Rental Conditions -  A Real Estate Inspector’s View

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Fri, Oct 03, 2014, 10:26 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Dangerous electrical rewiring in rental on Grant St. Photo by Dick Conoboy

[Note:  This article originally appeared on the blog Twilight Zoning in Bellingham]

Reality check.  What do real estate inspectors find here in Bellingham when they conduct inspections for potential buyers of existing rental properties?   Plenty, it seems.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a home inspector who has spent over twenty years in commercial and residential construction and the last ten years as an inspector of homes, both rental and owner-occupied units.  This individual has thoroughly inspected hundreds of rentals - single family, duplexes, and various multi-unit apartment complexes.  He stated that the conditions vary greatly due to the age and condition of the property. 

In Bellingham he claims there are two distinct types of rental properties, rentals for college students and rentals for the general market.  His experience is that often the college rentals are older homes converted to rented rooms where the renters share bathrooms and kitchens.

Overall he has discovered that the college rentals tend to be less well maintained with more reported findings such as:
- Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors removed
- Damaged electrical system
- Leaking plumbing systems
- Poor ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens causing mildew or mold
- Drywall, door, window or flooring damage
- Old heating systems that may cause carbon monoxide to leak in to the home

Similarly, he has experienced that rental units for the general population of renters are found with the following issues:
- Improperly installed or damaged exterior stairs or decks
- Leaking plumbing systems
- Lack of smoke or carbon monoxide detectors in proper locations
- Lack of ventilation causing mildew or mold
- Electrical systems without GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interruption) protection
- Old heating systems that may cause carbon monoxide to leak in to the home

He also states that there are those landlords who buy a property, collect rent, and spend little money on repairs. In these cases, he continues, rent is often low and living conditions are poor. Renters do not report problems for fear that the rent will go up. The landlords can then easily turn a blind eye to problems.  He continues by saying that while many landlords see their rentals as investments and work to keep them in good condition by repairing items brought to their attention, the problem is they are not often educated on operations and safety requirements making them unaware of serious conditions that may exist.

Of the hundreds of rentals this inspector has seen, he estimates that about 15% have serious condition issues that render the unit dangerous to live in.   But do not let the percentage figure mislead you. This percentage, if extrapolated into a number of rental units, indicates that an inspection of all rental units in Bellingham (about 14,000*) would uncover approximately 2,000 to 2,500 unfit units.  Furthermore, given the average occupancy of a dwelling unit in Bellingham, that means that from 4,500 to 5,500 human beings (adults and children) are,  AT THE MOMENT YOU ARE READING THIS, living in dangerous conditions. None of this information is new or surprising.  I have been reporting this kind of data for years.  (Check my articles here and here for examples.)  The problem is that few are paying attention while the real estate and landlord groups claim the problem can be solved by being nice to them and educating the tenants.

On October 27th the city council will conduct a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would require landlords merely to register their properties with the city.   No inspections would be required.   This proposal  by council member Roxanne Murphy is based on a similar ordinance Murphy encountered in Tacoma , WA where she lived prior to recently moving to Bellingham.  Although the ordinance met with some success in correcting exterior signs of blight, it failed in correcting serious interior defects in unsafe and unhealthy rental units across the board.  My article "Councilmember Murphy's Proposed Rental Ordinance Is Deeply Flawed" contains more information on Tacoma’s experience and belies Murphy's claim that "maybe 5%" of Bellingham rentals are in poor condition.

*There are over 17,000 rental units in Bellingham, however, approximately 3,000 are controlled by and already inspected by other agencies such as HUD (Housing and Urban Development).

Abe Jacobson  //  Sat, Oct 04, 2014, 11:15 am

Thank you for publishing this information based on a professional inspector’s experience.

I would like to add my own, perhaps peculiar, perspective. My wife and I trudge around Bellingham every autumn doing door-to-door canvassing for political campaigns we support. As a result, we visit several-hundred addresses each year. Our observations are mainly about the approaches and doorway landings, which are the portions of rental buildings that we directly observe. We find that rentals are easily recognizable by the generally poor appearance/condition, by the quantity of litter, and by the obvious lack of pride/care in maintaining the property.

