Telltale Signs of a Bad Rental Experience

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Renting “high end” or “luxury” doesn’t make one immune to living in buildings that aren’t well managed or  may be hazardous to your renter’s credentials.

I have a confession to make. Despite the polished veneer we put on our blog entries in late 2013-14 regarding our first rental experience in Minneapolis, what actually happened was more closer to a nightmare than most anywhere I’ve rented in my life.  No doubt, that is why my blog entries for UD became markedly fewer and far between.  A period of recovery was necessary after what occurred.

This all came as an extreme surprise after the 8 years of rental bliss we experienced in Lowertown,  with building staff who attended our wedding reception and slipped cards under our door for significant life events.   But our first 18 months living near downtown Minneapolis taught us that:

  • Renting “high end” or “luxury” doesn’t make one immune to living in buildings that aren’t well managed and, as in our case, may be hazardous to your renter’s credentials and cause you a high level of personal stress.  (In my case, the stress landed me overnight in Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s cardiac unit for observation last year.)
  • A positive high profile doesn’t always indicate what’s really happening in the building.  In our case, the building owner’s reputation appeared to be outstanding, and this person still receives positive coverage in local newspapers for his business and building projects.
  • If it feels strange, inappropriate or out of control in any way, it probably is.  Run, don’t walk, to the next building on your list.  No matter how much you like the neighborhood, the layout of the apartment or the closeness of the location to your office, it’s not going to end well.

Settled in a new rental home as of last June in a building that isn’t perfect, but also no longer feels crazy and micromanaged, John and I look back at the stress we lived in for 18 months, and realize that there were signs and red flags about this place that we should have heeded.   Below is a list of things we noticed about this building, and ignored.  We hope that you might benefit from our hindsight if you’re looking for a new rental home.

  1. Few rental staff, and lots of interns. The summer of 2013 when we first viewed the rental building, it was really difficult to find anyone who really knew what was going on.  This was because everyone we encountered was an “intern” and had not been properly educated in rental leasing procedure.  I’m not even certain if this is legal, but it probably didn’t matter to this group if you note what was occurring in #2.
  2. Staff with no rental management experience.  The really odd thing about our ordeal was that the staff, and general manager of this rental company in particular, were extremely proud of the fact that no one on staff had ever managed, or even worked in a rental building before.  In fact, the general manager shared with a couple we became close to in the building, that she had been the building owner’s wife’s doula for each of his children. “Do you think he hired the other leasing agents because they served him coffee once?” commented my neighbor.

    “The owner feels that this is a fresh approach to apartment management,” the general manager said to me a number of times over those 18 months, “we all have a new perspective about what running a rental home should be.” Yes, they were certainly correct about that.  Here are just a few example of how  this “fresh approach” worked.

    Residents were not told in advance when things were going to happen in the building, such as, we were given no warning about moving our cars out of the garage to facilitate cleaning.  When it was finally announced that the cleaning would be on Saturday, with a threat that unmoved cars would be towed, it was on a Thursday evening when some people had already left for the weekend.

    During the entire period of our rental, the staff (at the owner’s instruction, we were told) ignored federal laws by telling residents that “we aren’t enforcing disability parking here, so you can go ahead and use the handicap spot whenever you want.”  Even the owner did this, repeatedly and openly.  The staff also used our mailboxes, which are property of the US Postal Service, as a vehicle to deliver building promotional flyers, lease notices, small packages that were delivered by FedEx and other services,  to residents.

    The list of things that this staff and the owner did to us, and other tenants, during our time there that bent and broke fair housing and anti-discrimination laws are almost too numerous to name.  The foremost was marking ours, and the rental history records of at least 2 other tenants we knew of who were leaving the building, with a  “would not rent to them again” notice, without providing us/future landlords with any reason when asked. (A big legal “no, no” according to Minnesota HUD.)  Needless to say, if you are working with inexperienced rental leasing staff, I think there are far greater chances for things to be done unlawfully, even if you’re paying a premium price for that space.

  3. The owner’s name repeatedly into conversations about renter’s requests and needs.   One of the big bonuses of leaving this building was that I NEVER AGAIN HAVE TO HEAR ABOUT WHAT THE OWNER WANTS, THINKS OR FEELS and how this is supposed to be something I need to be concerned about.  The group of residents I knew in this building during that time used to have long discussions over wine about how useless it was to make any requests to staff, because they were only concerned about how the owner might feel about any decision they made.  We noted this throughout the leasing discussion, and had a sinking feeling that the building was being micromanaged, but loved the architecture so much we ignored it.  Bad move.
  4. They get important details wrong.  As we were preparing to sign our lease, we noticed that they didn’t seem to be tracking on key details like the agreed upon price for our rent.   We had to take the time to explain this to them and get the lease re-crafted, before signing.
  5. The lease is a novel-length list of reasons for not returning your deposit.  This is the first lease I have ever seen that stated that if there were any “scratches or dents” found in the apartment after we left, that a cost per each scratch or dent would come out of our deposit.  In fact, the list of potential damages that could diminish our deposit was long, ridiculously detailed and included a complete itemization of what each infraction of the rental infrastructure would cost us. They only way we could hope to get our deposit back would be by living somewhere else and keeping our furniture, and ourselves, out of the unit. (John used to joke that the owner should have built an autoclave, not an apartment building.) 

