Can’t Sell It? Rent It Out

Becoming a landlord may be your best option.

Photo: Flickr

It was an unsuccessful attempt to downsize for a smaller house payment that led Joseph Cortez, a realtor in Corpus Christi, TX, to become a landlord.

“My wife and I started building a house because we were pregnant with our first child,” he explains. “In an attempt to downgrade our payment, we built a house 300-square-feet smaller than our current one. But in the process, we had several weather delays, and construction took longer than expected. My wife became more pregnant and she and the house were due around the same time.”

When the Cortezes thought of moving with a newborn, they were overwhelmed, so they put their new house on the market. But it wasn’t as easy to sell as they had hoped. After a good deal of interest but no offers, the couple was asked if they would allow someone to rent for a year, then buy the home. “We took it,” he says. “We make approximately $15 a month in profit.”

The circumstances may be different, but the story is the same for homeowners across the nation. As the market continues to sputter, some who had hoped to sell are now finding themselves turning into reluctant landlords.

Deciding to Rent Out Your Home
The decision to rent your home out can be a tough one, both emotionally and financially.

Decide if the loss you would take by selling the home for less than you owe now is more than any loss you’d sustain while renting it out, says Bret Holmes, president of Advanced Management Group , a property management company based in Las Vegas. “You have to calculate if you were going to sell today, what kind of loss you’d take,” he says. “Then consider how much you’re going to lose in the gap between how much rent you’re bringing in and how long you want to rent it out.” For example, if you have a $100 negative cash flow each month you rent out your house and you think you’ll rent it for two years, you’ll lose $2,400 on the house over that period of time. If that’s more than you’ll lose by selling it at a loss, it’s probably best to just get it over with, Holmes explains. Otherwise, he says, renting it makes sense.

Emotionally, of course, there’s an entirely other set of issues. “It creates emotional ties and makes it hard to see someone not take as great care of the property as the owner once did,” Cortez says. You have to step back and look at it objectively to be a better landlord.

Know Your Local Laws
The first thing you should do if you decide to rent is research your local laws. For some areas, you may have to have a business license if you want to rent your home.

“We had to get a business license from the Washington, D.C., government when we leased our property,” explains Bronagh Hanley, who became a landlord when she moved from D.C. to the West Coast with her husband and the couple decided they didn’t want to sell their home they’d worked on so hard for so long. But Hanley didn’t anticipate the difficulties with getting the document. “It took forever,” she said. “They had random repairs they wanted us to make, there was a substantial fee, and they had to schedule an inspector to come to the house.” The whole process took about a month, and Hanley says this is something potential homeowner/landlords need to keep in mind because not only can it disrupt your timetable, it is also emotionally exhausting.

Potential landlords also need to educate themselves about equal housing opportunity laws says Braun Mincher, president and managing broker of Aggie Real Estate LLC and Aggie Commercial LLC   in Fort Collins, CO. “If you do something like charge a larger deposit because a family has a pet, that’s fairly standard practice and wouldn’t be considered discrimination,” he explains. “But you obviously can’t change your practices based on race, sex, creed, culture, religion, or anything else like that. It has to be based on your actual risk.”

Finding the Right Rent Price
Deciding what to charge on rent can be tricky, Mincher says, because often the amount you could rent a property for isn’t really connected to what you should be able to sell the property for.

“That’s hard for a lot of people to understand because they want to make up that mortgage payment,” Holmes says.

And while how much you’re paying the bank will figure in somewhat to what you charge, it’s key to do your research on what similar houses are renting for, much like you’d look at comparative properties when figuring out an asking price for sales.

“Of course you want to take a realistic look at your PITI [principal, interest, taxes and insurance payment costs] if you have a payment on the home, which most people do,” he says. “But you also have to consider what the market will bear in terms of rent.” Mincher says that if you bought a townhouse at the height of the market, you’re probably not going to make up a $1,200 payment if all the other similar houses are renting for $900 a month.

