My Husband Was a Live-In Super. It Opened Our Eyes to a Whole New Side of Renting

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When my partner, Devin, got hired on as the on-site manager at our 33-unit apartment building in Seattle, he received a quick demo of the clunky, crash-prone software used to track rent payments, a key to the maintenance closet, a pamphlet from the 1960s explaining how to program the building’s callbox, and a pat on the back from ownership. He wasn’t trained, certified, or otherwise qualified for this work, but they offered him the part-time gig in exchange for rent credits, so he took it.

We had only recently moved to Seattle and wanted to save up money for a down payment on our first home. Devin hadn’t found full-time work yet, so it seemed like a great idea. Deposit a few checks and submit a few work orders, we thought, no biggie. But boy did we deeply underestimate the commitment.

Instead of a couple of hours here and there each week, Devin spent hours each day facilitating communication between the building’s portfolio manager, a maintenance crew, residents, prospective renters, and any outside vendors (like pest control) ensuring no ball got dropped. He was responsible for tracking and depositing tens of thousands of dollars in rent payments each month. He’d often have to take multiple trips to the bank as late payments trickled in over several weeks.

Our 100-year-old building boasted period details, like hardwood floors and crown moldings, but lacked updates and amenities common in newer buildings. Things frequently broke, wore down, and went missing. Heaters, door locks, and laundry machines were always on the fritz. Devin was always on the receiving end of duplicative phone calls and texts from well-meaning tenants about each.

And then there were the building’s other residents. It turns out that the aftermath of residents’ bad choices—say, throwing beer cans from the roof or leaving a load of laundry in the wash for so long it molds—falls disproportionately on the on-site super. Building managers have to hustle to keep their residents happy, even if the work required goes beyond the cleaning and upkeep inherent in the role. Turning an apartment over and finding a new tenant isn’t easy—especially in a town where there’s no shortage of available rentals. As an on-site super, Devin also needed to keep the building tidy enough to show to prospective renters at a moment’s notice. So, he picked up after the residents, not because it was part of his job description, but because not doing it would’ve made his job harder.

The easiest part for Devin was establishing relationships with fellow tenants. He’s a people person, and thrives on making connections. But even that turned out to be complicated. It could be difficult for him to find a balance between “landlord” and “friend.” Although he advocated for the residents, coaching them on how to best counter-offer on proposed rent increases and surfacing comparable ads when the ownership wanted a higher-than-realistic price on a unit, bad news ultimately funneled down to our neighbors through him. He was the perpetual bearer of bad news when it came to forfeited deposits, and unfulfilled maintenance requests.

Looking back, we should have realized the role couldn’t have ever been truly part-time. Devin was always on-call and accountable to residents 24/7, regardless of the day, or hour, or how much he’d already worked that week. There were no weekends, holidays, or paid time off. He couldn’t just stop posting ads, showing available units, or facilitating move-ins after he hit 20 hours. We knew from the start that the building’s ownership was hands-off, but it was shocking to find out just how much Devin was responsible for. Having been longtime renters ourselves, it forced us to look at renting from a new, dual perspective of tenant and proprietor.

So, if you’re a renter, here are some things I’d suggest keeping in mind to make your super’s job a little easier:

  • Manage your expectations around what a building manager is and isn’t. They are your point-of-contact for a variety of building-related issues and you should be able to count on them to keep the building’s systems working and common spaces maintained. They are not your personal cleaning service.
  • Consider that many on-sites are not experts in this line of work. Some hit the ground running without any guidance, like Devin. Many learn as they go, building up their skills and strengths as they’re presented with new challenges.
  • As a renter, ask your building manager what their preferred mode of communication is and when works best to reach them. This is especially helpful if the on-site super is juggling their role at the building with other work (which is likely in cases like Devin’s, since rent credits don’t buy groceries). If possible, don’t ring your on-site early in the morning, late at night or, on the weekend for non-emergencies.
  • Try not to use passing encounters with your building manager as an opportunity to file maintenance reports verbally. Send those in writing, always.
  • On-site managers can be your best advocate and resource when it comes to dealing with a building’s ownership. As a renter, when you receive less-than-ideal news from the building manager, know that they’re communicating someone else’s wishes. Given their working relationship with the building’s owners, ask for their advice on how to best navigate tough situations.

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