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.


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!

The Black Dog Coffee House: What We’ll Miss Most About Lowertown

Photo of Sara Remke, Black Dog owner.

Without a doubt, Sara’s smile and warm welcome will be missed when we move to the North Loop next week.

With only a week remaining until our move on the Urban Deluxe countdown calendar, the last pieces of sale furniture making their way to new homes, donation-making and packing in its last stages, John and I are taking a last look around our Lowertown St. Paul neighborhood to say our goodbyes.  One of the most difficult parts of our life to let go of will be our second home at the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar.  Nestled on what was once an obscure backstreet, but will soon contain the maintenance hub of the Central Corridor Light Rail system, the Black Dog has been where we have met friends, listened to great music, enjoyed a constant rotation of innovative and local art as well as gotten to know friendly baristas and proprietress, Sarah  Remke.

After leaving a secure job to dive into start-up, mission-based entrepreneurship, the Black Dog was my office. Sarah and her crew know the story of how I started my company, and all about my staff, many of whom live with disabilities.  They have supported and encouraged my work, evening donating gift cards to our first company picnic.  They have become a part of the story of our life here in many ways and it will be an adjustment not to have them be a part of our daily routine.

John and my weekly Sunday ritual of attending meditation and the dharma talk at the Clouds in Water Zen Center, then migrating down the hall for a leisurely dark roast (for me) and triple shot espresso (for John) at the Black Dog, will be over after this weekend.  It is with tears in my eyes that I think of that and write this blog entry.

What can make a place that special in the hearts and minds of a neighborhood? That could be difficult to say, but I’ve got to try.

First, we’re certain that the Black Dog has, hands down, the best coffee in the city.  They’ve got an amazing cup of standard brew and unparalleled espresso.  This has been perfect for us as a couple because both of our signature drinks are covered.

Colored sketch of musicians with instruments playing on the Black Dog stage.

An artist’s view of the Black Dog, where great music, wonderful art and friends always greet you.

My daughter, Liv, is a formally trained barista in Chicago where her place of employment sent her to a “coffee college” to learn how to roast beans and create what she calls “real” coffee beverages. (Timed-frothing and all the technical trimmings.)  “There are very few coffee houses I’ve been to where I feel that they probably know more about making good coffee than I and my coworkers do,” Liv said just last month when she was visiting us, “and one of those is the Black Dog.”

Second, local art and music abounds here; that kind of atmosphere takes you out of yourself and calls you to be something better every time you’re around it.  Part of the reason we moved to Lowertown was to support the arts community and immerse ourselves in it.  However, I don’t think we’ve always understood how much being around local art and music has prompted us to discuss and think about things we might have otherwise ignored in the world around us. That experience has made us grow as people and happens every time we walk through the Black Dog’s door.

Third is that the Black Dog truly is the place where everyone knows your name, or at least acknowledges that you are part of the community.  There are neighbors we only interact with at the Black Dog, many of whom we never exchange names with, but whom we greet weekly and speak with often.   That type of feeling is something you can’t force or manufacture; it comes from an atmosphere where people are welcomed and respected.  Whether the day has been bad, or good, the Black Dog is a place you can go to relax and, with the nod of a head from a neighbor or barista, know you’re accepted.

Lap top computer open on a table with a cup of coffee next to it.

A view from my Black Dog virtual office, stationed at  a familiar table near the window.

Fourth is that the Lowertown artist community holds court at the Black Dog every day of the week.  To those of us who work jobs that are far less creative and live lifestyles not quite as avant-garde, you value being able to eaves drop on stimulating conversations about who sold one of their pieces and who just got an exhibit somewhere. I’ll admit it. I live vicariously through these folks when managing staff  issues and trying to pay the bills for a struggling little startup seems overwhelming.  Drifting away on their conversation, I can imagine myself living in the Tilsner, throwing a pot on a wheel or boldly placing paint strokes on a canvas while preparing for the next Art Crawl.

There will be no replacing the Black Dog Cafe in our new neighborhood, but we look forward to keeping the people, and the coffee, we’ve enjoyed in Lowertown deep in our memories into the future.  We also gently remind ourselves that, despite that fact that we are now carless, the rail line just outside the Black Dog’s door will connect our new Minneapolis North Loop home to Sarah, the baristas and the coffee in just a few short months.

