Slumming It in Beverly Hills

When someone offers you a two-bedroom home in Beverly Hills for $850 per month including utilities, you take it. You don’t ask if hot water gets to the sinks or if the foundation is strong. You don’t trouble yourself with details. No, when you’re an assistant in your mid-twenties with a salary around the low-thirties, you say, “Thank you. When can I move in?” At least, that’s what I did.

In 2009, my husband Alex and I were paying $1,650 to live in a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate, sharing 800 square feet and two parking spaces. That Spring, we heard that a friend of his family’s had a house for rent. It was a bit of an unorthodox situation, we were warned, but the rent would be dirt cheap. The house was empty and hadn’t been updated, but the owner lived in Sweden and didn’t have time or inclination to deal with maintenance and leases. He just wanted a nice, young couple to take care of the place until he decided to either sell it or bestow it onto someone else. Immediately, we were interested. Sure, there was dust caked on the floors from years spent with a window cracked open, and as my brother delicately pointed out, it smelled “like a dead person.” But it was a 1300 square foot home in the most famous neighborhood in the United States. We’d have our own driveway and a backyard! We’d have a guest room and fruit trees! All for $850 a month. It was a no brainer. 

We learned just what we were in for during our first night at the house. After spending the day scrubbing every inch of the place with a Brillo Pad, I decided to take a bath. As I filled up the tub, Alex noticed a strange sound. “Do you hear that?” he said. I turned off the water and listened closer. There was a strange hissing. He pulled up the bath tub plug and looked down. There were no pipes attached to the tub. All of the bath water rushed down into a pool underneath the house. We decided it was best to only use the standing shower.

Fast forward three years and I’ve become used to an entirely Beverly Hillbilly way of living. Which is to say, I live a mile from Rodeo drive. but I have a boarded up bathtub. I can only afford to eat at the nearby restaurants during happy hour.

Alex and I had a dinner party recently and didn’t even notice the jarring noise that distracted all of our guests. Eventually, someone asked us what was happening.

“What do you mean?”

“That grinding noise?”

It took us a minute to hear it. “Oh, that’s the heat.” It’s been grinding since we had it fixed two years ago. Before that, we had no heat. When the heat repair man came over, he said, “Oh, wow. I haven’t seen one like this in…decades.” Idiosyncrasies like these have become entirely normal to us. As have the following:

• The house leaks when it rains. We use strategically placed mixing bowls.
• The kitchen sink doesn’t get hot water.
• There’s a huge hole in the dining room ceiling that has been patched with what appears to be some sort of textured spackle.
• My bathroom locks with a Victorian-looking key. Although, the key doesn’t actually work, so sometimes I have to remind guests to hold the door closed while they do their business, lest it drift open from the wind.
• Our landlord keeps his 1984 rusted Cadillac in our backyard.

And yet:

• My street is landscaped with well manicured Palm trees that touch the heavens.
• I run into celebrities at the drug store.
• Our local library, police station, and city hall have gilded rooftops.
• I can walk to three Louis Vuitton stores in under ten minutes.
• The fire hydrants are painted a chic shade of silver.
• When Obama comes to town, I have to leave work early to avoid the traffic because he’s staying in my neighborhood.

Unsurprisingly, sometimes our neighbors are perplexed at the small bungalow taking up space on their street full of mansions and their smaller counterparts, mini-mansions. It looks silly, all stucco and unassuming, on a street where you’re hard pressed to find a house without columns. Sometimes the neighbors ask us what our story is; other times they blatantly ask how much we’re paying to live there. But most of the time, the neighbors speak to us solely to find out if the house is for sale. We keep telling them our landlord has no plans to sell it, and they always say it is such a shame. “It’s got a lot of potential,” they say, before telling us someone should tear it down and make good use of the land again.

And they’re probably right. Maybe it’s not worth the land it’s on. Maybe it is a tear down. But that house has helped me pay down my student loans. It’s given Alex and me a savings account. Sure, sometimes the shower head falls off and hits me in the head while I’m shampooing my hair, but it’s nothing a little care and attention can’t fix. If this house has taught me anything, it’s that there is a workaround for everything. Plus, some mornings I wake up and walk to my backyard, past the rusted Cadillac, and pick myself an orange for breakfast. So I’m doing alright.


Taylor Jenkins Reid is an author and essayist. She’s never received a piece of fan mail, but don’t let that stop you from considering it.


9 Comments / Post A Comment

Megano! (#124)

Oh man, I would kind of be talking to to the landlord about the major things that need fixing. Like, if you could arrange it and try and get him the best price, would he pay for it. If only because if he ever DOES want to sell, it might be easier if the house isn’t a pile of garbage. You know, it’s protecting his own investment.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@Megano! But really, it doesn’t sound like anyone would buy it as anything other than a tear-down?

Megano! (#124)

@Lily Rowan Yeah probably. I just don’t understand people who buy houses and don’t understand upkeep, I guess (this is why I’m not sure if I want to buy a house).

But I thought they declared peace in the Middle East!

automaticdoor (#145)

And usually, it’s the idiosyncrasies of places like that which make them places you will be reminiscing about for years. Sometimes fondly, sometimes… not so fondly.

“The kitchen sink doesn’t get hot water.”

The question “But where do you do dishes?!” bothered me for the rest of reading this, perhaps the answer is “a dishwasher” but…given the plumbing issues that seems unlikely.

@Michelle LeBlanc@twitter Ah — apologies for the lack of clarity. I wash them in the sink with cold water.

hellonheels (#1,407)

I totally relate to this…my boyfriend and I live in an apartment that his aunt and uncle have been renting as part of a multi-unit lease since 1970. We don’t pay rent (though we do earn our free housing in other ways, believe me), but this is in San Francisco, so given the rent control I can’t imagine the rent for our two-bedroom unit is any more than $500, if that. The caveat, of course, is that prior to moving in, the apartment had been unoccupied for 40 years – not only had no maintenance been done during that entire time period, it had basically been used as a storage unit for decades. It was like moving into an episode of Hoarders. Now we’ve fixed it up so it’s perfectly nice, but it’s always disheartening when, say, a chunk of plaster falls off the bathroom wall to reveal rotting wood beneath. But it’s totally worth it – having this chance to save money is probably the best chance we have at ever being able to afford to buy a house in this freakishly expensive city.

Wow. Pretty interesting. Question, do you have any health concerns in the house? I’m a bit paranoid about mold spores…

We live in an older, somewhat lackadaisically maintained building as well, no matter how hard I scrub, that bathroom will never really be clean!

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