And then, gripping their greasy little wads of money, as if
in the knowledge that all reward below these fierce and
cruel skies must be wrenched painfully and minutely from
a stony earth, they went in to pay him.
—Thomas Wolfe: Of Time and the River
It always sounds so perfectly sensible when you read about it in the real estate ads. Two unit on such and such a street. Well maintained. Easy financing. Live in one and rent the other. That’s the killer line. That and, Let your tenant help pay your mortgage. It sounds so simple. And perfectly logical, on paper. But I’m here to tell you, the reality is nowhere even close to that bright little scenario.
I remember how it was back in early 2000, when I stumbled onto the house that has been my home ever since. Ellen and I were engaged. I was struggling along as a novice attorney (I never was more than that, a novice), not making a whole lot. Neither of us had much saved up. And we needed a house. August was coming. And the wedding date.
I happened to mention something to an Amish client one day. A guy who owned a very successful construction business. He’d branched off into investing in commercial real estate. And I did his legal work, writing up leases and such. And one day over lunch I asked him. Do you know of a house for sale that I could buy? I need to find something soon. We’re getting married in August. And he smiled. “You bet I know of a house for sale,” he said. “I have one I’d sell you, over in the New Holland area.” I was instantly interested. Would you finance? “Sure would,” he said agreeably.
So the following Saturday afternoon, Ellen and I picked up the Amish guy at his home, and we drove over to see the house. My brother Steve and his wife Wilma met us there. And we walked through. Nothing fancy. An old two-story brick house. Two units. The upstairs was a separate apartment. Downstairs, where we would live was a little bigger, with an attached porch. Ellen and I were impressed. Nothing fancy, like I said. But nice enough. We could make a home of this place.
And the Amish guy told us. “Bob lives upstairs. He works for me. Drives my crews. He’s good for the rent. Five hundred a month. That’ll help with your mortgage.” We met Bob. A wizened guy, in his fifties, probably. Friendly, not real bright. He lived upstairs with his cat.
We bought the house, and settled in after the wedding. It was nice enough, downstairs. Old wood trim, natural, never painted. The only problem I could see was that they must not have had electricity back when the house was built. Every wall on all four sides seemed to be nothing more than many large, and I mean large, windows. Old windows. Decrepit windows that leaked in the wind.
And it all seemed like it would work out real nice, this landlord thing. Bob went to work every day, and he generally paid the rent on time. Five hundred cool bucks every month. Our mortgage was around $1100.00, so it really helped. And that was our reality for a year or two. Bob was completely alone in the world. He had no one. So we tried to include him when we could. When we had friends over for a cookout. At Thanksgiving. And during the Christmas holidays. He was rough, unvarnished. But he had a kind heart. And he paid his rent on time. At least the first while.
It could not last, sadly. Bob had a fallout with the Amish guy, and quit. Went to work where his heart really was. At the local golf club, as a groundskeeper. Which is very nice, doing what you love. Problem was, the local groundskeeper job paid him about half of what he was making before. And things got real tight, real fast. He didn’t know how to manage his budget. And it seemed like the landlord was always the last guy on his list to pay. We had a few stern talks. Look, Bob. You’re behind two months on the rent. Come on, get me some money. He saw right through me, though, and knew I didn’t have it in me to kick him out into the streets.
And things just spiraled down. His old pickup gave out one day, over in Leola. I went and pulled him home with a tow strap. He somehow cobbled together a small loan from someone for an old clunker of a car. He clattered around in that until one Saturday afternoon when I got home from somewhere. The car was parked in the drive, hood up. Bob stood there, looking perplexed. He’d just hooked up a new battery. I walked up. Little slivers of smoke drifted from various parts of the engine, and wires here and there crackled and popped and pulsed as if alive. “The thing’s smoking,” Bob proclaimed. Well, yeah, I can see that, I answered, checking it out. You got the battery hooked up backward. Positive on negative and negative on positive. I yanked the cables off. But it was too late. All the wiring was fried. And that was it, for his wheels. He just couldn’t win, seemed like. I dug out an old bicycle I had in the garage and gave that to him. And the man got up at 3:30 each morning and biked 6 miles to his job on the golf course, to water the greens before the first golfers arrived.
