Landlording: An Unlikely Vocation

(This is an edited version of an earlier post from January 2022. This is an essay about being a landlord.)

By the time the carpet salesman dragged pressed wood boards full of samples up the steep stairs to the apartment, I accepted the reality–the old rugs had to go. Rugs, like anything consumable, have a lifespan and this one was on life support. Replacing two floors of carpeting was a huge, expensive job, but it was one of many projects ahead of me at our rental property. But short of throwing up my hands and listing the house for sale, I prepared myself for a full-blown case of sticker shock and an empty bank account.

Our 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 ancestral 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; fourteen years after emigrating to the United States, he had attained it as a homeowner. I am sure he never imagined his granddaughter would be the owner of his home, or that she would be wrangling with joys of landlording almost a hundred years later. 

Six generations have occupied the oversized Philadephia-style three-story house. After my grandfather’s death in 1987, my father and his sister assumed joint ownership of the house. When I bought my aunt’s 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. For a time, my daughter and her family lived in the upstairs apartment and my son occupied the first floor. When my daughter moved, I seized the opportunity to create a business out of the house. After a full deleading and a few renovations, I rented to outsiders. When my son moved to Texas, my family’s ancestral home became a full-blown “income property.” And I became a landlord.

I have learned a recently-vacated apartment is a veritable Pandora’s box, a progressive revelation of issues that, at a glance, are overlooked. While I love the cash flow, the downsides to property management surface with each apartment flip. Although 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 damage requires a keen eye and intimate relationship with the premises.

Currently, one of the apartments is empty. To prepare for the next tenant, I swallowed hard and made a few executive decisions. In addition to the carpeting, 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. With the official measurements now complete, the installation of eighteen 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 on 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 less skilled chores to save money. My repertoire grows with each dilemma. I should replace the bathtub upstairs but I will touch up the scratches with epoxy for now. I will repair the cabinet hinges that are loose in the kitchen, using a trick I learned from watching a carpenter whom I paid $150 to repair a single hinge. The project currently consumes much of our free time. If my husband and I charged by the hour, no one could afford us since we spend most of the time scratching our heads and reading and rereading instructions versus actually completing the task at hand.

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 and hope that a tenant appreciates my efforts and 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. Grateful to have good tenants, I prioritize keeping them happy. 

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 for the next occupant. As I anticipate listing the apartment once again, I’ll keep working, cleaning, painting, replacing carpeting, and applying the diamonds to the ceilings, no matter what Mom’s little voice in my head says. And hope for the perfect tenant.

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