Alternatives to Buying a Home
If you are relocating to the Houston area, you may not be ready to purchase another home. In that case, renting or leasing may be the perfect solution. Houston is the fourth-largest rental market in the nation, with more than 550,000 total apartment units. This provides you with plenty of choice in the market, whether you’re looking for an apartment, townhouse, mid-rise, high-rise, condo or single-family home. Better yet, rental rates in the Houston area are very affordable.
While some people strive to obtain home ownership others realize that renting or leasing is a much more suitable decision for the short or long term. After all, you have just arrived in your new city and with so many things to be done, making a large investment may be handled best after getting acclimated. If you have been relocated by your employer, the chance of another relocation may be in your future so purchasing a house might not guarantee a return on your investment. On the other hand, perhaps you moved from a rental and are not ready to take the plunge into owning your first piece of property. Allowing yourself time to settle into your new environment before committing to home ownership will give you time to get a feel for the various communities that make Houston such a diverse place to live as well as decide which type of home is best for you.
While Houston is certainly a great place to buy a home, it is also a great place to satisfy all renting appetites. With numerous units found throughout the city and loft construction on the rise since the new millennium, finding a place to rent or lease in Houston is not difficult. However, finding the right place that meets your needs and suits your lifestyle is the key to finding a place you can call home. Although other metropolitan cities have experienced slowed-down construction because of market volatility, Houston continues to add to its supply of renting and leasing choices. According to a recent Marcus & Millichap market report, Houston delivered 1,100 units in 2011 and another 4,800 will be developed in 2012.
In the Real Estate Center Market Report 2011, research showed that as of January 2011, there were a total of 2,617 apartment complexes in the Greater Houston area. Most of the properties (90 percent) offer one or two bedrooms. Overall, the average rent in the Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) was $766; however, rents can be as high as $2,022 in certain areas, such as downtown Houston.
The inventory of rentals in Houston includes houses, which are mainly found in The Heights and are often older Victorian-style homes. Duplexes and fourplexes are multiproperty, nonapartment properties that are not prevalent in Houston. Apartments offer the majority of location selections along with townhouses and condos, which are ideally suited for busy professionals who may require concierge services, maid service, shuttle service and valet parking. Condo rentals are burgeoning due to tighter Fannie Mae guidelines on condo loans, which have some owners holding onto their property longer by renting the units until the market is more favorable for sellers.
Leverage the fact that you have many options by asking for move-in specials or discounted rent. Property managers are aware that there is fierce competition to obtain and keep high occupancy so negotiating for the best deal is within your right and never hurts to ask.
HISTORY OF “BUILDING UP”
The city of Houston is a community that prides itself on strong ties to history while also staying current to appeal to broader regions of the globe. These two facts are the reason Houston can offer diverse living situations in just about every part of the city and outlying areas like Katy, The Woodlands and Pearland.
Looking around at the current landscape you will find that the hub of activity can be found in the heart of the Bayou City. However, downtown living was not always ideal; it was not until major league baseball and basketball got involved that the city began to take shape into what it is today. The Houston Astros moved out of the Astrodome and into the newly built Minute Maid Park in 2000 with the Houston Rockets following three years later with a move into the new Houston Toyota Center. Both venues are located downtown within a mile of each other and have brought with them revenue to businesses and real estate. The scene was then set for the urban professional to live, work and play in one central vicinity—the hallmark of loft living.
The city began to respond to the popularity of loft and high-rise living by not only constructing new properties but also by renovating existing historic buildings and repurposing them as residences. The Lofts at the Ballpark is an example of new construction created in reaction to the community that developed. Just steps from Minute Maid Park, these lofts represent the expansion happening on the east side. Conversely, renovation to historic buildings was taking place, too, such as Bayou Lofts Houston, the headquarters of the Southern Pacific Railroad for 85 years, now transformed into an elegant living space with beautiful finishes, hardwood floors, granite countertops, views of the city and units with balconies overlooking Buffalo Bayou. The Humble Tower Apartments reside in what commonly was referred to as the old Texaco Building, one of the first early 20th-century skyscrapers. The Humble Tower originally was known for its superior architecture and grandeur, which remains after undergoing extensive remodeling to become the modern multiuse community consisting of apartments and Marriott hotel rooms.
