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Rheta Johnson: Rent to own or get a loan


Rheta Grimsley Johnson



President and Mrs. Obama reportedly are about to join a club in which I'm glad to no longer hold membership: They are about to become renters. 


If the recent report is to be believed, the Obamas will ramble about a $5 million mansion, located in a swell Washington, D.C., neighborhood. It has 8,000 square feet in which to celebrate their freedom. 


There are nine bedrooms and nine baths in the Tudor-style mansion, which means there better be a plumber on the presidential Rolodex, and much of the Free World could drop by at the same time and never have to wait for a free potty. 


I rented until I was 33. It was a pain. No matter how hard you tried to maintain or even improve a property, the moment you wrote the initial check, you kissed your damage deposit goodbye. Landlords never had any intention of returning that.  


A certain freedom came with knowing damage deposits were simply an additional tax on lowly renters. That knowledge freed you up to live.  


There usually were prohibitions against pets, which, of course, I ignored. You couldn't hang pictures on the wall, another rule to ignore.  


Everything, including your address, was temporary, which alters your mindset. The flowers you planted in the yard immediately became someone else's. It was dumb to plant a tree or paint a wall. 


Renting was what you did if you couldn't afford to buy. You were a renter, in italics, a subspecies of human, one step above homeless but definitely below homeowner. 


You had no power. Once my former husband and I were evicted for keeping an old sailboat in the backyard of an apartment complex. Now, a sailboat is the most beautiful manmade thing that there is. If anything, the silhouette of that old boat at sunset improved the looks of the predictably ugly dwellings. 


We dismantled that boat and moved it piece by piece into the attic of another rental house, one that the landlord cared so little about we did pretty much what we wanted. So long as we paid the rent on time, we could, and did, sublet rooms to friends. That house was the best rental of my life, despite an ugly green carpet that looked like felt on a pool table and appliances left over from Ethel and Fred. 


Lately, rentals have gained cachet, especially if you're talking $5 million mansions and such. People of a certain age with investment advisors -- which tells you something, right there -- are being counseled that it's better to rent than own in some situations. 


There's the theory that leaks and busted heat pumps and overall maintenance are someone else's problems if you rent instead of own. People who believe that never had the same landlords as I did. You hear a lot about irresponsible renters, but never much about lousy, elusive landlords. Talk about your subspecies. 


I wish good luck to the Obamas if they do become the most famous renters in the land. I hope they plant petunias only in pots, the better to move later, and figure a way to cool and heat only a few of those many bedrooms and bathrooms. 


Most of all, I hope their damage deposit is returned. 


Rheta Grimsley Johnson's most recent book is "Hank Hung the Moon ... And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts." Comments are welcomed at [email protected]



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