But landlord says he still is not profiting
By MAUREEN SMITHE
Associate News Editor
When Carolyn D'Amore moved off-campus this year, she was pleasantly surprised.
"I like knowing that I have a kitchen and that I can make my own dinner," she said. "My friends and I spend so much more time together."
D'Amore's response is typical of most students seeking the greater freedoms – and responsibilities – of off-campus living. With a parietal-free lifestyle and no quiet hours, a considerable percentage of students consider housing outside the golden bubble an attractive option.
Administrators count on students to seek this lifestyle as well.
"We do need students to live off campus because we traditionally have an [on-campus] occupancy rate of 96 to 102 percent which means that we really cannot provide housing for everyone and we sometimes maintain a waiting list," said Scott Kachmarik of the Office of Residence Life.
For more than 200 Notre Dame and Saint Mary's students, Mark Kramer, owner of Domus Properties, is the man they call when a sink clogs or a stove breaks.
Kramer, in partnership with his brother Tom, first rented to students in 1988. At the time, it was a one-house operation on North St. Peter Street.
"The first house was a nightmare. The previous owner never cleaned it up between years. When I bought it, I found that the current student renters were very unhappy with it," he said.
Modeling the positive experience his own daughter had with her college renting experience, Kramer set out to take houses, rehab them, support the operation with a full-time maintenance staff, and offer them to students at prices comparable to apartment living.
A lucrative business
Kramer rents 34 houses to 200 students, making his off-campus housing operation the largest in South Bend. Charging $300 per person each month, his rates are competitive with nearby apartment complexes.
Despite reported growth, Kramer insists that he has yet to see a profit. Although he may purchase a house for an average of $30,000, he said he usually spends another $30,000 to $45,000 bringing it up to student standards.
"From an equity standpoint, the future will be very profitable," Kramer said.
As student interest in his houses persists, Kramer said his company continues to buy houses.
"We try to buy multiple homes in an area to create a clustering effect. Students like to be near other students, and its better for a neighborhood because students tend to party and make noise. We try to be courteous to everyone," he said.
Areas such as Washington Street and St. Peter's Street have multiple student houses within a block or two's vicinity.
However, Kramer's business for next year is already below his expectations. By October, he usually has at least 70 percent of his houses rented for the next school year. So far this year, only 51 percent of his houses are leased for next year, a problem he blames on a late start to the school year and the recent attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.
"I'm not worried because I've never had a vacancy," Kramer said, adding that he expects all houses to be rented by January.
When Tiffney Colon found the smashed passenger side window of her car (which was parked in her house's driveway) two weeks ago, she instinctively knew what to do.
"I called the police right way and they were really helpful," Colon said. "But I know this probably wouldn't have happened if I still lived on campus."
The police officer told Colon that break-ins are common place for many off-campus students, a fact Kramer himself cannot dispute.
"We've had some break-ins, but nobody has ever been harmed," Kramer said. "They usually occur over the summer when the houses aren't 100 percent occupied."
Kramer estimates that nine out of 10 break-ins are a result of the students not being aware of what they need to do to protect themselves. As a result, he hosts an annual neighborhood safety and crime prevention meeting for both students and South Bend residents. This year's meeting is scheduled for CHECK THIS DATE!!! at 5:30 p.m. on the 800 block of East Washington Street.
In addition to a responsive police department, Kramer said he takes several precautions to prevent crime, including installing alarm systems, motion lighting around a house's perimeter and locks on all the doors and windows.
"Students may not be familiar with some of the things they can do to prevent crime," such as keeping blinds closed and watching what is put in the trash, Kramer said. "Student safety is our No. 1 priority."
Getting up to par
Kramer said renting to students is not always smooth sailing. His houses are often older, requiring extensive maintenance and repair.
Sally Bannon, Kramer's executive assistant, handles daily phone calls from renters dealing with a wide array of problems. Whether it is a leaky faucet or a mouse in the house, Sally is responsible for dispatching Domus Property's maintenance staff.
"I'm here to take care of students. It's my job," she said.
Kramer also owns Termiguard, a local extermination company. He treats houses monthly for any pests that may wander in.
"We don't have many complaints about bugs or mice," Bannon said. "Our biggest complaint is plumbing issues, but we can take care of that right away."
The end of the year can be a difficult time for Kramer. Come May, it is likely for some renters to feel as though their experience with Domus Properties was not a positive one. Although Kramer meets with his renters six weeks before move-out to discuss his expectations for the condition of the house, only 50 percent of the students get their full security deposit back, 30 percent get partial refunds and 20 percent owe him money for damages and extensive repairs.
He said that at least four houses a year are beyond handy-man repair, with damages such as holes in the walls, kicked in stoves, smashed toilets, ruined hardwood floors and broken windows.
"We don't want the deposits because by taking the deposits our workload is horrendous," Kramer said.
One house he distinctly recalls was so bad that he estimated nearly $10,000 in damages. When the parents of the five renters heard this, all 10 of them came down to help clean up to defray the costs.
"One of the parents said, `I'm ashamed to admit that this is going to be a future alum of Notre Dame. I think I've wasted $150,000 in an education,'" Kramer said.
Regardless of end of the year woes, off-campus living provides students with an option, and Kramer said he is happy to oblige.
"Our motto is to give students more than what they expect," he said.
All News Stories for Tuesday, October 2, 2001