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How to Sniff Out a Sneaky Landlord in Madison

If you’re a dorm-dweller chomping at the bit to move into your own apartment, you’re not alone. Thousands of first-time renters are about to begin the annual search for off-campus lodging, which is why we’re sending out this warning: Watch out for the sneaky landlord.

First of all, full disclaimer: This post, and the Smarter Renter blog, are produced by Steve Brown Apartments. Steve Brown has owned apartments in Madison, WI for over 30 years. He currently owns 55 properties that house nearly 4,000 people. He is a landlord. But you know what? He doesn’t consider himself a landlord.

You see, Steve started out his career here in Madison back in the 1970’s, working in consumer protection for the State of Wisconsin. His job: To combat the poor housing conditions that had bubbled up on the Madison scene. In other words, he had to police slumlords. “The (slumlord) approach back then was to raise rents and put up a management sign in front of place,” Steve has said. “The attitude was: ‘Who cares about the kids?’”

Obviously, the slumlords back then made quite an impression on Steve. He eventually decided to do the property owner thing right, and started buying rental properties. Thirty years later, he refuses to call himself a landlord. He’s an owner, and he’s charged his team with doing this rental thing right. That means helping you become a Smarter Renter. And that also means avoiding the bad landlords out there. Which is why, as renewal season is upon us and first-time renters are looking at apartments, we put together this post.

Part 1: Watch What They Say

Let’s start out with the five sneaky things a landlord says that are absolutely out of line. Thanks to the Tenant Resource Center for summing up many of these issues nicely in the Quick and Dirty Guide to renting:

1. As the landlord, I can access your apartment whenever I want. Uh, not so fast, Mr. Landlord. By law, a landlord must provide you with 24 hours notice (except in the event of an emergency or with 12 hours notice to show an apartment.) If it happens, feel free to call 224-4953 and file a complaint with Consumer Protection. What’s an emergency? A fire, a flood, a critter in your attic. The litmus test would obviously be anything where you want your landlord on the premises – and fast.

2. I’m going to terminate your lease – just like that. Huh? What? A landlord can’t just terminate your lease and kick you out of the apartment. (as an example, your landlord might try this if he or she has someone else waiting in the wings for the apartment.) The lease is a contract, and the landlord has to honor it for the duration.

3. This is a standard lease – there’s really no need to review it before you sign it. Well, the landlord is partially right. Most leases in Madison are relatively similar. But there are plenty of areas where a not-so-sly landlord can slip in some troubling clauses. For example, at the end of a lease, there is a section called the Non-Standard Provisions. This the area in which a landlord can write in basically any type of clauses he or she wants. They might include things like making snow removal your responsibility, or something along those lines.

4. I’m withholding your security deposit and you don’t have a say in the matter. An oldie but a goodie, and a very difficult one to battle if you’re a renter. Security deposits exist to protect landlords against any type of damage that occurs in apartments that exceeds normal wear and tear. Unfortunately, you will run into the occasional unscrupulous landlord who uses the security deposit to improve his or her personal finances. This is a touchy area, but you can make it a little less touchy but filling out your move-in checklist thoroughly. While you’re at it, why not whip out that smart phone and take some video documentation of any damages you spy upon move-in? This added little precaution could save you big-time down the road.

5. I don’t need to fix that – it’s not in the lease. What’s qualifies as something in need of repair? Let’s start out with the essentials: If you have no heat in the winter, water or electricity, your landlord needs to make a repair. Ask once, repeat once, and if you still don’t see any response, you can call the building inspector for Madison at 608-266-4551 There’s a big difference between cosmetic repairs and functional repairs, however. The big rub is if the building is in violation of a building code and there is a safety threat.

Part 2: Watch Out for What they Might Not Say

We strong advise you download this Consumer Facts from the Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection. It includes extensive details on Tenants’ Rights and Responsibilities, including many we’ve mentioned here. They’ve also produced A Guide for Landlords and Tenants. It includes some additional disclosures a landlord must make. These include:

Part 3: Watch Who You’re Dealing With

Ok, we’ve touched on a few items the unscrupulous landlord might throw your way. But what about the person you’re dealing with? Are there some litmus tests you should consider before you sign a lease? We’d recommend the following:

1. Check on complaints. Several agencies exist that can provide information to you on the nature and number of complaints a landlord has received. It’s up you to put into perspective the size of the rental agencies and the number of complaints they’ve received. For example, a rental agency with 600 units with 5 complaints should probably be rated higher than a landlord with 6 units and 3 complaints.

  1. Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection You can call the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (Toll Free Hotline: 1-800-422-7128) and inquire about a prospective landlord. The consumer protection agency can check their database, tell you how many complaints they’ve received, and describe the nature of the complaints. You can also file a complaint with the Department. They have consumer specialists who try to mediate the complaint on behalf of the consumer.
  2. Building Inspection – City of Madison This municipal department keeps track of complaints against landlords in regards to the building. You can visit their office and use their computer to type in the address of any property, and it will show you any complaints. The department is hoping to have this function available via the internet in the future. In the meantime, they’re located at: Madison Municipal Building, Suite LL 100 215 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Madison, WI 53703

2. Look into your landlord’s background. If you’re looking to rent from a larger company, generally you can find out compliants throught he resources listed above. But you may want to dig a little deeper, especially considering some of the rocky rides many landlords have been through since the recession of 2008.You may want to look into whether or not the landlord owns the property, if the property is headed towards foreclosure, and even if the owner has a criminal background.

As we noted before, you’d be hard-pressed to find a landlord that doesn’t have a complaint out there. We’ve been in the business for 30 years, and we know there’s always room for improvement. That’s why we try and keep the lines of communication open with our residents. Of course, there are going to be cases where what a renter wants isn’t practical or within the guidelines of the lease. That’s why the legal document exists.

But you should know who you’re dealing with, and be assured that they are someone you can count on for quality housing. Do your homework before you sign that lease. Steve Brown always wanted property owners to be ethical and treat their renters with respect. Make sure your owner adheres to those standards.

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