Downsizing the Final Chapter: Going Carless

John seated in the Mazada 3 passenger side, with Diana in the driver's seat.

John riding back from the bank with Diana, the really cool person who bought our Mazda 3 last Saturday.

As the Urban Deluxe blog page count down calendar ticks away with less than a month remaining until our migration from Lowertown to the North Loop, we realized that it was time to engage in the ultimate act of downsizing: selling our car.  Our beloved Mazda 3 was something we had purchased a few months prior to our wedding two and a half years ago and, in many ways, it felt like a part of our family.  With John’s cool Thule rack fitted to the roof, it had whisked us off on a romantic ski honeymoon to the kettle moraine’s of southern Wisconsin and on many other trips and adventures.

Daily life was also going to be vastly different.   The transition was less pronounced for me, given the years prior to our marriage that I lived with transit and car sharing as my primary means of transportation. However, with John’s agent’s office, Moore Create Talent,  located on the west edge of Uptown, and the studios he often works with, like Audio Ruckus, being located in downtown Minneapolis, getting to voice auditions and recording sessions was going to be a new experience for him.  But, with carsharing stations near our home in downtown St. Paul and additional options, like Car2Go, now available in the North Loop, we knew that we’d still have the option to use a car for errands difficult to execute on foot or by bike now, and after our move.

John valiantly posted the car on Craig’s List and we waited for inquiries.  It took only a week before received a solid “bite” and, within two, the car’s new owner, Diana, was driving us back from signing papers at our neighborhood credit union and dropping us off at our door, on her way back to her home in Rochester.  A little stunned by how quickly we had been able to divest ourselves of our only vehicle, we watched our beautiful black Mazda drive into the sunset.  “We need to get groceries this weekend,” John commented when got back upstairs to our apartment, so we reserved the local HourCar for our trip to Mississippi Market for later that afternoon.

The morning following our first carless shopping trip, John looked up from his espresso and said, “I feel lighter this morning.”   What do you mean, I queried, “I just mean it’s so nice to not have to think about taking care of that car.  We don’t have to think about gas, insurance or getting the snow tires on.  It’s amazing how much mental energy that takes.”

Our first official carless trip to the grocery store had gone smoothly and before long the week progressed and we found ourselves running a number of errands on the bus as well.  Planning our transportation had become a little more involved, but John was

John driving a car.

John driving the HourCar Toyota Prius on our inaugural “carless” trip to Mississippi Market.

especially surprised by how relaxed he felt at the end of our first carless week.

Then we began finding research about the subject. Citing an article John had located in the Huffington Post, we talked about how studies are beginning to show that people can improve their well-being when they exchange their cars for biking, walking and transit, simply because they’re not sitting in traffic anymore. (The absence of the stress caused by the inconsistencies we encounter in traffic situations, is offered as one potential explanation.)

“I just felt happy today,” John explained to me over dinner this evening.  “Even when I was riding on the bus with people I wasn’t necessarily comfortable around, I was more relaxed.”  When I inquired as to why that might be he paused, and then answered, “I think it’s because I didn’t have to face the traffic on 6th Street trying to get on the to highway.  I just got on the bus, turned on my IPod, listened to Stevie Ray Vaughn and relaxed until I got to my appointment.”

When you take into account that these words came from a man who has been a car owner his entire adult life, and is also an avid car buff–one who can give you make, model and year of any classic car by spotting the flash of a tail light in the dark–you can begin to comprehend the power of what going carless can mean.  Though our decision to go carless was a necessary step we needed to take  to sustain my ability to keep working in a mission-based startup business, it’s incredible to see how much both of our lives have already been enriched by letting go of our car, in just one week’s time.

Solhavn’s Open and Snowmen are Welcome!

High-top tables and stools with artistic looking lamps over them in the Solhavn Brew Pub.

The new Brew Pub at Solhavn where we look forward to meeting our new friends and neighbors.