The 1990s trend of large square footage and McMansion style houses has turned the tide as residents now find satisfaction in living more environmentally conscious, cost effective and with shorter commutes to work. Of course if a more traditional home with a two- to three-car garage is what you will need later in life, you can find plenty of those in and around the city, too.
Many residents feel that Downtown Houston is experiencing a rebirth as fine dining restaurants and new businesses move into the heart of the city. The plus side to living in this area is the range of entertainment—performing and cultural arts, dining, night life, sporting events, festivals, shopping—at your disposal every day of the week. Places like the Sawyer Heights Lofts, just two miles west of downtown, provide valet, dry cleaning and complimentary yoga and pilates classes so you can easily manage your daily doings, leaving more time to enjoy recreational activities. One Park Place is quickly becoming a symbol of luxury high-rise living with its structure reminiscent of buildings that characterize other metropolitan cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco. In 2011, One Park Place won the prestigious LEED Silver Award Certification for its green initiative program. Another notable downtown residential building is the Post Rice Lofts, which once served as the Rice Hotel where President John F. Kennedy stayed before his assassination in Dallas. Today Post Rice Lofts are coupled with a sustained historical background and contemporary features. It is helpful to remember that locations in downtown are also referred to as the Skyline District and the Theater District.
Inside the Inner Loop, Midtown is near Montrose and the River Oaks area. Here it is common to find the average Midtowner as a young educated professional, between 25–40 years of age as well as new families and recent college graduates. If you are looking for fine living with upscale amenities, beautiful architecture and upgraded appliances, Midtown has many options to fill this need. Located inside the Inner Loop, The Bel Air Allen Parkway is a luxury development inspired by the grand resort hotels of the early 1900s. Closer to Interstate 59 lies La Maison at River Oaks, which is also steeped in special features, such as hardwood floors, a vertical spa and French Quarter-style courtyards. Another great property is Camden Travis Street, which is within steps to the METRORail and makes for convenient pedestrian-friendly living. New to Midtown with its opening last year, West Ave at River Oaks, an urban-village apartment concept that is located where two of Houston’s most celebrated streets, Westheimer and Kirby, converge. President Robert Bagwell sought for the development to have an “organic” feel and be the center of Houston’s new urban environment. West Ave at River Oaks features apartments on the top five levels and two lower levels of retail shopping and dining.
— Texas Medical Center
Known as the largest medical district in the world and in close proximity to exceptional museums, the Texas Medical Center provides a very attractive and affordable area to rent. Due to the vastness of the Texas Medical Center and the people it employs, many apartments are located in this region. In fact, Texas Medical Center employees receive special rates for living at select nearby apartments, many of which also provide shuttle service to and from work. In additional to the shuttle service, the Equinox Apartments seek to make the transition from work to home less hectic with deluxe over-size soaking tubs and a recreational game room with large-screen TV. Domain At Kirby is a mid-rise property that underlines the importance of creating a spacious and comfortable apartment for the discerning professionals always on the go with private balconies and patios.
— The Galleria
The Galleria is a world-class shopping complex and the city’s No. 1 tourist attraction, is referred to as The Galleria area or Uptown and includes the Post Oak region. The Galleria has the largest concentration of apartments and is a desirable and chic part of town with many top-of-the-line rental units, including high-rises with wonderful views of the Houston skyline and the Texas Medical Center towers. Continued popularity in The Galleria locale keeps developers responding to the demands for properties.
