How do you sleep at night? An interview with a landlord

In this new column we speak to people with Bad Jobs to try and figure out why they do them.

Maxine McCrann
How do you sleep at night?

Most jobs are at least a little bit evil. Capitalism and the industries that fuel it are pretty much always either causing massive environmental damage or exploiting people — sometimes both. But certain jobs are viewed as being more unethical than others, and the people who work in those roles are looked down upon by society at large. In this column, we’ll talk to people in some of those roles and try to figure out how they sleep at night.

The landlord is one of the most disliked professions on the planet.

Around a third of US households are renters and, for the most part, not because they want to be. A 2016 Pew study found that 65 percent of people who rent are doing so because of circumstance, with most saying they can’t afford to buy property. This is, presumably, at least in part because they’re unable to save enough to buy a house while spending a huge chunk of their income on rent, the cost of which has been increasing for years.

So it’s not surprising that a lot of people harbor some level of resentment toward landlords. Anti-landlord sentiment runs rampant on the internet, with many people painting them as leeches who get rich by exploiting a vital human need while offering little in return beyond occasionally sending a handyman to perform shoddy repair work. You don’t have to look very far to find people reveling in schadenfreude when bad things happen to landlords.

Amanda Ngo is a 28-year-old landlord who lives in Tennessee and owns and manages 15 rental properties in Arkansas. I spoke to her about the reality of working as a landlord, and how she feels about the public perception of her industry.

Mic: What does a typical day look like for you?

Amanda Ngo: When I'm in Tennessee my life looks kind of like a housewife. I get maybe two or three calls a week pertaining to the rent houses; either a maintenance issue that I need to fix or maybe a call from a contractor or something like that. And then I spend about half of my time back in Arkansas, working on [our] vacant properties for 10 to 12 hours a day, painting, cleaning, hauling junk that was left in the house to the landfill… that kind of thing.

Do you know how much money your properties generate a month?

On average, right now, it’s about $8,000 a month, gross. As far as the profit that we’re making, I don’t exactly know. It’s kind of hard because right now we have vacant properties and those properties are going to take a lot of money [to fix up], so it kind of takes all of the profit. I don’t pay myself, it all just stays in the business account and then we put it all back into the properties, for now.

How did you get started doing this?

My dad has had rental properties for about as long as I can remember. I actually went to school to be an engineer. I was working for my first year out of college and my dad got really sick so he needed a full time carer, and I came home to take care of him. Kind of in exchange for me quitting my job and coming home to take care of my dad, my mom gave me their 7 rent houses.

What are some things you like about working as a landlord?

The thing I guess I like the most is the freedom that it gives me. If I was in Tennessee and I was working an 8 to 5 job I wouldn't be able to come home and help my [parents like I am] this weekend. Also I really want to be a stay-at-home mom and I think that this is a way that I can still help provide for my family but I have more freedom to be home with my kids as well. I don't have any kids yet, but one day.

Are there parts you dislike?

Right now I have a house that the tenants have completely destroyed and there’s really no reason for it. The renter actually kicked in every door on the property and smashed in the garage door, so it’s like over $6,000 just in damages to doors.

How would you say public perception of landlords is right now? Do you think it’s changed in recent years?

I think most people think there are good landlords and there are bad landlords. Just like there are good doctors and bad doctors. But there does seem to be an increasing number — and I think it’s mostly younger people, and, especially, on the internet — of people who just despise landlords. Like they think that there’s no such thing as a good landlord, all landlords are super greedy and all they care about is money. And they say things like landlords are just bloodsucking parasites and things like that. It does seem like [that sentiment] is increasing to me. And I think some of that is from the pandemic.

What do you think fuels anti-landlord sentiment?

I’ve tried to kind of follow it a little bit. I'm always curious of what they think the alternative would be. It seems like they blame landlords for property prices being so high. They seem to think that landlords buy up all the cheap properties and then rent them out for really high prices and so nobody can afford to purchase their own house. I’ll tell you, for my area, I don’t think that that's true at all. There’s actually a shortage of rental properties.

Do you think the people who are renting your properties would want to rent if they had the alternative of buying a cheaper place?

Most of my tenants right now, they do not want to buy. I owner-finance to any [of my tenants] who want to buy, so if they wanted to buy the house they would have the opportunity to do that. Either they’re older and they don't want the responsibility, like they have been homeowners at one time and they no longer want the responsibility of owning a home, or they just don't think they want to live in this area forever. I think rental properties are necessary for how we live and function in our society today. I think they're needed. I probably wouldn't have been able to go to college if I couldn't have rented a little cheap apartment.

Where I am, in Los Angeles, I think the majority of people who rent would like to own but it’s unattainable to them because property is so expensive here. Do you think landlords contribute to that?

I just don’t know how to answer that. What would be the alternative? If there were no landlords in Los Angeles would everyone be able to own homes? Do I think landlords make it where people can’t save and buy? Personally, I don’t think that. Because if you have decent credit at all, then you can still buy a property. In my area, several of my tenants the last couple of years have bought.

You’re renting in a very cheap area. I think that’s very specific to that market. On a national level, do you not think landlords have any effect on people’s abilities to own property?

I just don’t know. I’m not trying to dodge the question. You can't just say that because people have to pay rent, they’re not able to save. I mean of course if they were living at home with their parents they could save more money. But like, if they didn't have a car payment they could save more money. If you don't have to buy groceries or you don't have kids, you can save more money.

I think people feel that the prices of properties themselves are also being driven up because of landlords buying. Billions of dollars are being generated each year by people renting out property. That cost must be passed on to the renter at some point along the way.

I just don’t know. I think I would have to think about it more to really answer it.

I saw a tweet this morning that I think sort of encapsulates how a lot of people feel: “Landlords provide housing like scalpers provide concert tickets.” How do you feel about that analogy?

OK, well, as somebody that's putting in 12 hours a day painting and cleaning and patching drywall holes and taking loads and loads of stuff to the landfill, I mean, I'm not just buying a property and reselling it for more. I feel like I'm working and that I’m providing a service. My tenants get to be worry-free that any time any maintenance issue comes up I’m going to fix it as quickly as I can. On Thanksgiving Day I had a septic tank start backing up so I had to call my septic guy and get him out there to fix it. I don't know that my tenant would have been able to have anybody even come out if she had owned the home. He came out for me because I have a good relationship with him.

Do you think there are unscrupulous actors within your field that give landlords a bad name? I can only speak for the people I’ve rented from, but I would say of the ten landlords that I have had, maybe eight of those have been pretty unpleasant experiences.

Oh wow. That’s a high percentage. Almost all of the landlords I know are really good people, and the reason that they have rental properties is to supplement their retirement. I know a landlord in my town, he donates the profits from several of his houses to a scholarship fund for the local community college. I don't personally know any bad landlords but I have of course heard stories, so yes I think there are landlords who give everyone a bad name. But I think that has to be true for every profession. There’s bad teachers and bad nurses. Do I think that it’s a higher percentage [for landlords]? No, I don’t think so.