NEWS- March 'crying:' rental house seekers finding tight market

This house in Forest Lakes South rented for $1,895 a month, a sign that the market for single family rentals is tight.

Everyone knows it's a buyer's market, but now some real estate professionals might call it something else: a landlord's market, at least for landlords of spacious single-family homes. Unlike apartments and condos, which remain plentiful, single family homes for rent are currently in high demand, since fewer people moving into the area are willing to plunk down cash to buy, particularly if they're not planning to stay in town more than a few years.

Wallace Gibson, owner of the Gibson Management Group, says the current inventory of single family homes for rent in the Charlottesville area hovers around 50– nearly 30 percent fewer than the typical inventory of 70 this time of year.

"Normally," says Gibson, "I have people start crying they can't find a rental home in May. This year, they started crying in early March."

In addition to making it harder just to find a house for rent, Gibson says the shortage has allowed landlords to price their single family properties higher by $100 to $300 per month. Want to live in Forest Lakes this year? Gibson says a typical three-bedroom home there– including one she's listing– can easily pull in a whopping $1,900 a month. With current interest rates hovering in the low sixes, that's the equivalent of a $310,000 mortgage (without taxes and insurance.)

Real estate agent Roger Voisinet says people looking to rent single family homes in this area might ask owners of houses for sale if they'd consider a straight lease or a lease with an option to purchase. Of his 31 current listings, he says, five are also available for rent, and some have already been rented.

"Some of the leases we've signed have been designed to be a litle flexible," says Voisinet. "In one case, the tenant we found may be a purchaser. It's one way of selling a house right now."

For those for whom holding onto a house simply isn't feasible, the local housing market isn't all doom and gloom, as long as the place is priced right.

Drew and Liz Alexander recently put their 2,800-square-foot three-bedroom house off Preston Avenue on the market, asking $460,000. Hoping to move to Richmond this spring and unable to pay two mortgages, the Alexanders say they followed their agent's advice to a T, spending nearly $20,000 for fresh paint, new carpet, and generally sprucing up the place. They then priced it a little lower than they might have hoped for even last year. 

The tactics worked, Drew Alexander says. Less than three weeks after listing the house on March 8, the Alexanders had three offers and accepted the final one, for just slightly under the asking price. They're already settled into a Richmond rental house.

"We didn't get the $18,000 back that we spent on the house," he says, "but selling it in two weeks is worth a lot."

Dave Phillips, CEO of the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors, says the Alexanders got it right.  

"If you price it right, there's no reason you can't sell it quickly," he says. And for people choosing to rent now rather than buy, Phillips has a few words of caution.

"You aren't going to be able to count on the affordable rental rates you have now," he says, acknowledging prices are already rising. "You can have control over your mortgage. It offers stability."