The Real Estate Kid

My experience with real estate started when I was a kid. I remember the first house I lived in at Port-au-Prince Haiti. I was 3 years old. My parents argued about the front door every day, the front door that we did not have because my father did not think of it as priority. He felt that a sheet of plywood was enough to keep the passer by from seeing inside your house. A door he said ” is designed for your friend to warn you of their presence by knocking before they come in”. My mother insisted that a burglar could have easy access to our house without any restrictions. This argument went on for a while…I must have been 5 when my father agreed to install a door. My mother was happy to hear the news about a door, but my father added, ” The door will go in the house I am building because this house is sold, we should plain on moving in a month.

A month or so later, we move into a new house with no door and with dirt floor. The scent of fresh concrete stood out. The indoor toilet was at an early stage: The sink and toilet and other accessories were still at the hardware store. The only indication that some day we’ll have indoor plumbing was the strategically located aluminum pipe staking out of the concrete floor. We also had one roll of toilet paper right next to where the toilet will be someday….

We had a two bedroom house for us and a back room next to the kitchen for the maid. The outhouse was adjacent to the maid bedroom. Well the maid bedroom and the outside latrine shared a wall.

The plan was to have a two-story house. So the stairway to the second floor was built on top of the outside toilet. As every man needs a refuge, some place to meditate and talk to oneself, the top of the roof was my father’s place to dream of the next house he will build or the second floor he needs to add to the existing door less 1st floor with bathroom yet to be installed.

For years that house was a work in progress, slow progress. We had ceramic tiles on the floor one year, some time later we had decorative iron bars and the inside walls were painted. The indoor toilet and shower were finally operative, but reserved for guest or any acquaintance my father wanted to impress. The water supply was limited to two 55 gallon drum carefully placed on top of the house, so we had to ensure that ample water was available at the right moment. As a perk for good behavior, we were allowed to use the indoor toilet or shower: never both the same day by the same person.

I remember one time I was able to enjoy these privileges for a week. My father had his business partner over at the house. It was evening time and they were working on a construction budget. The electricity went out as it does 3 or 4 hours every night. I was doing my homework so I share the same table and the same kerosene lamp with my father and his partner. I lost interest in my homework and started paying attention to their project. They repeated aloud each item needed for an upcoming construction and the estimated price for each item, I wrote down the information. I had a feeling of grown up contributing to a major construction project. I added the different prices without their knowledge and at the end; each one of us had a different bottom line figure. I shared my result with them and my answer was right on the money. The engineer, my father’s partner, was a little embarrassed and my father proud of me, so proud he did not reprimand me for any wrong doing for a week. So for a week, I showed indoors, relieved myself indoors, listened to the radio until 10pm ( I had a battery powered radio)….

I grew up watching improvement being made in that house of ours. I got taller but the house never did: the second floor never materializes. That was a good thing because as I got older, it was a safe place to take girls and no one would know and best of all the concrete roof is sound proof and sturdy….

The improvement obviously stopped when my parents divorced. My mother sold a piece of property she had inherited from her father and bought a rental property.

My mother was born handicapped so she never ventured into the job market, outside the home anyway. But my mother always believed in self reliance to a certain degree. She always had some means of making a couple extra dollars. She sews clothes for friends for a small fee. She would buy a pack of cigarettes and sell singles at a profit. After the divorce from my father, she had kept a two-bedroom house that she rented for $25 a month. Her disability did not prevent her from negotiating the highest rent the market would bare.

Her disability restricted her mobility and taking taxi every month to collect the rent was not cost effective. Moreover, when it was time to collect the rent, we were too short on cash to waist it in taking a taxi. The choice was between taking a taxi to go collect rent or have breakfast the next day. It was in fact a great risk because if the tenant was not there or did not have the cash, we would be really hurting.

When we got older, in our teenage years, my sister and I were tasked to collect the rent. This relieved my mother from that burden and gave us some sense of responsibility for the next day’s meal. It was up to us to remember when the rent was due to make a point to collect it on time. Of course, at time our mind would be interested in finding a date or fun things teenagers, we would forget to collect the rent.

My mother had a unique way of reminding us: “did you want supper tonight?” she would ask. Of course, the answer would be yes, to what she replies, “if somebody had collected the rent, maybe we all could eat”. The guilty party, one of us, would then rush to the tenant’s and demand immediate payment.
Collecting the rent has not always been an easy task. At times when my sister or I would go collect the rent, the tenant would have a kid say he is not home. More often then not, no one would answer the door. Naturally, the tenant at times would tell: “I had an emergency, I only have half of the money” and he would ask us to return a different for the remainder.
One particular tenant made a career out of delaying rent payment. Every month, he had a different excuse. Some months he had 2 or 3 different excuses. We would make 3 or 4 trip before the rent is collected in full for that month. That is until my sister made her business to tell the whole neighborhood that our tenant was not paying his rent. She spoke loud enough for the world to hear that the tenant was someone not to be trusted because a con-artist. My sister came home empty handed, but a few minutes later the tenant was at our door with the rent money. He asked my mother not to ever send that loud mouth to collect the rent. He promised in return to be nice to me and make the rent money a priority. He promised to steal to have available on the 1st of each rather than to have the loud one ruin his good reputation.

That property remains a good source of income for a long time. When we all got older and moved to the United States, the rent income became emergency vacation funds. Our trips to Haiti have always been subsidized by the reserve my aunt kept on behalf of my mother. When my mother died, I gave the deed to my father who survived off that rent income until his death in 1998.

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