Offering a city within a city is the new multimillion-dollar premier development called CityCentre. Described as “Houston’s hip new mecca for hot retail, upscale dining, luxurious living and so much more,” it is located in West Houston at I-10 West and Beltway 8, CityCentre offers both traditional apartments and loft living at Domain at CityCentre and The Lofts at CityCentre, respectively. Domain’s apartments are designed for discriminating urbanities and feature smart floor plans and top-notch amenities. The Lofts are open, natural light-filled one-, two- or three-bedroom units with two different customizable contemporary finishes.
— Greater Houston Communities
The Woodlands is one of America’s first master-planned communities, located 27 miles north of downtown Houston. Comprising seven villages with a wide variety of home styles, each retains a trademark natural forest ambiance. The Boardwalk at Town Center is one such example of lush apartment living with a hometown feel. The Boardwalk at Town Center apartments have ceramic-tiled gourmet kitchens, and the complex provide panoramic views of The Woodlands Waterway Boardwalk with complimentary kayaks and cruiser bikes. An exciting new addition to The Woodlands in 2010, the Millennium apartments is a LEED-certified Green Property. Positioned across the street from world-class shopping and just blocks away from The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. The Millennium is designed to be a bit of tranquility in the midst of everything to love about the city.
Outside of Beltway 8 and west of Houston lies the fast-growing Energy Corridor, home to powerful energy businesses, multinational companies and affluent citizens. With more than a dozen communities and apartments, the area allows industry professionals to work close to home. Newport on the Lake apartments, with a southern coastal architecture style unique to the area, boast expansive floor plans and a private 15-acre lake. Biking and walking to work is not rare because of the connecting neighborhoods and businesses in and around the corridor.
Bay Area Houston sits south of downtown and just north of Galveston. While some cities in the Bay Area are more rural than others in Houston, low crime rates make these bedroom communities desirable to many families. Places like League City, Texas, experienced a population increase of around 30,000 in recent years to make up its current 83,560, making it the fastest growing city in the area. Known for having a large boating population and the NASA Johnson Space Center, the Bay Area supports desirable industries, such as aerospace, high-tech, petrochemical, commercial fishing and marine and boating. Residents can find a piece of their own big city-quality rentals at Voyager at The Space Center, which has sophisticated community amenities.
Evaluating Your Needs
Needless to say, when choosing an apartment in Houston, you will have many options. Whether you are hunting for your rental online or in-person, it will be helpful to navigate through the process by first evaluating your needs. With the help of www.apartmentguide.com, the following factors have been identified as features to keep in mind. If you are working with a professional to find your apartment, creating a list will be a tool they can use while searching on your behalf. Explain what you are flexible about and what is essential.
If you are relocating with your pet, inquiring about pet policies is the first thing to do. There is no sense in finding an apartment that fits you perfectly only to learn that your pet is not welcome. Many rentals have strict policies when it comes to pets, and violating them could forfeit your security deposit and leave you looking for a new a place to live. Some might not allow them at all while others might just require an additional security deposit or a slight increase in rent. In some cases, the deposit can be pretty high and may not be refundable. Ask plenty of questions if you’re unsure. Keep in mind that even when pets are allowed, a big dog that growls at children or barks all night long probably will be asked to leave.
Generally it is better to have too much space than too little because if you go too small, you will either be living with clutter or spending extra money to put some of your belongings in a storage facility. For minimal storage, many apartments will have at least a small storage closet, usually accessible from the porch or balcony. Some offer additional on-site storage space for an extra fee. If your intention is to sign a short-term lease while finding a more permanent residence, make sure there is a storage facility nearby. Read more about storage in the Moving to Houston chapter in this publication.
