Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Worst Landlord Story Ever

As I was pulling shards of glass out of the frame of the shower door at our rental property yesterday, I couldn't help but feel a little contemptuous toward our tenants.  Yes, I was suspicious of their story that the shower door had broken in the course of normal use.  But that's not what bugged me.

On my way to the bathroom, I had sidestepped countless piles of dirty clothes, bits of garbage, food debris, and garden variety junk strewn throughout the house.  The bathroom itself was covered in mold and funk.  The toilet lid had a coat of short, dark hairs--they didn't look like pubes, exactly, but more like the detritus of someone having run electric clippers over their (or someone else's) hairy ass. Or something.  I didn't really want to know.  I just wanted to pick up the broken shower door and be on my way. 

Even though the renters hadn't done any real damage to the apartment as far as I could tell, I resented the condition they kept it in, because about five years ago I had spent several months remodeling that unit, and I had gotten it looking cherry.  And the couple who moved in right after the remodel kept it clean and tidy, with a minimalist decorating scheme that added to the apartment's open, expansive feel.  The couple who moved in after them stayed for two blissful years, along with their hip vintage furniture and tastefully scented candles.

But don't get me wrong.  The current renters, while filthy, are a beautiful dream compared to some of the other shiftless reprobates we've had in our little three-unit building.  The current tenants pay their rent every month and...well, that goes a long way.

We bought the building about a year before the peak of the housing market, back when you could secure a jumbo loan by texting someone who claimed to be a mortgage broker and promising that you were a nice person.  And for a year or so, we wallowed like Scrooge McDuck in the imaginary money we were raking in from the increasing value of our frumpy little 1970 stucco box, patting ourselves on the back for our shrewd investing.

Of course, now the best we can say about our "income property" is that it's a good tax write-off.

When we bought the building, we inherited not only a long list of deferred maintenance, but also a long-time tenant.  I remember the first time we saw him, when we met with our realtor and building inspector to walk the apartment before finalizing the purchase.

The tenant--we'll call him Bob--was a jittery wisp of a guy, with darting eyes and a nervous mumble that barely registered in my rockband-and-construction-site-ravaged eardrums.  He had a friend there, trim and neatly coiffed, who stayed two steps ahead of us, looking for a place to stash an armload of gay porn videos and magazines.

Our plan upon closing was to try to encourage Bob to find a new place to live by raising the rent up to its market value, which was about 150% of what the previous owner was charging.

It was not Bob's predilection for porn that made us want him out, but rather his chain smoking and his cats.  We had intended to forbid both pets and smoking in our building, but because of either some arcane renters' rights law or maybe our own sense of fairness, I forget which, we waived this policy for our inherited tenant, despite the smell of cat piss and the coating of cancer-colored tar on the walls.  We thought he would be gone soon.

But Bob wouldn't take a hint, and held on to that apartment tenaciously, even when it became clear that he couldn't afford it.

After the first year, he started bouncing checks or simply neglecting to pay his rent every once in a while, and I would always come up with some kind of installment plan for him to pay back what he owed.  And whenever one of the smaller, cheaper units in the building opened up, I would offer him first dibs on it.  But he wouldn't budge.

We had learned the hard way through another tenant, to whom we had rented an apartment despite his bad credit history because we didn't want to be jerky slumlords, that the eviction process is long, expensive, and unlikely to result in any recouping of lost rent.  So we avoided going down that road with Bob until he was into us for about four thousand dollars.

After that, I reluctantly contacted the lawyer we had used on the first eviction, and got the wheels in motion.  I called and emailed Bob innumerable times to try and convince him to move out and avoid legal action, but he always dodged me.

Soon, the other tenants started contacting me to complain that Bob and his friends had been partying loudly into the wee hours.  When I went to deliver the eviction notice, a friend of his answered the door and explained that he was staying in the apartment for a while.  I explained that Bob was being evicted, and suggested that maybe the friend might think about helping him out with his rent.  He made a noncommittal, mildly exasperated gesture, like, Oh that Bob--you know how he is. 

So we went ahead with the eviction process.  We filed the paperwork and waited for another two months while Bob lived rent-free in our building.

Finally, the sheriff's department called and told me to meet them at the apartment, at which point they would remove the tenant.  I had been through this before, and while it was pretty dramatic to see the cops bang on the door with their guns drawn, it had turned out to be a non-event the last time, the tenant having cleared out before our arrival, leaving nothing but a few pieces of furniture behind.

