Ask Richard: Dealing With a Friend and Tenant’s Superstitious Beliefs August 13, 2012

Ask Richard: Dealing With a Friend and Tenant’s Superstitious Beliefs

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I’m having a difficult time figuring out how to respond to a friend’s superstitious beliefs and thought perhaps you could make some suggestions.

My husband and I own a rental house that we are planning to rent to a friend. We are giving her a reduced monthly rate, and in exchange, we know she will be gentle on the house (we are exhausted from all of the college students who have rented in the past, and are looking forward to giving the house, and ourselves, a little break from heavy maintenance). It is a nice arrangement, as both parties get something out of the deal.

Within the past two years, we have painted the entire interior with high-quality paint. After the last tenants left, I washed all of the walls and they cleaned up to look as good as new. My problem is that the friend wants us to repaint the interior. She is willing to pay for the paint and to help with the process. I feel the house doesn’t need to be repainted, but she insists that painting will somehow remove the “energy” of the people who were there before.

One option is to humor her, but the house is nearly seventy years old. This makes cutting into the ceiling to give it a professional look very tedious and time consuming. Another option is to question her beliefs, but I have yet to find a tactful way to do this. Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks in advance,

Dear Donna,

It’s always risky to mix two different relationships, sometimes called dual relationships, because they often collide. Having your employer be your close friend, buying a used car from your brother, or renting your property to a friend brings the likely possibility that fulfilling one role will conflict with the other role.

If you think that the advantages of mixing the two roles of tenant and this particular friend are worth the risks, I think you will need to draw some distinct lines between the two roles right at the beginning, or they will collide again and again, probably with you making the concessions most of the time.

From the friend-friend perspective:
You don’t have to tell her that you think her superstitious beliefs about “energy” are ridiculous, but you don’t have to cater to them or indulge them either. You can be neutral about the nature of her beliefs, and still hold firm against having to repaint the house. Tell her that you don’t sense whatever she says she senses, and with all your other responsibilities, you cannot justify going to all the trouble of repainting the house for a problem you cannot sense. You’re glad she will be your tenant, because you know she’ll be gentle on the house. In that way, she will infuse the house with her own “energy.” A coat of paint is no comparison to a new occupant who lives there every day with a loving, respectful attitude. She will be good for the house, and the house will be good for her.

From the tenant-landlord perspective:
It’s your house, and your property. Unless there are laws requiring repainting each time it is rented, you have cleaned the interior and brought it to a state of freshness that is reasonable. Even if adding yet another coat of paint to the interior of a 70-year-old house is okay with you, still this is an expense in materials and/or a commitment in labor that you are simply not willing to provide. You have more important things to do. The whole point of renting to her was to reduce labor and maintenance, not increase it, and for that convenience to you, she’s getting a reduced monthly rate.

If it’s that important to her, then she can pay for a professional to do the labor as well as pay for the paint. You must have the final say on the color, the quality of the paint, and the professionalism of the painter doing the work. If your tenant wants to do the painting herself, and if you are willing to take that chance, make it clear that you expect a very professional level of work, and that you reserve the right to inspect her work during the process. If the workmanship is not to your liking, you will expect her to remedy the problem by paying for painters who are acceptable to you.

Have this all in writing, with signatures.

I know that these two perspectives are starkly different from each other. That is the problem with dual relationships. It’s hard to keep things “clean.” Renting a house is a business arrangement. It can be done with respect and fairness, even cordiality, but the mutually beneficial agreement should remain above being muddled, complicated, and spoiled by the emotions, expectations, and entanglements of friendship.

You might consider explaining this gently but frankly to her, helping her to see the dilemma that you are trying to minimize by keeping it understood that you and she will have to change “hats” when dealing with things about the house. In this you still do not have to specifically talk about how you regard her beliefs about “energy.”

If your friend/tenant continues to insist on her way, or if she starts insinuating a guilt trip about your friendship, then you are probably experiencing the first of many conflicts you will have in this dual, mixed relationship. In that case, it might be best for you to say that you can see that being her landlords will harm the friendship, and your friendship with her is important to you, so you don’t want that to happen. Then you will need to find another tenant who will treat the house well.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I concur with both of your suggested scenarios.  I would stick with the suggestion of letting her pay a professional with your participation were it me.  The homeowner is under no obligation to paint, unless required by law, and no reasonable friend would request that.  I find that quite odd to begin with.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    Both scenarios are reasonable responses to the situation, but I offer a third option, since the only to options are really: to paint or not to paint?
    Anyone concerned enough about the energy of previous tenants should be perfectly comfortable with a “smudging” before moving into the home. It’s a simple and relatively cheap fix for negative energy. Basically it’s just burning (it burns slow, emitting smoke without an open flame) sage in each room, making sure the smoke reaches the corners and doorways. The smell doesn’t linger (unlike cigarette smoke) and typically does the job to most people’s satisfaction…

  • A3Kr0n

    Can’t she just get some super energetic paintings to nullify the negative energy? Maybe a wolf? Wolf paintings seem to be popular these days. Even better if it was painted on glass, or black velvet.

