Obama could use some ‘career renter’ moves

With an upcoming historical presidential inauguration in a town grappling with a historic economic downturn, finding housing in the nation’s capital these days ain’t easy.

Just ask President-elect Barack Obama, a housing victim of his own success.

The Commander-in-Chief-to-be lost his bid to move from Chicago to Blair House (the official guest residence across from the White House) in time for First Daughters Sasha and Malia to start school in Washington on Jan. 5.

Protocol for the next most powerful leader in the world to move into the town from which he’ll govern, calls for a Jan. 15 occupancy of Blair House — at the earliest.

The outgoing President George W. Bush already booked the property for guests attending his end-of-term events, and current administration officials say it’s not a slight against the nation’s first African-American president.

“You’re trying to make a story out of something that’s not a story,” Sally McDonough, spokeswoman for First Lady Laura Bush told a rabid media throng.

“It’s not a question of outranking the Obamas. Blair House will be available to them on January 15.”

The Obamas, who need temporary housing for a few weeks before they take up residency in Blair House and later the White House, can take a cue from renters who’ve learned the ropes in a nation awash with people suddenly seeking non-owner-occupied housing for one reason or another.

Those tenants have learned to take a serious “career renter” approach to housing, even when they don’t plan on renting forever.

The key is a hard core approach that pulls out all the stops to quickly put a roof over your head when buying isn’t an option.

Here’s what career renters do — which, ironically is a lot like running for president.

• Approach your rental-housing search like you would a job search. Be organized, serious, and professional in both actions and appearance so that you stand out as the best applicant. Leave the shorts and flip-flops for the beach. You want to make a good impression and demonstrate that you will be a good steward for the landlord’s property.

• Carefully vet and contact your references ahead of time to be sure your information on them is current and that you have their permission to use them as a reference.

• Keep your credit and finances in good standing. Obtain a free copy of your credit report from the one and only federally-sanctioned AnnualCreditReport.com. Examine it, correct any errors, and make sure what you say in the rental application is consistent with what the landlord will see on the credit report.

Likewise, any data compiling agency, including major rental screening operations regulated by Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and its Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) amendments are required to give you access to your data for free. If a report isn’t free and you can purchase it, do so.

• Be prepared with all the information you need to complete a rental application. That includes, full, prior addresses, bank account and credit card numbers, a list of references. Landlords will not respond to incomplete applications. A rental application form, available online and from legal self-help, community and social organizations, prepared in advance, may be acceptable. Even if the landlord rejects it, it is a good way to compile your information for on-the-spot easy transfer to the landlord’s application.

• Consider preparing a renter’s resume — a chronology of your rental life, just like a job resume is, in part, a chronology of your career or work life. You may have to repeat the information on the application, but you will stand out as well-organized and prepared.

• Let all your friends, family members, associates and co-workers know that you are looking for an affordable rental and what you want in a rental home. Explore newspaper classified ads, renter magazines, and the Internet for listings. Post notes on social networking group Web sites and the old fashioned kind at public places you frequent.

• Check the latest listings first thing every day, and call early. Respond quickly when a landlord calls you back. If you have a cellular phone, leave that number and have it on while you are out looking at other apartments or forward your land line to your cell phone when you are out.

• If you leave a message on an answering machine, be sure to speak clearly and slowly, and repeat your name and phone number. Don’t leave messages if you aren’t going to be available for the next few hours or more. If you won’t be immediately available to accept or return calls, state when you will be available when you leave a phone message.

• Know what you really want, and what you don’t want in terms of square footage, rooms, housing type (single family home, apartment, duplex, etc.) and shop that market. Be flexible with the rest of your criteria (amenities, concessions, etc.). Be prepared to decide on the spot and be prepared to leave a deposit and/or credit check fee.

• Finally, if rents are rising and you are renewing your rental contract or renting anew, lock in your rental costs as much as possible by negotiating for the longest rental contract your lifestyle permits. Certainly, don’t lock into a long-term contract if you know there’s a chance you may be relocated or will have to move after a short period. Any savings you hoped to enjoy from a long term contract could be lost in costs to break the contract.

• Before signing on the dotted line, be sure you understand the terms of the contract, the monthly rent, due date, deposits, required care and upkeep, community or house rules and any other details. Get help with any of the terms or details you don’t understand.

For more info: ConsumerAffairs.com’s five-part series, “Behind The Screen Door: The Ins and Outs of the Rental Screening System” is required reading for all renters.

Like this story? See:
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Not always a good time to buy
Renting to strangers flocking to special events? Beware
Obama first black president in ‘The House’

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