Look Mom! I Bought a Brownstone

Part 4: Being a Landlord

WWS Exclusive

By Caren Chesler


I hate being a landlord. You're forced to deal with complete strangers about an issue that's very personal and emotionally charged: money. I find people become utterly unreasonable when it comes to money, probably because money is a proxy for love and it conjures up every childhood injustice they've ever suffered. Wait a minute. Am I talking about me?

So if I hate it so much, why do I do it? Well, I wanted to live in Manhattan and I wanted a backyard. When you're a freelance writer sans trust fund, that means you're going to have to figure out how to finance your dream. And, for me at least, that meant buying and renovating a Harlem brownstone and renting out three of the four apartments in the finished building -- I would live in the fourth apartment.

I've been a landlord for nearly five years, over three different properties, and in that short time I've had to evict two people and almost wound up in court with a third. Adding insult to injury, those three started out as close friends. The most egregious violator was my then-best friend Doris, who decided one day that I'd been taking advantage of her by asking her to feed my cat once a week, so she was going to charge me $400 for her labor. According to her calculations, once she subtracted the $400 from her rent, she'd figured that she owed me $115 for that month. I remember her yelling at me that afternoon louder than I'd ever heard a human yell before -- and I was sitting right next to her in her van at the time. For the next three months we didn't speak, and I communicated with her through her boyfriend or through notes. After she failed to pay her rent for two months, I communicated with her through an eviction notice. Adios, Doris.

The other two were women just like me, or so I thought. They were single professionals who worked hard and played hard, and like me, were looking for Mr. Right. We became fast friends. With one, I would sit in her apartment and drink white wine, hang my head out of her window to smoke cigarettes, and look at her beautiful decorating books. With the other, I would watch Sopranos episodes that she'd Tivo'ed.

In the end, the wine drinker refused to renew her lease when it expired. And then she refused to leave. She said that she wanted to find a larger place but hadn't found one yet. I was forced to evict her, lest I be in a month-to-month situation that I feared would end in the dead of winter, the hardest time of the year to find a new tenant. The Sopranos watcher did the opposite: She signed a new lease and then wanted to leave halfway through it -- in the dead of winter. She'd found a boyfriend and wanted to move to Brooklyn. I tossed and turned for three months, fearing that I wouldn't be able to rent their apartments, which in turn meant that I would not have the money to pay my mortgage. I eventually found a tenant for one of the two units. I was never able to rent the second, which became available a week before Thanksgiving. I wound up putting my own beautiful apartment up for grabs and figured I would take whichever didn't rent. Two weeks before Christmas, I was lugging everything I own up to the fourth floor, having given up my apartment with the garden to a professional couple.

Okay, I admit that friends wag their fingers at me in that "I-told-you-so" way, and say, "Never mix business with pleasure," as if that were the problem. I see it differently. I think I'm drawn to people who are difficult, as friends and as tenants. That is, I don't think that these women were difficult tenants because we became friends. I think they were difficult tenants because they're difficult people. (They would probably agree that I could be a tad on the difficult side -- occasionally.) I had to call one half of the professional couple who moved into "my" apartment recently to see if she and her boyfriend would be renewing their lease. They were supposed to return the lease to me, signed, a week previous to my phone call. "Speak to my boyfriend about it," she said curtly. I told her I'd just tried his phone, and he doesn't answer. "I need to know if you'll be renewing the lease," I said. "I told you to speak to my boyfriend about it. I'm at work. I'm very busy," she said and hung up. Okay, that did not go well.

But managing tenants is only half the battle. Finding new ones can be equally problematic. Think of all the people you bump into during the day, who cut in front of you at Starbuck's or push onto the train before letting everyone off, who stop at the bottom of escalators or speak too loudly on their cell phones. They're all looking for apartments, and you're bound to run into them as a landlord.

The stakes are even higher for me because I'm financially strapped and unable to sustain a vacancy. Every open house I have that's poorly attended just serves to remind me that I shouldn't have bought a brownstone across the street from a schoolyard. If someone makes an appointment to see one of my apartments and doesn't show up, I take it personally. I sat on my front steps the other night from 7:00 - 7:45 p.m. waiting for Caitlin and her fiancé, Justin. She was the fourth person in two weeks to simply not show up. At 11 p.m., I fired off an email to her that read, "You could at least have called. Two people were put out." I regretted it the moment I hit "send," not because it was so ineloquent but because it was a small window into my dysfunction and, like a flasher, I had exposed myself to a perfect stranger. Being a landlord sometimes makes me someone I don't recognize.

If I had some advice to give to a new landlord, it would be this: people have bad credit for a reason. The higher the salary, the bigger the scofflaw. And no matter what they say, pets pee. Just think of your tenants like new shoes: if something is even a little uncomfortable in your initial encounter, it'll be the thing that pains you later on.

Caren Chesler is a freelance writer living in New York City. She writes about education, politics and finance. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Investor's Business Daily and Bloomberg.


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