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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Landlording. It’s one of those things that seems like a much better idea before you actually do it. There are those occasional times when everything is good – the rent is paid on time, nothing breaks, and for at least one month you can show a positive cash flow. Then there are all the other times – when you’re replacing a stove, having the whole place painted, fixing problems that people cause because they don’t give a damn since it’s not really “theirs.” Worse, you’ll catch those months when you’re between tenants and every nickel being spend is being taken out of hide. You’re doing all that in the hopes of making it livable as quickly as possible so the cycle can start over and there can be more repairs, more late rent, and more trouble all over again. Let the record show that I’m throughly looking forward to the day I can get out of the landlording business almost as much as I’m looking forward to the day I can get out of the being a tenant business.

2. Permission to speak freely. Jeffreytharp.com has been, is now, and will always be a place that reveres the basic principles of freedom of speech. Since turning the switch on this site, I’ve never had to drop the ban hammer on anyone. I hope that I’m never given cause to do so. With that being said, I’m starting to hear the barest rumble of a rumor that has the potential to curtail what I am at liberty to post and discuss here with you. Whatever comes, you have my personal promise that I will continue to use this site to advocate those issues about which I feel strongly, to discuss the day to day stupidity of life, and yes, even to provide commentary on those things that others wish would just be left alone. I don’t come here looking for a fight, but if one finds me here I suppose I’ll have no choice but to close with, engage, and decisively defeat the threat. Easier said than done, I’d imagine, but still worth doing.

3. Always needing a third thing. It’s not OCD, but having a third annoyance for the week always feels like it round out the post. Sometimes, though, I don’t have a third thing so much as I have a dozen small things that individually wouldn’t rate a mention. That doesn’t make for great reading and it makes for even worse writing, so I’m making an executive decision to skip the third thing tonight. So there.

Landlording ain’t for wimps…

Everyone assumes that when you have rental property you’re making money. That hasn’t exactly been my overall experience, but I accept that it’s the general perception of how things work. Most of the time, the cash flow from the condo in St. Mary’s offsets the giant sucking sound that is the negative cash flow coming out of Memphis. Between the two, I come fairly close to breaking even more months than I don’t. Of course then we have the occasional singularity in which both the condo and the house are sitting vacant at the same time.

That moment you realize it’s about to happen is probably one of the few times in life you’re ever going to seriously consider becoming an arsonist as a valid career option. When you go from happily paying rent and breaking even on everything else to sucking wind on rent plus two mortgages, let’s just say that all the fantastic financial management lessons you’ve learned from Suze Ormond or Dave Ramsey go right the hell out the window. The only thing that matters at that point is how fast you can bring cash in the front door and how fast you can shovel it out the back. It’s not so much a case of planning as it is an exercise in crisis management and triage.

Fortunately, the two leases almost never expire at the same time, but when they do you’d better believe that you’re about to get a serious lesson in why landlording ain’t for wimps.

For want of a knob…

Last year I was fastidious about winterizing the rental house. Since I’ve been waiting two weeks now to get the go ahead for a simple repair of the faucet/knob assembly in the bathroom, my level of interest in doing anything over and above the basics is pretty slim this time around. That translates into adding some weatherstripping and insulation and a few other odds and ends to save on the winter’s electric bill. Anything over and above that is just not going to happen. For the last 18 months I’ve been doing my best to treat the place like it was mine. Since that doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, well, if it’s not a hazard to life and welfare I guess I’ll just go ahead and let it fall apart. It’s a pity that it’s got to be that way, but I can’t see myself expecting any less from my landlord than I expect from myself as a landlord. Silly expectations.

The rites of spring…

It’s the time of year again. The neighborhood is full of whirring lawnmowers (except the house behind mine of course), the plants are blooming, and everyone seems more or less ready to get on with the warm weather. Being completely anal retentive, I’ve been planning for this moment for the last two months. The lawn equipment has had its oil changed, blades sharpened, and a supply of premium fuel laid on. Spring isn’t so much about enjoying nature as bringing it to heel after it’s months long free for all during the cold season.

Since it’s been nice enough to live with the windows open in the evening, I haven’t started fiddling with bringing the air conditioners back to life… that was until I started to “un-winterize” the a/c unit the cools the entire downstairs. When I wrapped things up for the winter, I was pretty confident that I had killed off the mold that had been growing inside the unit. Sadly, I was wrong. This wasn’t a new fight, of course. I had waged holy war on this mold almost since the day I moved in, kicked on the air, and wondered “what’s that God-awful smell?” But I thought I had finally struck on the right combination of vinegar, bleach, and random HVAC cleaning supplies from Home Depot to set things right. As I mentioned before, yeah, I was most definitely wrong.

To help set the stage, you need to know that this is the single biggest window-mounted air conditioner that I have every personally seen. It’s so large that it’s actually permanently bolted and caulked into the window. Sure, technically it’s a window unit, but it’s basically like having a central air condenser bolted directly to the window. Seriously. It’s big. If I had to bet, I’d guess it’s 300 pounds easy. And that’s really where the problem starts.

You see, every website on earth tells you that to properly clean mold out of a window air conditioner, the first thing to do is take the unit out of the window and remove the metal housing so you can access the interior spaces where the nastiness is building up. Since this beast is bolted to the house, something tells me these particular directions are not going to apply. Even if I could do any of that without demolishing the window itself, there’s not a chance that I could pull it off as a one man job, which brings us to my point… It’s time for yet another awkward conversation with the landlord about appliances and the need for regular preventative maintenance.

I foresee our talk going something like this:

Me: The air conditioner in the living room is full of mold.

Landlord: Did you clean it?

