Dirt, Dead Mice & Cobwebs, Oh My: What I Learned From My Latest Tenant Horror Story


A few months back, the first tenant I had in the first house I bought post bankruptcy moved out. He had been with me for over 3 years and had always paid his rent on time. I purchased the house in the $25-30k range, put some money into it, and it has been a great earner at $800 monthly since he moved in.

I had fired the management company who I was supposedly overseeing it while I had lived out of state and had a stop gap new management company in place to help me transition as I moved back to the area. I knew from what the new management people had said there might be some “work needed.”

Well. There sure was.

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My Horror Story

Let me tell you first, I’ve decided to start managing all my own properties. I do a better job. I select my tenants the way I want them. We look eye to eye. I point out everything in the place that I want to be kept a certain way. We have very nice properties, and we get so much traffic on our properties that we often lease them out within hours/days of listing.

We have an understanding, as landlord and tenant.

So, to say this tenant moving out and I were NOT on the same page regarding upkeep or how to leave a rental unit when you vacate would be an understatement.

The place was a wreck. The carpet was destroyed. DOG SMELL. Holy crap. There was a dead mouse that had been cooking there for a while near the hot water heater. Dirt everything. Cobwebs. And more dirt. And paint missing from doors. And holes in the walls. I honestly don’t know if they ever cleaned. One time. In three plus years.


I could go on and on with the specifics, but there are other things here that I want to mention when you are thinking about your management company or you are managing yourself.

Related: Landlords: Use These Tenant Deposit Policies & Reduce Lost Profit!

What are the most costly items in a property? Probably the roof, HVAC, foundation, maybe hardwood floors or a really nice kitchen with granite and upscale cabinets. This was no JW Marriott, but it was a nice rental house when they started with it.

The vents, every single one of them, had dirt literally clogged and jammed in every nook, in the vent cover, in the side of the side, in the top, the bottom… everywhere.

The gutters were packed FULL of debris, which had also resulted in some soaked sheetrock and two outside walls. Repairing and replacing sheetrock, trim, and carpet isn’t cool.

The HVAC is only a few years old, and it has been abused during this time. It will need to be cleaned and serviced.

They even managed to completely destroy the countertop in the kitchen. Destroy it. The cabinets were so dirty, we ended up completely tearing one section out, and I spent several hours scraping and cleaning the other sections.

These are all things I do now within my properties, but this property and one other had been with my management company before I started growing my business and taking them over as we bought new properties.

What to Do as an Owner

1. Don’t assume the management company is taking care of business. Make sure you are checking with them on a regular basis and finding out about how your properties are doing. And absolutely find out when they have been around to check on them.

2. Be prepared to spend some money on worthwhile things like HVAC maintenance and cleaning the gutters. These small costs turn into big problems down the road if they aren’t addressed.  Especially if you don’t know they aren’t being maintained properly.

3. Make sure you are very up front with the tenants if you are speaking with them and with the management if you aren’t in direct contact. Let them know specifics about how you want your property cared for and maintained. Write it down. Have an every 3-4 month check-in in the units for “battery check of smoke detectors” and a furnace filter. Above all, make sure you know what is going on inside of your property. You don’t have to be nosey, but it’s your right to know they are caring for the property.

4. Don’t be afraid to get a little dirty. Checking on the yard or gutters? Maybe you can go. Or do the walk through as the silent partner with the rental manager. If you are a turnkey owner, make sure you are still in communication with the management company and get not only the paper copy updates, but have a conversation once in a while keeping them aware you are still keep tabs even from afar.

Related: How to Protect Your Rentals Against Tenant Abuse (a.k.a. What I Learned From a Hoarder House)

New Policies in Place

As a manager of my own properties now, we are very clear with our tenants at the beginning. We expect it to be neat and tidy, other than the usual wear of a home. We walk through the house together. And we have an open line of communication. We do a 3-4 month check up IN the home, for smoke detector batteries (and of course, seeing the entire house while there).

Managing properties requires you to be on top of what is going on, and I prefer to be ahead of these issues as much as possible. That’s why we replace plumbing fixtures, outlets, plugs, and water and sewer lines. We try to mitigate any issues we might have on the front end to save us on the back end. It’s that simple.

