Twenty-five things the rental services won’t tell you

by Joe Zekas on 3/23/11

Belmont Harbor, Chicago IL

The slick-looking Web sites for apartment rental / locator / finder services tell you that you’ve arrived at Chicago’s premier FREE rental service offering experienced, knowledgeable agents and the largest database of available apartments. That’s typically hooey.

Here’s what you absolutely need to know about rental services that they won’t tell you:

1. We hired shills to plant all the positive reviews you read about us on Yelp, or wrote them ourselves.

2. Our service isn’t free. We charge a month’s rent as a commission and you’re paying it in the cost of your rent. With some landlords you pay it in the form of higher rent; with others in the reduced services and maintenance they deliver.

3. You’re not our client. Landlords and management companies are our clients.

4. We will only show you a very limited selection of apartments from a fairly small number of landlords and management companies.

5. Most landlords refuse to do business with us.

6. The landlords we work with often give us only their difficult-to-rent dogs and easily rent their best apartments tenant-direct on their own.

7. We won’t show you any of the 1,000s of MLS-listed apartments, homes and condos, many of which are better deals than what we will show you because a) we only get half a month’s rent commission on those places and b) we have to do more work to get those deals done. We’re paid to move the merchandise, not to help you.

8. We’ll steer you away from some great apartments because they only pay half a month’s rent commission.

9. We’ll lie to you about why we won’t show you apartments next door to ones we do show you.

10. That apartment you called on never existed at the advertised price. We’ll tell you it’s already been rented.

11. Your agent will try to bully you or lie you into paying more rent than you want to. S/he is desperate for the extra commission dollars and knows s/he’ll never see you again.

12. We ask you to give us info in advance and make an appointment, but the appointment’s a cattle call and you’ll need to give us that info all over again when you arrive.

13. Your agent may have a criminal record – we don’t check. We’ll hire anyone with a driver’s license who can fog a mirror, although we strongly prefer young, good-looking, naïve white kids who couldn’t land a real job.

14. There’s a good chance that your agent doesn’t have the license required by state law. Many of them can’t pass the test or can’t afford the fees. And we don’t pay much attention to state laws.

15. Your agent may be a total rookie who knows nothing about the apartments or neighborhoods s/he’s showing you.

16. We’ll allow you to apply for an apartment we know you won’t qualify for financially and will take our sweet time in telling you that you were rejected. The closer you get to your move date and the more of your money we have, the more we own you.

17. We know you don’t know your rights so we won’t give you the required heating cost disclosure and will lie to you about heating costs. Your $600 monthly bill is not our problem, sucker.

18. When we show you apartments you’re likely to encounter upset tenants. We don’t give them the legally required advance notice that we’re showing the place.

19. We’ll show you places way out of the neighborhood you’ve told us you want to live in and way out of your price range.

20. We’ll tell you that you’re a fool not to take what we have to show you, that it’s all that’s available, when we know that’s far from the truth.

21. When you fill out an application for an apartment we have no idea whether it’s already been rented. Dozens of other rental services have the same listings we do.

22. We make a nice buck out of overcharging you for a credit report.

23. Many landlords know that we’ve given them whited-out photocopied faked credit reports and won’t accept the ones we submit to them. The landlord may charge you again for a credit report.

24. If we owe you money you’ll have a devil of a time collecting it from us.

25. We know that many of the landlords we represent are the scum of the earth. We could care less.

This started out as a top-ten list and quickly got out of hand. It could go on at length.

If you’re looking for an apartment along Chicago’s lakefront from the South Loop to Lake View, you can find all of your options in our Guides and at-a-glance lists. If you’re searching apartments on Craigslist, keep our do-not-call list handy to ensure that you’re not contacting a rental service rather than a landlord or management company.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

anonymous March 23, 2011 at 6:16 PM

Impressive list. For 25, you mean “We couldn’t care less.”

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Joe Zekas March 23, 2011 at 6:23 PM
anonymous March 24, 2011 at 10:17 AM

I disagree. It’s an incorrect expression that has simply become more popular than the expression people mean to use. If that’s used in character as the “bedbugs,” who may make this mistake, that’s fine.

