Real Estate

Why People Don’t Like Lawyer Tenants, Redux

Yesterday my wife and I signed a lease for a new apartment. It was a pretty big day for us, since we’d been living in the same squalid spider hole for eight years.

The entire process — which, depending on when you start counting, took 10 days, 6 weeks, or 11 and a half months — gave me a chance to closely examine one of our favorite topics around here: Is it really more difficult to rent a place if you are a lawyer? We’ve done stories about the kinds of things lawyer residents can do that can give building managers angina. But do any of those lawyer horror stories actually make people less likely to lease spaces to attorneys?

Based on my recent experience, I think the answer is no — it’s just that lawyers and people with legal training go through the process differently than regular folks. That may make the process more difficult, but not discriminatory against people who know their rights….

My wife is a corporate lawyer and she spearheaded the process for us because she’s still an attorney while I sit around and try to figure out how long I have to wait before I can start making jokes about nuclear tsunamis. Only one of us has the temperament necessary to sift through hundreds of listings (many of them containing outright lies), set up appointments, and politely ask unscrupulous landlords if we might have an opportunity to grossly overpay for a glorified box that happens to be on the island of Manhattan. And since she’s corporate, she knows how to negotiate. As a former litigator, all I really know how to do is say, “If that’s your best offer, I guess I’ll see you in court.”

The specifics of our search came down to the vagaries of our financial situation (poor), ability to compromise (non-existent), and inherent elitism (really, you have no idea). Our options had very little to do with my wife’s profession, so I’ll not bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that last night (while U.S. News rankings were breaking across the land) we were in an office with a person willing to rent us a place that we both liked, with only a lease contract standing between us.

And that’s when my wife went from “very nice woman who gets along with everybody” to “crazy femi-lawyer-tron who bathes contracts with ink made from blood.” The first thing she says — after a series of sighs, mutters, and head shakes — is something like “this document is poorly worded in every way.” Mind you we’ve been looking for this kind of place for almost a year. I love this new apartment and I HATE where we’ve been living. And before she even gets through the first page she’s all into, “We’re going to need you to rewrite this section, right now.”

Mind you, not all lawyers are like this. Judge Richard Posner, for instance, admitted he doesn’t even read this boileplate crap. Neither does his Seventh Circuit colleague, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook.

But my wife? That lady reads every word. By page two, she’s gotten to “I know what you are trying to say, but that’s not what this says.” By page three, she’s saying things like “and here, here I don’t even know what do with. You’re going to have to write a rider specifying that…” The leasing agent — who is totally unprepared for all this — is saying things like, “Ma’am, this is our standard contract,” and my wife says, “That makes it more difficult for you, but don’t worry, we don’t have to start from scratch.”

My wife was absolutely right, of course. Their standard arrangement was clumsy and of course tried to give all of the leverage to the landlord. And she was just hammering away (in a nerdy way it was totally hot). But I was feeling like I was in the middle of a scene from The Princess Bride. When our broker (who was staying with us until the bitter end because she was going to get her fee) pointed out that I seemed less “concerned” about the lease details then my wife, I put on my best Mandy Patinkin accent and said: “Because I know something they do not know. It’s called New York landlord/tenant law.”

Like Posner and Easterbrook, I give a f**k about what I’m signing. Because “if the milk turns out to be sour, I ain’t the kind of pussy to drink it.” Tenants have so many rights in this city, and it takes so long for the landlord to even bring an eviction proceeding against a tenant who is unaware of their rights, that functionally it’s pretty hard to sign away anything that’s really important. Is the rent figure correct? Is the lease term correct? Yes? Then we can fight about everything else if need be.

To me, that’s why it’s difficult for people to rent to lawyers, because we get them coming and going. On the front end, there are people like my wife, who will sit there and dissect the contractual language like a teacher going over a C- homework assignment (in the end, she got them to write up one additional rider, rephrase another one, and change so many terms that I think they can’t legally raise our rent without a waiver from Mayor Michael Bloomberg). On the back end, there are jerk-offs like me who understand the time it takes to get a person out of a unit the same way criminals know how long they can be on the phone with the FBI before they are able to trace the call.

And my wife and I weren’t even trying to be dicks. I don’t think my new (!) landlords were trying to be either. They were just used to being able to throw a bunch of legalese at people and have them roll over. We were just used to not getting screwed with our pants on. It takes a little bit longer to come to a meeting to the minds when both sides know what that phrase means.

As our broker said when we were done: “I’ve never been to a lease signing with two lawyers before. I feel like I learned something.”

Legal education might not be worth $100K in non-dischargeable debt. But it’ll teach how to get through the rest of your life without being a sucker.

Earlier: Why People Don’t Like Lawyer Tenants

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