The end approached. And Bob left us one day. Claimed he’d cleaned everything upstairs. He had not. He left us with a trashed apartment and about $1200.00 in unpaid back rent. He also left some belongings in the garage. Hunting equipment. Bows. Tools, hammers and such. An old tobacco press. And buckets and buckets of golf balls. I had a fire sale on the abandoned items, except the tobacco press. Got about half his back rent back. And paid about half of that to three Amish ladies who live close by, to come and clean the mess he had left. I muttered savagely under my breath. And I never saw Bob again.
After Bob left, we rented the apartment to a brother and sister who had drifted in from western PA to find work. They were from hard, poor stock, and it was always a little dicey, getting them to keep current with the rent. But when they left, the place was clean, and they didn’t owe me a dime. Then came a raggedy line of just flat out losers. The single lady and her teenage daughter. The only tenants I’ve ever had to evict. She burned me for over a grand. Then the friend of a friend, and her friend. Lots of adventures and drama, there. I’ve told it all before. No need to repeat. They left me about even, money wise, just hugely burned out from dealing with people living right above my head.
Like the ads say, live in one and rent the other. Let the tenant help pay the mortgage. Yeah. Sure. That really works.
The last tenant ever to live upstairs was a young guy in his low 20s. Moving out on his own for the first time. “Harvey” was quiet, never made much fuss. Before he moved in, he asked if he could paint up there. Paint what? I asked. “Oh, some of the walls,” he said vaguely. Sure, no problem, I said. Paint away, any color you like. And he did. The kitchen a pale red. One bedroom a hard, hard loud green. The living room, a deep dark brown, almost black. Except one wall. That was kind of yellowish orange, a color I’m sure has some modern name I’ve never heard of. I gaped a bit when I saw what he was doing. But hey, it was paint. What could it hurt?
Harvey was simply the best tenant I’ve ever had. The little real estate ads would be totally accurate, if all tenants were like him. He was quiet. Paid his rent on time. Made no trouble at all. When I’d leave for a few days over a weekend, I’d tell him. Have a party. I’m not around. Be as loud as you want. He had friends visiting from out of town sometimes, but he always told me. I was all set, for a long term tenant, with him up there. Sadly, though, after about a year and a half, Harvey gave his notice. His Mom wasn’t doing well. He had to move back home to take care of her. I grumbled at him. Come on, what am I going to do now? You’re my best tenant ever. Harvey laughed. And he moved out, leaving me with an impeccably clean apartment with wildly painted walls.
And I just didn’t have the energy, to go look for someone else to rent to. It was in early 2011, and I was immersed in the final edits of my book. Plus, I was in a weird state, mentally. My book was coming out in July. In my world at that time, the sun rose and set on the coming fulfillment of that wild strange dream that was coming true. Sure, I told people. If you know of anyone, send them over. I’ll pay a hundred bucks to any person that finds me a suitable tenant. And a prospect showed up, now and then. But nothing ever worked out. And it didn’t bother me one bit. I got to liking it a lot, just living alone in my house. No fuss, no hassles, no chasing after people for rent. I missed the money, of course. But I’d rather live alone than deal with the incessant, draining stress of a problem tenant.
An old house is a money trap. I live in an old house. And that’s what I thought about, when my first check arrived from Tyndale. The house. It needs new windows. I’ll do half of them at a time, I figured. The west and north sides first. That’s where the cold winds come from. Then, if the book does OK, the south and east sides next year. I called an Amish contractor. He came and gave me a quote. And that’s what I did. The twenty-five or so windows were all replaced, over the course of two summers. Now the heating bill would be less. A lot less. I could sure use a tenant upstairs, though, to help pay for all those windows.
