by Kay Cleaves
According to Chicago’s fair housing laws, a landlord cannot use a tenant’s race, color, sex, gender identity, age, religion, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, military discharge status or source of income as a reason to select or reject their application. They can’t use any of those as a basis for showing or refusing to show them an apartment. Most tenants are aware of these laws and most landlords follow them to some extent or another. They may not know all of the specific protected classes for housing, as Chicago has more than other cities and states, but they do the best they can.
High credit scores, verifiable income of a reasonable amount and a clean prior rental record remain the holy trinity of landlords’ criteria for approving a renter. They allow a landlord to make a decision on the main issues that matter without risking a fair housing lawsuit. However, in the interest of protecting their buildings and minimizing maintenance costs a landlord may use some secondary, non-protected criteria in addition to the big three. Today we’re reviewing some of those surprise factors that could kill your chances of landing your dream apartment so that you can plan around them.
Most of these will not make you completely untouchable as a tenant. You’ll still be able to find a place but you might have to work harder for it. You have a higher likelihood of getting declined, as they will make your application less attractive to a landlord in a multiple bid situation. In a market as tight as the current one even tiny issues can become major. The slightest blemish in your rental profile could mean that your application falls to the bottom of the pile underneath others that arrived later but are easier to process.
So before you start looking for an apartment, give some thought to these surprising items that I have personally seen stand between a prospective tenant and an apartment.
If one of your moving boxes looks like this you may have a challenge ahead of you. (Image from http://pets-cats-vet.blogspot.com.)
1. Animal issues.
Too many pets. The wrong species. The wrong breed. Two seems to be the magic number for small animals. If you like your furry friends on the larger side you may be limited to one at a time. Beyond the standard stereotypes and insurance issues that plague the bully breeds of dogs, you’ll need to watch out if you have fish (all that weight of water can hurt a floor), rabbits (chewing), birds (noisy, messy) and extremely fluffy cats (killers of more furnaces than you’d expect).
Workaround: If you’re picky about your housing and on a limited budget, stick with one or two small (under 25 lb) animals at most. Keep it to cats & dogs. I know it’s a wonderful deed to foster, adopt or rescue an animal. I admire those who have the spare time to do so. But leave the pit bulls and the greyhounds until you’ve bought a place of your own. Alternately, go ahead and adopt what you like, just remember to start apartment hunting early and expect to have to try several times across a limited inventory before you find a landlord who will work with you.
2. A very common name.
While your credit report can be pinned directly to you and you alone by a combination of your social security number and birthdate, many of the databases used for criminal records allow a “fuzzy” search by name only. If someone with the same name as you has a criminal record you may wind up having to prove your innocence when confronted with their crimes by a prospective landlord.
Workaround: Head them off at the pass. Check regularly to make sure you’re aware of villains who are out dirtying your shared name. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, the OFAC list, the Sex Offender registry and the Cook County Eviction Dockets are the big ones that could cause you trouble.
3. Talking Trash about your current landlord.
Landlords are business-folk in an industry that is perpetually bad-mouthed and besieged by bad news. There is a certain solidarity between those who choose to invest in rentals that makes them want to support their brethren first. Trust me, no matter how bad your landlord is, there is pretty much no way you can explain it to a new prospective landlord that will make him see it from your side only. Also, tenants who are coming from bad rental situations tend to be really suspicious and jumpy around their new landlord. It understandably takes a while before they can learn to trust anyone else, and sometimes they never do. Not many landlords want to willingly walk into a situation where their tenant will automatically distrust them from day one due to the last guy’s mistakes.
Workaround: I don’t care if your landlord is feeding a colony of basement roaches the size of your hand using raw sewage that backed up into your shower. I don’t care if the insurance company is paying for your new apartment because the landlord’s little hellraiser of a son set your porch on fire. If you’re in a showing, keep your mouth shut about your reasons for moving unless they are a) job change, b) income change, c) roommate change, or d) “It’s just time to go.”
This may be the mental image your landlord gets when you say you work from home.
4. Working from home.
It’s definitely stepping into dangerous territory for a landlord to decline you for this in Chicago, but I’ve seen it happen before. Landlords budget for utility costs based on the building being mostly empty for at least 8 hours a day. They schedule their workers to visit the building when the fewest possible people are home so that the noise of construction and fumes from paint do not intrude.
Tenants who spend all day at home will use more water, more power, and more heat. If the landlord is paying for any of these items it will drive up costs. Not to mention that some landlords, especially those in owner occupied buildings, don’t want a nosy tenant hanging around all day anymore than you’d want a busybody landlord hovering over you 24/7. Lastly, some home-based businesses like day care and massage therapy may increase wear & tear on the building due to traffic from your patrons, or even require the landlord be subject to inspections and licensing laws.
Workaround: Say that you’re a freelancer, but not that you’re working from home. If you need an apartment with room for an office, say that you need it for “the few days a month” when you telecommute. Of course, if you’re going to be operating a business out of the apartment that will require inspection, high traffic in and out, loud noises or obvious public signage, make sure your landlord is aware of it up front. Much as with large or numerous pets, be ready to search long and hard for a cooperative landlord.
