How NOT to Deal with Bad Neighbors in Your Building

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There are a lot of landlord and apartment problems that RentConfident can detect and warn renters about in our rental safety reports, but we can't tell you what your new neighbors will be like. You can try to suss out truly problematic neighbors by asking the local police, but they'll only know if something has occurred that was bad enough to attract police attention. You can check business licenses - and we do in our reports - for potentially noisy businesses on site. But you're really flying blind when it comes to moving into a high density building with people living on all sides.

Tenants may feel overwhelming levels of rage towards obnoxious neighbors, especially if disruptive behavior continues day in and day out. These situations often prompt tenants to file complaints with their landlord about their neighbors, thinking the landlord will immediately solve the problem. Speaking from years of experience on the property management side of things, this is a very bad way to approach the situation. You're basically throwing a boomerang that has a very small chance of hitting the target, and a very good chance of coming back and hitting you instead. Today we're going to review reasons why you should find some other means of resolving your neighbor conflicts that doesn't involve the landlord at all. Continue reading How NOT to Deal with Bad Neighbors in Your Building

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Kay Cleaves

A Basket of Razors (Philosophical Laws for Renters)

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There are plenty of philosophical "laws" and "razors" out there, some humorous and some not. There's Murphy's Law, which states "anything that can go wrong will go wrong." There's also Muphry's Law, under which any critique of someone else's spelling or grammatical errors will also contain an error. There's Occam's Razor, Hanlon's Razor, Godwin's Law, and Rule 34 of the Internet, which I won't link to from a business blog. There are also some bits of conventional wisdom in the realm of renting, although none of them have fancy names. Today I'll be going over a few of them. Continue reading A Basket of Razors (Philosophical Laws for Renters)

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Kay Cleaves

Apartment Hunting for Exotic Pet Owners

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Many years ago I had a colleague who worked as an onsite property manager. She lived in the building and handled both maintenance and leasing. She got an email one day from a prospective renter moving across country from the Pacific Northwest.

"I have to move to Chicago and would like to rent the studio I saw on Craigslist."

All good so far, but then:

"I have a pet monkey. I also will need to send the monkey ahead of me by about 2 weeks. Is this OK with you?"

I don't know many people who would monkeysit for two weeks on behalf of a friend or relative, let alone doing so for a complete stranger. The prospective renter might have been trolling my colleague or he could have been quite serious, especially given that this was well prior to the 2011 statewide ban of keeping primates as pets in Illinois. We'll never know for sure as my colleague quickly declined to accept the renter and his furry friend.

Of course, the monkey is an extreme case, but probably what many of you think of when you hear the term "exotic pet" - animals that would be more likely found in a zoo than in a home. But for city landlords anything other than a dog or cat could be considered exotic, even those that the rest of us might think of as very common. And to a landlord, any renter with an exotic pet will probably get the same response as the fellow with the monkey: "no, thank you." Continue reading Apartment Hunting for Exotic Pet Owners

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Kay Cleaves

How to Spot Quality in Rental Housing

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"I'll be back Friday (I promise!) with a special take on quality for folks who are looking for rentals. See you then."

Those were the last words I wrote in my old real estate blog, StrawStickStone, on April 24, 2013. So much for promises. I had at that time been writing 3 entries a week for over a year, my neighborhood was recovering from major flooding, and I couldn't really think of how I wanted to write the article on quality in rentals. It has lurked in the back of my mind trying to take shape for over four years. In retrospect the core problem was the sheer impossibility of talking about quality in renting while still maintaining the positive spin necessary for a real estate sales blog.

The words "quality" and "apartment" should not be too closely linked. One should, of course, find something that will still look relatively the same when you move out as it did when you moved in. But if you go too far in the direction of good quality you risk living with an inexperienced landlord or in a location that's only rented temporarily until it can be sold. However, in these waning days of the nearly extinct security deposit it has become more important to find rental housing of at least medium quality unless you want to have to pay out of pocket for repairs after you leave. Continue reading How to Spot Quality in Rental Housing

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Kay Cleaves

Lessons Learned from the Census API Debacle

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Over the past few months we've learned a lot from the public data made available on the US Census Bureau's website. We learned how tenants are apathetic about community involvement. We learned about the number of immigrants working in apartment maintenance. We found a list of the most and least common apartment types in Chicago. And of course, every RentConfident apartment safety report contains data from the US Census so that renters can get an idea of what to expect from their new neighborhoods. But the census bureau is not infallible. In fact, on Wednesday a simple error in an email from the census bureau this week caused major ripples throughout the open data community. From this event we can learn quite a bit about how readers interpret digital information, and apply that to rental situations.

