Real Estate and Life in Colorado and Beyond

Tenant Tragedy: The Downside of the Upside

For the small scale real estate investor, landlording is a big thing.  The ability to own income properties, and willingness to rent them out, can be a significant contributor to personal wealth.

But not everyone is willing to handle the hassles.  “Trash, tenants, and toilets” is a catch phrase often cited as reason to resist owning residential rentals.

I am an investor myself; currently on the landlord end of eight rental doors.  (A “door” is one living unit, whether it’s a house, condo or apartment.)

The hassles are hard, but generally not as burdensome, I’d say, as what most people suspect and fear.

The strewn trash and leaking toilets you can deal with.  The biggest challenges come in dealing with people—the tenants—as in this sad experience that I had recently, at a rental property I’ve owned for 12 years.

Two years ago, for the first time in a while, I was offering the home as a long-term rental.  (It had been a short-term Airbnb.)  A single-family house with four bedrooms, it was suitable for a family or a group of roommates.

I got lots of inquiries and narrowed the field down to two applicants.  The one I favored was a group of female roommates: four women in their twenties, including two sisters.  We met and toured the house.

They loved the place and were eager to sign up and move in.  I hemmed and hawed.  Their income was much less than what the other candidates claimed.  Two were restaurant servers and were not working at the time due to Covid.

But they all had bright, positive personalities and it seemed like they would genuinely appreciate the house.   One texted me: “Are we in the running?”  I caved and said yes.  We signed a lease agreement.

July 1, 2020 was a happy day.  Still in the early stages of Covid, no one quite knew how to act.   We wore masks as we did a pre-entry walk-through.

The ladies were elated, having succeeded against the odds.   Their enthusiasm was infectious.  I felt happy too, having provided a decent home to some very nice people.  Some days, landlording is almost fun.

Time flew by.  They were fantastic tenants.  Always paid the rent on time.  The place looked great whenever I drove by.  Their complaints about the house were minimal.  I believe their boyfriends were helping with the lawn and home maintenance.

This year, nearing the end of Year 2, I expected to again renew their lease.  We discussed it, and I promised there would be no rent increase.  But they were noncommital.

The two sisters were my “anchor tenants,” always keeping order, it seemed.  They had swapped roommates a couple of times, with my approval, replacing one existing tenants with new ones. But things seemed stable.

Once I even met the sisters’ parents.   Very kind, classy people, they were considering the purchase of a property as a permanent home for their daughters.  I’d have represented them as a buyers’ agent.  But ultimately it didn’t go very far.

In May of this year, my tenants announced that they would be leaving.  The reasons weren’t entirely clear.  Something about moving in with a boyfriend.  And they were having differences with one of their replacement roommates.

I was sad to hear their decision.  But we agreed they would vacate and leave me the keys at the end of June.

Ever the responsible tenants, they were in the process of cleaning up.  They did some overdue yard work and repainted a bedroom.  I made a call to ask how it was going.

“Not so great,” was the answer.  “My sister died.”

It felt like a punch in the stomach.  What? When? Where?  How was that possible? Those questions occurred to me, but I did not ask.

Because…is it really my business?   She could have elaborated if she wanted to.  She was choking back tears as I awkwardly expressed my condolences.

Her sister’s memorial service was set for June 30, the last day of our lease agreement.  I searched for info on where to send a card but found nothing.

Their mother called and asked that their surviving daughter be excused from a final walk-through of the home.  The memories would be overwhelming. I quickly agreed, and again voiced my sympathy.  I toured the house unaccompanied and refunded their security deposit in full.

Yes, landlording can be very hard.  Usually, it’s due to bad tenants.  I had one guy who quit paying rent and let his unapproved dog poop all over the carpet.  When I took possession, drug paraphernalia was everywhere.  One lady answered my eviction notice in court, arguing that my rent expectation was a violation of her civil rights.  The judge tossed her out.  But it cost me time and money.

But the real heartbreak comes from good tenants:  The honest, hard-working folks who just want to live and have a little fun as I did at their age, who ask only for fair treatment and a roof over their heads. When their lives take a bad turn, it feels like a family matter to me.

Landlords operate in the ambiguous realm between a business associate and something like a family friend.  Sometimes we wonder what to say.  In a note along with my deposit refund, I said simply this:

“It was a pleasure and privilege to have you in the house.  My best to you and your family.”

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