A few years ago, my husband and I were living in a tiny motel room with our two-year-old daughter. I was six months pregnant and we had just made a cross-country move for my husband’s new apprenticeship. We rented the room for a month while searching for a place to live. The selection was incredibly scarce and we didn't make very much money, so we were very limited.
A week before our month was up, I found the perfect place. It seemed too good to be true: a four-bedroom house on 10 acres for a mere $500 a month, utilities included.
Motel life was making us batty. We had few possessions with us; the rest were packed away in my in-law’s basement. We wanted nothing more than to feel settled and the motel room was a constant reminder that we were anything but.
So when the “too good to be true” house showed up, we were too excited to be skeptical. At first.
My husband called to get more information. The landlord wanted his house in good hands. He wanted someone who wouldn't be afraid to fix the small things and take care of his house. A friendly neighbor was a contractor and was lined up to make larger repairs.
Al wasn't certain if he would ever return, but had raised a family in this house and didn't want to see it run into the ground. If his plans worked out, he said, perhaps we would even be able to sort out a land contract with him. In small-town America, this all made good sense and it seemed like we saw eye-to-eye.
An hour after the phone call, we were standing in Al’s living room. The butterflies began. I misinterpreted them as my baby moving around in my belly. Al wasn’t present — in his place a younger man. In the corner was a pile of blankets and a half-dying dog. The house was freezing cold.
The man half-looked up from his show and presented a vague story about his mother’s recent death and of Al taking him in. The two of them were moving to Florida to start a new chapter in their lives.
“There are over a dozen people wanting to come see the house,” he said. If we wanted it, we’d have to square things away that very night.
After almost month in the motel, we loved the idea of having so much space. The house was freaking enormous and the 10 acres of land was a huge draw for us. We were stunned at the low price — it was the cheapest we had found, costing the same as the studio motel room had. We loved that we wouldn't have to call anyone for the small fixes since we are both very hands-on.
We wanted to show Al how serious we were, so we offered eight months of rent up front. I know how ridiculous that sounds now, but we were desperate, the property was perfect, and the rental terms were just right for us.
Let this be a lesson to you: Never offer this many months of rent to anyone at one time. Ever.
That evening, we were in bliss. We looked over the photos that I had taken. We talked about the amazing yard for our daughter, the 10 acres that we could walk and explore, and the wonderful location. But then, as everyone else slept, my worries crept in with a vengeance. Why hadn’t we waited to meet the landlord before giving up that much money and signing a contract? Was Al real? Who was this dude who took all of our money? Would we ever get the keys? We were set to meet the landlord the very next day, but what if Al was just gone?
The next day I nervously waited for my husband to get out of work so that we could drive out to meet Al. I had barely slept the night before and spewed out emails to two of my closest friends while fretting the hours away. If I could just meet Al, I told them, I’m sure I’ll feel better about the whole thing.
Al was a strange gentleman with an affinity for The Three Stooges. He reminded me of my quirky uncle, and so my trust in him was probably based more on that fact than anything else. He seemed kind and gentle, but broken.
Recently divorced, Al wanted to start a new life where he wouldn’t run into his ex. He told us he’d be leaving a few things behind: pots and pans and a some things that he wouldn’t need to take with him. He reminded us that that the price was low because he didn’t really want to take the time to do a deep cleaning of the place and we would be fixing the small repairs. We could paint it up if we wanted to make it feel like home.
I left that night feeling a bit more at ease, but we wouldn’t receive keys for a few more days since they weren’t leaving town immediately. Wait wait wait. Worry worry worry.
But then, it happened. We got the keys. They opened the doors.
The place was obliterated. In the oven’s place was a gaping hole. The rest of the house looked as if Al had gotten bored with packing and gave up. Cupboards were well stocked, clothes were still hanging in the closets. Towels, soap, pots, pans. Multiple toaster ovens. Homemade gifts from his daughter.
