Three Data Policy Changes That Would Make Apartment Searching Less Uncertain

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Let's establish right off the bat a couple of the principles upon which RentConfident is founded. The first: policymakers have a faulty understanding of how complicated it is for renters to move. The second, which is informed by the first: home buyers have access to far more data about property on the market than renters do.

The folks who control access to important data have this far-fetched idea that renters can just up and leave a bad apartment on a whim, which in theory is true. They don't have to worry about selling the property when they're done with it. They don't have to worry about land values and estates. But there is still a high cost involved, one that can add up to the equivalent of three to six months of housing expenses added on to the annual budget just to cover moving to a new location. There are leases and utility contracts. If you have kids there may be new uniforms, new books, new commuting routes. That's not even getting into the extraordinarily complicated steps that must be taken when a government subsidized ("Section 8") tenant suddenly has to move.

This disconnect between policymakers and renters has led to some extreme shortcomings in the data department. As someone who has built a business around digging into the background of apartment buildings on behalf of renters, I can 100% verify that the absence of renter access to certain chunks of information is blatantly apparent. These are pieces of information that are available, assembled, and even accessible to buyers, but completely blocked off to renters. In some cases the access is barred by company policy. In others it's because of the very short time frame renters have to choose an apartment when compared with buyers, who can remain under contract for up to a couple of months while lawyers and home inspectors do the research on their behalf.

To clarify what I mean, here are three examples of data sources that really should be made accessible to renters.

LLC Cross Indexing

It is certainly useful landlords to incorporate. Many do so as "Limited Liability Companies" or LLCs. Landlords who choose to incorporate as LLCs for their building purchases are usually doing so to protect their portfolio from expensive lawsuits. If a landlord holds a portfolio of, let's say 50 buildings, and buys them all in their own name or in the name of an individual company, then the entire portfolio could theoretically be seized as collateral in a lawsuit. If, however, the landlord creates a separate LLC for each building and puts the name of the LLC on the title as owner, then any given liability lawsuit can only attach the building where the incident occurred. This is all quite practical on the surface.

Of course, this practice has its drawbacks, namely in how it complicates matters when someone on the outside - like a renter, a buyer, or a government inspector - is seeking to understand the scope of a single owner's portfolio. In late April the New York Times online ran a column by Emily Badger about nationwide problems with LLCs and owner anonymity. While many owners use LLC incorporation solely to protect their assets, others use it to launder money or as a way to quickly get out of a bad property without any fear of retribution.

In Chicago it is popular for owners to create a separate LLC for every building they purchase. Some of them register Illinois LLCs, others choose to incorporate in Delaware or Nevada. While you can look up the owner of an individual Illinois LLC on the Illinois Secretary of State's website, you can't reverse search to find all LLCs created by one individual. You can't even cross-index by address. Linking together all the individual shell LLCs that a single landlord uses is what takes the most time when we create our Signature Reports, adding anywhere from an hour to eight hours for a single report. In fact, it's so labor intensive that we had to create a separate version of our report for super large scale property owners like Loyola University, which limits the number of buildings we'll include in the report to 50. If we as a business specializing in apartment data assembly cannot connect the dots of an owner's portfolio in a reasonable amount of time, there is absolutely no way that an average renter would be able to do so in the time required to make a decision on an apartment.

It is important for renters to know who owns their housing. It's important for them to know the size of the landlord's inventory, and to look at all of their properties as a whole for recurring problems that could eventually crop up in their building as well.

While the Secretary of State does make their records available for purchase in bulk, the cost for a download runs in the five figure range or higher depending on how much data you want, and that's only for the first purchase and doesn't include the cost for regular updates. This means that only large scale operations like big law firms and city governments can obtain the raw information that would be needed to create a cross-index, and even then, they would still have to create some sort of computerized system to do the cross-indexing of the raw data once obtained from ILSoS.

The Illinois Secretary of State needs to step back and take a big picture view of how people use LLC ownership data. They need to redo their site to make it easier for the average citizen to track down this information. Delaware and Nevada should probably look into doing so as well, given how many people nationwide choose to incorporate in those two states.