Kitchens, Bedrooms and Bathrooms:
Kitchens can be the core of a home and, if utilized, require adequate counterspace, cabinets and a pantry to store food. If cooking will be minimal, find out if there are restaurants conveniently located nearby or search for a high-rise with room service. When deciding on the number of bedrooms you require, factor in the size of the rooms, the possibility of out-of-town guests and converting one bedroom to an office. Ceiling fans are especially useful in Houston homes and help keep air circulating even when air conditioning is on. This may not be important to some, but others want a ceiling fan in every room. Not every bathroom was created equal. Do you need a tub in every one, or can you get by with shower stalls? Don’t forget to turn on the shower to check water pressure.
Most of the higher end rentals come standard with a refrigerator, washer and driver, dishwasher, oven, stove and microwave. Decide whether you need to sell any appliances you currently own before you move. If you must purchase appliances not supplied by the rental, factor the cost into your monthly rent over the course of your lease to determine the true value of the unit.
Many complexes will include some sort of cable package, but if you need every channel there is, do your research. Some apartments might not let you put up a dish, so keep that in mind if you’re using services, such as DirecTV or Dish Network. If a particular phone or Internet service provider is important to you, be sure that they service your area by asking the landlord or going to the provider’s website and entering the ZIP code in the service area box. All apartment residents pay for water, some through their rent, some additionally. As water becomes more expensive, many owners are using submeters, or a water allocation system, to bill residents for water directly. If a renter agrees by lease to pay separately for water, there are rules the owner of the property must follow. He must use a billing system that is approved by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission and follow certain other guidelines.
Do not overlook parking space, especially if you have more than one vehicle or you live in a neighborhood known to have a shortage of street parking. If you check during the day, there could be plenty of available parking spaces, but how about at night when everyone is home from work? The weekends also can be misleading with so many professionals working varied schedules. It is best to inquire about peak hours and visit then. Ask the landlord if parking spaces are available at a monthly charge or included in your rent.
Many places will have at least a few of the following available: basketball court, swimming pool, gym, tennis courts, fitness center, walking trail, picnic areas, pet areas and maybe even a play area for children. Other properties have gone beyond typical and offer activities normally reserved for resorts. For example, the Equinox Apartments have a recreational game room with large-screen TV and a demonstration kitchen for cooking classes.
In addition to affordable rents in the area, amenities provided by many apartment complexes are considered luxuries in other U.S. cities. Expect to find amenities, such as disability access, paid utilities, balconies or patios, cable-ready outlets, emergency maintenance, laundry facility, outdoor pools, hot tubs and spas. Many have tennis courts, basketball facilities, billiard rooms, playgrounds and fitness facilities outfitted to rival private gyms. Also available at many complexes are limited-access gates, dry cleaners, detailed landscaping and basic cable television. Some apartments have extravagant clubhouses with big-screen televisions, executive business centers, parking garages, sundecks, gazebos, elevators and video-monitored limited-access entries.
Interior features considered standard for most apartments include heating, air conditioning, miniblinds, ceiling fans, fully equipped kitchens with a dishwasher and multiple phone lines.
Other features might include nine-foot-high ceilings, crown molding, oval garden tubs, bay windows, fireplaces or garages and/or covered parking. In addition, some communities have resident programs that include free and optional services, such as maids, concierges, aerobic classes, guest suites for visitors, free shuttle services and car detail centers.
One Houston property that offers fine urban apartment living with many amenities is Windsor at Siena. The community features an elegant architectural style, lush Italian-countryside landscaping and wall fountains throughout. With downtown, River Oaks and the Medical Center nearby, residents can select from 17 unique floor plans. Among the custom home features include granite countertops, computer desk and a full-size washer and dryer in every apartment. Community amenities include a rooftop terrace with fireplace, a 16-seat movie theater, business center, valet trash pick-up and a 24-hour workout facility. Availabilities include townhouses or one- or two-bedroom units.
WHAT TO EXPECT
After searching, weighing your options and deciding on the property you will rent, you will want to get settled into your new home as soon as possible. Luckily, many buildings offer Virtual Leasing Offices on their websites that allow you to start the application process 24 hours a day. Before applying for a rental, you may want to check out your credit record with a report from a consumer reporting agency (credit bureau) and clear up any problems or mistakes on your record. Identity thieves can wreck havoc on your credit without your knowledge and correcting the damage will need to be started right away.
