Landlording: An Unlikely Vocation

As the carpet salesman dragged pressed wood boards full of samples up the steep stairs to the apartment, dread flooded my body. I knew the old rug had to go. The last tenant’s less-than-conscientious behavior had the final say in that decision. Stains throughout the two floors of the living area made for an unsightly mess. It was a huge job and it would be costly. But short of throwing up my hands and listing the house for sale, I prepared myself for the worst.

My rental property represents a deeply-rooted family connection as well as an income stream. When my grandfather moved his family from a crowded tenement apartment in the North End of Boston to our two-family home in Medford, he joined the migration of other family members who had already made the shift to suburban life. Aside from giving his family a better life, Grandpa sought the American Dream, and fourteen years after emigrating to the United States, he had attained it. I am sure he never imagined his granddaughter would be wrangling with the needs of an old house and joys of landlording almost a hundred years later. 

Six generations have occupied the house, an oversized Philadephia-style, two-family residence. After my grandfather’s death in 1987, my father and his sister assumed joint ownership of the house. When I bought my aunt out of her share in 2010, Dad and I co-owned the property briefly until he passed away. Family members, including my own children, occupied one or both of the apartments continuously from 1926 until 2017. I appreciate this unusual arrangement and I honor our family’s legacy by making this special place my passion and my part-time job.

I had assumed the responsibility of running the house for Dad about seventeen years ago, long before my name was added to the deed. Once my daughter and her family left the upstairs apartment and my son moved to Texas, leaving the first floor vacant, I applied something to the endeavor that my father lacked: vision. I seized the opportunity to create a business, and after a full deleading and a few renovations, I rented to outsiders. My family’s ancestral home became an “income property.” And I became a landlord.

While I love the cash flow, the downsides to property management surface in the gap time between tenants. With each apartment flip, I have learned a recently-vacated apartment is like Pandora’s box, a progressive revelation of issues that, with a glance, are overlooked. While I take a security deposit, renting and the residual aftermath is a gamble. I hope the escrow will cover any issues. The house is old and my ability to discern wear and tear from decay requires a keen eye and intimate relationship with the premises. I generally give my tenants the benefit of the doubt, and so far, I’ve been lucky. My tenants have become like family. They take care of the property, and their care and upkeep keep any disasters at bay. I should have known my luck would run out at some point.

Last week, our tenants of four and a half years left. Just left. While I knew they were planning to move on December 31, I hadn’t heard anything new from them for weeks. The fact that they were still in residence on January 1st didn’t surprise me as much as annoy me. When they disappeared, I reached out by text and email, finally receiving a response twenty-four hours later. My former tenant apologized for not checking out with me and enumerated the issues he acknowledged– a stain on the rug here, a damaged bathtub there, but not much more. He thanked me profusely for my generosity and kindness, and claimed it was difficult to leave a place his family loved.  I hadn’t been in the apartment for months, but given the tone of the correspondence, I hoped for a good outcome when I performed my private walk-through.

At the unit the next day, I based my initial impression on the sense of “clean” found in any empty apartment. Without furniture, everything looks larger and uncluttered. Then I looked closer. Prominent stains on the carpets, clearly unaddressed when they were fresh, had set into the fibers. Dried tempera paint left pink and green stains on the kitchen floor. The bathtub resurfacing had worn off in one large spot, a product of the scratching of a child’s Lego block. Numerous Command hooks remained on the walls, and it was obvious why. One “easily removable” hook had been torn from the wall, leaving a 2” hole in the paint. The rest were left for me to remove and risk damage. Window sashes had snapped, making the lower panes quasi-guillotines. Nail holes peppered the walls. At every discovery, I gasped. Although the flipping of an apartment between tenants is always a project, this challenge overwhelmed me. 

After a deep clean of the carpets in every room, it was clear that the fibers had met their demise. Ground-in petrified food clumped deep into the backing, permanent marker refused to fade, and dark stains, never blotted at the moment of the spill, oozed with colored liquid once dampened. The stains resisted pre-treatment and steam cleaning. In a large apartment, replacing the flooring costs a few bucks. I usually call my local guy but knowing the lead time, I resorted to National Floors Direct. They could be on-site the next day. The carpet would be installed in a few weeks

I knew at some point I would need to replace the ancient windows but in light of the broken sashes, when becomes now. I called Window Nation and plunked down a three thousand dollar deposit. The official measurements will be happening in the next few days and the installation of eight new windows is expected in early April. The rest of the windows will have to wait.

With my funds depleted due to the hefty outlay of these bigger jobs, the guerrilla landlord in me ignited. My motto has always been If you can figure out how to do it yourself, do it. When you totally mess it up, call someone. I have learned over time to perform other less skilled chores to save money. My repertoire grows with each dilemma. I should replace the bathtub upstairs but I will resurface it for now to hide the five-by-five-inch spot where the prior surfacing was removed by an unsupervised child. I will repair the cabinet hinges that are loose in the kitchen, using a trick I learned from watching a carpenter I paid $150 to repair a single hinge. I will remove and paint over the crayon drawings decorating the kitchen, as well as the kids’ growth chart, etched on the wall next to the refrigerator. I’m tired just thinking about it.

The job of running a rental property, done well, requires a hands-on approach, whether the landlord does the work herself or depends on a contracted service. I want everything to be perfect and I can hear my mother’s admonition: “You don’t put diamonds on the ceiling for tenants!” But when the painting and cleaning are done, and the new carpet installed, I will experience a moment of pride. I always apply my own litmus test as I imagine myself living in the space. If it’s good enough for me, I can rent without reservation. Perhaps I am a fool to think that a tenant would appreciate my efforts or investment, both emotional and financial. 

Aside from the preparations for a new tenant, being a landlord requires a commitment to a lifestyle, much like a vocation. It’s a vow to be available around the clock. A tenant’s problems can come at any moment–a broken boiler, a fussy fridge, a clogged drain–and I must drop everything and snap into action. My goal is to fix the problem as quickly as possible for them and for me. I am grateful to have good tenants and keeping them happy is a priority. 

Renting apartments is a gamble and no amount of vetting will ensure a perfect tenant. I can only hope that my tenants appreciate my commitment and respond by keeping things in some livable arrangement that will not require a full overhaul to prepare the apartment for the next occupant. As I anticipate listing the apartment once again, I contemplate changes to the leasing contract but anticipating every possible fiasco is impossible. In the meantime, I’ll keep working, cleaning, painting, replacing carpeting, and applying the diamonds to the ceiling for the next tenant, and hope they will at least blot spills and not write on the walls. That’s not too much to expect, is it?

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