Dan and Lara Carroll spent months fixing up a single-family home they’d purchased from Dan’s mother’s estate. They installed new appliances, upgraded the HVAC system and wiring and transformed the modest, fenced backyard into a relaxing, low-maintenance landscape. The home had previously been retrofitted with ADA-compliant features, and the couple decided that their ideal tenant would be an active senior.
They placed an ad online, narrowed the candidates to two favorites, and after running a cursory background check and placing a couple calls to check references, they settled on a widow in her late 70s who moved to the area to be closer to her adult son’s family. (We’ll call her “Mrs. Jones”.)
“She was a very nice lady, the type to dress nicely just to go to the corner store,” said Lara Carroll. “Her husband had passed away the year before, she’d sold their home and, from what we could tell, her affairs were in order. Solid credit, good personal references—though no recent rental history, of course—and she clearly had a sense of dignity and self-respect. We were glad to have her sign a lease and happy that we were able to provide a well-equipped and safe place for her to live.”
The lease the tenant signed was a standard form the couple had downloaded from the internet.
Everything went well for the first several months. Dan and Lara went by for scheduled yard maintenance and normal repairs, and when they did, the tenant would make a point to be around. “I think she liked the company,” Dan said. “She wasn’t seeing her son as much as she had expected, but you know how Moms complain that they never see enough of their kids.”
The Carrolls didn’t mind handling some of the maintenance tasks typically expected of tenants, and Mrs. Jones welcomed the monthly appointments when Dan or Lara would change the furnace filter, clean gutters or maintain the grounds. Mrs. Jones kept a spotless house, but she was gradually having mobility issues. “Nothing serious; she kept a cane handy, and had some minor tremors, but we thought she had years of independence ahead of her,” said Lara. “We really enjoyed her, and felt good about being able to keep an eye on her.” She added that they had the extra benefit of keeping an eye on the property and staying ahead of household problems before they could get worse. “We’d get a check from her by the first of each month, and we’d see her on the Saturday closest to the 15th. We assumed she checked in with her family as well.”
One day, when Lara called to confirm what had become a routine monthly visit, a man answered the phone. He introduced himself as Tom, Mrs. Smith’s son, and he told Mrs. Carroll that his mother was out. After Lara asked Tom to remind his mother of their standing visit, this time to change out the water and furnace filters, there was an awkward silence. “He then said, ‘no, we’re good, I can do it, but thanks.” He then hung up. Two weeks later, Mrs. Smith’s check failed to arrive.
Thus began the Carroll’s nightmare. Mrs. Smith’s landline was disconnected when they called to ask about the late payment, and when they drove by to check on her, nobody answered the door, but there was a utility trailer parked in the driveway, and Mrs. Carroll’s Toyota was parked on the curb with a “For Sale” sign in the window. The Carroll’s recorded the unfamiliar number and called. Tom answered, and then hung up when Dan identified himself.
That night, the Carrolls decided to call the police and request a welfare check. They were concerned about Mrs. Smith and wanted to be certain that the person who called himself “Tom” was, indeed, her son. The police got back in touch with the Carrolls and confirmed his identity. The police said Mrs. Carroll was in the hospital and that the son was house-sitting, and that he’d look after his mother when she was discharged. However, due to patient confidentiality, the officer couldn’t disclose the name of the hospital caring for Mrs. Smith or her condition.
“We didn’t put much thought into the late check at that point. Of course, Mrs. Smith was dealing with health issues, and we didn’t know if Tom had access to her accounts to pay her bills.”
Time went on, though, and when the next check never arrived, and Tom wouldn’t take their calls, the Carrolls became concerned. They drove by to put a 24-hour inspection notice on the front door but when the next day came, the locks were changed and nobody answered. Mrs. Smith’s Toyota was gone, and when the Carrolls peeked in through a window, they noticed that many of her expensive furniture pieces were gone, as well. “Her china cabinet…gone. Artwork…gone. We couldn’t see much from the front window, but we saw enough to realize something was wrong.”
The couple sought out an attorney who advised that they begin the eviction process. “We didn’t know what to do. We figured Mrs. Smith was in long-term care for an illness but didn’t know if she’d be coming back, but her son wasn’t paying the bills. We didn’t want her to be stranded when and if she was discharged.”
Finally, after three months and not getting any help from the police, the Carrolls went ahead with eviction. During this time, Tom filed claims that the landlords were wrongfully evicting a disabled senior and her caregiver, a military veteran to boot. It took four more months of unpaid rent and the cost of investigative services to discover that Tom had separated from his family, moved his mother into a low-income convalescent facility after she broke a hip, and moved himself into the house. When the Carrolls finally gained access after fighting harassment and wrongful eviction claims, costing them thousands of dollars in legal fees, they discovered that Tom had sold all his mother’s belongings, the new appliances belonging to the Carrolls, and had allowed his dog to destroy the backyard. He’d convinced his mother to make him power of attorney and was proceeding to blow through her nest egg.
“The place was a mess,” said Dan. “We paid for garbage pickup, but he’d let everything pile up in the garage, and we had a huge pest problem that carried over into the neighboring property. He’d burned papers and trash in the fireplace at one point without opening the flue, knocked down all the fire and carbon monoxide detectors, and there was soot all over the living room. From the stacked up recycling, we could tell his judgment was impaired by an alcohol addiction.”
Looking back, the Carrolls realized that they should have looked deeper into Mrs. Smith’s background, asking her to name any family members who might spend considerable time at the property, and to ask references about potential issues with relatives. “Her son had a pretty nasty history, but we’d never guess that from meeting his mother.”
Had the lease specified time limits on friend and family visits, the Carrolls might have had more leverage to get Tom out sooner.
Worse, the Carrolls hadn’t photographed the new appliances or landscaping after it had been installed. They’d assumed the receipts would have been appropriate. Neither did they have adequate photographs of the house before Mrs. Smith took occupancy. “That hurt us in pursuing action against Tom, and it made dealing with our insurance nearly unbearable.”
Had the Carrolls required that Mrs. Smith take out a renter’s policy, they might have had more protection.
“Our lawyer wasn’t up to speed on the laws in our city concerning tenant rights, either,” Lara Carroll said. “We had to interview several real estate attorneys before finding the right one for our situation, and that took a lot of time and frustration.”
The Carrolls regret a lot during their first foray into managing their own rental, but what they regret the most is losing touch with Mrs. Smith. “Nobody in her family was able to come forward to contest Tom’s competence as her Power of Attorney. Technically, we can’t even visit her, on his instructions, and we know he doesn’t care about her. It’s so sad.”
Eventually, the couple managed to repair the house and get it back on the rental market, this time with the help of a property manager licensed by Property Management Pros. Professional property managers have the experience and training to understand local laws regarding eviction and welfare checks. In addition, they have access to more detailed lease and rental contracts and know how to properly and thoroughly screen prospective renters to avoid the kinds of problems Mrs. Smith’s son caused the Carrolls.
With inventory checklists and software, professional property managers are better equipped to record property condition before, during and after tenancy, making recovery through litigation or insurance far easier.
“The commission we pay now more than makes up for the stress and anxiety involved with managing our own property,” said Lara Carroll. “We now have two more rental properties that cater to independent seniors and disabled veterans, and while we’re still free to be as involved as we like in the process, they keep us from making mistakes based on emotion.”
For more information on the services provided by Property Management Pros, contact us. We can help you earn the most returns from your income property while protecting you from the financial and emotional risks involved.