Manage a profitable rental property by avoiding these landlord and property manager pitfalls, such as not understanding your landlord responsibilities.
People enter the landlord business for many different reasons. Maybe you’re an “accidental landlord” who decided to rent out your former residence, or you gained a property through an inheritance. Or, maybe you diligently researched properties for sale and chose to purchase one (or more) as an extra source of income. Regardless of how or why you entered the business, being a landlord can be a profitable endeavor — or a costly one if you stumble into some common pitfalls.
Here are 10 of the most common mistakes landlords make and how to avoid them.
1. (Not) Understanding your local market
The three most important words in real estate investing continue to be location, location, location. This is twofold: First, it means making sure your rental is in a desirable area so you can attract more potential tenants. Just because the price is right doesn’t mean that the location is. Get to know the neighborhood, including access to transportation, grocery stores, area features and businesses. Second, understanding your location means learning about the dynamics of the local market, researching area taxes and determining what you can charge for rent — all of which are key to estimating the return on investment for your property so you can predict your monthly rental income.
2. (Not) Understanding fair housing laws
Before you start looking for tenants, you need to understand fair housing and discrimination laws; otherwise, you risk getting into legal trouble. Fair housing laws are federal statutes that ensure equal access to housing for everyone. It is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status or disability. Many local and state governments have additional protections that you’ll want to become familiar with. A general rule of thumb is to focus on the property and amenities in your advertising and conversations — not on who you think the ideal tenants would be or features geared toward a specific group. The bottom line is to treat and communicate with every applicant and renter in the same way.
3. (Not) Putting your best marketing foot forward
While advertising a rental property may not be as sexy as advertising a hot new car, there are many similarities. Just like the best product ads, you’ll want to feature high-quality photos of your rental — and the more, the better. It’s worth the expense to have professional photos taken during the spring and summer months so your property looks its best. You’ll also want a clearly written, accurate and error-free description of the property and amenities. Consider posting your property on Zillow Rental Manager to reach as wide of an audience as possible.
4. (Not) Conducting a thorough tenant screening
While speed is important in filling your vacancy, you still want to choose a highly qualified renter. Create a documented process and criteria for finding, screening and securing your tenants. Make each potential renter fill out an application and verify everything from employment to past addresses (and get landlord references while you’re at it). You’ll want to perform a tenant background check and run a tenant credit report. Confirm that renters have paid the rent on time and have not caused problems for their previous landlords or employers.
5. (Not) Completing accurate leasing paperwork
A lease serves as a binding, legal agreement between you and the tenant. As such, you’ll want to make sure it thoroughly addresses the rules, policies, and conflict resolution procedures for living on your property, and clearly defines tenant and landlord responsibilities. Remember to put everything down in writing: A handshake or verbal agreement won’t hold up in court. You can find many generic leases online, but you’ll want to review the lease requirements specific to your state or municipality and incorporate them into your rental agreement. Have it examined by a legal professional to ensure that the terms protect your interests and comply with local and state regulations.
Tip: Zillow Rental Manager offers state-specific, customizable online lease agreements for free. This feature is currently available in select locations.
6. (Not) Knowing your landlord responsibilities
Securing a tenant for your property is a huge milestone. But, your work is not done. As a landlord, it’s your job to meet your terms of the lease agreement: Check in with your tenants, keep tabs on the condition of the property, complete regular preventative maintenance and seasonal maintenance, and respond quickly to requests. Make sure your property is a healthy and safe place to live, and that you keep up on your taxes and financial reporting. Neglecting your tenants and your property can result in higher turnover, more vacancies, less rental income or even lawsuits.
7. (Not) Anticipating maintenance costs
Be prepared for the possibility that your property won’t always be occupied. If you aren’t able to fill a vacancy right away, do you have enough cash set aside to pay for the mortgage, utilities and other maintenance costs? Maintaining a rental property comes with unforeseen expenses, such as damages and unexpected repairs, and the bills still need to be paid. Complete a cash flow analysis and establish a budget so you’ll be able to cover these potential costs, then track your expenses to ensure you’re staying in the black.
8. (Not) Knowing when to hire a professional
If you live in the area, are handy around the house and have the time to quickly respond to requests, you can maximize your rental income by handling some of the general maintenance and management of your property. However, if you have several properties or are juggling an investment on top of a full-time job, you may be better off enlisting the services of a professional property manager. Also, depending on your experience and the condition of the rental after your tenants leave, you might want to hire a contractor to make significant improvements or repairs.
9. (Not) Managing your time efficiently
For many landlords, managing even one investment property can be a full-time job. Between securing a tenant and keeping up the books, you should understand that any investment property is a big time commitment. No matter how much you love what you do, make sure to take time for yourself and create a list of people you can rely on for backup. Having a network of people who can help in a pinch is important for the maintenance and safety of your property.
10. (Not) Treating your rental like a business
However you got into landlording, your rental property is a business and an income source — and you need to treat it that way. Consider setting up a Limited Liability Company (LLC) for ownership. This can help protect you personally from legal actions or claims. In addition, consider using accounting software or a spreadsheet to keep close track of your income, expenses and ultimately your return on investment. Document all of your procedures and communications with applicants and tenants, and make sure to stick to your procedures. When you’re renting a property, you will hear a lot of different stories, and some of them may be sad. There are many opportunities to help your community, but you want to make sure any action you take makes good business sense.
Successful landlords leverage skills from many different areas: customer service, marketing, accounting and home repair, among others. Reduce the risks that come with being a landlord by educating yourself and networking with other experienced landlords and related professionals. Join local or national landlord associations to keep up with changing rules and regulations, and share your experiences, so you can avoid the most common landlord mistakes.