"College is a refuge from hasty judgment." —Robert Frost
Owning rental property is a daunting endeavor. With ownership comes financial challenges, legal exposure, and responsibilities not traditionally endured with single family home ownership. Add to that facet renting to college students and the task becomes a head-snapping endeavor.
Years ago, I found myself dealing with twelve units of off-campus student housing in Durham New Hampshire. In my experience, I found the cards were stacked against me. The town of Durham has never taken the steps necessary to effectively deal with their rental housing market specifically how it interfaces between the college and the town. Much of what is in place is the knee-jerk reaction of the vocal few.
College students going off to college means this is their first time away from home. They are on their own and not under the wing or the rules of Mommy and Daddy. Living off campus means having, "ones' own place" and celebrating that first breath of new-found independence. The problem is that independence can manifest it in ways that are not positive.
Landlords in Durham who rent to college students quickly understand the realities behind renting to students if they went into such an undertaking without the upfront experience. The whole college experience brings with it a social plane few ever anticipated.
I had a lease and a very specific clause that stated the maximum number of occupants that can be present at any given time. Despite that clause, I found myself out in Durham late one night accompanying the Durham Police to break up an extremely large party. As partygoers left, I counted heads exiting the property: one-hundred and sixty six kids had packed into a 1,100 square foot apartment. What followed were the hissing and seething rants of angry parents in another state accusing me, "hassling" their kids needlessly," with threats of legal action.
A college rental property owner undertakes up to 40% higher costs in maintenance on such properties than a traditional residential rental. As reported in today's Page A7 Union Leader story, Durham Fire Chief Corey Landry describes the 16 Edgewood road property in Durham, having no working smoke or carbon monoxide detectors as, "Extreme." The story fails to convey, however, why such a condition existed, presenting images of derelict property owners. Many landlords I know in Durham are conscientious people and the life safety code is a part of their management practices. One of the most significant challenges such property owners face is smoke detectors because they are so often tampered with by the occupants of these rentals. Window screens, doors and smoke detectors are a constant an ongoing expense. The property damage endured over a school year is remarkable.
During my tenure managing the Durham properties, I found the town to be heavy-handed in its enforcement of occupancy without regard to what landlords try to do while complying with the law. One might have a rental where up to three occupants are permitted. Despite that, one of those occupants might have a friend who gets kicked out of the dorms so now the landlord has four occupants in violation of the lease. So now the town seeks to enforce its ordinance and the Landlord has to follow all due process within the Landlord and Tenant Law and often times, the two run counter to one another.
When a Landlord is forced to litigate in Durham, such litigation brings significantly more cost than a traditional Landlord and Tenant action. The college provides a lawyer to kids and the courts show some degree of fealty to the college population. Summarily, it is a daunting task holding kids accountable for property damage, lease violations and other issues that invited unwanted municipal attention. To add to the list of problems, Landlords, have lease provisions prohibiting Beer pong boards because of their propensity to attract under-aged drinking, large crowds and unruly behavior which brings with it, not to mention dangerous levels of inebriation. Despite the lease prohibition, I found several of these left behind upon move-out. A prohibition on household furniture being kept or maintained outside of the unit on the property means nothing. Couches still end up on the lawn. Controls and restrictions on parking only means that you are going to be having a conversation about thirty vehicles being parked in a ten-car lot. Setting a definite schedule for snow removal still means that you as the landlord are not going to get compliance from at least one tenant.
Many Landlords sincerely attempt to provide a place to live that is clean, habitable, safe, decent and nice, but are challenged by a bunch of post-adolescents testing their newfound freedom and limits. They are present, maintain their properties and try to be proactive. Others, those absentee Landlords, collect the rent by mail and do the bare minimum in maintenance, often ignoring issues hoping they will quietly go away.
Those who own a house and convert it to a student rental in quest for quick cash, rarely contemplate the twists and turns that follow, let alone the legality of doing so in a particular area. Most zoning precludes such a conversion, let alone how ticked off the neighbors of the property get with loud music, boisterous yelling and heavy vehicular traffic.
So now Durham seeks to solve its issues by creating a process that might prove to be arbitrary. In following this story for the towns' quest to impose an inspection process, I am skeptical how that will emerge as a fair process. Presently in Manchester, as a landlord, I have a "certificate of compliance" inspection conducted every three years by the building department. It is minimal and for the most part, fair, but sometimes can be arbitrary. I would wager that Durham will be overly arbitrary to the detriment of Landlords. Under the present system in Manchester, the landlord is still liable for missing window screens and faulty smoke detectors, irrespective of the destructive tenants who cause the issue. If Durham wants to be fair, they will hold tenants accountable for the destruction done by them that alters any life-safety code.
cross-posted on Granite Grok