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A sign advertises an apartment for rent on Arizona Avenue at 26th Street. Apartment hunters are finding more vacancies on the market, many of which are being offered at lower rents than in the past few years, mainly because of the economy. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITYWIDE — In the short time that Emily Peterson has been looking for a new place to live, there’s an undeniable difference she can’t help but notice from the search more than a year ago.

“There are a lot of good deals out there,” she said.

In a historically competitive rental market where units typically are not only pricey but hard to come by, apartment hunters today are finding more available options and with a surprisingly lower price tag, a change that some in real estate have tied to the economic crisis, forcing tenants facing financial difficulties to move out.

Peterson, who moved to Venice last year, has been looking for a studio or one bedroom apartment in Santa Monica where she works as a publicist, hoping to find cheaper rent and be closer to work.

She believes the rental vacancies could be attributed to the fact that many tenants can’t afford some of the more expensive apartments anymore.

“The prices are significantly cheaper,” she said. “I don’t remember ever seeing anything under $1,100 last year and now there’s a good amount.”

Mark Verge, the owner of Santa Monica-based WestsideRentals.com, an apartment listing agency, estimates that rent has gone down about 10 to 15 percent in the past year.

But while there are more units coming onto the market, some landlords are still keeping their prices as high as they were about two years ago.

“It’s all about price, price, price,” Verge said.

He added that more landlords are using a feature on the Web site through which they can directly search for tenants who are registered with Westside Rentals, an action that wasn’t necessary before when demand was higher.

“Owners should lower prices more,” he said. “We have owners sitting on (units) for six months.”

“They’ve got to lower their price.”

While the presence of vacancies might prompt some prospective tenants to negotiate their rent, Verge warns that any bargaining should be approached only after they visit the apartment and meet the landlord.

Bill Dawson, who is the vice president of Sullivan-Dituri, a property management company in Santa Monica, said that he has seen not only an increased number of vacancies but units that are staying on the market longer. The company owns and manages approximately 200 properties in the city.

The result is better value rent wise for tenants, he said.

“I think in general owners are trying to make their units as competitive as possible with the market,” Dawson, who is also the president of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, said.

Bob Kronovet, a member of the Rent Control Board and owner of Kronovet Realty Co., said the current situation also favors tenants looking to upgrade their existing unit because landlords are trying to keep their renters.

“It’s now a wonderful time for existing tenants who want to move to ask owners for upgrades,” he said. “A lot of owners are motivated to maintain and keep their tenants in place.”

Thought she’s amassed a list of prospective homes, Peterson said she is hoping to negotiate a rent reduction with her current landlord.

She adds that in a strange way, it’s been even more difficult to select an apartment because there are too many options.

“Before it was easier because there were not that many in my price range so I didn’t have that many to choose from,” she said. “Looking on Craigslist and Westside Rentals a couple of times a day, there are more (listings) popping up all the time.”

While there are more vacancies, the rental market in Santa Monica is faring better than in other cities.

“The Inland Empire is getting crushed,” said Verge, whose company covers cities from San Diego to Santa Barbara. “We’re fortunate to be in Santa Monica.”

melodyh@smdp.com