Monday, September 27, 2010

Serendipity, the Brass Bed, & other Leftovers

The story goes that an eager young man asked a rich older man what the secret to his success was.  The old man told him “Always jump at opportunities.”
“How do you recognize an opportunity?” 
“Just keep jumping.”

I believe in serendipity. But I also know you have to keep jumping, keep your eyes peeled, your mind open, and then work your butt off once serendipity does strike.  Even so, there were many things that happened in our careers as a result of odd circumstances.

Some friends told us they wanted to sell their 2-family house in Hudson.  They wanted $16,000.  Were we interested?  We looked at it and agreed to buy it.  For some unfathomable reason, they didn’t realize that they still had to pay off their mortgage.  They thought we were giving them $16,000 and their mortgage would miraculously disappear. By that epiphany, we already were under contract.  But how could we force that sale?  It was their family home.  We backed off. 

But now we had the bug to buy a second property.  There was some urban renewal going on in Hudson, so we stopped by the urban renewal office and asked if there was anything available.  The director, for some reason, thought we had money, and took us to see a store/apartment combo on the 300 block of Warren Street.

In its infinite wisdom, (what, in later years, I would call HUDWorld), HUD and the city found it logical to start the renewal process from the lower end of Warren Street, skip a block in the middle, and continue from the upper end, leaving the 300 block with cracked sidewalks, old lightposts and run-down facades.  Not yet understanding HUDWorld, we assumed the two rehabilitated ends of Warren Street would soon be connected.  It was well over 10 years before that actually happened. 

The building we looked at, all boarded-up and funky, apparently was owned in recent times by Bubba, a huge & scary barkeep/pimp who didn’t pay his taxes.  We were told that when the inevitable tax foreclosure occurred, the city couldn’t get a local contractor to board up the building because everyone was so scared of him.  So they called an out-of-town firm to do the job.  It was boarded up quickly, with everything left inside.  When we saw it, once again, we were smitten.  You'd think we'd have learned with the first house, but, noooo...This time it was by a lovely brass bed.  We figured we could get the purchase price of $3200 back from selling it and a few other things left behind.  So we bought the building, and The Man went back in to inspect our purchase. 

Well, Bubba apparently hadn't left town, and really didn't agree with the city’s decision.  The Man found himself face to face with a VERY large and VERY angry man.  Fortunately, this particular day, The Man was on the top step, while Bubba was coming up the stairs.  The Man had the advantage of higher ground. So when Bubba bellowed up “WHO’S IN MY BUILDING?” The Man, hammer in hand, stood on the top step, drew himself up, and, like Oz, shouted back “I’M here, and it’s MY building!”.  Like so many bullies before and since, Bubba backed off, and that was the last we saw of him. 

But The Man kept the front door locked when he was alone after that.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Is D coming to fix my sink?"

We renovated a building we dubbed The Rowhouses.  I'll tell you more about that reno fiasco in a later post.  But for this story, all you need to know is that the architect made a big mistake, and we ended up in a financial mess because of the additional cost to remedy it.  We never really recovered, and were always scrambling for enough cash to run it properly.  Finally, exhausted from trying to keep a money-loser in good repair & afloat, we took a beating and sold it at a loss.

The buildings had 15 units, three of them rented by “the sisters”. They were three older women, all hyper, high-maintenance, and needy. On the plus side, in what was still a sketchy neighborhood, they were all very clean, paid their rent on time, and didn’t party.  So we tried to accommodate them whenever we could, which was weekly.  We changed lightbulbs.  We checked mysterious plumbing noises. We checked wear patterns on their rugs that they felt weren't normal.  Those three women took up about 95% of our time spent at that building.  And yet, out of respect for their age and long tenancy, the day we closed the sale, I thought that I would stop in at each of their apartments and say my goodbyes personally.

When I got to Mrs. J’s apartment, I told her that I wanted to say goodbye, the building sold that morning, blah, blah.  She listened (I thought) to what I was saying, and then asked if D, our repairman, was coming to fix her sink.  I repeated again that we no longer owned the building.  “But is D coming to fix the sink?”  No matter what I said, all she wanted to know was if D was coming to do her repairs.  Boy, did I feel stupid and insignificant.