Most apartment communities use standard leases endorsed by the Texas Apartment Association (TAA) (www.taa.org
) and the Houston Apartment Association (HAA) (www.haaonline.org
) and will require a security deposit ranging from a few hundred dollars to the amount of one month’s rent. Standard leases cover six or 12 months, but some communities now offer seven- and 13-month terms. Information and documents to have accessible during the application process include state or federal ID or driver’s license; current and former addresses; current and past employment with dates; credit references; copy of credit report (if available); and bank information.
TENANTS’ RIGHTS IN TEXAS
The relationship between Texas landlords and their tenants is governed by several statutes, particularly Chapter 92 of the Texas Property Code, and by various court rulings. However, the most important source of information about your relationship with your landlord is your rental agreement, whether it is written or oral. More information can be found at the Attorney General of Texas website at www.oag.state.tx.us.
The Texas Civil Statute, Section 92.0081 states that the landlord has the right to change the door locks on an apartment unit if the rent is delinquent; however, they have to first notify the resident at least three days before the locks are to be changed. After the lock-out, the owner must leave notice where the key can be obtained 24 hours a day. They cannot deny the resident access to the apartment.
Section 54.041 of the Texas Civil Statute states that nonexempt items can be held for nonpayment of rent, provided that the clause is in the lease. It also must be either underlined or in bold print. If a renter has this clause in the lease, the management may seize property that is nonexempt by statute and hold it until the rent is paid.
Under the terms of the TAA lease, no rental increases can be given until the initial lease term has expired. After the lease has expired, an increase of any amount (Texas has no rent control) can be given provided the resident has been served with a 35-day notice prior to the effective date of the new rental amount.
PEACE AND QUIET
Your rights as a tenant include the right to a “quiet enjoyment,” as it is called in the law. This means the landlord cannot evict you without cause or otherwise disturb your right to live in peace and quiet.
If other tenants in your building are disturbing you, you should complain to the landlord. The landlord has a duty to see that you are protected from other tenants’ wrongful behavior. Of course, you may not disturb other tenants either.
Except under certain circumstances and subject to certain conditions, a landlord may not interrupt utilities to a tenant unless the interruption results from bona fide repairs, construction or an emergency.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
You have a right to demand that the landlord repair any condition that materially affects your health and safety. Under Texas law, by renting you the property, the landlord guarantees that the unit will be a fit place to live.
Under certain conditions, you and the landlord may have a written agreement that you will make needed repairs. The landlord does not have a duty to pay for or make repairs if you or your guests cause an unsafe or unhealthy condition through negligence, carelessness, abuse or accident—unless the condition resulted from “normal wear and tear.” Also, the landlord must provide smoke detectors; you may not waive this provision, and you may not disconnect or disable the smoke detectors.
Although there are some specific exceptions, under Texas law a dwelling must be equipped with security devices, such as window latches; keyed dead bolts on exterior doors; sliding-door pin locks, handle latches or security bars; and door viewers. These devices are installed at the landlord’s expense. If such devices are missing or are defective, you have the right to request their installation or repair.
ADDRESSING REPAIR ISSUES
Apartment communities employ full-time maintenance people to handle repairs and perform preventive maintenance, with some offering 24-hour emergency repair services. If leasing from an owner, be sure to establish responsibilities for repairs and maintenance.
It is a state law that a resident cannot withhold rent for needed repairs. If the resident does withhold rent for nonrepair, the owner has a right to evict the tenant for nonpayment of rent.
If a landlord won’t make repairs needed to protect your health, safety or security and you follow the procedures required by law, you may be entitled to the following:
- End the lease.
- Have the problem repaired and deduct the cost of the repair from the rent.
