How To Survive A Terrifying Business

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.

William Waterway January 23, 2012 at 01:37 PM
Holly - your stories are so well written - I'm tempted to rent a house from you // go to a commemorative Dr. Tucker party // complain // moan and groan // call you at 2 AM because the water in my tea pot isn't boiling fast enough // cancel my rental at the last minute // maybe this way - I can be assured to appear as a miasma-suffering character in one of your future stories.
Wendy Arnell Brophy January 23, 2012 at 01:51 PM
Nice piece Holly!
Jason Peringer January 23, 2012 at 02:39 PM
I could list reasons why my clients have given for being late or missing their scheduled appointments, but I need that last remaining crumb of sanity in January. Besides, their excuses were as lame as those you chronicled above.
Betty Burton January 23, 2012 at 03:11 PM
Glad I'm back on Patch so I can read your columns. For some unknown reason Patch stopped coming to my email and no matter how many times I sent the robot a request to sign me up, the news never arrived in my little inbox. Of course, I would never think to google it. Some miracle worker at Patch fixed it Friday. Never in my widest dreams would I have had a job like yours. The complaints I receive, and they are few and far between, are pretty mundane and easy to settle. Hmmm, that sounded like I do a perfect job.not so, just a different group of people. But I do love reading about your adventures. I'm glad to be back.
Mathea Morais (Editor) January 23, 2012 at 03:17 PM
So glad they fixed it for you Betty!
joy January 23, 2012 at 03:48 PM
Mo Man January 23, 2012 at 08:20 PM
while off island one summer, my tenant called to advise a lightbulb over the sink was out, must be replaced- and HE was not about to replace it.. one caretaker and $40 later, he got his new lightbulb. Think I'm happy to be out of the rental business?
Basia Zaidan January 25, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Laughed until I cried! And I thought I had some doozies! Thanks so much for making my day.
Basia Zaidan January 25, 2012 at 05:36 PM
I 'feel' you....especially the comment about January....LOL.
Basia Zaidan January 25, 2012 at 05:40 PM
I'll look forward to reading her story about you!
Holly Nadler January 26, 2012 at 02:36 PM
I had a homeowner who lived in the shed behind her East Chop waterfront house, and none of her tenants were ever aware of her being there. She slept under a baby grand piano and softly composed songs in the dead of night.
Michael West June 01, 2013 at 12:29 PM
What about the tenant who loved it so much here that she and her brood refused to leave when thir rental was up?
Holly Nadler June 01, 2013 at 01:04 PM
Michael, did that really happen?! Actually, it makes a weird sort of sense, doesn't it? If you find perfect happiness somewhere, then, by all means, STAY!
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) June 03, 2013 at 10:01 AM
It has happened: An attorney friend in Edgartown recently forwarded info on a case in which it was decided, according to Lawyers Weekly, that "Where an Edgartown landlord was awarded possession and $5,550 in damages, the judgment should be upheld despite her contention that the evidence before the trial judge compelled an award of $23,200 in damages." Apparently the landlady wanted to be made good on lost rental income she could have had if the tenants had moved out on time, but couldn't prove that she had an agreement for a subsequent rental at that rate. Great column, Holly.
Tot Balay June 03, 2013 at 02:43 PM
Oh, my. Just on my own anecdotal evidence, I will tell you that tenants who come through rental agents OFTEN have problems and unrealistic demands. I do a lot of my own renting at our place in Edgartown, and the folks who come to us through the website where we're self-listed are almost uniformly polite, appreciative, can-do and go-with-the-flow people. Coincidence? I dunno. But I do have huge respect for the hard-working rental agents who have to mediate these situations!


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