Last week, John and I were given the opportunity to meet our new neighbors and explore our future home at Solhavn’s grand opening party.  The building was filled with new tenants, well-wishers, potential residents and live jazz music.  We wandered the premises marveling at the elegant appointments and well-equipped public spaces that will soon be part of our home.

One the added bonuses we’ve been enjoying is meeting some of our new neighbors via our blog! Getting to know people in the Urban Deluxe neighborhood prior to the move has really ramped up the anticipation level.  It’s great that people are reaching out to us and we’re visualizing some great chats with them in front of the fire in the lobby’s Living Room or in the Brew Pub in just a few short weeks.

One of the attractions Solhavn had for us is a carefully outfitted fitness center

John and Stephanie standing in our new kitchen.

John with our building’s new general manager, Stephanie, showing off our new kitchen.

(Precore machines! Yes!) and a lovely yoga room. Being part of a building that has a well-built social aspect to its resident web portal means that we’ve been able to post a “club” notice and are already getting positive feedback about creating a resident yoga group within the building.

But I have to say that the best part of our experience of preparing for our move to Solhavn has been the great interaction we continue to have with the building staff.  Shortly after we entered the celebration, Stephanie, our building’s new general manager asked us if she could show us our new apartment.  “I’d be honored if you’d let me be the one to show you,” she said.

Standing on our new balcony I told  Stephanie about the lighted snowman my daughter and I called “Frosty.”  We  had put Frosty on display outside of our home for every holiday season since she was very  young.  The year we moved into our apartment in downtown St. Paul, we had even used him as a lamp when we had little furniture. My daughter had begged me to take Frosty with us to Solhavn “for just one more year” when I explained I didn’t think we’d have the space to store him.  Stephanie exclaimed upon hearing this, “Of course, you’ve got to bring Frosty and put him on your balcony!”

At that moment, I knew we had selected the right home.  Even snowmen are welcome here!

Frosty will be welcomed at Solhavn, along with all of our other memories.

Frosty will be welcomed at Solhavn, along with all of our other memories.

Downsizing Part Two: A DIY Guide for Saying Goodbye and Moving Small Items

Wall hooks with a leather coat and two handbags.

Our sale was casual but effective:           using our hallway coat hooks to display coats and handbags.

Going on month two of our downsizing efforts, John and I are discovering a number of ways in which we can divest ourselves of our belongings.  Craig’s List and our building’s bulletin board served to empty our apartment of a number of key furniture pieces such as our leather sofa,  two dressers John owned and my dinning room set.  But, after diving head first into the storage compartments outside of our apartment last weekend (don’t ask how many) we realized we had a number of smaller items that could probably be moved along to our fellow residents via tag sale.

Being in the same building for 7 years means that you accumulate a few things, memories being the chief among them, so we took the time and effort to invite the entire building to a combination “Goodbye Open House/Tag Sale,” which was executed yesterday morning.  Due to some careful planning and well-timed promotion, it was highly successful.  We were able to share coffee and conversation with a number of our neighbors, and the apartment was emptier, and our pockets fuller, at its conclusion.

Running a start-up company that is developing a strong social media presence gave me some insight into how to market our little event to the building, the neighborhood and friends.  Even a few soon-to-be-downsizers stopped by to see how we were structuring our sale, so we thought we’d share how we did it and what we felt made it work so well.