- File suit to force the landlord to make the repairs.
To do so, these steps must be followed:
- Send the landlord a dated letter by certified mail, return-receipt requested or by registered mail, outlining the needed repairs. You also may deliver the letter in person. Keep a copy of the letter. Be sure that your rent is current when the notice is received. Your landlord should make a diligent effort to repair the problem within a reasonable time after receipt of the notice. The law presumes seven days to be a reasonable time, but the landlord can rebut this presumption.
- If the landlord has not made a diligent effort to complete the repair within seven days and you did not have the first-notice letter delivered to your landlord via certified mail, return receipt requested or via registered mail, you will need to send a second notice letter regarding the needed repairs.
- If the landlord still has not made diligent efforts to repair the problem within a reasonable time after receipt of the notice letter sent by certified mail, return-receipt requested or by registered mail, you may be entitled to terminate the lease, repair the problem and deduct the cost from your rent or get a court to order that the repairs be made. You should consult with an attorney before taking any of these actions.
Under Texas law, it is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against you for complaining in good faith about necessary repairs for a period of six months from the date you made such a complaint. Of course, you always can be evicted if you fail to pay your rent on time, threaten the safety of the landlord or intentionally damage the property.
You do not have a right to withhold rent because the landlord fails to make repairs when the condition needing repair does not materially affect your health and safety. If you try this method, the landlord may file suit against you.
The following are additional problems you may experience so be aware of how to proceed.
Recovering your deposit.
Most landlords require you to pay a security deposit to cover any repairs needed when you move out or your failure to pay the last month’s rent. By law, landlords cannot refuse to return the deposit without a valid reason. If you give your landlord your new address in writing, and you do not receive your deposit or an explanation within 30 days of your departure, contact the landlord. If you cannot resolve the problem satisfactorily, you may wish to consult an attorney. You also can contact the Better Business Bureau or your local tenants council. You also can file a complaint with the office of the Attorney General of Texas.
Deductions for damages.
Under Texas law, you must give the landlord a forwarding address and the landlord must return the deposit—less any amount deducted for damages—within 30 days. If the landlord withholds part or all of your deposit, he or she must give you an itemized list of deductions with a description of the damages.
Normal wear and tear.
The landlord may not charge you for normal wear and tear on the premises and may charge only for actual abnormal damage. For example, if the carpet simply becomes more worn because you and your guests walked on it for a year, the landlord may not charge you for a new carpet. If your waterbed leaks and the carpet becomes mildewed as a result, you may be charged.
Check your rental agreement to see if it requires you to give the landlord advance notice that you are moving. Many leases require 30 days’ notice as a condition of returning your deposit.
The grace period allowed in the TAA lease does not refer to when the rent is actually due. It simply refers to when the late charges will begin. The lease states that rent is due and payable on the first of each month. This means that rent is late and delinquent on the second if not paid. How much grace period (if any) is given before late charges begin depends on the owner and what is stated in the lease contract.
Although not required by Texas law, an affordable way to safeguard against unforeseen occurances and protect against personal losses is renters insurance. Depending on the policy, renters insurance averages under $100 per month for $1,000 worth of coverage. The TAA/HAA lease contains a clause that states that the owner will not be liable for any damages to the resident’s personal belongings or to that person. Only if a disaster occurred due to the owner’s own negligence will the resident have a cause of action.
It is normal to want to share the amenities that have drawn you to your apartment, but landlords usually have policies about your guests and amenity usage. Whether it is a maximum number of guests allowed per tenant or necessary accompaniment with your guest, it is best to avoid breaking the rules by inquiring with the landlord first.
The surest way to stay in compliance while at your rental is always to keep your lease handy to reference often. Know your rights, know the rights of the property owner and take the right course of action when needed, and you will be more likely to avoid problems.
If buying a home is not right your you or your lifestyle, Houston provides many excellent and affordable renting and leasing options so you can settle right away into your new city.