In February of 2016 I ran an article where I searched through Twitter to see the adjectives that people used to describe their landlords. As it's been a while I figured it might be good to go back and see what Twitter has to say about another topic. I've actually had this geographically restricted search running for a while now, sitting in my Tweetdeck and building up. The Chicago area Twitterverse has quite a lot to say about apartment hunting, and most of it isn't good.
Here are the adjectives that were used in posts that mentioned apartment hunting over the course of roughly twelve months, filtered to exclude posts from property managers, agents and landlords.
Appearing Multiple Times
Stressful (5 times)
My least favorite part about living in Chicago (Twice)
The worst (Twice)
A pain in the ass
Going to kill me
My least favorite thing on earth
Not fun at all
Worse than Dallas
Worse than dating
Worse than Houston
Worse than New York
The worst experience of my life
The Positive Few
Better than California
Better than Los Angeles
Better than New York
Chicago, We have a Problem.
So that's 40 negatives and 5 positives. Of the positives, the two non-comparative ones were just starting their searches by browsing through online listings. The LA rental market is so active that rental agents pretty much don't exist. The New York market is so tight that renters pay the brokers instead of landlords. (And I should note that due to the apparently quantum nature of public opinion we're not only better than New York, but also worse than New York.) This means that only the renters who are transferring here from some of the tightest markets in the country and those who have not yet attended a showing think we're sort of OK.
It is possible that these Tweets are suffering from the "Yelp effect," where only unhappy people bother to comment about their experiences. It's also possible that all 40 of those negatives came from terrible tenants with a history of evictions, large dogs and damaged credit. Social media venues such as Twitter attract people who want attention, and it's easier to get attention and comments if you're posting about how awful your day was as opposed to how happy your are. If you want to discard all 40 of those negative comments you can go right ahead.
But I think that it's a point of concern. If everyone in your life tells you that something is dreadful, you will fear it even if you haven't encountered it yourself. If Twitter users see their friends in their feed complaining about how awful it was to find an apartment in Chicago, by the time they enter the market they've already got a bad feeling about how things are going to go. Yes, apartment hunting is a stressful process the world over. But are we really doing everything we can to lessen the stress?
How to Improve Chicago's Apartment Market?
It's clear from these Tweets that we've got some work to do. The issue of rising rents is of course a point of contention but these Tweets are not talking about the price. They're concerned about the process. I have some suggestions on how to improve that process.
- Ditch the 15 hour license. With very few exceptions, most states require you to be either the owner of a property, the salaried employee of that owner, or a fully licensed real estate salesperson/broker to show rental property. A handful of more rural states don't regulate residential leasing at all, but everywhere else (including New York and California) the minimum training you need to show someone else's residence is at least 40 hours. Only in Illinois do we have a situation where commissioned individuals with no ownership stake in a property can represent tenants in a real estate transaction with only 15 hours of training. Given the sorry state of enforcement when it comes to Illinois's leasing agent license it's time that it gets the axe.
- No more group showings. It's become a trend lately to pack showings with multiple groups all walking around at once. It's thought that this increases the demand for units by making renters aware of the steep competition for apartments. But in a lot of cases this isn't true. The landlord's agents are only showing the apartment for an hour or half an hour each day and forcing everyone to attend at once in order to create a false sense of competition. It's lazy, it's rude and it's totally unnecessary. This is not San Francisco. You can spread out the showings.
- Remember the significance of denial. There are very few situations - particularly for young renters - where you are put in a position where you can lose out on a major life need because you are worse than someone else. You might get turned down by a potential dating partner, an employer or a college but none of those are life-or-death situations. Getting turned down for an apartment can easily be interpreted as a landlord saying "you deserve to be homeless." Landlords have been very cagey about revealing reasons for turning down renters, fearing potential lawsuits. Maybe that needs to change.
- Admit that we have bad neighborhoods. Agents are not able to comment on the safety of a neighborhood. This means that renters must either play a guessing game or stick with a handful of extremely expensive brand name neighborhoods that are mentioned in the media as "safe." Every agent should be required to include a disclosure of recent crimes in the area going back 12 months along with the other standard rental disclosures.
- Admit that we have expensive neighborhoods. Agents and landlords should be unafraid to say that a neighborhood is simply out of a renter's price range rather than showing a bunch of run down junk in a target neighborhood just to try and fit under the budget.
- Admit that we have more than 7 neighborhoods. When I worked as an agent I was roundly criticized for working south side and suburban listings. I could understand it to some extent - agents are supposed to focus on areas that they know. But there wasn't anyone else in my office to do it, and throughout Chicago it's pretty much the same story. Across the top 8 real estate brokerage firms working the Chicago market there are only 4 branch offices on the south side, none on the west side and three on the northwest side. The map of Chicago apartment locator services is clustered entirely along the north side lake front with the sole exception of Coldwell Banker's Hyde Park office. There are plenty of excellent and affordable apartments in underserved areas, but you'd never know it to look at agent awareness.
- Shift the PR away from Skyscrapers. To an outsider the mental image of Chicago is skyscrapers and the lakefront. The hundreds of little three story walkups don't figure into it. We need to stop promoting the city as if it stops at the boundaries of the Loop.
- Stop showing occupied apartments. The law requires two days notice before showing an occupied apartment. The number of landlords and agents that observe this law are very, very few. The number of tenants who are hostile to agents and their clients even if proper notice is given is very, very high. Occupied apartments are often cluttered or filthy. Even with proper notice there's a chance of interrupting a tenant's naked time. Combine an occupied apartment with a group showing and you've got a security nightmare on your hands - there's no way a listing agent can watch that many people at once. Just wait until they're vacant.
- If you haven't found it in 5 you won't find it in 50. The tendency of modern renters to view 20, 30, 40 apartments before choosing is a fault on the part of agents. A website listing with four heavily-doctored photos of "similar apartments" is not enough and can in fact make things worse. It is 2019. We no longer have a 4 picture cap on our online apartment listings. A showing should serve only as a quick confirmation of what's in the listing along with a sound and smell test. Agents who are touring around renters need to stop after one or two and take stock of the client's budget rather than dragging them to 10 in a day.
- Make it easy to arrive. Roughly 80-90% of a showing tour is spent in transit. In a city where leasing agents with questionable driving skills are expected to drive their clients around this can mean a nail-biting day for apartment hunters. Then there's the renters who prefer to work without an agent and must find their way from listing to listing on their own. I cannot tell you the number of showings I wound up skipping due to bad directions, bad parking or a combination of the two. If you're posting a listing make sure to include clear directions on how to get their by car and by public transit. If you're a listing agent and arrive to find only one open parking space in front of the building then you should park further away and stand in that empty space to hold it until they arrive.
Landlords have been the slowest of all businesses to shift into the experience economy. Even doctors now need to learn about bedside manner in med school, but many landlords still refuse to admit that customer service is an important factor in 21st century tenant retention and acquisition. Price matters, of course, but so does the process. Renters might need to lower their expectations but they aren't livestock.
If tenants had to pay their agents in Chicago as they do in New York and Boston, the agency bloodbath that would ensue would be absolutely horrible to witness.
The reputation of Chicago's apartment market is not built on the word of its agents and landlords. It's built on word-of-mouth between customers and right now that word-of-mouth is overwhelmingly negative. If rent control is introduced it may eventually make things easier but for the first few years it's going to be a confusing mess. Everyone on the landlord side needs to be making strides towards improving their customer service skills now while we still have some semblance of a status quo.
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