Prior to our moving to Texas in 2002, my mother was courted by a shyster. She lived in Sherwood, Oregon, which is known for its annual Sherwood Robin Hood Festival. A few years prior, my mother and I purchased new homes next to each other, and became involved in the Festival, me coordinating the parade and doing their marketing and publicity, and she eventually becoming the treasurer.
The shyster also played a key role in the Festival, helping build stages and set pieces, and providing space in one of his barns for storing the annual float and other bulky structures. He lived on a several acres with a large house, several barns, and corrals for wife’s horses. His younger daughter was on the Sherwood Festival Maid Marian Court, and his older daughter was equally charismatic.
He approached my mother in late 2002, asking for money to build a float. Over the course of several months, she depleted the Festival’s accounts, believing the money was being use for the float and other festival needs. When the issue came to the attention of the Sherwood Robin Hood board, and the money had obviously gone into the shyster’s pocket, they asked that the money be repaid. Feeling badly, my mother wrote a personal check for $16,000, expecting to be repaid by the shyster.
While the board should have notified the authorities, especially since they were repaid by my mother and not the shyster, they swept the matter “under the rug.” Meanwhile, the shyster identified his next victim. Over the course of 14 months or so, he swindled over $325,000 from my mother, leaving her destitute.
He plied her with promises of paying her back once his house—worth around $700,000—was sold. He claimed he needed the money to purchase supplies for his contracting business, pay salaries to his workers, and lease an expensive work truck. Additionally, he said that he was getting divorced, and needed the money for child support.
Being in Texas, we were oblivious to what was occurring, and my self-absorbed brother and his haughty girlfriend were too clueless to notice my mother’s anxiety, bare cupboards, and failing health. While I sensed over the phone that something wasn’t right, I didn’t learn of the matter until January 2004—thirteen months after I’d moved to Texas—when her neighbor called.
For the next year and a half, Rich and I did forensic accounting, gathering and documenting what had occurred, and working with the authorities to charge the shyster with multiple counts. He eventually spent two years in jail, and was charged with five counts of theft, two being aggravated. In the end, he barely paid back $2,000, despite our also winning a $1.4 million civil judgement against him.
Decades earlier, my mother loaned money to a man who flipped houses. Her investment had paid off with the man faithfully paying her interest every month. When we notified him that we needed to get the money back, he obliged within a few weeks, returning her to financial independence. Additionally, Rich took over her finances, ensuring her bills were paid, and no unusual withdrawals or expenses occurred.
Once we moved back to the Pacific Northwest, in the summer of 2007, we were able to do more than just oversee her finances. We continued to assess her living conditions, hiring caretakers, moving her bedroom downstairs, ensuring her house was properly maintained, and visiting every few months.
Thanksgiving of 2013, we could no longer pretend she could live on her own, even with the assistance of daily visits by caregivers. She was spending all day in bed, soiling the linens, and not eating the food prepared for her. We explored assisted living facilities but decided it would be more cost effective to move her to our second home in Mount Vernon, WA.
Two weeks later, we spent two days packing her clothing and personal items, and furnishings she’d need, and then drove her up to Washington, Rich in a U-Haul truck, and my mother and I in Rich’s car. While my mother was initially disoriented and angry that we were micromanaging her life, after a few weeks, she grew to enjoy her new living situation.
We put her bedroom furniture and a dozen or so of her needlepoint pictures in a large bedroom, which was painted pale yellow. A sizable bathroom was across the hall. A few steps from the bathroom, the hall opened up into the main room, kitchen and dining room. The house is a split level and from the top floor, which comprises most of the house, there’s a gorgeous view across a wetland with the Skagit River in the distance and several picturesque farmhouses in the foreground.
The view from the kitchen is also lovely with a peak-a-boo view of Mount Baker and a broad swath of green grass and plantings in the backyard.
