If anyone knows how tough it is for pet owners to find rental housing, surely it’s Dianne Bleacher. A rental specialist and property manager with NT Callaway, she is “down to two dogs, three cats, three horses, and three cows.”
Bleacher now lives on a West Amwell farm that she owns, but back in the late-1970s, when she was building up her pet census, she was a renter. “I had a dog,” she says, “and a horse and a cow.” And, she found rentals — five of them in just one year. No, she was not booted out of successive lodgings because of the pets, quite the opposite. So good was she at keeping her rentals ship-shaped that each, in turn, was sold. “It got to be comical,” she recalls. “We said we gave them good luck and they sold.”
After each house was sold out from under her, Bleacher found another, but she was well aware not all sectors of the rental market were open to her. “I had to rent on the outskirts of town,” she says. No cows or horses find a welcome in downtown Princeton, and it’s not easy for dogs to find a place to curl up either.
Bleacher, who is thinking about writing a book titled “Just When I Thought I’d Seen It All,” frequently runs into the pet issue when trying to find rentals for her clients. Often the existence of Fido and Fluffy comes up in an oh-by-the-way manner. “You’re out on a showing,” she says, “and they never tell you they have a dog or cat.” When, under practiced questioning, the news comes out, Bleacher finds that pet owners tend to try to soft-pedal the issue.
“I’ll say ‘How big a dog,’” she says, “and they’ll show with their hands.” The spread between left hand and right tends to indicate something along the lines of Yorkie, but further questioning invariably reveals that the canine in question is “something huge,” often a Siberian Huskie or a Great Dane. Bleacher finds that said dog rarely has a food dish all to itself. “People don’t have just one dog, they have many dogs,” she says. “They don’t just have one cat, they have many cats.”
This is not news that many landlords in and around Princeton want to hear. “With a dog in a multi-family building, the issue is barking,” says Bleacher. Cats have an easier time getting in, but even there, many landlords balk, particularly if they do not have pets of their own. There is fear of the odor that can result if cats miss the mark when aiming for their kitty litter. There is also the question of allergies. If there are carpets, will dander linger and affect subsequent tenants? The question is on landlords’ minds. Another worry is litigation. “If a dog bites someone, the owner gets sued, and so does the landlord,” says Bleacher.
That said, it is not impossible to find rentals that accept pets. Little cats can find a welcome relatively easily, and some landlords, imposing weight limits, will accept small dogs. Bleacher finds that it’s tough to get any pet into some downtown buildings, but that it’s easier in single family homes. “It’s 50/50 whether they’ll accept pets,” she says.
Yvonne Harris, rental specialist and property manager with Sotheby’s Henderson, is herself a renter — and a pet owner. Scanning her rental listings she finds that within the past year 41 of the 145 units in her rental roster allowed pets. “Sometimes it’s only cats,” she says, giving Princeton’s Waxwood House as an example. Often there is an additional deposit required, and there may be a pet fee, as is the case in some large Plainsboro rental developments.
“Big dogs are the toughest,” she says. “It truly depends on the owner and the facilities. It’s easier with a yard.” The largest number of pets she has placed together — with their owners, of course — was two dogs, two big dogs.
It’s not always easy to judge what kind of pet will be a model tenant. Big dogs, the pets landlords most fear, can be laid-back and gentle, emitting only the occasional rumbling bark. Trouble can come from far more innocent-looking pets. “I had a rental situation where a door was destroyed by a bird,” says Harris. “It was just pecked away.”
Harris is living happily with her dog, Happy, in a downtown Princeton apartment, but finding it was not easy. “I had to be right in Princeton because of my work,” she says. “I had trouble finding a place to live. With a dog, it can take two or three months.”
Happy is a cute little dog with a Benji-like face, says Harris, proclaiming him “the cutest dog in the world.” This is helpful in softening up landlords, but Harris did not always have it this easy. Her previous pet, Scully, was “the ugliest, most intimidating dog you’d ever see.” A 90-pound Doberman, he was nevertheless a softy at his core, and did manage to win over landlords.
So hard is the hunt for a good pet-friendly apartment that Harris has at times been tempted to take an apartment and part with a pet. But she has always persevered, and has always found an excellent apartment where her pet was welcome.
While she doesn’t do this, Harris finds that one thing that can tip the balance is “a huge deposit.” But she uses something else.
“I offer references for my pets,” she says. “It’s tremendously helpful.” If those who know the animal well, especially former landlords, are willing to proclaim it a quiet, well-trained, obedient, completely non-destructive pet, the keys to a rental unit are far more easy to obtain.
It is also easier to get in when the rental market is soft and landlords are especially eager to fill their apartments. That was the case for the past two years, but both Bleacher and Harris see the rental market firming up. New inventory has been filled, and tenants are staying put. At Witherspoon House, the rental complex right next to the library, for example, Bleacher says that all but two of the 24 apartments are full. Both rental specialists see that some people who have sold houses, in some cases in downsizings, are renting while waiting to see in which direction the housing market is moving. Higher interest rates also make renting more attractive.
For the first time in a long, long while, prospective tenants had an upper hand as many people rushed to buy into a soaring housing market fueled by super-low interest rates. In that climate, a tenant with a poodle or a pair of kittens had an easier time finding a home. It’s more difficult now, but not impossible.
Still, Bleacher says that once the number of pets begins to climb it is probably time to consider buying. That’s what she did.