Thursday, October 2, 2014

Rental Conditions – A Real Estate Inspector’s View

Dangerous electrical wiring in rental on Grant St.
Reality check.  What do real estate inspectors find here in Bellingham when they conduct inspections for potential buyers of existing rental properties?   Plenty, it seems.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a home inspector who has spent over twenty years in commercial and residential construction and the last ten years as an inspector of homes, both rental and owner-occupied units.  This individual has thoroughly inspected hundreds of rentals - single family, duplexes, and various multi-unit apartment complexes.  He stated that the conditions vary greatly due to the age and condition of the property. 

In Bellingham he claims that there are two distinct types of rental properties, rentals for college students and rentals for the general market.  His experience is that often the college rentals are older homes converted to rented rooms where the renters share bathrooms and kitchens.

Overall he has discovered that the college rentals tend to be less well maintained with more reported findings such as:

1) Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors removed
2) Damaged electrical system
3) Leaking plumbing systems
4) Poor ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens causing mildew or mold
5) Drywall, door, window or flooring damage
6) Old heating systems that may cause carbon monoxide to leak in to the home

Similarly, he has experienced that rental units for the general population of renters are found with the following issues:

1) Improperly installed or damaged exterior stairs or decks
2) Leaking plumbing systems
3) Lack of smoke or carbon monoxide detectors in proper locations
4) Lack of ventilation causing mildew or mold
5) Electrical systems without GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interruption) protection
6) Old heating systems that may cause carbon monoxide to leak in to the home

He also states that there are those landlords who buy a property, collect rent, and spend little money on repairs. In these cases, he continues, rent is often low and living conditions are poor. Renters do not report problems for fear that the rent will go up. The landlords can then easily turn a blind eye to problems. 

He continues by saying that while many landlords see their rentals as investments and work to keep them in good condition by repairing items brought to their attention, the problem is they are not often educated on operations and safety requirements making them unaware of serious conditions that may exist. 

Of the hundreds of rentals this inspector has seen, he estimates that about 15% have serious condition issues that render the unit dangerous to live in.   But do not let the percentage figure mislead you. This percentage, if extrapolated into a number of rental units, indicates that an inspection of all rental units in Bellingham (about 14,000*) would uncover approximately 2,000 to 2,500 unfit units.  Furthermore, given the average occupancy of a dwelling unit in Bellingham, that means that from 4,500 to 5,500 human beings (adults and children) are,  AT THE MOMENT YOU ARE READING THIS, living in dangerous conditions.

None of this information is new or surprising.  I have been reporting this kind of data for years.  (Check my articles here and here for examples)  The problem is that few are paying attention while the real estate and landlord groups claim the problem can be solved by being nice to them and educating the tenants.

On October 27th the city council will conduct a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would require landlords merely to register their properties with the city.   No inspections would be required.   This proposal  by council member Roxanne Murphy is based on a similar ordinance Murphy encountered in Tacoma , WA where she lived prior to moving to Bellingham recently.  Although the ordinance met with some success in correcting exterior signs of blight, it failed in correcting serious interior defects in unsafe and unhealthy rental units across the board.  My article "Councilmember Murphy's Proposed Rental Ordinance Is Deeply Flawed" contains more information on Tacoma’s experience and belies Murphy's claim that "maybe 5%" of Bellingham rentals are in poor condition.

*There are over 17,000 rental units in Bellingham, however, approximately 3,000 are controlled by and already inspected by other agencies such as HUD (Housing and Urban Development). 

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