Another factor to consider is insurance. You will pay more for insurance on a home you’re renting out, despite the fact that you’re not insuring the contents, only the structure. Call your homeowners’ insurance company and talk to them about any rate increases that will result from changing your residence status on the house so you can figure that into the price you’ll charge a renter.

And for homeowners who paid a premium for granite countertops, gorgeous hardwoods, or full-stainless-steel kitchen, there’s more bad news. These extra features don’t necessarily translate into higher rent prices. “You may have less vacancy because of these things, but you’re talking to renters, not buyers,” Mincher explains. “They don’t care as much about your beautiful landscaping. So, figuring out what to charge is a challenge.”

How should the average homeowner who’s thinking about renting confront the challenge? “You really just have to check newspapers and online ads and get a feel for what a home in your price range within about a three-mile radius is going for,” Holmes says. Other good sources of information include a trusted broker or realtor; if you have a good relationship with someone in real estate, he or she may be able to offer you useful advice.

Finding the Right Tenants
Once you’ve priced your house and you have interest from a potential renter, it’s critical to perform due diligence in checking out the person or people you’ll be entrusting your home to.

“On their own, people can verify employment by contacting a current employer,” Holmes says. “Get paycheck stubs to make sure they’re making what they say they’re making. Also do a rental history check. Call previous landlords and see what kind of information you can get.”

Also, consider outsourcing some of the rental screening process. “If a person wants to do a full screening, the process is pretty intensive because you basically become a credit reporting agency,” Holmes says. For that reason, homeowners should consider looking at companies that complete the tenant screening process for you, he says. They’ll do credit checks, eviction checks, criminal background checks, and other similar screenings.

A tenant screening company is how Hanley found her first renters. “We hired a rental management company to find the tenants since they had the skills and resources to do the credit and background checks,” she says. “We paid them a percentage of the first month’s rent for their services. It was well worth the money, since we ended up with an accountant couple from Wisconsin who were the best tenants!”

Are You Ready to Be a Landlord?
Once your tenants are in place, your main duty as landlord is to maintain the property. But if you’re living in a different city, state, or even country, how do you handle it when a pipe breaks or the air conditioning dies mid-August?

“I advise people to get a home warranty program in place,” says Holmes. “Things are going to go wrong — they always do. A home warranty program prevents a huge out-of-pocket expense when it happens.”

Most home warranty programs have a premium you pay once a year. Then, whenever something goes wrong that your homeowner’s insurance won’t cover ­— like a dishwasher that leaks or a refrigerator that won’t cool — you call the home warranty company. You’ll pay a “co-pay,” usually $50 to $60, and the home warranty company picks up the rest of the repair tab.

If you don’t want to pay the initial premium of the home warranty, however, employ a handyman. “Going outside your comfort zone can cost more money than repairmen,” Cortez says. “It’s many times worth it to hire an expert. Find a good all-around handyman that is trustworthy.”

Photo: bizmology.hoovers.com

Money Management
While the process of getting a property rented and managing it can be all-encompassing for novice landlords, dealing with the dollars and cents is a critically important factor.

Insurance: Talk to your insurance company about renting out your property, Mincher says. “You’re going to transfer your coverage from a homeowner’s policy to an investment property policy, which will cover the actual structure but not the contents,” he says, adding that it is critical that landlords make it clear to their renters that their coverage does not protect the renter’s possessions or liability. “Renters’ policies are so cheap,” he says. “We pretty much make our tenants get them. We practically walk them down to the insurance office.”

Taxes: This can be complicated for owner/landlords. If you plan on selling the property in the next few years, you probably just want to deduct your property taxes as you normally would. But if you’re transferring it to a true investment property and don’t plan to sell for a while, there can be other tax benefits. You can depreciate rental property, says Mincher, which is a real tax benefit because home prices actually should appreciate. “If a property is held for investment purposes and you generate rental income, you can depreciate the property,” he explains. While it’s best to consult an accountant, he explains that residential properties are depreciable for 27-1/2 years. “So, if I owned 50 rental properties, I can depreciate an average of $10,000 a year for each one; that’s $500,000 a year in tax deductions I get that I never had to write a check for.”

