Moving day

Bianca Stacey unpacks a gift bag in her new apartment at the 521 St. Paul building, a newly renovated space.. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / July 31, 2013)

To win the two-bedroom Canton condo Jillian Rimmer wanted, she offered to pay $75 more a month than the asking rent of $1,600.

It worked: The landlord chose her bid, and she and a roommate live there now.

"I was willing to pay that for the great location and parking," said Rimmer, who is in her early 30s and who moved to Baltimore from Columbia. "I had quite a bit of trouble finding a place. Pretty much as soon as a listing went online, it was gone."

Many interested in urban living face the same problem in Baltimore's competitive rental market, in which a limited supply of quality rentals in popular neighborhoods such as Federal Hill, Fells Point and Mount Vernon have tenants scrambling to secure leases. Developers, meanwhile, are rushing to renovate buildings built decades ago for offices and other uses into apartments, especially in and around downtown, raising, some say, the prospect of another real estate bubble.

"Inventory is very, very low right now. ... It happens all the time that people lose out," said Tania Ellis, a real estate agent who specializes in Baltimore rental properties. Ellis helped Rimmer, who initially tried to rent an apartment on her own, secure the Canton condo. "About 80 to 90 percent of the time you have to bid up the rent."

Paying extra was worth it to Rimmer. She wanted to find a place where she feels safe, and she said she's comfortable in Canton. And it's across the street from a grocery store, a mile from work and near Patterson Park, where she takes her dog and regularly goes to play sports.

"My car is rarely moved," Rimmer said.

If bidding up the rent isn't in the cards, Ellis advises clients to offer a longer lease, two or more years, to keep from losing their desired rental to another applicant. In this market, applicants need to do what they can to sway the landlord, she said.

"With rentals, it's not first come, first serve," Ellis said. "Everything lands in the lap of the landlord."

Some landlords ask to sit down and interview prospective tenants, she said, and weigh factors beyond credit and criminal background checks, including whether the applicants are roommates or a family and if they have pets.

The apartment vacancy rate in Baltimore's city center dropped to 4.8 percent in the second quarter, according to data released Thursday by real estate data firm REIS Inc. Four years ago, the vacancy rate was nearly double that.

The surge in demand for rental housing is not restricted to Baltimore. In 2012, the number of renter households grew by more than 1.1 million nationwide, according to a report released in June by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. It was the eighth year in a row of renter growth, according to the State of the Nation's Housing 2013 report.

Renters make up 35 percent of U.S. households, the report said, and apartment occupancy rates have been trending upward over the past two years in many urban areas, including New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and Miami.

The recent rise in renters is driven by growth in the number of people in their 20s and 30s, according to the Harvard report. Young adults are the most likely demographic group to be renters. Continued weak income and job growth are preventing many would-be homeowners from buying, the report said.

In the past few weeks, rental agent Tammy Nemeroff said she has seen several rental rowhouses snapped up in less than 24 hours. At most, she said, decent properties in popular neighborhoods are leased within two weeks.

"It is very competitive because there's not a lot on the market," she said.

After "Match Day" in March, when medical residents are matched with hospitals, newly minted doctors flood Baltimore's rental market, she said. And in late summer, as new students and employees move into the city for the start of the school year, the rental market gets squeezed, she said.

Even outside the most popular waterfront neighborhoods, rental homes get snatched up quickly, Nemeroff said.

Canton is "pretty much at capacity," Ellis said, so demand is spilling over into Brewers Hill and Patterson Park.

Real estate developers are making big bets to satisfy renters' appetite. Hundreds of apartments are expected to open in the next year in downtown buildings originally intended for commercial use.