How to Be an Absentee Landlord (Don’t!)

THERE’S A NEW QUESTION on my Q&A page. I’m putting it up today as a post; it will remain in perpetuity on the Q&A page along with others I’ve answered in the past:

  • looking for property under 150K
  • where to find good buys on mid-century furniture
  • contemplating a move from the Hudson Valley to Philadelphia
  • entering the Brooklyn real-estate market as first-time home-buyers
  • renting in Brooklyn with three dogs

Check it out when you get a chance. Here’s the latest:

Q: How do you handle being an landlord in multiple cities? I’m in Brooklyn. My girlfriend and I are building a little investment house in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Going to rent it out…the house is comprised of 3 little lockout apartments and can easily convert back to single family. Any tips or advice on how to be an absentee landlord?Reid

A: Hi, Reid. What you’re proposing is entirely do-able. I have ten rental units, five in Brooklyn and five in Philadelphia. For the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been living at the end of Long Island, 2-1/2 hours from Brooklyn and 4 or 5 from Philly, so I’m an absentee landlord all around, I guess. I don’t love the term “absentee landlord,” though. It suggests tenants running amok because they think you won’t know or don’t care. It reminds me on New York in the ’70s, when “absentee landlord” was synonymous with “slumlord” in the tabloids. That’s not us! We need a new term (suggestions welcome…)

Anyway, in this day of cell phones, texts, email, FedEx (for leases and keys), and Craigslist, it’s not hard to be “present” as a property owner/manager, even at a considerable physical distance. Continue reading

Ode to the Philadelphia Rowhouse


Fitzwater Street, Queen Village

THERE’S A HUGE, TELLING DIFFERENCE between New York City and Philadelphia in terms of how each values and regards its vernacular architecture.

It’s hard to imagine NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development putting out something as enlightened as the Philadelphia Planning Commission’s well-designed and -written Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual: A Practical Guide for Homeowners, published in 2008 in conjunction with the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It’s available free by downloading as a PDF (links below) or in print for $10/copy from the Center for Architecture, 1216 Arch Street.

Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual: A Practical Guide for Homeowners
(Download Color: 4.4MB PDF File)
(Download B&W:  3.3MB PDF File)

Thanks to Townhouse Lady for alerting me to this fascinating and useful publication, intended to encourage the renovation and development of Philly’s sprawling rowhouse stock.

There are descriptions of the various kinds of rowhouses, from the diminutive, endemic-to-Philadelphia working-class trinity to the elegant, large-scale townhouses of Society Hill; a bit of history; a fair amount of how-to (e.g. fitting a sink and toilet into a a 5’x5′ space); floor plans; information on mechanicals, structure, and energy-efficiency; maintenance to-do lists; resources, and more.

There’s a detailed review here.

From the intro:

In 2003, the City of Philadelphia was selected to
participate in the National Trust for Historic
Preservation’s Preservation Development Initiative
(PDI). Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight
Foundation, PDI focused on demonstrating the
importance of preservation as a core component
of neighborhood revitalization.
A Comprehensive Preservation Assessment noted
that almost all of the neighborhoods in Philadelphia,
from Mount Airy to Pennsport, are defined by their
rowhouse streetscapes. As a building type, the rowhouse
offers many advantages, but when neglected or poorly
maintained, it deprives homeowners of value. It also
affects the homes nearby. This manual is one of
many projects aimed at celebrating the Philadelphia
rowhouse, helping people understand their value
(in terms of both history and livability), and aiding
rowhouse inhabitants in adapting and maintaining
them as a great model for 21st century urban living.
Philadelphia is a city of rowhouses. Their constant
revitalization and adaptation illustrates the viability
of the city. We don’t cook in basement fireplaces or
use backyard privies as the earliest rowhouse residents
did, but the houses have proven to be so adaptable
that we’ve been able to make them congenial to
the 21st century, even with vastly different family
structures, social ideals, and technology. The intent
of this manual is to help residents value the history
and legacy of the rowhouse and its future as a
comfortable, community-enhancing, energy-efficient
place in which to live.

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.