So what happens when area go-to rental agencies go bad? One thing that can happen is a local or regional company can monopolize the area market. This ends up being bad for everyone. Companies like West Side Rentals in Los Angeles have an almost unilateral hold on the area. For landlords, the lure of landing a tenant without much effort is very enticing and for tenants you feel like you are getting the “inside deal” going with a company your best friend swears by. But the traffic West Side Rentals deals with as a company has started to chip away at their customer service. And at the end of the day, customer service is the single thing that separates them from the nationals. I recently went through this process with West Side Rentals and here is how it went:
Ironically, for me, I found the West Side Rentals ad via Craigslist. WSR does have their own listings, but you have to pay $60 for a 3 month term to access them. Granted, if you land your dream home, it’s not asking too much. I went to the showing and was greeted by, what ended up being, the best part of the process for me. The showing agent was friendly and helpful. And what was best, whether is was true or not, is that it felt like he was on your side. This was the most important aspect of their value in my eyes. The agent gave you a sense he was looking out for your best interests. Using a national never gives you that sense, and was a powerful reminder that the human component is still alive and well.
As we walked through we were able to ask him questions, and get an immediate sense of the impending process. He laid it out and even gave us, what felt like, an insiders hint how to negotiate a lower rent and bargain on key points. After leaving the showing I felt excited and ready to apply. Here is where the obvious deficiencies of the WRS process came to light very quickly.
After you apply, unfortunately, our time with the lovable agent was over and you are transferred to someone at a desk in some office. I was met with an immediate demand for a “holding deposit” of half-a-months-rent from a voice on the other end of the phone. This was explained to me as a deposit designed to take the listing off market and hold it for you through the rental process. It was also explained that the deposit was refundable in the event of not coming to lease terms with the landlord. Ok, so fine, if things go south and we can’t agree on a lease, then all bets were off? Wrong.
As recommended by the showing agent, I sent along a proposal for a deal in which we would pay a lower rent. This was met with a rather curt tone from the broker who suggested we didn’t attempt to do this. It was a clear departure from the feeling of the company that was in my corner ready to throw punches for me, and quite surprising considering they were the company to suggest it.
Another shocker was as soon as they had my money, there was a strict “no more showings” policy after the deposit was taken. This was wildly confusing because I would have assumed being a paying customer would warrant another look inside. Heck, can I even measure and make sure my bed will fit? And to make matters even more confusing, they didn’t take the listing down as promised and continued to market it for rent. In fact, they even added a yard sign after they had taken my deposit.
While negotiating terms, even though I made it quite clear I needed the customary 30 days notice to my current rental unit, they demanded I take occupancy immediately and eat the cost of the last month. This is where my skepticism turned into pure frustration. After many stressful back and forth emails they reluctantly accepted a 30 day move in. I thought that we had moved past any major sticking points. Wrong.
We went back and forth on lease points over dozens of emails. And after we settled on something, they would conveniently forget that point had been settled 7 emails ago, and started the process all over again. I was shuffled from one agent to another, to another, to another, and landed with the man in charge. I thought I had finally stumbled upon the person with the knowhow and authority to make this deal happen right. Wrong.
After settling on terms I waited while the lease was drafted. Confident we had finally nailed the deal, I started our moving preparations. I gave our notice to our current residence. I had utilities transferred, and so forth. But as the final draft of the lease shows up, all the terms in which were so painstakingly negotiated were left out of the lease draft. And to make matters worse, they had drafted a lease and done such poor math that my move in costs were miscalculated to the tune of $800 extra dollars. This is where I lost it. It was time to call it quits on this deal. We had not reached lease terms. Time to get my money back? Wrong.
The holding deposits fine print said that if your application was accepted, whatever happens from there, whether you like it or not, that money was gone-baby-gone. I asked if we could apply it to another rental, in which that idea was flatly denied. They said if I didn’t sign the lease that was offered I forfeit my entire deposit. At this point I had two options, and neither felt good in my eyes. Walk away from a deceptive and forced deal, or move forward and see what happens.
As I write this blog post from the bedroom of that rental, I can still feel the stress of that ordeal. But it highlighted a few good and bad things to keep in mind when looking for a new rental. First and foremost the human element is alive and well. Having a good agent on your side has value. If not in practical terms, then in emotional. Moving is stressful and a good agent can help alleviate some of that. And second, always read the fine print, and take no ones word for it. Money out of hand should always be considered gone. Even a company as reputable as West Side Rentals is capable of being petty and deceptive in their process.
I can see where WSR were able to build their reputation. But something was lost along the way in their closed door offices. When a single company controls the process, laziness sets in. Their staff has lost the notion these are humans with lives entering into one of the most stressful and complicated things one can do. Move. Instead of walking that line between serving the landlord and tenant faithfully they have reached a point where they do neither well. And like all giants, they too shall change, or fall.