Yet that exchange turned out to be a good lesson for me. I no longer delude myself into thinking any tenant actually cares about what I do.  I understand the landlord mostly doesn't exist, unless we "don't".  I'm sort of like the mailman -- only noticed if the mail isn't delivered.  And in an odd way it’s helped me.  I always think about Mrs. J when a tenant asks me a question.  I think “How does this pertain to him?  What's he really asking?  And what does he really want to know?”             

Saturday, September 25, 2010

...more crazy Miz M

M was bugging me again with one of her bouts of incessant phone calls.  Coming into the office, I’d have literally 30 messages to play back every morning, plus she’d phone me while I was there.  I was desperate and unable to get any work done.  I finally threatened that if she called me again I’d have her evicted.  A few days passed in relative peace. 

But then I got a call from a local taxi company.  They found my keys, and would I come and pick them up?  They knew the keys were mine because they were on a key ring with my name and phone number on it.  Now, I would never have my name and number on a key ring, especially with the master key to over 100 apartments. I was stumped. But curious.

Going into the taxi office was like stepping into a Damon Runyon novel.  I thought I’d shut their door and time-traveled into the ‘40s. It took a few minutes for my eyes and mind to adjust.  The dispatcher sat with her straw-like bleached blond hair piled up in front of her head, a cigarette dangling out of one side of her wrinkled face.  It was kind of like Betty Grable meets Miss Havisham. The room was blue with smoke. Talking out of the side of her mouth that wasn’t keeping the cigarette from burning the pile of papers on her old wooden desk, and in between dispatching cabs, she said that they found the keys in a cab, and she thought “some black guys” had stolen them from me and were going to use them to break into my house.

Only problems with that theory was
1.            There was no address on those keys, so they would’ve had to either phone me for directions (Hellooooo.  I’m some random black guy who needs your address so I can use the keys I stole from you to break into your house.  Pardon me?  You don’t remember when we shared a cab? Well, before I trouble you any further, do you have something worth breaking in for?)
2.            Or he could randomly wander the streets of Hudson, stealthily going house to house, trying to look inconspicuous until he finds the magic lock that opens my door.  Before the neighbors call the cops.  And, the third problem with that theory was (drumroll, please)…
3.            I recognized the writing. They were actually M’s keys, but she cleverly put my name and number on them in case of such a mishap.  So I didn’t comment on the moll’s theory, thanked her, and coughed my way out of the office. 

But now I’m thinking.  M doesn’t have family nearby.  So if she can’t get into her apartment, and she’s afraid to call me because I threatened to evict her, where is she?

As I’m pondering this, I get another phone call.  This time it’s the customer service desk at Shop Rite.  It seems they’ve found my cane.  They know it’s mine because it has my name and phone number on it. Would I come and pick it up? By now I’m wondering:  what next?  Is someone going to find my teeth? Cleverly inscribed with my name and phone number?

Now I’m really worried.  Where the heck is M, limping around and locked out, maybe even without her teeth that haven’t been found yet?  Sleeping on park benches?  Dragging her bad leg along the soup kitchen line?  (Sorry, only soft food for me today, please.  Seems I can't locate my teeth right now.  Oh, no, not to worry.  I'm sure they'll turn up soon.) 

The tables are turned, and now I’m the one acting like a crazy person, making frantic phone calls. I'm repeatedly calling the hospital, the neighbors, leaving her many, many phone messages. No luck. 

But at some point over the next few days, M calmly shows up at my office and picks up her keys and her cane.  I never asked, and she never told me, where she spent those lost days.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Voodoo Magic

Sometimes people are just too crazy to categorize or rationalize with.  A came from Haiti & originally had his son living with him.  A charming boy, he soon charmed himself into the drug trade, and now beds down compliments of NYS Corrections.  So A lives alone now. But not quite. He has imaginary friends.  Or something. 

We recently went to upgrade the smoke detectors in his apartment, but he’d added a lock on the bedroom door, and we didn’t have a key.  When I phoned A to arrange to return and complete the work, he said he put the lock on because people kept breaking into his apartment, stealing his food, and throwing his things around.  How someone could get into a locked building, then through a steel apartment door without any sign of forced entry, and how exactly a flimsy lock on a hollow-core interior door could stop such a determined, hungry thief, is beyond me.  But it made perfect sense to A. 

