As a kid, I always dreamt of the day that I would wake up, stretch my arms way up into the air, and happily say, “I am a landlord, and I love it!”
Becoming a landlord is not an aspiration. It is a byproduct of wanting tighter control of our real estate and the service we provide. (At least this is what it was about for me.)
It is widely believed that the term “landlord” dates back to the English Middle Ages, when there were actually feudal lords who owned the land that the tenant farmers worked. In exchange for rents, the lord of the land provided knights to protect the farmers.
From a tenant perspective, in many cases, the term has morphed into conjured images of a grouchy old man knocking on the door of a run-down apartment asking for rent.
From the landlord’s point of view, some see the tenant as a messy character that sleeps in most days, bounces from job to job, and makes excuses about why rent will be late each month.
The reality is that when you actually become a landlord, neither is true. That is, of course, only if you set yourself up for success and scale.
Before we jump in too deep, it’s important to consider the key tasks that go into being a landlord. These can be thought of in three broad categories.
What goes into being a landlord?
- Turnovers and Leasing
Starting Out as a Real Estate Investor
It was early 2012 when I met my now wife and business partner, Corinn. Corinn and I both worked for the Federal Reserve and were making good money. Her parents were active real estate investors for many years, so they shared their wisdom and convinced her to get on the journey.
With the help of a few Realtor contacts I had, after touring some pretty disastrous rental properties, she landed on a triplex in a booming part of Philadelphia called Francisville. There were some hiccups getting to closing, but nothing worth writing about.
Upon signing at closing, we instantly became landlords, even though the reality of it all hadn’t really set in. Although it was her property at the time, I was not going to let her go it alone.
We started out by doing most of the work ourselves for the first three or four years but eventually reached a level of growth and unit count to allow us to fill roles through hires and subcontractors.
Going back to the property. It needed some love before Corinn could move into the building, so it was time to roll up our sleeves and put in nights and weekends to get it ready.
This was a lot of spackling, sanding, and painting, with some plumbing and electrical work mixed in. Our relationship certainly grew throughout all of this, but the valuable lesson was understanding the effort it takes to rehab an apartment and improve a building.
In hindsight, it would have been best to outsource this work to focus on finding more properties. But as new landlords, we wanted to be immersed in all aspects of the endeavor.
While we worked to get our unit rehabbed, there were a total of four tenants living in the other two units. They were nice enough people, but looking back on it now, it was obvious that they barely qualified to afford their apartments.
The first-floor tenants were late a couple of times. We even experienced one of our only bounced checks ever.
The third-floor tenants were messy. They even tried to save money by heating their apartment with space heaters. We only learned about this when it was determined that their gas service wasn’t even active.
Being a systems and IT guy, it was after collecting a couple of rent checks and running into the first of many excuses for late rent payments that I felt implementing technology to support being a landlord would be a huge help. We quickly landed on Buildium, which was a new platform at the time. It was a lot more affordable than the other two products we considered, which were Propertyware and AppFolio.
The platform gave us tenant portals for work orders, electronic payments, templates for all of the documents and communication needs, and the ability to manage listings and applicants when we had a vacancy.
While we could get away with something as simple as a spreadsheet, my many years in technology told me that it is best to build a foundation to scale and be able to stop wherever we decided to along the way. It’s a much bigger effort to build up during the exact time when you need it most.
There are currently many software packages out there, ranging from free to very expensive. So do your homework to determine the minimum set of capabilities you need for your properties. I can’t and won’t recommend using Excel if you have any intention to grow a portfolio beyond a handful of simple properties, though.
The best part of adding software was that we also had so much data that we could track and report on to operate the property with great confidence.
Our philosophy was simple: Create a process and template for each new need to allow us to be as efficient as possible. This was especially critical as we still had full-time day jobs.
I personally created our first logo and website to provide a professional look, and we used the free versions of Gmail and Google Voice for communication needs. Most everything else was through Buildium.
When we weren’t working on the property, we spent a good portion of our days learning what to do, what not to do, reading books, and utilizing BiggerPockets to figure out the business and issues as they came up.
After we acquired another triplex and duplex over the following couple of years, we started to run into performance issues with Buildium’s interface. It was then that we decided to take on the added cost and migrate to Propertyware.
Again, we felt we needed the advanced capabilities to allow us to continue to scale. Buildium has come a long way since then and is now owned by the same company as Propertyware.
At this point, we were slowly morphing into a management company by spending more time on systems, processes, and being efficient and less time stuck in the minutia.
