Lesson one: People will flush anything down a toilet. Curlers. Popsicle wrappers. Combs. I'm not saying they do it on purpose. Maybe they didn't notice the jet-black comb on the blazingly contrasting white porcelain floor of the toilet bowl. Maybe they just flicked the handle and down it went. Accidents happen. But when you're the one kneeling on a damp bath towel on a Wednesday afternoon, fishing around in a toilet with a thirty-foot snake, I'm telling you: You see some stuff. Poker chips. Warning labels. Handfuls of expired vitamins.
There was an afternoon when I, the landlord, stood with a plumber as he ground around for about fifteen minutes until he broke through the offending blockage. Moments later, an artichoke leaf floated up, then another, and another. Seriously: artichoke leaves. "I don't know anything about that," my tenant told me when I called that night. Paradoxically, he then added, "That must have been an accident."
Lesson two: Artichokes can be accidents.
YOU FIX DISPOSALS, TOILET-PAPER HOLDERS, CLOSET SHELVES BECAUSE YOU CAN. YOU FACE UP TO THE HAWK BECAUSE THERE IS NO ONE ELSE.
I was a landlord for nearly two decades. In the small college town where we worked, my then-wife and I partnered with two of our best friends and bought a three-story converted nineteenth-century mercantile building. It was the old JCPenney. Four largish one-bedroom apartments and two retail spaces. At the start of things, we created an LLC, recruited financial partners, and hired an architect, then a contractor. By day, men worked, lugging in dry wall, aluminum studs, huge wheels of Romex. It was invigorating. Each of us drove by to watch the construction of a massive staircase, the enclosure of the mezzanine, the piercing of the building's 120-year-old exterior walls. Scaffolds rose and fell. At night we drank beers and ate pizza on-site, then argued about fixtures, firewalls, carpet grades, and systems: intercom systems, alarm systems, HVAC systems. Then on to bathroom vanities, replacement windows, paint colors, shades, cabinet knobs, and light fixtures. It took months and required bridge loans, construction loans, and a couple of refinances.
This was 1999. As I remember it, we were not particularly tense about all this. We had some working capital and a promising market of college professors who found themselves living in rural Indiana, men and women hungry for urban loft-style apartments, even out in the sticks.
But we were aware of the risk. We talked ourselves through budgets and projections. There was planning. We projected optimistic rent increases and steady payments against a large but seemingly manageable mortgage. We talked about our profit margin ($600 a month) and pleased one another by making celebratory references to distant dates, set blindingly far in the future. 2017! The year the mortgage would be paid, and the money would start rolling in in large monthly lumps. 2022! The year we'd sell after five solid years of those unfettered profits. So our comfort lay twenty-three years in the future, beyond any depreciation schedule, perhaps beyond even a normal life span. It felt a little sickening, but we were committed.
And then, after nearly five months of construction, having borrowed nearly the value of our two houses combined, we had something to show for it. We opened for business. Within a week, we had four signed leases, a set of deposit checks, and the promise of income. We had a new coffee shop opening on the first floor and a print shop in the basement. We could no longer call ourselves developers. We were now landlords.
Once, when I was a teenager, I leaned into my father's office where he sat with the phone cradled on his shoulder. I'd learned better than to interrupt him, so I backed away. But he waved me in, put his hand over the phone and said, "Watch this." He motioned for me to sit. "Listen to this thing I have to do." He dialed up the manager of a retail shop called Casual Corner, a tenant in the mall he managed, that hadn't paid rent in several months because of a construction delay on a window display.
Things were pleasant at the outset. There was some back and forth on dates. And then my father started asking questions. I knew these kinds of questions. My dad used them with me when he wanted me to see the position I'd put him in as a father. They weren't rhetorical so much as they were a study in sympathy.
"You know where we are, right?" he said. "You're open today. People are walking in and out buying your dresses. You're in business today, aren't you? You're open. And I'm in business up here, right? And you and I know that's really all that matters, right?"
He listened for a moment, took a breath. "Did I say it wrong? Is there anything I'm misunderstanding?"
"You're making money," he said. "But I'm not making goddamned money, am I?"
I started to see that everything about the conversation had been leading to this moment. He was asking questions about what the tenant expected of him, even though the heart of the matter—the rent—was something he expected from the tenant. I knew he wasn't going to hang up without getting it.
My dad started to let his anger show. "This whole phone call really fries my ass," he said, using a pet phrase my brothers and I loved. "You don't want this call. Or do you like making me the bad guy?" Then he looked straight at me and winked, which was not something he was prone to do. It was the signal that my pop was going in for the kill. "Do you like making me into the landlord?"
