West Virginia Human Rights Commission’s new website

I was recently contacted by Josh Brown, a housing investigator with the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, who told me the commission has a new website, www.hrc.wv.gov.

Brown said the new website contains “a lot of information concerning rights that tenants have under the WV Fair Housing Act (WV Code 5-11A) regarding discrimination as well as other resources that some may find helpful. Individuals can find information on our site concerning their rights as well as how to file a complaint if they feel that they have been the target of discrimination in the rental or sale of housing.”

On the main page there’s a list of the commission’s most popular forms:

There’s even a page to explain how you can file a complaint.

The West Virginia Human Rights Commission deals with issues relating to discrimination not only in housing, but in employment and places of public accommodations. There’s definitely some interesting information on there, so I suggest checking it out if you have a chance.

– Leann

Tenant resources page

Just a quick update about a new page I’ve created for Inspecting Sunnyside.

If you notice slightly above this post, there’s a new link on the menu bar:

That page is a collection of all the links / contact numbers / documents I’ve found so far that I believe are helpful for tenants renting in West Virginia.

Now that they’re all in one place, it’ll save readers some time so they don’t have to go back and read through all 30+ posts to find one link.

If there’s something else you think might be helpful to add to the Tenant Resources page, please let me know.

– Leann

What WVU’s Off-Campus Housing office can do for students

Last week when I met with Carrie Showalter of Student Legal Services and Brian Walker of the Off-Campus Student Housing office, they gave me some brochures that are available to students describing what services are offered. I’ve scanned the “Living Off-Campus” brochure and included it below. Click on the photos for a full-size version.

A couple important points from this:

  • Landlords must remove snow and ice from walks, drives and stairs.
  • Tenants must maintain smoke detectors.
  • Tenants must notify the owner in WRITING of any unsafe or unsanitary conditions and maintenance needed. (I suggest adding the date to this, and making a copy for yourself to keep on file in case no action is taken.)

Walker said the Off-Campus Housing office speaks with new students at orientation each year, but typically only first-year commuters, non-traditional students and parents.

Approximately 85 percent of the calls received come from parents, Walker said,

Around this time of the year – early in the spring semester – parents are calling for help with their child’s housing search. They will sometimes ask for help finding housing depending on location or based on a budget.

Because Morgantown’s rent prices are higher than most areas in West Virginia, many parents are shocked by the prices.

For example – I recently saw a four-bedroom house with a yard and garage for rent in my hometown of Poca, W.Va. for $500, which is less than I’ve paid for a one-bedroom apartment in Morgantown.

Parents also call trying to determine how much utilities will cost. Cable and Internet are typically the most expensive utility, Walker said. However, some older properties that don’t have insulation can have really high electric bills. Walker said he’s seen some people with $400/month electric bills.

If you are looking at a property and know the address, you can call the utility companies and ask for an estimate on the average bill.

Many students also call Off-Campus Housing about issues with roommates, Walker said. Joint leases can cause a problem.

“Know who you’re living with,” Walker said. “Just because you’re good friends, doesn’t mean you can live together.”

Also make sure to check the lease – if one roommate moves out, sometimes other tenants may have to pay their portion of the rent, or the landlord can rent out the room to a stranger.

Walker said West Virginia really needs more landlord/tenant laws, but because approximately 75-80 percent of the population is home owners, there aren’t many. Outside of Morgantown and Huntington, where Marshall University is located, there are not as many rental properties.

When deciding to move off-campus, the main thing is to be educated, Showalter said. She said she’s met some students who have signed leases and don’t even have a copy.

A lease is the first major contract many students sign, and typically they are most interested in the location, Showalter said. Students really need to be aware of issues, and look into the city’s Code Enforcement department. Many of the larger student apartment complexes, specifically on Van Voorhis, are out of city limits and are not subject to code enforcement inspections.

– Leann

WVU’s Student Legal Services offers help with numerous off-campus housing issues

Students who are having issues with their leases or landlords may feel like they have no option for help since they can’t afford a lawyer. However, West Virginia University’s Student Legal Services can help students with their problems at no extra charge.

Legal services are included as part of students’ fees, so you can’t really refer to the assistance as being free, but students don’t have to pay anything else when they receive help.

Student Legal Services is located in the basement of E. Moore Hall on the Downtown Campus. It’s kind of hidden, but there are plenty of signs to lead students there.

I spoke with Carrie Showalter, attorney for students, and Brian Walker, community coordinator with the Office of Student Life.

Throughout the school year, Showalter said there are varying trends of why students visit the office. During the beginning of the year they’ll be seeking help with maintenance issues. Toward the beginning of the spring semester is usually when students start bringing leases in for review. Near the end of the school year and summer, there’s many issues with security deposits.

Here are a few of the most popular services students seek:

Lease review – Showalter said students can bring in copies of leases before they are signed to make sure they understand them. She stressed that if a landlord says they will repair or replace something before the tenant moves in, that needs to be in writing on the lease before it is signed.

