Fireside Chatter

Kindling and sparks from Cozy.

Introducing the newest members of Cozy

Written on November 30, 2016 by Lucy Burningham

Clockwise from top left: Will Ellett, Alexis Johnson, Kyle Meyer, Terrence Jones, Skye Selbiger, Ali Kaufman

It’s been an exciting year for us here at Cozy, and the good things keep coming. This month, six new people (!) joined Team Cozy, and we couldn’t be more thrilled. Please join us in welcoming this talented crew.

Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Alexis Johnson is the newest member of our Customer Support team. Her work as an IT administrator brought together her love of technology and devices and communicating with people, making support a great fit. Her varied background from math to gardening to yoga might seem disparate, but at the end of the day, she appreciates working somewhere where she can awkwardly stretch on the floor in the middle of company meetings. She’s about to start renting out her house in Northeast Portland, so we’re adding “Cozy landlord” to her title.

Ali Kaufman worked in the nonprofit world, as a child development specialist for kids with behavioral disabilities, before she made the leap to tech. After studying computer science, she became a developer and she joins Cozy as a software engineer. When she’s not coding, you can find her drawing and painting, or snuggling with her two chihuahuas, Griswald and Ernie, and her cat, LeBron, while watching Bob’s Burgers.

Oregon native Kyle Meyer has worked in the digital world as a graphic designer, photographer, and web developer, and he’s a software engineer at Cozy. Kyle is an avid backpacker and backcountry hunter, and he has the stats to prove it: he’s slept outside more than 60 nights this year. His most memorable moment as a renter—his landlord put him up in a La Quinta Inn for six weeks with his cat, Jam, while his apartment was under construction. That’s when he learned to love powdered eggs and waffles.

Skye Selbiger grew up in Portland, Oregon, and he returns to the city after working as a designer in L.A. He joins Cozy as our new product designer, and he’s looking forward to improving Cozy as a product from an experience, visual, and technical perspective. He’s a renter who’s in it for the flexibility, and he loves the Oxford comma, just like us. When he’s not working, you can find him snowboarding, backpacking, and checking out new breweries.

Terrence Jones joins us from Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked as a software engineer in the healthcare industry, and now he’s a software engineer at Cozy. Before he got into tech, he attended culinary school to pursue his love of food and coffee. He’s a bike commuter, beer drinker, and coffee aficionado, so Portland might qualify as his utopia. He’s looking forward to exploring Oregon’s natural wonders, especially by going on long hikes.

Floridian Will Ellett fell in love with the Cascade Mountains when he visited Seattle, and he vowed to return to the Pacific Northwest. He made the cross-country move by relocating to Portland last May. Will has been tinkering with various elements of tech infrastructures since he was in high school, and as our new operations engineer, he’ll work to maintain and improve the performance, reliability, and security of the infrastructure that powers Cozy. When he’s not drinking Soylent, Will likes to ride motorcycles, play video games, and go hiking in the Pacific Northwest wonderlands.

What landlords and renters need to know about changing the locks

Written on November 23, 2016 by Lucy Burningham

Since renters are 85% more likely to experience a home burglary than homeowners, renters and landlords should work together to make sure a rental is as secure as possible, starting with the locks.

One of the best ways to prevent break-ins is by installing deadbolt locks on all exterior doors. (Here’s how to choose a good lock.)

No matter what…

  • Renters and landlords should sign leases that ensure “habitability,” which includes provisions for locks in most states.
  • The lease or move-in document should list how many keys the landlord gave the renters when they moved in.
  • A landlord might add a provision to the lease that prohibits a renter from changing the locks unless the landlord gives permission and gets a key. In some states, such as California and New Jersey, renters can change the locks and not give landlords a key, unless the lease says otherwise.
  • Landlords should always have a key to the property in case of an emergency. They might need to make a repair—or give repair people access to the property—if the renter isn’t home. (Only after the landlord gives the renter proper notice.)

When locks and keys matter

Move in

In most cases, renters shouldn’t plan to get the keys until their landlord has collected (and cashed) a deposit and any pre-paid rent.

Since landlords are responsible for the security of the property, they should change (or “rekey”) the locks between every set of renters. When Lucas Hall, founder of Landlordology, got into property investing, he didn’t change the locks even though his renters changed. That’s not something he recommends.

“At the time, I didn’t know any better,” he says. “But now I realize how foolish it was. I was really lucky nothing bad happened.”

Even if renters return all keys to the landlord, there’s no way of knowing if they made extras. The only way to ensure a rental is secure for the new tenants is by changing the locks.

Landlords should consider installing “smart key” technology, which lets landlords rekey the locks by themselves in seconds. Otherwise, a pro can do the job for about $100-$200.

In most states, rekeying the locks between renters isn’t a legal requirement. Renters, ask your new landlord if the locks have been changed. If they say no, ask if you can do it yourself. Then be sure to give them a key.

