Hey Wait, You Can’t Say THAT!

So now that you’ve settled into your role of a mystery shopper with ease and finesse, you’ve undoubtedly begun changing up your “cover story” and your questions to your targeted agents.  To retain my superhero super-shopper identity, I can’t reveal mine because I’d have to kill you.  Not really, I just like to keep it to myself so any leasing agents reading this right now (Hi there!) don’t catch it.  But that’s a topic for another day….

Two areas you may need to address in your shop contracts are the factors of how your agent answers Fair Housing questions and Crime/Safety questions.  You need to be a little creative here, because when I was out on site and showing a unit, I could usually spot a shopper from a mile away mainly because of how these questions were posed.

Don’t think of yourself as a shopper – just think of how you yourself would ask these questions.  The properties that you have the ability to choose from to shop are also based on the demographic information you entered when you signed up with Ellis but the truth is “Crime doesn’t have an address”.  Crime can and DOES happen anywhere.

“Crime has no address”

It’s usually okay to ask “Do you guys have a lot of break-ins here?” or “Do you have a lot of crime in the neighborhood?”  The leasing professional may go as far as saying they’re not aware of anything, or that nothing like that has happened since they’ve been there, but even those answers are dangerously close to being inaccurate answers and answers that can lead to falsely suggesting the property is crime free.

The best answers they can give are to check out the local police department (usually via website) for crime statistics, or the even more benign “Crime has no address”.  They may fully be aware of the number of car break-ins or the like, but to admit to them is sales suicide.  Most offices are required to keep a book of recorded incidents in their offices.  They may also answer with, “We have a courtesy patrol officer who is available for loud music and disturbances,” but they should be trained well enough that they don’t tip their hat to acknowledging actual occurrences or remotely suggest they are somehow ensuring your safety with the presence of a courtesy patrol officer on the property.

One shop I performed included driving on the golf cart by a car whose window was busted out and the alarm was blaring.  I took that as a GREAT cue to ask about crime on the property and the leasing agent’s response?  “Well, that doesn’t look too healthy, does it?”  He went on to say that was the sixth or seventh car he’d seen in the last two weeks that had been broken into. As you can imagine had I been a real prospect, I would not be feeling very good about living there at that point.

Fair Housing questions can be a little trickier.  You might state you want to live in quiet areas or don’t particularly like children playing right outside the window/door of your apartment home. You could indicate you haven’t lived in an apartment community before or in quite some time, which would mean you might not be familiar with their policies. There was a time when you could be in an Adult or Family section, though that is something in our distant past.

You can ask about the type of people you see walking about, whether there are professionals (if someone is in a shirt, tie, business dress, etc.) or students.  It’s easy to formulate the question – just look around you.  The well trained agent will answer that they do not keep records on that type of information there or will use that opportunity to invite you to an upcoming community event they are hosting so you can meet your potential neighbors.

“It’s their JOB to be vague!”

Another answer you will more commonly hear is:  “Anyone who qualifies”, meaning that all persons are subject to the same application guidelines.  Any agent who remotely teeters toward an answer that includes race or religion (or other classes protected by Fair Housing Laws) is exposing themselves to potential litigation or fines. So do not push them for specifics when they are vague – it’s their JOB to be vague!

Some agents will try to be crafty in their answers…. Once when I inquired, “Do you have a lot of students living here?” as it was close to a community college, the leasing professional said, “Hmmmm.  Well, I have to be careful in my answer.  If I wanted to go to college, and I liked the average age of the people I went to college with, then yes, I could expect to see a lot of them here.”    His answer was really too much information about the make up of the resident profile there. And it could have been taken by me (their customer) as a suggestions that perhaps someone of my age would not fit in or enjoy living there.

It’s all in the perception of the prospect – YOU! – for that period of time. It’s so important to note the exact questions you ask and the leasing associate’s responses as accurately as possible. Don’t put words in their mouths – or say the leasing professional said the community was safe or secure just because they give an answer that you think implies that. Just write what they said in your report so the client can explain to them whether or not it was appropriate.

If a leasing professional responds in a way that does not seem right, don’t worry about reporting it – it greatly helps management companies identify training issues and potential liabilities to their business.

-K. Peters