Kyle Brunelle stands at Bug Light Park in South Portland with the foggy Portland skyline behind him, across the harbor, on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. Brunnelle and his girlfriend were recently outbid for an apartment rental in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Kyle Brunelle felt relieved that he and his girlfriend had finally found an apartment they liked in Portland.

They leapt at the one-bedroom subleased apartment at $1,400 per month in the heart of the city, a rare find in a tight housing market where a listing may draw a dozen or more applicants with solid credit and rental histories.

The couple’s hopes were dashed when a twist emerged, something happening in New York, Los Angeles and other cities with hot rental markets: a bidding war ensued.

An earlier tenant had fallen through. The person subletting the apartment was already out a week’s rent. She asked interested renters to give their best offer for April rent, and the remaining months each would be the advertised $1,400.

The couple offered $800 and was quickly outbid by another person willing to pay $1,300. They agreed to match and were told the choice wouldn’t be just about money, but about getting the right tenant. Shortly after they received a text saying they were not chosen. It took seven hours to visit, bid on and lose the apartment.

“I didn’t think we’d be in a bidding war,” Brunelle, 28, a work-study film student at Southern Maine Community College, said. “You don’t have a chance even before you walk through the door.”

Bidding wars have been happening across the country for the past several years, fueled by people wanting to live in the hippest neighborhoods and near to work. Brunelle’s experience was one of the first of its kind in Maine’s largest city.

The practice is more developed in New York City, where apartment hunters are offering several hundred dollars above listing prices to live in their desired neighborhoods, according to The New York Times. The website Rentberry.com has helped to formalize the trend by letting landlords in the world’s largest cities post photos of their properties and the desired rent. Potential renters compete online to make the best offer.

Apartment seekers elsewhere in the U.S. are also offering multiple months of rent in advance and larger deposits. Units in hot Maine markets could move in that direction, said Arden Stuckey, co-owner of Head Light Homes, which rents 25 apartments in the Portland area, who helped her friend sublet the Portland apartment. She recommended that apartment seekers have a recommendation letter from their current or previous landlords handy when they apply.

There is anecdotal evidence, beyond what Brunelle experienced, that informal bidding is occurring in the southern Maine market.

“I’ve heard of people over the past several years walking up with a check, ready to bid it up on the spot, but I haven’t heard of it being any more formalized than that,” Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said.

The skyline of Portland, Maine, catches the early morning sunlight, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Open bidding wars would not be allowed under Portland’s rent control ordinance, which caps rent increases for new tenants to 5 percent of the base rent. Landlord-occupied buildings with two to four dwelling units and certain other accommodations are exempt, however. Other areas of the state not bound by rent control ordinances could potentially see bidding wars that escalate higher, rental agents said.

Part of the tightness in Portland’s market is from people coming into the state, said Nick Ziviski, business development manager for BellPort Property Management, a Portland company that manages about 900 rental units, most in the city, and often attracts more than 20 applicants when a unit becomes available.

Those numbers present hurdles for renters like Brunelle, who continues to live with his parents in Yarmouth as he and his girlfriend look beyond Portland for an affordable apartment that might not be as competitive.

Brunelle has lived in Boston and New York City, and said it was easier to find an apartment in those cities, likely because Portland is a smaller market with fewer options. He offered advice to others looking for an apartment.

“Give yourself plenty of time to find a place because you’re probably going to need it unless you have lots of money,” he said.