Move out

When renters move out, they should give the landlord the exact keys they received during move-in and be straightforward about whether or not they made any copies. If the landlord provided the renters with two original keys, then two copies are returned (minus the originals), the landlord will know copies were made.

A renter leaves early and changes the locks

Let’s say a renter pays rent through the end of the month, but decides to move out early. If they change the locks without asking the landlord for permission, does the landlord have the right to change the locks if there’s nothing about it in the lease? It depends.

Landlords can ask the tenant to change the locks back, but if a renter doesn’t respond, the landlord has to wait until the lease’s end date to rekey the property.

Sometimes, the landlord can change the locks as long as they let the renter know. If they do that, they also need to offer the renter an extra key so the renter can enter the property until the lease ends. (The renter would need to return the key on or before that date.) Laws about this situation vary by state, so check your state’s laws.

A landlord changes the locks without cause

Landlords, don’t do this. Even if a renter failed to pay rent or destroyed the property, you don’t have the right to lock them out of their place.

Changing the locks without going through the proper eviction procedures is illegal in almost every state. Renters can sue you for doing this, and judges could award them monetary losses for everything from the cost of a hotel stay to spoiled food in the fridge and court-assigned penalties. Don’t risk it. Instead, go the legal eviction route.

A renter wants to make copies of the key

Renters, talk to your landlord first. If your lease says you can’t make copies, your landlord will probably abide by that document. If you make copies anyway, you’re violating the lease.

A renter loses keys

Lost keys could be anywhere and in any hands. The landlord should immediately rekey the locks to keep the property secure. Usually a landlord will charge the tenant for the rekey process.

In summary

Locks and keys are an important part of keeping a home safe. Be sure to sign leases with details about keys, which protects landlords and renters. Landlords, plan to rekey the place, especially between renters.

When your landlord sells your rental

Written on November 16, 2016 by Lucy Burningham

When Rhiannon Leonard opened a letter that said she and her family needed to vacate their rental in 30 days, she felt betrayed. They’d lived in the house in Portland, Oregon, for more than two years—it felt like home.

Rhiannon didn’t know her landlords had been considering selling the place, so the letter came as a surprise. “They decided the market had changed, and the house wasn’t worth it for them anymore,” she says.

She, her husband, and their two sons started renting the house under a fixed-term lease, but after two years, the lease transferred to a month-to-month contract. Usually, a month-to-month agreement means both the landlord and the renter need to give each other 30 days notice if they want to terminate the lease. But in Oregon, landlords need to give renters 60 days notice if the renter has lived at the property for more than a year.

“We were uprooting our family, and we felt there was very little sensitivity to that fact,” says Rhiannon.

Many renters can relate. There’s never a good time to be told to leave your home, even when a landlord terminates a lease legally. But there are ways to protect yourself, starting with knowing your rights.

Document everything

Start by documenting every interaction with your landlord, from phone calls to emails. If you can, communicate on paper. Use clear and professional language; consider written communication legal documents.

Make copies of letters before you send them, and consider getting a “proof of mailing” by buying a Certificate of Mailing at the post office.

The Community Alliance of Tenants, an Oregon nonprofit, has more tips on how to thoroughly document interactions with your landlord, advice that applies to renters in every state.

Know what kind of lease you signed

There are two kinds of leases: month-to-month or fixed-term, and each one comes with different requirements for termination. Hopefully you signed a legally binding lease and have a copy of it. Learn more about leases and rental agreements, which are generally month-to-month contracts, here.

If you’re on a fixed-term lease

Just because your landlord is selling your place, doesn’t necessarily mean you need to move out. A fixed-term lease states you can stay until the end date, even if the property changes ownership.

In almost every state, the lease and security deposit must be transferred with the property, and the new owner becomes the new landlord.

There are a few reasons why you might have to leave earlier than the end date of your fixed-term lease. You may have violated the lease by doing any of the following:

  • Failing to pay rent
  • Engaging in illegal activities on the property
  • Violating a no-pet clause
  • Subleasing, if prohibited
  • Causing serious property damage
  • Being a nuisance to others
  • Falsifying information on your rental application

Your landlord might suggest paying you to leave the property before the lease’s end date, which is called “cash for keys.” They could offer the difference for comparable rentals in the area. Or they might offer to pay your moving costs or part of the security deposit on a new place. You’re under no obligation to agree to their terms. You can choose to stay until the lease end date, assuming you are not violating the lease somehow.

There are some cases in which a landlord will execute an “early termination clause” in the lease, which means they have the right to terminate the lease in 30, 60, or 90 days from the sale of the property or proof of a ratified sales contract. The catch is that you’ll need to agree to whatever “trigger” the landlord chooses, such as the landlord wanting to move into the house or sell it.

