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How to Navigate Renting Your First Apartment: An Interview with Jane Belanger of Big House Rentals

By Jane Belanger

Tell us a little bit about your company and its foundation.

This year marks my 30th year as a University of Michigan Off-campus student housing landlord. Big House Rentals was named in honor of the house of my favorite college football team, the Michigan Wolverines. We call the UM Stadium, the "Big House". It also reflects the type of housing I have. I also have some larger multi-unit houses with apartments that house up to 15 people, along with houses which can house 4-6 people. My primary group of clients is students who attend the University of Michigan. All of my units are conveniently located for students who wish to live in off-campus housing with a short walk to classes. My goal is to provide quality and well maintained housing.

What are some of the services your company provides?

I provide a well maintained home close to campus, lawn care and grounds maintenance, snow removal (including providing on site shovel and salt for tenants use), fire extinguishers, maintenance of the property, and leasing. We can customize the lease to provide a variety of services including monthly cleaning, furniture, and vacation checks. We also have a 24/7 lock out service that tenants can call and be let in for a nominal fee.

Can I negotiate pricing with my potential landlord?

The properties are in high demand, so usually you cannot negotiate pricing. It's always worth asking. Usually, we have multiple people who are interested in our units. Pricing is a combination of things: utilities, mortgage and taxes, fire insurance, improvements and maintenance needed for each unit. So, often these are fixed expenses and there is not much wiggle room for negotiation.

What questions should I ask the existing tenants before putting down a deposit?

A current tenants' feedback is always useful. Definitely ask them why they like living there. Other useful information from existing tenants might be:

Is their landlord is easy to work with?
How timely are repairs completed once a request has been submitted?
How do you request a repair?
What are the maintenance people like who come to do the repairs?
What sorts of services does your landlord do that your friend's landlords did not do for them, like snow removal?
What comes with the unit?
Are utilities included?
What do you pay for utilities?
Can I have an AC unit?
What sorts of charge backs have you incurred for damages?
How are the windows?
Does the unit seem warm in the winter?
How is the heating system?
How are the appliances?
Is there a pest or rodent problem? Did it happen while you were there or did you move in and see a particular problem right away? How was this handled with your landlord?
What condition was the unit when you moved in? Was it clean? Did you accept the unit as is or was it promised to be cleaned but it wasn't?
Is there parking? How many spaces? How does this work if it is shared with a neighboring house? Does parking cost extra or is it included?
How is the water pressure?
Does the landlord keep up on city housing inspections?
What is the landlord's reputation on campus?
Other unique questions to student housing: Can you hang things on the walls? Can you paint the inside rooms? Can I have a grill or fire pit on site? Can I use an inflatable pool? Can we have parties here?
Is this a quiet neighborhood? Who lives in this neighborhood? Is it mostly students? Undergrads? A mix of families and students? Graduate students? Young adults, etc.

How important is it to get everything in writing? Can I ask that something be changed in the lease agreement?

It is important to put any changes or exceptions to the standard lease in writing. Many landlords are busy and many leases are written well in advance of move in. So, by getting things in writing, everyone has a record of what was promised. I go to my leases to plan what needs to be done for move in and to identify who needs what and what promises I have made. Leases are sometimes used to get financial support, loans and parking permits.

Usually, I do not make changes to my leases. My lease was written by an attorney who was once a tenant lawyer and he helped to write the Michigan Security Deposit law. He is now retired, but his lease is used by many landlords in Ann Arbor. The lease has also been approved by the University of Michigan off-campus housing office. Most of the concerns can be handled by talking through the lease and what each item on the lease is intended for. Sometimes, we add items to the lease or an addendum which clarify the terms of the lease.

I provide a copy of my lease for prospective tenants to read prior to signing the lease. I also go over the lease when we meet to sign the lease. I highly recommend that you review the lease and ask any needed questions prior to signing the lease.

Can I ask that aspects of the apartment be fixed before move-in?

Yes, you can always ask for repairs to be done. Every company handles this differently. There is a distinction also between repairs and improvements to a unit. Repairs are when you fix something existing and you want it restored to the working condition as you saw it when you leased the unit. Improvements are something that may be different than what was promised in the lease and also enhances the value of the unit. A landlord may agree to an improvement but may ask for more rent. A landlord needs to do repairs in a timely fashion. Sometimes it is difficult to do all repairs between each group of tenants as the time frames for move out and move in are sometimes short. We attempt to make repairs before each new group moves in, however, sometimes we don't find a needed repair until a resident reports it. We also ask our residents to notify us by email of any repair requests. It's important to work together with your landlord. Ask your landlord how do submit a repair request and what to expect for how soon repairs are usually completed.

OTHER HELPFUL HINTS:

Don't wait to report repairs until Friday at 4pm. Most repair contractors charge over time on weekends, so your end of the week request may not happen until weekday hours.

Report appliance repairs as soon as possible. Appliance repairs often require an assessment of the problem, followed by ordering a new part, then installing the new part or replacement of the machine.

You don't need to live with items in disrepair. Take the time to at least ask the question if the problem you are encountering is a simple fix or not.

Own up to damages, and don't be afraid to report a repair because you are afraid of a damage charge. Many items that need repair are normal wear and tear.

Do your part to take care of the house. Change burned out light bulbs, clean your baths and kitchens and other areas of the house, keep your garbage in containers and put it out for pick up so it doesn't cause rodent problems at the house. Be responsible about having guests over.

What are some of my rights as a tenant in Michigan?

Both tenants and landlords have rights. Your landlord is obligated to keep your home in good repair and in compliance with all housing codes. It is also important to remember that you have certain responsibilities as a tenant, roommate, and member of your community. There is a great booklet on this called the "Rights and Duties of Tenants". The Washtenaw Apartment Association (www.wa3hq.org) and the University of Michigan (www.offcampushousing.umich.edu) have websites which offer a wealth of information for tenants and resources for navigating your way through the rental process, along with search engines for finding housing. The City of Ann Arbor (www.a2gov.org) also has many resources for residents and housing information.

What are my options if I can't afford my rent one month?

If you have roommates, then you need to discuss this with them, particularly if you have a joint and several lease with them. You can talk to your landlord to see if you can make alternate arrangements from what is detailed in the lease. Be sure to ask if late fees will apply and what the fees are at the time you have this conversation. The fees are most likely outlined in your lease. You should assume that late fees will be applied if that is indicated in the lease. An exception may be granted by a landlord, but this should be done in writing, so that there is no discrepancy on your statement.

What are some safety standards every apartment should have?

Every unit should be equipped with working smoke detectors. First floor windows need to have a pin or vent lock on each window in addition to a working sash or other locking device. A deadbolt and chain lock is required on all entry doors. Also look for GFI (ground fault Interrupter) outlets by water sources like kitchen, bathroom sinks and laundry appliances. Stairways and fire escapes should be in good repair. The mechanicals should be in good working condition. There is a list of housing code requirements available on our city website. Tenants need also to be safety conscious and take care when storing flammables that they are not stored near gas appliances like the stove, furnace and water heater and they need to be careful that they do not create a safety or fire hazard, like blocking egress doors with personal belongings or putting chairs on fire escape landings.

What is the best way for people to get in contact with you or your company?

I can be reached at leasing@a2bhr.com or by text or calling at 734-223-9879. My website is www.bighouserentals.net.

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