Maybe you've noticed the spate of recent articles with titles like, "Beat Inflation with a Fun Vacation in your own Back Yard." By the end of June my yard and I have had as much fun as either of us can stand. I'm ready to lay down my clippers and put my quarter acre to work earning its keep while I play elsewhere.
Every summer we rent out our house for a few weeks or months to defray vacation costs and provide security. We take off with our mortgage payments covered while our house presents an occupied front to break-and-enter types.
Who are the people who pay for the privilege of mowing our lawn, watering our plants, feeding our cat and gerbil?
Over the past 12 years, our tenants have included law students from Harvard and Yale with summer jobs on the Hill, a doctor interning at G.W. Hospital, and a family from Trinidad here to enroll two kids at Howard. Despite initial fears, roving bands of Hell's Angels have expressed no interest in our house.
Renting to students isn't as scary as it sounds. Experience has taught us to accept only groups of four, or fewer, in deference to our antique plumbing system. We give a short course on the use of household appliances and provide a list of numbers to call in an emergency. If our tenants are from out of town, we offer information on shopping, transportation, and recreation.
Those who think that a house-sitter will treat their property more gently than a paying tenant underestimate the motivating power of a hefty security deposit. Each renter signs the standard lease form that we get at an office supply store. Utilities stay in our name and we deduct their cost from the deposit. This practice keeps us aloof from internecine squabbles over who made the two-hour call to L.A.
In fact, college students make terrific tenants. They're the ones who plant a garden and leave enough paperbacks to get us through the winter. Students, after all, typically spend their first 18 years in homes where bathrooms are cleaned and garbage is taken out.
Their parents would be pleased, and perhaps amazed, to see that these lengthy apprenticeships produce young adults who actually know how to live in a house. We come back to a clean kitchen with things like a half-bottle of Chablis in the refrigerator and a note that reads, "We loved your house. Hope you find everything okay."
Only once was the house less than okay. That was the time we returned from Maine to find our living room transformed into a cabaret. Cramming all the chairs and tables into one room did produce a festive look, but it wasn't for us, and putting it all back took some time.
So now we tell tenants that they're welcome to rearrange the furniture, so long as they restore rooms to their original configurations before leaving. That way I'll know if the tintype of my grandmother has been replaced by a portrait of Miss Piggy.
Blitz cleaning for tenants requires about the same effort as getting ready for houseguests, but you don't have to feed them or take them to monuments. In effect, we're getting paid to clean our own house, since almost everything we do in the pre-rental period needs doing anyhow.
What's time-consuming in the cleaning out of drawers and closets is the pondering: trying to decide such things as whether throwing a dog-eared Farecard with .05 left is the moral equivalent of tossing a nickel in the trash.
Each year we put away fewer of our personal effects. Dressers and closets have to be emptied, but no longer do I schlepp all signs of human life to the attic. Most people prefer a home to a Holiday Inn, so books, Monopoly, and spices stay in place. If the tenant group includes a member of the Fisher Price generation, I leave the toys out too.
In advertising the house, I focus on the features that are important to tenants: cost, comfort and convenience. And I've learned to strive for clarity. Once our ad included the line, "$500/month with cat." This got us a lot of confused callers asking what the rent would be if they didn't bring a cat.
When to advertise? I prefer later to sooner. Friends who in March were sure they wanted to spend the summer together may not be speaking to each other by July.
In the three weeks before our departure date we hear from people who are sure they need a place to stay in the D.C. area, and quick. Our tenants may be moving here and need a base from which to househunt. Or a local family who are remodeling may decide they can't face 28 more nights at a fast-food place. Whoever they are, I hope they'll enjoy using our house as much as we'll enjoy using their money.
Renting to strangers may not be for the faint of heart, but it's a skill that can be learned. All you need is a house, a healthy dose of optimism and the conviction that there are others likely to be as responsible as you.