If you’re on a month-to-month

In most states, your landlord needs to deliver you a letter in the mail, by hand, or by posting it on your door. Usually, they need to give you 30 days to move out of the property, but the required notice period varies from state to state. Look up your state’s policy here.

Most states don’t require a landlord to give a reason to end a month-to-month contract, an agreement designed to let renters and landlords terminate the lease with short notice. If the renter didn’t do anything wrong, as with Rhiannon’s situation, it’s called “no cause termination.”

But landlords still need to tell you some things in writing, including:

  • The date of the letter and date they expect you to move out (XX days from the notice).
  • That you should remove your possessions and return the keys on or before the move out date.
  • A statement that if you don’t move out, they’ll begin the eviction process.

Buy the property

In some cases, your landlord might offer to sell you the property, which is great if you love the place and you’re ready to become a homeowner. If that’s the case, consider a seller financing arrangement, which is a type of transaction in which the landlord is the lender who will accept payments from you (on a short-term basis).

The gist

Unfortunately, no rental situation is permanent. Leases always end, landlords change their minds, and homes change owners, all of which makes long-term nesting difficult.

Fixed-term leases are the best way to secure your housing for a set period of time, regardless of who owns the property. Be sure not to sign away too many rights in your lease, and do your due diligence by researching your state’s rental laws.

For more information about your rights as a renter in your state, check out the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s resources.

Properties in paradise

Written on November 10, 2016 by Lucy Burningham

Imagine standing on a tropical island, where the surf crashes against a rugged volcanic shore and papayas and coconuts grow. You might dream of living there, of finding a good job and buying real estate. In your wildest fantasies, you’d take up surfing and retire early.

When Loren Clive moved to the Hawaiian island of Maui from Berkeley, California, in 2005, she dreamed big. But lots of things felt unattainable, especially owning her own home. After all, real estate on Maui is expensive and in limited supply. (The median home value in Maui is similar to Seattle, one of the mainland’s hottest real estate markets.)

Loren didn’t see how she’d ever be able to buy property, especially with her modest income as a property manager. At the company where she worked, one commercial real estate owner made the equivalent of her annual salary in just one month from one property.

“I immediately realized the money is in owning real estate,” she remembers.

So she decided to stay in the real estate industry. She got a job as the director of acquisitions for a real estate investment company that bought and flipped foreclosed homes. “I knew I could do the same thing myself and make a bunch of money,” she says, “and it would take less effort because I’d be the only person involved.”

She started saving the cash she made from her commissions, and when she showed her first home—a short-sale duplex for $221,000—and the client of the real estate company couldn’t secure financing, she made her own offer. To her delight, Loren became the owner of her first property on Maui. The rent from one unit covered the entire mortgage. It was a turning point.

“It’s much easier to seize an opportunity for yourself than convince someone of a good deal,” she says.

Once the market jumped, Loren leveraged the equity in the duplex to buy another house down the street, which she remodeled and rented out. A year later, she sold that house and used the profit to make a down payment on her current home in the small town of Haiku, not far from the famous big-wave surf break Jaws.

Aside from a few minor setbacks—including renters with five dogs that destroyed one property—her business grew. These days she manages 13 properties, some of which she co-owns with an investor.

Along the way, Loren discovered lots of ways to streamline her business, but she felt frustrated by collecting rent. Many of her tenants made identical monthly rent payments, so when one payment was missing, Loren had to call her tenants to find out who hadn’t paid.

She thought electronic payments might be the answer. She considered asking tenants to make payments through PayPal, but she worried they’d be able to initiate “chargebacks,” or refunds. When she asked her bank if they could help, they suggested using their bill pay service, which meant she’d get a stack of paper checks every month.

When Loren discovered Cozy, she felt relieved. “Cozy helped me free up some time, because I’m not worrying about rent collection,” she says. “If someone hasn’t paid, I know who it is.”

She also screens prospective tenants through Cozy, which helps her fill vacancies in Maui’s competitive rental market. “Anyone who’s serious about a place will pay for those reports,” she says. “It shows me they’re motivated to move in.”

Loren still owns that first duplex, which she recently refinanced so it’ll be paid off by the time she’s fifty. The property is part of her retirement plan, one piece of the financial security she created by investing in real estate in paradise.

Why retrospectives are the most important thing we do

Written on October 31, 2016 by Rob Galanakis

For more than two years we’ve held a weekly retrospective at Cozy. Often, retros are chance for individual teams to reflect on a specific project after it’s finished: what went wrong and what was done well. But we treat retrospectives differently at Cozy. As a result, our retros have helped shape our culture more than anything else we do.

These meetings create the opportunity for constant iteration and improvement, which is an important part of how we work. It’s the time when we discuss how to fix things we don’t like about our processes or tools, or at least understand and try to accept them. We also talk in a broader sense about how the company is functioning, and how we’re expressing our values.

