So Ya Wanna Be a Landlady?


SOMETIMES IT’S GOOD. When all the rent checks roll in promptly on the first of the month, and there’s a long spell without broken appliances or electrical issues or, God forbid, rats.

Sometimes it sucks. I must make it look easy, because recently someone said to me, don’t you ever have plumbing problems or roof leaks?

Of course. All the time. And worse. Old buildings need frequent maintenance and repair. We’ve had flooded basements and frozen pipes. A few years ago, we rebuilt the entire back wall of our 180-year-old building in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. The rear facade was peeling away, chunks of brick and window lintel falling into the backyard. We took out a home equity line of credit and hired an engineer and a contractor, who set up scaffolding, draped the building in blue tarp, and rebuilt the back wall brick by brick, replacing all the windows. All the tenants lived through it, by their choice (crazy!)

Mostly I love being a landlady, though the word suggests fuzzy slippers, hair rollers, and a feather duster. Things happen, and I address them. Quickly. I want my tenants to pay the rent lickety-split, so I fix things lickety-split. I’m getting better at it as I get older, partly out of a kind of maternal instinct. I have mostly youngish tenants, and I want them to have a nice place to live. So I try to take good care of them.

Right now the flagship of my real estate empire, a four-story 1850s mews house in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, is vacant. The last tenants, a Hollywood screenwriter who set up shop there with his family while working on a TV show, decamped last week, leaving behind a lot of garbage and dog damage, along with unopened bottles of very good vodka and wine and an array of cooking pots better than the ones I have. (Departing tenants leave very strange things. One woman left her parents’ wedding album and some gold jewelry.)

I spent all day yesterday, from 8:30AM to 5PM, taming the jungle that is the back garden in Cobble Hill and getting the place ready for the painters, who started today, and the housecleaner, who will follow the painters. I have the place listed with six real-estate brokers.

It makes me sad to see that house, where we lived for 20 years and raised our kids, empty. Soon it will be another family’s temporary home. They’ll live in it for a while and then move on.

I may not live there any more, but it’s still my house. I can’t imagine anyone loving it as much as I do.


11 thoughts on “So Ya Wanna Be a Landlady?

  1. I’m more curious about the fact that you are a property owner and a tenant.

    I’m pretty sure it’s helped to inform your landlady role, but I’ve never observed that before.

  2. Your tenants are lucky to have you as their landlady. You care so much about your houses & the well being of the tenants.

  3. Wherever I hang my hat is home. I’ve been on both sides of the fence – sometimes it makes more sense, numbers-wise, to rent. It’s also a question of an appropriate apartment being available. When I’m a tenant, I try to be a *dream* tenant. But whether I own it or am renting it doesn’t really make much difference in terms of how ‘at home’ I feel in a place — I’ve discovered that over the years.

  4. Great post, I loved reading this.

    Did you ever findout why the woman left behind her parents wedding album and jewelry? Almost like she was closing the door on her past? I’m so intrigued by that. Eh, maybe I’m thinking too much into it. Maybe she was just hairbrained and meant to carry it out with her and spaced on it.

    What do I know?

  5. I think she meant to leave it behind, as you put it, as a way of ‘closing the door on her past.’ The place was knee-deep in left-behind stuff, including dozens & dozens of boxes of new, unopened toy dolls and games, and just plain garbage. I’ve gotten a lot more careful about choosing tenants since;-)

  6. We just closed on our rowhome in Newark and are in the process of renovating the basement. It’s a small studio apartment zoned as a separate unit, so we’re hoping to rent it out. You can see what we’ve done so far (mostly just demo) on our house blog (

    Any advice? What to do or not do? Where to put the renovation money? Anything else you wish you would have known when just starting your Landlady tenure?

    Thank you!!

  7. Kids from Jersey, from the looks of things, I think you’ll be just fine! Especially with the willing help of handy family members:-)
    I’m sure you’ll be able to rent that garden floor (advice: don’t call it a basement) once it’s light and bright; priced fairly, it will be a breeze via Craigslist. I’d say keep it simple and use natural materials: wood floors, ceramic tile for the bathroom, and retain every scrap of original detail – all of which I’m sure you’re doing. Don’t cut the space up too much – better to leave it loft-like, methinks, unless you can figure out a way to put a bedroom in that doesn’t block too much light or create claustrophobia. Paint it white for rental (though I like your fancy parlor colors), and try to avoid IKEA kitchen cabinets (I hate particleboard with a passion). Where in Newark is this great house? Maybe I should consider Newark for my next real-estate foray! I’m putting a link to your site on mine right away!

  8. Cara, how many homes to you own? What is your real estate story? I just bought Downtown Chic about a family with 6 children that flips homes in Manhattan. Those kinds of stories fascinate me.

  9. With this recent acquisition in East Hampton, I own six properties — two in Brooklyn, two in Philadelphia (10 rental units in all), a small 1930s house on 20 acres in the Hudson Valley, and a cottage in Springs. Never flipped a single one. Buy, hold, and rent is my real estate story. I’ve read about the Novogratzes, that gorgeous couple with 7 kids who parlayed themselves into a weird-looking house on the West Side Highway and a whole branding operation. They kind of fascinate me too, at the same time they make me want to puke.

  10. That’s right. The Novogratzes! I don’t know about the branding operation, but the house envy they give me some times makes me want to puke. Especially when I read about the millions they have made:) Did you live in Philly?

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