Sterling treatment: No refund on 'amenity'

Daniel McNamara was among the first wave of residents when he moved into Sterling University Place on August 1. The sparkling new apartment complex, which is located at the intersection of Ridge Street and Old Lynchburg Road, offers free high-speed internet access as one of its amenities. Unfortunately, it was an amenity McNamara would wait eight long weeks to enjoy.

This was especially bothersome for McNamara, a freelance writer who makes heavy use of his computer and needs to be online frequently. So when it came time to pay his October rent, he decided to withhold $30, and wrote a letter to the management to explain why.

"I first contacted your office about this problem on August 12. I was told that the problem would be handled within 48 hours," he wrote.

Two days later– nothing had yet happened– McNamara claims he went back and this time was told that "the problem would be solved when the IT person moved in that Saturday. By the next Monday, the IT person still had not arrived."

According to McNamara, the IT person finally assessed the situation "at the beginning of September," but concluded that "he could not do anything to solve the problem. Weeks later, another individual arrived, looked at the jacks, and determined that someone else would need to fix the connection." On September 26, after "nearly two months without the internet connection promised" by Sterling, the problem was solved.

"I resent the way in which some employees responded to the initial problem," McNamara wrote. "I was told that the problem would be handled quickly, but when I responded to the lack of action, I was treated as if it were ridiculous [to expect] that the problem be handled in an expeditious manner. It also bothers me that roughly a month elapsed between the diagnosis of the problem and its correction."

Sterling's response was that if McNamara didn't remit the $30 missing from his rent check, he would be penalized for being two days late. McNamara paid it, but in a second letter said that he would "expect the prompt refund" of his $30.

According to Sterling manager Jessica DiGiovanni, however, McNamara will be waiting in vain.

"Being a new community," DiGiovanni says, "there will be problems." DiGiovanni also emphasizes that while customer service is "a huge deal" for Sterling, the free DSL hookup was merely an amenity and not something residents had been guaranteed.

According to DiGiovanni, the problem turned out to be electrical– and, given the fact that Sterling has 144 units, it's not surprising that problems would crop up. Still, eight weeks to work out the kinks in a DSL connection?

"We understand that it's extremely important to our residents," DiGiovanni said, but since McNamara wasn't being charged a "set amount" for the DSL connection, she isn't going to give him a refund to compensate for its absence.

She also points out that the clubhouse has a computer lab that's open round the clock.

I visited and was impressed; the lab includes eight brand-new computers. McNamara, however, claims that during the time he was dependent on it for access to the internet, "only a few of them [could] get on the net without crashing." On the evening I visited, however (and, of course, now that McNamara no longer needs the lab), the computers seemed to be in good shape.

These are competitive times for local housing complexes. As pointed out in our recent Hook story [Newsbiz, "Crowded heights: New apartments ritzy or risky?" May 1, 2003], about 1,300 apartments have begun appearing in the past year– more units in one year than in the past 12. And many landlords are using amenities to attract tenants.

The lesson here seems to be that if you're thinking of moving into a newly constructed apartment complex that touts an amenity you consider essential but isn't guaranteed in the lease, be prepared for disappointment.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.