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An idyllic California town, a celebrity landlord, and a rental from hell

Tatiana Walk-Morris   

An idyllic California town, a celebrity landlord, and a rental from hell
  • Sonaar Luthra and Sarah Szalavitz left Los Angeles for a rental in La Quinta, California, last March.
  • The property is owned by Frank Ferrer, who's been the drummer for Guns N' Roses since 2006.

In 2021, Sonaar Luthra and Sarah Szalavitz decided to leave Los Angeles.

The couple found a rental home online for $4,000 a month in La Quinta, California, a palm-tree-dotted hamlet about 2½ hours away, nestled between the resort-haven Palm Springs and festival-famous Coachella.

The four-bedroom ranch was the ideal setting for Luthra, a climate consultant, and Szalavitz, a producer and AI-prompt engineer, to begin planning their wedding and make headway on professional projects. Szalavitz could finally dive into writing her book, and Luthra imagined turning a room with a peaceful view of the property's pool into his office. It was perfect for them.

The couple paid a year's worth of rent upfront, plus a security deposit and pet deposit for their two cats: a total of $52,370. They signed a lease on November 4, 2021, for a March 2022 move in. The lease, though, had a surprise: The property was owned by Frank Ferrer, who since 2006 has been the drummer of the rock band Guns N' Roses. They were relieved, they told Insider, because they believed someone in the public eye would be a reliable landlord.

But, they said, their desert paradise soon became a rental from hell: A severe crack in the roof led to a flood in Szalavitz's office; the rear sliding doors of the property wouldn't lock; the malfunctioning pool pump made an unbearably loud noise and turned the pool algae-green; the dishwasher used dirty water from the garbage disposal and, according to an email exchange with a doctor viewed by Insider, may have led to Szalavitz experiencing nausea and vomiting after moving in.

And that was just the beginning of their woes, which are documented in texts and emails with the broker and property manager, as well as photos of the damage. On December 14, 2022, the city of La Quinta declared the home a public nuisance because the heat wasn't working during an unusually cold desert fall. In California, properties can be labeled a public nuisance when they're found to be injurious to the health of the occupant or community.

The couple said the heat was repaired in late January and the building was no longer designated a nuisance, but Insider's public records request for records about the nuisance case was denied on April 19 because, according to the City of La Quinta, "the records requested include open and unresolved Code cases".

Ultimately, the couple wants Ferrer to apologize for the harm done in the situation, replace what was destroyed when Szalavitz's office flooded, and make a sincere effort to let them live in peace at the property. Luthra and Szalavitz have hired a lawyer in preparation for possible litigation.

"I'm trying to will into existence a just world," Szalavitz said.

The couple detailed how the celebrity-owned house in a desert paradise became a rental from hell.

The couple dug in their heels

Emails and texts between the couple and Ferrer, his listing agent Dina Hurtado, the property manager Marcia Mason, and the attorney Ulrich McNulty reviewed by Insider detail the tenants' attempts to get the many issues with the property fixed.

Ferrer's team and hired contractors did make visits to the house for some repairs, but problems persisted. Ferrer's team also paid for hotel stays for the couple when the HVAC system was on the fritz, but that was complicated by the fact that the couple has two cats and a door they said wouldn't lock — they were wary to leave the property and put their belongings at risk.

Ferrer, Mason, and McNulty have not responded to multiple requests for comment by email and phone.

Throughout their yearlong lease, which ended in March, the couple couldn't withhold rent to press for fixes to the property's problems because they had paid upfront.

In late October, Mason offered to refund the prepaid rent for November through March if they would move out early, by December 31, according to an email viewed by Insider. The couple said they had already decided to dig in their heels and fight for what they thought was right.

The couple has remained in the house after their yearlong lease expired last month and are paying rent into an escrow account. In California, when a lease ends, it automatically converts to a month-to-month rental, with some exceptions, and the tenants are still protected under state and local laws.

