Not all apartment rental agents are alike. Some applied for their jobs in response to ads like this:
Seeking responsible, licensed agents with a strong knowledge of Chicago and a thorough understanding of leasing to help us serve the renters of Chicago.
While others responded to an ad like this:
No experience necessary! Get paid to bounce around the city and chat with different people! No degree or license required! Start earning big $$$ right away!
The real estate industry may seem very professional when viewed from the outside, but in Chicago it's actually just as easy to get a job putting people into apartments as it is to get a job slinging burgers at a fast food restaurant or cleaning houses. Illinois has a leasing agent license requiring just 15 hours of training. Trainee leasing agents can work for up to 4 months before they obtain even this most basic of licenses. Apartment locator services go on hiring sprees in the early spring, which means in March and April many leasing agents have less experience in apartment hunting than their clients.
If you're just looking for anything with a roof, you can probably work with any agent with a pulse. Anyone with more specific needs will want to apply a bit more scrutiny. Asking a new leasing agent about the finer points of tenant rights or neighborhood differences is like asking the counter clerk at Taco Bell about the best wine to pair with your Gorditas.
Some renters might think, "well, if the leasing agents are so basic, why not go for a full fledged real estate broker instead?" In Chicago the abundance of leasing agents means that very few brokers learn to properly service rentals. The potential income from rental commissions is very low compared to what you get from selling houses and condos. So, while a broker's level of customer service and training may be better, their awareness of of Chicago's complex rental laws may not be as good as you'd like.
With that in mind, here are some questions - and minimum acceptable responses - you should ask of any agent you bring on board to help with your Chicago apartment search.
1. How long have you been doing this job?
The answer should be at least 12 months. Rental agencies tend to cut their weakest agents every fall when the market slows down, so you want someone who was good enough to survive at least one round of cuts.
2. Name a good restaurant, the nearest grocery store, and the nearest elementary school to [your neighborhood of choice].
Chicago is a big city. Many agents focus on the most popular areas without learning much about the outer areas. Make sure your agent knows the area that you want to live in.
If you don't have a preferred neighborhood yet, an alternate question might be asking them to discuss at least three neighborhoods outside the boundaries of Irving Park, Western and Roosevelt that aren't Edgewater or Rogers Park.
3. Do you have a license? Is it a leasing agents' license or a broker's license?
A leasing agents' licence is the bare minimum acceptable answer here - this means they've at least had 15 hours of training, including fair housing. A broker will have had 90 hours of training. A 120-day trainee permit is not acceptable.
Note: In Illinois there are two situations where someone can be showing you an apartment without a license. The first case is if they're the actual owner of the building. The other is if they are a full-time employee of the owner - independent contractors don't count.
4. What percentage of your business is in leasing, as opposed to sales?
I wouldn't suggest doing a rental search with any agent who makes rentals less than 50% of their business.
5. How much notice needs to be provided to a tenant before showing their apartment?
Two days. Note that agents often enter with shorter notice and that many tenants are fine when they do so. However, every agent should at least be aware of the actual law.
6. Name some common disclosures that need to be provided to renters before they sign a lease.
Answers could include: a summary of the Chicago Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance, a lead based paint disclosure, a radon disclosure, violations and utility shut-off notices from the past 12 months, a security deposit receipt. They should be able to rattle off at least 3 of these.
7. Are you going to keep what I tell you confidential, or tell the landlord?
I'm not going to get into the finer points of agency here. Suffice to say, for brokers the answer to this should always be yes, possibly with an "of course!" added on for good measure.
For leasing agents the answer to this could be yes or no. If the answer is no, keep quiet about your maximum budget and any blemishes on your record that could affect your application. You also will want to refrain from showing too much enthusiasm about any apartment you see.
8. How many different clients have you worked with this month/last month?
The answer to this should break down to about 2-5 per week. Any fewer than that and I worry about their commitment to the job. Any more than that and I worry that they're not spending long enough with each client to provide adequate service. I know of some agents who are so busy that they have to send their renter clients out to showings on their own - this is not only dangerous, but illegal.
Many leasing agents have to take on very high client loads to make ends meet. They may not have time to screen landlords on your behalf. This means that you should always order a RentConfident Report before signing a lease, even if you're working with an agent.
9. Who will be handling my application? You or a processing department?
Many locator services will have leasing agents to handle the showings, but then hand your application off to a separate processing or closing department. This is kind of like car dealerships who have different people handling the lot and the financing. Much like the confidentiality question above, either answer is acceptable but plan in advance for how you'll respond.
10. Are you now or have you recently been a renter, landlord or property manager in this city?
They should be able to say yes to this one. If they say no, they should be able to offer a counter-argument involving extensive training specific to property management or rentals. The laws governing tenants' rights in Chicago are extremely complex and specific. You really want someone who has recent personal inside experience in the industry.
Can you think of other good questions to ask of leasing agents? Let me know in the comments!
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