And right at a year ago, it came to me. A real estate guy. Talk to one. They find renters, for a fee. So I called one, an acquaintance. A highly respected local agent, totally connected in the area. A guy who had a reputation for renting apartments and houses. Would you help me find a tenant? “Sure,” he said. “Let me come around and check out what you have. I’ll take some pictures and post it on my site.” Great, I said. I’ll leave the door unlocked. Go right on up and check it out. And that’s how we left it. He came. And I waited to hear from him. Nothing. Well, he’s surely got it linked to his site, I thought. I was busy, with a lot of book-related things. So I let it slide for a couple of months. Still no word from him. So I called one day and left a message. Haven’t heard from you, or from any prospective tenants. What’s going on?
He called back. “I thought I left you a message.” Well, you didn’t, I said. “I can’t take your apartment,” he said. “It needs work. A total overhaul. New carpet and painting. New cabinets, new appliances. The way it is, you’ll attract no one who has any credit.” Well, thanks a lot, I thought. For letting me know. I’ve been waiting for two months. And I asked him. How much do you think it’ll take to fix it up? “Oh, $6,000.00 to $10,000.00,” he said breezily. “That’ll get it nice. I’ll be able to rent it out then.”
I was pretty furious at the guy. Not at what he said. My apartment is a dump, was what he was telling me. And that was fair enough. But that he didn’t get back to me. I wasn’t worth the time for even a simple phone call. I won’t name him, but I will say this much. When you’re selling a service, I don’t care how unimportant your client seems, or how dumpy the apartment is that he’s trying to rent out, you better call him back. You just better.
Generally, nothing happens on its own. Not if you don’t shake things. So no tenant showed up. I walked upstairs now and then. Kept the place clean, kept the mouse poison out. I realized, though, that I needed to get someone in there. A place that’s not lived in falls apart on its own. And about a month ago, it all came together. The plan.
I was over at my friend Tricia’s little salon one evening after work, getting my hair cut. I’ve known Trish for more than twenty years. She’s pretty much the only person in the world who’s been allowed to cut my hair during that time, except for when I was out of the area. And no other hair stylist anywhere has ever met her standards. We’ve become good friends over the years. I saw her raise her children. Move around the area, here and there. I always followed her, wherever she went, to get my hair cut. Way early on, I told her where I’d come from. She saw me graduate from college, go to law school. And she was there through everything that’s happened since. Good and bad and good. Yeah, I’d say we know each other pretty well.
Back in 2004, she got her real estate license and went to work part time at Hostetter Realty, a very solid and respectable firm in the county. She told me about it, how it went, all the adventures involved. And that night, I told her that I’m actually looking for someone to rent my apartment. Is that something you could do for me? Find a good renter?
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll stop by next week and put up a sign. I’ll put it on our website. We’ll find you a renter.” It’s not a high class place, I told her. The other realtor basically told me it’s a dump. “I’ll get you a renter,” she replied.
And she stopped by one evening, as she’d promised. I took her upstairs and showed her the place. And I give her plenty of credit. She had to be shocked at the paint job. But she smiled bravely. “We’ll see what we can do,” she said. I took the large metal sign from her and punched it into my yard out by the road. Apartment for Rent. Call Hostetter Realty. If this didn’t work, I figured, I might as well give it all up. Either spend the money to remodel the place, or just live without a renter.
It didn’t take long for the first prospect to show up. A few days later, a text from Trish. I got a guy wanting to stop in tonight at seven. He’s good. I ran the credit check. OK, I texted back. And that evening, right at seven, a knock on my door. Heavy set guy with a naturally tonsured haircut. He introduced himself. “I’m from Jersey. I worked for 30 years as an engineer for a defense contractor. Got laid off, and now I’m working locally here. I’m around only during the week.”
That’s good, I thought. Laid off from a defense contractor. I wish a whole lot more people would get laid off from jobs like that. Merchants of blood, is what defense contractors are, feeding a perpetual stream of murder in the racket that is war. Looking at the guy, I knew he wouldn’t take the apartment. We walked up. He peered around a bit, asked a few questions. “It’s a little bigger than I need,” he mumbled. Yup, I said. That’s fine. He fled to his car and left. Strike one, I thought.
A week or so later, another text from Trish. A guy wants to stop in tomorrow night at seven. Great, I texted back. And the next night, a very fancy late model Toyota SUV pulled in. Seeing that, I knew it wasn’t going to work. A man and his wife got out. I met them in the front yard. They lived in Virginia, and their son attended college in the area. So he’d live here, and they would show up once in a while.