Luthra and Szalavitz believe staying in the home is the only recourse to try and get reimbursed for what they've lost, such as electronics ruined by the home's wiring, and all the time and energy they've spent trying to protect their well-being.

A desert paradise goes rotten

Soon after Luthra and Szalavitz moved in, things started falling apart. Take the time the home's heating and air-conditioning, or HVAC system, broke during the Southern California desert region's extreme August heat, with an average high around 106 degrees Fahrenheit, according to AccuWeather. The system remained unfixed through the cooler months, when the evening temperatures dip as low as the 30s.

The couple ultimately purchased a space heater, but decided not to use it because of the risk of fire, Luthra said.

Loose or nonfunctioning electrical outlets, power surges that have damaged their belongings, and flickering lights captured on email and video have made the couple fear for their safety.

After a crack in the roof led to flooding in Szalavitz's office in September, the couple had to pay $1,000 to hire a roofer for an emergency repair, Luthra said. (Insider viewed the receipt.) While they were repaid for the expense, Szalavitz said they weren't reimbursed for the destroyed electronics and sentimental items either by Ferrer or their renter's insurance.

Szalavitz declined to say exactly how much the couple paid in repairs or other expenses because she doesn't want Ferrer to accuse them of exaggerating their hardship. She doubts that Ferrer will repay them for the expenses they've incurred, she added, but holding him accountable for the situation is more important to her and Luthra.

Szalavitz said the ongoing and intrusive nature of the repairs has made it impossible to conduct interviews for her book, and that the illness she experienced, potentially from the dishwasher water, caused her to skip her niece's wedding.

"This house is really nice," Szalavitz said. "But at the same time, we haven't had doors that lock or heat. And we have allowed some stranger who's a wealthy celebrity to literally destroy our professional and personal lives and not make it possible for us to be able to fulfill commitments that we both wanted to."

She added, "This is not a condition where you can have interviews and write a book. It's hard to keep warm."

When 'things tend to go awry'

Loretta Thompson, a partner at the law firm Withersworldwide who practices real estate law, said celebrities typically approach the responsibilities of a landlord differently than other high-net-worth investors.

Wealthier landlords tend to hold rental properties as part of a broad portfolio of investments, she added, and they typically have attentive business managers who manage those properties through their family offices.

Celebrities, by contrast, don't always purchase real estate with the purpose of renting it out, but they sometimes lease it out while they're traveling, Thompson explained.

It is unclear where Ferrer, who didn't respond to requests for comment via email, spends most of his time. On his recently deactivated Instagram account, he posted photos from New York City and Los Angeles. Guns N' Roses has also toured most years Ferrer has been with the band, including in 2022 and this year.

"Very often they rely on a real-estate broker to both lease it out and to help with the management of it. And those are the properties that I see that have the most physical issues," Thompson said. Things "tend to go awry" when there isn't an experienced property manager, Thompson added.

The property manager, Marcia Mason, managed the property off-site. The couple is unaware of her ever visiting the home. Mason's email address links to the New York City-based M-Squared Management, whose business page on Facebook says it offers "individual artist management" and "business management" services.

Szalavitz and Luthra say the problems took a toll on their personal lives

According to the couple, the problems with the property not only affected their day-to-day lives; it also impacted relationships with loved ones.

Timothy Gunatilaka, a longtime friend of Luthra, visited the couple in December and watched Luthra try to communicate to Mason the issues they were experiencing.

All of these seemingly small issues were beginning to pile up and take a toll on the two of them, Gunatilaka said.

"You could just tell the house does not feel like home," Gunatilaka told Insider, "and that there's a sense of displacement."

Beyond the stress that they've endured personally, Szalavitz said they feel a moral responsibility to raise awareness about their situation to prevent future tenants from experiencing the same fate.

"I want to be able to feel secure in my home, and I know I can't place a value on that," Szalavitz said. "It's just been so destructive to our ability to plan our lives and to do things that matter to us."

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