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Robber Barons: Get Thee To Cumberland
The Dragon House
We named the first place we bought “The Dragon House” because there was a lizard creature carved into a gnarly old tree stump in the backyard.
I’ve always been a scaredy cat, never one to take a risk. As a kid, I didn’t jump off the high dive into the lake, or ride my bike with no hands. I played it safe, watching the daredevils from the sidelines.
So I was a good little saver, putting my cash into GICs, hoping it would be enough to retire on someday. Then interest rates fell and I knew I had to look at other options.
Everyone around me was dropping money into the stock market, but I dreamed of owning a real asset, one you could actually touch. Did I mention I liked to play it safe?
Investing in properties seemed like a better idea than tinkering with stocks. Owning part of a huge corporation might be a good investment, but I didn’t understand what most of these companies did in real life.
Rental real estate was different. I could relate to paying rent, having been a tenant for years. I was also pretty good at playing Monopoly as a kid.
Trust me, no one loves your money more than you do.
I started out by doing my research. That meant I had to devour every issue of the local real estate news. Buying a rental was a steep learning curve. I was looking for the elusive ‘fixer-upper’ but it couldn’t be a complete disaster.
The house had to pay for itself. The math had to work out before I made the leap. This time I wasn’t playing a game anymore. This wasn’t fake money, it was the real thing so I had to get it right.
Numbers crunched and fingers crossed, I hoped I hadn’t missed a key detail in the plan.
Then I saw an article by a well-known local investor:
“Get thee to Cumberland”
Cumberland was a small village near us, at the east end of the lake, nestled against a string of rounded mountains that were snow-capped in winter. It had been a coal mining town back in the day and most of the houses were old and a bit run down.
Everyone who grew up there had a nickname like Squeegee and Carlybob, (more on that later).
The houses were built by miners or loggers so they were solid, if a bit on the rough side. The prices were lower there so we went to have a look.
There were a couple of ‘For Sale by Owner’ signs down at the end of Camp Road. I spent an afternoon driving around peering over fences and making notes.
One old place that was a bit closer to town seemed like a good candidate. It was a one-bedroom with an unfinished loft that might make a good second bedroom. Built on a huge boulder with no real basement, there were a couple of uneven storage spaces hacked out of the rock.
I called the number on the sign and set up a time to meet Kevin, the owner.
He was a young guy, in his late twenties and his talent was chainsaw carving. Kevin had lived in his grandmother’s home for 15 years. He planned to sell his inheritance, take the money, and follow his girlfriend who was moving to another town.
I was sure his gramma was turning over in her grave at the mere thought of it.
Selling your biggest asset and blowing it on a girl who was leaving you behind wouldn’t be something I’d advise. But he was a grown-ass man and I wasn’t his mother so I kept my mouth shut.
I put in an offer. It was a private sale so there was no real estate agent involved. We met in his living room and went over the paperwork.
At first, I felt guilty that we were buying his family’s heritage, but I got over it.
It was one of many things I had to get over in the years to come.
We called it “The Dragon House” because of the lizard creature carved into a gnarly old tree stump in the backyard.
Mortgaging our family home to buy this rental was a huge step out of my comfort zone but it was the only way to get the down payment.
Putting our home on the line was the first decision that kept me up at night. But it wasn’t the last one.
The biggest risk is not taking any risk, Mark Zuckerberg
The Dragon House took over our lives for the next two months. It needed more work than we originally thought and we had to get it done so we could rent it. That mortgage payment was hanging over our heads.
Our days consisted of work at our full-time jobs, dinner for the kids, and after-school activities, then packing up our truck and heading to the Dragon House.
Any spare time we had was spent ripping out walls, painting, and fixing things.
Small jobs turned into larger ones.
As we did the work, we found larger problems.
When we replaced the old single-paned windows with new ones, we discovered there was no insulation in the walls. Add that to the list of things to do.
When we painted the attic, we found wiring problems.
Asbestos is a huge problem. When we found asbestos in the insulation we hired removal experts. They came and built a huge shroud around the house to capture the dust and fibers.
We redid the bathroom and found the plumbing was ancient.
As we peeled off the wallpaper, we found another layer underneath. Other owners had simply pasted new paper on top of the old, making a thick hardened mess. The last layer was orange and black, very retro, but not something we could restore.
Here’s what we learned about hiring contractors.
They’ll promise you anything, just to get the job.
If you set low expectations, they’ll meet them. Get things in writing.
Often they overbook themselves so they’re trying to do two or three jobs at once.
Other people will bully them into leaving your job site to go and work on theirs. The way around this is to check in frequently. Visit them at the end of the day and confirm when they’ll be there the next day.
Sometimes you have to be the bully.
Great contractors are few and far between. If you find one, they’re gold. Pay them well and on time.
When our window company didn’t meet their deadline, they threw their hands up in the air and told us it was a supplier problem.
Too bad, so sad.
I hate being the bad guy, but sometimes it’s the only choice.
We live in this tiny town and know tons of folks. Both my hubby and I have a huge crew of friends, and I was the one in charge of buying stuff for the local college.
So, I had a chat with the manager and gave him a heads-up about how his decision could have some serious consequences. He made a few phone calls, and guess what? The windows got delivered and put in just a week later. Cool, huh?
Sometimes you have to be the squeaky wheel.
The next challenge was finding a good tenant. That's when we realized just how out of our depth we were.
This is a fictional series that explores the challenges of being a landlord. It also reveals the idiosyncrasies of various tenants. Scenes are based on true experiences.