Tag Archives: responsibility

Talking Trash

Chicago garbage pickup (or “scavenger service” as we Realtor wonks like to call it) is a bigger deal than you’d think for landlords. It tends to get overlooked by newer landlords, and even the experienced ones don’t like to spend too much time dwelling on the topic of handling other people’s junk. However, there are some laws to keep in mind and best practices to follow when it comes to dealing with your tenants’ trash. Today I’ll be reviewing the basics for you.

Trash pickup is also called "scavenger service." This little guy is also a scavenger, but of a different kind.

Trash pickup is also called “scavenger service.” This little guy is also a scavenger, but of a different kind.

First off, the city sanitation ordinance can be found here. Additionally, the recycling regulations can be found here.  Regardless of the size of your building I’d recommend that you give it a glance. Violations are penalized with tickets from the police.

Who Pays for Trash Pickups in Chicago?

If your building has four units or fewer, the city will pick up your trash as if it was a single family home. You pay for this service through your property taxes and sales tax. This also goes for individually rented condos in buildings with up to four units.

If the building has more than four units, you will have to hire a private hauler to collect your tenants’ trash. There are several private haulers that work the Chicago grid – most are Teamsters. Larger condo developments will also have to hire private haulers – this is paid for out of the owners’ assessments.

The most common private haulers that I see around here are Waste Management, Lakeshore Recycling, Groot, Allied/Republic, Flood Brothers and Veolia.

Either way, tenants in Chicago expect landlords to pay for scavenger service.

How Much Trash Is There?

The trash carts supplied by the city for small buildings hold 96 gallons of waste, or a little less than half a cubic yard. Based on my observations, a family of three will fill approximately one of those carts per week with regular trash, and another one every two weeks with recyclable trash. (If you have a bunch of dirty hippies living in your building it may be the other way around.) The last week of the month in moving season will see far more trash, as will the holiday season.

If you’re buying an apartment building, the prior owner will probably have trash containers out back that you can use to gauge how many you’ll need once you take over the reins. It’s possible that the trash contract may be passed over to you at closing. It’s a good idea to check out how the trash looks on the last day of a month to gauge if more containers are needed. Overflowing dumpsters lead to tickets – it’s always better to err on the side of too much space and downsize later if it isn’t needed.

It’s important to communicate with your tenants regarding how they handle trash if you want to keep the ticket brigade at bay. Make sure that tenants know to bag their trash and secure the bags firmly. Make sure they know that trash needs to be removed from the building regularly, not left to pile up inside their apartments. Take time to inform them about which materials are considered to be hazardous – this includes batteries, toner cartridges, paint and lighter fluid. If you allow cats in your building, make sure your tenants dispose of the cat litter with the trash instead of flushing it.

Also make sure that they notify you if the dumpster is too full. It’s better to head over and pack down the trash or schedule an additional pickup than to incur a $200 fine because a nosy neighbor got annoyed and called 311 on you.

What About Recycling?

According to city ordinance, renters must have recycling options made available to them, even if you’re in a small building in an area without blue cart service. The recycling method you provide must allow for separation of recyclables at your building. You also need to make an effort to educate your renters on what items to separate. Unfortunately for the planet, the recycling ordinance is pretty toothless and rarely enforced. However, it’s important to remember that the tenant pool tends to consist of younger residents with very eco-conscious leanings. A visible recycling program is not only good for staying on the good side of the law, but it’s also a great marketing tool.

Blue recycling carts in their natural habitat. (Photo by Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader)

Blue recycling carts in their natural habitat. (Photo by Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader)

Most private haulers will offer specifically marked recycling-only dumpsters. If you’re hiring regular dumpsters make sure you also provide a separate container for recyclable items.

How about Big Stuff?

Sometimes your tenants will need to discard larger items. Without proper preparation, this can lead to a big mess in your alley. Furniture left outside of dumpsters can lead to broken glass littered across the alley, thieves picking over the items, and the general enmity of your neighbors. Mattresses left lying out are a sign of a bedbug infestation, which can cause panic among your other tenants even if no problem actually exists.

Therefore it’s important to communicate to your tenants in the lease and explicitly in conversation that large items need to be placed in the dumpster. If they have something that’s too big to fit, they need to warn you immediately so that you can schedule an extra pickup with the city or with your private hauler.

Similarly, if you’re planning on doing any renovation work or clearing out an apartment formerly occupied by a hoarder, you may need to hire an extra dumpster on your own even if the city provides pickup. These types of projects create far more trash than your standard equipment will be able to contain.

