Sunday, January 10, 2010


This past August one of my younger readers moved from Texas to Boston to begin a graduate-school program. Four months into the semester, he has failed to find housing.

His first living situation saddled him with two roommates who opted not to pay their share of the second month's rent. My reader covered the rent, spent the next three weeks fighting to get back the money they owed him and then moved out.

He rented a moving van and moved 40 miles west of Boston to Milford, Mass., where he stayed with a friend who had offered to put him up for a few weeks while he sought a more permanent apartment.

After two weeks of making the daily 40-mile commute to attend class, to work and to look for an apartment, my reader finally found one in a Boston neighborhood not far from his school. His new roommate had lived in the apartment for four years, and assured him that he "was not moving anytime soon."

My reader moved in on Nov. 1, and two weeks later the new roommate announced that he was moving in with his girlfriend.

When the landlord heard that his long-term tenant was moving out, he announced that he planned to raise the rent and no longer wanted to rent to college students. This left my reader without recourse, since the landlord's agreement was with the roommate who was moving out, not with him.

Now my reader is looking for apartment No. 3.

"Most landlords base their decisions on renting history," he writes. "While they can't legally discriminate based on race, religion, gender or sexuality, they can discriminate based on financial stability, work stability or any other characteristic that implies that a tenant will be a challenge _ too loud, too drunk, too weird."

My reader doesn't see himself as falling into any of those categories, describing himself as quiet, professional and responsible, and adds that he makes every effort "to amend any behavior that might result in a complaint of some sort."

Even so, when he begins explaining his rental history in Boston, his potential landlords seem to fall silent.

"I get the feeling that they see me as a risk," he writes.

Because his recent bout of instability seems to him not at all his own fault, my reader is tempted to lie about his rental history. He could tell prospective landlords that he's been commuting from west of Boston, using his friend as the perfect "planted" reference and omitting any reference to the first two apartments.

"But my frustration about my current predicament makes me want to confess my experiences," he writes. "Somehow I want them to know that, if they intend to rent me their apartment, I expect a certain amount of integrity that I have not seen in my previous situations."

My reader has every reason to expect a landlord to treat him with integrity. That's one reason it's better to have a formal lease with a landlord, rather than an informal agreement with a fellow renter: The lease is a contract that the landlord must honor in every detail. The informal agreement is worth no more than the paper it isn't printed on.

He should not lie to a landlord to secure housing, however. It's OK not to fill in the landlord on every sordid detail of the past few months, but not to misrepresent himself or his recent living arrangements. Using his friend in Milford as a reference is fine, so long as the friend doesn't lie about the living arrangement - say, by suggesting that my reader has been there for significantly longer than he actually has.

If it's more effective to provide references from when he lived in Texas, my reader should do that.

Renters want stable housing at a fair price, while landlords want responsible tenants who pay their rent on time. These aren't incompatible desires. The right thing is for my reader to be honest, and to limit the discussion to the basic facts - denouncing other landlords isn't a good way to make a landlord want him as a tenant.

He's entitled to expect a landlord to honor whatever commitment he makes, and he'll be well advised to get that commitment in writing.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

I had a professor at Wharton (we were discussing lying on resumes) who once told me that "the cost of not lying on a resme exceeds the cost of lying." What he meant was that If you don't lie, you can't get the job; but if you do lie, then your cost is limited to losing the job you couldn't have gotten times the relatively low probability of being found out. The former is more severe than the latter, so lying is the recommended policy. Sorry, I think certain questions invite fraud. The answers to those questions, therefore, are not really fraudulent.

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