The sideways stink eye…

About once a week I drive past the house I use to rent. To say I have mixed feelings about the place is an understatement. Even with just me, two dogs, and a tortoise living there it felt cramped. The interior was too dark, it was too close to a heavily traveled road, and the mechanicals were all of an age where they just stopped working with little or no notice. Still it had the benefit of having a fence and being available exactly when I needed it. When you’re traveling one day ahead of a tractor trailer filled with your belongings, don’t underestimate just how much availability counts.

Last weekend when I drove past there were at least seven cars in the driveway. Like I said, the place felt cramped with just one of me. I find it hard to imagine what it would feel like inside even if each one of those vehicles represented only one person. It occurs to me that too much togetherness is definitely a real thing. Not my house, though, so not my problem.

The real pain came when I slowed down enough to eyeball the old place. Whoever’s living there now has let the landscaping go. Flower beds are overrun. Fence posts have collapsed. Shrubbery has grown up over the windows. Not one of the trees looks like it’s seen a pruning lopper since mine.

I spent the better part of four years beating what was then an overgrown mess of a landscape into a semblance of neatness and order. Sure, I did it on the cheap – cutting back some things, transplanting others, removing even more and hauling it away or burning it off – but the place was just a rental after all and throwing big money at it didn’t make sense. With a few basic tools and a bit of effort, though, I’d made the place look respectable.

The current residents have apparently given up on all that. It’s probably not entirely right to judge someone by the yard they keep, but I do… especially when it happens to be one that I left in good enough shape that it could be maintained with less than an hour’s work each week. Right or not, that tells me something about these new residents. It tells me all I need to know really.

It’s a damned good thing I’m not the landlord. Fortunately, it’s not my house and not my problem, but that doesn’t keep me from giving the place a sideways stink eye every time I drive past.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. No phone. While I don’t consider myself an “addict”, most of my life is tied up on my iPhone – names, numbers, calendars, messaging apps, and basically all the things that one uses to keep track of the modern world. Finding myself without it ranges from a minor annoyance to utterly intolerable depending on what I happen to be trying to do at any given moment. If anyone needs me I’ll be spending the next few days trying to replace the capabilities of my iPhone using an archaic and problem-prone laptop with a connection to the internet that’s suspect at best. Might as well be living in 1989 like some kind of barbarian.

2. The plight of the tenants. Washington Post article about the sad story of tenants who are evicted… after “only” not paying some part of the rent, doing it, repeatedly, or committing other violations of the lease agreement. That’s well and good, and my heart bleeds for them, but for the love of pete, when a few paragraphs later I read that 98% of one of these people’s rent was being subsidized and they couldn’t come up with the remaining 2% I’m kind of out of sympathy. Rentals don’t maintain themselves. Tenants cause fair wear and tear in addition to often more wanton destruction. It all takes money to correct and restore to rentable condition. It strikes me that the people who are most often taken in by these sad tales of renter woe have never had the experience of being a landlord with their own bills to cover.

3. Anti-punctuality. When I tell you I’m going to cal at three o’clock, that’s exactly when I’m going to call. It won’t be “around 3:00,” or “three-ish.” It will be three o’clock. For good or bad my mind puts a premium on punctuality. It’s important if for no other reason than to demonstrate that you are taking the other person seriously. Lack of it, especially in a situation where I am going to be spending thousands of dollars with your company, makes me question your professionalism and the future of our potential business relationship.

Central….

Before ensconcing myself here at Fortress Jeff, I rented a house that “included” air conditioning in the form of two geriatric window units. One was so filled with mold when I moved in that I relegated it to the shed for the duration of my stay and replaced it with my own unit. The other was probably filled with mold too, but it was too heavy to move and was somehow “permanently” mounted into one of the living room windows. That one got blitzed with as much lysol as I could spray into the vents at least twice a week in the hopes that would be enough to hold any organisms growing in there at bay.

Given the apparent belief of early 1980s home builders that insulation was more of an optional thing, living with these two window units mostly translated into having two rooms that were slightly cooler than the outside air temperature and the rest of the house that was just short of reaching blast furnace range. It wasn’t ideal.

With temperatures reaching towards 90 over the last couple of days, I just wanted to give a small nod of acknowledgment to the glory that is central air conditioning. I try to be responsible in its use, but I can chill this place right down to icebox levels with the flick of a switch. It’s the kind of thing you don’t really appreciate until you no longer have it.

So there you have it – one more thing to add to the short list of things that don’t suck. See? Not everything around here is a bad news story, something that annoys me, or just a general bitch session. There are, from time to time, things that make me smile.

Striking it rich…

There’s an unfortunate assumption that if you have rental property you must, by some unwritten rule, be rolling in cash. It’s been my experience that there are really only two ways to strike it rich through rental property; either you have 100 of them to smooth out the cash flow from month to month or you operate more as a slum lord than a landlord. Those two possibilities, of course, are not mutually exclusive as it is entirely possible to do both at once.

Where you’re never going to strike it rich is in owning just one. The good years are the ones where you break even after expenses. The great years are the ones where you get enough of a tax deduction to maybe show a tiny slice of profit. For the most part, what comes in goes right back out in maintenance expenses, management fees, taxes, mortgage, insurance, and home owner’s association dues.

