Concerning Our Unit

Here’s the thing. You put yourself out there. You ask people for their opinions, advice and guidance.

And then they give it to you.

Here is the other thing.

My husband and I have talked a lot about our unit and how much we think we should rent it for. We rent out our lower unit because we can’t afford our mortgage without that additional income. We do not rent it out to turn a profit. We feel very strongly about this.

Living in San Francisco right now, it kind of sucks. The lack of affordable housing is reshaping this city in truly upsetting ways. The amounts people are charging for space are horrendous. So many people are being forced to flee–some of them are our friends. I don’t even want to think about what it’s going to look like when this tech boom is over.

My husband and I do not want to perpetuate the system that we so despise. We are not interested in playing the part of greedy, corrupt San Francisco landlord. We don’t want any part of it.

We have calculated how much our home costs us every year–mortgage and property taxes, utilities, water, trash, home insurance–and multiplied it by 25%, which is the percentage of square footage of our home that the unit represents. Then we add a little on top, for our troubles as landlords. And that is what we rent our place for.

Could we rent it for more? Probably. But we don’t want to. It’s a small unit, in a not-so-great neighborhood, housing a loud family with two small kids above it. The pipes are super loud, especially the ones the connect to the washing machine that bang like crazy on the wall shared by the unit when I run a load of laundry. Also when the shower in the unit turns on it can sound like Armageddon.

We don’t love being landlords. We do this out of necessity. Sometimes it takes us a little while to deal with things that aren’t working great. Sometimes we fix things the cheap way. We’re not trying to screw anyone over, we deal with issues in that space like we deal with issues in the space we inhabit–we always spend as little as we can to fix the problem. Heck, most of the time we fix things down there that we would just deal with in our house: When the unit’s heater stopped working we got it fixed immediately. When our own heating ducts fell down we never had them replaced and didn’t end up turning on the heat one time that winter (and one of those months was COLD).

One of the reasons we keep our unit below market value is because that great deal inspires appreciation, and that appreciation goes a long way in placating people when things aren’t working as well as they could. Will we always fix something if it’s broken? Of course! But we hope they’ll be patient if it takes us a little while to do so, and that they’ll be satisfied even if they solution is less than ideal.

So that is why we don’t rent our unit for what we could rent it for. We don’t want to play the greedy San Francisco landlord, just because an insane renters market says that we can. And we don’t want to have a renter who feels they deserve the best and fastest service when things aren’t working great, in return for spending top dollar on the space. Instead we want to provide a place to live for someone who may not otherwise be able to afford this city (and sure, as someone argued, we can’t change the market by renting our one unit for less than we could, but we do change the life of the one person who is living there). We want to have a good relationship with that person, for them to feel at home in a space that otherwise would be ours, and that we hope we’ll live in some day. We want to foster a sense of community, not of hostility, resentment and entitlement. And so we make a choice to forgo a certain amount of money each month to have that. And we feel good about it.

{We also only rent to friends or friends of friends because we just don’t feel comfortable sharing our space so intimately with someone that no one we know can vouch for, so it’s nice to be able to help out a friend or friend of a friend.}

Maybe this isn’t the right decision. Maybe we’re fools for not asking for every penny that someone might be willing to pay. We certainly could use the money (now is probably not the right time to admit that I can’t afford the therapist, and called and cancelled our first appointment). But we can make it work. And we will. And it will be okay. And for us, right now, we’d rather be stretched a little thin and feel good about how we’re renting that unit, than have more money and feel shitty about what we’re charging and stressed out about what they will expect because we’re charging it.

13 Comments

  1. This makes perfect sense. And you don’t have to justify your decision to us. Although I do know how it feels to feel like the Internet is already judging you, and you need to set the record straight.

  2. This makes perfect sense to me. We rented out Brian’s first house to his sister when he moved in with me. We didn’t even break even, which upset me, but did make it easy to ask her to be patient if something needed attention. And more importantly, it helped her out when she desperately needed a nicer place to get through a serious split.

    I like your approach!

  3. I was a tenant for all the years I was raising my children as a single mom. I understand the appreciation of your tenants for making the rent possible.
    It also makes a difference that you are renting to known people.
    I was one who thought you should rent at close to market value, but I understand your logic. I had not intended to suggest ‘gouging’ but covering your costs & being able to afford upkeep is really key and I know rent control across the bay has some people staying on a lease while living in another city and subletting Berkeley apartments at huge profits for the past 30 years. So the landlord is getting is gigantically less than what the subleasing person is paying. This makes staying up to code virtually impossible financially and also prevents selling the building because new prospective landlords can’t afford to take on the original contracting tenant who now lives year round in Seattle but claims they intend eventually to return… true story.
    SF rents are horrifying.

    1. We are lucky in that living above our unit we are very aware of who is coming or going, so no tenant can sublet out space without our knowledge. I’m very thankful for that.

    1. Honestly, it’s less admirable than it is stress management. The idea of having a tenant who feels entitled to top-notch service from us is very stressful for me. And when I say I hope they will have an appreciative attitude, it’s not that I hope they will feel like they can’t get that deal elsewhere so they should suffer any problems, but more that they understand we are just trying to make ends meet, not trying to get rich quick, and our responses to issues reflect that.

      1. Yes, this definitely makes sense, especially since you only rent to people you know or who know people you know. If you rented closer to market, it would also be harder to find a tenant and you may have to expand your search parameters. You aren’t in the business of being landlords and don’t want to the stress of it.

        1. This absolutely makes sense to me. The more you charge and the wider you cast your net for prospective tenants (basically, renting to strangers) the more its a JOB vs. just a relatively straightforward way to make some money & cover your mortgage. The lower stress is a HUGE motivation. You do not need more stress!

  4. I’ll be maybe the loan dissenter. It seems to me knowing what I know about San Francisco rents, that there should be the price at which your rent recoups 25% of your mortgage and bills, a price that is market value, and some room in between those two figures. My guess is you could raise rent and still be helping someone out by renting below market value – still a win-win. Especially because I think when you bought your house it was at the very low-end of the past 10 years. And I have to say that of my many, many friends who have rented in San Francisco over the past 10 years, none of them have gotten Duper landlord service, even when renting at market value.please don’t think I am judging you because I disagree, I just know what it’s like out here. And this decision is only yours.

  5. I really appreciate this!!! I can’t imagine we would still be living here if it weren’t for the rent control laws. The speed and magnitude of the changes hitting the Bay Area make staying less and less appealing by the day. I know many people here in Berkeley who have landlords who think like you and I think it is a better way for both landlord and tenant to live. Unfortunately, ours does not and he also lives in the same unit making things somewhat uncomfortable. But still I try to be a good tenant, pay for repairs myself, be respectful, etc. I imagine that paying market value would alter the dynamic quite a bit.

  6. I imagine that this approach goes a long way to create a good relationship with your tenant, AND gives you peace of mind. Seems very reasonable to me.

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