Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Rental Con

First: On the elevator I met a dog. The dog had an owner, but the dog licked my hand and said hello. The owner did too, but, the point is there was an awesome dog. Wait, to clarify: The owner said hello. The owner did not lick my hand. That would've been the most awkward elevator ride ever. She did say she would kiss me to death; that is, the owner said the dog would kiss me to death. You know what, let's move on to the actual point of this post, because unclear syntax is making this weird.

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I'm taking a break from fiction to vent. Rental properties, at least in the Northern Virginia area, are basically run in some of the worst possible ways imaginable. I'm not a business major; I don't even really manage money all that well. But I know some basics of selling things, and here's the simplest truth: The more work and frustration I have to go through, the less likely I am to buy from you.

But, in Metro Virginia, apartments are in high demand. A landlord can accept frustrating the customer base because they have nowhere else to go. Let me explain a few of the things that make apartment hunting difficult, and why, intentionally or not, the entire process is built to frustrate apartment seekers.

Let's not focus on price. I want to focus on things rental communities could change by running a tight ship, having good management and committing to customer service. Land prices are out of whack due to laws like maximum floor limits, and there's only so much that a landlord can do to lower costs, which in turn lower prices. There's not much a single apartment complex can do to fix these larger problems. So, let's focus on problems they could fix.

1. No reliable, central database
People may swear by Rent.com, or any of the other numerous rental sites. But, after a follow up call or going to the actual apartment building's website, the rental prices are reliably anywhere from $100 to $300 lower than the actual apartments rate. I have called or received follow up emails from nearly 20 different buildings, and, if I had been thinking of this post at the time, would have kept a record. In fact, I think it would be interesting for someone to do a study and test that.

This has been the loss of literally hours of searching time; some places strung me out on the phone for 15-20 minutes telling me about the apartment, despite my repeated attempts to get a price. A few I hung up on when they said they couldn't tell me a price yet. At least two quoted me one price on the phone, then during my visit told me that was the wrong price, and gave an even higher price. Once I just said: "Well, that's too bad" and walked out because what had been a $1,200/one bedroom near a Metro transformed into a $1,300 on the phone into a $1,600 in person.

2. New residents receiving better treatment than old residents
Imagine if your discount card at Giant made everything cheaper on your first visit, but on subsequent visits instead of a two-for-one deal, you got a two-for-two-and-a-half deal. You'd probably never go back to Giant again, right?

Your building probably runs specials. But not for you. These specials are for new residents moving in, and they'll  get better deals than if you renew your lease. For example, I took an ad for a one bedroom that to my current leasing office when I was looking to move, and I was denied because I was a current resident. The short of it is I am paying a premium to reduce the risk for my building; if I stay here, over the course of a year, I'll shell out around $1,000 more than a new tenant would for that period. Who knows how many other specials current residents don't notice and what that costs them?

This is why I moved so much my first few years out of college; the rental rates staying in a place crept up, while new places promised specials. Apartment complexes have a general idea on how to entice new clients, they just can't fathom keeping old ones. I don't know why complexes would want a high churn rate in renters, but that's what their policies cause.

3. Poor service is expected
Furthering the problem of giving the shaft to current customers is that I've come to expect to be treated shabbily from pretty much every apartment community I've reached out to or lived in. Pretty much every location I've looked at on any apartment rating site has told me that every apartment complex is pretty much the same. A constant battle against bugs is an accepted part of living; service requests will go unheeded routinely.

My current apartment has atrocious service (which is the same as every other place I've lived.) Apartments in a good location are rare and expensive enough that you are stuck accepting terrible service, and landlords know that. The waterlogged, squishy carpet from flooding that took about two weeks for my current building to come fix and took them two to three days to fix when they finally got to it? That's normal.

4. Information is not open
This goes back up with the first point; getting information about pretty much every apartment complex I've ever dealt with is like pulling teeth. Calling the office isn't a guarantee to get the right information since you often get redirected to a corporate line instead of the actual building. Websites are even more likely to be out of date. Some places insist on forcing people to visit in person to get quotes, eating up time. As leases run out, even if people have been looking a few months ahead of time (I started looking in December), by wasting their day, the apartment complex pushes them against their hard deadline. As that deadline gets closer, people start making snap decisions, which often aren't the best decisions they would make with perfect information. And this is fine for apartment complexes.

5. Apartment communities lie
Well, they don't lie in a way you can complain about. They leave out information; for example "Does not apply to current residents" or, my favorite little addition, "Rates not final," and then when you find out what the final rates are, they are hundreds of dollars more than what the ad that piqued your interest said. And this is before we get to the normal lies you are told when buying high-priced items, like how convenient it is or how they have 24-hour maintenance. Either way, your time is wasted before you rent the apartment, and you are inconvenienced regularly once you become a customer.

6. They will waste your time and your money
Here's another way your time is wasted: Office hours are often during the time you're working. Weekend office hours are a blessing, and more apartment complexes are starting them. But, there are at least half-a-dozen communities I had to rule out because they only show apartments from 9-5 on weekdays and, frankly, taking time off of work is just not feasible for most people, especially if I wanted to visit all of them. This makes the time crunch even worse for people. I can't count the number of times I've shown up to work early or skipped lunch to get out at 4:00, to run to the Metro and hope that I can tag the office of some complex by 5:00 to get some questions answered that they will only answer in person. Applying to live somewhere often requires a credit check and a fee; which is money out of your pocket that you will never see again, even if you don't choose to live there, another incentive to make a snap choice to avoid racking up fees.

7. But none of this matters because you have to live somewhere
The simple fact is though, you have to live somewhere, and if you want to live here, these frustrations are baked into the cake. Good service wouldn't increase the price to rent out an apartment; longer office hours might require price increases, but that could also be done by providing flexible working schedules for employees (do you really need your entire office staff there at 9:00, or could some come in at 11 and stay till 7?)

So, what are my suggestions? Simple: Hire good staff, have competent management and treat customers well. The same basic principles that apply for any business anywhere.

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P.S.,

I initially named and shamed, but, before I hit post I thought: "I really don't want to deal with people posting: 'I had a good experience at X' or those companies potentially reading this and bothering me. If you know me personally, you know where I live, so, sucks for them. But, that's the price of bad service, I guess.

While my language is accusatory, there is an honest case against the assertion that there is an active, intentional screwing of renters, and one I'm actually willing to agree with. Hanlon's Razor may apply.

With the title of "The Rental Con," I may come across on the "malice" side as opposed to stupidity. To be honest though, I don't know. My current position is that it is a mixture of bad faith and incompetence, mattering on the specific community. Change my mind (or state why you agree) in the comments.

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