(10) Property Management - U.S. 2005, 2009: the murder of a magnificent towering tree; the felling of a 300 year old oak

Compelling Event

    After a roof repair quote of $125,000 in 2005 on a rental property I have in South Carolina I was perturbed – and suspicious. Absentee landlords, especially ones an ocean away (my being in Germany at the time), are unlikely to get the best possible quotes. The story below, and the associated homicides, are painful to relate. The International Tree Foundation focuses on planting trees in developing countries.  I am sure it would view an exculpatory donation from me with the same enthusiasm that a substance abuse rehabilitation center would view blood-soaked cash from the Mafia.



                            I. Arboreal Homicide - hardly a tree in sight

    To manage the roof repair, I fortunately happened to know someone living in Munich, Gary Stucker, who had been a contractor and landscaper in California and was thoroughly familiar with the trades. So I engaged his services to fly out to South Carolina and take charge. The $125,000 roof repair turned into a $9,500 job done by an excellent minority firm. A $30,000 quote for painting the house turned into $4,500, and so on. Granted, flying someone in from Munich to Columbia, South Carolina to select and supervise tradesmen sounds bizarre. However that decision proved to be acceptable, well, not really. Yes, he did rescue the house.

    However there is a caveat, as large as a towering tree. I had belabored the point of not cutting down any large trees ad nauseam. A tenant at another property had cut down oak trees in front of it because they were "blocking the view of the highway." Gary Stucker protested that he was a landscaper, a professional, and not about to cut down any large trees. Therefore I somewhat reluctantly agreed to his going ahead and having some trimming done. Without checking back with me, and at considerable expense, he had a magnificent towering tree cut down, one of the two largest trees on the property.

    "That tree needed to go, so the property could breathe," was one explanation, followed by "It was buckling the driveway. It was just a weed tree anyway." The next-door neighbors were horrified, irate, and saddened. (Over 14 feet in diameter, it had screened our second story bedrooms from one another.) On learning I had specifically instructed not to cut down any large tree, people urged me to file criminal charges for malicious damage. I did in fact consider it, and had meetings with an attorney and the police. The attorney ran a background check. He told me that either this man, or another with almost the same name (the middle initials were unknown) had committed a comparable act of criminal stupidity in California that had resulted in a felony conviction.

    The procedure in such cases is to obtain a criminal conviction and use it to lever a triple damages lawsuit. Getting a conviction would have been fairly straightforward. For this kind of offense, one is not sent to prison, not even a country club one. One receives probation. However, the follow-on civil suit would have been pointless. The man had no assets, and any he acquired would have been promptly seized by Child Support, which takes precedence over even the IRS. Therefore the consensus advice, which I followed, was that having him continue to work was the better choice.

    My mother had loved that tree. She would have wept at its being smeared down. If someone had offered me, say, $37,500 for it, I certainly would have said no. For double that, at $75,000 I might have said yes, or then again, maybe not. (One certainly could not have planted a replacement tree there of similar size for $75,000.) Instead, I was looking at having to pay a bill from a tree cutting company, not a happy thought.


                                  II. Lackadaisical Lassitude - not a tenant in sight

    The house, in pristine condition, albeit now with only a single nice tree left, is ready for rental. I turn to a prominent realtor, whom had I had known well for years. In fact he had once lent me $30,000 on a handshake. When two years later I repaid the loan (with interest, of course), we looked for the paperwork to sign off on that the debt had been settled. We both were startled to realize that we had never gotten around to preparing any kind of contract at all. We agreed that a major mistake had been made. What if one of us had been hit by the proverbial bus in the interim – with no record of the transaction for the executor of the estate?

    This realtor, managing over 450 properties, left the house unrented for a full year. Getting it rented was just not a priority for him. With my being busy in Europe and knowing of a death in his family, I had not really pushed him on the rental. Visiting South Carolina a year later, a neighbor was curious about why I left the house empty. I asked the woman, married to a prominent local attorney, if she had any ideas. Well, she said, she did manage 41 properties herself in the area. She and her husband owned 40 of them, but they did manage one for a friend. She supposed she could add another property to her portfolio if I wanted her to try to rent it for me.

    Of course I said yes. One week later she had the property rented to quality tenants at full asking price, and it has never been vacant since.


Lessons learned

     On following up on the to me amazing incident of cutting down the tree, I found out it was actionable in a court of law -- had he had any assets to pursue. I also found out that his behavior was, although extremely unusual, not unheard of. Contractors and landscapers may well ignore the wishes of the property owner. They know better: "The property needed to breathe."

    Left on their own, some of them are going to do as they see fit. With contractors, at least the damage is reversible.  But the unsupervised, uncontrolled landscaper causes damage that is not reversible. Transplanting trees that are already towering can run to six figures per tree -- and survival is by no means certain. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have forbidden any landscaping at all until my later arrival -- better, deferred his plane flight until I was able to accompany him.

    The first agent, a major realtor, had no particular motivation to rent the property. The basis of my having selected him was my feeling obligated because of the loan, and his successful real estate business – too successful. Adding another property, a non-standard rental, to his portfolio of over 450 had no impact on his cash flow. Therefore when the house happened to have the bad luck to drop between the cracks, that was that.

    The lady who lived across the street from the house was highly motivated to rent it. She wanted the property kept up, the lawn maintained, and the people living there to be “of the right class” for the neighborhood. She focused on renting that property, and that one alone, for one week – and it was done.

    Absentee property management is doable – with the right property manager in place. “Right” means competent, highly motivated and honest -- not an easy combination to find.


The aftermath - an even worse homicide of a wonderful oak tree

    Years later I had some timber cut at another property. A 300 year old oak at the corner of the house was the showpiece of the property. The caretaker noticed the tree was hollow, and expressed concern that a violent storm could crash it into the house. Perhaps it should be cut down? Naturally I flinched in horror.

    Get an opinion from the state forestry service. "The oak is hollow. It needs to be cut down."  But can´t the tree be saved somehow, braced, limbs cut back? Get a second opinion, not from the state, but from a professional tree surgeon. The second opinon comes: "The oak is hollow. It needs to be cut down."  So down it comes. 

    Upon visiting the property some months later with a friend who had worked in the tree industry, he asked why on earth I had not used the standard "life extension" procedures for hollow trees. No rocket science there, the oak had been alive and healthy, and some minor attention was all that would have been needed. The huge stump was a real eyesore. I stood there dumbstruck.

    In my life four times I have lost my assets and had to start over again. Only money was lost, and that was reversible. The gross management incompetence on my part with these irreplaceable, magnificent trees did not reflect depraved indifference. Rather it reflects mind-boggling stupidity and criminal negligence. I am guilty. Ich bekenne mich schuldig. There were no extenuating circumstances.

    I have bad luck with trees. The coaching mascot, the elephant, is renowned for working in the forestry industry. However you need to keep me far, far away from any business involving trees. I could unwittingly destroy an entire forest of giant Redwoods.


        * © Oak at Plochingen-Stumpenhof, possibly planted 1648 after the Peace of Wesphalia,                 Jochin Jansen (geb. Teufel), 10 Oct. 2008, CCAL/GNU 1.2; Gyan Web Design  2010