Many- certainly more than 10% -of rental properties we’ve visited have physically unsafe landings and external stairs. A similar proportion have shaky and untrustworthy rails around the landings. There is a two-syllable word for these badly-maintained rentals, and the second syllable is “hole”. According to insurance statistics, falls from decks/landings ranks #2, just behind fire, as the cause of injury/mortality due to domestic accidents.

The City Council, with the noble exception of Jack Weiss, has frequently gnashed their teeth and gushed crocodile tears at the alleged economic burden (on landlords) that would be imposed by an inspection regime. But none of these solons has considered the economic burden on the owners of private residences near the substandard, poorly-maintained rental property. These private homeowners see the value of their property plummet on the resale market, due to the rental dumps around them. The private homeowners also see their quality of life hurt- how would you like to live next to a rental dump?

For some reason, the City Council, with the exception of Jack Weiss in this matter, can summon empathy for the absentee landlord but not for the adjacent homeowners. What gives?

Best wishes,
Abe Jacobson

Mike Rostron  //  Sat, Oct 04, 2014, 4:49 pm

These approaches are also a safety hazard for delivery people. Many post office, Fed Ex, UPS, and food delivery people are injured due to poorly maintained stairs, rails and landings.

Dick Conoboy  //  Sun, Oct 05, 2014, 10:15 am


I wish I could get into the heads of some of the council members who have declined to support rental inspections over the past decade or more. In fact the issue goes back more than 20 years. Anne Mackie of the York Neighborhood found in the association’s archive a document from the early 1990s that speaks to the need for rental inspections because of deteriorating rentals in their neighborhood.

I am also baffled by the knee-jerk reaction by the real estate industry.  These bad rentals cannot favorably reflect on them and have an suppressing effect on property values.  I was a real estate agent in the early 1980s and we had a code of ethics.  What gives now?

One small point is that we are not talking only about absentee landlords but those rental owners who live right here in the city or the county.  There is no inherent problem with a landlord that lives elsewhere as long as a competent rental management firm is used to manage the property. 

For all the talk about “liberal” or “progressive” Bellingham, the focus is more on assisting developers, landlords and businesses. Where is the “caring council” that everyone touted after the last election? 

As is often said.  “Follow the money.”

Rental Conditions -  A Real Estate Inspector’s View

Fri, Oct 03, 2014, 10:26 am  //  Dick Conoboy

An experienced real estate inspector provides a window to the dangeroous conditions found in rentals in Bellingham

3 comments; last on Oct 05, 2014

Hickory, Dickory, Docketing…Yet Another Spot Rezone

Mon, Sep 22, 2014, 5:07 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Last Thursday, the Planning Commission voted to recommend the docketing of the spot rezone of 801 Samish from Residential Single to Commerical Planned (non-retail)

6 comments; last on Oct 03, 2014

Village Books

In historic Fairhaven. Take Exit 250 from I-5.

Councilmember Murphy’s Proposed Rental Ordinance Is Deeply Flawed

Fri, Aug 01, 2014, 8:00 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Councilmember Murphy's proposal is based on a complaint-based rental ordinance from Tacoma, demonstrated to do little for the health and safety of tenants.

14 comments; last on Oct 01, 2014

Plan Commission & Samish Neighbors Bypassed on Rezone Docketing

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 7:52 am  //  Dick Conoboy

In contravention of the Bellingham Municipal Code, the City Council will consider on 4 August a last minute docketing request that ignores the Planning Commission and Samish Neighborhood.

1 comments; last on Jul 30, 2014

Intrado Not to Intrude in Bellingham

Tue, Jul 08, 2014, 8:20 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The city council "persuades" the city administration to withdraw a request for an intrusive police threat warning system

2 comments; last on Jul 08, 2014

DOJ Grant Brings Confusion and Anger to City Council Meeting

Tue, Jun 24, 2014, 10:24 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The Bellingham Police Department wants to purchase "threat assessment" software with federal monies. Citizen comments were vehement and negative. City Council confused.

5 comments; last on Jul 03, 2014

Fireworks Ban in Bellingham in Effect as of 18 June

Tue, Jun 17, 2014, 7:53 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The possession and use of consumer fireworks are no longer permitted within the city limits.

1 comments; last on Jun 19, 2014

Planning or Development Commission?

