Renting a wreck and wrecking a rental

Back when I was in seminary we once went on a Shabbaton to Bnei Brak. To defray the cost of accommodations, our administrators swapped buildings with another school that was looking to bring its students to Yerushalayim. The problems we encountered in our unfamiliar surroundings (broken water heaters, the confusing Shabbos timer) didn’t put a damper on our fun, but the scene that we returned to after Shabbos sure did. While we had tried very hard to be considerate of our hosts’ belongings, the same couldn’t be said about them. The floor of my dorm room was covered with nail polish and black permanent marker; several of my sweaters and quite a bit of cash were missing; and for some reason the lid on the downstairs toilet had been removed. (It was never recovered.) The experience taught my seminary a lesson about the pitfalls of doing a building swap with a school for troubled teens.

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While a disastrous experience like this is far from the norm, stories of trashed homes or apartments abound. Anyone who rents out space in his own house is taking a chance. On the flip side of the coin, subletting an apartment, sight unseen, from a total stranger, especially from thousands of miles away, comes with inherent risks. “It can make you feel helpless,” says Moishe Prager, recalling the first (and last) time he rented out his apartment for a few weeks during the summer. “People who are on vacation sometimes don’t respect your home or your belongings because they’re not theirs. They are careless. Whenever you allow in strangers, you just have to accept that something might go wrong.” His wife Rosie agrees, but still feels that subletting can be worthwhile. “Renting out your home is a way of adding income, like a job. And just as some jobs are aggravating, subletting can be aggravating too. It’s simply a matter of perspective.

The Tennenbaums

The Tennenbaums would agree. An American couple who have been living in Eretz Yisrael for several years, they view it as a necessary evil. “We visit our families in America twice a year, for Pesach and summer bein hazmanim, so renting out our apartment makes financial sense. After all, we have to pay our rent regardless of whether or not we’re using the apartment.” So far the Tennenbaums have sublet their apartment twice, and each time presented a different challenge. As with most rental arrangements in Eretz Yisrael, both parties found each other by word of mouth. After failing in their attempts to find a renter, the Tennenbaums received a phone call the day before they were scheduled to leave. It seemed that several bachurim were looking for an apartment for a few weeks during bein hazmanim and were interested. Having given up all hope, the Tennenbaums agreed without a second thought. The regrets only began upon their return a few weeks later. “No one will ever accuse me of being a neat freak,” Shoshana Tennenbaum recalls. “I can handle a mess. But trust me when I tell you that I have never seen an apartment so disgusting in my life.”

The floor was black, the toilets were unspeakable, and there was rotting garbage all over the floor. “The first thing I did when I walked through the door (after a transatlantic flight and stopover with a kvetchy toddler in tow) was sponja. I decided then and there that we would never do it again. But after I calmed down, my husband told me to look at it as one hour of aggravation for several hundred hours of enjoyment. So while I did sublet my apartment again, it’ll be a long time before I rent it out to anyone again.On their second go-around, despite having forgotten to arrange for cleaning help upon their return, the Tennenbaums came back to a perfectly neat apartment after renting it out to a family over Pesach. Relieved that she didn’t have to go searching for the mop after the long trip, Shoshana decided to put her feet up for a minute—whereupon the couch promptly collapsed. While far from luxurious or new, the couch had not been in that condition when they left. “The problem,” according to Shoshana, “is that you can’t necessarily blame something like that on the renters, because it could have just decided to finally give up the ghost. So it’s not as if you can make them pay for a replacement.” Losses like this are fairly common.

The Pragers

Newly married and living in Ramat Beit Shemesh, the Pragers decided to sublet their two-bedroom apartment for the summer bein hazmanim. “We got a call from an Israeli relative of a small Canadian family looking for a place to stay,” Moishe Prager recalls. “The whole thing seemed perfect at first.” They haggled over the price—and then over every other issue. Never having done this before, Moishe figured that constant negotiations were just part of coming up with a rental agreement, not a harbinger of things to come. A major point of contention was a family reunion the renters wanted to host in the Pragers’ modest space. After numerous phone calls back and forth, they agreed to hold the party on the patio of the ground-level apartment, with all the guests using the back entrance. “They lied,” Moishe says bluntly. “The family invited their cousins, who invited their neighbors, who invited their friends… and they all came inside. The family justified it by saying that they needed the rooms as ‘mechitzos.’” When the Pragers returned, they were astonished to find everyone in the neighborhood commenting on the successful bash—how big it was, how late into the night it had run—and how lovely their apartment was! The kicker, though, came a few weeks later. “We invited a couple of bachurim for a Shabbos meal,” says Rosie, “and one of them said, ‘Hey, I was in this apartment a few weeks ago!’”