  • Having dealt with lots of ‘Woo’ individuals in my time, as well as having a Woo phase myself when I was transitioning from Southern Baptist to Atheist (I got really into the idea of New Age lifestyle – go figure), there are TONS of ways that people who live an energy-focused lifestyle can ‘cleanse negative energy’. I guess these suggestions are from the Friend-Friend perspective, because to you they must seem ridiculous, but you could suggest that they cleanse the house by smudging the space. 
    Smudging is a process in which bundles of sage are burnt in the house to get rid of ‘negative energy’. It takes a lot less time and smells a lot better than a whole new coat of paint. Also, it’s quite a bit cheaper. A nice white sage smudge bundle costs around $2.00. If she believes that a new coat of paint will get rid of negative energy, she should buy into a smudge stick. And if you suggest it and she doesn’t, she will have to acknowledge, “Painting will get rid of the bad vibes. But burning herbs? Don’t be ridiculous!”

    There are several other New Age ways to cleanse spaces, and honestly some of the processes are therapeutic and meditative. They’re a nice placebo for people who believe in the supernatural elements to become convinced the space is now livable. 

    Honestly you could even suggest her to get a local coven member to come get rid of the ‘bad juju’. It’s absurd, but it will still be SO much lest costly and time-consuming than repainting the whole house.

    …or you could just tell her to stfu and start thinking critically…

    hope any of that helped! 

  • Curt Cameron

    The best option is your first, the friend-friend one. But I’d add that it would be helpful to point out that they’re giving this friend a discounted rental rate because they like her and she’s their friend, and at that rate, they can’t justify spending the money for new paint when the old paint seems to be fine.

  • Sarah T.

    I think the answer to this is pretty easy and avoids Woo altogether, and I think it remains friendly – “We just painted the house. If you’d like the rooms to be a different color, we’d be so happy to recommend some professional painters. We will ask you to repaint it white at the end of your tenancy.” This should be covered in a legal lease, perhaps with an extra security deposit to cover repainting the colored walls.

  • I really like this idea. If she truly believes the old tenants left bad energy, and she isn’t willing to fork out the cash for professional painters, smudging sounds like the way to go.

  • Cbug87

    The comments about smudging make sense unless the friend’s desire to “clense the energy” of the previous tennants is really just her way of saying she wants to make the space fit more to her tastes, or just make it feel more like a home. I can understand that. Honestly, if It were me in this situation, I’d let my friend do whatever she wants with the paint, so long as when her lease was up (and this should be part of the lease agreement), the house was ready for the next tennant with a professional, neutral paint job on the walls at no cost to the owner, as that was the condition it was in when she moved in. Then she has 3 options: 1) waste her money on a professional paint job with very little impact to the actual appearance of the place 2) radically change the appearance (herself, cheaply, or professionally) and then spend the money to get it professionally reprinted when she moves out or 3) decide to leave it as is.

  • Ibis3

     That’s what I was going to suggest.  That or a more thorough ritual cleansing (followed by an optional housewarming party).  Go through each room in the house in a counter-clockwise direction (symbolising removal) banging pots and pans and making lots of noise (to “scare out” bad stuff), symbolically sweep each room, do a smudge or similar deal with incense, then go back through clockwise, inviting good stuff and happy times, sprinkling clean water and salt to seal in the good energy and protect from troubles.  Feed guests with home made bread, champagne, or cookies or other food/drink that you associate with feeling at home. A *lot* cheaper than new paint and a lot more fun to boot. All this can be done without believing in “energy” as anything other than a certain mindset.

  • Donna

    Thank you Richard, and everyone else, for your thoughtful comments and advice.  We did carefully weigh the issues that surround mixing business with friendships,  but we felt it was far more important to help out our friend during her time of need.  She has always been there for us, especially during major crises, which is when many friends just disappear. 