Al had been a butcher, and left lots of crazy butcherman things: two-foot-long knives, meat grinders, a gallon of liquid smoke. There were fingernail clippers — dozens of fingernail clippers. His computer. Multiple bottles of wart remover. Important paperwork. Two-week expired milk.
The fugly fuschia carpeting, which covered the entirety of the floors (even the bathrooms), was browned under the rugs that had been laid to try and hide the stains. A thick film of dog hair covered everything. The toilets were covered in piss. Bathtubs browned. Couches and chairs were left behind, stained in unmentionable ways. Yes, we had known that Al wasn’t going to “deep clean” for us, but we did expect a bit more effort on his part.
But, no matter.
We buckled down and started cleaning. It took a solid week, but when we were done the place looked as spectacular as a fugly fuschia carpeted house could look. The newly painted walls made it feel pretty awesome. We used one of the rooms to store everything Al had left behind. The room was packed to the gills, but when we closed the door we could almost forget the weirdness of the situation.
We settled in. Everything was running smoothly, until it wasn’t.
Al had agreed to pay everything, including the Internet bill, but one by one, utilities began turning off. We gave him a call to sort things out. Surprise surprise, his phone didn’t work. As I called the utility companies, I found out that he owed them all exorbitant amounts of money.
Neighbors began showing up at the door, demanding money from him. When I explained the situation, they calmed down. We agreed to let each other know if we found out his true contact information.
In July, two months after we moved in, I was on my way to my eight-month prenatal appointment. A paper fluttered down from the door as I opened it, reading, “NOTICE OF MORTGAGE FORECLOSURE SALE.”
I was in no state to move again, but was relieved to know that I wasn’t batshit crazy back when I questioned this dude and his intentions.
At this point I started researching our rights as renters. I googled “landlord foreclosure tenant rights,” and realized we probably weren’t in too bad a situation. We wouldn't end up homeless. We then spoke to the bank who had posted the notice and explained our situation. We told them how much money we had given Al and that we were technically renters until the end of December. They granted us that time to live in the house and find a new living situation. Perfect.
But then things got even weirder. One of the neighbors who had stopped by for money came by to see if I had any updates on Al. I told him no, but explained our new foreclosure situation.
Jeff, the neighbor, informed us that Al had stopped by his house recently and admitted his Florida trip didn’t work out and he had no place to stay. His new plan was to come see if we’d allow him to live in the back room of our house...his house, or if we thought that too imposing, the shed out back.
Jeff told Al he was out of his mind, so we thankfully never saw him, except for that one time that I *know* I saw him at the grocery store.
The months plodded forward. We welcomed our second daughter. I became increasingly paranoid. Everything I knew about Al pointed to an unstable personality. His ex-butcher status didn't exactly put my fears at ease. I spent the majority of my days alone in the home with my daughters and images of Al showing up on my doorstep invaded my head.
We knew we had to get out. We began searching for a home to buy — there was no way we were going to deal with landlords ever again.
Jeff came by one blustery afternoon to check in on us. He was a good, friendly neighbor and it was nice to have him to fill us in on the news. This time it was huge: Al had tried and failed to commit suicide. I started feeling bad for the guy, but knew that we needed to get out of this crazy situation.
After many months of searching, we found the perfect house, far, far away from Al’s. We packed our things and got the hell out of Dodge as fast as we could, and never looked back.
In the end we truly lucked out. Aside from a few larger repairs and unexpectedly paying for our own utilities, the deal wasn’t that bad. We were fortunate that the bank allowed us to stay our entire rental period and know they would have allowed us to stay far longer had we needed.
We really did love the access to the 10 acres of land, and living in such a spacious house was very nice. More importantly, we were able to learn the area well enough to find out where we truly wanted to live.
My one regret is never getting the chance to thank Jeff. Not only did he regularly fill us in on the stories of our crazy landlord, but he kept Al from trying to live with us which undoubtedly would have thrown me over the edge.
Perhaps if we had taken the time to talk to Jeff before signing the contract, I never would have had this crazy story to tell.