When folks ask what I don’t like about working at Cozy, I answer: “nothing.” I can say that, in part, because of our retros. I’m still surprised by what can happen when you get a group of people together for an hour every Friday afternoon to discuss what can be done better and how.

While retrospecting requires accepting the idea that we can always improve, I’m proud of how far we’ve come. Every improvement took work, starting with the way we executed and conducted retros. Here are some lessons we learned along the way.

Hold a retro every week

How long is your development cycle? One week? Two weeks? One month? Trick question! I don’t care. You should have a retrospective every week.

Retrospectives are about reflecting and improving; a team reflecting and improving every week is going to improve twice as quickly as a team on a two-week cadence. Even if you’re not ready to change your software iteration cadence, you should improve your culture iteration cadence.

Really, every week

I’ll admit, sometimes it’s difficult to motivate your team to hold a retro. Sometimes people leave early or they’re in a groove with their work. Holding a retro with just four people can feel boring.

So by all means, be flexible. Move the time, make it shorter or longer, whatever, but above all else: have the retro, even if you only have four people and meet for 20 minutes. You can’t become physically fit unless you’re rigorous with your training, and you can’t become culturally fit without rigor either. Improvement is all about coping with problems, even logistical ones, and pushing yourself to create solutions and alternatives.

While we don’t always succeed in holding retros, especially over the summer, I don’t kick myself too hard about it. At the same time, I acknowledge that every missed retrospective is a missed opportunity to improve.

Not just for developers

At Cozy, every fourth retrospective involves the whole company. This is a great opportunity to iterate on our entire culture, not just our development process. It’s exciting to see how the company works together as a whole and hear from people I don’t speak with every day. We get a wide spectrum of opinions on issues. These whole company retrospectives are unique and enjoyable for everyone who comes. So, once you’re comfortable running retros for your team, you should branch out and invite other groups.

Be constructive

One key difference between a successful retrospective and a weekly airing of grievances is how the people who attend phrase problems. Just like a large product feature must be broken down into smaller tasks, thorny problems need to be broken down into small, actionable items. There are many formal techniques for helping teams articulate issues during a retro. I prefer to keep asking questions about the issue until I’m satisfied the issue has been addressed, or at least understood.

Often, you may feel like the issues raised are not big ones. In fact, many of them aren’t. But the goal is to keep moving and trying new things. You get lots of points for trying, and in my experience, the mere act of having everyone constantly trying to improve things can itself fix problems.

Management should run retros, at first

I believe culture is created and shaped by management, and retrospectives are a wonderful way to demonstrate what management wants the company culture to be.

Managers, take this opportunity to criticize yourself, your boss, and your fellow managers. Talk openly about what isn’t working and what could be better. When someone brings up an issue that may indicate a systemic problem, it’s your responsibility to uncover what’s going on. If management takes the lead and discusses problems in a frank and mature way, everyone else will follow suit.

Once things are going well, and a retrospective culture has taken hold, management should pull back its role. Facilitating retrospectives and organizing follow-ups are great ways for other leaders to take a greater role in shaping the company. Also, consider rotating who runs the retro, which can help inspire new formats and fresh approaches.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that involving a problematic manager can destroy the kind of healthy retro environment you’re trying to cultivate. However, excluding problematic managers creates its own set of problems. I can’t offer any panacea, but you could try coaxing more senior managers—the people you do consider competent—to attend the retros. That way they can at least witness the dynamic, so they can decide what to do about it.

Try, try again

Retrospectives have inspired us to try a lot of things at Cozy. Most worked, but some didn’t. Here are some problems we discussed, solutions we tried, and the results we experienced:

  • Occasionally problems came up during engineering retrospectives that were far removed from development. They were Cozy-level issues. This spawned the decision to create the company-wide retrospective we hold every four weeks, which has been a very positive thing.
  • When I started, I established more formal development cycles from Thursday through Wednesday. Some people wanted to try Monday through Friday, so we did, and we liked it. So the rest of the team moved to the same cycle.
  • During one retro, we decided the office was too dirty and cluttered, so we created an all-hands office clean-up day. It was incredible to see how much clutter we had accumulated!
  • Before we embarked on a new round of hiring, we discussed our recruiting and interviewing practices. This led to a number of important changes that led us to find some high-quality and diverse candidates for all sorts of roles.
  • Retrospectives gave us a framework to discuss project management tools. We could observe issues with what we were using, discuss alternatives, and pilot experiments using new tools or processes. In the end, we decided we really love GitHub Issues and HuBoard.
  • Whenever we release a serious regression, or run into bottlenecks, we discuss it at the retrospective. We’ve made dozens of improvements to our testing, build, and release process due to problems brought up at retros.