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 eager to live in the South Austin home that my husband and I had spent a year remodeling with our bare, bloodied hands, drove up in a brand-new Lincoln Continental, slapped her Gucci briefcase on the kitchen counter, rustled through some important-looking papers for her checkbook, and, without flinching, wrote a check for the deposit and two months’ rent.
Do I have to tell you the check bounced? “Oh, I sold my accounting business, and the check for that probably hasn’t cleared. Just run it through again.” Boing, boing. Eventually Gucci girl would no longer answer my calls, so I went over to the house and let myself in; all I found were two lawn chairs and three cartons of file folders. I sat down and began to read the reams of paperwork detailing her hot-check convictions, her lawyer’s continued requests for payment, and the multiple hot-check complaints from a psychiatrist who was treating her—with very little success, obviously—for hot-check-writing disease. There was also an envelope of driver’s licenses with her picture on them but with different names than the one we knew her by.
Lesson learned, right? I guess cleaning toilets has not only kept me humble, it’s kept me stupid. I continued to choose poorly with abandon. On one occasion, however, I wasn’t completely to blame. I had my misgivings about the two raven-haired sisters and the one doltish boyfriend who begged to move into one of our houses, but my husband found them charming and pleaded their case, so in they moved. After three months of nonpayment, I finally got them out, but, boy, did they ever leave me a whopping piece of humble pie. Wearing the closest thing I owned to a Hazmat suit, I filled a sixteen-foot flatbed trailer with their sticky detritus: cans of Whipped Cream for Lovers, empty bottles of spumante, tasseled pasties and wads of sequined G-strings, short glass straws and tiny glass vials frosted with white powder, lots of shotgun shell casings, empty Today sponge boxes, and pay stubs from gentlemen’s clubs. I also found eleven $1 bills folded lengthwise, which I soaked in bleach before spending. The coup de grâce? As I was loading the trailer, the sisters drove by and laughed at me.
Quick on the heels of this debacle came that late-eighties bust, a time of Grapes of Wrath—ish vagrancy when even the most well-meaning tenants left without notice for jobs in Massachusetts. Renters, good or bad, were as scarce as solvent savings and loans. I was relieved to finally lease one of my houses, a sweet thing just off the square in Georgetown, to a restaurant owner who said it was for his chef. Everything went smoothly enough for about six months; then the money stopped coming. When I went to check things out, I found that the restaurateur had moved a good portion of his non-English-speaking staff—along with their wives and babies—into the seven-hundred-square-foot cottage. There were four beds in the living room, and the only bedroom was sectioned off with curtains made from stained sheets into four additional sleeping nooks. The claw-foot bathtub looked as if it had been used to brew chai, the once-cute little kitchen was downright fuzzy, the hardwood floors I had refinished myself appeared splattered with battery acid, and the toilet…never mind. I had become a slumlord. Inadvertently, but a slumlord nonetheless. Before leaving the house, I tried to snag a stereo as collateral. Despite the language barrier, a small man wielding a large meat cleaver persuaded me not to.
The subsequent heady days of the rental boom in the nineties mellowed most of my memories of the bust to the point that I actually recall it as a peaceful time. (Although I still can’t forget—or come up with an explanation for—the variety and amount of pornographic material many renters left behind back then, like the boxful of lesbian nun literature.) When all those California transplants descended on these Silicon Hills and scrambled to find housing, I was finally in the catbird seat, and I liked it, sort of. We got 132 phone calls in three days when we listed our little bungalow in Hyde Park for $750 a month. (We’d managed to get only $400 just a couple years earlier after rejecting applicants who’d demanded we install wall-to-wall carpet over the hardwood floors and add on a walk-in shower.) I shuffled through the scores of applications, discarding some for bad grammar and poor penmanship just to have a reason to limit the pool. Then I lined up the ten best applications on the floor, placed an identical dog biscuit in the center of each, and let Sadie, my shepherd mix, make the final choice. When I called the rejects, many cried, especially the ones who’d been living at the La Quinta for a month. I cried too.
All the way to the bank? Well, not exactly. The money-grubbing standard-bearer of my so-called profession would be ashamed of me. Sure, some of the financial pitfalls haven’t been my fault, like buying in Austin, where a rental boom lumbers some distance behind a real estate boom that trots even further behind rising property taxes. For example, the property taxes on that first house we bought were $991 in 1986, and we were getting—in theory, anyway—$650 a month. In 2005 the property taxes on that house will be $5,713, and we’re lucky to get $1,100 a month. You do the math, being sure to throw in a couple thousand dollars of maintenance and insurance each year. Oh, and those little things called mortgage payments.
But overall, I can blame only myself for failing to become rich. (When I say that I can’t afford to rent one of my own houses, I’m not kidding.) While I consider myself pathologically skeptical in most cases, I’m a chronic dupe when it comes to tenants’ sob stories. I simply can’t imagine that a man who owes me merely three months’ rent would tempt the Fates by lying about (a) his son’s being in a terrible car accident, (b) the company he worked for going bankrupt, owing him $15,000 in back pay, and (c) his wife’s just being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. I’d probably still be lapping up this particular jerk’s line of bull month after payless month if he hadn’t listed me, for some reason, as his employer on a car loan application. I later found out that the man had an arrest record even bigger than his mendacious imagination, had embezzled money from the company he worked for, and might even have had a second—possibly healthier—family somewhere in the Northeast. If gullibility were an incurable disease, I’d have been dead years ago.
And, yes, it’s my own fault for not running credit checks on prospective tenants before I hand over the keys. (You should see the detailed dossiers I compile after I’ve been rooked, though.) For some reason, I fear that if I engage in this rational, businesslike practice, if I begin the landlady-tenant courtship dance with suspicion in my heart, then I’ll completely lose my tenuous grasp on the belief in the goodness of man and plummet into the abyss of bitter cynicism. And who would be able to hear my warnings, no matter how shrill, from way down there?