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Snakes in the Toilet and Other Confessions of a Landlord

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For most of Renters Week so far, we've focused on the renters, but we can't leave landlords out of the landlord-tenant equation. So we reached out to Brooklyn landlord Gregory O'Connell of the O'Connell Organization to answer some questions about life as a landlord, tenant horror stories, and oddest renter requests. Without further ado, here we go:

How many buildings do you manage? Where are they located?

We manage approximately 150 properties. The majority of our holdings are in Brooklyn, NY, but we also have moved some of our operation "upstate" to Western New York. Our properties range in terms of classification. We own and manage commercial facilities in Red Hook, Brooklyn which include offices, artist studios, industrial spaces and parking lots. We also own and manage a considerable amount of multi-family homes in the Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Columbia St. Waterfront sections of Brooklyn. Many of these multi-families are older walk-ups. The largest mixed-use building we manage is the Red Hook Stores building, which includes Fairway Market.
How did you become a landlord?
This is a family business so I've been around it for many years but never to the extent that I am today. After getting out of college a few years ago it seemed natural to transition into a full-time member of the organization. Growing up around this type of business considerably lessened the learning curve.

How do you decide which buildings to buy?
Our approach has always been to look at investments with long term profit in mind. We rarely sell anything...There are a number of factors that go into one's thought process when looking to purchase, for example, what does the buyer see as the future of the area where they are purchasing? Are there any liens on the property? Violations? What do you plan on doing with the property. If you plan to make it residential?does the zoning allow for that? Will it be possible to get a variance? Are there plans for the building? Has a variance been sought before? Is it expired?...Also, a big factor which every developer should take into consideration?how will your purchase and eventual implementation of your goal affect the surrounding community? These are just a few questions one should ask them self when looking to purchase property but no matter what, you have to be able to make a return so that the property can sustain itself. Of course everything is different if you plan to purchase/renovate/sell in order to make quick return and maximize profit.

What do you look for in a prospective tenant?
Well first of all, financial stability. You always want to make sure that you will get reimbursed promptly each month. Other than that it's always nice to rent to someone that's sane. A big plus is when the tenant is rational and not easily rattled. When an emergency happens you want someone that will work with you and not completely freak out. For many, the term "emergency" is very loosely used, so when you have a tenant calling your emergency line 20 times because she is locked out of her 4 story walk-up, you know that you're dealing with someone that may not be calm and collected when a pipe has burst in their apartment. Another big issue we've had is that tenants generally do not know how to distinguish between let's say a 4 story walk up in Red Hook and lets say a Brooklyn Heights apartment building with a doorman. You're always happy when you have a tenant with realistic expectations.

What's an average day like for you as a landlord?
I come in around 7:30 and leave by 5:30 with work in my bag to complete at home. On a daily basis you deal with tenant complaints, tenant leads for any availabilities you may have, making sure landlord-tenant cases are moving along, coordinating with your crews to confirm work that has been done, relaying any keys to renovated apartments to your brokers, questions from your staff to confirm correct procedure, running around to do what needs to be done i.e copy keys, make a trip to the bank, pick up toilet paper etc....Being a decent multi-tasker is a definite necessity.

What's your worst tenant horror story?
There is no one story that surpasses all others but many of the horror stories have to do with tenants' participation in criminal activity, BED BUGS, tenant-on-tenant harassment or violence. I wouldn't feel comfortable sharing one particular experience on here as it may be personal and tragic for one of my tenants.

What's the oddest or most ridiculous request you've ever gotten from a tenant?
The most absurd request we've had here had to be when one of our tenants called us to remove a snake from her toilet. I guess she woke up and like many of us, had to use the facilities first thing in the morning. Luckily she actually looked before sitting down but I'm sure her husband just forget to put down the toilet seat thus making looking down into the toilet part of her daily routine. Still not really sure where it came from. Maybe one of our other tenants was fed up with his snake and flushed it. One that struck me as ridiculous was when a tenant asked us to unlock the basement so that he and his wife could continue to operate their dryer which they illegally hooked up to our gas line.

What are some tasks/repairs that every tenant should learn how to do?
Snake a toilet. Change a light-bulb. Turn off a water line. Learn how to properly dispose of a bed. NOT pour grease down a drain. NOT try to flush a hairbrush down the toilet. NOT smoke cigarettes in the hallway and throw them down the stairwell.

When do you actually turn the heat on?
We turn the heat on after the first instance where the temperature falls below 55 degrees during the day or 40 at night. Even when we do this, many heating systems need to be repaired at the beginning of each season in order to avoid problems when it gets really cold. When we have to supply heat, many tenants still continue to keep air conditioners in their windows which in effect acts as an open window. We've had this older woman in a stabilized building call upwards of 6 times this past week complaining about the heat in her apartment. The heat is working to the point where it is uncomfortably hot in the building and she refuses to remove her air conditioner or have any one of her younger family members, who also have air conditioners in their windows, remove the unit. Many assume that it is automatically the Landlord's fault when heat is not "supplied" properly but there are many factors where tenants are responsible for improper distribution of heat throughout the building.

Bonus question we've always wanted answered: how do mail carriers actually get into the building? Do they have keys?
Normally, at least in our buildings, the front door opens into a vestibule where all of the mailboxes are and then the 2nd door is locked. The mailman always has the master key to the mailboxes but never has a key to the actual building.
· All Renters Week 2011 coverage [Curbed]