I just did the apartment finding dance. This doesn't make me ultra qualified, but I did spend a bit of time thinking about this. A lot of people seem to think that negotiation is about finding some set of words to scare or intimidate the other side into concessions. "Be prepared to walk away from the deal." This is essentially bluffing, and a bad idea. The bottom line is that negotiations, like wars, are won or lost before they start.
What you need to do is prepare. I spent a day just touring apartments in the area. Don't be too selective here, and don't sign any contracts yet. Your goal at this stage is to gather information. What kinds of information? Two kinds: information that you can compare your alternatives with, and information that about the landlord's alternatives.
Your comparison info:
- Price per square foot (and square footage) is the common dollar comparison tool.
- Laundry accommodations. If washer and dryer aren't provided on-site, find the nearest laundromat and their prices.
- Utility costs.
- Proximity to work, stores, and other common destinations.
- Parking and garaging.
- Credit scores / quality of tenants.
- Number of vacancies and prospects for filling them.
- property taxes and debt payments.
Knowing the all landlord's positions will help you determine who will be more willing to negotiate. If they only have one vacancy and a two upcoming appointment showings, they have no reason to offer concessions to you. Take their offer at face value and spend your effort on other apartment complexes. Landlords know this and thus the good ones protect this information and project lies. Find more reliable sources if you can. You can infer some things by looking at how much they advertise in Craigslist and local papers. Talk to current tenants.
With this information, you can identify where to find small wins. If you find two comparable and acceptable apartments, but one is further away from the Local Major Employer and has more vacancies as a result, you might try negotiating with them first, knowing that you've got another apartment to fall back on if things fall down. The fallback apartment is known as your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement), and the dollar value between your BATNA and the landlord's determines how much room there is, or if a deal goes through at all.