COLUMN: The apartment rental rush: Leasing season too early near University of Wisconsin

By Taylor Hughes

So, it’s November. Election Day is nearing, the semester is starting to take a stranglehold on University of Wisconsin students and it is consistently below 40 degrees outside. But for some students, the month signals something else much more pressing: renting season.

Property management companies are gearing up for a busy couple of months, tallying the number of early lease renewals and prepping the opt-out tenants for what’s sure to be another intense round of showings. By winter break, most freshmen you talk to will have an idea of where they’re living next year, after much debate among dorm mates and a tour or two of College Court.

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Luckily, thanks to a Madison ordinance updated by the City Council recently, occupied apartments can’t be shown to potential lessees until Nov. 15 – before the ordinance was in place, showings started as early as September. The council even tried out a Dec. 15 start date for a period of several years, but the city had to move the date up as tenants were signing leases on properties without even seeing them in the first place – rental companies presented photo tours and floor plans without actually showing them.

Regardless of municipal restrictions, however, a fact that seems straightforward enough consistently slips under most undergrads’ radar: It’s November, a full nine months before next year’s leases take hold. In any reasonable metropolitan area, searching for housing almost an entire year before you need it would be absurd, especially in college. Who knows who will hook up with whom or whose drunken insult will offend which potential roommate over the course of the better part of a school year?

The clamor to rent starts so early in Madison that a long-term couple at the University of Wisconsin could conceivably get pregnant and give birth to a baby all after having signed a lease, only to discover come Aug. 15, 2007, that a one-bedroom apartment above the Irish Pub is hardly sufficient for a small family.

And the biggest head-scratcher about the whole situation is that, when it all comes down to it, the housing scramble is completely self-perpetuated. The only reason students rush to sign leases is that students rush to sign leases.

There’s no question that Madison boasts an overabundance of student housing – and no matter how long students wait, landlords won’t start demolishing their massive apartment complexes or leveling their Mifflin Street homes. The enormous new buildings near the corner of University Avenue and Bassett Street have added thousands of apartments to the market over the past decade, and the old Camp Randall-area homes aren’t going anywhere. What’s more, brand new luxury dorms are luring some potential upperclassmen from the off-campus options they might have considered otherwise, leaving even more wiggle room for students.

But beyond the general senselessness of the rush, the unreasonably early demand allows landlords to impose excessive restrictions on current tenants and jack up prices on a yearly basis.

Because demand for next year’s housing fires up so early, some landlords ask tenants to decide about lease renewals just two months after they have moved in – JSM Properties’ renewals, for example, have already been collected. After just two months, people are hardly used to their new surroundings and even less sure of how they’ll feel about their roommates after another 10 months – much less another 22.

Additionally, those who do wait to look for housing reap the benefits of inflated pricing and excessive supply in earlier months. By July, landlords start to dramatically lower rent and throw in added benefits like free parking and free utilities at the expense of those who jumped the gun in November.

So, over the next few months, worry about the more important things: Finish homework, go to the polls next Tuesday and pass those finals with flying colors. There’s plenty of housing, and students are the primary players in the market – so what’s the rush?