An Absent Landlord Horror Story

I was an absent landlord and here is my story. This is a true story.

I owned a house in Acworth, Georgia in the late 1980s and then I was laid off from my job. I found another job, but it was in Memphis, Tennessee. The catch was, I had to be in Memphis as soon as possible.

After the futile attempt of trying to sell my house, I had a couple apply that wanted to rent it. I will call them Dan and Sue Smith which, of course, is not their real names.

I checked both Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s credit and employment out and they seemed to be a nice couple. So, I moved to Memphis that weekend and became an absent landlord. The first six months they rented the house were good. Their rent checks arrived on time and did not bounce. Then came the month every landlord is afraid of, NO CHECK.

I called their home phone and left a message on the answering machine. No return telephone call… Then I called the husband’s place of employment. The guy that answered the phone only wanted to add me to his stockbroker client list. He said that he had taken over for Dan. I was a little more concerned to this point, but not in panic mode yet.

Next, I called the Sue’s place of employment and was told that she had run off to England with her boyfriend. NOW THIS ABSENT LANDLORD WAS MOVING INTO PANIC MODE.

I had Dan’s brother’s phone number so I called him. The brother told me that Dan had been arrested and was in jail for dealing cocaine. He said, “Don’t expect any more rent checks from him. This is not Dan’s first offense by the way”. NOW THIS ABSENT LANDLORD IS REALLY IN PANIC MODE AT THIS POINT.

Finally, I called the next door neighbor and asked him to check out the property. On his return telephone call, all he could say was “those people destroyed the property, you need to drive down here this weekend”.

Wait, wait, I want to see the house NOW. My employer would not agree to give me the time off, so I waited until Saturday morning for the four hundred mile trip.

This absent landlord arrived around noon. The house looked OK from the outside, but the inside was another story! The first item I noticed was that the garage door opened right up. The reason being, there was no electric garage door opener. The unit was GONE.

Then, I noticed the electrical panel in the garage had vanished. The wires were clipped off at the outside of where the electrical panel used to be and most of the wiring was gone.

The copper plumbing was no longer where it used to be inside the garage. Then this absent landlord noticed, the ceiling was sagging and appeared to be water damaged.

I decided to be brave and so I opened the door to the first floor of the house. THERE WAS NO CEILING! The drywall was lying on the floor and all this absent landlord could see were the wood beams to the second floor.

Then, I made my way up the stairs into the living room or should I say what used to be the living room. The place reeked of fecal matter. I was not aware they had dogs and my lease read that there were no dogs allowed.

Even though the place had a gas fireplace, the tenant had burned what I swear looked like an old telephone pole on top of the gas logs. Soot from the wood fire was on the walls and ceiling.

Every appliance in the kitchen was gone, as were the cabinets, and all the walls were bashed in. The house was rented with all appliances – the refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, microwave, washer and dryer. THEY HAD ALSO ALL VANISHED! I THOUGHT, WHY DID I EVER BECOME AN ABSENT LANDLORD!!

I moved cautiously to the master bedroom. It looked as if a water bed was drained onto the floor. which would explain why the ceiling fell down on the first floor. The carpets were shot and the bottom six inches of the drywall was damaged from the water.

The master bath had no fixtures. The toilet was no longer there and the same for the vanity. The mirror was broken and the bath/shower stall was severely damaged. It looked as though they tried to rip it out. There were holes in the walls the size of someone’s face and several fist marks.

On to the third floor, the two bedrooms are pretty much intact as there was nothing to destroy in those rooms. The bathroom, well that was another story. It was the same as the master bath, destroyed.

I had to get out of that house and catch my breath. Outside, well I had a gas grill that was connected to the big propane tank and – you guessed it – GONE! The HVAC unit – GONE! The HVAC unit was a split system. The copper pipes were neatly cut off with a tubing cutter. That unit was going to see life again somewhere else.

There were some broken windows, but nothing really major was destroyed on the outside. My amateur radio antenna was still on the roof. WOW, I didn’t expect that.

OK, I told myself it was not that bad. I had insurance. So, I called my agent and he came right out to assess the damage. He walks all around the house and then asked “how did this happen?”

I proceeded to tell him “the renters did it”. I saw a glint in his eye and he asked, “did you not see the clause in your contract that your policy covers only the owner/occupant?”

As I’m standing there dumbfounded, I turned around to clarify that the insurance company was not going to cover the damage, and then I realized he was getting in his car to leave. “Call my office Monday if you need clarification,” he said. Then he was GONE!

I was left speechless. The house was destroyed and it was not covered by insurance. There was no recourse against the renters. I had one month’s deposit and that would not even come close to fixing this place.

I took a couple days of vacation to attempt to resolve this matter. That turned out to be a waste of my vacation time. There was nothing I could do to resolve this problem and not lose my shirt.

I was not behind in my mortgage payments, so foreclosure was not on the list of possibilities. I was, however, able to work out a deal with the mortgage company to just give them the keys to the house just to get rid of the property. It hurt my credit for a few years, but not as much as a foreclosure would have. I swore I would never have rental property ever again.

Well, it took ten years for me to get over that fiasco. But, I did buy rental property again and I’m glad I did. I am now a landlord again and have been for a few years.

Here are a few tips before you rent your property:

  • Make sure to prescreen the prospective tenant carefully.
  • Make sure you have an iron clad lease that puts the advantage in your court. Everything must be in writing. Over the years, each time we have experienced a problem with a tenant, the next time our lease covered those issues.
  • Make sure you discuss with your agent and have the correct type of insurance coverage in place before anyone moves in; and
  • If you do not live near your rental property and have to become an absent landlord, make sure you have a reputable property manager take care of it.

JUST AN ADDED NOTE: If you are working on the property before you rent it, this sitation requires a different type of insurance policy. Make sure you work with your insurance agent to get the insurance you need.

Dave Altman