Me: *rolls eyes* Of course. The mold is inside the housing. It needs to be disassembled and cleaned properly.

Landlord: You can’t do that?

Me: No.

Landlord: That’s going to be expensive.

Me: Probably, but less expensive than me buying a new air conditioner for the living room and deducting it from next month’s rent.

Landlord: %$#*

Me: *smirk*

That conversation should be taking place any time now. It happens less and less often these days, but it’s one of those friendly reminders that living in someone else’s house still sucks.

Staying put…

If you’d have asked me back around June 19th what I’d be doing this Spring, I’d have give you one of two possible answers: 1) Finding a house to rent that didn’t break every third day or 2) Having successfully picked the all six numbers for the PowerBall jackpot, I am withdrawing from public life to a small, sparsely populated island somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. As it turns out, neither one of those two things is going to be on my agenda for Spring 2012.

It’s not so much that I’ve made a conscious decision to stay put as much as I’ve slowly come to terms with house. After nine months it’s getting that lived in look that comes from finally having boxes unpacked. Cutting out the property manager from hell and dealing directly with the owner has gone a long way towards resolving the upkeep and maintenance issues that plagued the first month or two. The truth is, it’s taken the better part of a year, but I’m starting to feel settled. Just the idea of throwing everything back into boxes at this point and doing it all again so soon makes me a bit twitchy. Besides, I’d always hoped that the next move would be back into a house that Bank of America and I owned together and since that’s not going to happen in the next three months, sticking with the enemy I know seems like the next best option.

So yeah, if the first year was about settling in and getting my footing. This year is going to be all about fixing some of the things that have bugged me, but I didn’t want to tackle because I figured I’d be moving on before being there long enough for them to matter much. Now that I’ve made up my mind to stick around, it’s time to start hacking at those annoyances. In a few weeks when the weather finally turns for good that means a concerted effort to bring the yard into a better state than “eh, good enough for a rental.” If I’m going to be here for a while, it’s time to start putting my own stamp on the place – or at least as much of a stamp as one can place without spending much money. Once the outside is up to standard, maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally get around to turning the basement into something other than a place to store canned goods and cast off furniture.

Or I could just go ahead and get that PowerBall win. That would be fine too.

Air…

You can imagine my surprise when I walked upstairs a few minutes ago and found the temperature hovering somewhere in the low 80s. The A/C was on after all and even though it’s a smallish window unit, it usually doesn’t have any problem cooling the bedroom and office to something approaching a livable temperature. That is, of course, when the condenser coil isn’t frozen solid. Before I rush to judgement and start raising three kinds of hell about it, I’m going to let the thing thaw out and then run some tests to see if it was just me letting it run too long in high humidity we’ve had this week or if it’s something wrong with the unit itself like a freon leak.

Given the upstairs issue, I thought it would be a good time to check the main wall unit in the living room. I almost wish I could have avoided that experience. After dropping the front cover, I have suspicions that this was probably the first time the cover has ever been off the unit. And there’s not one chance in a 1000 that the filter has ever been so much as brushed off, let alone actually cleaned. Any guesses how I spent the last hour of my Sunday night?

I don’t know why something like that would surprise me about this place any more. If they can’t figure out the big maintenance issues, I don’t suppose there’s a prayer of them paying attention to the details. Admittedly, most of my experience with renting has been in apartment communities, but I just don’t remember those having such problematic upkeep and management issues. I hate the thought of moving all tis crap again, but unless there are some radical changes in the way things are done around here, I’ll be looking for new digs in about 10 months.

On the up side, I just sent the owner a $225 bill for having the Expedition towed. That at least gave me a warm fuzzy.

Expedition…

It’s a case of now you see it, now you don’t. After five weeks of haranguing the property manager about getting the junk Expedition out of the driveway, I was forced to demonstrate my level of resolve. I guess most people gripe and complain initially, but then accept whatever is happening and quiet down. I’m not wired that way. Never have been. I start off complaining, ratchet up the noise level, and then, when I’ve pretty much exhausted every other option I can think of, come out swinging. Today was pretty much that day. And was really the first major improvement/repair project around here that went exactly by the numbers. I called the towing company, they sent out a truck, and the POS Expedition that had been mocking me by its very presence for the last 32 days was gone before I got back to the house this evening. Getting my belongings delivered felt good. Getting them unboxed felt better. But getting rid of this eyesore is the first time in a month that I feel like I’ve really accomplished something. Plus I know it’ll piss off the property manager to no end since he says he wanted to part it out to recoup someone of the money they lost on the last tenant. I guess putting that thumb in his eye makes it $200 well spent.

Two ways to do things…

I got a call Friday afternoon from my own property manager. It seems the crack in the kitchen window had finally gotten to the point of needing to be replaced. If I hadn’t been thinking months ago about the house becoming a rental property, I would have fixed it already. The up side of being a landlord is that alot of projects that were a normal expense when you were living in the house magically become a business expense (and therefore deductible) when you have a tenant.

You didn’t really need to know that little bit of administrative minutia except it was my way of saying that there’s a right way and a wrong way to be a landlord/property manager. The right way is to adress issues as they come up and do it as expeditiously as possible. It helps build the tenant-owner relationship and maybe buys you some good will when the lease is up and they have to decide between renewing and moving on. The wrong way would have been to make the tenant call half a dozen times, not show up when I said I would, or otherwise ignore the problems. Doing things that way tends to breed an attitude where the tenant doesn’t give a damn what happens to the property.

I guess there are two schools of thought when it comes to owning rental property. For some, it’s an income stream and nothing more. For others, it’s a long term investment that builds more value when it’s well maintained. Both ways of thinking are probably valid to some degree, but only one of them is right.