The house looked perfect. It sat on a tidy little lawn with a white picket fence, less than a mile from the beach. My new landlord explained that I would have an upstairs bedroom with a view of the leafy neighborhood (score!) and all the bedrooms came with a unique lock and key.
This was the first warning sign. The second sign was ridiculously low rent and oh, yes, the fact that he lived in the backyard.
“Oh, and one more thing,” he added, as I handed him my security deposit. “I’ll need you to sign something.”
“It’s a set of house rules. That you’ll keep the kitchen clean, that sort of thing. That I’m allowed to come over whenever I want, without any kind of notice.”
“Sure, no problem!”
It might be a good time to mention that this was my first time finding a house after college, and I didn’t know the creepy telltale signs of a nest of total weirdos. The landlord, Ted*, was a quiet man who twitched a little bit as he showed me around the house. He never made eye contact. His voice was low and calm, and he gifted me a few strange smiles.
The other roommates weren’t home when I got the interview, but if I had met them, I might have been thrown off by the fact that we were all brand new to the house.
Ted had owned the house for at least 20 years, and had been renting it out for quite some time. There were five rooms in total, and four of them had been cycled through in the last month.
The fifth and final room belonged to Randall*. Randall isn’t his real name. None of these names are real. I picked Randall because it’s the creepiest name I can think of (he had a creepy name), and I want to do Randall justice.
Randall was the only one who wasn’t brand new to the house; he had been living there for four years. All the tenants outside of Randall was in their early 20s, but Randall was 42.
After having been fired from a tech company in the nebulous past, Randall had decided to camp at home and Photoshop his face onto pictures of fruit and animals.
I should add that he was bald with a ponytail (last haircut sometime in the early nineties, by his own admission), wore American flag pants around the house, and never went outdoors. I caught him eating my unflavored yogurt straight from the carton once.
He watched both episodes of Mad Money! on television every day (the evening show is just a repeat of the morning version), effectively preventing anyone else from using the living room. Once, he rearranged the furniture in my room when I wasn’t home. This is not a joke. That’s why I started locking my bedroom.
Randall might have been creepy, but he was mostly harmless. He wasn’t the worst roommate in the house, which might come as a surprise, but Randall mostly kept to himself. The worst roommate was actually Liza*, a stoner barista who stole things from everyone in the house and refused to clean up after herself.
At first, Liza just seemed like a friendly hippie. She had a sweet Southern drawl, smoked way too much pot, and came home on her lunch breaks to get drunk.
She was surprisingly open about her past, though, which made me a little bit uncomfortable. Sometimes I would walk into my bedroom and find her sitting on my bed, teary-eyed and stoned, and sit there for an hour listening to her cry about her father, a crack addict, or her boyfriend, who was cheating on her.
I felt bad for the girl. At 19, she was the youngest member of the household, and since I was in a bad relationship, too, I felt like we should stick together.
After finding a few of my things in Liza’s room (she’d invited me in for a chat), however, I gently confronted her. Things soured between us real quick. Liza had always managed to convey a harmless stoner demeanor that never really wavered -- “I’m gonna go to bed, y’all, or else I might turn into a pumpkin!” -- since she was never really sober.
I was good friends with one of the other roommates, and she quietly mentioned that Liza had been talking shit about me behind my back. Since Liza was so young, and going through so much crap in her personal life, I decided not to take it personally, but decided it would be best to start avoiding her.
For the first few weeks, I thought the only problem with the cute little house was obnoxious roommates, Liza being the worst of them.
Randall was odd, but at least he wasn’t aggressive. He didn’t express very much emotion at all, so I was surprised to learn that he really hated Ted. It took me a few weeks to figure out why, but when I started noticing Ted’s little quirks, I quickly realized why Randall disliked him so much.
Since new tenants were forced to allow Ted to come over whenever he wanted, he did just that. His visits were odd and unpredictable, with varying purposes. Sometimes he would appear in the kitchen and tell us not to wear our shoes in the house. Other times he would materialize in the living room and cough, then point out a dish sitting in the sink.
“I just used that, I’m still eating my dinner.”
“I need you to clean it right now.”
Sometimes we could feel Ted’s presence without actually seeing him. I can mention at least three occasions when I went to the bathroom, wanting to take a shower before work, and found a note pinned to the door. BATHROOM CLOSED, I PAINTED EVERYTHING. COME BACK TOMORROW.
And then there were The Rules. While I had originally thought that Ted’s list of rules was a quiet suggestion for how we coexisted amongst each other, I came to understand over the first few months that it was in fact much more rigid than that, and that Ted’s presence was much more invasive and commandeering than I had guessed.
