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NOVATO, CA-Despite gradually rising demand, apartment rents continue to tick down. Realfacts, a locally based multifamily research firm, reports that renters are slowly returning to the market, providing a boost to many landlords’ occupancy figures. But unfortunately for apartment owners, that’s not translating into rent growth just yet, thanks to the current economic malaise in the market.

In fact, on a national basis, average rental rates declined by 3.7% between the third quarters of 2008 and 2009, falling from an average charge of $1,002 per month a year ago to $968 by midyear 2009, to $965 a month as of the end of September.

Only seven of the 33 markets Realfacts examined posted rental rate increases, and even those were minimal. The Miami-Ft Lauderdale, FL-area saw a 1% gain from the second quarter’s $1,163 per month to $1,175 in the third. Austin, TX saw the second-largest jump, rising 80 basis points–$845 a month in Q2 to $852 in Q3. Rounding out the top four are Albuquerque, up 0.7% from $732 to $737 between the second and third quarters, and Portland, OR, which saw average monthly rental rates go from $842 to $846, accounting for a 0.6% increase.

Any gains in market rents are overshadowed, however, by the level of rental declines in many areas. Topping off the locations in “serious trouble,” say Realfacts researchers, is Las Vegas, which saw its rents drop 2.1% over the past quarter from $855 per month to $837. Not too far off are Durham, NC and the Seattle-Tacoma markets, both of which saw average rental rates fall by 1.9%–$841 to $837, and $1,056 to $1,036, respectively. And circling back to Nevada, the Reno-Spark-area landlords experienced a 170-basis-point drop in rental rate growth, from $830 per month to $816. Meanwhile, San Jose’s average market rents got a wallop over the past 12 months, falling 10.1% from $1,709 per month to $1,536. From the prior quarter, rents there declined another 1.1%.

The good news for multifamily landlords, though, is that occupancy is on the rise in 29 of the 33 MSAs examined by Realfacts. It’s likely that renters are being lured to multifamily properties by the discounted lease rates; the firm notes that some of the markets that saw the greatest gains in occupancies also saw some of the biggest losses in average rental rates. In Durham, NC, for instance, occupancies rose 4.6% to 93.5% between June and September, but rents fell 1.9% to $825 over the same period. And in Boise, ID, occupancy grew by 4.4% over three months, hitting 92.7% in the third quarter, while rents fell by 110 basis points to $724 a month.

Given the current conditions, multifamily renters have the upper hand in this market as landlords are more likely to offer better value for their properties. “The conditions in the rental market reflect people’s attitude throughout the country,” according to analysts. “People are tightening their belts by reducing their spending and consumer debt and increasing their savings. Apartments appear to be a good option for today’s value-conscious consumer.”

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