Two days ago…

…I finally got around to calling a property management company and was pleased to hear the same things from them that I’d heard from various friends and acquaintances who know a little about the world of landlording: they charge 10 percent of the annual gross, which is a nice chunk of change but, if I’m understanding correctly, gives them an incentive to find new tenants pretty quickly, should the need arise, and which covers various administrative tasks including billing and bill-paying. They bill by the hour if they need to perform/arrange any maintenance. On top of that, they make recommendations concerning possible improvements that will raise the rental value, and they keep a stable of contractors as one option for having that work done. After flailing about on my own so far, it’s nice to consider putting myself in the hands of professionals who will at least have a plan and a sense of how these things go.

Meanwhile, now that I’m poised to become a landlord, I was interested to read a Baltimore Sun story a few days back about a proposed City Council bill that would end the fairly Baltimore-specific practice of landlords dumping evictees’ belongings in the street, which they currently are allowed to do “as long as it isn’t blocking traffic.” The bill would instead require landlords to give notice of the date of eviction, store the evictees’ belongings for three days, and pay for disposing of unclaimed property themselves. This seems fair enough – if a little daunting to dabblers like myself – considering that, currently, disposing of this stuff falls to the department of public works to the tune of some $800,000 annually, underwritten by the city’s taxpayers. It is hard to see why private businesses – i.e., the landlords – shouldn’t have to pay for this business operation themselves, although sometimes the crusaders on issues like these fail to understand that when you raise the cost of doing business (e.g., by requiring landlords to pay for this storage and disposal), businesses tend to raise the costs of their products (i.e., rent).

But it is a strange and disturbing and somewhat medieval-feeling practice, this dumping of a household’s effects by the curb. Walking this city, I have often come upon these piles being picked over by passersby. Sometimes there is someone who appears to be guarding it, but usually there is not. People who are new to the city sometimes marvel at the sight, saying they’ve never seen such a thing before. I’m not sure if any other cities allow this, but I have heard that Baltimore is a relatively “landlord friendly” city. The Sun article takes this view, observing that evictions in Baltimore – which “can take months elsewhere” – can proceed “as quickly as 16 business days after [tenants] miss a rent payment.” I’d be curious to hear how many evictions are executed that quickly in Baltimore. An acquaintance of mine who is a semi-professional landlord is under the impression that you can’t evict anyone sooner than two months after first filing papers on them at rent court. Even that is relatively fast, compared to places like New York, where I’ve heard there is a minimum delay of something like six months. But you can’t even get bulk trash picked up in this city within 16 days. Maybe this “16 days” thing is only technically true as the law is written, but isn’t really enforced. I imagine that the officials in charge of enforcement probably have a lot of leeway to affect the speed of a process like this.

Of course the sympathies of all good-hearted people are with the tenants in this matter. Mine always were, although a conversation with my landlording acquaintance gave some new perspective. He rents apartments at a price point such that they appeal to lower-income residents (although I’ve been inside some of them and he is definitely no slum lord – someone has to rent to this income range, after all), who of course are more likely to come up short, more likely to move around a lot, and more likely to have less to lose from things like black marks on their credit reports. He tells me that there is a certain proportion of tenants in this city who “give themselves rent reductions” by ceasing payment two months before they plan to move and then just abandoning the property at the end, taking any belongings they care about with them and leaving, as my friend puts it, “a bunch of junk for you to get rid of.” Do-gooder types who are given to concern over credit ratings and who take provisions in legal contracts seriously, at face value (such as me), can have a little difficulty grasping the fact that, really, a landlord has little appealing recourse if someone just disappears on the rent like this. Legally that person is obliged to pay up, and claims against that person can be prosecuted in a court of law, but considering that – in my friend’s case – two months’ outstanding rent might add up to only $1,000, the hassle of going after someone might not be worth it, compared to other business activities like repairing/maintaining the property, finding new tenants, and so on. Even assuming you can find the tenant, which can’t always or even very often be easy, they may simply have no money. Who will pay your court costs then?

Oh, well, this will be for my management company to worry about, I guess.