Rental Illness

What’s it like to be a landlady? I could tell you stories. And will.

I AM A LANDLADY, which lumps me in the same social heap with grifters, puppy kickers, the Man, and familial leeches. The recent stampede by otherwise decent folk to join me in this stinkpile has me spooked. Real estate investment is the new golden goose—again. The topic saturates conversations at cocktail parties, soccer games, and even Alan Greenspan’s press conferences. When the Federal Reserve chairman starts flinging around rabies-tinged words like “froth,” my inner Cassandra takes that as her license to begin ranting.

I’ve owned rental property in Austin for more than twenty years, long enough that I feel entitled to wave my cane in the air and, in a croaky voice, remind all these quick-flipping whippersnappers about the crash of ’87, about balloon notes that left the financially bereft scattered across the Texas landscape like the dead at Gettysburg, about how some apartment complexes offered renters small sailboats if they’d sign a year’s lease yet still remained empty, about tax appraisals that actually went down from one year to the next (even in Travis County!). In 1987 the state could boast a six-year supply of office buildings, apartments, and retail space. By 1988, 203 financial institutions in Texas had vaporized, and foreclosures numbered in the tens of thousands.

 If today’s wannabe real estate moguls are unmoved by stats from the past, maybe they’ll heed my warnings about the gritty details of their futures. You think losing it all investing in ridiculous dot-coms is a humbling experience? (Did you really believe a company selling potted amaryllis online would rake in zillions of bucks?) Well, wait until you have to clean someone else’s dirty toilet. Talk about humbling. I want to grab these starry-eyed idealists by their pristine lapels and tell them about the endless battles with termites, rot, water damage, peeling paint, and four-legged rodents that refuse to vacate the premises. But most of all, I want to tell them about renters.

I know there are evil landlords and -ladies out there. I’ve met them. I’ve heard the horror stories. And there are good renters. I’ve met them too. But evil renters—there’s no other way to describe them—lurk among us, and if you spend any time at all as a landperson, a run-in with one is as inevitable as a clogged drain. The very first tenant I ever had, back in 1985, chosen from a gaggle of applicants

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