I’ll just leave this video, this article, and these definitions here.

Thanks for making this list. Every potential apartment renter should read it.

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Jennifer March 11, 2013 at 7:10 AM

This is a GREAT article – thanks for posting it and educating us!!!! (Anonymous is correct – the expression has morphed incorrectly to have a different meaning than the original, although we know what people are TRYING to convey even when they say it wrong. “I could not care less” means you are completely apathetic. “I could care less” means you are in the middle of the road, and can be persuaded either way. Quite different.)

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nwzimmer March 24, 2011 at 9:52 AM

It’ll be interesting to see if the continued proliferation of more and more information about these scammers will have an impact on their ‘business’.

Will more and more people become aware of the scam until it reaches critical mass to the point that it’s common knowledge, thereby killing the business model, or will there always be a fresh group of people, that are unware, that will fall for the scam; for example recent college grads moving to the big city.

I would imagine that this ‘apartment locator’ scam has been going on for a long time, but maybe not. Is it truly on the rise in the past few years, or just getting more and easier visibility through Craigslist?

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boiztwn March 24, 2011 at 8:40 PM

In my opinion, I don’t think the business model will ever be killed. Why?

1. Ignorance. Yes, there will always be a “new blood” crop that believe this is the way to find apartments in Chicago. Even if the larger firms with more overhead tank, there will always be a new, willing startup, and there will always be an uninformed client base.

2. “Convenience.” I use quotations because it really isn’t all that convenient, but there is the “one stop shop” mentality. Even if natives are well aware of their hard sells and limited listings, it is a way to be driven around for a couple hours and get a “feel” for areas and pricing, even if you don’t sign.

3. Apathy. This kind of dovetails into the “Convenience” point, but it involves a lot of time and legwork to schedule with several different private landlords/mgmt companies, travel yourself, deal with several differing owners/managers and different policies, et cetera. A lot of people just plain don’t want to do it.

4. Skepticism. DIY research leads you into a lot of roadblocks; for example, pretty much every management company for rentals has been thoroughly trashed on Yelp and other review sites. The industry is tilted toward receiving negative, often vicious and personal, critiques during a bad experience with rare positives for adequate or good ones to balance it out. So even if you’re getting solid info from a direct managing agent, it can lead to greater judgment (SLUMLORD?) as opposed to the illustrious, “objective” multi-listing “Leasing Specialist” at a “large and reputable firm.”

5. MLS is not an option for most. Unless you’re looking for a condo rental, small building, or lux, most listings are not on the MLS and many brokers will not waste the time and energy on smaller priced rentals. You’re missing out on a lot of the market, unless you are looking for something more high price and exclusive. So you’re back to point 2.

So I’m not a huge fan of ‘em, but they’re going to be around. I do love this site’s focus on them, though. But I’m the choir and it’s preaching to it.

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Joe Zekas March 24, 2011 at 9:04 PM

Boiztwn

I don’t think that anyone doubts that there will always be renters who want the services the locators promise – but don’t deliver.

The services will also survive because there are many small landlords who don’t want to show their own apartments, don’t want to hire a management company to do it, and don’t have enough apartments to justify a full-time leasing person. And, as you point out, the large brokerage companies don’t service this market segment.

Two really interesting questions here, at least to me, is why virtually all of the services operate in such a sleazy, blatantly dishonest fashion, and why the relevant authorities allow them to operate as they do.

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boiztwn March 24, 2011 at 9:30 PM

Thanks for the reply Joe! I really do enjoy what you’re doing here; it’s one of my go-to sites every morning.

Some thoughts:

Many “small landlords” were rope-a-doped into the vicious buyer’s market cycle of “great rental investment opportunity!” thinking that rents were a given profit and an eternally appreciating asset without understanding the potentially crushing implications of the CRLTO. There are slumlords, to be sure, but many try to be on the up-and-up and are crushed by SD technicalities, or are even unaware of such things like the heating cost disclosure recently highlighted here. Most new condo owners attempting to rent are completely oblivious to them; neither sellers nor “leasing specialists” delve into those technicalities — they want to close close close and make those commissions.