He used an expletive before the word landlord. But I'd heard him swear before—that part didn't matter to me. No, I was stunned because I'd never heard him call himself a landlord. My first instinct was to protest. My father was an architect, after all. That's what I always said when I was asked. He had a degree from the University of Florida, a license in that state. He belonged to AIA, and had worked as an associate at a large firm in New York and Los Angeles.
But then, insofar as putting bread on our table? My father managed a seventeen-story office building, hotel, and shopping mall in downtown Rochester called Midtown Plaza from 1962 until 2006. He also owned a rental property in my neighborhood, and we had rented two apartments nested into the house we lived in. My dad was a landlord. I realized it right there, on the far side of his desk.
"YOU NEVER LET THE TENANT START TELLING A STORY. A STORY ALWAYS LEADS TO AN EXCUSE OR TO AN EXPLANATION, SOME REASON YOU SHOULD GIVE THEM A BREAK."
My dad told me to tuck in my shirt. "Did you like seeing me work?" he said.
"You talked so fast," I said. "You asked a lot of questions. Was he giving you answers?"
He thought about this a moment. "He wanted to tell me stories," he told me. Then my father gave me his first piece of landlord advice. "You never let the tenant start telling a story," he said. "That never ends well. A story always leads to an excuse or to an explanation, some reason you should give them a break."
I took the elevator down and got the check, pretending I was none the wiser to the arrears. The manager had the check in a sealed envelope on the counter. He shook my hand, called me Thomas, just like my dad. Soon he was giving me money and telling me my father was a good man at the same time.
So. This was how my father ordered the world. Like a landlord. I thought it sounded vaguely historical. The lord of the land.
"Are you really a landlord?" I said to my dad, once he'd tucked the envelope in a nook on his desk. He looked at me sternly then, over the top of his glasses. "I'm an architect," he said. "Nobody likes a landlord."
Things I learned as a landlord:
You have to have rules. Don't let them smoke. No candles. No parking in the alley. No oil changes in the alley. Forget animals—no dogs. No cats. Birds, lizards, and reptiles too. No signs in the window. No mattresses in the dumpster.
Don't use the word rules. Say policy. A policy is not meant to be broken.
You are the landlord. Remember that. The lease is your best tool. At the outset of every agreement, customize the lease. Know every clause. How it works. What it means. Rewrite them regularly, even if a lawyer tells you not to. Then sit with the tenant at a bar or coffee shop and read through the whole of it before the signing. Attach addendums for clarity. State the policy. Make notes. Cross things out. Then make them initial every single thing. None of this makes the lease more binding, but it does make things clear. Clarity, I found, is a better motivator than the threat of small claims court. Clarity, plus a good security deposit.
No stories. My dad was right. Stories are trouble. Nothing good ever follows the words "I was cooking bacon under the broiler . . ." For a landlord, all stories end on a broken aquarium. Or maggots in the unplugged refrigerator. That double-pane window that "fell out" during some Halloween party. The climax of a story belongs to the tenant. The denouement is the landlord's burden alone. And it generally involves a mop.
Drive by your property every day. Every day. Pick up stray soda bottles. There are always stray soda bottles. Come back tomorrow. You'll see.
Don't go in. Stay out of the apartment until you absolutely can't avoid it. Remember that you never know a person until you see how they live. And you never know how someone lives until you lie beneath their kitchen sink with your head on a bag of Meow Mix. And you don't want to know the simple truths about your tenants. You don't want to know their relationship with wet bath towels and used underwear. You can't unsee a sink full of two-week-old bowls from a lobster bisque party. You don't know what dust is until you have a tenant unhook the dryer hose in order to get a little "free heat." You just don't go in.
Once, there was a hawk in our attic, which we sometimes rented to a painter as a studio space for a hundred bucks a month. I discovered the hawk on a walk-through, perched on a PVC vent pipe. I learned to go through the building every couple of weeks, looking for emergent problems. My partner Gigi was more diligent than that. She often toured the public spaces every day. She was the one who found leaks, burnt-out light sockets, gouges in the walls after a move-in, cracked plate covers. Every landlord knows that tenants are, without fail, hard on the world around them. Gigi could sniff out that stuff better than me, so I was particularly proud of having discovered the hawk.
I tried using a broom, which just ended up making the bird angry. I tried a boom box. I got a plastic owl. I took pictures with my phone and sent them to friends, texting, This is a hawk, right? and How do you get rid of a hawk?
People came over for a look. Days passed. I left a bowl of water for the hawk, and a note of warning for the painter. I ate lunch up there and puzzled the hawk as he puzzled me. Eventually I remembered that my friend David, a silent partner in the property, was a birder. I called him up and he came straight over, slipped on a single gardening glove, stood on a step ladder, reached up and simply gripped the bird. One hand, then two. Just like that.