By the way, if you do schedule a last minute extra pickup with a private hauler, be prepared to pay them in cash with a nice tip for going out of their way for you. Even if you have a contract for regular service, these kind of trips are above and beyond a trash hauler’s normal duties.

What About Shops and Restaurants?

If you’ve got a mixed use building, you’ll probably wind up with a few retail shops or restaurants renting from you in the commercial spaces. Unlike residential renters, most commercial tenants in Chicago are expected to pay for their own scavenger service (along with all the other utilities). Sometimes a very small office can piggyback onto your dumpsters, but any business that requires a sanitation license will probably be required to demonstrate that they’re in charge of their own trash collection.

This is about as close as you ever want to get to a grease dumpster. (Photo by TrashMonkey29 on Flickr.)

This is about as close as you ever want to get to a grease dumpster. (Photo by TrashMonkey29 on Flickr.)

If you’ve got restaurants, doctor’s offices, hair salons, catering businesses, childcare facilities or anything that generates a lot of icky trash, you’ll want to ensure that you leave enough space in the rear of your building for each business to provide their own dumpsters. Restaurants in particular may need space not only for a regular dumpster and a recycling container but also a grease dumpster.

Grease dumpsters require their own special precautions – while they’re designed to contain liquid waste, it’s easy to spill when you’re pouring hot grease in the dark. Hosing down the ground around a grease dumpster is actually illegal. You’ll need to make sure the ground nearby is fully cleaned with detergent to keep rats away and make sure the alley doesn’t become a skid hazard for passing cars.

What if There’s No Alley Access?

In order for trash to be collected, it needs to be accessible. For most buildings in Chicago this is an easy task. Dumpsters live in the alley, trucks pick them up there. No fuss, no muss. However, there are a few locations in the city where alleys do not exist, or if they do, there is no way to get to them from the house without a very long walk.

Before you purchase a rental property you need to consider how trash pickup is handled. If there is no way for you to leave trash containers in a place where both tenants and trucks can access them, you will need to make plans to haul the trash out to the street for pickup on a regular basis. Unless you’ve got a good crew of workmen on hand or plan to live on site, I guarantee that this will get old really fast. In theory you could offer a barter deal to a reliable tenant to haul the dumpsters out on trash day, but you’ll still want to follow up regularly to make sure they’re actually holding up their end of the bargain. This is probably not a situation that you will be able to resolve on your own, either. You can’t just go adding alleys on your block.

Should I Chain My Dumpsters?

Yes. Illegal dumping – that’s when other people put their trash in your containers – is a “three strikes and you’re out” offense in Chicago. The first two times you get a ticket, the third time is a felony with jail time. Building contractors in particular are notorious for dumping their construction debris in any nearby unsecured container. Make sure it isn’t yours.

Additionally, dumpster diving is not just for thrift shop loving hipsters anymore. Identity thieves have a field day rummaging through tenants’ discarded papers. Grease theft from grease dumpsters is also common, since grease is used to make biodiesel and can therefore be resold at a high price. (Most grease dumpsters are designed to have higher security than your normal dumpster for just that reason.)

However, before you go chaining up your trash containers make sure you’ve considered the tenant training you’ll have to do to make this kind of precaution successful. Tenants will need to have keys to the chains’ padlocks. They will also need to be instructed to re-secure the dumpsters after depositing their trash. Your success rate will depend a lot on how well you convince your tenants of the necessity. Better pest control and protection against identity theft should be your two biggest talking points on that front.

Private Hauler Gotchas

Long Term contracts. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could sign your renters to a five or ten year lease that allowed you to raise their rents arbitrarily at any point? Well, private trash haulers do exactly that. And they generally require four to six months advance notice to get you out of the contract. Make sure you negotiate heavily before you select a hauling company.

Graffiti. You’d think that for the cost of service, the haulers would regularly swap out dumpsters that get tagged, right? Unfortunately this is not the case, and the taggers know it. Dumpsters are one of the most popular locations for graffiti, since landlords assume that the haulers will clean them and vice versa. If your building’s dumpsters are located close to the street or an alley intersection they will be particularly likely targets for tagging. Make sure that you keep some paint on hand to cover any tags.


 

Next week I’ll be doing a three part series on the quality of building materials. (Trust me, it will be more interesting than it sounds!) See you then!

The First 10 Things You Should Do After Closing

So you’re about to close on your first house. Congratulations! You’ve come a long way and it’s probably been a big hassle to get here. Saving money, filling out paperwork, viewing house after house… now that it’s over, what’s next?