We also arranged for Visiting Angels to come twice a day to get her out of bed in the morning and make her dinner at night. Every weekend, we drove up and stayed through Sunday afternoon, purchasing her groceries, making her favorite foods—chocolate cream pie, chopped liver, chicken soup, etc.—doing the laundry, and buying necessities.
Once we got her settled in Mount Vernon, from late December through early March, we’d drive down to Portland every other weekend, to spend 2-3 days working on her house from painting to having all the cupboards refinished. Check out “Life Happens.”
By mid-March, the house was ready to lease. We met with a rental company and was shocked to learn the house would rent for at least $300 more than we expected, which would more than cover the cost of my mother’s caregivers. Even better, once listed, we had several “bites,” and within a few weeks, a newly divorced woman moved in, along with her two kids, and a large dog.
While it was disheartening that her definition of gardening was occasionally watering a few plants when the temperatures soared, she kept the house spic-and-span. Because she disliked gardening, we ended up hiring a gardener who did a mediocre job of weeding and keeping the plants alive. In his defense, he did a stupendous job of using a leaf blower to disperse newly laid bark dust into piles and up and into the dryer vent, resulting in our having to hire someone to fix the damage.
A year after she moved in, we removed a large tree in the front yard, and replaced my mother’s dozen or so rose bushes and hundreds of bulbs with lawn, which she managed to water once we got her a sprinkler, attached to a garden hose.
Within a month of her leaving, one of her friends, also in the process of getting divorced, was seeking a new place to live. She also had kids and two itty-bitty dogs. Unlike the previous tenant, she was somewhat interested in maintaining the garden. I liked her vibe and the way she decorated the house, including having grand piano in the living room.
A year after she moved in, she wanted us to reduce the rent, so we fired the management company—which took a percentage of the rent money—lowered the rent, and “self-managed” the property. A short time later, she supposedly lost her job, and had to pay the rent in installations. For the rest of her stay in the house, several years, we never raised the rent, and by the time we sent her an eviction notice in November 2020, she was paying $500-$600 less per month than similar rentals in the area.
Paying less rent would have been okay if she did a good job of maintaining the house, but she did a horrible job, both inside and out. The handful of times we “inspected” the house, the glass-topped stove was black with grime, piles of laundry was everywhere, and the lint filter in the dryer looked as if it’d never been cleaned. The “kids” rooms, both of whom are now in college, were in disarray, clothes and crap strewn across the floors.
The tile by the front door was caked with filth, having rarely if ever been cleaned. And while she seemed to have trimmed some of the plants, usually before we’d announce a visit, many of the plants showed signs of distress, and weeds were usually everywhere. Every spring, we’d bring plants and cuttings, such as day lilies, irises and lavenders, to fill in the empty spaces, but they’d inevitably be dead 6 months later.
In late 2020, she called to say the toilet in an upstairs bathroom was leaking, and water had traveled across the hallway into her son’s room, and then dripped down into the family room, where it traveled across the ceiling into the garage. We suspect, she, her boyfriend or son fiddled with something because the water supposedly came out through the top of the tank. When we showed up a week later to meet with the insurance adjustor and assess the damage, her attitude was “la-di-da,” more focused on getting the repairs done rapidly so it didn’t impact her life and would be completed before her kids came home from college.
The amount of damage was huge. And while making the repairs to the drywall, black mold was discovered in several walls. While our insurance covered the damage from the water leak, we were on the hook for repairing the walls. Thousands of dollars later, the house was spic-and-span with new floors, sheet rock and paint in four rooms, new toilet in the bathroom, and several other small fixes.
It also instigated us to determine how to evict her. She’d been renting from month-to-month for over a year in hope of finding a house to buy. While we emphasized with her desire to find a house, we were anxious to boot her out, and start the process of selling the house.
With COVID-19, however, there are only four circumstances in which someone can be evicted. The only one we could use was to say that Rich and I were breaking up, and he was moving into the house, starting in February. Upon getting the notice in late November, the tenant didn’t seem perturbed.
