Pet Rent Puts the Bite on Empty Nesters

In a tight rental market, owning a dog or cat may be pricier than you think
By Irene S. Levine for Next Avenue

Credit: Thinkstock

One of the primary reasons empty nesters decide to downsize is to reduce fixed costs. But many boomers poised to enter the tight rental market may encounter an unanticipated recurring cost that’s increasingly common: having to pay a monthly rental surcharge for their pets.

A growing number of landlords across the nation are adding “pet rent” to monthly rental fees. In addition to one-time refundable pet security deposits to cover potential property damage and one-time non-refundable pet move-in fees, many landlords are now charging renters an extra $25 to $50 (or more) per month for a single cat or dog.

When Tara Parsell and her husband moved from New York City to Columbus, Ohio, they were shocked to learn that no matter where they rented, they would have to pay extra for their cat to live in their apartment. “The apartment complex we ended up choosing had one of the lowest pet rents in the area, $20 per month for the first pet and $10 for each additional one,” says Parsell.

“Pet rent is something we are seeing nationwide, although the amount charged varies by the location, competitiveness of the market and particular property,” says Dan Laufer, co-founder of the apartment review site and a pet owner himself.

One anomaly worth noting is that pet rent hasn’t caught on as quickly in New York as it has in many other major markets. “Pet fees in New York City are legal but very uncommon,” says Max Galka, a real estate researcher who runs Metrocosm. He says it’s much more common for buildings to require an additional security deposit from pet owners, which can run as high as $1,000.

Ironically, some of the properties charging pet rent may even brand themselves as “pet-friendly” because they allow certain types and breeds of pets. They may offer special amenities like puppy parks, dog runs, costume parties and celebrations of National Dog and Cat Days.

The Property Owner’s Perspective

The rationale for charging pet rent is that pets create additional wear and tear (scratching and clawing carpets and wood floors, leaving odors, etc.), and require landlords to provide more services (for example, cleaning up behind the pets and in public spaces and supplying doggie pick-up bags in the courtyard), says Laufer.

Realtor and attorney Bruce Ailion, who manages 120 rental properties for Success Real Estate Brokers in Atlanta, says: “With pet owners it is about 70/30 positive vs. negative experiences. Unfortunately, responsible owners are penalized for irresponsible ones.”

When an owner isn’t responsible, Ailion notes, “a deposit seldom covers the costs of repairs.” The worst call he has had to make, he says, was to inform an apartment building owner that a tenant with a pet left the place a mess and the carpets or hardwoods need to be replaced.

“In our office, half the pet rent collected goes to the [property] owner and half to the property manager as a pet management fee, compensation for the difficult discussions we need to have with the owner and tenant,” Ailion explains.

Property owners also cite higher insurance costs associated with having pets on premises. “While there are many pros to having tenants with pets — like a larger tenant pool to draw from and higher rental incomes — landlords also need to consider increased liability costs for personal or property damage when determining what fees or how much extra rent to charge,” says Michael Park, president of Renters Warehouse in Dallas.

The Pet Owner’s Perspective

From the pet owner’s perspective, the general shortage of affordable housing coupled with restrictive lease policies prohibiting pets from many properties, places them over a barrel when they try to rent an apartment, condo or single-family dwelling. A recent survey by Trupanion, a company that offers medical insurance for cats and dogs, found that less than 3 percent of all available rentals in New York City are dog-friendly.

One city where the problem is particularly acute is Orlando, Fla., says Christie Zizo, a pet owner who blogs at Life With Beagle. “This past summer, we saw an upswing in people surrendering their dogs to shelters because they were moving into properties where they couldn’t take their pets, either because of restrictions or because they couldn’t afford to pay for their pets,” she says.

Laufer of points out that some landlords aren’t collecting pet rents to recoup costs. Rather, they are using the money as a means to pick up additional revenue given the market dynamics.

Kathy Ludwig and her husband were living on seven acres in Pierson, Iowa, with a clowder of outdoor kitties during the mortgage crisis when her husband, newly diagnosed with cancer, had no work for six months. They were forced to sell their acreage and look for a house rental in a larger city about 13 miles away.

“After owning a home for 20 years, we were shocked by the rental situation,” says Ludwig. “Rental property was limited and prices had skyrocketed.” Although the couple was fortunate to know someone who owned a rental property, the landlord didn’t want to accept Ludwig’s 12-year-old neutered, declawed, “lazy old” rescue cat.

“There was no way I was getting rid of my baby,” she says. Ludwig pleaded with the landlord and finally negotiated a $1,000 security deposit and an additional $50 rent per month to keep her pet.

Her advice to other pet lovers: Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Showing up with cash in hand can help, too.

How Pet Fees Vary Across America

Trulia, a real estate search website, conducted a study looking at geographic differences in pet fees, rent and deposits across the 25 largest rental markets. See the key findings here.
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