There’s bound to be a lot of silliness that comes with getting your first house. You can dance around in your new empty living room and call up all your friends for a housewarming party, but there’s a few very important things you’ll want to take care of before you pop the cork on that champagne.

Make Copies of your Closing Documents. If you’re a first time buyer, the documents handed to you at closing are probably the most expensive pieces of paper that you have ever encountered in your life. The first stop you make after closing should be your local copy shop. While all the documents are still together and in order, take at least one copy of everything.

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Celebrity Tenants

Between my current career as a Realtor and my prior career as a stage manager, I’ve been lucky enough to deal with several celebrities during my time in Chicago. Like anyone else, they have to live somewhere too. As a landlord, it’s very possible in Chicago that you’ll be contacted by a celebrity (or a member of their entourage) who is interested in renting your apartment. Here are some do’s and don’ts for dealing with the celebrity renter.

Don't get so starstruck by a famous tenant that you lose your business sense.

Don’t get so starstruck by a famous tenant that you lose your business sense.

Do: Remember that “famous” is very relative.

It might be a professional sports player, a celebrity chef, or a movie star. It could also be a local news anchor, car dealership owner, or even your child’s school principal. Or it could be someone you’ve never heard of, like the bass player from an 80’s hair band or a voice actress from one of your kids’ favorite cartoons. It could even be the author of your favorite real estate advice blog. :) (more…)

Dear Piggy: Help! My new apartment isn’t ready!

pig writing

I was recently contacted by a renter who had lined up an apartment for March 5, or so he thought. On March 1, his new landlord contacted him with a sad confession: they had misinterpreted when the outbound tenant was leaving. His new apartment would not be ready until April 1. He wanted to know his options. This is a situation that occurs more often than you’d think in Chicago. It may not be a 27 day gap like this poor fellow encountered, but a whole lot of renters face at least an overnight gap between when they have to be out of one place and when they can get access to the next.

Not every delay is caused by clerical errors, like the one faced by the poor fellow above. You probably want your new apartment to be clean and fresh for you when you move in. Doing so takes a lot of work, and few large-scale landlords have enough staff members to get every apartment turned over in less than 24 hours as it is. If you want your apartment to be in good shape, you really do need to allow enough time for turnover in between tenants.

Some tenants get unreasonably angry about such delays… and then unreasonably angry all over again when their new apartment isn’t spotless. They wouldn’t fault a fancy restaurant for a little delay while the staff turns over the tables. They generally accept a hotel’s check-in and check-out times if it means that the bedsheets get changed. But when it comes to apartments? The minute a landlord is tardy with the keys, tenants are off to rant about it on Yelp.

Regardless of how you react to the situation emotionally, though, there are five basic routes you can take from a practical standpoint to resolve the issue. If you’re facing a similar situation, here they are, roughly sorted from worst to best.

Break the Lease and Find Another Apartment. (more…)

Cook Eviction Stats Part 9: The Cost of Doing Business

Evictions in Cook County are a multimillion dollar industry. With close to 40,000 cases happening each year, the amount of time and energy devoted to people who don’t pay their rent is mind-bogglingly vast. In fact, today I want to take some time to discuss what the eviction industry is costing Chicago in terms of lost time and money. And tenants, if you think this doesn’t pertain to you, it does. Remember that the resources that a landlord puts into evictions could otherwise be spent purchasing and rehabilitating the apartment buildings that are currently sitting empty and inaccessible.

Long time readers will know what this means. I’m going to do math for you. Again.

Yay math time!

Yay math time!

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Cook Eviction Stats Part 7: What does this mean for tenants?

I’ve spent the past 6 sections of this study focusing mostly on what the Cook County/Chicago eviction statistics mean for landlords. It’s time to focus a little on what they mean for renters. I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not going to tell you how to win your eviction case. There are far better resources than me out there for saving your bacon. This article is focusing on the numbers.

A lot of you have been involved in eviction cases.

7 out of every 100 apartments in Chicago will be the subjects of eviction cases each year. Given that apartments often house more than one person, this means if you’re a renter in Chicago, you’ve got quite a bit more than a 7% chance of winding up involved in an eviction suit.

This is what we're talking about here. It's undignified, it's obvious, and it's humiliating. And a lot of you have been through it before.

This is what we’re talking about here. It’s undignified, it’s obvious, and it’s humiliating. And a lot of you have been through it before.