I’ve learned not to argue. Just made another appointment.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mr. B's "Conditions"

Lovely elderly couple, the B's.  Renting a nice one-bedrooom, rent-subsidized apartment from us.  Children and grandchildren stop by often to visit.  But, as the Missus confides, Mr. B has a lot of "conditions".  He has heart problems, cataracts, a tracheotomy, high blood pressure, and the only reason he doesn't have dandruff is because he's bald. 
The grocery store is 1/2 block away.  Mrs. B doesn't go to the store without alerting at least one other tenant to keep an ear out for the Mister while she's gone.  She leaves their door ajar in case of an emergency, and  hurries through her errands to get back to him, because, it seems, he’ll drop at any moment. This goes on for a couple of years.
One day, Mr. B comes to my office.  He’s in tears. He tells me that his wife is in the hospital.  Seems she got cancer of the brain.  She's gone inside a month, from diagnosis to death.  Mr. B is devastated. 
Shortly after the funeral, he stops back in my office.  He's very concerned that we will let him stay in his apartment.  It's heart-rending to see a man old enough to be my grandfather afraid that he'll lose his home.  Fortunately, with the Section 8 program, I  adjust his rent downward so he can afford to stay.  My office is right underneath his apartment, so I keep an ear open for him when I’m there. He's a pretty good cook, so that's taken care of.  He seems to be managing fine.
One day he stops me in the hall to tell me that his grandchildren are coming to visit.  He invites me in to see his apartment, all fixed up for his company.  I go in and see that there's a clean tablecloth on the table, but, because of his cataracts, he can't see that the apartment is filthy. I arrange with another tenant, who does housekeeping for a living, to come in monthly and clean his place. 
And Mr. B lived happily into his 90s in that apartment, alone and independent, and then  went to live out his remaining years with one of his daughters.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Everyone knows there are certain real estate terms that, shall we say, are used to sweeten reality.  But some bear repeating, and I may even use a few on this blog.

Garden Apartment is an apartment which is mostly underground.  It serves as a bellweather for your plumbing, since any backup will first happen first in its bathtub.  Also, the “garden” part is because many species of insects will find their way in, since the dampness inherent in a below-grade apartment makes it ripe for chewing bugs.  A bonus is that you can garden just by opening your living room window, without even having to bend over.  Sometimes advertised as “great for night workers”.  Since it is usually cheaper on utilities, it's sometimes called "green", "energy-efficient", or "earth-bermed". 

Energy-efficient means the central heating went years ago, and instead of replacing the furnace, the landlord put space heaters in each apartment, so the tenants can pay the heat.  It's more energy-efficient because 1.  it's saving the landlord money, and 2. it's a proven fact that people use 30% less energy when they're paying for it themselves. 

Green is another word for wood stove. 

Cute is a euphemism for closet.

Partial River Views means your roommate has to hold your ankles while you lean so far out your window, some other tenant calls 911 thinking you’re trying to commit suicide.  Since the river can only be viewed, via the method described above, from the bathroom window, which is invariably in the shower, the bonus is that you can  shower with a friend and enjoy the view at the same time.

City Views means you’re looking onto someone else’s brick wall, 6” away.

Air Conditioned means there’s not enough real air coming through that 6" between your window and that brick wall, so the landlord threw in a 20-year-old window unit.

Charming City Views means you're looking at other people's rooftops, garbage cans, and clotheslines.

Charming means nothing’s been updated in 40 years.

Character is a euphemism for charming.

The (Blank) You Deserve.  This phrase, while not exactly a euphemism, was started by personal injury lawyers and their ilk, played on the Lotto mentality of the masses, and gave rise to the idea of entitlement.  Now it’s used for everything from regular bowel movements to housing we can’t afford, but somehow “deserve” anyway.  The concepts of entitlement and Client are just steps further along that road.

Client is actually agency-speak, and needs clarification.  Unlike business, where a client brings something of value to the table, social service agency clients bring nothing except a job for the agency worker.  Recipient is a more accurate term.