Owing a rental is like owning a bulldog in a way – both are things I wouldn’t recommend anyone try for themselves. Avoiding them both will save you a whole lot of heartache… and I’m not just saying that because my property manager called tonight to tell me the heating system is shot and needs to be replaced the same week I’m planning on financing knee surgery for a dog and two weeks after paying off a contractor to make sure a river doesn’t flow through the garage and cause my basement to become an indoor swimming pool.

Enough all ready. Fate, chance, or whatever gods control such things are really starting to get on my last nerve. Sigh. I’m never going to get my new bathroom at this rate. Sadly, I’m not a slum lord. Heat is important. And winter is coming.

The realm of the possible…

Since I’m in between moving estimate appointments it feels like a good time to jam a blog post into the day. It’s been a big one here at the Rental Casa de Jeff. After the requisite dose of coffee I spent the better part of three hours extracting boxes from their long term storage spot in the crawl space. At least half of them were still full – and taped shut – from the move back to Maryland from Memphis. I’ll be curious to see what it was I paid to haul a 3rd of the way across the country yet haven’t touched for almost five years. Personally I’m rooting for pirate treasure, but I have a terrible feeling it’s going to be a dozen boxes of plain junk. At least the crawl space is empty and the basement is 2/3 the way along towards being packed out.

In the last two weeks I’ve been making an effort to cut down in all the extraneous spaces – the office, basement, guest bedroom. If I pushed I could have all three finished in an afternoon. That leaves the living spaces we occupy as the next items on the hit list. My bedroom is a spartan affair. No more than an hour or two of work there. The living room is the same story. Two or three medium boxes and all the rest is furniture. That leaves the kitchen as the last redoubt. It’ll go into boxes as late in the process as possible. By the end of the week, I should even have several estimated costs of having someone show up and haul it all a few miles down the road. On the packing front at least I feel like I’m running ahead of the curve.

The documentation is even coming together. My mortgage approval came through this afternoon. The appraisal came in better than expected and more importantly with no lender-required repairs. I’m throwing electronic reams of paper back and forth with the closing attorney. I’m just trying to stay on top of Mount Paperwork in hopes that we can get to settlement at the end of the month as smoothly as possible. It’s one of those rare times that being a natural born worrier seems to be paying off. No one has asked for anything I can’t dredge out of Ye Olde Electronic Files. Being an electronic pack rat does have an occasional upside.

There are still 1,276,384 details to be worked out between now and the closing table, but on the whole it’s feeling less intimidating today. It’s entered the realm of the possible.

The right one…

Knowing I wanted to be out of my current rental by the time this year’s lease expired, I started driving around the county and nosing through open houses a few months ago. I was even more or less settled on the areas and type of house I wanted to end up with. I wanted more than an acre, something mid-century, and well outside town limits. For the record, December and January are probably not a great time to be out poking around looking at houses – there just isn’t that much of a supply on the market and no sane person wants to move in the middle of winter. Even so there were some contenders, but nothing that screamed “buy me now.” I bided Woodholmmy time, assuming that more inventory would arrive on the market with warmer weather. I even toyed with the idea of buying a big lot and then building a small house to suit, before realizing that I house built to my own crackpot specs would be damned near impossible to sell to anyone else.

The funny thing is I thought I knew exactly what I wanted. I’d only been working with my realtor a week when she casually mentioned that I should look at a house down on Elk Neck. It was an eyebrow raiser. Sure the pictures looked nice enough, but the house barely ticked off half of the things on my list. It was one story, on slightly less than an acre, and (terror of terrors) ruled by the covenants and restrictions of a very active home owners association. In fact I almost passed on even looking at it for those reasons until curiosity got the better of me. A house in that neighborhood rarely stays on the market long – and this one had been on the market for almost eight months and $100,000 in price reductions. Honestly, I assumed it was a murder house, or infested with mold, or possibly built on some kind of ancient Indian burial ground.

After the first showing, we were both utterly confused by why this house was still on the market. It was only during my second pass through the master bathroom that it occurred to me – uh, why isn’t there a shower in here? So there it was. The reason the typical yuppie buyers in that neighborhood had been taking a pass on what was otherwise a tremendous home. I proclaimed the design choice “very weird,” and moved on.

Three hours later the seller’s agent called my realtor using phrases like “extremely motivated,” “willing to negotiate,” and “credit for bathroom renovation.”

That conversation let to three days of back and forth discussion, deep research on bathroom renovation costs, another showing, and by the end of the week an offer I was sure would test the depth of the seller’s motivation to be finished with the property and move on with his life. There was a counter offer, a counter counter offer, and finally agreement of nearly all the substantive terms I asked for. I’m still a little shocked they agreed to all the concessions written into the contract.

It wasn’t the house I started out looking for a few months ago, but assuming it passes through the gates of inspection and financing it’s the right one.

What Jeff Likes this Week

For the final offering of this six-post series, you might think I would have planned to end on a high note. Given that the week just past featured all manner of goodness and joy in the spirit of the Christmas season, the list of likely targets is extraordinarily large. However, since this is me we’re talking about and not some nancy-boy, cry at the drop of a hat, sensitive, new age man, all I can tell you is this: What I like this week is mostly the fact that I’m back at the rental house, two dogs are happily snoring in their beds, and that I am fully in control of the television, thermostat, and meal preperation.

Be it every so humble, temporary, ill designed, and poorly insulated, there’s no place like wherever it is you happen to hang your hat. It may not be “home” but it’s at least filled will all your own stuff and sometimes that’s just as good.

Note: This is the 6th and final entry in a six-part series appearing on jeffreytharp.com by request.