Real estate


In a two-family, a one-of-a-kind renter

Emily Ringel for the Boston Globe

It didn’t take much to sell my wife on the idea of purchasing a standard two-family as our first home. I’d been raised in the one that my parents still own near Davis Square, and the financial advantages of having a chunk of the mortgage paid for spoke for themselves, especially since we were discussing starting a family of our own. My primary concern was managing the X-factor of the landlord-tenant relationship, and I would heed the advice of my father, who’d had fairly good luck as a landlord over 30 years: “When you get good tenants, don’t let them get away.”

After passing papers on our Winthrop two-family in 2001, I suspected that it would be asking too much to catch some of my parents’ good fortune with our first tenants. Sure enough, the young unmarried couple who lasted less than a year argued about everything — from his apparently insufficient paycheck to her apparently intolerable foot odor. The back door literally hit them on the way out, leaving us with an unexpected expense for glass replacement.

When Sandra showed up a few weeks later to inquire about moving in with her 6-year-old son, however, my first words to my wife were: “You’re going to like this one.” She and Vinny almost immediately became extended family. They were the first ones to see our daughters when we brought them home from the hospital. Sandra made them matching coat-and-hat sets and always offered to baby-sit when we needed a break. Having Vinny around helped fill my “son void,” and I continue to convince myself that his success in football was due in part to our throw-arounds on our street. They treated their apartment — indeed, the entire house and grounds — as if it were their own.


My wife and I always feared the day that Sandra would knock on our door with news of a life event that would take her and Vinny to a new home. With my father’s advice ringing true, we spoke often about our commitment not to raise the rent unless we absolutely had to; that the peace of mind of having such a great tenant was worth whatever extra money the rental market said we might get.

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So the irony was not lost on me when we were the ones who ended up leaving. The attainment of a master’s degree led to a job offer in Minnesota that was too good to turn down.

In a whirlwind two months of move-related madness, breaking the news to Sandra was by far the most difficult task. On move-out day, with the family tucked away in an airport hotel, it was with her that I spent my last moments wandering the empty rooms and trying unsuccessfully to keep my emotions in check.

The Minnesota experiment lasted almost four years, and we resettled on the South Shore. “Little Vinny” is now in college, and Sandra is still in that first-floor apartment, baking cakes and refinishing furniture to help pay for it.

My daughter recently had a gymnastics meet in Winthrop. Sandra came to cheer her on, and we drove her home afterward. As we sat idling in our minivan on that familiar street and watched her make that familiar walk to the back door, I was consumed by pangs of silent and sincere gratitude to her for keeping watch over the home that meant so much to me.

Paul Doncaster, a burgeoning writer and storyteller, is originally from Somerville. He can be reached at Send a 550-word essay on your first home to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.