How to avoid the rental service wait-and-switch

If you’re working with one of Chicago’s rental services and renting in one of the large, professionally managed apartment buildings on our at-a-glance lists, the on-site leasing staff takes control and shunts your rental service agent off to the periphery of the transaction. You can expect to receive straight answers and timely updates about the status of your application from the building’s staff.

If you’re looking to rent in a smaller building and are not in direct contact with the landlord’s leasing staff, don’t be surprised if you fall victim to a common rental service tactic: the wait-and-switch. Here’s why it occurs and how it works.

Smaller landlords typically “list” their apartments with multiple rental services. Each of those rental services may have multiple agents advertising the property, and unauthorized rental services also advertise the property trying to lure renters. When you see a property you like, fill out an application, pay your application fees and write a check for the first month’s rent you – and your rental service – often have no clue as to what to expect or when.

Some common scenarios:

The landlord has applications from several rental services and sits on them, hoping to rent the apartment himself without having to pay a commission. A landlord has little to lose and an upside of a month’s rent in this scenario.

The property has already been rented but the landlord hasn’t advised the rental services of that fact, and can’t be reached. The rental services are happy to continue advertising a property that’s generating leads.

The property has already been rented. The rental service knows that and tells you they’re waiting to hear from the landlord. The rental service cynically pockets your application fee and cashes your check to take control of you, knowing you have limited resources. Your agent may or may not be aware of the game that’s being played and may simply be being lied to by an unscrupulous manager.

The property’s actual policies re pets, etc. differ from what the rental service has advised you they are. Your rental service may or may not know that but is happy to pocket your application fee and cash your deposit check.
The property has a tenant who’s overstayed his lease and is in eviction court. The landlord has given rental services an occupancy date that may or may not be realistic.

There are more negative scenarios, but hopefully you get the takeaway: if you’re not in direct communication with the landlord, you’re at risk of being screwed over in one way or another. Contact the landlord directly to verify that the apartment is still available, when it’s available for occupancy, and that the landlord’s policies match what you’ve been told before parting with any money. If your rental service balks at giving you landlord contact info, and time to research the landlord, you’ve been given a screaming warning that problems lie ahead.