The other night as I was driving in 32°F drizzle and leaving several car lengths of space between myself and the car ahead in case of black ice, I wondered for how many of the drivers around me it was the first time on wintry roads. It is a known tradition for Chicago drivers to leave approximately two inches of space between them and the car in front of them, but given the temperature and the condition of the unsalted roads it was surprising how many other drivers were cutting in front of me. In situations like this I often remember that I was taught by my parents in a different area of the country instead of by a traditional local driving school. I learned early on to never assume the other drivers around you know anything about how to drive. This is called defensive driving.
Of course, this led me to think a bit about defensive renting and the assumptions renters make about their landlords. Landlords are often just as faceless and unknown as the people in cars beside us on the road. All we can assume about them is that they exist because they're trying to get from point A to point B using a particular vehicle or, in the case of the landlord, a particular building. And just like with drivers, incorrect assumptions can lead to very uncomfortable situations further down the road. Today we're going to go over 10 common and potentially harmful assumptions that renters make about their landlords that may not be true.
1. They keep records of their tenants' behavior.
Renters with grudges may think they're using pro revenge strats by filing repeated complaints against their neighbors. They may expect the landlord to keep track of all these complaints and refer back to them when said neighbor tries to move into a new apartment and the new landlord calls for references. This usually doesn't happen unless the issues you're reporting happen to be very, very illegal. In fact most landlords will not comment about tenant behavior during reference checks. At most they'll comment on whether or not a tenant has paid their rent on time or broken a lease. In many cases they won't provide references at all because the risk of a defamation lawsuit is too great. However, if you complain too much the landlord may note that in your file and start ignoring your calls.
2. They have been a renter before.
When you enter a shop or a restaurant it's safe to assume that everyone on the staff has also at some point been a shop customer or a restaurant patron. Of course not everyone has experienced fine dining or bespoke tailoring but chances are everyone has at least bought groceries or eaten at a fast food restaurant. But landlords tend to be frugal people and probably learn very early on that renting is not a really economical way to pay for housing. There is a very good chance that your landlord has never been a renter. Do not assume they share that perspective with you.
3. They have been trained in how to be a landlord.
There are not a lot of venues that offer landlord training in Chicago, and this is a large city with lots of apartments. There's workshops sponsored by the Chicago Police Department, continuing education workshops offered by Realtor associations and a handful of other incubator-style one day sessions scattered across the south side, most of them taught by real estate agents as a marketing stunt. If we have so few options available one can imagine what training looks like in smaller towns and suburbs. Even towns that require landlords to be licensed will only offer basic training in keeping properties crime free without discussing things like discrimination and preventive maintenance, let alone customer service. Many landlords wind up in the business accidentally, either due to the advice of a financial planner or because they can't sell their current house in a slow market.
4. They are in the hospitality business.
Landlords are investors first and foremost. Most of them are just like stock market traders but with a lower tolerance for risk. They view their apartment building portfolio in the same way that you view any collection that you're hoping will gain value over time, such as stock shares, baseball cards or Disney figurines. The fact that their particular portfolio doubles as life-or-death shelter for hundreds or thousands of people may or may not cross their mind. If you want hospitality go to a hotel.
5. They own only one building/They own thousands of buildings.
In most cases even for us it's impossible to gauge how many buildings a landlord may own because they will often create individual LLCs for each one. You can sort of guess by cross-indexing tax bill addresses but it's a rather complicated data mining operation to do so. A landlord who may seem to have a small local presence may be branching out after building a huge portfolio in another city. A landlord who may seem to be a big corporate entity may only have one or two buildings after selling off a large portion of an old portfolio. A landlord who only has one residential property could own 10 or 20 office buildings. There's no way to tell.
6. They have any more understanding about buildings than you do.
Landlords are usually not all that well-versed in how buildings are constructed or how the physical plant operations work. They hire contractors for those kinds of things. Usually early on in a landlord's career they may take a turn at painting an apartment or picking out replacement appliances but that kind of day to day hands on work usually is the first thing to get jobbed out as their portfolios grow. When you report a problem in your apartment you will need to provide as thorough a description of the problem as you can. Don't assume that by giving a brief explanation that your landlord will automatically know what's wrong. They might, but more information is always helpful.
7. They know the repair staff.
Landlords will often hire one central person or a property management company to handle the day to day operations of the building. It is the person the hire who is responsible for bringing on any permanent in-house repair staff. But due to different laws in different cities even an in-house crew may not be allowed to carry out certain repairs. In Chicago things like plumbing, electrical work and HVAC repair tend to be jobbed out to third party companies who in turn hire their own workers. A seemingly simple repair job could well have so many links in the chain of command that there is no way that the people at the top to have ever met the person who actually enters your apartment with a toolbox, let alone to have screened them. Anytime a repair worker enters your apartment make sure to check their ID and note down their name and what company they work for. Should they do a poor job make sure to let the landlord know.
8. They have any particular demographic traits.
Renters tend to assume that their landlords are right-leaning white men. I think a lot of the tenant vs. landlord hostility springs from this assumption, particularly within the realm of discrimination lawsuits and affordable housing. While there are certainly plenty of right-leaning white men in the business, the industry of landlording in the US has always had a strong allure for immigrants. In fact over half of the landlords I worked for over the course of my career were retired or late-career 1st generation immigrant women.
9. They are human.
In the modern rental industry there are all kinds of different landlord business structures. There are certainly still small private landlords who are definitely human. But there are also large private corporate entities and publicly traded corporate entities. There are businesses that are doing rentals as a side line of income. Some of the largest landlords out there are actually insurance companies, banks and hospitals. Loyola University is one of the largest landlords on the north side of Chicago. When dealing with a big entity like this you can't assume that any one person is the "decision-maker". These days everything from lease lengths to rent increases and even the initial design of your apartment could be determined by computer or by committee. With online "software as a service" systems handling the financials for many of the larger landlord businesses there's no way of even telling if the computers running your rental life are even located in the United States.
10. They know who you are.
There can be a lot of layers between your landlord and you. A landlord can hire third party property management and that management could hire third party leasing agents. Unless you have met your landlord in person at least a few times there's a high chance that you are only a name on rent roll, and you might not even be that if the property manager doesn't provide name lists to their landlord clients. Just like the clerk in a convenience store or the server in a restaurant, they serve you the same way they serve anyone else and have no need to remember who you are once the transaction is complete. There's a nearly 100% chance that your landlord has never slept in your building. If you're living with a landlord with a large portfolio there's a high chance that your landlord has never even entered your particular apartment. Excessive kindness or excessive complaints are the only real ways that a tenant can ensure that they stand out in the mind of a landlord for more than a few minutes in a year.
Have you ever made any of these assumptions about a landlord? Were you correct or incorrect? Did it have an effect on your renting experience? Let us know in the comments!
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