Move-in and move-out checklists – Students need to document what things are damaged in the apartment within 5-10 days of signing the lease. This can be problematic because most students sign leases months before actually moving in. Showalter said the students should do a walk-through after signing the lease so the landlord can’t keep a security deposit to repair something that was broken before the student moved in.

Utility bills – Showalter said she sees many students come in with utility overcharges. Sometimes it may be an issues with a leak, and they can help the students look into what is causing the unexpected increase.

Security deposit issues – Students can seek help if they believe it’s taking too long to get their deposit back after moving out or if they think they weren’t given back enough money.

Student Legal Services will contact landlords on behalf of students and have also represented students in magistrate court, Showalter said. Sometimes it may take one meeting to solve an issue, and sometimes it’s taken as long as 18 months.

One landlord, who Showalter didn’t name, was renting out apartments he didn’t own. Students paid their first month rent and security deposit and then found someone already living there when they attempted to move. The same landlord also double rented some apartments he did own; for example, someone may have signed a lease that ran from May until May, but the person currently living in there had signed a lease that wasn’t up until August.

Showalter confirmed that bedbugs are definitely an issue in Morgantown, as I previously reported. She’s dealt with two cases involving bed bugs – one at a small house and one at a large housing complex.

It’s difficult to identify a source when it comes to bed bugs, Showalter said. They can be brought in by someone who has traveled, but it’s difficult to prove that. If they are unable to prove that a student brought them in, it is typically considered the property owner’s responsibility to fix the problem.

In both cases Showalter dealt with, the landlords took care of the bed bugs, which is an expensive and lengthy process. Exterminators usually require a one-year contract to completely get rid of the bed bugs, she said.

The other buzz word in off-campus housing – mold – wasn’t really an issue until this year, Showalter said. Now, she sees students who are both having serious mold issues and those who are trying to use it as an excuse to break their lease.

I have a lot more information from my talk with Showalter and Walker. In the next post, I’ll discuss more about what type of assistance WVU’s Off-Campus Housing department can offer.

– Leann

Could an off-campus housing Facebook group help WVU students?

Tulane University is trying to step up its support for students who are looking for off-campus housing options.

According to an article in The Tulane Hullabaloo, “the Department of Housing and Residence Life created an Off Campus Housing initiative in November to aid students in the search of housing and with the transition from dorm to off-campus life.”

A website was created to show students where to look and some realtors to contact.

Tulane’s Off Campus Residence Association also created a Facebook group where students can discuss housing issues and find sub letters.

“We recommend people to join OCRA’s Facebook group and post questions so students who live off campus can help each other out,” OCRA member Brady Johnson said. “There are not many members now, but there are more and more added each day and as more people join the group, the more useful it will become.”

I was surprised to find out that WVU has a Roommate Resources page. There are two options:

  • Have housing and need roommate – Students who have an apartment fill out a form listing when the apartment is available, where it’s located, contact information, rent amount, what type of roommate they’re looking for, etc.
  • No housing roommate search – Fill out a much briefer form that asks move-in date, property type preference, gender, roommate gender preference and smoking preference.
Once you enter your criteria on the “no housing roommate search,” a list of all available roommates will pop up with resident’s name, resident type, property address and date available. You can click on the resident’s name to get more information. Here is an example of a roommate wanted listing:

I think this search is really detailed and helpful. However, the one advantage Facebook would have over this is that when someone would post that they were looking for a roommate, you could easily see if you had any friends in common. But since students are listing their full names, they could easily be looked up on Facebook to search for mutual friends.

One disadvantage is that not all students are aware of WVU’s Off-Campus Housing resources. Would a Facebook page be helpful to students? Perhaps it could be a place for students to seek advice, and someone from student services could tell them where they can go for help.

– Leann

Apartment rating websites can be important part of search

I’ll admit that I am big into researching things online before I make a purchase. I’ll read ratings, compare prices, see if there are any special codes for an extra percentage off or free shipping. But for some reason, I never thought to look at apartment ratings before finding a new place to live.

If you’re going to sign a lease to live somewhere for at least a year, it’s probably a good idea to see what other people are saying about the place. Sometimes a nice place can be ruined by the fact that maintenance takes forever to fix things. Or a place may look dirty on the outside, but the inside is taken well care of and in great condition.

The website I found with the most ratings for Morgantown apartments was apartmentratings.com. What’s nice is that you don’t necessarily have to read all of the reviews to get the gist of how tenants feel. Here’s an example:

By looking at the bottom bar, you can see that parking is rated pretty high, while the office staff has received low ratings. It also shows whether pets are permitted, which is important to many people. Out of 47 reviews, The District Apartments received a rating of two out of five. When you click on “The District Apartments” link, it’ll go into a little more detail of how that score was determined.

Parking, maintenance, construction, noise, grounds, safety and office staff ratings make up the final score.