DSS Sponsored Client is a new one.  It attempts to elevate the recipient's stature even more than "client" does.  It means Social Services is paying to find the person a new apartment, because it's cheaper than housing him in the welfare motel.

I think on many levels, these last two euphemisms and the entitlement mentality behind them, do a great disservice to the people receiving benefits.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mr. Mac's Funeral

It was interesting.  Here I was the only white person in the church -- yes, the same church where the rev and his son helped themselves to an honorarium before Mr. Mac was gone --  and the undertaker was asking me repeatedly “How does he look?  Does he look good?”.  I was really annoyed that he was even asking me, and thought it was only because I was white.  But then I realized: I was, after all, next-of-kin, and the undertaker needed someone in the family to validate to his work. 

The church was sparsely attended by a few old people, but there was one old man who continued to wail loudly for his deceased friend. I commented to another elderly man that they must have been very good friends.  “Nah,” he replied, “he’s just an old drunk.  He cries at all the funerals.” 

How can one old man have lived so many years in the same town, and at the end of his life call his landlord his next of kin, be robbed by his minister, and have only some old drunk crying for him at his funeral?  Is that the price you pay for living too long?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are

Having conducted a study examining the stupid things these birds say when looking for an apartment, we are happy to report that, after many years of careful observation, these species as well as varied sub-species, are thriving in the environment in and around Columbia County.  They can be seen flitting here and there, trying to settle in before winter.  Even though they have difficulty locating nesting places, they have been multiplying rapidly in recent years, and all indications are that they will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

“So how’s your credit?”  (I often ask this to save us all time & money).
“Not so hot.  I declared bankruptcy about 5 years ago.  If you’re asking can I afford the rent, definitely.  I’ve been a homeowner for 8 years.”
Me:  (thinking) nooo, I wasn’t asking if you could afford it, I was asking if you would pay it.
Him:  (sounding very knowledgeable) “I exempted my home mortgage from the bankruptcy proceedings.”
“I’m sorry, you won’t get the rental house with a bankruptcy on your credit report.”
Him:  (Shocked) “Really!  You mean you can deny renting on the basis of credit?”
Me:  duhhhh – okay, I only thought that last one.

Grandma & granddaughter come to look at a 2 bedroom.  “So how many people will be in your family?”
“Only 3.  Myself, my boyfriend, and my granddaughter.”
Cut to seriously pregnant granddaughter.
“So there will actually be 4 of you?”
“Oh, no. You see, she [granddaughter] has a friend who’s away right now…”
“Away like at the mall, or away like ‘Away’?”
“Away in jail.”
“…who’s the father of this child…”
“Yes, but as soon as he’s out, my boyfriend and I are (claps her hands for emphasis) Out Of Here!”
“Nope, sorry.  I’m not knowingly renting to a convicted felon.”
“But you don’t understaannnd(!)  If they keep arresting people, there won’t be anywhere left for them to live!”

Say, wha? 

“I can’t make it this Friday, because I’m in the psych ward right now.  They got me locked up, but I’ll be getting out next week, so I can come look at the apartment next Friday.”


“I’m looking for a house, not for me, for my brother.  He’s getting out of jail next month, and has to stay in New York for parole…”


 “Oh, yes, my credit is excellent.  I own my home and everything.  Why am I relocating from Florida, leaving my house, uprooting my children, and renting an apartment?  Well, my new husband is getting out of jail next month…”

“You can reach me at the [welfare] motel, room 7”.

“The ad says ‘no dogs’.  I have litter-box trained rabbits."
“How many?”
“Four…three brothers…”
“Where do you keep FOUR rabbits?”
“We have a sleeping porch where I live now.” 
“Well, we have no sleeping porch in this rental”. 
“I can keep them in the extra bedroom.”

Yeah, right.  Four, no make that eight -- Oops! 16!  With litter boxes on my new rugs.  Bleech!

M's Missing Rent Check

M was one of our certified crazy tenants. I could usually deal with it. But once in a while, when she was off her meds, she’d start to frantically call me.  This was one of those times.

On June 4th, she left me a message, asking if I got her rent check. She’d left it in the mailbox (as she’d done probably a hundred times before), and wanted to make sure I got it.  I returned her call and told her I had it.