CLUE Reports

In the world of non-government-affiliated data collection companies, there are few that rival LexisNexis in scope and size. They maintain records on any number of useful things, from lawsuits and credit to insurance. Every time something bad happens to you, there's probably a bean counter at a desk at LexisNexis HQ who ticks a little box on a form. Within their vaults is the data warehouse known as CLUE, the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange. Think of it like a credit report, but for insurance. CLUE exists for cars and property. If you get into a car accident your insurance company will add it to the CLUE report for your car. If a landlord files an insurance claim on their building, it goes into the CLUE report for that property, where it remains for seven years.

Now, I live in a neighborhood that tends to flood after heavy rains. Within two blocks of me there's a chunk of houses that all have been at least partially submerged in Chicago River flood water a couple of times in the past seven years. Many of those buildings have basement apartments. If I were looking at renting in this area I would definitely want to see the CLUE report for every building on my list. CLUE reports would contain record of any recent major disasters affecting the building that were severe enough to get the insurance companies involved, from fires and natural disasters to dog bites and slip & fall injuries.

CLUE was created to allow insurance companies to communicate between one another regarding the recent history of a property. Beyond that, CLUE reports are subject to the FACT act, which allows consumers to request one copy of their report every year. If you own a car you can request the CLUE report for that car. If you own a house, you can request the CLUE report for that house. (You can order yours here.) Buyers have recently been requiring sellers to provide CLUE reports as part of their purchase contracts. As a condo owner I had to obtain one for my building in order to apply for a condo owner's policy. But there is currently no trend or demand for landlords to provide CLUE reports to renters, even in an abbreviated format.

We think it would be fantastic if LexisNexis made a version of the CLUE report available to renters.

Commercial Sale Listings

This one speaks more to the Chicago market than the national market. Other areas are a lot more open about commercial listing info.

Suppose you order blue shoes online and get red ones instead by mistake. You'll probably send them back. If you rent an apartment from Mr. Blue and suddenly it is owned by Mr. Red, you'll probably wish you could send the apartment back as well.

Once upon a time, when a homeowner listed a property for sale, only the company that held the listing was allowed to promote it. It was the responsibility of agents to hustle and know prospective buyers and market that house to those buyers exclusively. Eventually the MLS came into being in the form of paper books that were delivered to brokerage offices on a weekly basis, compiling the listings of every participating brokage into one massive book.

These days the MLS is online. It powers listing aggregators like Zillow and Trulia along with every brokerage website. In most areas brokerages can only participate in their local MLS if they are members of their local Realtor association. In the greater Chicagoland area, residential agents are expected to join Realtor associations, but commercial agents - the ones who specialize in offices, warehouses, factories and apartment buildings - are not.

In Chicago, apartment buildings with four units or less are usually marketed through residential agents and larger buildings are marketed through commercial agents. This means that you can find a ton of little apartment buildings in the MLS but not many large apartment buildings.

The commercial equivalent of an MLS is a Commercial Information Exchange, or CIE. There are a few CIEs that are used in the Chicago area, namely CoStar (owner of Loopnet, Cityfeet,, and more) and ICEx. But commercial real estate mostly remains a walled garden, with individual commercial brokerages holding their listings close to their chests and only sharing them with their own buyer clients the old school way. Chances are if a property lasts on the market long enough to make it into a CIE, hundreds of prospective buyers have already seen it and taken a pass. There really is no way for a tenant to look online and find out if a specific apartment building is for sale.

I can understand why a landlord would not want their own tenants to know that their apartment building is for sale. Tenants tend leave if they know that an owner change is imminent. This is because new owners have a marked tendency to increase rents. There's also the issue of blockbusting, an illegal sales tactic that originated (unfortunately) in Chicago. It's a practice where agents scare white owners out of their homes at low prices by implying that minorities are about to move into the neighborhood. If a landlord or their agent tells their tenants that the building is for sale it could be seen as a form of blockbusting.