Sadly, there was more than just these five red flags, but I have to say I’m getting kind of depressed typing this.   We all want to believe that where we live will be a place that nurtures us, and, in apartment communities and condos particularly, allow us to contribute positively as members of a close-living community.  Hopefully this list shows you that there are ways to spot a situations that may not be in your best rental interest and to find a happier, healthier place to call home.

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Living With Less Together: the Fun Side of Sharing Your Urban Life

Macy's store in background with a Skyway connection and steps going up to it from Nicollet Mall. It is autum and the trees on the mall are turning. People are traveling on the mall.
Dark kitchen cabinents along a corner wall with stainless steel appliances. A breakfast bar is set for a meal in the foreground with orange counter stools. Hanging glass lights are over the bar.

Can less be more? A well-appointed compact kitchen in a unit at the Grain Belt Apartments.

When John and I moved to the edge of downtown Minneapolis in the fall of 2013, I was shocked at what we found there.  The area was fast becoming a ghost town, with retail stores shuttered and some of the mainstay restaurants we were familiar with, sitting empty.

Only eight years prior, I had been working in the center of downtown for a nonprofit, connected to the Minneapolis Public Works department, focused on helping downtown Minneapolis businesses thrive through behavior change methods related to multi-modal transportation options.  In short, it was my job to get employers excited about encouraging their employees to get to work in ways that didn’t involve driving a car into downtown alone: car/vanpooling, bicycle commuting, and taking transit.  My service was funded by a federal congestion mitigation grant, and was doing some important, effective work to limit ozone emissions.

My job took me through the downtown skyways and office towers several times each business day, for meetings, commuter fairs and other functions, while I served the needs of more than 250 employers with whom we had built relationships.  Avoiding the skyways during the noon hour, I learned that it was too congested to make it to my appointments on time. due to the elbow-to-elbow congestion. The retail stores were so prolific, and tempting, in those days. I set a weekly spending limit for myself to stay within my budget.

This downtown neighborhood had been even more robust when I was a child in the 60’s and ’70s, when my mother took me shopping in the “big city” from our nearby rural Wisconsin home. The street scene on the Mall was always busy and populated with business people in suits and shoppers like ourselves. Dayton’s (now Macy’s) was THE premiere store and there was almost a hushed, museum-like quality when we walked by the Oval Room or had lunch into the Oak Grill.

Walking down Nicollet Mall in November of 2013, thinking I would be walking back into the hustle and bustle of the holiday season I had seen in 2005, I was stunned to witness that downtown Minneapolis was beginning to look a lot like the vacant downtown St. Paul from which John and I had just moved.  Granted, we had come to accept that all neighborhoods change and that, at times, they don’t change into what works for you, so you move on.  But I was truly worried about the abandonment of what I had always found to be a vital and lovely urban center.

Feeling safe on Nicollet Mall quickly became a memory as I found myself dealing with panhandlers whose bold approach rivaled those I had encountered in other major cities.  Shouting matches and physical fights broke out around me so routinely on the Mall that I found it was easier to simply walk through the skyways to reach places like Target and Macy’s.

I was worried.  Had we made the right move here?  Giving up a car and moving into a smaller apartment to simplify our lives by being closer to more retail and public transit options?  The retail was fast disappearing. Frustration set in when Office Depot closed and I was back to ordering supplies for my office online.  Public transit was plentiful, but not as safe as it had felt when I last worked downtown.

When I heard of City of Minneapolis’ and Mayor Betsy Hodges’ ideas to transition downtown from an employment center into an urban neighborhood, I was excited.  Not only did the plan make sense to me from the standpoint that it would buoy our urban center, it posed an exciting prospect for individuals in a world where resources are shrinking.

The “land use” geek inside of me, fostered by the years I worked on transportation initiatives for the City of Minneapolis and

Roof top public area showing outdoor upholstered sofa in front of a fire pit. Downtown Minneapolis buildings are in the background.

Though we don’t live here (yet…) the Nic on 5th in the heart of downtown has some very cool shared amenities on their rooftop including fire pit and hot tub. Best part? We can spend our money on starting a mission-based business and get to use amenities like this because we’re willing to share!

Minnesota State DOT, fueled thoughts in my head about people finally “getting” the practical, and flat-out FUN value of living together in less space.  The idea of moving people closer together so that they can share resources more effectively isn’t a new one.  But it is one that can free people up to live less complicated, richer lives. Being a mother who raised a daughter as a single parent, and someone who has always sought jobs that had a higher “paycheck of the heart” than cash value, it had always been easy for me to see how each of us could have MORE by living with less and sharing what we have.

Urban living, in either apartments or condos, allow people to pay for less while having more. Smaller homes mean less furniture, lower utility bills and less to keep clean. Building amenities, like the patio with gas grills and fire pit, fitness center and well-appointed community room and kitchen, which John and I share with our neighbors at the Grain Belt, give us access to luxuries we may not have be able to afford on our own. (HINT: apartment living gives you the freedom to try out new buildings and areas too!)

