Housing tips for tenants

BY BEN BECKETT AND AMBER COLVIN
Daily Staff Reporters
Published November 15, 2005

You've found your roommates, decided what part of campus you want to live on and know what kind of place you want. Your housing search seems nearly complete.

Sarah Royce
The University Towers marketing director shows Michaela Vosk an apartment yesterday. (ALEX DZIADOSZ/Daily)

But Doug Lewis, director of Student Legal Services at the University, says you have much more to consider.

Lewis said most students find a house or apartment based on location and aesthetics and immediately have their hearts set on it, without completely researching some important details.

References from past tenants, prior inventory checklists and past inspection reports from the city are all available to students, Lewis said.

But students rarely take the time to inquire about these resources.

Engineering senior Elizabeth Siegel said that in her past years of searching for housing, she has noticed that landlords get away with poor housing conditions because students are set on living in a certain location.

"Some of the places I looked at on campus were really awful," Siegel said.

"But some students want to live on a certain street, so they put up with it."

The city's Housing Inspection Bureau is required to inspect all rental property every 30 months, but tenants can request an inspection anytime if they believe their property is not up to the city's building code.

Inspections commonly check for violations like insect infestations, insufficient heat, broken smoke detectors and fire and safety hazards. If a problem is found, landlords have 60 days to correct it and are given a certificate after resolving the issue.

Lewis said student renters can access records of past inspections by visiting the Building Services department in City Hall. These records reveal if a property has had problems meeting the city's building code and if they were fixed.

Mark Lloyd, Ann Arbor's Planning and Development Services manager, said inspection records can provide even more useful information.

"You can find out how quickly the landlord has responded to correcting any violations in the past, so you get a track record, if you will, of the owner or landlord of the property," Lloyd said.

Potential tenants may also request inventory checklists from past tenants to learn of damages or problems that may be glossed over in the initial tour of an apartment or house. Inventory checklists are filled out during move-in by each tenant and detail the condition of property features like walls, doors, appliances, windows, lighting and furniture.

Viewing an apartment or house can be quick or lengthy, depending on the landlord and how much time is allotted per tour. Amy Kahn, manager of CMB Property Management, said a typical tour through a unit lasts about fifteen minutes. Leasing Manager Susan Rolf said Varsity Management schedules about 45 minutes for each viewing.

But students viewing their potential homes can also control the length and quality of their tour by coming equipped with questions.

"Some - are very prepared and have lots of great questions, and some of them are doing it for the very first time and don't even know where to begin," Kahn said.

It's also a good idea to talk to students who have experience renting, especially the building's current tenants.

Talking to current and past tenants can provide a prospective tenant with information that landlords may not normally divulge, such as information about the relationship between tenants and the landlord and the amount of monthly utility bills, Lewis said.

LSA senior Jennifer Yee agreed.

"The agents aren't going to tell you the truth," she said. "The (tenants) there will give you the real perspective."

LSA junior Neda Mirafzali advised potential renters to "look at the type of people the tenants are." If you aren't comfortable with them in casual conversation, you probably don't want to live next door to them, she said.

Anything a future landlord promises should be in writing, as part of the legally binding lease, because oral promises are very difficult to enforce. The owner's or property manager's name, address and phone number should also be on the lease.

Tenants should also find out whether their lease is single or joint liability. Under single liability, a tenant can't be held responsible if a roommate defaults on his share of the rent. Under joint liability, if any of the roommates listed on the lease doesn't pay his share, the remaining roommates are responsible for the remainder of the rent.

Students can find more resources on the University's housing website, housing.umich.edu, including a checklist of things to consider before signing, like what utilities are included in the rent, if the building is furnished and if renters can expect application and cleaning fees. Also available is a list of questions to ask a prospective landlord, such as how long the lease runs and who is responsible for insuring the property.

The most important thing for a student tenant to understand is what responsibilities he has under his lease.

As Lewis put it, "Read it before you sign it."