June 5th she called again, this time to see if I deposited it.  She called her bank and it hadn’t cleared.  She “just wanted to make sure”.  I returned her call again. 

June 7th:  "This is M again.  The check still hasn’t cleared."  I ignore this message. 

I ignore messages 4 through 8, though she’s becoming increasingly agitated.  But I know Maureen in this state.  All I’ll be doing all day is returning her calls, and I know I made that deposit.

By June 10th, the calls are frantic.  Her check apparently still hasn't cleared. I ignore these messages.

June 11th:  Calm:  "Hi.  This is M.  Thank you so much for depositing my rent check.  The bank said it cleared." I think we’re done -- for this bout of insanity. 

June 17th.  I get a debit memo from the bank.  It says I made a deposit listing two checks, but only one was in the batch.  Guess whose check they say is missing? Only I know, without a doubt, this check, out of the thousands of checks I have received over the years, has cleared. Because M be crazy, but she’s not stupid. And she told me so. I call the bank. They can't find it.  They tell me I have to contact my tenant and get a copy of the check.

Are you crazy??? Call M about the same check I just got 20 phone calls on? I don’t think so. But I have to: "M, what bank is your checking account with?" 
"Hudson City Savings"
"Thank you."
Her bank is my bank. We can trace the snafu without her help. Thank God. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tales of Mr. Mac

Mr. Mac lived in one of our subsidized apartments on a small income.  His apartment was sparsely furnished, as expected of an old man whose social security check reflected a lifetime of low wages.  But he was clean, quiet, and his rent was always on time.   

One day I got a call from a friend who was an intake worker at the hospital.  Apparently Mr. Mac was hospitalized, told her I was his next-of-kin, and asked her to call me.  Ann was amused.  She knew this old black man wasn’t related to me.  But he insisted we were, so she called, and I went.

He told me the local reverend and his son had paid him a call while he was sick, and while the rev was comforting Mr. Mac in the living room, his son was rifling through his things in the bedroom.  He told me he thought they had stolen his coffee can of cash from the closet, and he wanted me to check it out.

Knowing Mr. Mac’s income, and since I was still young and dumb about life, I thought he was delusional because he was sick.  But I dutifully went to his apartment, checked his closet, and reported back to him that there was no can of money there.  Now he was upset as well as sick, but I chalked it up to his illness and age.

As it turned out, this was Mr. Mac’s final journey, and in fact, he did have real kin.  I met his sister when she came up after he died, and she verified that Mr. Mac did indeed have a can of money. Not much, just coins as he could put them aside.

I trust God will take care of the good reverend.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The First Capital Improvement -- Almost!

Winter comes every year.  I know that statement elicits a "duh" and an eye roll.  But there's one group of homo-sapiens who annually have short term memory loss when it comes to this:  apartment hunters.  I have no idea why, but if I advertise a great apartment with heat between March and August, it languishes.  O, the denial.  In September the phone rings off the hook.  Of course, phones don't have hooks any more, but that's another story... 

On the other hand, furnaces, being alive, know full well when it's winter.  That's the only time they fail.  Not spring, not fall, just winter.  (One time I went to hunt for a furnace's serial number and found a union sticker on the back side.  I'm pretty sure a bunch of them rolled off the assembly line, congregated, and formed the United Furnaces union.  But I digress...)

So, it turned out that we did have a furnace in that first rental. But it was so old it only gave enough heat in July and August. The Man brought in another Man, and together they determined that there was nothing that could save the old behemoth. I would have to drive the ratty pickup an hour away to Albany during a snowstorm, and pick up a new furnace. So I did. And brought it back. And they told me that, while they were waiting for me to bring back the new furnace, they "messed around" some more with the old furnace, and, Good News! We didn't need a new one after all. We could baby this one along for at least this heating season. But in those days before cell phones, the bad news was I had to turn around and immediately return the new one, if I wanted to get our money back.

So I drove four hours in the snow that day, but that old furnace lasted another 10 years.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Our turn to pick

Long before "staging" was a decorator's term, we knew some things had to go before we could rent the roach tenant's apartment to someone with teeth.

