Apartments go fast in Tacoma — why you probably can’t even find one online

Renting in Tacoma's tight market for apartments

Demand for apartment units remains high in the Tacoma apartment market, even as hundreds of new units have come on the market.
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Demand for apartment units remains high in the Tacoma apartment market, even as hundreds of new units have come on the market.
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Looking for an apartment in Tacoma?

Good luck, some recent apartment hunters are saying.

Apartment vacancies have dropped as people from King County look to Pierce County for lower rent, and job growth draws more out-of-state residents.

Nearly 200 people per day moved to Pierce, King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties from mid-2013 through mid-2017, state and Census data show. That’s about 285,900 people total. At the same time, only 82,521 housing units were built in those areas.

Competition is so intense that an apartment listed online can be claimed within the day, property managers and apartment hunters in Pierce County say.

“It’s not uncommon to get a phone call or an email within minutes of posting (a listing),” said Mark Melsness, owner of Spinnaker Property Management. “Stuff moves so fast, especially for houses that are clean and well-presented.”

Leasing agent Jill Fielding, also with Spinnaker, said she can receive 30 emails in the first day after listing a property online.

Apartment hunters should be prepared to provide a file full of information about themselves — rental and credit history, rental references and credit score, proof of income.

“You want to make yourself look as good as possible to increase your chances of getting in there to see a place,” said Seattle-based relocation expert Lindsay Ford, CEO and founder of Sprout Tours.

You, and on any give day, hundreds of others.

‘So many calls’

Marsha and Wayne Carter thought they would have no problems finding an apartment after they sold their house in Cleveland, Tennessee, and moved to Tacoma.

After all, there were plenty of places available in their home state.

Boy, were they wrong.

Marsha Carter visited here in July while her husband helped with the apartment search remotely.

“I’d tell her, ‘Go to this address’ and by the time she got there, it had been rented,” Wayne Carter said. “I was expecting something like that in Seattle.”

When Douglas Zaleski went hunting for an apartment in Tacoma he was surprised by the how competitive the rental market was.

He moved here from Chicago after a transfer with the U.S. Postal Service. He was looking for an affordable West Coast city with an outdoorsy vibe, and Tacoma topped his list.

After internet listings showed little promise, he and his father canvassed neighborhoods looking for rent signs.

“Within the first few days, I had zero leads for apartments that were suitable for me,” Zaleski said. “Living in Chicago, I could just look online or even walk down the street.”

Not so in Tacoma.

Zaleski wanted to live on the Hilltop, in the Stadium District or other similar area with a semblance of a night life.

“I’m 29, and those days are a little bit behind me,” he said, “but it’s nice to have the fun of a city around you.”

As he visited one listing that he found online, the agent fielded several calls for the apartment.

“They said, ‘Yeah, we had to take (the listing) down because we were getting so many calls from so many people,’” said Zaleski, who didn’t get that apartment.

Higher rent on fewer units

Those kinds of stories are nothing new to Ford, the relocation expert, whose clients are running into roadblocks as they look for rental homes and apartments in the Tacoma area.

“What I’ve seen is a marked decrease in availability and an extreme increase in cost per month,” she said. “We are seeing less options available for rent.”

Explosive job growth in King County coupled with not enough housing units being built in Pierce County to accommodate a rapidly growing population means steep rental increases and fewer units available.

Though apartment vacancy rates in Pierce County are climbing — at 4.21 percent this year as opposed to 3.34 percent a year ago — people still are having trouble finding a place when they move.

As rental prices head up in King County, more are moving south for Pierce’s relative bargain. Property management companies here are fielding dozens of inquiries on a single listing, which shows even the rental market is heating up in Pierce County.

Tips for finding a place

Finding a rental home or apartment is hard but not hopeless for the persistent or resourceful. Here are some tips for apartment shopping in Tacoma’s tight market.

▪  Looking remotely? Find a friend to help

When the Carters didn’t find a place to rent, Marsha returned to Tennessee to prepare their home for sale but kept up the apartment hunt from afar.

Fortunately, a family friend in Tacoma was willing to make an appointment with the property owner and scope out a promising online lead.

“We would not have known without me flying back across the country to Tacoma to look at it myself,” Marsha Carter said, as movers unloaded their belongings into a West End apartment. “It would’ve been scary to rent something based on online pictures.”

Ford, the relocation expert, said her company often films remote guided tours for clients who are unable to fly in.

▪  Send information to property owners with your inquiry

Property owners are inundated with inquiries about listings, Ford said. You want your email to stand out.

When contacting a property owner, send as much information as you feel comfortable sharing, she said.

By the time you visit the property, be ready to show proof of income, which can include pay stubs or letters of job offer. Be ready to pay a background check fee, usually up to $50.

You want your interest to stand above the others. And be specific about which property you are talking about.

“We get ‘like this house, contact me,’ and all they have is their name and email address, then they don’t respond to our emails,” said Melsness of Spinnaker Property Management.

“Then there’s no way to communicate with them and we move on to the next person who contacted us.”

▪  Search closer to your move-in date

If you can’t move into a new place for a month or more, you might as well not even bother looking for somewhere to rent, Ford said.

“They can get 10 people who want to move in tomorrow,” she said.

Her relocation company tells clients to start looking about 20 days from their ideal move-in date.

“Anything they can walk through will be available for immediate move in,” Ford said.

▪  Be persistent

“For private owners and property managers, they are fielding 100 emails about this,” Ford said.

Find a listing you like? Don’t give up, Melsness said.

“They need to saturate the communication for whoever it is listing the home — text, email and phone call, if not even stop by the office,” he said.

Potential renters could be in competition with those more motivated, who have lost out on a home because they didn’t hustle.

“They don’t understand the velocity that things move at, and they get a lesson,” he said.

▪  Have a pet? Polish up Fido’s resume

“There are a lot less rentals that allow pets because they know they can get five applications without pets,” Ford said.

Submit a pet biography, sometimes called a pet resume. It tells property owners a bit about your pet. It includes photos of the pet with the family and includes the pet’s history, she said.

“Make it a little cheesy,” Ford said. “The purpose is to say it’s a full-grown, fixed female. Did it go to a special training school? Is one of the family members home all day? Does it go to doggie day care?”

She is also telling clients to get rental referrals — not just for them on whether they pay the rent on time or take care of the property, but also for the pet.

Owners of dogs considered aggressive, or those with larger dogs, typically have a rougher time finding a home or apartment, Melsness said. When looking at an apartment or home, pet owners should consider bringing their dog with them, he said.

“Once people see how well-mannered your dog is and how the owner takes care of it, they might change their minds,” he said.

▪  Consider temporary lodging while you look

That’s what Zaleski did after he left Chicago. He moved to Tacoma in July and lived in a series of short-term rentals, figuring he wouldn’t find a place right away.

He finally signed a lease for an apartment in the Stadium District more than two weeks after he moved here, but only after hearing about the listing by word of mouth.

Zaleski wished luck those looking for an apartment in Tacoma.

“As much as I want to get upset,” he said, “I know I’m part of the reason this is such an issue right now.”

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports