The Home Hunting Game

The photo is the view out my kitchen window in our new place. A rural landscape makes me happy, especially since we’re living in suburbia. At home I have a mental focus that I don’t find anywhere else. So, when a few days before this Christmas my partner and I received a termination notice from our landlord, I lurched in shock, and then I just started racing toward an idea about what I was looking for. We started playing the home hunting game.

Billie Best kitchen window

Both of us have been homeowners and in this phase in our lives we aren’t prepared to make that commitment. We’re thinking this is a transitional time, maybe because we’re so old the idea of permanence seems naïve. After a couple days of intense scrolling we found a modest dog-friendly rental in town that appeared perfect, so we hustled. On Christmas Day, I sent a letter by email to the property management agency describing us as “two adults near 70 with a 3-year-old medium size poodle, prepared to sign a 12 month lease, including pet rent and security deposit.” I expected ageism to play in our favor, thought we would be treated like the ideal tenant, but I was wrong.  

One click, and we entered the tenant portal, an enforcement zone indifferent to our good manners and kind intentions. The response we got from the property manager was a link to an app where adults over 18 must pay $45 each to register for individual credit and criminal investigations. That’s a nonrefundable $90 just to be considered. This we discovered is quite common. I guess it filters out the riffraff. Elitist, but effective. I’m good with apps and we were willing to lose the money, so we jumped on their merry-go-round. But I wondered what a more economically challenged household would do if they had to pay $45 per adult just to apply to be considered for a new place.

My partner has been the resident caretaker of an estate where he lived for 19 years, and I lived for three. He has worked at the same business in town since 1995, saving the world one hot tub at a time. But that meant nothing to our prospective landlord (who remains anonymous). We were treated like potential criminals until we signed the lease.

The tenant portal required digital literacy. We had to have credit cards, smart phones, email accounts, personal computers, internet access and navigation skills, dexterity with password management, double authentication, downloading and uploading, taking photographs, and sending attachments. This is also an economic filter as the underlying infrastructure for these skills costs thousands of dollars a year.

Now I should say that I was a landlord in Boston from 1987 to 2000, and I appreciate the myriad ways tenants can grift a landlord. We lived in a three-family house with two tenants, and it was a lot of work to keep the place occupied and in good repair. It’s reasonable for landlords to want to protect themselves. But during all that time, I interviewed prospective tenants face to face, took them at their word, and trusted my instincts, never asked for proof of anything. We had many tenants, and I was only wrong once, if you don’t count the college students who painted their bedrooms black. Anyway, I appreciate the intention of the digital application process to protect the landlord and the neighbors.

After we paid the $90, and before we met a human, each of us had 48 hours to produce digital records for government issued photo IDs, Social Security numbers, three months of bank statements showing deposits and withdrawals, and paycheck stubs showing salary, taxes, sick days and vacation days. Then we were finally allowed to inspect the place. Afterward were required to set up accounts for utilities at the new address, even though we had not signed a lease. For our new electric, water/sewer, trash removal and renter insurance we had to produce confirmation emails showing our new account number and address. Finally we had to produce medical records for our dog with the contact information for his veterinarian, and his breed, weight, neuter certificate, and rabies tag. Gathering all these documents and submitting them electronically took me six hours. Fortunately, I’m self-employed.

As expected, we had to provide landlord references for the previous three years. When my Portland landlord from 2018-2020 did not respond to the property agent’s queries about me, the property agent asked to inspect our current home, which we agreed to. She came to our house and looked in every room to confirm that what we said about ourselves was true. Good for her. But you see how difficult it might be to deal with this for somebody who works far from home or is struggling with their life.

Once all that paperwork was accepted, we were sent a link to the digital lease document, which included a detailed fixed-term 52-week lease, a smoke detector addendum, a mold addendum, a landscaping addendum, a pet addendum, a portable cooling device addendum, a relocation addendum, a move-in checklist addendum, a new tenant handout, a tenant education form, a satellite dish policy addendum, and a summary document, all to be digitally initialed before we gave them our electronic signatures and they gave us little brass keys. This was as complicated as getting a mortgage.

Our new lease started December 30th, a week after we got the termination notice. Now we’re in, we’re settled, and I’m focused on the alphabet again. And yet, the process of re-homing ourselves raises some important issues as we ponder the problem of affordable housing, homelessness and upward mobility. Housing is a digital competition. We played the game and we won. Those without the skills and resources need not apply. We are the lucky ones.

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8 thoughts on “The Home Hunting Game

  1. Another excellent post and an eye opener for those of us thinking of renting in the future – as we are. We are from Canada and I am not sure whether things are as difficult as they are in the USA with regards to the ‘rules for renting’. But no doubt if the Canadians are not yet at that point, we soon will be. We haven’t explored the whole rental thing as we still live and own our own home in rural Canada although our 70 plus years of living on this wonderful earth is now catapulting us in that direction. If what you experienced is now in our future, we can hardly wait…..😬

    1. Good to hear from you, Barbara. I think it’s possible that there are still places where landlords are humans who meet their tenants. But when landlords are corporations planning to profit off of housing, software is the most efficient way to manage tenants.

  2. I live in a Western State and what you wrote does not shock me one bit. It is almost as bad, if not worse for people to rent in my state. The homeless population is burgeoning in our city. The two term Governor (Republican) has kicked the can around the block several times trying to get affordable housing and lower rents so that people can actually rent an apartment or home. The rules are almost as strict as those you mentioned for rentals and many want first and last month’s rent ahead of time. Our heavily Republican legislature votes everything down. I am almost at the point of believing that Republicans do not care what happens to people. It is happening in so many places…it is frightening.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. I want to believe people are basically good and care about each other. At the same time, everybody seems to want to be rich, and those who have money will take steps to protect it. So over protection of landlords and nice neighborhoods makes the problem of affordable housing worse.

    1. Thanks for the empathy. Most of the places we considered had the same process. I think there are now property management software platforms that follow the same process template.

  3. I wonder the same all the time and any time I have to wade through the endless seeming online garbage just to get a simple answer. I mostly know how to navigate this stuff, but if I didn’t speak english, or had shit for an income, I’d be outa luck. The understandable yet snarky suspicions really piss me off.
    All that to say congrats on yr new home. Hopefully a few rooms larger than yr wonderful old place, enough space for yr man’s mess and yr OCD cleaning.

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