We were more stressed over Rich and I needing to live apart, and how we were going to temporarily furnish the house so Rich could move in. A few weeks later, however, our anxiety was allayed when the tenant announced she’d found a house and would be moving in early January.
Hurrah! Sometimes the angels work in one’s favor.
We had an enjoyable rest of December, knowing the job ahead of us was to simply clean and spiff up the house, and then get it listed.
Readied and sold within months
Even though I’d started a new job on Monday, January 4, I felt a pressing need to go down to Oregon for a few days to help Rich fix up the house, and then wish it “good-bye.” With few houses available in the Sherwood area, we recognized that as soon as the house was listed, we’d get offers.
The only open question was what we needed to do to get the house ready to be sold. A few months earlier, the company who made the repairs after the toilet leak took extensive photos of the damage also capturing the filth throughout the house from the crud-encrusted stove to the collection of crumbs, bits of food, and dirt around the refrigerator to miscellaneous relics on the floor in nearly every room. Vacuuming, sweeping, and using a trash was obviously a foreign concept.
While the tenant said she was going to have the house deep cleaned, I didn’t know how much could be cleaned with a vacuum, rags, and spritz bottles of potions.
We began our journey early Saturday morning, January 9, in two cars at the Coupeville ferry terminal. Our plan was to travel down scarcely traveled Highway 101 along the Hood Canal and through the Olympic Forest, and emerge onto Interstate 5, south of Olympia. Following Rich, I realized he had other plans. Feeling it was too foggy to drive on twisty two-lane roads, he chose to go through the significantly busier Highway 3 through Bremerton, down Highway 16 across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and emerge north of perpetually under-construction, traffic magnet Tacoma.
While we were able to zoom along at 50 miles per hour or better for most of the trek, I was furious. If he’d wanted to banty with traffic, we should have simply gone through Seattle, especially, since we started our voyage at 6 in the morning at the Coupeville ferry terminal!
Happily, with foggy, but dry weather, we zoomed through Tacoma and Olympia. The rest of the trip down Interstate 5 is usually smooth sailing until you get close to Vancouver, WA. This trip was no exception. We made it to Camas, WA, where Rich’s son and his two children, Coen (8) and Caitlyn (6) live by 1 p.m.
We spent a few hours relaxing, chatting with the kids, and eating delicious Thai food. Refreshed from our lengthy drive, we hopped back into our cars to headed to Tualatin where we’d booked a motel. First, we had to make our way through Portland. As expected, there was a traffic jam. However, it barely slowed our scramble through downtown. Keep in mind, I was following Rich in heavy traffic with people cutting in-and-out, and lanes ending-and-beginning.
We had significantly more difficulties, finding our motel, which was off the freeway, but tucked behind a Burgerville, gas station, and night club, all three of which were surprisingly busy. Because we would be engaged in doing home improvement projects for the next few days, I insisted Rich upgrade from our usual choice of a bare-bones Motel 6.
He chose a Holiday Inn Express, which was lovely. We had a handicap room to accommodate Rich’s need to use a walker and grab bars when he removed his prosthetic leg. The room was quiet and commodious with two sinks, microwave, refrigerator, desk, easy chair, and the usual lodging accoutrements. Since we typically purchase food from a grocery store that we can simply heat, having a place to assemble, microwave and eat food is essential.
After putting our stuff in the room, we headed to Sherwood to check out the house. With most of the tenant’s “stuff” moved out, we used our key to get in. The house was a disaster, the floor littered with riffraff, single socks, coins, food wrappers, price tags, scraps of paper, twist-ties, and items that didn’t find their way into packing boxes. Plus, a few paintings were still on the walls.
The garage was full of junk, ranging from a refrigerator to a metal desk, framed antique prints, miscellaneous collectible, wreaths, cardboard boxes, garden tools, hummingbird feeder, and wooden birdhouse.