By comparison, 8% of married Illinois residents wind up in divorce each year, according to the census bureau.[1] You probably know several people who have gotten divorced last year. This means that you may well know even more people who’ve been involved in an eviction case, although they’re probably not going to admit it to your face.

It costs a landlord quite a bit of time and money to file an eviction case. They’re not usually going to do it if a tenant hasn’t given them good reason to do so, and they’ve exhausted every other possible means of solving the problem. Eviction means they wind up with a vacancy on their hands, and usually one in worse condition than one where a tenant moves out of their own free will. However, if they’re gaining no income from a deadbeat tenant, it eventually becomes more cost effective for them to incur a short term vacancy.

There are a few basic things that a human being needs to survive. Food, water, air and shelter are the big ones. If you’re not earning enough money to remain in your apartment, there are plenty of steps you can take to get out of your lease before the court has to mandate that you do so. If a renter has allowed their shelter-related problems to spiral downward to the point of eviction, what does that say about their ability to prioritize?

This exists. It was mentioned in the New York Times. I don't even.

This exists. It was mentioned in the New York Times. What is this I don’t even….

Chances are good that you will get involved in partnerships with strangers at some point in the near future. It may be a business relationship, a roommate situation, or a dating scenario. Cook County makes it relatively easy for you to check if a person has been evicted before. Perhaps you should take a few minutes to for fact checking before you saddle yourself with a scrub.

You have slightly less than 40% chance of not getting evicted.

62.7% of filed eviction cases in Cook County wind up with the landlord getting the tenant thrown out of the apartment, with many of those cases tacking on an order to pay the back rent. It’s easy when looking at that percentage to envision the other 37.3% of cases involving renters proudly facing their landlords in court, delivering the smackdown of righteousness, and maybe getting their landlords slapped with fines for daring to drag everybody down to the 1st District courthouse.

This is not a picture of you in eviction court. Sorry.

This is not a picture of you in eviction court. Sorry.

I’m not saying that doesn’t happen sometimes.

However, those other cases could have had any of the following, less exciting conclusions:

  • The landlord and tenant settled out of court.
  • The tenant’s lease expired and/or they moved out before the court date.
  • The landlord accepted a partial payment of the balance due, and had their case thrown out.
  • The landlord forgot to show up for court.

Half of those causes are clerical errors, and will probably wind up in a re-filing of the same case at a later date. As for the other half? Well, the point of filing an eviction case is to get a tenant out of an apartment before the lease ends, and sometimes to force them to pay back rent. If those goals are accomplished in any other way, then the case doesn’t need to go all the way to its conclusion. I’d say less than 10% of the tenants who are taken to eviction court wind up “winning” their case at the point that they’re standing in front of the judge.

Even if you win your case, there are repercussions.

There’s been a recent trend with the weak economy where people just stop paying their rent or mortgage and wait for the axe to fall. Renters who are reading this series may be doing so with an eye towards this kind of strategic delinquency, hoping that the eviction proceedings will take long enough that things will turn around for them before the sheriff comes to call. Here’s the thing: your credit will recover in time from everything else you can do to it, but an eviction filing will follow you forever regardless of the verdict.

In all of this analysis, I’ve not really addressed one glaring issue: the fact that I could pull eviction statistics going back to 2004. In fact, if you visit the website of the Cook County Clerk of Court, you’ll find that you can search through online case records going back to at least 1991. In other words, some of those records are old enough to drink.

In order to find out about a low credit score, someone would need your permission and a lot of your personal data to pull your credit report. By contrast, if the state of public records access remains consistent, anyone and their brother can dig up that information without you knowing. That includes future potential roommates, landlords, business partners and employers. Yes, it’s possible for a researcher to see that your case was dismissed. But that’s because it’s possible for them to casually breeze through all of the details of your case.

Now, some of you will react to this with outrage at the courts for making the data public. However, the public records are available because the courts are paid for by the taxpayers, and we have a right to know how our money is being spent. If you want to avoid having the details of your eviction lawsuit made public, don’t get involved with one in the first place.

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  1. [1] US Census Bureau: Marital Events of Americans: 2009

Could the scenario from ‘Rent’ really happen in Chicago?

The musical “Rent” was a seminal piece of theatre for me and a lot of my peers when we were in college in the 90’s. For many of us, it colored our perspective of landlord-tenant issues for years to come. The actual plot of the musical doesn’t really depend on the apartment issues – the characters could have the same conflicts and growth without the framing device of the rent scenario that gives the show its name. However, as a framing device to drive urgency and establish the setting, the choice to focus all of the action around a particular apartment building in New York serves as effective shorthand for establishing a villain and the low-income, counter-culture status of the main players.