With regard to the leasing agencies in particular, I think it is of the same mindset: revenue generation. Close close close. But that is not exclusive to the rental industry; the brokerage firms can be of similar mindsets.

Regarding the legality, I have a multitude of opinions on that. I don’t think proper licensure would help that industry; it’s like getting a certificate in GIS software with a C grade as opposed to learning the software on your own and excelling at it. There are some awful licensed agents, and some exceptional, technical unlicensed ones.

Even the most pleasant, responsive private landlord can be gobsmacked by a vicious tenant under the CRLTO for minor infractions, and there are attorneys that brazenly advertise they can get you out of any Lease agreement via CRLTO loopholes.

So why they’re overlooked? Probably because it is a waste of public resources unless there are egregious violations and practices. Almost any and every word uttered by anyone in the industry could be charged with violating either the FFHA on either the sale or rental side (“Did you just say this home was close to Boystown?! Not an official community area and a protected class!”) much less the CRLTO.

I disagree with agencies on many things; licensure is nowhere near the top of my list.

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Joe Zekas March 24, 2011 at 10:21 PM

boiztwn

There’s a very sharp difference between the large sales and rental agencies in observing legalities. Almost all of the very large brokerages in the Chicago area make serious efforts to comply with all applicable laws and expel any of their agents who don’t. You will not, for just one example, find any unlicensed agents in these companies.

Licensure is an important marker for an individual’s and company’s ethics and business practices, which is why I place more emphasis on it than may seem warranted. There is no such thing as a good unlicensed agent.

The accidental landlord is a very small, almost insignificant part of the rental industry in Chicago, and even a small part of the small landlord segment.

A lot of the small landlords I know have a renegade outlook on the CRLTO. They understand its requirements full well and take their chances with it. I can recall taking a landlord – tenant lawyer to group meetings of small (and not so small) landlords to explain the law, and hearing a lot of “screw that sh*t. I’m going to ignore it” responses. They run risks that are theoretically severe but, in practice, very few have been sued or penalized.

As to fair housing laws, agents with the more reputable companies make serious and sustained efforts to comply. When the Lawyers Committee sued Craigslist they found zero major firm ads to complain about after searching through hundreds of thousands of ads for purported violations.

My firm, Data Based Ads, places all the print advertising for Prudential Rubloff, Koenig & Strey, Coldwell Banker, Jameson and a number of other firms. We monitor fair housing compliance in the ads on their behalf. We provide similar services for major brokers throughout the country. We’ve literally run millions of individual listing ads without a violation over almost two decades of providing that service.

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boiztwn March 24, 2011 at 10:45 PM

Joe,

Again, I do not want to sound critical or dismissive of the good work that you do. Please don’t take my industry tete-a-tete as anything otherwise. I really appreciate your technical insight, and it is most warranted and appropriate.

Things on the ground are different. With your experience, I am sure you are familiar with private landlords — especially old timers (renegades) — that do not grasp the importance of heating cost disclosures or even the CRLTO requirement for SD interest rates through the City Comptroller’s office, even if they do not ask for one.

There are so many technicalities and abrogations and recourses for tenants that bone landlords. My favorite personal anecdote is a private Landlord that returned an SD — in full — at the end of a Lease, with full interest, but was sued because they did not do so every calendar year, as is legally required. He ended up with thousands in damages. Co-mingling funds (accepting one check with both a month’s rent and the SD, even if split upon deposit into separate accounts)? Forgeddaboutit.

By the way, a 14-day right-to-cure amendment to the CRLTO to protect Landlords on the up-and-up from such oversights/ignorance was shot down in the Building Committee, because multiple protesters came out to claim how “unjust it is” to those ESL or illiterate even though all landlord representatives were GZ types. It was deemed “unjust” and sent to a “special sub-committee for serious consideration” — aka policy hell — as the CRLTO applies to Austin as much as it applies to the Gold Coast. It is not smart policy.

