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Speaking Out

Saga of a Cottage: Renters Have War Stories Too

August 07, 1994|HARALD JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the honey started dripping on our dinner guests' heads, I knew we had a problem.

Before my wife and I had moved into our hillside rental house in Woodland Hills, the owner had mentioned that an occasional drop of honey might find its way from a dried-up beehive somewhere in the walls and out the ceiling fan vent of the guest bathroom.

But we weren't prepared for the constant flow of the sticky brown stuff for the next three years while we lived in the house. It was right out of a horror movie: The honey dripped on the toilet, on the floor, on our dog and on our guests, from whom our embarrassment was hard to hide.

The landlord made one attempt at finding the ancient beehive, but after having an entire wall in the bathroom ripped out and living with the mess for one week, no hive was found, and she suggested we learn to cope with the honey since she couldn't tear down the whole house looking for its source. After all, it was only a rental.

I have been a renter for all of my adult years, and while I know that owners love to trade war stories about destructive tenants, I have my own tales of horror, told from the renter's perspective, that can match the best that any landlord can tell.

The saga at our Woodland Hills house--a charming, country-style cottage nestled in a fold of the Santa Monica Mountains--continues.

At the beginning, we didn't mind the owner--a schoolteacher who seemed to have plenty of time on her hands--stopping by to putter in the garden or to see if there were any problems with the house. But the frequent and unannounced visits started to get on our nerves when they continued well after we had settled in.

Sunday mornings were a traditionally peaceful--and sometimes romantic--time for the two of us, but we now seemed to be sharing them with our landlady, who ostensibly needed to check on the watering system--the automatic watering system.

Then came the workmen. It was a 60-year-old house, so things admittedly needed fixing, but the work never seemed to end. Plumbers would arrive to fix leaks. Carpenters had to repair crumbling stairs. Electricians needed to fix faulty wiring. Exterminators needed to get to the attic with the only access through my wife's bedroom closet.

The landlord was sometimes--but not always--willing to meet with the workers herself or, by making them her agents, give them the keys, but after thinking about the potential security problems and finding my wife's antiques scratched after workmen had set their tools on them, we decided that we would have to make ourselves available to supervise any worker visits.

Access to the house for needed repairs is part of any lease, but after my wife had cleared out her closet 75 times and when the number of worker-supervision days hit 108, I said enough. We were renting the house for our use, not to be general contractors.

Then came another problem. Since these were the days of the region's drought and mandatory water rationing, we became concerned when the automatic sprinklers kept sputtering through the night and at frequent intervals. We wanted to have some influence over the watering, especially since the Department of Water and Power bill was in our name.

The system's controls were housed in a padlocked box, but the landlord agreed to give us the combination after my third call in the middle of a winter downpour to come turn off the system that was spewing water from the sprinkler heads and dollars from my pockets.

Then one day, the lock combination was changed. It only seemed like a petty power play in retaliation for our digging in our heels over the repairmen, but during the Malibu wildfires, when our neighbors were frantically hosing down their roofs and sprinkling their properties, we had no access to the watering system.

But it was the rats that finally pushed us over the edge. We started hearing the telltale gnawing and scratching inside the walls, and when we had to remove a water-damaged piece of the kitchen ceiling, six inches of rat feces fell on us and our kitchen counter.

The pest control companies that the owner had on contract did their best, but they never seemed to be able to completely eliminate the problem. The stench that the rotting rodent carcasses created every few months kept us awake at night and caused us to cancel more than one dinner party. A friend suggested placing bowls of vinegar throughout the house, but they were no match for the horrible smell.

When we noticed that the pest companies kept changing, one finally confided in us that the owner simply wasn't paying enough to get rid of the rats once and for all, and they would end up resigning the account out of frustration. We learned that they were only being contracted to set traps; no one was keeping the rats from getting into the house in the first place through the huge holes and gaps in the foundation.

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