5. Owning a waterbed.
Not like many people do anymore. I’ve only had one lease fall through since 2005 over a waterbed, but the tenant was unwilling to let it go. Waterbeds are verboten for three reasons. They are heavy, the heaters put an enormous strain on electrical systems, and there is potential for massive damage if one of them bursts. Insurance policies for apartment buildings that actually cover waterbeds are few and far between, and very expensive.
Workaround: Leave the waterbed back in the 1980′s where it belongs.
6. Prior court actions.
Nothing says “damaged goods” like a tenant who’s previously been involved in a lawsuit. Landlords – especially those with more inventory and experience in the court system, understand that a tenant with a lot of courtroom experience is a tenant who will sue them gladly and show little to no fear of eviction. If you’ve survived a courtroom trial on either side you gain a certain sense of invincibility when it comes to the justice system. The worst that can happen to you probably has already occurred. If a landlord determines that you’re likely to be “litigious” you may have trouble getting a lease without having to sign a mediation agreement.
Workaround: Not much to do to work around this one. If you need to sue someone or wind up in court, you have to make that first priority over your future as a renter. Public records will make your courtroom history available in a background check. Fortunately most landlords will restrict their criminal search to those who have been convicted of crimes or evicted, so they rarely check if an applicant has sued as plaintiff. If you have been involved in a very prominent case, though, I’d recommend that you just stay put in your current apartment until you’re able to buy your own place.
7. Condition of your car.
Tenants, you are under as much scrutiny at an apartment showing as you are in a job interview. It doesn’t take a genius to deduct that a messy tenant will probably have a messy car and a messy home. A car that’s on the verge of collapse may make your landlord wonder how you’d get to work when it dies. A car that shows signs of major damage may lead them to think that you’d let damage to their apartment go unreported, or that you’d cause harm to their investment through carelessness.
Workaround: If your car is dirty or in bad shape, take the El or have your agent drive you to showings instead. Or, y’know, find a car wash? Maybe?
8. Out of State/International cosigners.
If you are on a lease with a guarantor or cosigner and stop paying your rent, the landlord has to serve everyone on the lease with the eviction papers. If the cosigner is unable to attend the eviction hearing the case may be thrown out. A contract involving an out-of-state or international cosigner suddenly involves the contract law of multiple jurisdictions and could wind up causing a lot of legal complications. If a landlord is requiring you to have a cosigner, it’s because she doesn’t think you’re going to be able to pay rent in full for the entire term of the lease. She already distrusts you and is anticipating problems with collecting payment. She will definitely be leery of cosigners who are too far away to easily summon to court as needed.
Workaround: If you know you’re likely to need a cosigner, make sure you’ve got someone who either lives in Illinois or, in the worst case, someone who lives in the upper midwest and could be in Chicago with 24 hours notice without getting on a plane.
This is one of the few times where the math majors may have it easy in comparison.
9. Being an art student or a law student.
This is another one that’s a pretty shaky reason for a Chicago landlord to decline you because of our source of income protections, but sometimes your choice of major can hurt your competitive advantage in a multi-bid situation. Not all majors are created equal. Some have persistent nagging stereotypes that go with them, and many of those stereotypes emerge from the natural hazards and proclivities that go with someone’s chosen course of study.
Art students have a hard time finding apartments because many of their predecessors have chosen to express their native creativity through use of a) black paint on the walls, b) loud music at bad times, or c) getting in touch with nature by smoking assorted plants.
On the other end of the spectrum are the law students. Guys, I know you’re in a phase of your life where every contract requires meticulous review. I know that your school environment requires you to proactively demonstrate that you’re smarter than everyone else in the room on a constant basis. I get it. You need to keep it separate from your interaction with your landlord. They are not competing with you to be editor of the Law Review and they’re using boilerplate leases anyhow. And even though you might not believe me, I promise that screwing over the tenant population is not the prime directive for most landlords.
Workaround: I wanted to say “pretend to be an econ major” but if you’re attending the Art Institute or Kent College of Law it’s kind of hard to pull that off. If you suspect you may be a stereotypical art student or law student as I described above, you may want to stick with student housing, find an inexperienced & naive landlord, or have a super low-key roommate do all the apartment scouting alone. Alternately, if you’re an atypical member of your class, make sure to play very hard against the stereotype at apartment showings. Art students, bring photos of your gorgeously designed and spotless current bedroom and avoid eating anything with oregano before the showing. Law students, be pleasant and don’t nitpick or try to intimidate the landlord. (This also extends to blog authors who are merely trying to be nice and warn you about the situation.)
Horse hooves may also raise some questions. (Foyer photo via Cococozy.com, MLP:FIM ponies are property of Hasbro.)
10. Choice of footwear.
Speaking from years of experience fielding calls from angry tenants, noise complaints are not always about loud music and parties. Just as many came in early in the morning from tenants who were furious over footsteps from spike heels or clunky boots. There’s nothing like clomping about at 6am to earn the love of your lower level neighbors. Not to mention that refinishing a hardwood floor is expensive, and there’s nothing better at destroying a floor than a sharp pair of Louboutins. If you show up at a showing in spike heels, I guarantee that landlord will have nightmares involving you carving up his brand new floor with your feet.
Workaround: Wear well-kept, clean and comfortable flats when apartment hunting. Make sure you choose footwear that you can remove and put on quickly, as you will have to do so for some showings.
This article was written by Kay Cleaves and originally published on strawstickstone