Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Renting We Go

In this saga and a half I conclude my venture into home renovation and landlording following the California real estate collapse.

While in Home Depot shopping for mini blinds and towel bars I get a call on my cell which was now dedicated to calls from potential renters. Our second house on our lot was nearly ready to go and I had timed the ads in the paper to coincide with my third solo trip to San Bernardino. There were three Home Depots near the property; I choose the one with the same layout as the one at home. It seemed to lessen the culture shock.

"Hi this is Joe," said the caller then paused as if he was beginning a long term relationship. He tells me his story. Most callers don't tell me a story; they just want to know how much and how big. The story is about how he had just moved back to California after a spell in Georgia where he was working on a job with his uncle and now he and his wife and three little kids were back living in his mother's house, but his mother wasn't going to be able to keep the house so they all had to move. The upshot of the story was that he was discovering that he was picky about the kind of house he was willing to live in and he was interested in my ad boasting that we had newly renovated. He promised to come by and see the place.

I wondered if my modest interior design choices for the little house would pass muster. The kitchen with its butter yellow cabinets, Formica counter top in caramel tones of faux stone and the floor tile of swirled mocha and pond scum green looked surprisingly okay. All the colors went together quite nicely against the bright white enamel walls; the floor tiles tying chromatically into the chocolate brown of the new carpets in the bedroom.

I had struggled to find window coverings that would span the over-wide ranch house windows of the living room and, after studying the Ikea catalog for two hours, had found the only ones that would do. Their top of the line Kvartal system was very modern looking and a marvel of Swedish engineering. The curtains I made by cutting in half pairs of Ikea drapes and piecing them together side by side. The kitchen windows sported a pair of Kvartal panels with a trendy curved design cut into the stiff white material.

They looked quite nice from the outside, matching the white trim on the newly painted exterior which was now a minty blue green. The choice of color for each house had been a subject of much discussion with Catherine and photographing of houses while dog walking. In the end, to fit into the San Bernardino vernacular of neon yellow and terra cotta orange, I migrated from the tasteful palette of Bay Area earth tones to the color chart from the paint department targeting the Spanish speaking population.

Thus the house, transformed from vintage bubble gum pink to Aqua Tequila, was almost breathtaking in its cheerfulness, evoking beach houses and holidays in the Caribbean.

For the front house I chose a more traditional white with a dark teal trim. In part to impress Mike with something a bit more masculine that would evoke a grander house. He was, after all, going to live in it and be master of the lot, as my manager as well as contractor. I was pleased when he noted that the teal trim would go well with the mint green of the back house.

There was very little left to do once the curtains were ironed and hung up. Without an actual client it was hard to know quite how the space would be used. There were clues. Everywhere that an angled nail had been pounded into the woodwork, by a previous tenant, I put a hook; likewise the backs of bedroom doors. In the one bathroom I replaced a single towel bar with two and a ring. And in lieu of a hall closet two sets of hooks on the back of the front door.

And since I had time, I lined the shelves. The old vinyl had left sticky residue on the wood. But here I parted from the norm and went in search of an eco alternative. I didn't like the off-gassed chemical smell of vinyl, plus it was made of PVC, which was now considered toxic.

I turned to my collection of cereal boxes, which I had been using to construct book mailers. I lined the drawers of our new bathroom at home with sections of Raisin Bran and Cheerio boxes. Pleased with their resilient surface and op art affect, I took the boxes to San Bernardino and with my corporate size paper cutter, spent a fun evening trimming boxes and thumb-tacking them to the shelves.

My "picky" client, arrived in a white t-shirt, with a tattoo on his upper arm, carrying what looked like a man purse, but turned out to be a camera case. So he could show his wife the place, he told me. When he described to me the squalor that he had seen in the local rental housing market, I realized that new investors, having snapped up all these foreclosed properties, had simply left them in the condition that they had found them, putting them up for rent right away. Yuck, I thought, remembering the condition that we had found our houses in. We couldn't have lived with ourselves.

Joe was eager to rent our house, but as a self-employed carpenter, he didn't have an employer and with no current landlord the only rental history I could check was from two years ago. Plus his credit wasn't too good and he was "between bank accounts" he told me. I already had a contractor and was nervous about having both tenants relying on the same collapsed housing industry. Now, it was my turn to be picky. Still he was my only contender. I gave him an application.

Old Time Values

I walked to the front house where Mike was working on prepping the stucco and woodwork for painting.

"You know," he said, "I could just slap on the paint like most people would, but I want to do it right and patch this woodwork." He pointed his putty knife at the sill, which had a corner that was broken off and painted over.