So we need to agree to disagree on licensure. I’ve seen enough college kids with BA and BS degrees to understand that regardless of field of study that it means little with regard to direct experience, personal motivation, passion for the industry, and continued learning of the law (even if it is State required). To wit: how many persons acquire driver’s licenses and die in auto accidents per year?

A license is a decent starting point, but is not solely indicative of knowledge. My umbrage with rental agencies is their consummate laziness and push-selling to close. Business practices and ethics are always in flux; this blog just highlighted a realtor abrogating them, even though he is licensed to sell. The Apartment People brazenly said they’re “BBB Accredited!” even though the BBB’s process to be credentialed has been under much scrutiny.

You either have a good agent, or you don’t. Licensure will not fix the problem, nor will additional “classroom time.” Either you’re focused on the law and technicality, or you are focused on sell. sell. sell and will close on that Boystown place with proximity to Roscoe’s, while letting them know the complex is mostly female and single.

That’s just my take, and I stick to it. Though I’d love to buy you a drink some time and discuss it in person; again, I’m loving what you’re doing.

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Joe Zekas March 24, 2011 at 10:59 PM

The fact that an agent has a license is no guarantee of anything. We agree on that.

The fact that an agent doesn’t have a license is a guarantee that you’re dealing with a lawbreaker and incurring a lot of risk by doing so.

I’ll take you up on the drink offer when the weather gets warm.

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boiztwn March 24, 2011 at 11:04 PM

Agreed, Joe.

And holler on the drink Hopefully we can sit on a patio — after all, the new ADA accessibility laws have the ability to destroy a lot of sidewalk cafe/patio permits. ;)

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Dan March 25, 2011 at 9:58 AM

Joe, your post has generated a lively discussion on the Chicago subreddit of Reddit.com. Here is the link.

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Joe Zekas March 25, 2011 at 10:17 AM

Thanks for the link, Dan.

I saw in Google Analytics this morning that Reddit sent us more than 500 visitors yesterday but hadn’t had a chance to see the discussion there.

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rentersickofscams March 25, 2011 at 10:45 AM

ha, ginger is one of thousands….its disgusting what these people do to craigslist….for those of you out there like me, try domu.com. its what craigslist use to be like years ago except better. well at least it worked for me. good luck to all of you craigslist loyalist, youll need it

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Joseph Askins March 25, 2011 at 12:11 PM

Since rentingsoon / rentersickofscams chose to post this message in two different threads, I’ll respond twice.

Regular readers (and anyone with half a brain, really) should see this coming a mile away — this user’s IP address traces back to Schatz Properties, which just so happens to own Domu.

The people at Domu more than welcome to contribute to this conversation in an open and honest manner — that is, to identify themselves properly and explain why they believe their service is a good alternative to an apartment finder.

It’s a shame to see them stoop to the bedbugs’ level.

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Seasoned Renter March 25, 2011 at 2:25 PM

Why anyone would feel the need to use these parasites is beyond me. This is not New York City. The other problem I’ve noticed is that some of the crappy landlords will advertise their places on the side without telling the bedbug, hoping they can snag a tenant and avoid paying a commission. When you call these landlords, they always want to “meet you on the corner of X street and Y street” and won’t give you the address because they think you may be a bed bug checking up on them. Rule #1 in apartment hunting: Never make an appointment with a landlord who won’t give you the goddamn address of the building.

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Andrew Porter March 25, 2011 at 2:49 PM

Joseph, the comment made by rentersickofscams was indeed posted by someone at Domu. Nobody with managerial authority at Domu instructed or authorized the comment. The employee in question, however, is indeed a Chicago renter and does indeed feel very strongly about the service that Domu provides.

As for Yo Chicago!, it’s Privacy Policy is crystal clear: In pertinent part, it says: “Your privacy is vitally important to us. We will not sell, rent or share your personal information (your name, e-mail address, street address, telephone number) with any third party without your express permission.”

