There’s a new sport in Bozeman: competitive apartment hunting.

These days, renters looking for a place to live come to apartment showings with their completed application, credit report, references and deposit money in hand.

“I’ve gotten a cover letter added to an application,” said Brad Lindahl of Bozeman's High Street Properties. “People are adding a lot more to try to get the place because everybody knows how hard it is to find a rental. I feel bad for people. They’re just desperate.”

Earlier this summer, Lindahl said nearly 25 people attended a showing for a three-bedroom house. He got so many applications he was able to rent out two additional homes.

With Montana State University students headed back to school, now can be an especially difficult time to find a rental. This year, apartment seekers say they’re wrestling for residences.

The supply of rentals hasn’t kept up with the growing student body at Montana State University and the overall population in the Gallatin Valley. Instead, some rentals have been lost.

“Owners renting houses are finally in a position to sell,” Lindahl said. “They held onto them as the economy went down, and now as the market is improving, they’re selling.”

‘Feeding frenzy’

Cheryl Tusken and her husband recently moved back to Bozeman after living in Colorado for three years. Tusken’s husband was raised here and the couple finally got jobs in the Gallatin Valley.

Tusken had hoped to pay about $700 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

“All of the two bedrooms are up to the $875 range and more, which is just crazy,” she said.

Tusken was surprised by how many people attended showings and applied to rent “dungeon apartments” that were dirty and located in basements.

“There’s this panic that sets in because these other people are there,” she said. “It’s, I don’t know, just like a feeding frenzy -- a shark tank -- you put a little bit of blood in the water, and the sharks just tear it apart and go nuts over it.”

At one apartment, Tusken paid $70 for background checks for her and her husband. They lost that money.

The landlord gave the apartment to someone else because he couldn’t get ahold of the Tusken’s references right away. He went with another applicant whose references were readily available.

Tusken contacted the Chronicle after it posted a request on Facebook seeking interviews with people having trouble finding a place to rent. The post garnered nearly two dozen comments and several phone calls and emails to the newspaper.

Tasha Bell was living in Belgrade with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter when her husband decided to go back to school. The young family began looking for a three-bedroom apartment close to MSU.

“The only way we found this place was because my sister lives in the same complex,” Bell said.

Her sister had heard that her neighbor was being evicted. Bell found out about the vacancy before it was advertised.

“We got really lucky,” she said. “It hadn’t even made it into the paper yet.”

Angie Miller is a single mother of three boys. The owner of her rental home decided not to rent anymore and gave the family 30 days notice. Miller needed to quickly find a four-bedroom house.

As time was running out, Miller happened to drive by a rental home just as the previous tenants were moving out. She called the landlord immediately and got in touch with him on the spot.

“It was just kind of fate how it all came together,” she said.

Blisse Voigt needs a place that allows dogs.

Voigt moved in with her boyfriend, but his landlord doesn’t allow pets. The landlord said she and her pup could only stay temporarily. The couple has been searching on and off for a two-bedroom apartment since November.

“I looked at three places last month and turned in applications on all three,” Voigt said. “All of them wound up being taken.”

Most available rentals are four- or five-bedroom houses, she said.

“I need something smaller,” Voigt said. “It’s been really difficult to find something like that that’s not like in Belgrade or outside of town.”

Rents are expensive in Bozeman, she said, and landlords want “ridiculous deposit amounts” to have a dog and just to move in.

“Pretty much everyone I know has to have roommates to be able to afford to live here,” she said.

No vacancy

High Street Properties posted a rental to Craigslist earlier this summer, and within two hours, about 20 people had called about the listing. A group showing was scheduled and the advertisement was taken down.

“They’re almost renting immediately,” Lindahl said.

Some people offer to take apartments sight unseen.

“I had a lady call from San Diego saying, ‘Can I send a deposit right now?’” Lindahl said. “She just saw one picture and was trying to rent it that way.”

High Street requires a showing, as do several other property management companies in town, he said.

Bailey Roberts of Luna Properties said their rentals are typically on the market for no more than a week.

“We are getting four or five sets of applications coming in for each property, so it’s pretty much a fight,” Roberts said.

Luna Properties has about 250 rentals. There were about seven units available last week. High Street Properties’ roughly 150 rentals and Alliance Property Management’s 325 rentals are nearly all full.

The hardest apartments to find are smaller one- or two-bedroom units, Roberts said.

“If somebody’s trying to live on their own in an affordable manner, it’s hard to find that,” she said.

About 10 years ago, when construction was booming in Bozeman, the Chronicle published 300 to 500 residential and commercial classified ads each day for rentals, said Ann Harms, classifieds supervisor. On Wednesday, there were 46 of those ads.

“Even last year we had a lot more rentals than we do this year, and they would stay in the classifieds a lot longer,” Harms said.

There’s so much demand for rentals that property owners are able to increase rent. And it’s that time of year. Lindahl said property managers review leases during the summer and decide whether to raise the price to stay competitive with the market.

“This year was a big rent raise year for sure,” he said.

Rents at Luna Properties have increased by $50 to $100 this year, Roberts said.

Still, tenants will generally stay in the rental and pay more because there’s not much else out there, Lindahl said.

“We like good tenants to stick around and we don’t want to raise rents too much,” Lindahl said. “Having good tenants is more important than the extra $50 a month, but property owners are definitely raising rents.”

Rental construction

Tracking the number of rental properties and the average rent prices in Bozeman is difficult.

Dab Dabney, owner of Alliance Property Management and several large low-income apartment complexes, has worked in the real estate industry since the 1980s.

“It’s very hard to get exact data (on Bozeman rentals) because there’s so many single-family homes and duplexes that are in the rental pool,” he said. “It’s hard to have a handle on the small rental units that drive our market.”

The Bozeman City Commission has included money in this year’s city budget for a rental survey. Two years ago, an affordable housing study commissioned by the city found that less than 2 percent of rentals in town were vacant. The study reviewed 796 non-subsidized rental units and found 15 available properties.

“It’s been hard and it continues to be hard” to find a rental, Dabney said. “I’ve never seen such low vacancy rates in my history as a landlord as a property manager, or in my former life as a real estate mortgage banker.”

During the recession, developers stopped building apartment complexes because banks weren’t lending money to finance the projects, he said. But the market has since improved and more rental homes are being built.

“Banks have eased up on their requirements in response to the overwhelming demand that they see out there,” Dabney said. “I think you’re going to see it get a little bit easier for renters to find a place within the next year.”

Hundreds of new rental units are under construction, he said. They’re being built on the west side of town off of Baxter Lane and west of North 19th Avenue, and on the east side of town off of Haggerty Lane. Dabney himself is building 11 units off of Haggerty Lane. He expects they’ll fill up overnight when they become available in September.

“The good news is there will be more units to pick from,” he said. “The bad news is that the rents are still going to be high.”

Rents have gone up a lot faster than inflation in the past few years, Dabney said. In addition to the unyielding demand for rentals, increasing construction costs are resulting in high rent prices.

It’s a great time to be a landlord, Dabney said, “but it sure makes it hard on people to find a place to rent at a price they can afford.”

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2628. She is on Twitter at @amandaricker.

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