Friday, August 31, 2012

Lessons From Rental Housing: Baptized In The Shit.

Since a lot of readers seem to like my stories about rental housing, I have decided to write a few more. Hopefully, there will be some knowledge gained from my somewhat limited experiences. If any of them can save someone from a bad deal, or give them some input and perspective on a problem that they may be facing, I'll be thrilled.

My first real experience being a landlord came on the third unit that I bought (having only my duplex up to that point). The dwelling was a townhouse that was just a touch under 1,400 square feet, had 3 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms, and was in decent shape. It was one of my favorite deals to negotiate, as it was a "for sale by owner" where the previous owner and I negotiated the deal over drinks at a Starbucks. The seller was a lady that reminded me a decent bit of my mom, and even made a comment at closing about how she wouldn't mind being able to call me her son. For the financial info on the property, I paid $35K in cash for a house that would produce an average of $600 a month in rent, less a $72 dollar per month HOA fee. Not too shabby when the HOA covers all exterior maintenance (including the roof) and does grounds keeping. Sure, the area was rough, but rough in Lexington, KY isn't THAT bad. Considering I was going to be able to leverage it up for $45K in just a few months, I was pretty excited about the whole deal... Geeze, I miss the bubble days in real estate!

I did a minimal amount of work to the place; as I recall, I basically just put in some smoke detectors, flushed the hot water heater, changed all the vent registers and oven pans, replaced a bad water shutoff, repaired some cabinets, and painted the place- even though it didn't need most of those items. I justified a lot of this stuff as an easy, quick, and a relatively cheap way of learning how to work on houses as I hadn't done too much of that before.

A few weeks later, I had my first tenants in the unit. They both worked at a Waffle House that was within walking distance and recently welcomed their first child to the world. One of their brothers was to occasionally stay there, as well as one of their mothers. A few days after signing the lease, I got a call that I have since become accustomed to getting: "Hey Jeff, um... we have a problem."

"Hey man, what's up?" I responded. I am sure that my voice was shaking as I had no idea what to expect... that said, I was kind of excited because I knew that I was not only going to learn something new from this, but also fix a problem.

"Well, our toilet is overflowing..." the distressed renter responded in his eastern Kentucky drawl.

"Have you tried plungering it?" I questioned.

Thankfully, he was well ahead of me on that: "Yeah, and it just keeps going. It's the one downstairs and it even overflows when you flush the one upstairs..."

I said "OK. I'll be over in a few minutes" and headed to the door.

When I got there, I quickly smelled that they weren't lying about the overflow. There was a flood  water and pieces of human waste all over the bathroom and the carpet around the room was soaked... About all I could think at the time was "Well, shit..." While totally out of frustration, but was wholly appropriate for the situation at hand.

First things first: I had to get the mess cleaned up so that I could get to work.

I didn't yet own a shop vac or a toilet auger, so I went to Home Depot and bought the biggest wet/dry shop vac I could find; I even learned from one of the guys there about how it's always a good idea to take the filter out when you use it for wet settings. I bought the cheapest toilet auger they had. Honestly that was a mistake, but is a story for a different time. For some reason the price to value I thought I was getting was better with the shop vac. I also bought a bottle of the most potent drain cleaner that  I could find. It had skulls and cross bones all over it which were coupled with a ton of warning labels and even came in a sealed bag; it was marketing at it's finest, because the same stuff that came in a gallon container and sat right next to it lacked the eye catching glitz of death. Reading the label, it had some concentrated lye in it, so, I knew it should be good. As a side note, you should ONLY use that stuff on plastic pipes and NEVER get a good or bad whiff of it- as accidentally I learned, it burns!

About an hour after I left the rental unit, I returned to set up my shop vac and started to clean up. After mopping the floor, I augured both toilets for good measure and found nothing. The tenants said that their kitchen sink was running slow as well, so I dumped the whole bottle of drain cleaner in it, which quickly solved that problem. I knew that due to the run of the pipes, that if there was a clog past what I augured, that the main line cleaner I purchased would likely take care of it. In any case, everything was working fine again, so I figured that everything was cool.

Having just spent a hair more than $100 bucks on tools and fixing my first problem call as a landlord, I felt pretty darned good about myself. I told the tenant that I would be back the next day to steam the carpets, as by that time, it was too late rent a carpet cleaner. Working the next day worked out well for me, as I didn't have school due to convenient scheduling. Plus, I figured that it would set up a good rapport with the tenant as it showed them that I didn't mind doing what was necessary to keep my house in good shape. I went home, probably celebrated by drinking a hands worth of Miller High Life, and eventually fell to sleep.

Early the next morning, I awoke to a frantic phone call... Apparently, the same problem was happening again and was even worse than before. "Shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!" I thought as I drove over to re-diagnose the problem. When I walked in the front door, the place reeked and the tenants were wearing looks on their faces that had their own unique scents as well... The carpet was soaked. Water was running in the kitchen from the laundry room where the washing machine's drain had been overflowing... Having just turned 22, I had no clue as to what in the hell I was going to do. I knew one thing though. I sure as hell wasn't going to call my older brother for one micron of input on this one. Historically, I had called him for minor stuff on my own house and was bound and determined to do this one on my own- I had to learn this stuff without having my hand held like some 5' 11'' child. This was vitally important to me to fix on my own.

