If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re either already a landlord or thinking of becoming one. You may find yourself nodding in recognition as you read these horror stories. You may even be thinking to yourself, “Oh I can beat that, I had this one tenant that…” in which case feel free to post it in the comments! I love reading other landlords’ tenant horror stories because it makes me feel that I’m not alone, that this kind of bizarre shit doesn’t happen to just me because I’m doing something wrong.
If you haven’t started renting yet, these stories may horrify you right out of the business. In my opinion, that would be a shame because even with all the tenants from Hell I’ve run into I still believe rentals are the surest way to financial freedom. Tenants from Hell are part of the reality of renting. Every time I’ve encountered one, I’ve learned something new about myself and my resolve. I’ve learned a few more tricks that have made me a smarter landlord. I’ve added new language to my lease. I’ve learned new warning signs to watch for to nip problems in the bud. The most important thing you can do in the face of a Tenant from Hell situation is to say, “what is the lesson here? What can I take away from this experience to make me better?” Tenants from Hell will cost you money. Hopefully you gave yourself a nice cushion when you bought the rental property so you can absorb the cost without going broke. Most real estate agents will tell you to set aside 10% of your gross rents to cover the cost of vacancies and repairs. H. Roger Neal, my first landlord guru, says set aside 30%. I go with Neal. That way, when I’m writing the checks to clean up the mess after a Tenant from Hell experience, I can just shake my head and think of the money as college tuition for The School of Hard Knocks. And never, ever give up.
The first story I’ll tell you happened just a few weeks ago. And it made me think about giving up.
The great American Red Cross scam
This one made me really question my faith in humanity as a whole. I mean, who does this???
We began working with a very smart, streetwise property manager, a licensed real estate professional who is a landlord herself and has been for several years. I think the world of her. I still do, by the way. This wasn’t her fault. What happened here blew me away, too.
Our manager showed one of our half-doubles to a couple who had been burned out of their home and was being helped by the American Red Cross. A few years ago, when we were self-managing I rented to another couple who were in this same situation and it worked out beautifully. So I thought nothing of approving it – sure, just get their paperwork and run their background and employment screening.
Their picture IDs had burned up in the fire, but their names and social security numbers were on the paperwork, and the background came back clean. The employment reference checked out. Our manager received a letter signed by the Red Cross social worker that stated the first month’s rent and security would be paid in full, and would be mailed. That’s the way it worked a few years ago with the other couple, so I green-lighted it.
They were moving in on the weekend the Peanuts movie came out. I point this out because the ensuing drama interfered with our family’s Sunday Funday plans. For this alone, I will never forgive these people.
The neighbors on the other half of the double-block had been there from our self-managing days, so they had my husband’s cell phone number. They started blowing it up that Sunday – these people are criminals, they can’t live here, this is not acceptable… ugh! My first thought was – they’ve been there less than 24 hours and they’re already dealing drugs and having wild parties, really? Or maybe you just like having the whole place to yourself, quiet without neighbors. That’s more likely! Boy am I sorry I ever thought that.
They told Steve they recognized the dog. What dog? The lease they signed was just the two of them, no pets, and no children either. Apparently there were going to be four kids living in this two bedroom half double. What the…?
It gets better.
Here’s why the neighbors recognized the dog. The dog was famous. A hero. Back in January there was a fire in Carbondale – and the TV news ran a heartwarming story about how this dog saved the family by waking everybody up so they could get out of the house. It’s the kind of story that sticks with you, especially if you’re and animal lover. I remember it myself.
The neighbors recognized the dog, then did a Google search for the news story. They recognized the couple from the news feed, and the names on the news were different from the names they gave us.
I pulled up the American Red Cross paperwork that had been scanned and e-mailed to me earlier in the week. I had only given it a passing glance on my smartphone when it came in. But this time I pulled it up on my 17-inch laptop screen and really scrutinized it. Could it have been faked? Yes. I called our manager – how did you get the paperwork, from the tenant, or was it faxed from Harrisburg directly to you? She got it from the tenant. But she called and spoke with the social worker. The employment reference checked out. We had been scammed. Quite elaborately!
We tried calling the new tenants – no answer on their cell phones. Steve called the Wilkes-Barre police, who told him to come in and fill out paperwork and they’d start an investigation Monday. But we weren’t waiting for that. Steve met the manager down at the rental – the tenants weren’t there – just the dog, barking away by himself in an empty house. They called the tenants one more time and left a message on their voicemail, addressing them by their real names – you have two hours to vacate or the dog is going to the SPCA and we’re screwing the doors shut. You don’t live here.
Self-Help Eviction – “You Can’t Do That!” Actually, there is a debate in legal circles as to whether a self-service eviction is illegal in Pennsylvania. Most say it is, you have to go through the magistrate and get an order of possession, and that is usually the way we do it. I’ve heard some debate that there really is no specific law outlawing a self-help eviction. But regardless of the law, we were doing one. We weren’t letting these identity thieves sit in our property. If they were willing to pull an elaborate scam like this who knows what else they were capable of?
I really wanted to be there, but I hung back with Savannah because I couldn’t put our little girl in a potentially dangerous situation. Our family Sunday was ruined. I texted the mom of one of her friends and asked if they wanted to go to the Peanuts movie with us. I had ground glass in my stomach, but there was nothing I could do. Steve and our manager would have to handle this. It was at this point I felt like giving it all up.
I called Steve when we got to the movie theater parking lot to get an update. The tenants had shown up – and I could hear the shouting match. “You can’t do this! We’ll sue!”
Here’s the thing – there was a lease signed. But the lease had names on it that were not the names of the people who were screaming at us. SO the identity theft victims may have had a case against us, but these criminals sure did not. As far as I’m concerned they were breaking into the apartment. Take the dog and leave now, or the dog goes to the pound.
They left with the dog. They never came back. I put the word out on Luzerne County Homes & Apartments Facebook page so other landlords would be on the lookout. Our manager notified the police and the Red Cross, not sure what if anything they were able to do. No one looks out for landlords, we have to look out for ourselves.
Steve made it to the Peanuts movie about a half-hour in. We were able to go out for pizza after. Our apartment has since been rented to (hopefully) some law-abiding tenants who are not identity thieves or charity scammers.
The sad thing is, we can’t step in to quickly help out displaced tenants after a fire anymore. Now we would need confirmation from an American Red Cross official in Harrisburg, and that could take days, maybe a week to work through the bureaucratic channels. When I rented to that couple on Grove St years ago, the process was simple. They showed me the paperwork, their backgrounds checked out and they moved right in. Of course their drivers licenses hadn’t burned up in the fire. What if they had? Well, because of the experience we just had with these identity thieves, we wouldn’t have been able to help them. At least not until they were issued new photo IDs, and that could take days, a week or more. Sorry, guys. Merry Christmas, too.
I think I’ll write a donation check to the American Red Cross at the end of the year. They do good work, and now their work just got harder.
Next week: Tenant Horror Stories: The Crazy Cat Lady. Every once in awhile you see a story on the news about a cat hoarder. Next week will be the reality show version!