Staff writers

After slowing at the end of the year, Bay Area rents jumped 6 to 8 percent in the first quarter of the year compared with the same time in 2012, according to a report released Monday.

And, believe it or not, for renters that's good news.

For the past two years, they've seen double-digit rent increases, which now appear to be settling back into their normal pattern, said Nick Grotjahn, spokesman for RealFacts, a Novato consulting group that tracks rental prices in apartment complexes with 50 or more units.

But that's little solace for people such as Jessica Renshaw of South San Jose, who is trying to find an affordable place to rent across town where her kids go to school.

"The prices are outrageous right now," Renshaw said. "Everybody's scrambling for rentals."

Average rental prices were nearly unchanged in the fourth quarter of last year and dipped slightly in San Jose, according to RealFacts.

But for the first quarter of 2013, the average rental prices jumped across the board for studio apartments to three-bedroom units in Santa Clara County (up 7.4 percent), Alameda County (8.8 percent), Contra Costa County (6.9 percent) and San Mateo County (8.7 percent) compared with the year before, according to RealFacts.

In 2011 and 2012, rents jumped 15 to 20 percent as the supply of new apartments failed to keep up with demand, Grotjahn said.

With recent new construction helping drive down demand, rents seem to be returning to their typical patterns, he said.

"It could have been worse," Grotjahn said. "A number of projects are coming online that were backlogged."

Over the past three months, prices remained lowest in Contra Costa County, ranging from an average of $1,141 a month for a studio, up 6.9 percent, to $1,755 for a three-bedroom unit, an increase of 3 percent. They were highest in San Mateo, where a studio rented for $1,435 a month, a jump of about 11 percent and a three-bedroom apartment cost $3,310 last quarter, up 12.6 percent.

In Santa Clara County, a studio rented for $1,388 -- an 11.6 percent increase. A three-bedroom apartment rented for $2,707, a 6.5 percent increase.

In general, rental prices "have started stabilizing a little bit," said Ron Stern of BayRentals.com, which lists smaller apartment complexes and single-family houses.

But for renters caught in a tight housing market, "it's been a horrible year," Stern said.

And they're going to face an uncertain market as the rental business generally picks up this quarter when a lot of families want to move and get settled by summer.

"I don't think you're going to see that double-digit rent increase that you saw over the last two years," Grotjahn said. "But demand will still be there. So reading the tea leaves is going to be real difficult."

None of that is reassuring to Renshaw, who had to move out when the rent on her duplex for her husband and children shot up and they were "lucky to find a very rundown house for $2,100 monthly."

Now, with rentals running from $2,300 to $3,500 in her old neighborhood, Renshaw is growing depressed at her prospects to move closer to her kids' school in Cambrian Park.

"We desperately want to be back," she said. "But I don't think we'll ever be able to go back."

Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.