"That's it?" I said. "You just grab it?"
"He's dehydrated," David said. "And kind of weak."
I thanked him. "You'd make a good landlord," I said on the way down to release the bird.
When I was a kid, I used to accompany my dad to work on weekends, where I would sabotage the tab-sets on his secretary's Selectric and toss every drawer in her desk in a frantic search for the cinnamon hard candy she favored. Pretty dull.
But I loved coming and going, walking with my father through the mall. People stopped him to talk. Shopkeepers waved him over. Why not? My dad was devoted to his tenants. He often bought one Christmas present for each of us from every store in the mall—and there were more than forty. I believe my brother Frank is the youngest person ever to be given an assortment of Hickory Farms summer sausages. At sixteen I had four types of wallets, nine pairs of men's dress shoes, three backgammon boards, and an unopened boxed set of Lucite tumblers.
My dad gave himself over to that place. He kept a shoe-repair place in business for nearly thirty years by breaking policy, by being patient with the billing, by cajoling, by any means necessary, because he respected the man who ran it, a guy I knew only as Clarence. He fought to keep the supermarket open for the urban customer base who had nowhere else to go for groceries without getting on a bus. I believe he provided small loans to start-up businesses. I know he waited out their rent checks. He kept things running as landlord, even at some cost. He did it for the betterment of the city.
In his residential spaces, he was loathe to raise the rent even after many years. Especially after many years. He dropped off cases of beer and huge boxes of Italian cookies to make his tenants feel appreciated. He gave rent abatements when people got cancer. He gave graduation presents, anniversary presents, sent handwritten notes and newspaper clippings to his tenants and their families. While I'm sure some people hated the landlord in him, I believe my dad treated his tenants with honor as long as they did the same for the space he provided (and didn't run up the house account at Wilson Hardware). I know this because people stopped me—on the floor of the mall, in the street, at the reception after my father's death—to testify to it. I came to see that my father was known by many, if not all, as a kind steward of place. This is as much as any landlord can hope to be.
The mortgage was refinanced a couple of times, and the long-term calendar projections—2017! 2022!—were thrown further into the future. It made us laugh to recall that we once had thought we might even pay the place off in a decade, especially now as we neared the end of our second.
DON'T USE THE WORD 'RULES.' SAY 'POLICY.' A POLICY IS NOT MEANT TO BE BROKEN.
For my part, I got divorced and bought out my wife with a check that left me having paid for my share twice. I began to travel for work and found myself relying on my partners to cover the bookkeeping and maintenance. After twelve years, I wanted out, no matter the loss. My partners resisted. I was sick of the upkeep, the increasing complaints from tenants, the gradual accrual of major repair needs. Feeling trapped, I bickered with my partners, and backed off, likely failing to hold up my end on more than one occasion. I'm sorry, Gigi and Bill.
But I was good with a lease, and I knew how to find tenants. And I knew that, taken in the whole, we had accomplished something by reinventing the JCPenney Building in Greencastle, Indiana. Over the years, we housed scores of people, all ages, races, creeds, and orientations. We kept them safe, helped them stay warm. There were changes all around us. We had one pair of gay tenants who entered in-the-closet as "roommates," secretive with good reason in small-town Indiana, and who left the same apartment eight years later as a married couple— married, in that same small town in Indiana.
Over the years, our retail spaces were home to that beloved coffee shop, a short-lived restaurant created on three credit cards, an art gallery, a storefront church, a bike shop, and a dance studio. I turned away inquiries about adult bookstores, bail bondsmen, and tanning salons.
Eventually I leased one of the apartments myself. I decorated it eclectically and used it as an office, renting it on weekends through Airbnb. I was landlord to a landlord then. And weirdly, this freed me. I leaned into the occupancy of this one space. I liked the light in the windows, revived the houseplants the previous tenant had left, brought up an old retail counter from the basement. I made a one-wall art gallery from the paintings left behind by long forgotten tenants. I even came to love the excessive rumble of the semis that ground their way through the town square. Upon renting from myself, I felt what every fortunate renter feels when they stumble on an apartment or property that feels particularly well-crafted and cared for: lucky for where I lived. I fixed cracked walls, repainted the floors, cleaned the carpets, then advertised it online as a place where other people could feel at home. I became an Airbnb "superhost" within months. The place was loved by those who lived in it, even for just a night. In my guestbook they often thanked me for building a place where they felt cozy and safe, a piece of property that felt very much like home. It made me feel like the landlord I'd always wanted to be. Like my dad.
When we finally sold the place, I stayed on in that apartment for another year, renting it on weekends, visiting less frequently after I got married again. I remained attached to that place.
Oh, why not? Once, I was a landlord. There were stories to tell.