today might be gone before you see it.

It can take months to buy or sell a home, but it's not uncommon to rent one out in a day.

Take the case of a third floor, one-bedroom apartment on Light Street in the heart of Federal Hill, which appeared on the Realtors' multiple list two months ago. A Long & Foster agent rushed to show it a half-hour later. By the time he returned the key, the apartment had been leased to someone else.

"We're unable to accommodate the majority of those who come looking," said Bob Fisher, a sales associate in that Federal Hill office. "We turn away more than we can handle. It's quite a shock to most people to find that it's so difficult to rent in Baltimore.

"When I book appointments for people, I tell them I have five places lined up that would meet their needs, but I can't guarantee when they get here two days later they'll still be available," he said.

In a climate in which buyers leisurely choose from an overwhelming supply of properties, tenants face a shortage of housing around the Inner Harbor and more recently in neighborhoods such as Fells Point and Canton.

Those areas have become increasingly popular with employees relocating for jobs from other cities, young professionals just starting out in their careers, singles and, to some extent, "empty nester" couples, property managers and agents said.

Add to that a reluctance to commit to making down payments and mortgage payments in a climate of job uncertainty -- especially with new jobs -- and the result has been a declining supply of units.

The number of walk-in customers seeking rentals at Long & Foster's city offices has jumped over the past year, said Bill Cassidy, sales manager. Meanwhile, the amount of inventory on the multiple list -- which represents only about 15 percent of available rentals -- has dropped. Many of those are apartments in private homes or condos in buildings such as Scarlett Place and Harbor Court at the Inner Harbor and Canton Cove in Canton. As of last week, only six units were available at Scarlett Place and Harbor Court, including a two-bedroom condo for $2,000 a month.

"We often have to caution somebody if they see something they like, they have to move on it," Mr. Cassidy said. "If they like it, three other people like it."

Melanie Sabelhaus, president of Exclusive Interim Properties, had such a tough time finding short-term rentals for her clients -- out-of-town executives and business people relocating to downtown jobs -- that last year she bought 20 condominiums in Federal Hill to rent out.

"Anything that comes up that's a really good product in rentals is gone within a week," Ms. Sabelhaus said, adding that her clients are attracted to neighborhoods such as Federal Hill and Otterbein that are residential, yet within walking distance of jobs, restaurants and other attractions.

Because of the scarcity of one-bedroom apartments, single tenants frequently double up to afford a larger place, Mr. Fisher said. He recalled the two young teachers who met by chance at his office and decided to room together.

"I've had people lined up here waiting to rent, and literally, they teamed up on the steps," he said.

A survey of several buildings showed occupancy rates from 95 to 99 percent. Usually, only a few of the 125 apartments at Henderson's Wharf in Fells Point, a converted, century-old tobacco warehouse, are available, said Sarah Mcwhorter, assistant property manager. Rents run from $875 to $2,200, and many of the residents are single people in their mid- to late 20s, she said.

Three of Signature Management Co.'s buildings in University Center -- The Sailcloth Factory, The Greenhouse and Redwood Square -- have waiting lists for 40 units for the summer, with most applicants either graduate students or hospital residents, said Joe Fonte, company president.

Nothing is available at Harbor Hill in Federal Hill, also managed by Signature, until May. Just two or three apartments out of 240 are available at Tindeco Wharf in Canton. Rents at Signature properties range from $500 a month for a studio apartment at Redwood Square in University Center to $1,700 for a water view unit at Harbor Hill.

"You get a lot of single people who work in Columbia or Hunt Valley but want to live in the city," Mr. Fonte said.

But accommodating all of them is another matter.

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