Mike Totten unloaded his parents' pickup truck as he moved into his new apartment in Allston. Then he unloaded about the months he spent looking for a new place.
"It's been quite a hard time, it’s very fast paced," said Totten, 24, who doesn't have a car and had to find a room near public transportation. "I would say I've contacted at least 50 [landlords], because at least half the people that you contact usually don't get back to you."
The undergrad finally found a room for $900 per month in a unit with six roommates. And for Allston, he says, that's a great deal.
Boston has long had one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. The average rent for a non-luxury two-bedroom apartment is more than $2,500, according to real estate information firm Boston Pads.
Renters temporarily got some relief after the pandemic. As city dwellers fled Boston, landlords competed with landlords to offer perks like free months' of rent or waived brokers fees.
"We all had a million rentals, especially in the office in Dorchester, that went vacant," said Gretchen Haas, a real estate agent in Dorchester.
But it didn't last. As quickly as the pandemic slowed the rental market, the end of the lockdown and return to universities brought demand roaring back.
After the University of Massachusetts, Boston announced it would hold in-person classes this semester, Haas said her phone started ringing off the hook. And she soon found she needed to give clients extra help to land a place.
“We're starting to treat their application packages like offer packages, and they're offering a hundred dollars more [per month], longer lease terms, whatever they can to kind of like make their package stand out," she said.
Demetrios Salpoglou runs Boston Pads, which collects rental data from thousands of landlords in the Boston area. He said the market hasn’t been this hot in the city since before the pandemic.
"We're literally right back to pre-COVID — almost, almost pre-COVID levels," he said.
Before the pandemic, the market was so tight that just 2% of apartments in Boston were empty, Boston Pads data showed. But the vacancy rate more than quadrupled — topping 9% by September.
"Landlords started dropping security deposits, they started dropping last month's rent, and they would pay the broker's fee," Salpoglou said. "So the moving costs became super easy for people."
Rent prices today are around $2,500 for a two-bedroom, non-luxury apartment — almost exactly what they were before the pandemic. Salpoglou said that doesn't take into account the additional perks landlords began offering after COVID shutdowns, which could save a tenant $7,500 over a year.
But vacancy rates have started to plunge again, reducing the need to offer incentives. Just 3% of Boston area apartments are available for rent today — even lower than before the pandemic.
Brookline broker Arthur Deych of Red Tree Real Estate thinks his rental business will continue to grow as more people return to the city. But he said the state of the rental market varies by neighborhood.
"Some markets still are hurt," he said. "I believe that East Boston for rentals is hurt because people are looking for more space, just like they are in sales.
Other communities, places like Malden and Somerville, "are more valuable than ever," Deych said, with landlords making more rental income than at any other time.
Allston is one of those neighborhoods where apartments are becoming harder to find. After finally landing a place there, Totten has some advice for other apartment hunters.
"Be persistent," the college student said. "If people don't respond to you, just keep talking to them over and over, keep trying to push it."
And when you find a place you like, Totten says, jump on it immediately. Because it may go fast in this market.