Today I want to take a look at the various problems in the landlord-tenant relationship and living situation portrayed in “Rent” from a perspective of the Chicago market. Is there any way that this could come to pass in Chicago? How can it be avoided? What parts of the assorted conflicts do we take for granted as likely to occur in a renting situation, and how can a landlord structure their business to keep it from arising?

Before we get started, though, I want to see how far we’ve come since you started reading this blog. If you’re familiar with the plot of “Rent,” see how many potential problems you can identify if those people were renting in Chicago. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, I’ve included a video of the final Broadway cast performing the first 7 minutes, which should give you a good idea of what’s happening. Then come on back and we’ll go through them together.

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Slaying Dragons, Discarding Rings, Confronting Landlords

“I requested service six hours ago! Why don’t I have hot water yet?” – Text message from tenant, 10pm, Feb 2 2011 – Snowpocalypse Chicago.

 

“Why should I have to pay for it? My lease says you will maintain the fixtures!” – 375 lb Tenant after breaking his toilet seat for the fourth time.

 

“I’ve got my lawyer on speakerphone and we will sue you if you don’t fix the mailbox!” – First verbal report of a problem.

Customer service and long term contracts do not go hand in hand. From cell phones and cable providers to apartments and employers, once you’re locked in to a long term contract you may cease to be a customer at all in the eyes of the company. In the case of a landlord, the desire for retention becomes even less important. The experienced landlord learns that your decision to stay or leave is more dependent on other factors in your life, like your income and your family status.

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Beyond the CRLTO: Other Chicago Rental Laws

In the Chicago rental housing market the CRLTO (Chicago Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance) gets all the glory when it comes to laws. More and more landlords and tenants are aware of it, and this is probably for the best as the penalties for violations are quite steep. However, there are other laws that also pertain to rental housing in Chicago that should not be ignored. Here are some that you may not know about. There are certainly more laws that apply, but these are some of the most crucial.

Artistic interpretation of the Chicago code of laws governing rentals

Federal Laws

Lead Based Paint Disclosure. The law requiring the disclosure of lead based paint hazards to anyone buying or renting a home has been on the books for twenty years. If a property was built before 1978 the landlord must tell the tenant about any lead-based paint hazards that they know of before renting it out. They also must provide a copy of the EPA’s “Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home” pamphlet. Read more about the law.

State Laws (more…)

The Online Rental Scams and How to Avoid Them

Would you marry this person? No? Then why would you rent from a landlord if you couldn’t meet him nor see the apartment first?

Here’s a fable for you. You’re hunting for an apartment online. You have a budget that’s towards the lower end and are tired of looking in the bad neighborhoods, so you take a quick look over into a trendy, name brand area. Suddenly you spot it! A three bedroom house for rent for just $800, when all of the other listings are $2000! And it’s empty and move-in ready. The address is even in the listing so you’re pretty sure it’s legit.

You contact the landlord. They say they’re out of the country working with the Peace Corps in Africa, so they can’t meet you in person. However, they suggest that you go drive past and take a peek in the windows if you like. You might do so. Or maybe you think, “gosh, this landlord is so clueless keeping the rent so low! I should jump on this before he figures out what the real value of his listing is.” (more…)

10 Steps to Secure Your Home or Apartment for Showings

So your landlord or an agent has called to say that she needs to show your home.

For owners this should come as no surprise. If your house is on the market, showings will happen and your agent will probably request that you absent yourself while they occur.

For renters, showings may be a surprise as they can happen at any time of year. You don’t have to be moving out. A showing in the middle of your lease does not necessarily mean that your apartment building is for sale! Your landlord may be trying to get a better insurance rate or refinance the property. Both of these tasks could require access to your apartment. You should grant it provided that your landlord gives you proper advance notice.

Regardless of who is coming to view your apartment, though, you can be certain of one thing – strangers will be entering your living quarters and you may not be able to be home when it happens. Whether it’s a new prospective renter, an appraiser or a Realtor, you’ll want to take precautions to make sure that you’ve safeguarded your belongings. After all, your landlord’s insurance won’t cover the items if they go missing or get damaged.

Google currently shows over 36 million results for the phrase “robbed during an open house.”

Here are ten things you can do to make sure your stuff stays safe when your home has an encounter with stranger danger.

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