So out went the '65 Buick Riviera bucket-seat lounge chairs. Out went the beer can collection. We watered the grass religiously, simultanously praying for rain.  We desperately needed the vegetation to cover the old tires that were still being used by the Darryls for patio tables. They were already pissed that we threw away their chairs.  Our haste was not due simply to industriousness. We still had under $1000 to our name, a vacant apartment to renovate, extermination costs, and don't forget that looming mortgage payment!  

Since all the remaining Darryls were at work during the day, I decided to show the apartment then, and hope the incomings didn't meet the outgoings. It worked pretty well, and our first tenant turned out to be a lady from Cos Cob, CT, a hoity-toity place compared to us.  When she finally got a good look at her neighbors, I was able to tell her truthfully that they were moving out within weeks. In the end we moved three out of the four families. Family #4 was actually pretty good, once they were viewed separately from the rest.  They turned out to be Darryl-in-Laws, and stayed for a few years afterwards.

Friday, September 10, 2010

First You Cry a Lot

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: Never fall in love with real estate. Well, wish I were listening! Here we were, in love with the land, with the views, but we never checked to see if we had plumbing, a furnace, or a septic system. Meanwhile, we thought we bought a 4-family house plus two mobile homes that were on the property.

Oops! Make that two gutted mobile homes, still with loans against them from the manufacturer, compliments of the previous owner who sold everything removable, including the kitchen sinks. The only money we made off those trailers were the storage fees until the bank dragged them out of the field a few months later! Our expectation of 6 units quickly, nay, immediately,  became a reality of 4.

People don’t believe me when I say it’s harder to have 4 units than 140. When you only have a few, everything is on you. You have to do every repair yourself. Every bad tenant, every trashed apartment is a personal affront. Every late payment, every vacancy, every repair is a critical cash-flow problem.

When you have multiple units, no one problem, percentage-wise, is as important. One vacancy out of four is a critical 25%.  One out of 140 is negligible. You have better cash flow to work with. You can afford to employ others to help paint, clean, re-rent. You don’t know your tenants as well, so you can make decisions with a clearer head. You don’t take it personally when someone leaves an apartment in less-than-stellar condition.

So, at first, weary and just scraping by, until you build to that critical mass, that tipping point, you cry a lot.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Our First Tenants

"You’ve got roaches”. Those were the first words I ever heard, from the first tenant I ever had.

We had just closed on our first rental, a foreclosure with a 4-family building and two mobile homes and some 13 acres with beautiful views.  Back in those days, actual bank officers attended closings, and we had no idea that they usually weren't that jovial during the proceedings.  They were laughing at our naivete.  The house had peeling paint, bucket seats for lawn chairs, and beer cans for lawn ornaments.  But the views!  Ah, the views!  Of course, we had been so enamored of that view that we never got around to checking whether or not there was plumbing or a furnace in the house. 

That day, leaving the bank, we had just $1000 left to our name, the clock was ticking on our new mortgage payment, but we were going to collect our first rents! 

Soon I was gingerly perched at the top of a very narrow, winding stairway, simultanously collecting my first rent and giving my first eviction notice. Hoping I didn’t get pushed down the stairs.  My husband, who in the future will be known as “The Man”, was at the bottom of the stairs, providing “backup”, or maybe just preparing to break my fall. Meanwhile I was still trying to figure out how those roaches got from the bank to the house faster than we did.  

But that tenant was right. We did have roaches. And flies. And rats big enough to snack on the crumbs left between the sofa seats by their kids.  And she was loudly unhappy at my having snatched the rent money just before giving her the eviction notice.  But I survived that first tenant encounter.

Afterwards, we met the rest of the tenants. Apparently all four families were related, or as they’d call it in the back country, inbred. As in “Hi, my name is Darryl, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl”. Except they weren’t that friendly. While we were checking to see if we had working plumbing, the Darryls were in the barn figuring out how to take out the new landlord. If we knew all that stuff, we might’ve been worried. But we didn’t find out till much later. So we weren’t – worried, that is. We should’ve been. For lots of reasons, not all having to do with this bunch of tenants. 

We were just 24. How the heck did we ever get ourselves into this?