You will probably never see a for sale sign in front of an apartment building unless it is empty. Landlords who are otherwise completely honest and straightforward will still pull their best poker faced bluff if a tenant asks them, "is this building for sale?" Nope. No way. Never. Would never sell this building.

... Yeah, right.

There needs to be a way for tenants to easily and inexpensively check if an apartment building is currently listed for sale. It doesn't have to be shoved in their face but there should be some route available to find out. For all the owner knows, maybe some tenant in the building will come into an inheritance and want to buy it!

As rents continue to increase and the size of the rent-burdened population grows, the need for more data to help inform renters about the condition of their buildings and caliber of the owners becomes proportionately more intense. It is a fine line to walk between research and an invasion of privacy. Some of these data sources will not open up while the modern lawsuit-happy approach to life remains part of the US zeitgeist. If enough pressure is brought to bear on the door of a private storage area, eventually that door will open. Perhaps the same holds true for private data warehouses as well.

Published by

Kay Cleaves

The Spare Bedroom Conundrum

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There are several things that fall within the realm of "things renters want that worry their landlords." Some of the more obvious ones are garbage disposals, dogs and barbeque grills, all for insurance and safety reasons. But one of the more surprising ones is the spare bedroom.

There are plenty of reasons why a renter would want an apartment with an extra bedroom. They may work from home and need an office. They might have partial custody of a child or be expecting a new baby. They may have a lot of friends or relatives out of town who stay with them occasionally. But when some landlords hear that you are seeking more bedrooms than you have occupants they will deny your application. Today we'll discuss why and provide some possible workarounds. Continue reading The Spare Bedroom Conundrum

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Kay Cleaves

Preparing Your Apartment for Maintenance Workers.

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When guests visit your home it's usually under a very controlled set of conditions. You prepare ahead of time. Most folks will make an effort to clean the place up and be present when guests are there. However, most folks don't view a visit from service workers in the same way. They won't necessarily be home. They leave the place as it normally is. Some even view maintenance visits as a type of hostile invasion rather than a welcome visit. But no matter your view of maintenance visits and no matter if you requested them or if the landlord is forcing them upon you, the last thing you want is for them to have to come back a second time because they couldn't complete the work. (Given that most maintenance staff are paid by the hour, your landlord would really prefer it to be one-and-done as well!)

In the interest of making things easier for you and less expensive all around, here's how we would recommend preparing your apartment for a visit from maintenance.

Note: We are using "maintenance" as a catch all term here. This also includes regular visits from pest control and inspections by the property manager or Section 8.

Also note: This is different from preparing your apartment for showings, which we will cover in a later article and can't believe we haven't covereed already.

Don't chain the front door.

If you're like many Chicago renters you come and go through the back door on a regular basis. You may keep the front door secured with a landlord chain. But chances are your landlord will be providing keys to the workers, and they may only have keys for the front door. Workers will be expecting to go in through the front. Make sure they can do so.

Clear a path.

It doesn't matter if it's you or your landlord who requested entry. You probably know why they're coming and what areas they will need to access. If they're fixing a window, clear the area by the window. If they're fixing your fridge, clear not only the area around the fridge but also a path from the door to the fridge so they can carry a new one through. If they're coming for a general inspection it's tougher to know what they're going to want to see, but you know there's some consistent things they always look at. Clear the area around the furnace. Clear the area in front of cabinets and windows. And by "clear" we do not just mean the immediate surrounding area. Make a nice big open space for people to work, set down a stepladder or swing a paint roller around.

Remove all pets.

It doesn't matter if the building is pet friendly or not. If you have pets in the apartment, remove them. This is for the safety of not only the workers but also your pets. Workers don't pay attention to the location of your cat's litter box. They don't know that your fish or lizard require the apartment to stay within a certain finite temperature range. They will use all kinds of chemicals and probably kick up some dust. They may leave the door open to bring in supplies, allowing your pet to escape. If you have a pet, remove it. The only possible exception is fish, and even then, you may need to move the fish tank if the requested work will be occurring in the room where it normally sits.

Hide your valuables.