    I had researched how to remove bad “energy”.  The smudging came up, as did using sea salt and meditating in the space.  I felt that if I suggested these ideas to my friend, I was compromising my own beliefs about the world, and it felt a bit too much like mocking hers.

    She loves the paint colors and wants to use the same ones, so this isn’t an issue of making it her own space.  The most helpful piece of advice to me was Richard’s suggestion to tell my friend, “I don’t sense the negative energy here.”  It is true, and so I don’t have to compromise myself, and it doesn’t belittle her thoughts on the matter.  It may be a good segue to ask my friend, “What do others who feel this sort of energy do to remove it?”  Perhaps that will be a way to open the door to options other than painting.

    Thank you all.  I really appreciate all of your ideas.

  • Another possibility is to address it from a purely budget point of view.  Something like “well, we have budgeted to repaint the house every (x) years, and according to our budget this paint job has 60% (or whatever %) of it’s useful life left.  So we could repaint if you can contribute 60% of the cost.  That takes the friendship issue out of the picture, and maybe she will decide that she can find a more cost-effective way to neutralize the “bad energy”.

  • Kodie

    I don’t understand this “smudging” either. The person has a neurosis but it’s common – someone else lived there, and people perform rituals to make it feel like someone else didn’t live there. Paint is expensive especially if it’s the same color. She doesn’t make the landlord replace the toilet. She doesn’t think the energy is in the walls themselves. But somehow painting “cures” this feeling that she (perhaps) can’t get over without the ritual of painting the walls. Smudging might feel to her as though a ritual were performed, but she didn’t say spirits, she said previous tenants. Painting seems like a more normal thing to do when you move to a new space, halfway between smudging and having to have a brand-new toilet. Whatever happened to cleaning? I’m not saying the landlord didn’t make sure it was clean, but the tenant can go through the ritual of washing (to feel personally assured) away the previous tenant energy with soap and water, yeah? Make it her new ritual.

  • Ibis3

     I’m wondering why you would see it as compromising your beliefs (or mocking hers)? She’s using a certain “wooish” vocabulary, but it’s not an unusual or supernatural feeling. She wants the place to have a clean slate. That’s not something that requires mocking. Even if you give in to the painting request, that actually won’t do anything physically real to get rid of the feeling of previous tenants being there. It’s purely psychological. Now if you take the tack that what your friend needs is a psychological feeling that the place is now “hers” and not “theirs”, a ritual is an easy mechanism to do this. Human life is full of rituals and not all of them are “supernatural”. We marry by symbolically exchanging rings. We celebrate a birthday by blowing out the number of candles for years we’ve been alive. Holding a cleansing ritual or smudging or whatever isn’t necessarily any more kooky and shouldn’t compromise you any more than it would be to go to her wedding.

    Or am I missing something?

  • HughInAz

    I also own a 70-year-old rental home, and prospective tenants always seem to think they are master craftspeople and I should give them a discount on the rent in return for their services. I have learned the hard way to stand firm. I tell them I can’t allow anyone to work on the house who isn’t licensed, bonded and insured. I’ve lost prospective tenants as a result but I’ve never regretted it.

  • Since it really doesn’t need new paint just to make your friend feel better, you could nix that, but welcome her to anoint the walls & smudge the place with sage. It’ll smell nice, and doesn’t take hours and gallons of paint. She should buy her own candles for the warding ritual though.

  • Three wolf moon!!!

  • You have good points, but the only thing I think you’re missing is that Donna doesn’t want to do the labor, and I don’t blame her. There is something about the house ceiling that makes the cutting in a tedious, time consuming job, and even the simplest house is a big job if you must paint every room. She and her husband are already tired of putting in so much work on the house, and I can understand her mild resentment about the idea of doing unnecessary, wasteful work to indulge someone else’s ritual that is silly from her point of view.  If someone’s ritual of claiming the space is psychological instead of based on woo, that still doesn’t necessarily persuade another person to be willing to do all or most of the work.

  • And she can’t just walk through with a sage bundle and smudge fan? (It’s cheaper and far better smelling than paint!)

  • THIS. I do a smudge-ritual once a year and I find it quite pleasant.

  • In other words, a good excuse for a party…

  • Ibis3

     You missed my previous comment. I suggested  suggesting a ritual *other* than laborious, expensive painting.  Donna objected because any ritual would be a compromise to her own beliefs.  I’m asking how that would be compromising.