As we grew to acquire, syndicate, and manage 10, 20, and now over 50 units, we’ve added or evolved many aspects of the foundational capabilities of our operation.
Some examples include a new website and logo, GSuite, RingCentral, an emergency call center, and many other tools and processes to enhance or streamline operations.
We now have an office manager who serves as a leasing agent and maintenance manager, a bookkeeper, and an in-house handyman. I've retired my toolbox! (At least professionally.)
Our focus now is growing our business and not running it.
It’s important to get your turnover process right in order to minimize vacancies and expenses.
The tenants in our first property eventually moved out, but we had no record of the condition of the apartments when they moved in, so we ended up refunding their full security deposit.
We actually did this for probably our first dozen turnovers across properties, before we eventually realized how much money we were losing by paying for every part of turnovers.
Our turnover process was very generous back then. We attempted to make every unit as if it was brand new and spared no expense in trying to impress every tenant.
This turned out to be a great way to get a nice boost in rents, but the returns diminished once we realized turnovers were going to be more frequent than we thought.
We would make repairs and upgrades that we felt were best for the space, including patching and painting to perfection, paint schemes to match, replacing older appliances and even providing trash cans and a folder with local information and take out menus. While these all sound great, they require a great amount of effort and cost (money and efficiency) to sustain over the long-run.
Our process now is very different.
We conduct move-in, preliminary move-out, and move-out inspections. We provide a detailed report for each and require them to be signed.
We use the same paint colors and finishes and fixtures across as much of our portfolio as possible. We make every effort to fix before replacing and have learned what tenants want and expect.
Our processes are mapped out:
- An agent meets the tenant at the property the day they move out. They do a preliminary visual inspection together and hand over keys.
- The agent does a detailed walkthrough. They take pictures and videos to determine what needs to be done to get the apartment rent ready.
- The agent creates a work order, defining the scope of work.
- Our maintenance tech and contractors have 7 days to get all the work done.
- Our cleaning crew comes in and does a deep cleaning of the space.|
Speaking of our lease, this is the one document that has evolved the most over time. We learned early on that certain situations need a clear policy. Some tenants will take advantage of anything they can; others will claim to have previously discussed things with you to escape responsibility for whatever it is.
For this reason, we outline in the lease who is responsible for insect and pest control, garbage disposals, drains and toilets, move-out inspection findings, early termination, pets, subletting, etc. We’ve even gotten to the point where we have each unit certified as bed bug-free by having our pest control service walkthrough with a dog that is trained to detect them.
We’ve also added a tenant fee schedule, which outlines who is responsible for what and how much we charge for tenant-caused issues and damage that is considered above normal wear and tear. All of this is detailed in our lease agreement.
Our lease requires 60 days’ notice to terminate or forgo renewal, so we have plenty of time to get our marketing ready and list a unit as available. Because of our refined turnover processes, we can list a property within 10 days from the tenant move-out.
The only occasions where this may not be the case include if the unit needs more work than normal or if there is an opportunity to make improvements that would generate higher rent.
Finding the Best Tenants
The most critical part of being a successful landlord is filling vacancies with quality tenants. Although it’s not rocket science, this is where many new investors and landlords fail miserably. It’s all too common to want to get an apartment or house rented as soon as possible, so many landlords place the first prospects that apply and have a job.
Don’t be that landlord!
There are three key components to placing quality tenants:
- Create quality listings. If you want to attract quality tenants then your marketing needs to reflect it. This means you want to use professional pictures, write detailed descriptions and a great title, and highlight all features of the space. Quality pictures means using a wide-angle lens to capture whole rooms and taking photos in bright lighting. We use an actual camera with an external flash, not a cell phone. Add a video walkthrough or 3D tour to really stand out.
- Respond to inquiries promptly. Prospective tenants are blasting inquiries to many listings at a time, so getting back to them in a timely manner to schedule a tour is critical. You should aim to do it in minutes—or at the very least, under two hours. Doing so will not only help you fill the unit faster, but it also implies you will be responsive to tenants’ needs when they move in.
- Screen thoroughly. This is a lot more involved than just running a credit check. It requires validating identification, background, employment and income, and rental history.
When we got started, we used Buildium’s built-in systems for syndicating listings, and regular emails, text, and phone calls to schedule tours. We created response templates to facilitate each part of the process. While this worked fine for the most part, as we grew it became an all-day activity to respond to and track prospects and showings, not to mention dealing with so many no-shows.
