Rental Disagreement

You can call him many things, but not a landlord

By R.E. Graswich
August 2023

I’ve had several jobs over the last 50 years. Being a landlord was the worst.

I was a landlord for almost 20 years. There were good days, but they were rare. Even when the monthly rent check arrived on time, the joy was temporary. I couldn’t go out and spend all the money on booze and dinner.

A big chunk of my rental income was untouchable, sequestered for repairs and maintenance and taxes and fees and insurance. There were many months when I made no money.

My goal here isn’t to generate sympathy for landlords or complain about the challenges of running a small business. I knew what I was doing. Nobody forced me to be a landlord.

My business involved one small stucco house, built in the 1960s, three bedrooms, two baths, in a working-class suburban Sacramento neighborhood. Early on, I paid off the mortgage. I could have sold out and walked away anytime.

Instead, like a masochist eager for punishment, I slogged ahead for two decades.

I often thought about selling. But putting my rental on the market seemed like a big hassle. I had friends who were landlords. They encouraged me to hang in there and build more equity.

So that’s what I did, month after month, dreading the phone calls from my property manager reporting the water heater blew or the air conditioner needed a new compressor or the roof leaked. All of which happened.

Over nearly 20 years, I had just four tenants. I technically evicted two of them, but only one counts as a real eviction. The not-real eviction happened when I sold the house. I gave my last tenant the chance to buy the place, but he said no thanks. He moved out six weeks before escrow closed.

The real eviction happened years earlier, when I got a letter from Sacramento County saying authorities were going to seize my rental because drugs were being sold there. I didn’t know anything about drugs, but that didn’t matter.

My landlord friends said county seizure threats were routine, and I could stall any action by the authorities. But I was scared and acted immediately. The tenant disappeared without a fuss.

I dreaded losing tenants, even alleged drug dealers. Tenant turnover meant I had to go into the house and fix it up. Repairs were never just cosmetic stuff, spot painting and cleanup. It was always much worse.

There was plumbing, electrical, drywall and tile work. Toilets needed changing. Every wall needed painting. Hours went into chainsawing trees and vines in the backyard. To save money, I did most of this myself and got handy at repairs.
My landlord friends said turnover was part of the game. I hated it. No tenant of mine ever received a nickel back from their security deposit.

Given how much I disliked finding new tenants, I tried to keep the old ones happy. I told them if they didn’t bother me with little problems, I would never raise their rent. In effect, I imposed rent control on myself. It was the smartest move I ever made as a landlord.

Sometimes tenants would test me and call in a minor complaint, maybe a leaky faucet. I would tell them sure, I can fix it, but that means your rent goes up first chance I get. They stopped calling unless the water heater blew.

I was reminded of this dark period when I learned the state was suing two Sacramento landlords for evicting a tenant who used Section 8 housing vouchers to pay her rent. It’s illegal to kick out someone because they use vouchers. I’m glad the state stepped up with enforcement.

I never rented to a Section 8 tenant, but vouchers wouldn’t have troubled me. My big lesson was everybody who stays for several years ends up wrecking the place. The trick is to require a hefty security deposit.

Looking back, the least destructive and most agreeable tenant I had was the drug dealer.

Speaking strictly as a former landlord, I hated to lose him.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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