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Rental nightmares

Renting out one’s property can be a positive experience, ultimately building equity for the owner and providing cash flow. It can also be a doomed game of craps.

In the case of a former Whidbey Island Naval Air Station sailor, the game of craps has been never-ending and the losses continue to pile up. After renting out her North Whidbey home, the young woman and her daughter moved back home to California. Her residence was then reportedly taken hostage by a woman who refuses to leave.

“I got out of the Navy in March. I just wanted to pay the mortgage and get home,” the homeowner said. “When the woman came to me, I felt for her. Everything seemed like it was OK.”

Telephone calls from neighbors to the owner, now living in California, described the situation as decidedly not OK.

“She won’t let Realtors in,” she said. “She won’t let anybody in.”

The last correspondence the homeowner had with the renter was in early September and only led to threats and false claims, she said. The phone number has since been changed or the line disconnected.

In hindsight, the 32-year-old mother was admittedly naive, using a legally indefensible lease agreement form from Office Max.

“I wish I would have done more research,” she said.

Rather than jump into a rental situation, many real estate agents would agree that hiring a property manager is much wiser.

“Tenants tend to take advantage of owners who manage themselves,” said Leonard Johnson of American Dream Real Estate Services.

Johnson, whose company has offices in Anacortes and Mount Vernon, said owners often do not do the proper background checks on prospective tenants and they fail to follow through with routine checkups throughout the year. Once the damage has been done, it’s too late.

“Then the owner steps in and says, ‘I probably need property management,’” Johnson said. “And the biggest mistake is the owner not telling the insurance company the house is a rental. Then it’s not covered when there’s tenant damage.”

Cat damage totals $100,000

Johnson manages a property on Arwin Road in Oak Harbor where the damage to the home, which was extensively renovated, totaled approximately $100,000. A tenant moved in with one cat. The feline population grew to 25 animals and the the renter fled in the middle of the night, leaving behind a decimated structure rife with feces.

Orca Information, Inc. in Anacortes helps head-off sad situations like the ones on North Whidbey and Arwin Road. The company screens tenants for landlords and property managers by performing background checks.

With 3,000 clients from Texas to Alaska, Orca handles approximately 90 percent of Oak Harbor’s background checks, said Bob Near, the business’s chief operations officer.

“We search the people’s backgrounds first to find out where they’ve lived,” he said. “Then we go probing to see if they have any criminal history.”

The North Whidbey homeowner said the tenant has repeatedly severed the rental agreement.

“The neighbors told me the garage is filled with trash,” she said. “There are six people living in that two-bedroom house. She’s letting my yard go to crap.”

A call to the Island County Sheriff’s Office proved to be enlightening, albeit shockingly so, to the first-time landlord. The deputy provided the owner with a copy of the state’s Landlord/Tenant Law. And as a rental homeowner himself who had suffered similarly at the hands of tenants, he told the beleaguered woman the reality of her predicament: people take a big chance when they choose to rent their home.

“He told me that she can squat there until it goes through Superior Court,” she said.

Following the eviction process laid out in the law, the owner sent a certified letter informing the tenant of the imminent proceedings. The letter was never picked up at the post office and has made its way through the mail back to California.

Court needed

for eviction

Once the renter is formally served and still chooses to remain in the dwelling, the landlord is required to begin what is called an “unlawful detainer” action in Superior Court. An “order to show cause” is then sent and the tenant must explain to the court why a “writ of restitution,” which directs the sheriff to physically remove the person or persons and their property from the premises, should not be issued. The only legal way for a landlord to physically move a tenant is by going through the courts and sheriff’s office.

Someone with access to unlimited funds and a costly attorney would still view the woman’s situation as a persistent headache. But for the former sailor, the prospect of expensive and lengthy court proceedings is not feasible.

“I sank every bit of my savings into fixing that house,” she said. “I’m losing everything.”

The owner’s daughter suffers from a developmental birth defect and the medical insurance is gone, making the future even bleaker.

“Now I have to go through Superior Court, which can take up to 20 days,” she said. “Then I have to travel to Oak Harbor from Southern California. The law totally protects the tenant. That’s who it is written for.”

The landowner is entitled to evict the tenant in theory. In application, however, the process is often time and cost prohibitive, she said.

“It’s scary. This is probably the absolute worst-case scenario,” she added.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said his staff, as well as the clerk or deputy clerk, devote a significant number of work hours each year to dealing with landlord/tenant conficts.

Deputies caught

in the middle

Island County Sheriff’s Deputy Lt. Mike Hawley, who works out of the north precinct, said calls involving landlord/tenant disputes are common.

“We’re there to keep the peace,” he said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what tenant rights are and what landlord rights are. We try to get in and explain the rights and figure out how to get it settled.”

In the last year on North Whidbey, Hawley estimated that there has been one eviction a week, although the tenants are often gone by the time the deputies arrive. He sympathized with the California woman’s dilemma.

“As the landlord you can’t just walk into the house or change the locks,” Hawley said. “You have to go through the due process and that can be expensive for the small property owner.”

Criminal laws are not easy to enforce, Hawley added, as the tenants are often destitute and recouping lost money is a virtual impossibility.

“You really need to screen the potential renters well,” he said.

The victimized homeowner suspects that her North Whidbey tenant is no stranger to the system that has allowed her to commandeer someone else’s home. Although she does not expect a happy ending to her story, she feels the situation should serve as a cautionary tale for other rental owners, especially in a Navy community like Oak Harbor.

“There are so many people who transfer elsewhere and rent out their homes,” she said. “I don’t want something like this to happen to them.”

Orca Information can be reached at 1-800-341-0022.

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