Those of you who don't do data work might not know what an API is. Basically it's a way for one website to retrieve information from another website automatically without logins or passwords. When a website has a "share on Facebook" button, they are using Facebook's API to submit their content to Facebook. RentConfident uses APIs to regularly pull updated information into our reports from about 30 different sites. (The rest of our data is added in by hand.) We pull code violations from the city of Chicago, map data from Cook County, and of course population data from the US Census Bureau's API.

This week I and many others within the open data community received the following email from the US Census Bureau:

Click to view full size.

Note that there is a PDF file attachment. I read the email, read the attachment, and chuckled to myself. Then I went to check Twitter. Sure enough on Twitter I saw messages like these:

People were claiming that the API was shutting down permanently, which would break a lot of websites. People were blaming the government and crying "censorship," but they were mistaken. The cover email was flawed and didn't state the whole story. The PDF attachment - which that last tweet even linked to directly - provided more extensive information stating that the address used to make API calls is going to be moving to a new location (from "HTTP" to "HTTPS"), and that therefore any links to the old server would stop working. Unfortunately, recipients just read the cover email and immediately sent out false information on Twitter. It was a simple courtesy message that went horribly wrong.

The authors of these tweets are very intelligent people. I'm sure most of them are tech folks who know how to debug and read code for those tiny errors that can make a computer program break. I'm sure most of them have college educations. But they still missed the whole point of the email and then spread their misconceptions around.

Upon being notified of the problem, the US Census Bureau issued a clarifying tweet immediately, and sent out a follow up email the next morning. Pretty quick response for a government agency. On Thursday a lot of top open data Twitter users had to issue retractions and apologies for jumping the gun yesterday.

We can learn a lot from this incident.

Attachments are Dead. In this mobile era you cannot expect people to open PDF attachments. Senders may assume that everyone will read the full content of an email, but in reality people skim and may not be able to open attachments for several hours. This is something landlords and agents in particular need to keep in mind when emailing tenants.

Corporate Emails Have a Lot of Authors. Corporate communications pass through many hands before getting sent out. In the case of the Census email I would guess that the IT folks assigned the drafting of the email to an intern, who wrote it and sent it to the legal department, who then passed it to the public relations department, totally changing the nature of its message by the time they sent it to everyone who uses the API. So tenants, when you get a message from property management saying something totally bizarre, (like "all tenants must like us on Facebook or get evicted") make sure you check with a decision maker in the office to make sure you are interpreting it correctly.

Sometimes it isn't the government's fault. If something goes wrong involving people, agencies and the government, laypersons are going to immediately blame the government, no matter who is really at fault. I saw a number of tweets blaming the Trump administration for shutting down the API, when a) the government mandate that forced all government sites to switch to "HTTPS" was issued during the Obama administration nearly two years ago, b) it wasn't even closing down in the first place, and c) data encryption is actually a good thing that harms no one.

This also has echoes in the landlord-tenant arena. Both sides are quick to blame their problems on the laws that govern rentals rather than their own inability to communicate well and simple human error. Tenants are quick to blame their landlords for errors made by their staff. I'm all for accountability but one needs to focus one's anger in the right directions.

Consumers are suspicious. Consumers of social media have come to assume malicious motives and conspiracies lurk behind every message received from authority figures. While in some cases this may be true, in most cases authority figures - be they government agencies, software developers, your parents or your landlord - are not making decisions specifically to cause you harm. They may act carelessly or selfishly, but they generally are not outright malicious.

Trust but verify. Twitter - and social media in general - consists of a lot of wannabe pundits all trying to scoop each other, especially on big changes. I'm sure those who tweeted that the API was closing down were trying to be helpful to their friends or to boost their reputations as informed members of the open data community. If you see something on Twitter that looks like big breaking news, make sure to verify the information before you spread it around. Even respectable news establishments can be misled based on early information, flawed eyewitness accounts and tweets. Renters, when you are reading about a landlord on a site like Yelp, make sure you consider the source as well as the content.

Read the fine print. Finally, when you receive something in writing from an authority figure you must read the fine print. This includes things like leases and appliance instruction manuals from your landlord. Failing to read the find print caused a lot of embarrassment among the Twitter open data community this week. I hope it didn't cost any data engineers their jobs.

Was there ever a time when you got called out for jumping to conclusions? Have you ever stuck your foot in it on Twitter based on gossip? Let us know what happened in the comments, and we'll see you next week!

RentConfident is a Chicago startup that provides renters with the in-depth information they need to choose safe apartments. Help us reach more renters! Like, Share and Retweet us!

Published by

Kay Cleaves