The Shoe is on the Other Foot: the Friedmans

Not all problems are caused by renters, however. With most of their married children living in Eretz Yisrael, the Friedman family of New York decided to spend Pesach in the Holy Land. Although finding an empty apartment in Bnei Brak near their kids wasn’t easy, an option finally came up and a family friend was sent to check it out. The report was glowing: four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a big dining room that could comfortably accommodate the sedarim and meals. Thrilled with the find, the Friedmans grabbed it. Mrs. Friedman still shudders at the memory of that Yom Tov. “Technically, the apartment was exactly as advertised. All of the issues that came up were things that would never occur to you to ask about.” For example, the apartment was very uncomfortable in the pre-Pesach heat, so the family turned on the air conditioner— which immediately began to spew out a cloud of dust and dirt and then blew out the power.

When the kitchen tap was turned on so they could clean up, instead of water flowing into the basin it poured onto their shoes. Ironically, the sink situation was a good thing. “The owners claimed to have three bathrooms, which was true. But none of them was actually connected to any plumbing. We had no functioning toilets or showers.” Mrs. Friedman pauses. “Well, one toilet did work, but when my youngest daughter peeked inside she saw a mouse doing laps.” No one went near that bathroom for the entire stay. “We had repairmen going in and out of the apartment for most of our vacation. First the oven broke. Then the plumbing again.

Next, the refrigerator. It never ended. The running joke was that whenever something broke in the apartment, the owners would just pack up and leave and rent it out.” This theory was reinforced after the owner had his phone disconnected right after hearing confirmation that the family had arrived in Israel. The Friedmans assumed that the host would leave a supply of linens and towels for them to use but it was an erroneous assumption; all the beds were stripped. “They did leave each of us a washcloth,” Mrs. Friedman notes, “as well as their dirty socks on the sofa.” Two days before bedikas chametz she was running around trying to scrounge up the bare necessities. On departure day the kitchen sink started leaking again, but the Friedmans left it for the owners to deal with.

What would they do differently next time?

They say that experience is the best teacher. Having learned an important lesson from her bachurim fiasco, Shoshana Tennenbaum would arrange for cleaning help to make sure her apartment was up to snuff before she came home. She would also insist on taking a security deposit. “I don’t know why it isn’t more common,” she says. “It’s really a no-brainer. “A few weeks after the bachurim left we got our utility statement, and that month’s bill was higher than the previous four months combined. We called the renters and they admitted to blasting the air conditioning the entire time.” (The bachurim ended up sending them some extra money to cover part of the bill.) A security deposit would cover any unexpected issues like that, to be returned after it was clear that there were no problems. Rosie Prager also experienced some after-the-fact sticker shock. The people she sublet her apartment to had ignored the Shabbos clock setting on the air conditioning and left the clothes dryer on when they left. It was still running three days later when the Pragers returned.

But the worst part was all of the property damage. “We packed away everything of value we didn’t want the renters to use, such as our wedding china, the bechers and the laichter, but some things you don’t really have a choice but to leave out.” Rosie wasn’t crazy about letting strangers use her Crock-Pot or oven, but it’s not a request that you can really refuse. Not surprisingly, the Crock-Pot broke (it was replaced), but the oven hasn’t worked the same ever since. Even the linens Rosie borrowed from a neighbor for the rental were reduced to rags. Moishe Prager says that if he ever did it again he would definitely clarify ahead of time who’s responsible for paying for whatever gets broken, dented or scratched.

Of course, you can’t always tell who’s at fault. “A lot of the damage was done during the party,” he explains. “But since I didn’t go around cataloging the condition of everything in my apartment, I can’t prove that they’re to blame. I ended up taking a loss.” On the consumer end, the Friedmans were not exactly happy campers. “When we budgeted for this trip, we never expected to have to pay for linens, towels, pillows and all kinds of repairs, only some which were reimbursed. It ended up being a lot more expensive than we imagined.” The next time Mrs. Friedman sublets an apartment (if there is a next time) she plans on asking a lot more questions and nailing down all the specifics. While you may feel foolish asking if the plumbing works or if sheets will be provided, it can certainly save a lot of anguish in the long run.

Last Thoughts

While the above scenarios involve subletting in Eretz Yisrael, the same principles apply all over, and in many other situations. Let’s say, for example, that you’re thinking of renting out your bungalow in the Catskills for the summer. Or you’re interested in staying in your grandmother’s friend’s condo in Miami Beach for a couple of weeks. In order to make sure that both sides are satisfied and have a positive experience, communication is crucial. You may think you’re renting your bungalow to an elderly couple who will barely disturb the dust on the linoleum, but they might be planning on letting their grandchildren with the triplets stay there for the Nine Days. Or did it ever occur to you that your grandmother’s friend’s condo might date back to Miami’s heyday in the 1950s—and still boasts the same amenities? Hope you enjoy the oscillating fan.

As the Pragers conclude, renting to strangers is just inherently a gamble. “Regardless of how much research you do, even the ‘the nicest people in the world’ can still wreck your home,” Rosie says. “But it’s still worth it if you minimize your risks.” After taking some time to recover, Mrs. Friedman now has a new perspective. “When you really think about it, many of these families in Israel don’t have much to live on. It can’t be easy to pack up your entire family and move in with your parents for a few weeks just so you can buy food. If all I had was a dumpy apartment to rent out and nothing else to live on, what would I do? “The important thing is to keep positive in any situation. And if all else fails, remember: One day you’ll laugh about it.”

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