But when I met the cops for Bob's eviction, his car was still in the driveway.  I knew this was not going to go smoothly.  And, as was the case during the previous eviction, I thought, should I be taking cover?  There are cops wielding guns just a few yards from me.

I hunkered down in the seat of my truck as the sheriff's deputies rapped on the door.

Nothing happened.

One of the cops came over and asked me for permission to break the security chain, the only thing preventing them from gaining entrance.  I said sure, and loaned them a prybar from my toolbox so they could do it without damaging the door.

I watched the cops jimmy the door and go inside.

Two minutes later the same cop walked back to my truck.

"I've got some bad news," he said.


"He shot himself."

I had no idea how to respond.  "Shit," I said.  "Fuck.  When?"

"Just now.  We heard a 'pop' as soon as we broke the chain."

"Is he...dead?"

"Uh...yeah.  Pretty much."

For the rest of the afternoon, I watched myself as if from a distance as I dealt with cops, the medical examiner, neighbors, and my friend who was interested in renting the apartment and was supposed to come look at it that evening. (He did end up renting it, after the extensive remodel.)  It took me a good five minutes to convince my wife that I wasn't pulling her leg when I called to tell her.  Then I had a phone conversation with my mom in which she said that this experience was "one of the worst landlord stories" she had heard.

"It's not the worst?" I thought.

I fumbled around briefly for some perspective on what had happened.  Of course it was a tragedy.  A man had taken his own life.  But it wasn't my fault.  Right?  I had done more than most people would have in my situation to try to help this guy out.

But I didn't have to grasp for long, because between the evidence in the apartment and a conversation I had with his sister the next day, it became clear that I was the least of Bob's demons.  He had been dying of AIDS and self-medicating with all kinds of recreational chemicals.  He had been throwing himself a farewell party for the last five months, and I was picking up the tab.

So my flirtation with guilt transformed into anger and annoyance as I spent the following weeks trying to mop up the mess this ghost had made.  His sister offered to assume his debts--which she had no legal obligation to do--but then rescinded the offer after paying the four thousand dollar fee to the HazMat crew for what looked like a quick scrub of the bedroom ceiling and the removal of about two square feet of carpet.

As anxious as I was to get started on cleaning up, I had to wait until all of Bob's personal effects were removed from the building.  Even after he was dead, I couldn't seem to get him out of the place.  His sister hired an "estate broker" who in turn paid some sketchy characters from the neighborhood to man the rummage sale of Bob's third-hand furniture and cat-themed knick-knacks.  The other tenants called to tell me that these cretins had been squatting in the apartment for days, and they didn't leave until after I had sufficiently screamed at the junkman who had hired them.

Eventually, of course, I was able to gain access to the apartment and remodel it from stem to stern, replacing every inch of flooring, fabricating a new shower out of concrete and tile, scraping the "popcorn" texturing off of the ceiling, scrubbing the nicotine sludge off of the walls, etc., etc., etc.

During all the late hours I spent working alone in there, I only remember one chilling moment.  I was clearing junk out of the bedroom where Bob had sat on the bed with a revolver under his chin, and I had to remove a couple of mirrors that were mounted on the wall.  I saw my own reflection in the mirror, as well as that of the darkened bathroom doorway behind me.  And I imagined for just a moment what I would do if I saw the reflection of a gaunt figure coming out of the shadows behind me.  First, I thought, I would shit myself.  And after that?  Who knows.  I decided to leave the mirrors where they were until the next morning.

My friends who would move into the apartment picked out the very lively color scheme, and even helped paint the place.  By the time we were done, there was no trace of Bob to be found.  The new renters hung some kind of crystal in the bedroom where he had done himself in though, just in case.

Although I'm not particularly superstitious, I know a creepy house when I'm in one, and this apartment was not the least bit creepy once it was spruced up.  And it stayed cheerful through the tenure of the two couples who lived there after Bob.

But I don't know.  The shape that it's in right now, with the mold and the filth and the broken glass, just deflates me.  It's borderline creepy.


  1. #1. Stop blaming yourself.. Good ol Bob's personality was to blame... He probably had suicidal tendencies way before he moved in.. Now I see why I will never be a landlord nor will I ever rent a room unless its a relative and even then I would be leery...I can see why u are disheartened by the current renters.. To put that much work into it just to be trashed below your standards...When the market turns around in a few years ( heard it from my financial guy) sell the building and run like heck.

  2. Well, crap. I'm definitely vetoing the Hubster's plans for a life of landlordy retirement.

    You're like Mike Rowe/Ghost Hunters/Bob Villa rolled into one blogging machine.

