WHY LOCAL:
A YEAR OF PREPARATION FOR ONE WEEKEND
| 2014 Q3 | story by MARK FAGAN    | photos by PATRICK CONNER |
WhyLocal

Students moving in to their new, temporary home for the school year.

Tom Flynn is studying to be an engineer, so he’s comfortable with all sorts of numbers. Therefore, he doesn’t blink when considering some of the daunting digits facing him and his roommates as they move into their rental home on Tennessee Street: eight recliners, five couches and two minifridges.

The list goes on, of course, but the most imposing integers may be those set in stone and concrete on the other side of the curb: 17 steps to climb, with all that stuff just to reach the broad porch leading to the front door. Then there are the wooden stairs inside, all of which will be necessary for lugging a bed frame, box spring and mattress up to the third floor of the place built nearly a century ago.

The bed of a friend’s Titan V-8 pickup has been loaded and unloaded 10 times now. More work awaits.

“Kind of a free for all,” Flynn admits, with a shrug of resignation. “And we’re only, like, halfway done.”

And he’s only the beginning.

Flynn and his roommates are among thousands of University of Kansas students changing addresses as the new school year begins. It’s an annual rite of passage in a town where half of all housing units are rentals, the bulk of them occupied on leases running from August through July.

The signs of transition are unmistakable, from U-Hauls rolling at 30 mph down Kansas Highway 10 to lava lamps flying off shelves at Super Target, and even more people piling into Chipotle on Massachusetts Street. Parents unload their kids, then hit Jock’s Nitch for KU basketball polos and dinner at Ingredient. Pizza delivery drivers dart about town, their tent signs blurring atop the roofs of their 1997 Toyota Corollas.

Business picks up, seemingly everywhere.

“It affects every area of the city,” said Scott McCullough, who monitors rentals as Director of Planning and Development Services at city hall, the building where personnel hustle to connect utilities, arrange trash service and wrap up road projects. “We all get busier.”

The mass turnover can be particularly challenging for owners and managers of rental properties. There are inspections to be conducted, deposits to be returned, carpets to be cleaned, walls to be painted, screens to be replaced, locks to be changed, keys to be exchanged and, yes, rent checks to be collected.

Many times within the span of 36 hours.

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More than 17,000 apartments, fourplexes, triplexes, duplexes and homes in Lawrence are occupied by renters.

“It’s intense,” admits Tim Stultz, who owns 200 rental units in Lawrence.

For his 131 units at Westfield Place in northwest Lawrence, Stultz’s leases end at noon July 31; new ones begin at 4 p.m. Aug. 1. That gives him 28 hours to take care of everything that may have been a year in the making, and his arrangements for handling the upheaval begin months in advance.

There are cleaners to be lined up, painting supplies to be purchased, light bulbs to be replaced, additional maintenance workers to be lined up and on down the line.

Making plans ahead of time and being prepared for the inevitable crunch helps make a stressful situation as calm as possible.

“I can’t imagine having 130 people show up to move it at 4 o’clock Aug. 1, and then not have their units ready for them,” Stultz said. “Good thing we’ve been doing this for 30 years.”

Such experience leads to familiarity. All of his regular workers know they’ll be on duty during the transition time. That’s just the way it’s done, and it’s even outlined in the employee handbook: Everybody works July 30, July 31 and Aug. 1.

“It’s crucial,” he said. “It’s three days of long days and hard work, it’s tough, and it’s stressful, but it’s three days and then it’s over.”

With more than 17,000 apartments, fourplexes, triplexes, duplexes and homes in Lawrence occupied by renters, there are hundreds of owners and managers who grapple with such challenges.

Erika and Jeff Plumlee, who own a fourplex near the KU campus, spent a week on transition details: painting walls, trim and ceilings; replacing smoke alarms; even re-tiling a kitchen. Jeff took a few days off work and joined Erika, who also works full-time, in working in vacated units until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. to get things done.

They freed up precious time this year starting inspections a month early. Having good tenants made things easy, and everyone received their deposits back in full.

The long hours can be difficult, they say, but it’s best to look past any short-term pain and focus instead on potential long-term gain.

“It’s an investment opportunity for the future,” Erika Plumlee said with a smile. “We keep reminding ourselves of that.”

The turnover crunch is a welcome challenge to face for owners of rental properties, considering the alternative.

Spending a month or two or more making repairs, upgrades or simply cleaning up can be a costly expense, and not just for the materials and labor. Each day a property is vacant is another day without it generating revenue.

Once a tenant moves out, it’s always good to have a reason to have it ready soon. A vacant property becomes an expense. A few hours of cleaning, renovating or upgrading can mean the difference between making money for 12 months or potentially missing out.

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The long hours can be difficult, but it’s best to look past any short-term pain and focus instead on potential long-term gain.

With a new crop of consumers arriving each fall, it’s no wonder landlords start their leases Aug. 1 and embrace the logistical challenges that come along with being ready in an increasingly competitive landscape.

“It’s a bigger scale now,” said David Guntert, a planner at city hall. He’s been observing the turnover since he arrived as a freshman at KU in 1970, and, like owners of rental properties, doesn’t mind much the relative mayhem that arrives each August.

“But it is mass confusion for a few days,” Guntert said.

Back on Tennessee Street, Flynn is settling into some relative calm. There are five fellow KU students walking up the uneven brick sidewalk out front, chatting and smiling in running shorts and tank tops and whatever else is in fashion among females this time of year.

“This is the best part of the house,” Flynn murmurs, through a broadening smile of his own. “HI THERE!”

Out front, there’s a Jeep 4X4 with a Kappa Alpha Theta sticker across the top of the rear window. A “DANCE TEAM” sticker stretches across the bottom.

All that moving? All those steps? All that hectic scrambling to get people, furniture and everything else in the door, up the stairs and into place?

All worth it, it seems. Especially when the smiles are directed his way as they pass.

“Yes,” Flynn said, waving and looking forward to a new year. “This is the best part.” ■

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