The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Tales From the Landlord Trenches

Every landlord has tales to tell about the trials and tribulations of owning rental property. Here are a few of mine:

-- The flood. The house was between tenants when an upstairs water pipe burst. The water cascaded all the way down into the crawl space. After filling that area, it spilled out into the yard, creating a wading pool outside.

I didn’t find out until the four-figure water bill arrived. Fortunately, once I turned the water off, the accumulated water slowly sunk into the ground, and I made the necessary repairs.

-- Here today, gone tomorrow. When I eventually put that same house on the market, I fixed it up nicely, including the addition of a bunch of new shrubs. The day after the bushes were put into the earth, they were gone, just like that. During the night, someone had dug them up, leaving me nothing but gaping holes in the ground.

-- Tell-tale heart, Part I. My tenant was way behind on her rent. (I used to let people slide far longer than I should have: big mistake.) So I filed for eviction, and it took three months for the court to process it. The night before the sheriff was to knock on her door, she called me, crying, “Please don’t toss me out! I’ll pay you tomorrow.”

Bleeding heart that I am, I called off the eviction. Of course, she didn’t pay. And it took three more months with no rent to finally get her out.

-- Tell-tale heart, Part II. One of my tenants died of a heart attack in his bedroom. But sadly, no one knew anything was wrong until his rent didn’t arrive. It took days to locate his next of kin. After the police removed his body, a hazardous waste clean-up crew put the bedroom back in order.

-- Guns drawn. The only time I personally evicted someone, the experience scared the living daylights out of me.

I had rented the place to a man, his girlfriend and their children. The guy eventually split with his girlfriend but continued to pay his rent. He was habitually late, but he paid. And then he stopped. It took me several months to track him down, only to discover that he had declared bankruptcy and moved away. I couldn’t touch him for back rent.

But he had allowed his teenage son to remain in the house, so I still had to file for eviction. When I got the court’s permission, I went to the house, along with two deputy sheriffs. As we were about to bang on the front door, the officers pulled their guns, ready for anything.

I wasn’t ready for that, though. When they flashed their weapons, I ran like a scared rabbit around the corner.

Fortunately, the house was empty, but it had been trashed almost beyond reclamation. I had to completely strip it down and start over.

-- The gallon-gift guy. I once rented a room in a boarding house I owned -- five bedrooms, five tenants who shared the kitchen and living space -- to a fellow who was on unemployment at the time. I took a chance on him because he was willing to take the smallest bedroom in the house. He paid his rent faithfully for a couple of years, and then he stopped. Finally, after a few months with no rent, I told him he had to move, which he did.

Nice guy that he was, he left me a present: 50 or 60 1-gallon jugs full of urine. Rather than rising from his mattress to get to the bathroom, it appeared he’d just used jugs. But he never bothered to empty them.

I donned rubber gloves and a mask and proceeded to empty each one down the toilet. Then I carried the empty jugs down the stairs and into my truck and hauled them off to the dump. To remove the stench from the jugs that had spilled during his stay, I had to replace the room’s hardwood floor.

But the worst part occurred on my last trip down the steps with a handful of empty jugs: I missed the last step and broke my ankle.

Of course, there have been a lot of rewarding moments over the years, too. And not just of the monetary kind. The one I remember most fondly happened around Christmas, when a single-father tenant showed up at my front door with a frozen turkey.

Turns out, his church gave out the turkeys to parishioners and told them to distribute them to people in their lives who had done good by them. Since I had allowed him to be late with his rent, he said, he thought of me as one of those people.

I was really touched. But all in all, I’d say landlording isn’t for the faint of heart.