Do you want to deal with it today, or do you want to deal with it when you have an occupied house, an unhappy tenant and an owner wondering why they are paying for something else to fix?

What do you do in your property management business or rental business that saves you/your investors time and money? New faucets? Fixtures? A walk through sheet for at least signing and end of lease?

Let me know with your comments!

About Author

Nathan Brooks

Nathan Brooks is a dad, husband, worship leader, and real estate investor in the Kansas City market. Foodie. Coffee addict. Crossfit junkie.


  1. William Morrison

    Nathan, when I read the title of your article and the price of the property I expected a lack of reserves and the expected operating costs of lower cost properties. But not what I found as I read your article.

    Good Property Managers can be hard to find. To bad there is not a better data base out there on Property Managers like you can find on Renters. Maybe there is, I haven’t found it.

    I have to have my properties managed. I have several in the what’s known as the 270 corridor in Maryland in the DC area. Great schools, services, transportation, jobs etc. I also have some in Charlotte, NC and some experience in the Raleigh area. And then in San Diego.

    Raleigh and Charlotte I have found very good results with property management both for mine and others I know, some even with renters that have told good stories. The management firms check the properties regularly inside and out and report back with pictures and comments.

    It the 270 corridor not so much. I’ve used several and they just take investors for granted. Communication is bad, no sense of urgency when doing repairs or getting a property back on the market when a vacancy occurs. Reports are terrible, math wrong, etc. These are firms that are national in connections. Just bad.

    I checked what I could on about 20 companies, 8 or so pretty good size. The places I found that have feed back are almost all negative, for all of them. Granted I can’t find a decent place with feedback and those posting usually are mad before they post. And those that post nice comments when asked haven’t had any track record yet (kind of like doing a survey on your new car after owning it a week).

    I see the main information in your recovery is your moving from property managed to managed by you. Not available for all. My wife and I started out that way and had an approach much like yours with great results. We still have long term tenants call to check on us, even giving us updates on our Property Management firm . The firm was sure surprised when we have called about what they were doing or not. Health, age and other life situation have caused us to move to Property Management by others. I’ve had to increase my cost expectations in some cases.

    If there is a more reliable data base for checking out Property Management firms I’d love to know about it.

    Nice recap Nathan.

  2. Larry Russell

    Great post and I couldn’t agree more with item #1. I’ve had management companies give me a great presentation on how they were going to manage my property and fell short in so many areas. One management company had me involved in every decision which meant basically I was managing the property. After taking over management responsibilities, my tenant expressed their unhappiness with the management company as well.

  3. Cheryl Vargas

    Great post, Nathan. Thank you!
    So how did you recoup your costs from that tenant?
    Could you withhold the whole deposit for the repair costs?
    How do you screen tenants, now, to prevent getting another dirty tenant in your property?

  4. Stephen S.

    You cannot assume that your tenant lives like you do now or has even lived like you do. They may have had different life-experiences and poor or negative mentoring. I have found that many people do not know what cleaning is – they have never done it, have never lived in a house where it was done, and so they do not do it. They rent and live somewhere until it is too dirty and beat up for even them to tolerate and then move on to a nice prepped-for-rent house.

    As a result I have a House Rules section of my lease. It explains what routine cleaning is, how often to do it, what it consists of, what products to use, what products not to use, and so forth.

    Some tenants have always lived as pigs and don’t really ‘see’ it on a daily basis. Even in person they will sometimes say: “Oh pardon the mess; I have been meaning to clean up.” in the face of a house which is much as you describe.

  5. David duCille

    I manage my own properties as well. One clause in my lease is that I will be by to change the AC filter on the 15th of the month. So I come by to collect rent on the 1st and again on the 15th to change filters and get 2 opportunities to peruse the home. What happens is that right from.jump the tenants know they are going to see me 2x a month so they end up keeping the place looking right. After a few months of that it becomes 2nd nature to them.

  6. Brad Boone

    Nate, I have felt your pain many times and like you I have a PM company do quarterly inspections sometimes the tenants think its overkill and it may be for some but overall I think that is one of the best decisions I ever made.

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