  3. It's never any good when someone elses profound troubles are foisted upon you, and sometimes too damned sad to be angry about. This apartment (before remodel) reminds me of a place I used to live, underneath a pizza restaurant in a sleazy red light district. There were blood splatters on the ceiling in the vestibule where someone shot themselves. I don't know how long they'd been there. Living in the slums no one seems to have much drive to keep a tidy house and do things like pick up the used condoms or clean up human remains on the ceiling! I lived there as long as it took to find a new house.

  4. Oh my God.

    I like Nicole's comment.

    And, I will never complain about shitty roommates/tenants again. Compared to this, all experiences of fungus growth, unpaid bills, pet drama, and strange collections are just funny little stories.

    This would make a fantastic dark comedy film. (With all due respect to poor Bob.)

  5. Mirrors hold the souls of the dead, right? If they aren't covered up when the body is just up there, sittin'? I seem to remember that from a Twilight Zone or something.

    Agreed with the above. Dead Bob = Not your fault. You might even say that you helped bring the worst part of his life to conclusion, since end-stage AIDS is one of the more painful things to knock one off (a friend of my mom's just went through this after refusing the drug cocktail because he was a Catholic who wanted to punish himself).

    Oh, and we saw a haunted house on our house search this weekend! The place was seriously icy cold, and I got the creepies when I was on the third floor. It's too bad though, because the bathrooms were those old tiled arched things with clawfoot tubs. Sigh.

  6. Well, that was cheerful. It is certainly the worst landlord/renter story I've ever heard.

    My grandmother had a house she rented out and had to go through the whole eviction process. They left first, so no drama, but I had to help her clean up the place. They left EVERYTHING. And there were piles of clothes, trash, and toys in every room. I've never seen anything so disgusting. I don't know how people live that way.

    As a landlord you can't make them be "clean", but I understand your disappointment. I'd once lived in that house she rented out and to see it that sucked.

  7. You are very brave to go into apartment to spruce it up after... the event... I am not particularly scared of a lot of things but the possibility of Bob's ghost and poltergeists attracted to negative energy/tragedies would be more than enough incentive for me to put the property up for sale!!!! Remember Amityville???

  8. Uh wow. Totally gross with regards to the toilet. Took me a bit to get past that one. I'm such so neurotic when it comes to the bathroom staying clean (especially with four boys in the house) that a single hair on the seat sends me spinning.
    As for were more than justified to be angry over that one.

  9. And apparently I'm also a complete moron today. Up all night with sick kids--spelling and grammar suffer. :(

  10. don't know why...but I like your stuff...I think I'm 69, haven't been a young parent in 45 years this write what's in your gut...when I can mentally see what you're writing about you've done your job...A+ for the whole rental apartment thingy...

  11. I don't remember seeing this information on the Craigslist posting. Aunt Joan: "One of the worst..." HA! We just got an offer on our house and are about to become renters. Your story may come in handy if some cranky landlord gives us the stink-eye about our dogs. "You know, my cousin once had a tenant who OFFED himself in his apartment..."

  12. Wow. Sad story about Bob...

    I hope you've been able to make peace with it. It sounds like he was a very troubled man and certainly the burden of guilt isn't yours to bear.

    Being a landlord isn't easy when it comes to collecting rent and dealing with people. Our worst was the asshole who put cat litter down 3 toilets and broke the pull chains off of every ceiling fan in the house. All because he got evicted for not paying rent.

  13. I tried to convince my husband to rent our home in Utah when we moved to Oregon. He would not budge. Thankfully we sold it. Reading this, and the comments, makes me realize why my very knowledgeable, wise, wonderful husband was right.

  14. Oh my god, I would never sign up for that job. I used to get told I was a very good tenant a LOT, and that's a pretty sad statement.

    I once moved into a place that had previously housed Satanists. They made a midnight run after getting ratted out for their grow-op, leaving huge pentagrams etched into the floor, the smoke from multiple candles up the wall, a 1" crust on the stove, animal skins in the fridge, and a drawer full of vials of questionable liquid.

    THAT was a creepy house, even after it was cleaned up. I didn't live there long.

  15. -->You just made me glad that I sold my last place and didn't rent it out.

  16. No time to comment. I have to cover up all my mirrors now. And probably never sleep again.

  17. Maybe you should arrange a convinient fire. Just sayin.

  18. @KBF--Don't worry. I stopped blaming myself about two seconds after the thought crossed my mind. It was just a bit of weird luck for me.

