The housing slump is cranking out unfit landlords. Take me, for example.
The other day I found myself shooing curb pickers away. My previous tenants were supposed to have cleared out the day before. The new tenants were already busy moving in their stuff. My house now held one 8-month old, two parents, three grandparents, two cleaners, two movers, and one locksmith. And me, taking someone else's personal items to the curb.
People were starting to slow down on my rural state road. Some parked, picked up albums, inspected the couch, and tested the sturdiness of the table. They were generally polite and asked if it was for the taking.
I was unsure how I was supposed to respond. With no room left on the porch and eight voice-mail messages waiting for the previous tenants, all I could do was keep taking what remained inside straight to the curb.
I should not be a landlord. I know that. I am no good with a cordless drill and am too willing to allow late rent arrive even later. I have no business being in this business. Trust me: I want the deed transferred. I really, really want to cover someone's closing costs.
I put my house up for sale in April 2006. A few months earlier, houses in my rural college town had sold for larger sums than anyone could remember. People were shocked at the selling prices that showed up in my agents' comparable sheet: "The Clark house went for over $300,000 – can you believe it?!" Even better, I had bought a house nearby where the real estate was already depressed, so I got a cute little bungalow at a great price. As I bought flowers and staged my place for the open house, I spent my soon-to-come profits in my head.
By now you can guess the rest. I priced it high. Too high. Then I went down. And down. And down. I started getting spastic: I took it off the market for the winter, hired a caretaker, put it back on, this time selling by owner, then relisted it with a new agent. And the price went down.
Eventually, the stress of the nonselling house, my depleted bank account, and my now-more-savvy reading of economic forecasts led me to rent the house. I did not get enough to cover mortgage, taxes, and insurance, but I did get enough to cover my wounds. When the lease came to an end, seeing no good morning in America any-time soon, I decided to rent it again, this time for a year.
And that is how I ended up spending the day in the gray sleet, bringing other people's stuff to the curb, half furious at them for not clearing out on time, and half sad, asking curb pickers if they might just come back later (the old tenants did finally show up).
No one wants to see their bedside table items on wet winter grass. That day was a very bad one, even if the interest rate on my home equity line of credit went down a quarter point. I'm no landlord.
Hopefully in February 2009, when this lease is up, I will sell my beautiful 1840s farmhouse on 2-1/2 acres of open farmland (interested?). I fantasize about my very own postinaugural ball. I'll wear pearls to the bank. I'll offer mini beef Wellingtons to Amanda at the insurance office, who recently told me that, regrettably, landlord status doubles my premium. Heck, maybe I will offer the current tenants a "rebate" on their last month's rent.
There's as much Gatsby as Joad in my tale, and in our national housing drama, too much house or not enough. My current American dream, like many of my neighbors, is a diminished one – to sell property. The story we should be telling is this: Settle accounts (and remove all belongings) before moving on.