Can We Just Be Friends?
...Maintaining Relations With Your Landlord

Imagine a landlady who calls you at 6:30 a.m. every Tuesday to remind you to take out the trash; who says your friends can visit as long as they don't use the bathroom; who threatens to arrest your father for cleaning your apartment, because she says it makes the rest of the building look dirty.

Erika Freihage did more than imagine it. She lived it for a year. Call it "Landlady Dearest."

"She was worse than a mother-in-law. She had a lot of time on her hands. She was lonely and she had nothing to do, so she butted in my life," says Freihage, who was renting one room in the elderly woman's home.

"If I spent the night at a friend's apartment, she wanted to know why I hadn't come home. If I got wet in the rain, she yelled at me for not having an umbrella. I guess because I'm a lot younger than she is, she thought I needed advice."

Objectively speaking, the landlord-tenant relationship is primarily a financial arrange- ment. (Try telling that to Fred and Ethel Mertz) "But sometimes it's tough to maintain businesslike boundaries with the person who owns your home," explains psychiatrist Randy Georgemiller. Questions of privacy and respect are muddied by the fact that you are living in someone else's space.

How do you manage this relationship, so that you get the services that you need but not an unwanted intrusion? Why is this business relationship any different than the others you have?

A small business
Most landlords are small business folks, and the apartment you occupy is one of the biggest investments they have ever made, so they "usually have an emotional attachment to the property," says Michael Thom, executive vice president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association. "They want to protect and main- tain it, and make sure you're doing the same.

"But, hey, this is your home. You're paying for privacy. You can walk around naked if you want to," says Chicagoan Mussarat Haider, who has been both a tenant and a landlord. One renter (who preferred to remain anonymous) remembers living in a three-flat where "the owner couple took a proprietary interest in my life. They were friendly people. They'd bring cookies down and talk to me and my wife. But they kind of viewed us as their property. They certainly view our apartment as something they could walk into any time they wanted to. In fact, they secretly came and went while we weren't there; in other words, to snoop. Anytime they found anything new or out of the ordinary, or they thought our housekeeping wasn't good enough, we'd get a letter of complaint."

He put up with the intrusion for three years, until the owners' dog urinated on his kitchen floor during a clandestine visit, and the landlords charged him for damaging the linoleum. "It had a chilling effect on my ability to live my life because I was constantly afraid that I would be jumped on, criticized or attacked. For a long time I felt it was better to keep the peace, because there was a certain feeling of comraderie and extended family, but ultimately it was overbearing," he recalls.

All in the family
Renting from a relative can double your trouble. "When you rent from a family member, it starts out as a very informal relationship," says Julia Goode, fair housing coordinator for the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. "Unfortunately there's a real carelessness. People assume that they understand each other and that there's a lot of good will, so they don't do things in a businesslike way. They don't spell things out as clearly as they should," adds Dorothea Marshall, whose parents have rented to her adult siblings over the years.

"But then one party becomes upset with another. If you have tension in your business relationship, that sours the personal friendship, and vice versa," says Goode "That's why it's crucial to keep the two relationships separate, and be clear about your expectations. When you're at the movies together, don't bring up the fact that your toilet doesn't work. Do all your business in writing. And no matter how close you are, keep receipts."

"When you're related and you have problems, you can't take each other to court," says Haider, who had watched friends struggle through this setup. "It's much more emotional than 'You didn't pay the rent on time.' It's, 'How could you do this? You don't care about anymore but yourself. Look at how much money I have to dish out for repairs. I gave you this place because I felt sorry for you, and you're taking advantage of me."

With all these complicated dynamics, how do you maintain a businesslike relationship?

Not too cozy
Be cordial, not cozy. "In any relationship in which there is an imbalance of power, a certain professionalism needs to be maintained," says Dr. Amjad Akhtar, a psychiatry resident at Evanson Hospital.

"Treat your landlord the same way you would treat your boss," Goode advises. "This is a person with whom you have an economic rela- tionship, and who has a lot of control over a larger section of your life. Don't forget that."

To avoid problems altogether, shop for a landlord the same way you shop for an apartment. "Talk to tenants who are on their way in and out of the building. Ask them to tell you a little bit about the landlord," one landlord suggests.

Remember, landlords are screening you for the same reason. 'It's easier, if you marry the wrong person, to get a divorce than it is to get rid of a bad tenant. I don't rent to anyone who I don't think I will have a good relationship with, so 50 percent of my apartments are vacant," says Helga Buol, who's been a landlady for 30 years.

What if you already let your landlord get away with too much? How can you get away with too much? How can you regain your privacy if you've been lax about it in the past? If the landlord is lonely, "handle the brush-off with tact. Let them know that you enjoy living in the building ...but because you are so busy, you prefer to talk about building business at pre-arranged times only, unless it's an emergency," landlord E. Rubenstein advises.

If the landlord is really intrusive, "The next time he shows up unannounced, don't comply with his requests," psychiatrist Georgemiller suggests. "Just don't open the door,"

But remember, a meddlesome landlord had his plusses, too. If you desperately need some- body to bring in your mail and water your plants while you're away, or drive you to a doctor's appointment now and then, think twice before cutting the cord.

What if you've decided you want to be friends, but the landlord's the cold fish? "If your landlord is formal and detached, you have to deal with him in a formal and detached way." Georgemiller says. "Some people just aren't comfortable having you come up and shake their hand every time you see them. So any communication should be in writing. If you need a repair, for example, write it, date it, and set clear expectations.

One way to keep the line of communication open, particularly with a phantom landlord, is to "include a note with your rent check every month, letting him know if you need anything done, or thanking him for something he's done, or just letting him know that you are enjoying living in his apartment," Goode suggests.

The landlord's view
Believe it or not, landlords are worried about their relationships with you, too. Building owner Bill Bradna believes he "shouldn't be too friendly, because then the tenant asks you pay for too many favors, which are beyond your reach. But it's also not good to be too businesslike and strict, and just go by the letter of the law, because then you don't get any cooperation."

Bradna and his wife "take care of our tenants. It's not so personal that we go and have coffee with them, but as soon as we hear that one is sick, we knock on the door and ask if we can get then anything from the grocery store, or my wife cooks soup for them. I think they appreciate it."

Buol compares the ideal landlord-tenant relationship to that of neighbors. "If you see them, you say, 'Oh, the weather is nice today; how are your tomato plants?' you don't go into their house on a regular basis. It's important to have an understanding, and to know each other's limits."

Buol respects her tenants' privacy, and she expects them to heed hers. "Tenants don't want me to knock on the door and say, 'Mary, I smelled a cake.' These people work. They want their privacy, too. They have their friends and families. Why do they need their landlord as part of it?"

In fact, she doesn't think tenants should ever initiate friendships with landlords. "If you invite me for coffee and someone gets stuck in the elevator while I'm sitting in your apartment, then what happens?"

Buol made one exception, and it was emotionally exhausting. "She was a lonely widow. She was with us for Christmas and Thanksgiving. I went shopping for her. I took care of her until she died. I even arranged for her funeral. I did things for her that I have not done for my own mother. She was a lovely woman, but I cannot possibly be friends with every tenant. I don't have time.

By Reshma Memon Yaqub

Reprinted with permission from The Apartment Owner - The official publication of the Apartment Association of San Fernando Valley,Ventura County.

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