As such, I decided to turn to my real Big Brother: Google. After about 30 minutes, I was all but sure that there were tree roots in the sewer line. Water Maples are not only all over the place (and now illegal to plant) in Lexington, but are also notorious for growing into sewer lines. I  have since heard a story about the dad of one of my friends (in one of the most hilarious cases of passive aggression I have ever heard) planting a water maple in the front yard of a house that he rented while in school, because his landlord was a jerk. As it turns out, that house is on my street and while it may have taken a few decades, it totally had to have the sewer line replaced as a result.

As best I could tell, I had 2 options. First, I could have a plumber come out, dig up the sewer line, and replace it with a new one. That didn't really appeal to me as I didn't comfortably have the cash to pay a few grand for the repair since I had just tapped most of it in buying the rental unit. I had access to various forms of credit, but any additional debt that I took on I wanted to be for the acquisition of additional income producing properties (I was negotiating and on contract to buy more). Option number 2 was to hope that the tree roots weren't that bad and get an electric eel with blade attachment to cut the roots out. The latter seemed much more appealing.

I called the tool rental shop down the road and found the equipment I needed- an hour, a few miles, and ~$45 later, I was back to the townhome to roll the dice. When I unloaded the eel, it sure was a lot more bulky and heavy than it looked at the rental store (where they also loaded it in my truck for me). I quickly found that it was impossible for one person to get the thing into the crawl space under the house, which was further complicated by having to down some steps that sat in the crawl space from the small and awkward entrance door. At this point, I wasn't even sure if the eel would fit through the hole that I had to work with, as I had never thought to measure anything. Eyeballing it, I thought I could squeeze it in. I had little choice in the matter, because I was worried that an extra 20-30 feet of pipe for the snake to to through (by say, taking up the toilet to run the line down) would render the cutting mechanism useless as you don't want a hole lot of give in the cable. I was again forced to leave, and went to get my room mate and bribe him for help.

Once back the the site, we did basically everything but lube the auger up to fit it through the crawl space door. Once down the steps, we set up the machine and ran a freshly bought extension cord to power it. I then took my band new Husky Pipe wrench in the dimly lit and musty smelling space and started to take off the clean-out to the main line. I could hear every clack of the wrench, every movement of the fitting, and every one of my nervous breaths echo off the plastic vapor barrier and cinder block walls. Every movement I made only delayed the shit storm that I knew was getting ready to happen.

Then, in a way that I don't think anyone has experienced since Moses collapsed the Red Sea on the Pharaoh's army, a flood of wastewater came gushing out of the pipe... My roommate jumped back and cupped his hand over mouth and nose- I couldn't tell if he was laughing or getting ready to puke. I just kind of stood there, as there was no escaping my fate. Ankle deep in shit, I said "Well Joe, this is the life that I have chosen... Let's do this."

We took the auger and ran it down the pipe several times, every once and a while, coming to what I thought was the clog. It took persistence, but eventually we hit it (it takes a little bit to differentiate the "feel" of hitting a clog from a turn or oddly joined union). We turned the eel on and put the cutting attachment to work.

A few minutes later, we pulled the line out and pulled off a fist to softball sized clump of roots. I threw them to the ground and we put the auger back in the pipe. A minute later: the same result. We ran it until there was nothing left. I reassembled the pipe and cleaned up the floor with my shop vac. We then lugged the electric eel back to my truck, I dropped my room mate off back at my duplex, and then went back to the house to clean carpets... at the time, I didn't realize how lucky I was they were such an ugly color of dark brown, otherwise, no matter how clean I got them (they and the padding came out clean enough to eat off of), they would have been stained and in need of replacement. Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good.

I got home after a trip to Lowe's where I bought some copper sulfate to put in the drain line hoping to kill any roots that I might have missed and to keep them from re-entering the pipe. Later, I found that I liked Root-X a lot better, as it fills the pipe with a coating of foam, rather than just scuttling along the bottom like the crystals of copper sulfate. I called the local dealer of Root-X and they were wanting something obscene, like $50 for a jar of the stuff. After some internet research, I found that Amazon was the place to get it.

That was one of the first times that I can remember thinking about how much money that I had just saved. If I had a plumber come out to look at the job, there is no way that they would have done what I did. I would have been out a few grand. Hell, plumbers generally don't even come out to so much as even look at a job unless you pay them more than I spent on the rental of the electric eel and carpet cleaner. Seeing this, it was evident that if I just had a willingness to do some minimal research, learn something new, and get a little bit (or, a lot) dirty, that I had a huge advantage over everybody else in my line of business. I had essentially just saved $2K, acquired some tools to keep and write off on my taxes, and learned a ton. Despite not getting paid, my time could easily be worth hundreds of dollars per working/researching hour... take that Wall Street!

It's been roughly 5 years since the incident and knock on wood, I have not had a single root related issue since. It probably doesn't hurt that the son of a bitch tree that caused the problem got cut down a few years ago by the HOA as well, per my request.

Regardless, I will never forget what I affectionately refer to, as my "baptism in the shit."

1 comment:

Erica Kinkead said...

That was some funny shit! Thanks for sharing.