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

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.

Remember when I spent a little time last year talking about the essential services for Chicago apartments? Well access to the apartment is one of them. If you can’t get into your apartment, the landlord has 72 hours to correct the problem. If the delay in getting into your apartment is going to be more than 3 days, then you can technically break the lease and go find another apartment. (Or you could sue for damages. Either route is equally extreme in my opinion.) However, there are a few major pieces of red tape that you’d have to cut through in order to do this in a fully legal manner.

First of all, you’d have to give the landlord written notice of the problem immediately. Second, the problem would have to go unresolved for 72 hours. Third, you’d have to give your landlord 30 days notice of your intent to break the lease. (Chances are that this particular problem will be remedied by then!) Fourth, you would have to find another apartment pretty much immediately. Fifth, there are several less severe options available that the landlord can use as a counteroffer in an attempt to resolve the situation, including putting you up in a hotel and allowing you to deduct the hotel costs until the apartment is ready.

OK, yes, sometimes you do need to find a different apartment. (Photo by Michelle Manchir for the Chicago Tribune)

Now, there are circumstances where this will be your best choice. If the failure to make the apartment ready on time is merely a symptom of an overall display of incompetence, then you may want to use it as a lever to get yourself out of a year-long commitment to a terrible landlord. If it’s due to a hazardous condition in the building, like a recent fire, then you may have no other alternatives available. If, like the fellow above, you have been offered a written lease but have not yet signed it, you can simply back out of the arrangement and find a new place, which makes the whole thing a lot less complicated. This still means you’d have to find a replacement apartment pretty quickly, but will save you the rigamarole of 30 day notice and/or a lawsuit.

Either way, this is an extreme route and should only be used in worst-case scenarios.

Ask Your Current Landlord if You Can Hold Over

When I was working my last job for a local property management company, the calls asking for one-day extensions would start coming in about a week before the end of the month. Tenants would contact their new landlords and find out that they couldn’t move in until the morning of the first of the month. They would then call us to ask if they could stay another day so that they wouldn’t be homeless for the night.

The problem with holding over is that it has a domino effect on others who need to move in. While it may save you money in storage fees and the hassle of having to move twice, it causes double damage to those who may be waiting to get into your apartment. It also could cause a higher cost to your landlord. Many landlords overhire inexpensive cleaning and painting crews at cheap rates to handle peak turnover days, but once those days have passed their staff is reduced to its usual numbers. Beyond the cost of labor, there’s also the risk of the landlord getting sued by the next tenant who’s slated to move into your now unavailable apartment.

Your decision to stay an extra day may be the moving-day equivalent of an angry bird that destroys an entire level.

Basically, this is the most selfish route you could possibly take. It broadcasts to everyone involved that you have weak planning skills and that you do not care if your convenience causes massive damage to everyone else involved. Many leases provide for situations like this, allowing the landlord to charge double rent for tenants who hold over beyond their lease expiration date. If a landlord chooses to enforce that rule, they’d be entirely within their rights.

Seriously, do not assume that you can stay an extra day in your current apartment unless you know for certain that nobody is moving into your apartment afterwards.

Move Into A Temporary Apartment in Your New Building

The nice thing about apartment buildings is that there’s more than one apartment in them. In the case of larger property management companies, usually several empty apartments are available for you to use on a short term basis until your real apartment is ready. If a landlord knows that your desired apartment will not be ready for you, they may offer you one of these extras. It works great for them – they get to collect double rent for a month. However, it doesn’t work so great for you unless they agree to eat all of your costs for moving a second time. This includes:

  • Utility setup costs
  • Packing and unpacking twice
  • Moving your furniture
  • Time spent setting up your belongings

If it’s going to be a long wait (more than 2 weeks) and your landlord is willing to take on the lion’s share of the costs of the 2nd move, then it’s worth considering this option. It shares the burden of the inconvenience between you, and if the wait is due to the landlord’s error then it’s probably the most fair way to do things. You can at least get used to living in your new neighborhood in the meantime, even if you can’t get used to living in your new apartment.

A lot of landlords in smaller buildings will not have the apartments to spare, though, which means that this option although favorable is not always possible. That means we have to move on to other more reliable fallbacks.

Constrain Your Search to Vacant Apartments

If you know in advance that you have to be out on the last day of the month, then you may be able to be very proactive and only look at those apartments that you know will be ready for move in when you need them: the ones that are already empty when you’re on the hunt. Now, this requires some planning ahead, but if you know that you have a lot of stuff and cannot afford movers, it may be a better option anyhow. After all, why cram your move into 24 hours if you can do it over the course of a week?

However, this also has its drawbacks. In an ideal world, every landlord would leave a month between tenants so that there would be ample time to clean and patch the apartment in between. These are investors we’re talking about, though. They want to maximize their income, and vacant apartments cut into the cash flow pretty badly. A landlord will probably only concede to allowing a month vacancy if nobody else wants to move in before you do. This may well restrict your search to the least desirable apartments on the market.

There’s also the issue of pro-rated rent. If you rent a vacant unit, your new landlord may ask you to start your lease a month earlier than you need. Barring that, they will certainly ask you to pay pro-rated rent for the days that you use the apartment in the month before your lease begins. Any landlord who lets you move in early without a pro-ration is very very nice and should be showered with praise, thanks and chocolates.

It doesn’t matter how many squares there are. But if they’re pro-rated, you pay for each one individually. If not, you’ll pay for them together all at once.

At the moment, with decent hotel rooms in Chicago running about $100 a night, the break point of economic sense on this option is a rent rate of $3000. Below that, and it will be cheaper for you to pay the pro-rated rent to move in a few days early to a vacant unit. If your rent is above $3000 per month, you’re better off staying in a hotel for a few days while the landlord gets your apartment ready.

Store your Stuff and Crash Elsewhere

Believe it or not, moving companies have dealt with this problem before. Many of the local companies offer free storage for anywhere from overnight to a full month if you use their company to handle your move. Others may charge extra for the time required to load and unload twice. Either way, any moving company worth its license is going to be able to accommodate your multi-day move because it happens all the time. Seriously. They’ve got this.

They’ve planned ahead. So should you. In fact, the best move you can make in, well, making your move is to anticipate being homeless for at least one night. Even if you are moving all your stuff on your own, it’s good to have a break in between to recover. If the stars align and you’re able to complete your move in one day, then be happy and pleasantly surprised. But the idea that a move is typically going to be completed in one day is a pipe dream.

After a long day of moving, any couch will probably do as a crash pad.

A landlord requiring you to wait a night to move in does not make them a bad landlord. It’s normal behavior. (If they make you wait a MONTH then that’s another story.) So make your plans accordingly. Find a friend that you can crash with for the night. Look into hotel prices. Make sure you hire movers who can store your stuff securely for a night. If you’re renting a U-Haul, line up a place to park it for a night. Yes, you will have to increase your budget, but it’s better to earmark those funds and not need them, than to incur extra costs for emergency storage when your budget is probably already stretched really thin.

The overarching theme of this blog is that planning and research can save you a world of hurt when it comes to the housing market. It definitely applies to this situation.

Friday I’ll be talking about the triplets of the secondary mortgage market: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae. See you then!