"And these window panes need to be re-puttied", he added as I took in the cracked dried, up bits. "But it's going to take me a while." He was asking us for more time, but not more money; he had already bid the paint job and was putting in his own time for his own satisfaction.

"I know," I said, "it's exactly what I would do only I knew I'd have to live here for about six months."

One of the first things I had asked Mike, when I met him, was if he thought the sash windows could be saved. I had spent many hours searching the "This Old House" website reading about how original windows were what gave the house historical interest; they could be rebuilt with a few hand tools, even made energy efficient with storm windows.

In high rent areas like Pasadena, where I had stopped to visit a colleague, such historical elements had been kept in good repair. Down here in rent-it-cheap-ville they were being held together with silicone caulking and you were lucky if they opened. If a house was being flipped, out would go the old windows to be replaced with cheap vinyl sliders. Traditionalists claimed that vinyl windows had too many plastic parts inside that would soon break, not to mention that they were a factory manufactured product of the petroleum industry.

I marveled that I'd found a man who shared my values. On my first day back, this trip, he had pointed out the satellite dish on the roof that he had just installed.

"We got TV now," he said. TV? When would such a man have time to watch TV?

"I get the feeling you didn't miss it much," I said. He paused collecting his words.

"Well you know, we've been having Addison read to us at night," he said knowing this would be a choice I would appreciate. Ah, you gotta love these second-chance dads. I knew he had other sons. When we first met him, he told us, that he hadn't spent enough time with them because he was working too hard, thus his retirement from full-blown contractor to handyman.

Addison had found a friend from down the street. They came riding down the driveway on their bikes. (The day he arrived Addison was already over at the neighbors sharing his truck with the little boy there.) This friend was a bigger, white boy. They had come to bide the time while Addison underwent his daily home dialysis treatment.

Mike had shown me the equipment for it—a machine about the size of a tabletop copier plus stacks of boxes of plastic bags filled with saline solution. It was the same treatment we had administered to our cat for her kidney problems. Only Addison didn't get poked with a needle, he had a port in his belly.

I'm not usually taken by children with birth defects, those sappy, inspirational stories that make good copy for Sunday magazines; they make me long for ancient Rome where a baby born horribly wrong was exposed—left on a cold hilltop to die. But Addison impressed me. He had survived this far. Plus all that medical attention had made him adept at talking to adults; he had established a rapport with me right away. For a ten year old, he had a depth born of patience and an enthusiasm for physical activity that spoke of resilience. I admired his pluckiness.

An Auspicious Event

My phone rang as I was installing a paper towel holder in the back house.

"Do you have a weight limit on pets?" said a young female voice. What? Oh right, some landlords do, I remembered.

"Oh I see," I said, "you have a large dog. Or is it a pony?" This being my hotdog stand I could afford to joke. The girl laughed, said she had a Chow who was a sweetheart. When she showed up with her parents a tiny little dog peaked out from inside her jacket. The tour didn't take long.

"It's very basic, but that's what we want," said mom. Their house had just been foreclosed upon and an injury had put her husband, a tow truck driver, on disability thus the need to downsize on this diminished income. Their credit wasn't too good either.

"But we don't have any evictions though," the dad added.

We wrapped up in the garage and they talked about wanting to rent it.

"There's just one thing we want to be up front about," said dad, "we have three dogs and three cats". Oy. And we had new carpets.

"We'll find homes for our pets if we need to," said mom firmly. "We love them, but we need a home, first." I felt like I was coming to that pivotal scene in Sophie's Choice where Meryl Streep is asked to choose which of her two children she wanted to keep. I told them I had someone who wanted it already, but would let them know.

I walked back over to see Mike about a good time to take his family out to dinner.

"We might not be able to go," he said, "we just got a call from the hospital that they've got a kidney for Addison." I knew they'd been waiting since before Christmas.

"But I'm not getting my hopes up because this is the third time we've been called," he added. I remembered the last time they couldn't do it because Addison was catching a cold. The kidney was being screened to see if it was a match. I went on my errand for window blinds for the front house. When I came back Mike said it was a go.

My brain started to unravel at double speed. I popped off to Home Depot again to get a blind I thought I had forgotten, but I had actually misplaced it behind another one. Then I discovered I had left my binder somewhere, probably on the roof of my car to have it fall into the street. In fact every time I came down to San Bernardino, my mind started to unravel. The drama of my story took up too much brain space; I kept forgetting what I was doing and there was nothing in place to ground me as there was at home. Now I knew how my overwhelmed clients felt.

