Land barons


When you’re young and just starting to make a little money, (emphasis on “little”) you are made to feel a failure if you don’t put your money to work for you. It doesn’t matter if your “salad days” are more “ramen noodle” days, people immediately start yammering at you about investments. Invest in stocks, bonds or real estate, they say.

At age 24 we had about 76 cents to rub together but Mr. Wonderful had excellent credit and had already bought his first home. Accordingly, we invested in real estate. I think we went into the landlord biz primarily because all the similar investment opportunities that involved poking yourself with a sharp object and/or setting fire to your money seemed like more work.

We were full of gumption and gung-ho. We had no children beyond two spoiled dogs, and enough single friends who enjoyed getting together with us and sanding floors or painting walls — providing we offered enough beer.


Fast forward 17 years and we are older, wiser and busier. If anyone had told me when my children were younger that it would be easier to take an infant and toddler to a cleaning and painting project than it would two pre-teens, I would have called them crazy. Now I live it and I know it to be true.

A toddler doesn’t much care where you put him, as long as there are snacks and something interesting to play with. We found paintbrushes dipped in water and random cardboard boxes served this purpose nicely.

We have adorable photos of our then four-year-old daughter dutifully scrubbing walls with her little pink scrub brush in one rental kitchen. That was back when she still thought working “just like mommy” was super fun. Now she knows that is code for drudgery. Smart girl.


As the children have grown older and more active, getting to our properties to manage and work on them has become an exercise in frustration rather than a labor of love. Evenings and weekends brim with family activities and responsibilities. We tried hiring rental work out, but it turns out we are both too frugal, and small potatoes, to be on any property manager’s radar.

We have been fortunate to have good tenants. They are pretty much just like me, except their toilets are fixed more quickly, since Mr. Wonderful tackles their jobs first. More than once he has spent all day on the job, having begun his workday at 5 a.m., only to leave and put in night hours pounding nails at a rental.

When he finally drags in near midnight, I don’t have the heart to tell him that our back door sticks or the dryer quit working too. What’s the poor guy to do? Our children have been known to deftly kick a broken tile under the dishwasher rather than point out to daddy that it needs repair. Something has got to give.


A few years ago we decided that the time had come to sell. We called a real estate agent and put ‘for sale’ signs in the yard. The day our houses hit the system, the entire real estate market in America officially tanked. I think we broke the economy.

Three years later we are back to the same realization: we have too many toilets and not enough time. I realize that “pity the poor landlord” is the rare cross-stitched sampler and that owning too much property is a first world problem to have. People in other countries go begging for food and clean water. Few feel sorry for the land baron.

It is not lost on me that I am the person who frets over budgets and making ends meet and then makes an appointment to have the dog groomed. (To be fair this isn’t the frothy pastime of poodles and Westminster winners. Ours is a country dog with a thick coat better suited for the Himalayas than the Heartland. This is less grooming and more an annual brush hog). We’re low maintenance. I promise.


Speaking of maintenance, the writing is on the wall. The time has come to say goodbye to our youthful enthusiasm for buckets of beige paint and haggling over security deposits. I’m excited, but somewhat sad, too. Another chapter in life will close. Our early days of best laid plans and elbow grease will be replaced by greater investments in being there for our kids. This is the time in life to invest in family over finance. Both pay amazing dividends, but only one pays in quality time, memories and hugs.


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  1. my oh my, this is quite a story. the house in the photo looks identical to my aunts house in Savannah, or used to be hers many moons ago. our PLAN was to pay off our house before we retired, then sell it and downsize and move to Ormond Beach FL where we have always wanted to go, so when YOU tanked the econmy it must have been the year i retired. sept 2006 and our house went to less than half its value and in our county there are 15,000 foreclousures and no way to sell our house for any price. so here we sit probably until the day we die.


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