Rich's Berkeley Blog

A blog about Berkeley and beyond. Social commentary, upcoming events, bargains, local restaurants, and more will be discussed. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What not to do when renting a house in Berkeley

Lessons learned from a recent experience with the landlady from hell aka South Berkeley living legend "Gladys":

1. Get everything in writing.

On the fateful day we checked out Gladys' rambling yet strangely shaped Craftsman (more on that later) on California street just a few steps from Ashby's traffic zooming by, we were inexplicably moved by her pathetic sob story about being a mother to 10 (!) foster children and therefore being unable to "tidy up" the place.

Tidy up? It was a disaster, complete with pee stained carpet and unfinished almost unrecognizable hardwood floors dirty from 23 years of kids' and animals' feet.

We rented it as a fixer-upper anyway, partially due to her offer that we spiff up the place for an hourly wage: big mistake. We spent over a week cleaning and painting it only to have her act picky about our choices and refuse to pay the amount she had agreed to.

This was our first unfortunate experience with what would become a constant theme with Gladys: things we hadn't gotten nailed down with an explicit written contract became the source of endless e mail arguments. Insist on ink!

2. Bring a pen to sign the lease.

Yes, Gladys produced a pencil as we sat down at her dining room table fill our the lease as kids and dogs flew by like shots in and out.

So bring a pen and if your landlord hasn't sent you a copy in 15 days or so they're beginning to violate Berkeley Rental Law. Do we even need to add Gladys never sent the lease the entire year we lived at the Hotel California?

3. Don't take anything for granted.

We made the mistake of assuming Gladys was somewhat similar to other landlords and so we were complacent in thinking things would be done a certain way. Big no-no.

Example One: The huge garbage we had been given to use for the house disappeared one day. We asked each other what had happened and finally assumed it had been stolen. One call to the Berkeley Waste board confirmed a bizarre twist: a month after we moved into the house, she arbitrarily decided to "downgrade" the size to an itty bitty can.

We tried everything to increase the size ourselves. But the city of Berkeley wouldn't allow us to, saying only the owner of the house could authorize that. When we asked Gladys about it, it became another long e mail exchange back-and-forth. For some reason, saving a few dollars was more important to her than our good will, and there wasn't a lot we could do about it.

Example Two: One day as we stumbled awake to brush our teeth we were surprised to see the tap was dry. After calls to EBMUD we discovered Gladys had shut the water off and now expected us to put the bill in our name and pay it. When we complained we had been given no notice, she again hid behind e mails, claiming to have told us about it.

She must be one of the only landlords in Berkeley who refuses to pay for water. So don't assume, or it could make an a-- out of.... you know what.

4. Don't believe everything you hear.

One of the major draws to the house was the back yard and her craigslist boast that it was a "gardeners paradise". We're avid plant lovers and eagerly dreamed of the luscious garden beds to come.

Not. Once we got outside to more deeply inspect the soil, the backyard turned out to be filled with concrete just below the surface. WTF. We angrily confronted her and for a change she was honest and came clean, admitting that the foundation of a shed had been left there and somehow she had forgotten to tell us about it.

No more garden, and for extra measure she demanded we water the existing plants and pay for it ourselves. Lucky us.

5. Don't put someone else's bill into your name.

Gladys had dollar signs in her eyes when she divided her family home into two units. She apparently never told the city of Berkeley she was making two separate apartments to skip paying taxes and to avoid having to divide the house legitimately.

One side effect of this was the PG&E bill, which involved one meter for the whole house, upstairs (us) and down (other tenants). Gladys had agreed to leave the bill in her name when we moved in, which made sense to us since we didn't want the responsibility of dealing with the unknown amount of a power bill for other tenants.

Throughout the months, this changed. She badgered us to put the bill in our name, alternately begging and demanding. The whole subject really became a pain when another couple moved into the place below and the whole bill shot up by several hundred dollars -- we later found out they were new to the Berkeley climate and were using a wasteful heater all day long.

This was all the more costly as she expected us to pay 2/3 of the bill since our flat was larger, even though the lower unit had identical power needs with similar appliances.

Gladys was her usual greedy self, claiming we were just complaining about the increase in the bill because we didn't want to pay it. By the time she finally reviewed all the bills and saw for herself who was causing the power increase, we had already paid the excessive amount.

She refused to put in another PG& E meter because she said it cost too much... it cost us a lot to pay 2/3 of someone else's bill!

6. There's an upside to everything.

We never knew what to expect once we had stepped through the funhouse mirror into Gladys' domain. One side effect of her carelessness had an unexpected benefit: she left behind four or five homeless cats who became our close buddies.

One of them was very friendly and greeted us every time we walked up to the house. We named him Chester and hung out with him frequently. One day I mentioned him to Gladys and she admitted she had left him and others when she moved. We were sad and angry at hearing she had abandoned these cats. Knowing they would be unloved when we moved out was a harsh reality, and we couldn't afford to adopt them.

But at least we got to cuddle and feed Chester and his friends who lazed in the sun in our back yard, creating priceless memories.

7. Don't agree to show the place to potential renters.

The entire year we lived at the house we were reminded by Gladys about how poor she was and that she was only a rent check away from being thrown into the streets with her 10 children. So we were a bit queasy about ever trying to leave the place, since we knew it was virtually unrentable.

When our yearly lease came up we still couldn't resist taking the chance to escape. But we felt obligated to agree to show the house for her, since she lived in Las Vegas caring for her ailing parents. Biggest mistake yet.

The unusual shape and horrible condition of the house bit us in the behind right from the first showing. The house was three bedroom in name only, since two of the rooms were so small they were virtually uninhabitable. Over and over we heard the same complaint... no matter how many times we tried to explain on the phone that the rooms were small.

One quintessentially Gladys detail really grabbed peoples' attention: she had placed a toilet in the corner of the second largest room (which was still midget sized) because "she couldn't make it the bathroom" when she had endured a lengthy illness. Imagine explaining that to people!

Gladys jumped in and began criticizing us, blaming us for the condition of the house and refusing to believe it was simply unable to be used as a three bedroom. Apparently she had never tried to rent it before, since we were the first to live there since she had used it for a family home for decades.

8. Videotape the house when you move in.

Throughout the year we lived in the old house we were reminded of one key fact over and over: videotape solves arguments.

If you contact the Berkeley rent board right before you move in and pay the rather small amount (30 bucks) to have the place videotaped prior to moving in, this can avoid a multitude of little complaints and major headaches.

We have since moved to the Sierra Foothills and away from Gladys' reign of terror and we laugh at the memories of the rental from hell...