    @Nicole--It's not always crazy like that. My parents have some investment properties that are not so problematic. If you turn a profit on it (which we don't, sadly), I think it makes the hassles much more tolerable.

    @Brandi C--Yeah. I couldn't believe they hadn't even wiped off the toilet lid, even when they knew I was coming over. I would be mortified. Hope the kiddos feel better!

    @T&B--I'm glad you like it!

    @SDB--Luckily the first post-mortem renters were friends, and then the second set moved in from another unit in the same building, so they knew all about it. After that, we were no longer required to disclose the death. Could have been much worse for us. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but that Bob was kind of a jerk. Also, I know--my mom has a talent for understatement sometimes.

    @JM--You know, I was so busy trying to fix up the place and stop the money hemorrhage that I didn't stop to brood about the existential implications much. Although I have to say that I did sometimes feel like I was exorcising his demons from the place by doing the rehab. And yeah, it's flabbergasting when people get mad at you because you want them to pay rent.

    @Nubian--You're probably lucky. Being an absentee landlord has its own unique set of problems.

    @Keely--you should be proud of your "good tenant" status. I love me some good tenants. Wow--the Satanist story is great. You should write about it! (I mean, like, in a forum other than a comment page.)

    @Web Savvy--The thought of selling is pretty tempting, but we would just lose money now. You were smart.

    @Elly Lou--Make sure you cover up all your stainless steel appliances. They can sneak up on you that way too.

  19. I don't mean to upset you, but I am Bob's second cousin and I am still pissed off that I didn't get a chance to pick up that paper mache cat he kept on the mantle. Damn you, damn you to hell Beta Dad.

    That is a good story for a cocktail party, I like it.

  20. This post has definitely squashed any notion I have ever entertained of becoming a landlord. I think I'll pass. I give you so much credit for working so diligently- after the event-to bring a sense of charm and welcome to the apartment.

  21. Being a landlord is hard work, but it's worth the trouble. Don't blame yourself for something someone else did and you didn't have any control over. Things just happen because they happen sometimes.

  22. Is now the time to tell you a film crew has been following you since the incident for my new show called "To Catch a Tenant-Killer?" Please sign my release form.

    -Chris Hansen

  23. Whoa. Worst landlord story indeed. Awesome blog bud!

  24. CRAZY story. We've done the "try to evict 'em" shuffle ourselves. Amazing how people can score months of free rent by just staying put.

  25. Dude. I don't know how people can be landlords. I don't have it in me. Working for law enforcement I hear all kinds of horror stories about landlord/tenant stuff. This one is definitely one of the worst, maybe THE worst, but I've heard a lot, so...maybe not.

    I wish you luck.

  26. Wow, just wow. What a terrible story. I had already heard that being a landlord is always horrible, but this story proves it.

  27. That is, without a doubt, the WORST landlord story I've ever heard.

    Sorry the creepiness has returned!

  28. Oh my god. This took a turn I was SO not expecting! Yep, worst tenant story ever. Wow.

  29. One word for you: Exorcist.
    I know a guy.

  30. Worst. Rental. Story. EVER. (And, My ex-husband's pending trial for burning his rental house down)-J

  31. This sounds like a nightmare. You definitely have a lot of patience. That's probably why you're such a good dad :-)


  32. I was not expecting that. Disturbing. Our renters stole our portable dishwasher. So. Yeah. By comparision, no big whoop.

  33. Land-lording is definitely a business where "nice guys" finish last. Solution: when the lease is broken, immediately begin the eviction process. In Missouri it begins with a written notice to the tenant. This usually sets the tenant/landlord relationship on the correct path.
    Advice for new landlords (whoever): Run a credit check on potential lessees. Rent paying is highly correlative to credit history.
    Beta, I'm not criticizing you or your humanity, just trying to be helpful. Bob was already there, but you were too nice to him (in a business sense).
    Concerning the property value.... I'm guessing future inflation may fix that.

  34. I'm a little speechless. I would be terrified to ever evict someone again. Have you had to evict someone since Bob? If so, how tense was that?

  35. Wow, that is the worst landlord story I've ever heard!

    And I thought it was bad when I moved into an apartment after the previous tenant had been evicted for not paying rent- I had to move in late because they had to replace the carpet because the "crazy cat lady" had left them such a mess. I then discovered cat poop smeared on the inside of all of the closet doors (obviously the management didn't really clean, just replaced the carpet). "Crazy cat lady" also took with her everything she could-
    yanked the toilet paper holder out of the wall, and took all of the light fixtures. She took the racks out of the oven and one of the racks out of the dishwasher...and then her son showed up at my door, asking that I move out so that he could rent the apartment in his name and let his mom move back in.
    So that's my worst story about renting an apartment, but it's nothing in comparison to your worst landlord story...

