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COVID-19 Sends Renter Demand (and Rents) Falling, but Some Cities are Already Recovering

[Updated: Apr 29, 2020 ] Apr 29, 2020 by Aly J. Yale
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The rental market, like basically all of the economy, has taken a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to new data from rental platform Zumper, the last two weeks of March saw renter search activity plummet, with searches dropping anywhere from 10% to 30% in some cities.

Reason for concern

The hardest-hit cities seem to be ones where shelter-in-place orders came early: San Francisco, New York City, and Chicago. In San Francisco, search volume tanked 36%. In New York, it was down nearly 30%.

But search activity wasn't the only thing sliding as the pandemic set in. Inventory also fell 12% in late March, and properties were on the market 29% longer than before the health crisis.

Rents were also on the decline. Zumper's data shows that one-bedroom quotes clocked in at their lowest point ever in early April, sitting at a mere $870 per month. (For reference, the company's National Rent Report shows a median one-bedroom price of almost $400 more in February).

The largest rent decline was in Seattle, where one-bedroom rents dropped 8.5% year over year. New York; Washington, D.C.; Rochester, New York; and Richmond, Virginia also saw big drops.

Some silver lining

There is some silver lining to all this, though. According to Zumper's data, renter demand actually recovered a bit in April, with Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) searches jumping 10% and Zumper traffic increasing 12%.

Search volume recovered the most in:

  • Baltimore (up 52%).
  • Austin, Texas (up 43%).
  • San Francisco (up 40%).
  • New York City (up 28%).
  • Chicago (up 25%).

Plain old boredom is just one of the reasons behind this recovery, according to Zumper's data analyst Crystal Chen. "Non-essential workers generally have more free time now, as they are not commuting to and from work every day or going out on the weekends, so many are bored and may want to browse apartments in their free time," Chen said.

The soon-to-be easing of stay-at-home orders is also playing a role.

"As people begin to think about their moves again ahead of the shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders being lifted, and as we enter into the official start of moving season this spring, the interest in rentals has begun to grow again," she said.

Leveraging the demand

At first glance, it appears that demand for rentals may be bouncing back. But, if you want to take advantage of it, you may need to make some changes first, including offering online tenant applications, digital rent payments, and, of course, virtual tours.

Social distancing recommendations are expected to be in place for some time, and these measures (among others) can help both you and your prospective tenants stay safe and in compliance.

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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Aly Yale has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (C shares). The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.