Finding the right renter: St. George property managers face challenges amid population boom

ST. GEORGE — You could be forgiven for thinking that St. George’s jobs boom, and the attendant population growth, would lead to a financial windfall for property managers and the property owners they serve. Of course, you might be wrong.

Owner of STG Rentals, Candice Cather, and her assistant, Amanda Morris, at their office in St. George, Utah, Jan. 5 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News.

“I talk all day to people who want to move here,” said Candice Cather, owner and manager of STG Rentals. “The market is good, but it’s got its challenges.”

Those challenges include skyrocketing rents, scarcity in available units, and the balancing act of making sure property owners and tenants are happy with their leases.

“A unit that used to rent for $500 is going for more than $1,000 now,” said Cather, who has managed rentals since 2005. “We have a two bedroom townhome right now for $1400 a month. But you know what? I know we’ll rent it.”

Cather worries that the hike in rents means that fewer working-class people will be able to afford to live in St. George. The minimum wage in Washington County is $7.25 an hour, after all. Yet the average rental spends roughly 15 days on the market before it’s snatched up by eager tenants.

“There just isn’t enough rentals for all of the people moving here from places like California, Oregon, and Washington,” Cather said. “A lot of them are working remotely, and they want their kids to attend our schools.”

Owner and principal broker at Utah First Property Management, Bryan Wilson, has an idea as to why so many people are migrating from those places to Southern Utah.

Bryan Wilson, who owns Utah First Property Management, at his office in St. George, Utah, Jan. 5 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News.

“I think they’re sick of COVID 19 related lockdowns and regulations,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of people who are attracted to St. George because it’s beautiful and businesses are open.”

To Wilson’s way of thinking, rent prices are largely determined by the scarcity of available units.

“Demand greatly exceeds supply right now,” Wilson said. “So, rent prices have shot up.”

Wilson said that California migrants have driven prices up.

“They’re used to paying higher rent,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to stay in line with the market and what’s fair, but it’s hard. Like a lot of things in life, it’s a balancing act.”

And they just keep coming. The influx of migrants means that the process to find a rental is more competitive than ever, especially in certain price ranges.

“To find a one or two bedroom apartment in St. George for less than $1,000 is very difficult right now,” Wilson said. “Those go really fast. But if you look at larger homes in Little Valley, where rent is much higher, those places tend to spend more time on the market. People who can afford those often opt to buy. Especially since mortgage rates are at historic lows.”

Because some incoming migrants work remotely, and they’re coming from places where wages are higher, their qualifications look better on paper.

“They have strong employment and earnings,” Cather said. “Some are even offering to pay higher rent, or months in advance, in order to get the place they want. I’ve never seen that before.”

Wilson and Cather both said that people who offer to pay higher rent to secure their top choices are rare. While paying months of rent in advance is not something Cather and Wilson encourage, some property owners have no qualms about asking for more money up front.

An N & C Property Management sign in front of the town homes at South Gate, in St. George, Utah, Jan. 5 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News.

Even before the pandemic, most working adults in Washington County would scoff at the idea of paying $7,000 to move into a rental. But that’s how much an unmarried couple with a pet needs to pay to move into one of the four units on offer by N & C Property Management.

The properties are all town homes. Their rents range from $1,255 to $1,500 a month, which is more or less standard right now. However, applicants may be surprised to learn that the owner of those properties, who N & C staff declined to identify, requires three months’ rent up front.

For a town home in Fossil Hills that rents for $1,275 a month, three months rent is $3,825. Depending upon your credit, the security deposit is $1375 for a married couple. For couples who live together but aren’t married, the security deposit is doubled to $2750. If that couple has a small dog, there’s an additional $600 pet deposit. There’s also $60 per month in pet rent, which adds $180 to the move-in cost.

Grand total to move in: $7,155.

Perhaps that’s among the reasons why affordable housing has become a priority for city officials.

For all that, Cather feels lucky to call St. George home, and she wants to help others find their home in St. George, too.

“St. George is a beautiful place to live,” Cather said. “There’s so much to do, and it’s so beautiful. We want to help people find housing here. That’s our job, that’s the service we provide.”

“We’re tasked with putting others’ interests before our own,” Wilson said. “When people call us, it’s because something isn’t working. Whether it’s the garbage compactor, or the application process, they call us. We’re professional problem solvers.”

Yet, some applicants become upset when they don’t get the unit they want.

“It’s tough, but the majority of applicants won’t get in,” Wilson said. “Whether a unit has 10 applicants, or 100, only one will get the place.”

To that end, Cather tries to educate people on how to find housing — even if it means referring them to one of her competitors, like Wilson.

“Success is about more than money,” Cather said. “It’s about finding the right place for the right person. We’re doing okay … but we’re all feeling the effects of this housing shortage. We want to help everybody find a home, but we can’t rent what we don’t have.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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