As expected, the stove was black, caked with soot as if it’d never been cleaned. Inexcusable because it’s a glass-topped stove, which takes minutes to clean with a little cleanser. To our relief, the countertop and tile backsplash was a bit dirty, but easy to clean.
Having been told she was going to have the house “deep” cleaned on Sunday, we left after a walk through the house.
Hungry, we zoomed by Fred Meyers. Rich got an Indian dish that could be heated in the microwave, along with potato salad. I settled for a Greek salad. I find packaged salads irresistible.
Rolling up our sleeves towards a goal
We woke Sunday morning, refreshed, and ready to conquer whatever was necessary to get the house ready to sell. Nibbling on Egg McMuffins, we headed to the house, and were happy to see the cleaners had already picked up most of the stuff off the floors and vacuumed. One woman was upstairs, cleaning the bathrooms and bedrooms, and the other was dealing with the kitchen, which was a big job. She’d sprayed the inside of the oven, which was disgustingly dirty, despite it being a self-cleaning oven. I joined her in trying to clean the stove top, but the black crud had already seeped into the glass. Even bleach didn’t lighten the stains.
After being at the house for an hour, our realtor showed up, along with the tenant and her boyfriend who were making their second trip of the morning to remove stuff from inside the house and garage. It was a bit awkward because I wanted to scream at her for being so neglectful and such a slob but knew that would accomplish nothing.
Meanwhile, she was anxious to get her deposit back, feeling the money she spent on the deep cleaning covered up for years of paying thousands less in rent while doing virtually nothing to maintain the house.
A phrase that kept popping into my head was “subtractive personality,” in that she took significantly more than she gave back and was so wrapped up in the wonderment of her believed virtuosity that she was oblivious to her shortcomings. My hypothesis was proven correct when we examined the side yard, which was a mass of tall blackberry bushes and sizable weeds with a barely upright small plastic garden shed, large doghouse tipped over on its side, and other rubbish, including an old hose and rusty garden tools. Additionally, four or five fence boards had wiggled lose and were laying on the ground.
When I asked her about the side yard, her response was “That stuff was there when we moved in, so we didn’t touch it.” That was true. The previous owner had used the side yard for her dog, and we assumed the new tenant with two little dogs—for which we never made her pay a pet deposit—would use the side yard, garden tools, and tool shed.
Ms. Subtractive Personality wasn’t compelled to do anything more than live in the house and pay a ridiculously low rent. When I glared at her incredulously, she pointed to her boyfriend and said he had back surgery, and she had wrist surgery… and her father died… and she didn’t have time to do much around the house since she had a full-time job and several part-time jobs, one of which was singing in a group, and another was organizing events at a local tap room.
Having seen her Facebook posts, other jobs she held was drinking, dining out, ordering in food, having her nails done, and pretending she’s compassionate.
In the Life’s Little Instruction Book by H. Jackson Brown, Jr. instruction #274 says, “Leave everything a little better than you found it.” I’ve always strived to improve what’s around me, whether streamlining the marketing processes at work or refreshing the homes Rich and I were selling. Considering we’d worked with her when she had to pay the rent in installations, and for most of her tenancy paid the equivalence of a one or two-bedroom apartment in rent, the least she could have done was attempt the maintain the house.
After she left, I donned rubber boots and tackled cutting and ripping out the blackberries, locating the fence boards (which Rich nailed up a few days later), and pulling out all the debris so it could be disposed of the next day. In the rest of the yard, I trimmed, picked up dead branches, repositioned and cleaned off steppingstones, and broke two shovels and one pitchfork, trying to dig out samples of hellebores.
I hadn’t realized tree roots had grown over the hellebores. Once I cut the roots, and wasn’t trying to dig under them, I was able to easily extract the plants, which are now happily growing in Coupeville, along with several other plants, which somehow managed to survive two gardening-agnostic tenants.
