There's a classic rule: Don't pay more than 30% of your income in rent. But getting a decent place for that much is hard. About 38% of American renters were putting 35% or more of income toward rent as of 2015, per data from the U.S. Census bureau. And in certain places affordability is even tougher to find, like in New York City — where rents eat more than half of average income.
So, how much should you be paying? Again, it depends on where you live: According to Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist at housing data site Trulia, the highest rental costs are limited to about 20 large, expensive markets: "Think New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles," he said in an email. "Outside of those metros, rents are affordable at the median" and thus you might be able to easily stay below the 30% threshold.
If not, and you are living in one of the more expensive markets, you could be forgiven for flouting the 30% rule — as in, going above it — to have lodging you feel okay about; or, better yet, you might come up with creative ways to get there (more tips on that are below).
First, to give a sense of how pricey rent is across U.S. markets, financial advice firm SmartAsset provided a table to Mic using data from site RentJungle to determine what a 28% rent-to-income ratio for one-bedroom apartments in 15 major markets would look like. Here's how much money you'd need to be making to stay in that range, ranked from most- to least-expensive cities:
San Francisco: To afford $3,363 average rent, you need to make $144,129.
New York: To afford $2,732 average rent, you need to make $117,086.
Boston: To afford $2,402 average rent, you need to make $102,943.
Los Angeles: To afford $2,229 average rent, you need to make $95,529.
Washington, DC: To afford $2,081 average rent, you need to make $89,186.
Seattle: To afford $2,004 average rent, you need to make $85,886.
Miami: To afford $1,820 average rent, you need to make $78,000.
Chicago: To afford $1,698 average rent, you need to make $72,771.
Philadelphia: To afford $1,454 average rent, you need to make $62,314.
Atlanta: To afford $1,360 average rent, you need to make $58,286.
Riverside: To afford $1,142 average rent, you need to make $48,943.
Houston: To afford $1,088 average rent, you need to make $46,629.
Dallas: To afford $1,041 average rent, you need to make $44,614.
Detroit: To afford $930 average rent, you need to make $39,857.
Phoenix: To afford $926 average rent, you need to make $39,686.
Not currently in range of these levels? Consider making some adjustments to your priorities or lifestyle, especially if you hope to buy a house some day, McLaughlin said. "While millennials may be tempted to splurge on expensive rental units, we still recommend they aim to spend no more than 30% of their gross monthly income on rent," he said. "This is especially true if they're interested in buying a home someday."
Thinking long-term is key: "Sure, they might not be able to afford a rental unit in a building with fancy amenities without paying more than 30%, but they'll be able to save up for a down payment (or other investment) much faster," McLaughlin said.
So how you can you reduce your rent burden right now? There is, of course, an option many choose, which is getting a roommate. But if you really value your space, here are other creative suggestions that could help instead.
Lock in a longer lease
In most cities, rents are still rising, or at least not going down. If you lock yourself in for a lease longer than a year — even just two years — you can look to avoid the usual price hike that would come after your year or six-month lease is up. This shouldn't be a difficult sell to a landlord — as U.S. News contributor Niccole Schreck writes: "A longer lease benefits the landlord, as it reduces the amount of time and money spent on filling vacancies."
Couch-hop until winter
The most popular time to house hunt is spring and summer — those are notoriously sellers' markets. The buyer's market hits in winter: According to RentHop, rents fall more than 1.5% in December and January.
If you are lucky enough to have a flexible lease right now, wait until winter to make a move. Or, if you don't mind a little scrappiness, consider crashing with folks or friends for a few months after your summer-ending lease runs out — and then jump back into the market when conditions are more favorable.
If you're going to pay more in rent, at least avoid paying an extra month's worth to a broker. Use personal connections and social media to sound out who in your network might know of a housing opening — and be aggressive about it. You also might check out sites like NakedApartments or RentHop.com that have broker-free listings.
Finally, if you are forced to use a broker, see if they're willing to negotiate terms about the apartment hunt up front. "Ask whether he or she will pay your application fee or other administrative fees," Josh Waldrum, a former apartment locator, writes on the SquareFoot blog. "Typically, a locator's broker will pay all or some of this to get your business. In the end, they're making money even if they've got to cough up a small fee. It never hurts to ask."
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