In the early hours of April 13, 2019, I experienced something no one should have to experience. The house that my husband and I were renting burned to the ground, taking everything we owned and our three precious cats with it. The wiring was outdated, and rather than going to the expense of having it down, the landlord chose to hire the least expensive electrician he could find to do the work. The electrician did not have his work inspected by the city as he was supposed to. As a result, his poor workmanship caused the house to catch fire at the junction where the house line meets the line from the electric company’s pole.
I thought that the fire was the worst possible thing I could experience renting a home.
I was wrong.
The only home we could get on short notice was managed by a property management company, which was just a front for a REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust). REITs exist to make money, and as such, they buy properties en masse, then rent them out. FirstKey Homes was the property management company that initially owned the house we rent, and while I considered a PMC a bit impersonal, at least we knew our local property managers by name and had cordial relationships with them. They felt like decent people doing their best.
Unfortunately, FirstKey chose to sell their properties to another REIT-owned PMC, Prager Property Management. Prager was more hands-off, but we still knew the names of the local property managers, and we had their direct numbers and email addresses when things went wrong.
To our surprise, Prager chose to sell their properties to yet another REIT without telling anyone. We only found out when we weren’t able to log into the rent portal we used to pay rent and sewer and check on maintenance tickets. The phones were disconnected, too. We finally received an email from the new REIT in charge, VineBrook Homes.
VineBrook Homes chose to make themselves virtually inaccessible. We were never given the names of our property managers for the area, much less a way to directly contact them by phone or email. Their only phone number connects one to a call center presumably somewhere in the US, but nowhere near St. Louis. The people who answer the phones are nice, but they have specific scripts they have to stick to, and they have absolutely no power other than to generate tickets, which are pretty much ignored by anyone higher up the food chain.
While a hands-off, impersonal approach may appeal to some renters, it doesn’t appeal to me, especially if there’s a problem.
Which, unfortunately, there was. Out of nowhere, the bathtub fixtures in our only bathroom started giving us electrical shocks. At first, we thought it was just static electricity, but as we eliminated things that might generate static electricity, the shocks continued, sometimes even more intensely than previous incidents. We used a voltmeter, and we discovered that the shocks were coming from them metal bath fixtures themselves, rather than us. Armed with that knowledge, we created a maintenance ticket on their website, expecting to hear back as quickly as we had with the previous owners of the house we rent.
We did not.
I kept on calling and calling and emailing them at both of the email addresses we had been given. It took over a week before they sent maintenance over to check out the problem. I had asked that they call to let me know when they were coming over. They did not, so I was interrupted in the middle of a virtual medical appointment and had to leave it early to show them where the problem was and talk to them about it. They brought out a voltmeter of their own, measured the electricity for themselves, and reassured us that VineBrook would send out an electrician to fix the problem as soon as possible.
They did not.
I kept on calling and getting the run-around. I was promised that a property manager would give me a call back. They never did. I reached out by email. I reached out on Facebook and finally got a responsive person, but nobody called me back. I reached out to my aldermen in desperation, and they connected me with the city building inspector, who offered to investigate if they did not take action to correct the problem.
The evening before I decided to drop the hammer and have the city building inspector come in and take over, I finally got a response from VineBrook Homes by email. They claimed that their maintenance people had not found anything wrong, so they would not be calling an electrician to find out what was causing the issue and repair it. I immediately responded and told them that their own maintenance people told us that there was a measurable electrical current going through the bath fixtures. I also told them that I would be contacting the city building inspector to bring his voltmeter and check the bath fixtures himself.
An hour later, I got a call from an electrician they had contracted to work on their properties here. He told me he would be there at 9am the next day.
And he was! The electrician was a good guy, and he and his apprentice quickly and skillfully found and isolated the circuit and the specific wire that was causing the electric charge to go through our bath fixtures. He was honest with us, and he did what he could that day. He didn’t have the wire that he needed to replace, so he created a workaround for us until he could come back with the correct wire. He marked the circuit responsible for the electrical shocks on our breaker box, and we were able to shut off the breaker to shower and bathe safely until he was able to return with his apprentice to replace the wire.
After this experience, we knew that we had to get away from properties owned by REITs. We had wanted to stay here for another year, because Michael will be fully provisioned and licensed by March 2023, but we were shocked (literally!) and horrified by our experience with VineBrook. We had also heard that other tenants had been less fortunate than us, and some had even lost their homes due to VineBrook’s reluctance to take care of dangerous maintenance situations. They had clearly demonstrated that they cared more about making money than they did about the health and safety of their tenants. They also demonstrated that they didn’t care about building community or relationships with tenants. We still don’t know any of their property managers, much less have their contact information, whereas with both FirstKey Homes and Prager Property Management, we knew our property managers by name and had their email addresses and contact phone numbers. VineBrook is terrible, but we didn’t want to roll the dice with yet another property management corporation, especially when housing demand was so high.
Even though the timing wasn’t perfect, we decided to move forward with our plan to find and buy our forever home. Michael got a couple of references to loan officers from an acquaintance of his, and both of them initially seemed interested in helping us, but one ghosted us after we gave her all of the paperwork she had requested, and the other was extremely condescending and implied we were not worth his time. He also talked about the mortgages he had on his rental properties, so he made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t on the side of scared, hurt tenants looking to get out of the rental cycle.
Because of people like them, we chose to make the biggest, boldest ask we’ve ever asked of anyone. We created a GoFundMe to raise the funds to be able to finally buy our own house outright. I’ve never heard of anyone else trying anything like this, and I knew it was audacious, but I also know that the world is full of good people who like helping others, even if all they can do is share the fundraiser and/or donate a dollar.
The link is here: https://gofund.me/13961424
If you would like to help, but you don’t want to use GoFundMe or trust them, you can send donations directly to me here:
ETA: A very awesome group of folks through Veterans United are working with us to try to get us a mortgage so we can get into a safe home ASAP. It’s amazing working with people who know us, know our story, and care about helping us get into a safe home. We’re still running the GoFundMe because the more money we can raise, the more we can pay upfront for our home, reducing the monthly mortgage payments and maybe even paying enough that we don’t have to get mortgage insurance. I’m excited and hopeful!