Ever hear of the family who moved after the Galveston flood to San Francisco just in time for the big earthquake? Let me tell you, that kind of upheaval doesn’t compare -- doesn't even come close! -- to what happened to me back in the 90s when I worked as a real estate agent on Martha’s Vineyard with a specialty in summer rentals.
Statistics from the annals of psychology should help us here. The number of obstreperous-verging-on-psychotic whiners in the human population is calculated at roughly 3 – 4%. Persons with borderline obnoxiousness disorders account for another 5 – 6%.
You see where I’m going here? In a trade that forces you to deal with the public, particularly a lot of the public during the course of a hot and heavy summer at a resort destination, a very desirable one, we might add, a small but virulent percentage of this public is likely to be either 1) difficult, 2) imbecilic or 3) scary, or all of the above.
Take my tenant (please!) in Aquinnah who phoned to complain that his sheets didn’t match. Or the single dad from Canada who demanded a new house after his four year-old daughter glimpsed a spider in the bathtub (what highly-Melathion-sprayed bubble did she live in?!). A city dude renting a modern manor on the shores of Sengekontackett, alarmed that the tides, twice in every 24-hour cycle, stole half his beach, and why had no one warned him this would occur?
And it wasn’t only tenants who drove us bonkers. Homeowners also send real estate agents screaming from the office: The lady with the beach house on Chappy who kept her newly milled coffin – for future use -- under a high antique bed. The (usually single male) landlords who’d never met a sink they’d ever cleaned. The woman with the old crumbling castle in East Chop who rang me up to leverage another $1750 from her tenants the evening before they moved in!
And then there were the usual five-alarm disasters: Two sets of lease-holders, sixteen in one party, eighteen in the other, arrived to move in to a single-family mansion. Oops!
Sometimes you failed to grasp what was genuinely wrong with a rental, even if you had at your disposal a consulting staff of Dr. Freud, all nine supreme court justices, Martha Stewart as a taste arbiter, and the Dali Lami for questions germane to the human heart. You had a seemingly sane couple or family heading into one of your quaintest rentals, with enough antiques and choice textiles to fill the pages of Home & Garden and yet . . . your tenants, or at least one of them (usually the one who’d transacted the rental over the phone back in January and who was now being guilt-tripped by some demonic pip in the party), was deeply disgruntled without being able to elucidate exactly why.
“Well, there’s rust under the refrigerator door.” Huh? Who scrunches his head low enough to peer down there? “One of the fourteen Windsor chairs around the dining room table is crooked.” A tragedy, for sure. “We thought this place would project out over the surf, the way our house does in Malibu.” Hmm, don’t know if we can pack up and move your cottage closer to the beach before this weekend...
And then a kindly rental agent in London, England – a woman whose clients vacationed in Tuscany or the South of France – gave me an insight. “When the complaint is vague and the house is wonderful, the problem is not with the rental, it’s with the people and the extent to which they’re not getting along. It’s easier to blame the house.”
I cast my mind back ... to the honeymoon couple from Vegas who refused to spend even a night in a romantic cottage with a terrace over a private beach ... to the workaholic businessman who’d lavished 10K for two weeks in an all-windows-all-the-time compound on the Lagoon to make it up to his wife that he was never home ... to the young woman whose mother-in-law hated the exquisitely refurbished antique farmhouse on Edgartown’s north shore
Checking off quick diagnoses, I determined:
Vegas couple: she had secretly hoped for mirrors over the bed and, lacking them was, justifiably, being a bitch about it.
Type A businessman: even in a 5-thou-a-week rental, he wasn’t home to his wife.
Daughter-in-law: hubby’s got to tell his folks to book their own vacation.
Once I had that figured out, I was tempted to rifle through old cardboard boxes of rental folders (yep, this was all in the day before a decade’s worth of rentals could be stored in a file smaller than a sugar cube.) Maybe each year I could flip back to rentals conducted, oh let’s say, three years’ previous, and check up on folks?
Imagine calling the Vegas bridegroom: “Just curious: whatever happened to your new wife who hated the honeymoon hideaway? Oh, you flew out in separate planes heading to opposite hemispheres? Gee, that’s too bad. You need something for yourself this summer?”
But instead of conducting my own truth and reconciliation process, I left the rental biz to comrades with thicker skin. And don’t knock it. This time of year, rental agents are the only workers on Martha’s Vineyard pulling in any serious dough.
It’s just ... if you run into any of them next summer, it would be a lovely gesture to buy them drinks. They’ll need them. You pay. They're broke. And that 8-10% is giving them a hard time.