Signing on the line
In East Lansing, signing off-campus leases far in advance has become the norm
For many students, finding an apartment or house and signing a new lease can be a daunting undertaking. Assistant Clinical Professor of Law Elan Nichols discusses some of the precautions students should take when signing a new lease.
When psychology sophomore Elena Brennan scribbled her signature on a lease for a house in East Lansing late last week, she was more relieved than anything.
Brennan plans on living with four of her closest college friends during the next school year, and the five girls recently signed into a rental property where they all can live.
However, Brennan said they made the decision to rent a house after some property management companies already had leased many of their properties for next year, making the off-campus rental process a hassle. For many students such as Brennan, the struggle to find workable off-campus housing options begins early and can have a lasting impact on their college career.
In East Lansing, the search for housing begins as early as late September or early October, and students find the best properties can sometimes be snatched up quickly.
“We had a really hard time trying to find houses for size,” Brennan said.
No preference sophomore Angelita Salazar, far left, and public health sophomore Ellyn Herberth listen as Hagan Reality agent Matt Hagan explains the lease the girls are signing for a house on Virginia Ave. on Monday afternoon. Signing a lease tends to be a stressful process for many students, who must find a house early in order to get a good location with an affordable price. Matt Hallowell/The State News
A stroke of luck got Brennan and her friends the house they wanted — another group decided to drop their claim on the property, and Brennan said they signed on a deadline to make their housing plans a reality.
“It was a really stressful process,” she said. “We were so time-constricted.”
Kinesiology sophomore Alex Kann wants a change of pace from dorm life next year, and, for her, that means moving into a house.
“If I’m going to live off-campus, I’m going to go big,” Kann said.
Kann has been looking into going in on a lease for a rental property for several weeks, but a wrinkle was put into her plans when one of her friends dropped out at the last minute, taking Kann and her potential roommates back to square one. Issues such as this worry Kann, and she said the timing of the East Lansing housing search can be troublesome.
“It’s so far in advance — you don’t even know what’s going to happen down the road,” Kann said.
Students at MSU’s counterpart in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan, faced similar issues with the timing of the housing process a few years ago, said Peter Logan, director of communications for university housing at U-M.
Because of the pressure many U-M students were feeling during their first few weeks of school, the city of Ann Arbor passed an ordinance placing limits on when property owners can begin showing and leasing their properties for the next year — a move Logan said reduced some of the pressures on U-M students.
“Essentially, that was developed to try to stem some of the pressure placed on students to sign up for off-campus housing very soon into the start of a new school year,” Logan said.
Logan said not all the blame can be placed on the property management companies themselves, as some pressures for students stem from other friends anxious to figure out their living situation as early as possible.
“The pressure really comes from the peers who will encourage their friends,” he said. “Often that puts a student in a pressure situation to make a decision before he or she is really ready to.”
Elan Nichols, assistant clinical professor of law at MSU, said the problem MSU students see could stem from market creation on the part of property management owners.
“I think maybe it’s a little bit too much of a creation by landlords to try and get people in (rental properties),” Nichols said.
“If you wait until later in the year, the landlords will have more pressure to rent out as well.”
Matt Hagan, an agent for Hagan Realty Inc., 927 E. Grand River Ave., said the market hasn’t always been so focused on getting leases signed in October, but students began calling the office to inquire about leasing properties earlier and earlier, and the market changed over time to accommodate.
“When I first started out renting, (the housing rush) used to be in December, January,” Hagan said. “As the years have gone on, it’s really been market-driven … if you’re not on top of it, you’re going to miss the boat.”
Hagan remembers a time when the average top-dollar rental cost of prime East Lansing student rentals was $300-$350.
Hagan said during the 15 years he has worked in the city, cost for renting a home in areas closer to campus has risen greatly because of the limit of rental properties the city allows as well as increases in taxes and other expenses.
According to 2000 U.S. Census data, 31.4 percent of properties specified as renter-occupied units in East Lansing cost renters between $300 and $499 a month, and 32.6 percent cost between $500 and $749 a month at that time.
When scoping out a rental property, price is not always conducive to the condition of the property or its attractiveness, but rather its proximity to campus, Code Enforcement and Neighborhood Conservation assistant director Annette Irwin said.
“It’s obviously, as in any real estate, about location,” Irwin said. “Students pay a lot more money to live real close to the downtown area.”
East Lansing Planning and Community Development Director Tim Dempsey said several trends in student housing have arisen throughout the past several years, including more students wanting to live in single bedrooms and student rental properties popping up around East Lansing’s borders, including sites like Chandler Crossings, Abbott Place and The Lodges of East Lansing.
Dempsey said the regionwide student housing market is something the city has not kept official data on yet, but said he hopes to see it analyzed by city officials in the near future.
“It’s on our radar at this point,” he said. “We will try to get a better understanding at this time on where things go so we can be proactive in that sense.”
Criminal justice junior Kevin Remus has experienced living in the dorms and in an apartment and now plans on moving into a house.
Having gone through the process of finding off-campus housing twice, Remus said finding roommates and space early is the best way to stay on top of the housing game and be less stressed when it comes to signing a lease.
“I guess you just have to take your time on it and really search more than just one option,” Remus said. “It can’t just be one thing you’re looking at because it’s never guaranteed that you’re going to get it.”