  • Kodie

    Smudging is weird. Painting is ostensibly a normal activity that normal, non-woo people do, even if their reasons are similar. I am going to agree with Donna, I would not be able to recommend smudging to someone I already think is on the border if I thought it was all horseshit in the first place. I can’t believe that this whole comments section is all for smudging.

  • Thank you.  I would not give in to the woo at all here.  You don’t have to and it’s silly.  Smudging… just silly.  Paint or don’t paint, but no woo.

  • I agree with you completely.  I would not give in to the smudging idea at all.  I think she is being manipulative to get paint she wants.  She either wants to live there with the current arrangement or she doesn’t. 

  • Ibis3

     *smudging is just a subset of burning things that smell nice; it’s no more weird than spraying febreeze or hanging one of those air freshener things in your car

    *feeling like you need to claim a new living space as your own is not horseshit, it’s a completely natural emotion

    *performing rituals to mark occasions or to stimulate a change one’s mindset is also natural and normal and does not require a belief in the supernatural

    *most things that people do in religious or wooish rituals can also be done for “ostensibly normal” or secular reasons (dance, drum, burn things that smell nice, sing, chant, act, recite poetry, eat, ingest mind altering drugs)–even if it’s not normal to do everyday or normal for everyone; therefore the intent is, in this case, magic (or, perhaps more appropriately, “magic”)

  • Kodie

     Hire a priest and chant the demons out then.

    Smudging serves the same purpose.

    Repainting serves the same purpose – to the tenant. I don’t disagree that some people need a psychological “ritual” to feel moved in, while painting serves that ritual in a “normal” way that feels more real than spooking some smoke around.

    And I don’t support rituals for every goddamned thing. Maybe some people do, but smudging is weird and if you like it, I think you overestimate its “power” to transform a space for someone who would rather paint. I feel a place is mine and the old tenant is gone as soon as I have a key and start putting my stuff in it and don’t see the former tenant’s shit there. I don’t know why people don’t “feel” things unless they do some kind of dance and chant thing. As for the paint, it’s weird but it isn’t. It has no effect on “energy” but people paint walls for valid reasons and feels like a totally normal thing to do. Moving in is a chore, but order a pizza and pick up some beers. Hop on one foot with your eyes closed. Get a big sheet and hang it over the window and set up the bed and put clean sheets on it. That’s how you move in.

  • Ibis3

     You have your rituals (or not). Good for you. No one is suggesting that you smudge or paint or chant or whatever in your next home. Not everyone needs a wedding with a white dress and gold rings and a toast to the bride and a first dance, either. This is for Donna whose friend and tenant wants to have a ritual (painting) that is beyond Donna’s budget and beyond her purview as a landlord. Attending (or even participating in) a wedding doesn’t necessarily require one to believe in any superstitious elements of the ritual. And though you might be used to the wedding ritual I described above, and therefore class it as “normal” or “not weird”, not all wedding rituals are as familiar to you. So the fuck what? Would you make such a fuss if a friend of yours wanted to wear a red sari at her wedding instead of a white gown because its too weird? You sound kind of culturally insular to me.

    Oh, and no, I don’t believe that smudging or any other ritual has any “power” beyond what significance we give to it in our own minds. That’s one reason why I don’t see how suggesting an alternative ritual–especially one that’s appealing to no gods, spirits, or supernatural forces–to a friend could be a compromise of one’s beliefs.

  • Kodie

    I do see how suggesting an alternative ritual is compromising one’s beliefs. I suggest hopping on one foot with your eyes closed. Does that feel right to you? I suggest hiring a priest to exorcise the past tenants’ energy. No, I do not suggest alternate ways to get rid of an imaginary bogeyman. If the tenant feels it and painting is out of the question, I would not cave in and paint it either, even though the suggestion to repaint is likely more by the tenant, has the appearance of something normal people do sometimes anyway. Donna said it was painted, it’s not normally a “kooky” superstitious activity. But the tenant is being unreasonable, and as a friend of the landlord, doesn’t merit being accommodated on her personal icky feelings that are magically cured by paint. Neither does that obligate the landlord to suggest doing some other stupid thing, or cater to weak thinking just because it’s her friend. 

    And I’m not trying to be offensive, but if I wanted a fresh paint job for some bullshit reason, that would be “my thing,” not some smoky bullshit, has to be paint bullshit. If some people need that smudging to “feel” something, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to suggest it as though I endorsed such beliefs. Is her friend a child?

  •  Having gone through a New Agey phase myself, smudging was the first thing I thought of.  Definitely go that route rather than painting.  It sounds like this new tenant just wants a new color scheme in the house.

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