I also brought the broken tools home, which Rich placed in wooden blocks, so I can create an art installation in my garden as an ode to broken tools and determination. They’ll join my ode to bizarre plumbing, comprised of pipes from the remodel of the laundry room in our Mount Vernon house.
After working outside, I ventured into the house to help Rich determine what we needed to fix and refresh before listing the house. We had a lengthy list of things to buy, including new outdoor lights, nails, torchiere to light up the master bedroom, which had no overhead lighting, outlet covers, cleaning supplies, and boxes of lightbulbs. Many of the lightbulbs were missing or burnt-out. The dining room fixture requires six bulbs, but only two were in it. The fixtures in the two upstairs bathrooms each had a light bulb instead of the requisite three.
Before we headed to Home Depot, I popped off the center section inside the washer where you pour in detergent. There was an inch worth of caked detergent on the bottom and sides. Over the course of two days, I repeatedly mucked out the detergent, and repeatedly rinsed until the residue was gone. It’s highly likely that very little detergent was getting into the washer because the holes were plugged.
The dryer was equally compromised with goo inside as if something plastic had been melted when dried. I was fearful that the dryer hose that vented outside was full of lint but didn’t want to trouble Rich to pull away the dryer, especially with him preoccupied with fixing other issues.
Even though the house was “deep” cleaned, I had to spend several hours de-gunking the kitchen overhead light, scraping grease from under the fan above the stove, and scrubbing other parts of the kitchen where grime had accumulated. The tile by the front door was filthy and took several applications of bleach to clean the grout. Wax had dripped down one wall in the living room. I also used bleach to clean the blinds and shades, covering the French doors and several windows.
After our run to Home Depot, we visited a Hawaiian restaurant, and got to-go boxes of scrumptious kalua chicken, stir fried vegetables, brown rice, and macaroni salad. There was so much food, we had it for three nights!
Monday our focus was painting the master bedroom. The first tenant had painted some of the walls pale lavender and the other walls pale gray. I knew painting the bedroom would be challenging because it has 10 walls, including an inset area with a sink, and high ceilings. We started on a wall near the door, and it became painfully obvious we’d need to use two coats. Plus, Rich wasn’t particularly agile with his prosthetic leg, especially going up-and-down a ladder.
While Rich was outside, helping load stuff into the “College Hunks that Haul Junk” truck, I made an executive decision. We really only needed to paint the three walls, which were lavender, and then get a small container of gray paint to cover the puttied holes in the wall from the dozens of pictures the tenant had hung. In some areas, there were multiple holes in a three-square inch area because she must have kept moving the pictures until she found the ideal location. Being she has subtractive personality traits, she used giant nails in some places, requiring pliers to pull out the nails, and smaller picture hooks and nails in other areas.
Despite reducing the number of walls we needed to paint, it took most of the day. Around 2 o’clock, we headed to Home Depot to get a small container of gray paint, but the paint chip we brought was too small. Fortunately, an older fellow told us how to get a better sample by using an X-Acto knife to carve out a portion of the wall from behind a baseboard.
After getting back to the house, we got a better paint chip, and that night, returned to Home Depot to have them recreate the paint. The resulting sample, which Rich applied to cover the putty the following day, was nearly perfect except for being a bit too shiny.
The previous night, while nibbling on Hawaiian food, we used our phones to look up contractors. Having seen a sign for “College Hunks who Haul Junk” on the way back to our motel, I emailed them. The next morning, they showed up, removing the refrigerator, doghouse, and residual crap in the garage.
Additionally, I emailed a rug cleaning company. They called the next day, and two days later, they cleaned the rugs.
The fireplace screen, which had always been troublesome, would probably not pass inspection, especially since we’d replaced the conventional wood-burning fireplace with a gas-burning insert and ceramic logs to prevent the tenants from bringing potentially bug- and termite-infested wood into the house, and creating soot when they burned the wood. Not sure what to do, Rich contacted the company that originally installed the insert, and they miraculously found a lightly use metal fireplace frame with glass doors, which fit perfectly.