I had to have people there to keep me on task. And my people were vanishing, going on a mission. I succumbed and joined in the proceedings inside the front house. Mike was wolfing down his dinner and Jennifer was combing Addison's washed hair and packing. I asked Addison if I could get a picture of him with his dog, Cupcake. He sportingly obliged. He was as excited as if he were going on vacation.

At nightfall, Jennifer came home. (No family were allowed during shift changes.) She told me the kidney donor was a 24 year old who had died in childbirth.

"How 19th century," I said pausing to take this in.

"They said Addison would grow into the kidneys," she explained since I was part of the family now. I questioned her about her confidence in his doctor. I didn't want the kid to die on me now that I was invested. She had complete confidence in him; didn't seem worried at all.

I was so struck by my happening to be there for this momentous occasion that I felt somehow powerful as if I had brought them this good luck. I mean what were the chances that I would be there just when they got the kidney? Such is the hubris of a writer living inside a story. After a while, I felt like a bystander again and went back to lining shelves.

In the morning I got news that it had all gone well. Whew. He would come home in three weeks, then had to be kept germ free in isolation for three months, so no school. I packed my car and Mike and I settled up our accounts.

Build Your Own Family

In the days following, my work helping a hoarder client sort through ten-year-old copies of People magazine couldn't have seemed more meaningless. My mind was with a boy struggling to accept a major organ transplant. And I still had to rent the second house. The applicants I had were not quite right. They didn't really feel like they were part of the story.

Yet, this was my target market. Having positioned myself just to the sidelines of the foreclosure epicenter, I was poised to catch the falling middle class, complete with all their pets, amenity needs, oversize furniture and big appliances and yes, their shaky credit rating. Otherwise I was getting a lot of calls from people looking for the rock bottom price. Or they were young with much to learn about taking care of property. One man spoke only Spanish, but all I could say was "si, casa" and the price in English numbers. $1000 a month was too high for him. Low prices hovered around $750. Down the street a newly renovated house was selling for $45K. That was about what we had put in to renovate. Real estate gurus were telling their investors to flip not hold for there would soon be more bargains.

Though I was prepared to lower the rent, I thought I'd wait a bit. There were plenty of landlords lowering their rent steeply as the glut of foreclosed properties turned around and were up for rent again. Soon they'd be gone. We had put a lot of work into our houses. I wanted people who wanted a nice home over a cheap dump.

I called Mike. Told him that what I really wanted was for the tenants in the back house to be okay with him and right for the situation he had there. Would he interview these candidates? He was glad to. Called back, said Joe was probably not the right guy and besides he had let slip that he would move on soon; the second family with the 6 pets, he couldn't reach. Was that going to be it for the month?

I tried to think of ways to advertise. The population didn't seem to go much by Craigslist. A digital divide perhaps. I discovered; none of the many houses I had seen for rent were even listed there. I posted ours. Three days and four leads later, a man called me up moments after I left him a message.

"Amanda, I want to rent your house, but I'm afraid you will have rented it before I even get to see it," he said as if we were best friends already. "My name is Italo, but everyone calls me Tally," he continued in a familiar drawl. I felt like I was listening to a character in a movie. Well no wonder— he was from the Bronx—an Italian. He went on to tell me how a friend had suggested he go onto "and there you were, the only house in town". He liked the pictures of it, but he had to leave for two days for his work. The man had a job!

Yes, for UPS for 18 years. His wife had divorced him; he'd given her nearly everything, plus the house had an underwater mortgage and now the apartment complex where he was living was kicking him out because his 19-year-old son had brought home a dog.

He just wanted to get his life back together again, he told me. I hoped he wouldn't be put off by the seediness of the neighborhood. I e-mailed Mike and Jennifer telling them how nice he was.

He saw it, he liked it, his kid liked it. He didn't mind the seediness, after all he was from the Bronx. He knew that people looked out for each other in these poorer neighborhoods. He even remembered an outdoor clothes line same as the one out back. Mike had liked him so much he gave him a hug and told him he belonged there. By the end of the weekend Tally was wooing me with recordings of his impressions of Elvis, pictures included. If Catherine was okay with his obliterated credit rating it was a go.

"Let's give him a chance," she e-mailed me. I had gotten a terrific reference from his boss ("wish all my guys were like him") and his credit history was the norm now.

Finally, I could lay my story to rest. My new extended family had attained a harmonious configuration and the little homestead would give us all a chance for resurrection. Tally was so grateful he said I was an angel. Well I wouldn't go that far, but after just six months of this odyssey my story was closing with just the happy ending I had been looking for.

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