One of Ted’s rules was about guests. We weren’t allowed to have more than two guests in the house at a time (this was all inclusive; only two non-residents were allowed to visit at a time, regardless of who had invited them). We were also not supposed to use more than two nights a month for overnight stays, which was really awkward, since I had a long-distance boyfriend.
A month after I moved in, some friends asked if we could get together for a potluck. I had held potlucks on a regular basis during college, and thought that it would be fun. Past potlucks had always been reasonably quiet and ended at an early hour, and I didn’t see why this one should be different.
This was perhaps the only time I broke one of Ted’s rules -- despite my agreement on Ted’s list of rules, I invited over six friends and we all started mingling in the kitchen.
I figured that the rules were more loose guidelines, and since the other tenants of the house were planning to join the potluck, I thought it would be fine. Everything was fine until one of my friends pulled me aside, ashen-faced, and said that a strange man had appeared in the backyard, wanting to talk to me.
I went out back to find Ted, shaking with incoherent rage, fists curled up.
“Tell your friends to leave,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We weren’t planning on staying too long.”
“Tell them to leave,” he repeated. “You will never do this again.”
The polite facade was gone, and our relationship became extremely uncomfortable. I would come home from work and find that Ted had purged the cabinets of everyone’s personal cups and plates, with a sign directing us to choose what we wanted, because he was going to throw everything else away.
“Tonight, if possible,” the note read, and sure enough, he got rid of everything the next morning.
When the weather turned cold, I bought an expensive travel mug, but it didn’t last very long. It went missing, and when I asked Ted if had seen it, he shrugged and walked out of the room. I found it sitting behind the recycling bin, under the sink. Thanks, Ted.
Ted’s original list of rules was not enough to keep us in line, apparently, because he had a bulletin board where he frequently posted messages directed toward the members of the house. He would come stalking through the house (unannounced, at all times of the day) and post angry missives printed in wavering ink.
“REMEMBER RULE #7,” one would read. “NO GUESTS ALLOWED FOR MORE THAN TWO DAYS!” or “DISHES MUST BE CLEANED AND PUT AWAY IMMEDIATELY!!!!”
The dishes were the crux of all of the problems in the house. Liza was the main source of the problem -- she worked odd hours and hated cleaning up after herself. She would come home from work mid-afternoon, blaze up a joint, make herself a variety of snacks and head upstairs to consume her homemade buffet. Her dishes took days to reappear, and when they did, they would be covered in gluey barbecue sauce or baked on cheese.
Liza never took responsibility for her dishes, and when they wound up in the sink, Ted was always furious. His bursts of anger were reliable, strange, frightening and frequent. His visits to the house were unpredictable, though you could count on him to appear at least once a day.
As the thin veneer of politeness vanished, Ted started showing up for these visits half-dressed, sometimes wearing nothing more than a pair of ill-fitting stained underwear.
The underwear sounds bad, but the dish situation was the final straw that drove me out of the house. When Ted didn’t feel like confronting someone, he would have his property manager do it for him.
Ted’s property manager, Ray*, was a gentle man who shared Ted’s little cottage in the backyard. He wasn’t paid for his position, choosing instead to live rent-free and share meals with Ted.
It took me a while to figure out that Liza was blaming me for the dishes. Since I was never home (and therefore rarely saw Ted), I missed the daily interrogations he instituted as an attempt to cut back on the dish problem. It was easy for Liza to pin the dishes on me, since I wasn’t there to defend myself.
On a daily basis, Ray would ask me to come and sit in the back house with him for a chat. He would show me the muscular degeneration in his thumbs and explained that every time I didn’t do a dish, he would have to do it for me.
“My hands don’t work as well as yours,” he would say. “Please think of me when you don’t do your dishes.”
“They’re not my dishes, Ray.”
“I understand. I understand what you’re saying. I’ve been on pills and weird diets for the last five years. I might not have another five years. Think of me, please.”
All told, I lived in the house for eight months. It seems like a ridiculously long time for such a hell-hole, but it’s difficult to find a new place when you work three jobs. The rent was better than anything else I could find on Craigslist, and since I didn’t have a car, it was tough to move my furniture.
I did move out eventually, though, and wound up in a cute little Victorian house in the nicest part of town. My rent was only $100 more per month, and my landlord was awesome. I wish that I had made the effort to move out sooner, but given all the circumstances in my life back then, I understand why it wasn’t possible.
The best advice I can give any tenant is to be wary of signing anything without being fully committed to the odd consequences, and be very careful about living so close to your landlord!