That all changed when we implemented ShowMojo a few years ago. ShowMojo is a game-changer in that it automates the management of listings, scheduling, and showings. It includes syndication to most major listing sites and takes most of the work out of managing showings and following up with prospects.
For example, when someone sees one of our apartments on a site like Apartments.com and they complete a contact form, ShowMojo intercepts the message and automatically sends an email response to the prospect to schedule a showing.
It then confirms showtimes and sends follow-ups via email and text to encourage completing an application. We predefine the days and times we’re available to show properties on a calendar in the platform. It even notifies existing tenants of upcoming showings.
There are a few other products in this space, so research them if you are interested.
If you’re just getting started, filling the first few apartments on your own can be quite intimidating. (It was for us.) You might be wondering:
- What do I say during a showing?
- Will they like the apartment?
- How can I tell if the applicant is being truthful or stealing someone’s identity?
- What exactly am I looking for on their credit report?
- How do we know they won’t destroy the apartment?
We were so paranoid, we even went as far as Googling the applicants and checking out their social media profiles. Yes, this is creepy, but we wanted to place perfect tenants. (BTW—this is illegal now, so don’t do it!
Of course, we now know that the best paper tenants can turn out to be the worst and vice versa. This paranoia will ease over time, particularly when you establish solid screening criteria and stick to it.
Here’s our screening criteria:
- Verifiable gross income of 3x monthly rent. Pay stubs are usually fine, but we also call employers to verify work status. Cash income and self-employment require additional evidence from bank statements.
- Minimum credit score of 620. We find that this is the minimum level that assures the applicant is mostly responsible in paying debts.
- No violence or drug convictions. Note these are not charges but convictions. There have been occasions where we received valid explanations and support for charges that were dismissed.
- Positive feedback from the past two landlords. In cases where they used to own or may otherwise not have landlords, we contact personal references.
- Timely responses during the screening process. If we request more information and we don’t hear back in 48 hours, the application is automatically denied. This is a good indication of what your relationship would be like going forward.
Note that there are many state and local laws that come into play, so get to know the federal, state, and municipal Fair Housing and tenant/landlord laws regarding what you can or can’t ask for and how to screen tenants.
As for pets, we allow cats and dogs, with some restricted breeds. We charge a $250 non-refundable pet fee for each and additional pet rent for dogs, depending on size. Thankfully, we’ve had very few instances of pet issues and damage over the years.
Also worth noting, being in the Northeast has taught us there is a big seasonality component that impacts demand on rental properties and moving. For that reason, we work hard to set lease ending dates between April and July.
During the school year and in the winter are the times people are least likely to move. Alternatively, spring and summer are very busy for turnovers.
It’s hard to get all units on such a cycle, but we attempt to adjust expiration dates by incentivizing tenants to sign leases for additional or fewer months.
Our approval and move-in processes are pretty straightforward. Upon approving an applicant, we email an approval letter with a link to a portal account. They have 48 hours to submit their security deposit, which is when we take the listing down.
They have up to seven days before moving in to submit the first and last months’ rent and sign their lease documents. A critical part of this process is ensuring tenants use electronic payments from the start.
Once they move in, they have a week to report any issues and/or sign their move-in inspection.
Being that our properties are in the Northeast, we have all four seasons of weather to deal with—each with its own set of challenges.
These range from roof leaks and basement water in the spring and fall, AC problems in the summer, mice problems in the late fall, and of course, heat, snow, and ice issues in the winter.
When we first started, I personally served as the handyman for most repairs. As such, I spent a lot of time and money in the trenches, as well as in Home Depot and Harbor Freight. I’ve built quite the tool collection over the years.
It took me a lot longer to learn than I would like to admit, but doing my own handyman work is only practical on a very small scale.
What you think you save in costs is actually negated by the time and effort required to get a job done—let alone factoring in travel time and lost productivity for more important tasks.
It’s one thing to know contractors through family and friends—but to meet the continual demands of a growing rental portfolio? Those contacts couldn’t commit the time we needed at the friends and family discount. We ended up hunting down new contractors often.
Our biggest initial mistake was always looking for the cheapest price, with quality and timeliness coming in second and third. Somebody wiser than me said something about getting what you pay for!
As we have grown in unit count, we’ve gone through many contractors and eventually landed on a trusted group that we work with regularly.
