I’M a landlord in Lakewood, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb near where I live that is predominantly prewar apartment buildings and double houses. In Cleveland — and probably most of the Midwest — you can get a clean one-bedroom in a decent neighborhood for $500. No air-conditioning and no dishwasher, but the unit is painted and has refinished hardwood floors.
I once had a tenant, Stan, who paced those floors at 3 a.m., waking up the people below. When I asked Stan to ease up, he said: “What do you want from me? I can’t fly.”
He moved out shortly after that.
About 10 years later, he called and said: “Stratton, you remember me. I want to move back in.”
“Stan!” I said. “You complained about the guy across the hall blasting organ music. You complained about the people below you fornicating. You skipped on your final month’s rent. You painted the floor.”
“But I used Benjamin Moore paint, Stratton. Only the best.”
I didn’t let him back in.
I want my tenants to be law-abiding and act middle-class. That’s the goal. The riskiest tenants are bartenders and servers. They often come home late and party hard, annoying the 9-to-5 tenants. I rent to welders, bartenders, landscapers, flight attendants, legal secretaries and Suzuki violin teachers. Some of the tenants meet one another in the vestibule, fall in love and marry. Then I have another vacancy.
I recently had an application from Joe, 71, a retired factory worker. He made $1,600 per month.
I ran a criminal search on him as a formality. Aggravated arson, forgery and sexual battery. Pre-Internet, I would have rented to him. Pre-Internet, it was hard to run background checks. I once rented to a rapist-murderer because I wasn’t schlepping down to county records, and he wasn’t volunteering he was a rapist-murderer. (The man got picked up on a parole violation and moved out of my apartment without killing or raping again.)
I rented to a retired nurse whose previous landlord followed her to my place. He told me the old lady was a convicted forger and con artist.
But my building manager had already given her the keys!
I moved her belongings into the basement and locked the basement door.
“Give me my meds!” she said.
She had a point. I gave her the meds, and her toothbrush. She gave me a lawsuit.
This cost me. I was young. I learned two things: 1) Don’t ever evict a tenant yourself. Lawyers love “self-help evictions.” Wait for a court order. 2) Screen all tenants like crazy on the way in.
At cocktail parties, I say, “I’m a landlord.” People hate that. Everybody hates landlords. That’s because nobody paid rent as a child. Renters think apartments should be free, like the wind, rain and baby food.
I used to say, “I’m in real estate.” That sounded better; however, I spend a fair amount of time peering in apartment windows for cats, to charge pet fees. That probably doesn’t say “real estate” to most people.
A competing landlord, next door, put in granite countertops and tried to jack up his rents. It didn’t work. The fancy-kitchen, fresh-coffee-grinding tenants are mostly in other parts of town or, more likely, in other parts of the country. Renters in Lakewood aren’t looking to move out and up right now.
My vacancy rate is 4 percent, the lowest in 10 years. Four years ago, tenants were leaving as if a siren was blasting in the hallway. Young home buyers could get easy financing and low down payments. Now nationwide home sales are back up again, at the highest level since May 2010, but distressed and foreclosed properties make up the largest portion of those purchases. In Cleveland, speculators buy foreclosed houses with all cash. But my tenants aren’t at the sheriff’s auctions. They have lost faith in the homeownership dream, at least for the moment. They’re sticking with rental.
Or they’re returning to rental. I have had several tenants move back into my buildings years after leaving, after owning homes and losing homes.
I save the old records on tenants. Nothing personal, just notes on whether they paid the final month’s rent, turned in their keys and didn’t trash the place. If all’s well, I’ll let them back.
The good tenants, you don’t remember. You have to look them up.