While the majority of maintenance workers are focused on the job and not paying attention to anything else, there's always a handful of bad apples. You cannot know what employee screening methods were used when hiring them. They could be hired by your landlord or by an outside contractor. You also cannot know how faithful the workers are to the rules of the building. So not only should you hide any valuables - this includes jewelry, credit cards and small electronics - but you should also hide anything that might be in violation of your lease or the law.

Photo ready.

Some landlords require maintenance staff to take photos of every job. As most of you know, once a photo is on someone's phone there's no telling what they will do with it. Make sure nothing is visible that you wouldn't want to be shared on some random subreddit for "lulz." While you don't have to clean up the place to immaculate levels and most workers are used to "lived in" apartments, expect that there will be cameras and that you cannot control what happens with the resulting pictures.

Power, water and air.

For workers to repair most things in an apartment they will need access to a power outlet and access to water. They may also be doing things that should only happen in a well-ventilated area.

Is there is an outlet near the work area? Clear the area around it and ensure that there's nothing else putting load on that breaker. Power tools can draw a lot of juice.

They'll need water. The kitchen sink is a viable alternative but if workers are going to be in there for several hours, it's nice to give them access to a bathroom. If you don't want them dirtying up the guest towels, then take down the guest towels. If the T.P. is in an odd location, make it a little more obvious than normal.

Make sure that they can reach and open the nearest window without knocking anything over, letting in bugs, or removing heat-sealed plastic.

Notes in 3 languages.

Sometimes you need to leave notes for the workers. You might want to indicate which out of many windows is not opening, or let them know that a particular outlet is dead. You might want to let them know that one door needs to stay open. Chances are in Chicago that you will be visited by workers who do not speak English as their first language. If you're going to leave notes that have any impact, try to leave them in at least three languages: English, Spanish and Polish. You can use an online translation service to do this.

Sometimes you just have to be present.

Most maintenance visits occur during the weekday when many renters are at work. It can be very challenging to take time off from work to be present for a maintenance visit, especially if it's one that your landlord is forcing upon you with two days advance notice. But if you have very particular living conditions that must be preserved for your own health or sanity then you need to bite the bullet and find a way to be present or have someone you know and trust be there on your behalf.

Are you a maintenance worker doing residential repairs? Did we leave anything out? Let us know in the comments or through our contact page and we'll add it!

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

Keeping Dry in Your Basement Apartment

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If you've found yourself looking on the low end of market prices while apartment hunting, you may have been introduced to a whole lot of basement apartments, or "garden apartments" as they're often called here in Chicago. Technically "garden apartment" is a specific term for a ground floor living space that opens directly to street level, not one below ground. However, it is the way of real estate agents to use more pleasant euphemisms when referring to unpleasant things, so nearly every apartment at street level or below is called a garden unit in listings.

Garden units are usually the least expensive options in a building, and for good reason. They have limited light, limited air flow, often have low ceilings, and can be oddly shaped. You have to deal with the unfortunate social stigma that comes with telling your friends that you're a basement-dweller. There's also the issue that many of them are illegal conversions of regular basements, created without the knowledge or review of the city and not included in property tax calculations. But this is a matter for a different article. What we're talking about today is the most central concern of basement apartment life: flooding. Continue reading Keeping Dry in Your Basement Apartment

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Kay Cleaves

What Happens To Your Apartment After You Leave?

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If you're like many renters who moved into a new place today you may have been caught out in the heat/cold last night. Your old lease ended yesterday. Your new lease didn't begin until this morning. What to do? You may have crashed with a friend or found a hotel room to sleep in. You might have even spent an uncomfortable night in the car.

No matter where you slept, you probably wondered (grouchily) why leases couldn't start and end neatly at midnight. The answer, of course, is that apartment maintenance crews need time to turn over an apartment in between renters. Below is a pretty typical punch list of everything that a work crew would need to do in an apartment in those few hours in between when you move out and when the next folks get the keys. Bear in mind that this would be effective only for a larger landlord that had spare appliances and paint sitting at the ready. For a smaller landlord such things are certainly luxuries. Continue reading What Happens To Your Apartment After You Leave?

Published by

Kay Cleaves