  36. Wow... That's about all I can say to that. I don't think I could ever set foot in that room. Creepy to say the least.

  37. My GOD! Every now and then, supermum talks about taking keeping on our current place and renting it when we finally manage to move. I'll have to save this and pass it on to her.

  38. WOW dude, that is a really crazy story! I've been thinking about renting out our townhome, but now I'm not so sure and that was based off of the first few paragraphs about the sloppy tenants. The Bob thing just blew my mind. What a crazy experience to go through.

  39. If it's any consolation (and I doubt it is), being a landlord in San Francisco is even worse. The eviction process can easily take six months, sometimes longer if the tenant makes waves. I would never do it.

    Oddly enough, I could see where this story was going from your description of Bob and his partying. I've known two guys with AIDS who spent their final months on slow-moving suicides. I guess the one bright spot is that his sister paid for the haz mat guys.

  40. That is THE WORST landlord story ever.

    So you know, I felt way worse for you than I did for him.

    That guy was a master manipulator right through his final act. What a dick.

  41. Strange...what kind of tenant wouldn't have at least done a quick once over before the landlord comes over...

    One thing, if you start seeing "feline decor" showing up in the unit, call a priest and perform an exorcism or you might discover you are living in the sequel "The Revenge of Bob...He's baaack!"

  42. Does it mean I'm heartless that I felt worse about you having to pick up after the guy than about him killing himself?

  43. Yep that's pretty bad!

    I worked with a couple who were transfered to another place for three years. Instead of selling their home they decided to rent it out ... so they wouldn't have to worry about finding another one. About a year before they were due to come home, the renters were busted for a grow op. Totally destroyed the house and of course because it was all illegal, the owners were out of pocket for everything.

    Watch out for ghosts!!

  44. I am glad for you. It is a lot of music

  45. Oh my goodness - the hair on the toilet... GROSS!!!! I wonder if that is what my neighbor's landlord thinks of him. I can't wait til they move out - 4 dogs who bark until the early morning with the neighbor screaming off the porch. UGH! It sucks to be a homeowner with neighbors who rent and especially when you didn't know you bought a house across from a rental property!

    As for Bob - totally not your fault, you did all you could to help remedy his situation. I could've never gone in there to remodel by myself - totally skeevy. I don't get the whole shooting yourself with the aids, stuff. Like really? You have aids, you're going to splatter the wall and all your stuff with your blood for the next person to clean up? *shudders*

  46. That is totally freaky. It's of course not your fault that the guy killed himself. There's nothing anyone could have done to prevent that. My husband and I own a rental property and I don't ever want to actually see the place with my own eyes, after we fixed it up a couple years ago. We hired a property management company to deal with the tenants' shenanigans. Worth every penny, I believe.

  47. Wow! What a crazy crazy story. I'm looking to rent a place in Boston right now and am a bit bitter at getting a bit screwed on the rental of my London apartment (believe me, I was a pretty great tenant but the landlord still insisted on charging me 5 pounds for a missing serving spoon from the furnished apartment - I swear the serving spoon was there). I've never really thought about it from the landlord's perspective though!

  48. Wowser. Great story. and good for you for having some perspective. horrible, yes. your fault, no. And as someone in real estate: it's the worst landlord story I'VE ever heard. and i've heard some doozies.

  49. I feel for you. Having renters is hard. We've been fortunate in that our tenants have taken care of our places pretty well. I once lived in an apartment complex where the tenants underneath me threw a car jack through the sliding glass door. So glad I don't live near them anymore.

  50. OMG this IS the worst landlord tenant story ever!
    My husband is in law enforcement and does evictions. His stories are enough to keep me from wanting to own rental property... and yours will keep me from it entirely.
    I am happy that you were able to cheer the place up and get new tenants who actually knew about "poor Bob".
    I don't even go by my old house that we sold because we planted all the trees, etc and the new owners are not taking care of them. Heck, I don't even own the place anymore!
    Here's to you, Beta Dad, for putting up with those people as long as you did... and for a great blog read!

  51. Yep, that is the worst landlord story ever. And here I am bitching and moaning that our rental unit has been sitting empty for three months.

  52. @PJ--No reason not to bitch about that. At least we haven't had that problem for a year or so.


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