Collecting deposits and rent: Take your renter’s security deposit and open a separate bank account for it, Mincher says. “Note on the account that it is a ‘trust’ account, which signifies that it’s someone else’s money you’re holding,” he says, explaining that since it’s a deposit and the renter should get all or most of it back if they uphold their agreement, it’s really their money, not yours. Mincher says setting up another account for rent is also a good idea. “I used to have 20 tenants at my door the first of every month waiting to pay their rent,” he says. “But I came up with a system where I send them an invoice and a deposit slip now, and they can just deposit their rent at any branch of my bank each month instead of trying to come to my house to do it.” He also suggests setting up automatic draft so tenants can elect to just have their rent drafted out of their account each month. “Almost any bank can set that up,” he says.

Returning deposits: You can’t just collect a $2,000 deposit and then only decide to return $1,500 of it when the renter moves out, Mincher says. “You have to send them a detailed itemization,” he says. Once your tenant moves out, make sure to call all the utility companies your tenant had service with to see if there are any outstanding bills. If so, deduct that from the deposit, says Mincher, along with a detailed, itemized list of any repairs you’ll have to make.

Legal Matters: Protecting Your Interests
No matter how much you may trust your renter, never do business based on a handshake and a spoken agreement.

“Getting a good lease is very, very important for both novice and experienced landlords,” says Mincher, who recommends making an appointment with a real estate lawyer to go over your documents before you have anyone sign. It may cost a little more, but it’s a price worth paying when you consider the consequences of a lease gone bad. A local real estate lawyer should know the rental laws, which can vary from municipality to municipality. You can also check with property management companies, your area housing department or your local board of realtors for less formal advice.

“This way you can find out if there are any forms or attachments that need to be part of a lease, because if you don’t know about these, there can be some pretty dire consequences,” Mincher says, adding that in the college town of Fort Collins where he lives and rents property, landlords also have to have an occupancy disclosure form. “This came from people cramming multiple college kids into one house,” he says. “Now tenants have to sign a form that acknowledges the city has a rule that no more than three unrelated people can live in one house.” If this form is missing, says Mincher, the landlord can be fined $1,000 a day .

Besides hefty fines, Mincher says there are some forms that are required to actually make a lease valid. “For example, if a house has a building permit from before 1979, you have to have one of the EPA lead-based paint disclosures as part of the lease, or it’s totally void ,” he explains.

And while you hope for the best with your tenants, Holmes says it’s wise to prepare for the worst. “Make sure all state laws are addressed, so that if you do have to evict somebody, you have the law on your side,” he says, adding that a consultation with a real estate lawyer is the best way to handle this. “If you don’t and you go to an eviction proceeding and there’s a loophole you missed in the lease, someone could end up living in your house rent-free.

Property Management
Hiring a property management company can take a lot of the headaches out of renting your home if you choose the right one. Management companies will usually take a portion of each month’s rent in exchange for handling the screening, rent collection, repairs and other day-to-day landlord management aspects.

Property managers will likely either take a percentage of the monthly rent — anywhere from 10 to 15 percent is common — or they’ll take charges upfront, sometimes as much as the first month’s rent. “As your novice owners go, that 10 percent of their monthly rent is probably a big part of that nut,” Mincher says. “Say their payment [PITI] is $950.00 a month and they’re renting [the home] for $1,000.00. If they manage it themselves they can probably make those numbers work, but if they put a property manager in the mix, they are now only getting $900 in rent.”

Management companies will handle tenant screening, credit reports, and other checks before the tenant moves in. But you have to choose the right company or person. “Pick someone who is more geared toward management than sales,” Holmes says. “Especially if you’re just looking to recoup as much money as you can until the market comes back around. If you don’t have someone who has experience getting a house rented, it could sit on the rental market longer than it should.”