Meanwhile, our realtor contacted several local people to power wash the patio, driveway, and walkways, and clean and certify the roof. They did the work within a week.
Monday morning, I drove back to Coupeville—in torrential, non-stop rain—to return to work. Rich stayed through Tuesday afternoon, and drove back late that night.
Two weeks, and a day later, the house was listed. And five days later, we received two offers, both above listing price. We accepted the lower offer since their financing seemed more buttoned-up but following the home inspection they had quite a few requests, including replacing the roof, replacing part of the siding, and remediating a bit of mold in the attic, probably due to a lack of vent holes in the roof. They also amended their offer, wanting to pay $12,000 less, and have us pay $8,000 in their closing costs.
Golly gee whiz. Straight off the top, we’d get $20,000 less, and need to pay $15,000 or more in repairs. Our immediate response, guided by our realtor, was “No!” I’m not sure what logic they applied, to justify offering $12,000 less after we invested in a new roof and other repairs.
Happily, our realtor spun around and contacted the second interested buyer who offered $15,000 above listing and was happy that we were going to replace the roof (our realtor got a bid for $7,800) and solve the siding and mold challenges (another $3,000 or so).
One issue was the jamb of the door that went into the garage from the side yard. It was rotted probably because the tenant never bothered to clean the concrete slab outside the door, which was thick with moss and mud. This was the side of the house where Ms. Subtractive Personality never bothered to tidy, allowing blackberry bushes to grow, fence boards to fall, and riffraff to pile-up.
Another issue was a woodpecker must have had fun on the chimney, drilling a handful of holes in the siding. Once again, Ms. Subtractive Personality probably heard the woodpeckers, especially since she worked from home, and wrote it off as “not her problem.”
A few days after the second buyer made an offer, he visited the house, and claimed it was sinking, and therefore, wasn’t interested in purchasing it. There was no way the house had sunk or was sinking. My mother and I had visited the neighborhood when the houses were under construction. We chose two lots, which had been cleared of trees and brush. The ground wasn’t fill, swamp land or even close to water!
Third offer did the trick
Undeterred by two offers falling through, we went ahead with the updates, and had the house back on the market by late February. The weekend it was shown, we received an offer, regrettably less than the original two offers. But there was no point waiting to get more offers when we had “one in hand,” especially, since the buyers stated they wouldn’t ask for any repairs; although, there was nothing left to repair!
The potential buyers also wrote us a heartfelt letter, saying they were recently married, and were anxious to start a family, along with get a dog. Our house would be perfect with the side yard already fenced in to accommodate a dog, and many nature trails in the area, including a greenway that backed up to the house.
On Tuesday, March 30, a notary public came to our Coupeville house, and we signed the final papers. It felt bittersweet. We’d spent a lot of money getting the house ready to sell, and repair the damage from Ms. Subtractive Personality, In the end, we sold it for a few thousand dollars above asking. On the other hand, we received $10,000 more than I expected when we chatted with the realtor in early January.
In the big picture, we bought out my brother when my mother passed away and collected rent for over 6 years. The amount we paid my brother minus what we received after the house sold was substantial, especially since the mortgage had been paid off in 2006. The only expenses were insurance, property taxes, and repairs and updates.
The steady income from renting the house was reassuring. Hopefully, our investments provide a similar level of income. On the other hand, our next renter could have wrought more damage on the house.
Sherwood is a great community. If I hadn’t met Rich, I could have seen myself happily living in my little white house, to the left of my mother’s. It was adorable with perky blue trim and a little breakfast nook with just enough room for my wicker and glass table and two matching chairs. In the backyard was a small pond filled with frogs and dragonflies.
On the other hand, having gotten married, enabled me to get out from under my mother’s control and demands, and now I find myself in a house that is twice as large with a fabulous fenced in garden, perpetual stream of birds, and the joy of seeing the ocean every day.