In this case, Yo! Chicago had no compunction about violating its own privacy rules in the interest of some higher cause. But obviously NOT the cause of journalism. Your privacy rules are an invitation for candid commentary from the reader community, and candor in the internet setting includes the belief by the commenter that its domain address will not be exposed by the moderator. There may be instances where the commenter plays fast and loose with the truth, or where the commenter may be completely truthful albeit commercially interested, or where the commenter is truthful only BECAUSE he believes his opinions or identity will not be exposed to the world in violation of the moderator’s privacy policy. If witnesses and insiders could not speak anonymously, effective news gathering would grind to a halt and the free flow of information would be seriously compromised.

Your actions in this case were a breach of journalistic integrity and ethics, over and above a breach of your own expressed duty to the user community. Of course, most would be justified in concluding Yo Chicago doesn’t rise to the level of journalism. I bet you would disagree. Given your actions, however, one would also be justified in concluding that Yo Chicago is to journalism what apartment finders are to top-of-the-line, fully-licensed, elite real estate brokers. And Joe Zekas has a word for that.

If the credibility of your blog is so vitally important to you, then you should have deleted the objectionable comment, rather than exploiting it as a straw-man so you could take a swipe at one of your readers.

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Joe Zekas March 25, 2011 at 3:17 PM

Andrew Porter,

I’ll address the issues you raise in a separate post.

In the meantime, i’ll simply express my complete shock that a company with a sophisticated in-house general counsel – yourself – hasn’t trained its employees to comply with FTC guidelines (PDF) concerning the type of behavior we called out, and repeatedly monitored their behavior to ensure compliance.

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nwzimmer March 25, 2011 at 4:00 PM

The comments above by “Seasoned Renter” seem very odd and suspect. The commenter mentions:

“advertising their place on the side without telling the bedbug”,
“hoping they can snag a tenant and avoid paying a commission”
“because they think you may be a bed bug checking up on them”

Are you kidding?? An owner of a place that wants to rent it out has every right to do it on their own, (even if they do have a relationship with a bedug to rent a different place out). They would have no need to worry about a “bedbug checking up on them” haha

Very odd comments indeed; I’m not sure what the agenda is of the person that posted that, but they don’t seem to be smart enough to word their comments in a way that isn’t so blatantly suspect.

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Joe Zekas March 26, 2011 at 1:39 PM

I had posted a follow-up item concerning domu, but have removed it after a lengthy conversation with Andrew Porter, who assured me that domu’s management was also disturbed by the comments to which I objected, and that the behavior will not recur.

Case closed.

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dude March 27, 2011 at 3:21 PM

this same list could be applied to any number of licensed real estate agents and developers as well.

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Andrew Porter March 28, 2011 at 9:50 AM

Thank you, Joe. I hope it goes without saying that a tech-savvy company like Domu would be wise enough to know that comments like the one posted on this thread can be traced to the domain. If it were our policy to engage in these types of tactics, we would certainly be wise enough to do it from computers outside the office. We have an enthusiastic and overly zealous young employee who believes strongly in our business model and got a bit carried away. This employee is very loyal, however, and, this incident aside, still has our support for being a hard worker and a great team player. We fully support your efforts to clean up the real estate business in Chicago and apologize that the post by “rentersickofscams” was anathema to the cause.

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mekhi March 8, 2013 at 6:49 PM

So yeah I was getting desperate so I looked at apts under Apartment Finders….there was a listing for a 2bdrm/2bath on Ohio for $2063…I called AF…they say come in to 711 N. State with photo ID. I take off work early because they told me that that high rise does not take appointments after 3pm. When I arrived at AF I was given up an agent who was a bad actor. He acted like that advertisement never existed at that price by going to the website and showing me the available alert he did this about 5 times at different dates…he then goes on to tell me about a building that AF just purchased on 2300 Michigan… Those were even higher than what I was looking for and the neighborhood is sketchy. I told him finally cut it out that I knew what he was up too and of course he got defensive. Ridiculous!

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