Below the overall score, you can find the user reviews, and a list of tabs with other features.

I suggest that you actually read some of the ratings instead of basing it off of the score to determine the main issues. Some reviews appear to just say, “Stay away” or “NO,” but that’s the subject link that will take you to a full review.

Another nice feature is under the “floorplans” tab where you can find how much rent is, as reported by users.

 You’ll notice next to floorplans, there’s a tab for safety. Safety doesn’t seem to report on crime rates, only if there are any registered sex offenders living in the area. This information is provided by Family Watchdog.

I did find a couple other websites where apartments are rated, but they didn’t  have as many reviews as Apartment Ratings. The other websites are:

One other website that might be helpful in the search for an apartment is  Morgantown Apartments Guide. This site doesn’t have any ratings listed, but it does list locations of apartments and whether they’re pet friendly. It also lists a contact number and web address. However you have to hover over the “WWW” button to see the address, you can’t just click on it to go there.

Before you leave, would you mind letting answering the poll question? Voters are anonymous.

Thanks!

-Leann

Things to know before signing a lease

I’ll admit that I had no idea what I was doing the first time I signed a lease. My first two years of college I lived with my older brother who took care of finding the place, signing the lease and paying bills. Before my junior year he had to move for work, so I decided to find a place with a couple of friends.

We knew we needed three bedrooms and a washer and dryer. But we kind of forgot about air conditioning, to look into how the place was heated and if there were parking spaces.

Surprise, there were no parking spots! The two of us who had cars ended up renting spots down the street for about $80/month. Oh, and there was no air conditioning, which is pretty common with older rental units in Morgantown. And the gas heaters, which I lovingly called “death traps,” were very, very old, loud and smelly.

I actually don’t know why we decided on that place, other than the fact that it was a five-minute walk from campus. When we went to see it, it was trashed – piles of fast food wrappers filled the living room floor. Dirt and leaves were all over the entryway, since there was no screen door to keep debris out. This was a learning experience. I was definitely more careful when I looked for my next apartment.

I ran into this article from The Athens News yesterday – “The Top 10 Thing To Know Before Signing A Lease.” While this publication is based in Ohio, it does have some helpful tips for anyone looking into renting for the first time.

The Athens News suggests asking:

  1. What type of lease is it?
  2. What amenities does it include?
  3. When are the move-in and move-out dates?
  4. What utilities are included with rent?
  5. What are the terms of subleasing?
  6. When is rent due?
  7. Is there a security deposit?
  8. Are they pet-friendly?
  9. Can I decorate the place?
  10. Ask questions and more questions.

You should definitely come up with a list of requirements you have when looking for a place to rent, and a list of questions you want to ask. I know it’s difficult when you’re on the spot after looking at an apartment, and you’re flustered and can’t think of any questions. Here are a few things from my personal experience that you might want to also look into:

  • If there is a pet deposit, will it be refunded? One apartment I looked at had an $800 nonrefundable pet deposit because the carpets were always replaced when a pet owner moved out. (I honestly don’t think that place even had $800 worth of carpet in it to begin with.)
  • What happens if a roommate stops paying rent/breaks the lease? You may think your friend would never do this to you, but so did I, and it happened. And I almost lost my security deposit until that person finally paid off all their rent. This should be written in the lease, but make sure to ask – you may be forced to live with a stranger if your landlord decides to sublet that empty bedroom or paying extra.
  • Look for cable, phone and electrical outlets. You don’t want to only have one outlet in your room for your computer, lamp, alarm clock, phone charger, etc.
  • Is there a washing machine and dryer? Are they shared with other units? Are they free to use or coin operated?
  • Is there parking for each roommates’ car?Is it on-street or private? Where can visitors park? Some neighborhoods in Morgantown have Blue Line Parking, which is affordable and pretty easy to find in some areas. Unfortunately, there’s nothing about Blue Line Parking on the city’s website, so I’m going to go off track for a second and explain what it is:
    • For $5 per year, you get a permit sticker that allows you to park in spaces that have blue lines on the curb – they look like handicap spots, but they are not. The city has a book that lists every rental unit that it eligible for Blue Line parking permits, and the number that is allowed for each unit. When signing up, you must have proof of residence. You also receive one guest pass per rental unit, which hangs from the rearview mirror.
  • Is there central air? If not, are there windows where you can put in an air conditioning unit with outlets nearby? It’s against the city code to plug an a/c unit into an extension cord, and the cords are typically pretty short, so you want to make sure that there’s an outlet close enough to reach. Also make sure that window is easy to open and not painted closed. Yes, that happens.

Once you decide on a place, you may want to walk through with your landlord and write down all things that need repaired – holes / repainting / broken cabinets / stains on the carpet – before you begin moving in your things. Date the list and make a copy for both yourself and the landlord so that if those things are never fixed it’s not taken out of your deposit.

Have any helpful tips I left out? Leave them in the comments!

-Leann