Saturday, November 8, 2008

on being a landlord

When I was little, like most kids, I had a list of things that I wanted to be when I grew up. It was an ever changing list from truck driver to veterinarian and doctor to garbage person. But the one thing that never, EVER changed was the one thing that I did not want to be.

A landlord.

In the late 1950s, my father, who was in construction, bought a piece of farm land and built 4 6-plex apartment buildings on it. He moved into one of the apartments and that is where he brought his new wife in 1965 to start their marriage off. And it was the home they brought me to in 1970. We lived there till I was 6 when we moved to their dream home that they built themselves (without blue prints I might add!).

Memories of my childhood often revolve around these 24 units and all that they entailed. Weekly jobs like cutting the grass and taking out the garbage; shoveling the walks in the winter; emptying the washing machine of change (that one was my favorite job! I think I learned to count and most of my basic math by sorting nickels, dimes and quarters into coin rollers). At one end of the buildings there was a convenience store. At the opposite end a bus stop. The space in between seemed to be just enough for people to finish a chocolate bar or bag of chips and ditch the wrapper on our lawn. One of my first jobs as a kid was to pick up the garbage.

By no means was I a victim of slave labour. I'm sure my jobs and chores did not add up to more then other kids my age. But I resented that I had to clean up after other people. It's one thing for a kid to keep their own room clean, it's a whole new ball game to clean up garbage.

My parents had the worst jobs however. Cleaning out apartments between tenants. From my perspective it was fun and exciting! I got to run around an empty apartment and I had a lawn chair and portable black and white TV that my parents brought along to keep me occupied. We never had cable ourselves, but most of the tenants did. And most cable companies don't bother to shut off the feed until they know for sure that the next tenant doesn't want cable. So I had access to the magical world of television on the first of every month.

My mother can tell stories of cleaning horror that would curl your toe hairs! One was so bad that I was sent to spend the weekend at my Godmother's as my Mom wouldn't even let me walk in the door. The tenants had been evicted for non-payment and they were not happy about it. They dead bolted the door and left through a window. Once my Dad was able to get in they were met with a horrible site! The people had poured a liter of milk on the shelves of the fridge, shut the door and unplugged it leaving a sour festering mess; they had taken the baby's poopy diapers and smeared the contents into every electrical outlet they could find; they overflowed the toilet and left a mountain of garbage.

The cleaning wasn't the only problem area. Drunk tenants banging on the door at all hours because they lost their keys, dealing with angry people over music played too loud, people breaking things, people refusing to pay their rent. My mother took one man to court over past due rent and garnished his wages. She walked to his job site every Friday for 4 years to collect $20 a week.

Domestic disputes were bad as well. The worst one involved an angry husband shooting his wife on the front lawn. She was only grazed by the bullet and managed to make it into the building where another tenant let her into his apartment and called the police.

Eventually my parents sold off the buildings and got out of the landlord business. And I swore that I would never again have anything to do with apartments beyond being a tenant myself.

As life would have it, it didn't quite work out that way.

3 years ago we had the opportunity to buy a house on our street. It was bigger, had a better yard, had many upgrades and was generally in better shape. We jumped at the chance. The only thing was that it had a basement apartment in it. And since it was a bigger house it came with a bigger mortgage and we would need the rent from the apartment in order to manage financially. I wasn't too worried. It was only 1 apartment after all, not 24. And we would be living right upstairs so we could keep a close eye on things.

So that September we bought the house, packed up our stuff and put ads out to find a potential renter. We live in a city with 3 major universities and several other post-secondary schools. There are lots of people looking for rentals in September. Unfortunately most of them were of a questionable character! The apartment is a one bedroom with a den. Perfect for a single person, maybe a couple. The previous tenant had been a single Mom and her 4 year old, so that size combo could work too. We had families with 6 people apply and who were indignant that we wouldn't even consider them. Smokers who felt that they should be able to smoke in the house. People with no visible means of income and ones that I would have been scared to have that close to my family.

We eventually lucked out when Dan applied. A nice young single man in his late 20's. Recently graduated from the school of Dentistry and working for a practice downtown. He was looking for his first post-university apartment, somewhere to hang his hat while he worked to pay off his student loans.

Dan has been a model tenant and has stayed with us for 3 years so far. True, on his 30th birthday he got drunk, took a cab home, lost his keys and thought that it would be a good idea to break a window in order to get in. The neighbours did catch one of his buddies peeing on the front lawn one Saturday night. And there was the time his buddy left a dog in the apartment while they went out and the dog howled non-stop for HOURS until we finally got hold of Dan on his cell phone and told him to come deal with it. All in all not too bad.

We've only had to replace the dryer and one light fixture, so our expenses so far have been minimal (Dan paid for the new window and to have the locks changed). Until this past week. Dan mentioned that the toilet had been clogging, but that he was able to plunge it successfully. A day or two later her mentioned that when he plunged it the last time that some dirty water backed up into his tub. So we called a plumber to come in and snake the line to the sewer before it got to bad. We were a day too late! Things got bad the night before the plumber was due to arrive. Dan could no longer flush and there was six inches of sewer water and all that that entails in his tub. $300 later the plumber had cleared the clog by having to take our toilet completely off and snaking it from there. So when I got home from work I had 2 poopy bathrooms to clean. While fishing out the chunky bits from Dan's tub I was reminded of my childhood plan to NEVER be a landlord!!
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