BAM Key Details: 

  • As the newest part of his crackdown on “junk fees,” President Biden has targeted hidden rental costs that significantly increase monthly housing costs for renters and make it more difficult for them to comparison shop when looking for a new place. 
  • Zillow, Apartments.com, and AffordableHousing.com have joined the President’s efforts to make rental costs more transparent and protect renters from unnecessary fees.

The Biden-Harris Administration is taking on a new class of “junk fees” in its continuing efforts to make housing costs more affordable. 

This time, it’s taking on hidden fees charged by rental property owners (big and small) that make it harder for renters to comparison shop. 

The Administration’s newly published “Fact Sheet” addresses some of the non-optional fees frequently tacked onto the monthly rent or move-in costs. And Zillow CEO Rich Barton is having one of those “great minds” moments: 

Zillow isn’t the only major rental housing platform joining the President’s effort to rein in rental junk fees and make rental housing costs more transparent. Apartments.com and AffordableHousing.com are also taking steps to protect renters from unexpected and unnecessary fees. 

So, what are these “junk fees” referenced in the fact sheet, where do they come from, and how many of them do rental property owners actually control? 

More to the point, what simple and effective solutions can any state implement to help renters avoid unpleasant surprises after they sign on the dotted line?

What are “renter junk fees”?

Millions of renters across the U.S. take on additional costs when shopping for a new place to live. Some of these are expected—rental application fees, security deposits, and the first month’s rent. Some rental costs, on the other hand, come as a surprise. 

For example, a renter who’s gotten used to having trash collection and internet service included in their rent might end up moving to an apartment with a lower rent—but with both of those services tacked on as additional charges. And the total cost could exceed what they were originally paying. 

Rental application fees are a whole other thing. Renters applying for multiple units are often paying a full application fee for each one, even if some of those units are in the same apartment complex. And often enough, those application fees are more than the actual cost of processing the application and paying for the background and credit checks. Those unnecessary fees can add up to hundreds of dollars. 

There’s even a thing called a “January fee,” where the property owner slaps the renter with an extra fee to ring in the new year. No idea where this one came from. Seems like it would make more sense to thank the renter for staying another year and consistently paying their rent. 

Some charges, on the other hand, like the convenience fees for paying rent online or additional charges for trash collection are costs outside the property owner’s control. They’re annoying but not arbitrary.

So, after reviewing the details in the “Fact Sheet,” not all additional rental costs are predatory “junk fees.” 

Or, put another way, one person’s “junk fee” might be another person’s “cost of doing business.”

I agree that tenants shouldn’t have to do a rental application fee ten times in the process of their search or a credit check ten times. I think it’s ridiculous. But when there’s an extra fee for online payments…that’s a credit card company deal. I haven’t seen anybody go after the credit cards on these fees…Convenience fees passed on to the consumer, I don’t necessarily blame the property owner.

Byron Lazine

How about fees for things like mail sorting and trash collection? 

“Well, trash collection costs money. If it’s not included in the property taxes of that municipality, well, then, the landlord is paying somebody to come and do the trash service. So…should the trash service be a fee? Should it be included in the overall rent? What happens if that trash fee—the price that’s being charged to the landlord—goes up three months into the lease? Can’t change the lease, so, should it be a fee that can fluctuate with inflation from the trash companies?

Byron Lazine

How the Biden Administration is taking on rental junk fees

The Fact Sheet outlined the Biden-Harris Administration’s steps for cracking down on rental “junk fees,” making rental costs more transparent, and lowering housing costs for renters. 

  • New commitments from top rental housing platforms—Zillow, Apartments.com, and AffordableHousing.com—to make rental costs more transparent for the American renter. Each has taken steps to provide complete and upfront cost information for renters using their platforms. 
  • New research from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—which offers a blueprint for addressing rental junk fees across the U.S. 
  • Legislative action at the state level—joining the Administration’s efforts to increase transparency and protect renters from “junk fees” (more on that in a bit).

Zillow’s new Cost of Renting Summary

A July 19th Tweet by Zillow Group provided a quick look at their new Cost of Renting Summary, which is now available on all detail pages for multifamily rental buildings on the Zillow app and website. The new tool gives renters a clear breakdown of the financial costs of renting, allowing them to compare their options and know what to expect for move-in and monthly expenses. 

Considering an average of 28 million consumers visit Zillow Rentals every month, the Cost of Renting Summary should make a significant impact on how renters compare their options and in how satisfied they are with their decisions. 

Zillow’s Consumer Housing Trends Report (CHTR) highlights the importance most renters place on staying within budget for housing costs, with 80% saying it’s more important than any other factor when they’re shopping for their next home. But many renters don’t realize they need to budget for housing costs over and above the monthly rent—just as many prospective homebuyers don’t realize they’re also taking on significant home maintenance and repair costs.

The latest CHTR report reveals a typical renter’s security deposit is between $500 and $999. Also, the typical application fee was between $40 and $59. Those extra costs can add up quickly, even for renters not expected to pay their first and last month’s rent before moving in.

The recognition of Zillow’s new feature in the President’s announcement is part of a long partnership to draw national attention to Zillow’s economic research and pro-consumer products. 

Renters should feel financially confident when applying for an apartment, no surprises included. Transparency is at the core of our commitment to renters, and tools like the Cost of Renting Summary provide them with the comprehensive data to navigate the housing market and discover the perfect home within their budget.

Christopher Roberts

Senior vice president and general manager of Zillow Rentals

By leveraging available data from Zillow’s multifamily partners, the Cost of Renting Summary provides detailed, up-to-date information on monthly costs—including rent, parking fees, and pet-related charges (deposit and “pet rent”), as well as one-time costs like security deposits, rental application fees, and administrative fees. 

Renters can now see, right on the building’s detail pages, the total cost of renting a specific unit that interests them, allowing them to quickly assess its affordability. 

Solutions at the state level

Earlier this year, the President gathered hundreds of state legislative leaders and shared a resource titled, “Guide for States: Cracking Down on Junk Fees to Lower Costs for Consumers.” Since then, at least seven states have started cracking down on rental junk fees. 

Minnesota has a simple solution that any state could adopt to make move-in and monthly costs more transparent for renters: 

This is something I think every state should adopt: the first page of the lease should be a summary that must include every fee in bullet-point form. Because sometimes when you read a…13-page lease,  you might have monthly rent in one paragraph and then, page three, you might have a fee in another paragraph. And then, you might have to go to page eight to get another fee in another paragraph explaining what that is. So, it’s kind of all over the place. I love what Minnesota did, where they’re requiring a blueprint. They’re requiring a standardized structure for the first page of the lease. You can have another 100 pages after that, if you want, but on that first page of the lease—and in all advertisements—you must break down, in simple form, all payments. Love that deal!

Byron Lazine

Takeaways for real estate agents

While you may not be helping renters in your area find their next rental unit, this information is still worth knowing because many of your clients could be renters in search of their first home to purchase or people who have rented in the past. 

It pays to know what your potential clients have experienced before meeting you. Maybe they’ve gotten so fed up with unexpected costs that they’re particularly sensitive to any surprise fees or additional expenses they hadn’t counted on. 

Transparency will be more of an issue for these clients. Make the effort to know where they’re coming from (** link to Lisa Chinatti post: “Do you really understand the consumer experience?” when live on 7/24), so you can be just the agent they need to help them move in a better direction.