The Woes of a Landlord

by Ann Tracy Marr

I wouldn't mind a gargoyle or two

This is just a random thing I wrote. I didn't intend to turn it into a novel or submit it anywhere. I wrote it because it was something I wanted to remember, like an entry in a diary. Read it like a magazine article, but please keep in mind that this is not fiction. God save me, it is the literal truth.


We bought a duplex and live downstairs. It is the Great American Dream financed by rent checks.

The upstairs tenants are moving out. Great. I never liked them, but for two months I miscalculated my checkbook and had to take money out of savings to cover bills. The savings balance is perilously low and the check that pays half the mortgage won’t be coming. Don’t tell me it’s my fault, I know that already.

I put an ad in the local paper offering to rent our upstairs for $950 a month. Next door (in pristine shape with central air) rents for $1,000 a month. Rubbing my hands, dreaming of extra money for a cruise on Ebay, I wait for the phone to ring.

Our first potential renters! They want to see the unit tomorrow. I put a note on the door upstairs warning the tenants. I am nervous. I never had to do this before – interview prospective tenants -- will I say something wrong and they won’t rent the place?

They are on time. I manage to unlock the door without fumbling and usher them inside and up the stairs.

That prickly young couple we inherited as tenants when we bought the duplex lived upstairs with wall-to-wall carpet for four years. They don’t own a vacuum cleaner. The prospective tenants and I pick our way through the boxes, newspapers and crud on the floor. As I explain that we plan to have the carpet cleaned, the walls painted, and everything will look much better, they investigate bedrooms. The only room with a bed smells funny. I don’t think the windows have been open once in four years. No cleaning has been done either. My prospective tenants smile politely and leave.

The tenants are never around when someone wants to see the flat. That’s good. I can be honest and tell everyone that the current renters are pigs but we will slave until the place looks good if they will just rent it. I even show a few people our unit, telling them we can’t get in upstairs yet. Who wants to live in a fly infested rat hole? No one takes the bait.

The slobs finally moved out. Now you can see exactly how bad the carpet and walls look. Remember the old joke about footprints on the ceiling? It’s not funny. Our first move is to open the windows and watch the dirt blow around. Second move is to find the screens the tenants removed from the windows. At least they are all there.

Wax in the fireplace. Five huge waterstains on the mantel from over-watering the plants. $9.56 in pennies scattered over the floors. So much grease on the bottom of the refrigerator, you can’t see the linoleum. So little caulk around the bathtub I can see the studs. The smell of urine in the hall. What is that smear on the glass? Windex doesn’t cut it. My husband has to go out of town. I have a burning desire to sell the duplex and pay rent to the buyer.

I put the newspaper ad renewal on plastic. Food goes on plastic, everything goes on plastic, and I paid the mortgage for the month. Whew! The carpet cleaners don’t take plastic but the paint store does.

The next potential tenant brings her son with her. He enjoys playing with the broken burner on the stove – tap it with a finger and it bounces. Poking her head in the door of the third bedroom, she says she really wanted two bedrooms.

Two big buckets of drywall compound cover the cracks in the plaster. We paint and paint. The woodwork can get by with one coat of paint in most places. The ceilings and walls take two. The city says to make sure empty paint cans dry completely and then just put them in the trash. Eleven empty paint cans.

The next three calls about renting the flat have one thing in common. The people want to know if I do credit checks. I guess I do. Back to the Internet, wishing I can cruise Ebay and find light fixtures. Instead I find a place that does credit checks. I call them – they never call back. I find another and fax my prospective tenant’s information. What comes back is someone else’s credit report. I find a third company.

No one decent will look at the flat for $950 a month. I sigh and lower the rent to $850. That will cover exactly half of the mortgage – at least until next May when the interest rate goes up. Don’t think about the fact that we will be paying the water bill for whomever moves in upstairs. That monthly $850 check will pay half the mortgage.

I was washing dishes, My daughter is below me in the basement doing laundry. When she asks, “Why is it raining in the basement,” I cringe. Plumbers don’t take plastic. Hubby comes home two days early from his business trip and ropes in a friend with tools ($75 for his pride and lunch) to replace the waste pipe. Waste! All the junk that went down my garbage disposal, plus the water from the kitchen sink, was going to the basement and somewhere else besides. Two hundred years from now, when they go to build a high rise something or other where my house is, the archaeologists will have a field day. Popcorn kernels, stainless steel from the edge of my spoons, chicken skin. They are going to consult the well-preserved In-Sink-er-ator manual and decide we were illiterate barbarians.

The next prospective tenant comes with a friend and the friend’s two-week-old baby. How did they know I can’t resist infants?  I get to hold the baby while they prowl the three bedrooms. She falls in love with the leaded glass windows and I get to test the third credit bureau. Within twenty-four hours I know how bad her credit is. The newspaper calls to renew the rental ad; I put it on plastic again.

The Indian couple remark that there is no exhaust fan in the kitchen. Lots of frying fish, they caution. He advises getting rid of the carpet: no one wants carpet and it really doesn’t deaden sound between floors. When he starts telling me what color I should paint the bathroom, I tune out.

The place is looking pretty good. The woodwork, windows and doors are half finished. I develop tunnel vision for stains in the carpet.

The short guy who looks like Guy Lombardo likes the flat and asks for the application for a credit check. My husband grins: they got along great, talking about cars while Guy poked around upstairs. He is clean, works for a solid company in what sounds like a solid job and doesn’t have four kids. We never hear from him again.

She needs a first floor unit, but there doesn’t seem to be any available. Can she come see our upstairs? Sure, anytime.

The woman strides briskly up the walk, cane in hand. She doesn’t have trouble with the steps. It is just her and her thirteen-year-old daughter. A typical teenager who hides in her room with the door closed. The music has to be off by 11 p.m. Trying to be tactful, I ask if she would have trouble with the stairs. Then the story pours out. It was a genetic defect – she had always had migraine headaches and just popped pills for them. Then the doctor told her to come in right away. I really do not understand the medical part, but she had brain surgery. They removed a vein and cured her headaches. Now she has seizures.

She is on disability from her job as a store manager. She only does therapy now for her hand, because it moves by itself. The agency (which I had never heard of) will contact me. They only need a piece of paper with the amount of rent, my name and address, that sort of information. No problem, the computer is already on. I type it up.

They are going to get her the medical alert button you wear around your neck – though she isn’t sure what good it will do her since she passes out when she has a seizure. Anyway, they are trying to convince her thirty-eight-year-old brother to come from California to stay with her and help out – would I mind if he moved in too?

No… I couldn’t possibly object to her brother moving in. The brother is on disability also: he’s a nice boy, fun loving, just cuckoo. Schizoid. I blinked. I know I blinked. Then I gave her the paper to fill out for a credit check. Schizoid. Does she mean schizoid? Does she mean schizophrenia? Is crazy the same as crazy?

Maybe she won’t call back.

The rental ad has to be renewed next week. If I win the lottery, the place stays vacant.