Perhaps what I love most about this kind of urban living is what occurs when you share space and resources with your neighbors.  We’ve met so many people of ages and backgrounds very different from our own, over the BBQ grill, in the elevators or taking in the Tour de France via the TV in the community room, in the buildings we’ve lived in.  Friendships have been formed and our lives have been fuller, and more fun, as a result.  So much so, it’s hard for me to even entertain going back to living in a single family home.

Living without a car took some getting used to, but we find it’s easier to share short-term use SmartCars with our neighbors and take advantage of free parking on the city’s streets. (See Car2Go Twin Cities.)  We also love the fact that we get to drive premium vehicles we don’t have to worry about maintaining, for out-of-town trips, visiting relatives or just seeing fall colors. (See HourCar.) AND we love supporting mass transit by taking the bus or the train, making it possible for others who can’t afford cars to get around, who those who chose to bolster our environment or simply want to spend their money in other ways. (See Metro Transit.)

Our suburban friends say they don’t get it.  “How could you live that close to other people?”  “Where do you put all of your stuff?” or “I need to know I can jump in my car and go where I want when I want!” is what we often hear from them.  Then, quietly, when none of our other suburban friends are in earshot, they’ll say, “Your apartment looks awesome and you seem so happy.  I would LOVE to unload the house and all the junk we’re hanging on to and do what you did!”

It’s not rocket science: when you have less stuff to store, keep up and pay for, life gets simpler.  John and I made this choice partly because being single parents positioned us to be good at it before we met, and partly because we saw the value to continue in that direction with our life choices as a married couple.

Everyone’s needs are different, and so their choices must be too.  But doing it together with less, can be easier and more fun.  Just say ‘n.

The North Loop Move: Our Transition to a Simpler Life

A lap top computer open on a table in a community living room.
A lap top computer open on a table in a community living room.

Lynn’s  new virtual office in the Solhavn Living Room.

Six weeks has passed since John and I loaded up our remaining downsized possessions, left our beloved Lowertown apartment in the Cosmopolitan and migrated to Solhavn, a new residential building located in the emerging Minneapolis North Loop neighborhood.  Exciting, adventurous, exhausting and scary, we’ve learned a few things by making the transition to a simpler, more streamlined existence.

1. It’s easier to see what matters. As our sporty Mazda 3 rolled away and the leather sofa was carted off, what remained were the positive impressions of the people we had sold them to and the fact that we had each other.  No matter how difficult we thought it might have felt to let go of our “stuff” we realized that waking up together was the most important thing.

2. Life is easier with less.  Coming from good German stock, and having the subsequent “everything-must-be-spotless gene” in spades, owning less furniture (we purged 13 pieces) means that I have less dusting to torment myself over each weekend.  Our home is furnished with comfortable essentials, minus the fussy surfaces that really didn’t serve us well and soaked up precious time in upkeep.  There are also far less under utilized sporting goods, clothing and housewares to store, dialing down the “my stuff/your junk” tension in our marriage.

3. Living close to work and interests and having good telecommute options, enhances daily life immeasurably. Traveling less between work, hobbies and home has made the stress level go down significantly in both our lives.  Even without  car ownership, I have a number of options available to me to travel the less than one mile to my company’s new office. On some of the dangerously cold days this winter, it’s been easy to set up my virtual office in the Solhavn living room.  John walks to the downtown studios to record commercials and we both hop the city bus with our skis in tow to take a quick 10 minute ride to the Wirth Park Chalet.  When summer arrives, our options will only increase with the Cedar Lake Bike Trail and Mississippi River Parkway at our doorstep and three Farmer’s Markets at which to shop.

4. People think we’re cool. One of the unexpected boons of downsizing, going carless and moving into a building and neighborhood that supports green living is that a number of people, from our friends and acquaintances, to my daughter and future son-in-law,  fawn over our choices.  Our building’s general manager shared with me last week that she told her mom the story  about our downsizing move to the building with the hope of inspiring her to do something similar.  Liv and her betrothed, both confirmed carless Chicago urbanites, revel in the idea of having less in order to live in a new building with cool, eco-amenities. They quiz us about our carsharing options and the building’s composting system when they visit.  All these kudos have us feeling like rock-star level urban hippies! (And we’re liking it!)

5. Doing something different is fun and inspiring!  Without a doubt, moving is an extremely stressful process.  But to John and I,  living a life devoid of adventure would be worse. Though we’ve only moved across town, the North Loop feels like a

A man and woman seated at a counter smiling.

Our first weekend in the North Loop we made friends at the counter of Mill City Cafe over Sunday brunch.

totally different planet than our old neighborhood.  People dress different, have different hobbies and interests (there are many more like-minded athletes in our new building) making the new friendships we’re forging interesting and exciting.  We’ve been so inspired by the change that we’ve volunteered to start a Yoga Club and an Urban Gardening Club in our residential building!

Change is hard, but has its rewards. Let the new adventure begin!