  1. Include an “Open House” in your Tag Sale: Our neighbors, those we knew well and those we were only “head nod” acquainted with, meant something to us.  We had lived with each of them for part, or all, of the seven years we had been in the building.  We felt it was important to invite them into our home, offer them some quality coffee (purchased from the Black Dog, our neighborhood coffee house) and thank them for being part of our lives.  Acknowledging neighbors is an important part of any community, whether you’re entering or leaving it.  All of our posters and invitations to our event made it clear that people could stop by to chat, even if they weren’t interested in shopping.
  2. Allow Two-Weeks for Promotion:  Heard the phrase that buying  12 place-settings of china is too many and 8 is too few?  Any more than two weeks of promotion for an event that will be primarily attended by your neighbors, is too far out on the calendar for them to remember.  Any less, then they may have already made weekend plans.  We banked on people having short-term memories and planted the seeds just two week prior.  We felt it was a time span that was pretty easy to keep top-of-mind but yet might also enable people to plan a bit.
  3. Use Your Building or Neighborhood’s Social Media Pages: Our building and neighborhood associations and clubs have Facebook pages that many of our  building’s residents, and individuals living in the neighborhood, are hooked up to.  We implemented a lead-up campaign for our Open House/Tag Sale by posting an initial announcement on these pages, with our photo attached, leaning more heavily on the “open house” aspect rather than the “come buy our stuff” part.  We included information about day, time and refreshments in that initial post.Then, each time we referenced the sale in our personal Facebook page posts, we linked the post back to these pages either by mentioning them in the post, or posting directly on the page.  Also, in the few days prior, and during the sale, we posted photos and descriptors of specific items we knew residents might be interested in.  For example, we have a number of athletes in our neighborhood, so we did a few posts with pictures of our skis, running and biking gear.  It was really effective at pulling these people to our sale.
  4. Use Your Building or Area Business’ Bulletin Boards: This sounds like a no-brainer and it is, but you also need to keep the bulletin
    People looking through items at John and Lynn's tag sale.

    One of our neighbors chats with John while another prepares to take home our chess set.  In the back are some friends who stopped to take advantage of cycling wear, bike parts and a coffee maker we had on the sale.

    board posts fresh.  We put up a flyer in our building’s mail room at the two-week mark, the same day the Facebook announcement went up, and then put up “this weekend” and “tomorrow” flyers to draw fresh attention to the board.  Remember, you’re not the only one using it and if you don’t monitor it, your flyers will likely get covered up or taking down during that two week time period.

  5. Invite Everyone Personally: Of all the things we did to promote our Open House/Tag Sale, the thing we heard from our guests as being the most effective and appreciated, was the personal invitation everyone in our building received.  “It was so nice of you to invite the whole building,”  many of our neighbors told us.Our building has 250 units, so while it wasn’t possible for us to get personal invitations delivered to every door, we did print out small, quarter page invites and got them to about half of the building the night prior to the event.  Simple notes that said, “Thank you for being our neighbor for all or part of the 7 great years we’ve lived here,” and invited them to have coffee with us between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. the next day.  No sales push.  Just a thank you invitation.  To cover the remainder of the building, we posted a flyer-version of the “thank you/coffee” invite at each elevator bank, just above the buttons, early the morning of our open house.
  6. Post Signs to Help Them Find You: Depending on the building or neighborhood you live in, you may or may not need this, but we felt it was essential to post good “arrow” signs at the elevator and down the corridor  to direct people down our cavernous hallway.  We also posted a “door entry” flyer above the security phone in our lobby’s entry way to enable neighbors from outside the building to contact us to be admitted.

Keeping the day fun, personal and focused on connecting with our neighbors furnished us with a great opportunity to say goodbye to some great people while we watched them take home things we knew they would enjoy as much as we did.  We recommend this approach to anyone who is downsizing!

Autumnal Goodbye to Lowertown Landing

Sunny skies over the Queen of the Mississippi riverboard; viewing it's paddlewheel from the back.

Autumn, and the Queen of the Mississippi, arrive at Lowertown Landing.

Autumn seemed to be calling us this morning,  coaxing us to put off sifting through our storage to prepare for a tag sale/farewell open house John and I are planning for next weekend.  So we donned warm coats, hats, running shoes and answered the summons of the sunshine, and the season, by taking a walk down the riverfront path along Shepherd Road.

Trees touched with the breath of autumn greeted us in modest hues of gold and red.

One of the treats of Lowertown life has been the surprises the riverfront can yield on a morning stroll.  Today did not disappoint.  The majesty of the Queen of the Mississippi riverboat, taking on a load of travelers, also awaited us at the end of Sibley Street.

Enjoy the images we captured, on one of our dwindling weekend mornings in this lovely place we’ve called home, Lowertown Landing.

The side of the Queen of the Mississippi showing it's staterooms.St. Paul riverfront pedestrian path with trees turning to gold.

The front of the Queen of the Mississippi