There are three types of contractors we rely on the most:
- Contractors (3 tiers). A general handyman that can handle most household issues; a specialized handyman for more complex carpentry, plumbing, and electrical; and a general contractor that can handle bigger rehab projects that may involve kitchens, baths, and structural work. Each tier comes with a higher cost.
- Dedicated subcontractors for specific trades. These include a cleaning service, HVAC, plumbing, appliance repair, electrical, landscaping and snow removal, fire alarm inspection, pest control, etc.
- Suppliers. Although we use big box stores for a good amount of day-to-day materials, we do use suppliers for certain products, like paint, carpet and flooring, appliances, etc.
We document the scope of work in our system and with vendors, and we get signed contracts as much as possible.
I can’t stress enough how much the economies of scale and volume of work leads to building a better and better team. Although it doesn’t always translate into the lowest cost, you’ll get timely responses, work you can trust, and reliable quotes.
Even as we were growing and didn’t have the scale on our own, we referred our best contractors to friends and family to help build rapport and loyalty.
As far as how we handle day-to-day maintenance and repairs, over time we have adopted processes for our service-level commitments, move-in and move-out inspections, and standard fee schedule that clearly lays out who is responsible for what and how much it costs.
We set clear expectations on routine maintenance items, but of course, they aren’t always followed. We chargeback for any issue that is determined to be from misuse or neglect.
Here’s a list of the most common maintenance and repair issues we run into:
- HVAC problems. Filters and thermostats are causes of many problems. We now have maintenance contracts on all systems that warrant it.
- Appliance issues. Especially laundry machines, dishwashers and water makers on refrigerators.
- Plumbing. Garbage disposals, running toilets, clogged drains, and hot water heaters.
- Other water issues. Related to weather or plumbing, these often require some good detective work to figure out.
The biggest challenge when it comes to maintenance and repairs is balancing tenant expectations, contractor coordination, and most importantly, communication.
Nothing is more frustrating than lack of response and issues that aren’t fixed properly the first time. Open, frequent, and ongoing communication goes a long way to providing excellent service.
Prioritizing maintenance and repair needs really comes down to common sense. But it often requires a level of care to ensure that what you think is a high or low priority is matched by tenants and contractors.
What is considered a high priority and what should be treated as such changes over time and as you scale.
Bookkeeping and accounting is an area that is often overlooked or not given enough attention to, which should absolutely NOT be the case. It is important to get this correct from the very beginning. It is also easier to set up before business operations get too far developed, and doing so can make you much more efficient from the start.
Many new investors and landlords analyze cash flow pre-acquisition and then don’t even look at it after. This is where changing your mindset from a landlord to a property manager changes your perspective on accounting.
Prioritize these business operations processes for best results:
- Separate bank accounts. We have a checking account for operations and a savings account for security deposits for our rentals. We added a credit card for greater security and to take advantage of reward points.
- Electronic payments for tenants. Make it as easy as possible for tenants to pay and for you to monitor this. Even budget management software platforms offer this.
- Leverage automatic and online bill payments as much as possible. Use paper checks only when there are no other options.
- Expense tracking by property. This should also be built into your property management software.
- Account reconciliation and budgeting. Ongoing accounting and budgeting is critical to ensure properties are performing at the highest level, while also making it much easier come tax time.
From the start, I’ve been the numbers guy. This has always meant that I review our financial statements and reports on a regular basis. But we now employ a virtual bookkeeper to handle entering bills every week and an office manager to make payments. Separation of duties when it comes to money is important.
Budgeting is also important, so we have a system in place to set aside funds for properties that we know have regular and large expenses, such as property taxes and insurance.
Maintaining a reserve for a couple of months of mortgage payments and for capital improvements is also part of our process. Accounting and reserves should be based on the size of the property and number of units.
There are two times of the year when accounting is particularly time-consuming: the end of the year to close out the books and beginning of the year to file taxes. This is when we go through an entire year of financials per property to ensure accuracy and maximum tax benefits.
Our journey from three to over 50 units was certainly filled with learning experiences. Issues still come up, and we know that will never change. What has changed is how we respond.
- We went from losing sleep over a flooded basement to assigning it to someone on our team and having it taken care of quickly.
- We went from taking two days to review a prospective tenant to spending a few hours.
- We went from doing a lot of work ourselves to building a team with dedicated roles and responsibilities.
This was all made possible by carefully curating systems and processes. Taking the time to create a plan upfront for how to handle anything that may or may not arise down the line is more than worth the time and effort.
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