The man was nice and polite. His wife was not. We walked up, and she grimaced visibly at the loud paint on the walls. Wrinkled her nose a good bit. Asked a couple of curt questions. The man and I chatted, off to one side. She walked through, poking through the kitchen cabinets and staring grimly at the appliances. Then she returned to where we stood at the top of the stairs.
“I’ve seen enough,” she sniffed. That was viscous. It really was. Well, what do you expect, woman, for $525.00 a month in this area? I thought. If you weren’t so cheap, none of us would have wasted our time, including Trish. Go pay $800.00 a month for the place you figured you might find here. I bit my tongue, though. Her kind husband smiled a little plaintively at me. “We know where the realtor is, if we decide to take it,” he said. Yes, yes, I smiled back. They showed themselves out.
I stayed upstairs and peeped out the window as they walked to their SUV. The man stopped and picked up a tiny branch on the drive and carefully placed it on the grass, so it wouldn’t sully the shiny tires on his vehicle when they drove out. Lord, protect me from people like that, I thought. I’d rather have no one up here than to deal with that woman. And I texted Trish. It did not go well. Those people were snobs. Send me a redneck. We’ll find someone, she texted back. And I realized at that moment that the main reason she had ever agreed to try to rent my apartment was because she was my friend.
And last Saturday afternoon, she got me the person I was looking for. He showed up promptly at five, as scheduled. An older guy, probably ten years older than me. Lean and fit and talkative. He worked in Leola, had a good job for years. A nice house and a wife. And last year, he said, after 27 years of marriage, she had decided to divorce him. Ah, that’s gotta hurt, I said. Mine only lasted seven years. My ex decided to divorce me, too. So I know a bit about how it is, that pain. But not 27 years’ worth.
He seemed to like the place. Could he paint the walls? Absolutely, I said. Any color you want, as long as I don’t have to pay for it. I don’t care what you do, as long as you don’t structurally damage my house, you pay the rent on time, and you don’t disturb my peace. Heck, run a moonshine still up here, for all I care. He laughed. And we got along just fine. He took my phone number. And just as he was leaving, another prospect was waiting outside. Trish had craftily scheduled two, right after each other. This is a busy place today, I said, conversationally. Lots of tenants lining right up.
I showed the apartment to the second prospect, a nice lady. And just as she left, the first guy called back. He wanted it. Could he stop by tomorrow? He could, I said. And he did, the next afternoon. I had the lease ready. We went over it. The lease starts April 1st, but he has immediate access, to get his painting done and get the carpets cleaned. We both signed two copies, and he gave me a check. Here’s hoping that I will have no more tenant adventures to write about again. Ever.
The next day, I sent Trish her finder’s fee, one month’s rent. She put in a lot of work, for that measly amount. But she came through for me, as only a friend could. Had I been just some guy off the street, she would have called me back, though. Unlike that other well-known realtor. She would have, because that’s who she is. I highly recommend her, if you’re ever in the market for real estate here in Lancaster County. As a buyer or a seller. She will do what she tells you she will.
And that’s the story of how I got a tenant, after more than two years of living without one. Believe me, if I ever move to another house, there’s one thing it will not have. It will not have an apartment to rent to help pay the mortgage. And I will be one happy guy.
Well, spring is here. At least the date, if not the weather. March is moving right along at a good clip, seems like. Way faster than February did. And next weekend, baseball season opens. I’m liking that a lot. A sport I can actually “watch” every night. I can’t wait to have my writing noise back again, off to the side.
Next weekend is also Easter Sunday. A day to reflect on the most important historical event any Christian will ever celebrate. Jesus came for the captives. He came for us. Yeah, that means you. And yeah, that means me. It means anyone who believes and trusts in Him. And here I speak to those who do believe, wherever you are. Even if your faith is very small, like a mustard seed. Like mine is, way too often.
Because He rose again, we are free. Free in the joy of our salvation. And free to live and speak our hearts.
I wish a blessed Easter to all my readers.Share