Mon, Apr 28, 2014, 6:28 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Every Bellingham Planning Commission member has ties to development or development-related businesses.

4 comments; last on Apr 30, 2014

Anatomy of a Development Part XII - Citizens Win Against University Ridge

Wed, Apr 02, 2014, 6:00 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Ambling University Development Group pulls out. University Ridge will not be built.

12 comments; last on Apr 06, 2014

Is ALEC Jr. Coming to Whatcom County or Bellingham Soon?

Wed, Mar 12, 2014, 8:28 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The infamous American Legislative Exchange Council plans to send its spawn to cities and counties throughout the U.S.

1 comments; last on Mar 24, 2014

Panem et Circenses - Why I Did Not Watch “The Super Bowl”

Mon, Feb 03, 2014, 6:30 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Professional and even college sports have morphed into a circus of corporate greed and the fleecing of the public.

3 comments; last on Mar 01, 2014

Anatomy of a Development Part XI - The Doldrums at University Ridge

Mon, Jan 20, 2014, 6:14 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The developers of University Ridge have been silent since shortly after the hearing examiner's decision on 23 October last year. Will they walk?


The Bellingham “Riot” - Let’s Expand the Conversation

Thu, Dec 05, 2013, 6:00 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The post "riot" conversation is terribly lacking in several areas. We must expand the discussion or risk learning little from the experience.

3 comments; last on Dec 15, 2013

Walmart and McDonald’s - Partners in Institutionalized Cluelessness

Wed, Nov 20, 2013, 6:03 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The advice coming from Walmart and McDonald's to its low paid employees becomes more and more bizarre and inane.


Anatomy of a Development - Part X Appeals of the Hearing Examiner’s Decision

Tue, Nov 19, 2013, 6:35 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Ambling's motion to the hearing examiner for reconsideration was definitively rejected. The developer has not met the deadline for an appeal to the Superior Court


Puget Neighborhood Likely New Home for 1,300 Students

Tue, Nov 12, 2013, 6:16 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Puget Neighborhood will likely have in the immediate future 1,300 new rental units that will be marketed primarily to the student population.


Health Insurance Scams - Washington Not Spared

Mon, Nov 04, 2013, 10:55 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The call of the dollar speaks more loudly to health insurance companies than does the voice and well-being of the consumer, even here in Washington.

8 comments; last on Nov 06, 2013

Anatomy of a Development - Part IX BMC Rule of Three Thwarts Plans

Thu, Oct 31, 2013, 11:19 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Four bedroom dorm rooms have been nixed by the hearing examiner. University Ridge may be in trouble as a cash cow for Ambling Development of Georgia

3 comments; last on Nov 04, 2013

Dick’s Picks for City Council - Burr and Petree

Mon, Oct 28, 2013, 1:00 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Independent voters are for independent thinkers on the city council. Vote for Burr and Petree.


Anatomy of a Development Proposal - Part VIII The 12 October Riot and University Ridge

Tue, Oct 15, 2013, 4:16 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

The development of University Ridge will replicate the student ghetto that fueled the riot on 12 October.

6 comments; last on Oct 25, 2013

Anatomy of a Development Proposal - Part VII The Hearing on University Ridge

Fri, Sep 20, 2013, 8:09 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Hearing held on 11 September. Comment period extended 10 days. Effects on home owners already manifest.

8 comments; last on Sep 22, 2013

Anatomy of a Development Proposal - Part VI Hearing Examiner Date Set - A Broken Process

Mon, Aug 26, 2013, 5:00 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The University Ridge process works only to the benefit of the developers. The public is offered tight deadlines and insufficient information.

1 comments; last on Sep 21, 2013

Anatomy of a Development Proposal - Part V The SEPA Determination

Fri, Aug 16, 2013, 5:00 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The University Ridge dormitory development approval process is broken. The City Council should act.

1 comments; last on Aug 17, 2013

Charter Schools Redux - Primary Election for School Board upon Us

Tue, Jul 23, 2013, 11:22 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Candidates for the Bellingham School Board need to let us know where they stand on charter schools.

