Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ithaca Lawyer Student Guide to Renting an Apartment or House

Recently I was reminded of a bad experience I had with an Ithaca landlord in 2007. I think that by sharing it some of the lessons I have learned will prove helpful.

I have been an attorney now for 14 years and have rented, bought, and sold a number of homes and apartments. We moved to Ithaca in 2006, with our four kids. Cornell has an excellent online house (apartment) hunting relocation software program. You can punch in all your parameters, and get a list of available properties. That is how we found our house rental. It is tough to find a suitable home with a large family since most properties (for non-students) are designed/set up for the college crowd with shared cooking/eating facilities.

First lesson before embarking on the process of relocating to Ithaca or any other College/University town is don't feel pressured to rent the first place you see. Keep all your options open. The more options the better for you as the renter. Just like shopping for a car, don't get attached, or emotional about a particular property or as I like to say don't fall in love with what can't love you back. Every place has it's share of positives and negatives.

We rented our home from Lucente Homes. I had heard they had a reputation (from local lawyers) in town for being "stern" or "tough" with people. The large house was located at 13 Pinewood in the North East area of Ithaca. It is a great neighborhood with mature trees, big spaces, and sits within walking distance to the Dewitt middle school. Our children would be in all three school divisions (elementary, middle, & high school). I chose Ithaca for a number of reasons, one of them being the public schools.

The home was neat, clean, and had enough bathrooms and bedrooms (for us). The Lucente Rental Agreement was very long and specific. It stated detailed money damages for many house items (if damaged), and conditions which I had never seen before in all my years as an attorney. This put me and my wife on Notice of what was to come. Forewarned means be forearmed.

Take Pictures and Document Damages Before Possession

My number one suggestion before taking possession (moving in) of ANY rental property is take pictures (or even a video) of the property. Date these with your camera. Then do a walk through with their agent, and document ALL damages. You MUST do this so at the end of the rental (lease) period they do not accuse (make allegations) you and state that YOU destroyed, damaged, or altered the home. They (the landlord) can then try to charge you (hold or keep your security deposit) for things you never broke or harmed. Even the smallest things should be noted. Things like stains on the carpet, burns or marks on the kitchen counter, broken door jams, locks, wood scrapes, etc. must be noted. These can be very costly (in the landlord's agreement/contract) to repair.

You may think that a little glue or paint could remedy something, do not make that mistake. If the agreement has a cost attached to cleaning, repair, replacement, or anything else you are liable for that $ Dollar number. It pays to be detailed at the beginning of this relationship or you will suffer the consequences at the end of it.

Memorialize Any Damages or Conditions

I think it is important to make a list of anything that seems amiss with the property from a broken driveway stone to a discoloration of a kitchen cabinet. Have the agent note (see/beware of) the damages (or condition) with you and the have them SIGN YOUR LIST of these.

Being Proactive is Being Protective

You don't want to be charged at the end of your lease for a number of things that were in horrible condition when you first took possession of the property. The landlord is entitled under their agreement to make repairs, fix, and replace all things that they feel you damaged or destroyed. They will then assess you for their costs to fix these. Their costs maybe much greater than true market value or what you could have gotten them repaired for.

Professional Can be a Lease Term 

Just to note in the Lucente Agreement we had to have all the carpets in the home "professionally" cleaned before handing back possession. They gave us the name of the company they thought was a "professional" cleaner. The definition of "professional" does not include you, your spouse, your friends, renting a machine and cleaning, or using a reputable company of your own choosing. Bottom line, their "professional" company charged us $600 to do the job they would be satisfied with. This was with no damages, no stains, and our OCD based documentation.

Onerous Beginnings Make for Onerous Extensions

We bought a new old home (circa 1889) in Fall Creek half way into our rental agreement period. We needed a one month rental extension of our lease. Lucente offered us two options: re-new for another complete lease term (What? and Why? would that be appealing) or pay double the rent for this extra month?

Nice options to ponder. My wife and I begged, pleaded, and tried to elicit some compassion or understanding but to no avail. We did not understand this because no one was waiting (or scheduled) to move in after our lease term ended.

Even though we were excellent tenants (clean, neat, non-smoking, and paid our rent early every month), and Lucente had noone moving in anytime soon, they still demanded ($4200 for one month). Out of curiosity we checked on the house many months following our move, and it remained vacant, and un-rented.

It seemed silly to us that they would be that way. On principle (it sometimes is hard to be principled) we moved to another home during this one month period. It was a pain in the butt with four kids in tow, and a ton of stuff that had to be put in storage but Lucente's behavior was not right on multiple levels.

Rent Before You Commit

In closing, I think it is wise when relocating to a new area to rent first. I have done this in New Jersey, New York, and Florida. I believe you don't really know an area fully till you live, eat, walk, breathe, and sleep in it for a period of time. I would not understand all the subtle differences in Tompkins County Real Estate had I not lived in the Northeast (the suburbs), and then Fall Creek (the City/Commons) areas.

Even the Weather Can Vary within a 10 Mile Zone

If someone had told me I would never have believed it but the weather is dramatically different between living up on the NE hill in Ithaca versus being in the City basin. I have gone from 6 inches of snow at our rental house, and a blizzard up on the hill to a 5 minute drive and a sun shiny day in the City (with no snow). It seems that downtown Ithaca is generally warmer, and gets less snow.

Ithaca City Versus Suburban Country

I think you must gauge and look at your lifestyle, and what you may want out of an area as an important consideration before buying a home. Living close to Gimme Coffee, restaurants in the Commons, and downtown parks needs to be balanced against the costs (and pains) of living downtown.

Costs are more than Financial

Living on top of your neighbors in a cityscape, where space is at a premium can be daunting at times. Yes, their hours of life and the living of it may vary greatly from your hours of life. They may be cooking, playing, partying, or singing at unusual hours while you are trying to sleep or vice versa. Although my wife would take our current neighbors over any we have had at any place we have lived in the past 25 years.

So all of the challenges of living in close quarters need to be weighed against all the wonderful festivals, gorges, falls, and walk-ability of the city.

My Disclaimer

All thoughts, opinions, and ideas in this blog post are purely my own, feel free to make your own assessments and decisions. I own no real estate companies in Ithaca or Tompkins County, have no rental properties, have no related interests, have no rental interests, and I do not practice real estate law. This was only my rental experience, and that of my family.

I caution anyone renting anytime or anyplace from anyone in doing their due diligence before signing any agreement. It is probably wise to review any rental agreement with a neutral party (your own counsel) to determine, and understand all of it's terms, clauses, and conditions.

Remember that a contract is merely a piece of paper. The true relationship is with the people signing it, and how they deal (and treat) with one another. Their conduct before, during, and after signing it will speak more to their character than to anything else.

Lawrence (Larry) Newman, D.C., J.D.

Doctor of Chiropractic
Attorney and Counselor at Law

504 North Aurora Street
Ithaca, NY 14850