3 comments; last on Aug 05, 2013

Anatomy of a Development Proposal - Part I The Variance

Wed, Jun 26, 2013, 8:04 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

A variance request without merit is the centerpiece of a development proposal to construct a complex of four dormitory-style buildings among single family homes in the Puget Neighborhood


D-Day 6 June 2013

Thu, Jun 06, 2013, 6:30 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

D-Day forgotten.


Skip the Fireworks - Send Money to Support Our Troops

Mon, May 20, 2013, 12:48 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

You can give your money, normally dished out to fireworks manufacturers and distributors, to organizations that help our disabled veterans. Change the way we celebrate Independence Day.


University Ridge Dormitory, The Infill Tool Kit and Our Neighborhoods

Mon, May 13, 2013, 3:50 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Some very important issues with respect to the University Ridge private dormitory project in the Puget Neighborhood will not be considered in the approval process.

10 comments; last on Jun 30, 2013

Update on University Ridge Student Dormitory Development

Wed, May 08, 2013, 9:53 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Ambling University Development has proposed building private, off-campus dormitory buildings in the Puget Neighborhood. Their revised proposal was submitted on 29 April.


Status of the Move to Ban Fireworks in Bellingham

Sat, Apr 06, 2013, 3:59 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

Dangerous fireworks likely to continue being sold in Bellingham for this 4th of July

1 comments; last on Apr 06, 2013

Is That Apple Hard Drive Really Yours?

Thu, Apr 04, 2013, 12:48 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

It seems that for Apple products, you do not really own that hard drive... as a journalist recently discovered.

2 comments; last on Apr 13, 2013

University Ridge Height Variance Hearing Postponed

Tue, Mar 12, 2013, 11:50 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Several complaints to the city seem to have occasioned a postponement of a height variance hearing until a complete development proposal is submitted.

1 comments; last on Mar 12, 2013

Obamacare and the Coming (Not Again?) Wealth Transfer

Wed, Mar 06, 2013, 11:05 am  //  Dick Conoboy

You are not likely to escape the coming transfer of $billions from your pocket to the health insurance industry. You will get little, if anything, in return.

4 comments; last on Apr 05, 2013

Support our Troops - Ban Fireworks

Sun, Mar 03, 2013, 5:17 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

Do we need to recreate the sounds and sights of the battlefield when doing so brings pain and suffering to our combat veterans?


University Ridge Student Housing - What is it?

Mon, Feb 25, 2013, 7:54 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

There is a private sector development proposal to house approximately 600 students in the Puget Neighborhood on 11 acres to the east of Nevada St.

5 comments; last on Feb 27, 2013

Behind the Charter Schools Initiative

Fri, Oct 19, 2012, 2:24 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

Washington voters have wisely turned down three attempts to create charter schools in this state. They should replicate these defeats in 2012.

1 comments; last on Oct 23, 2012

Petition Drive to Ban Consumer Fireworks Underway

Thu, May 24, 2012, 9:22 am  //  Dick Conoboy

A case for eliminating consumer fireworks in Bellingham city limits

3 comments; last on May 26, 2012

Padden Trails.  It Is Not About Infill; It Is About Profits

Sat, Apr 07, 2012, 2:05 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

The issue is not sprawl or infill, but the money to be made by the type of infill and its placement

7 comments; last on Apr 09, 2012

2012-2013 Priorities from City Council

Sun, Mar 11, 2012, 11:20 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The City Council outlines their agenda for the coming year

2 comments; last on Mar 12, 2012

Padden Trails Rezone – You Should Be Worried

Tue, Nov 15, 2011, 11:43 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The Padden Trails rezone effort is a misuse of the Infill Tool Kit on the outskirts of Bellingham.

8 comments; last on Nov 16, 2011

Bellingham Bank of America hires security guard

Wed, Nov 02, 2011, 4:00 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

Occupy Bellingham is already creating jobs for the 99% - but this raises some interesting questions.

8 comments; last on Nov 04, 2011

Status of Rental Licensing and Inspections in Bellingham

Thu, Jun 02, 2011, 9:32 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

Updates on Rental Licensing in Bellingham

15 comments; last on Jun 25, 2011

Fireworks in Bellingham

Mon, Jan 17, 2011, 5:22 pm  //  Dick Conoboy

Why a ban on fireworks in Bellingham is needed, and a look at the politics of the issue.

31 comments; last on Jan 25, 2011


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