How to Be a Successful Landlord

by Nick Gromicko, CMI®

Being a competent landlord requires a unique set of responsibilities and skills that makes the job unfit for many people. They must know how to find a safe and smoothly functioning property that will function as a money-making rental, and know how to generate interest in the property while being honest and not scaring anyone away. Perhaps most difficult is that they must be mature during inevitable conflicts, and have the courage to evict a tenant, when necessary, without becoming emotionally involved. Good landlords must perform these duties and more in a way that satisfies their tenants and earns a profit, all while maintaining a calm countenance, even during disputes. To make the job a bit more manageable, we sat down with career landlord Geoffrey Bostwick to compile a few tips that prospective landlords should study before entering the field.

First, a prospective landlord must find and purchase a suitable rental home, a process that is somewhat different than that for a typical prospective homeowner. The following tips can help them in their search:

  • Find the largest loan for which you are eligible to receive at the beginning of your rental housing property search, as this step will limit your search to properties you can afford. Lenders love talking, and they get paid to do it, so don’t be afraid to ask them a lot of questions and shop around. Also, make sure you can afford the mortgage payments if you cannot immediately find renters.
  • Look for a rental home in an area where prospective tenants are in large and consistent supply. College towns are ideal for this purpose, as a long-term downturn in tenants is unlikely.
  • “Fall in love with the deal, not the house,” Bostwick tells InterNACHI. You are not buying the house to live in yourself, so it doesn’t matter if it’s your dream house. Don’t pay extra for a backyard fish pond that you’ve wanted your entire life if the pond won’t excite potential renters.
  • Be patient. As an investor, you probably already have your own place to live, so you have time to spare to shop around for the best deal and make a lot of low bids.

Once the home is purchased, the new owner has several decisions to make concerning rent, security deposits, making the house conform to laws, and preparing it for the arrival of tenants. The following considerations can help this process along:

  • Carefully consider whether you’ll charge more, less or equal to the local market value for rent. While charging more than market value will increase your initial return on investment, you might wind up with someone who’s irresponsible with money. Charging less than market value has subtle advantages, too; you’ll generate greater interest in the rental, thereby attracting a larger pool of applicants from which to choose, and your renters will be happier and more likely to remain, reducing the strain on you to find replacements.
  • Time the collection of the security deposit appropriately. You need a security deposit to deter tenants from causing damage and recoup the cost of repairing any damage they make, but you have options concerning when it needs to be paid. If you charge the full amount upfront, especially if you simultaneously request first and last month’s rent, you will limit your applicant pool because many people don’t have that kind of money on hand. “You want to build trust with your new tenant, and asking for a large sum of money upfront is a step in the wrong direction,” says Bostwick. A smart idea is to ask for the security deposit and/or last month’s rent to be paid in installments, perhaps 20% per month for the first five months.
  • Beware of non-conforming bedrooms. Bedrooms must meet certain requirements, mainly to allow occupants to escape in case of a fire.  Some landlords rent non-conforming rooms as bedrooms in order to increase their cash flow. By doing so, they expose themselves to the risk of being discovered by the city, in which case they will have to make the building conform, or evict the tenant, both of which would create serious complications.
  • Put monthly contributions into an account for repairs, updated appliances, and other ordinary yet unpredictable expenses. This way, you’ll have the savings to pay for a new $6,000 boiler, for instance, if the need arises.
  • Prepare the house for your renters. The entire house must be cleaned, rooms repainted, broken fixtures repaired, and any safety hazards corrected before your renters move in. Just because you personally don’t mind a hazardous condition or ugly room color doesn’t mean renters won’t be injured or turned off. It is thus essential that you hire an InterNACHI inspector to learn about lurking hazards.
  • Consider living in the house yourself. Many landlords choose to live in the same house they’re renting. You can get a better rental housing or mortgage loan if you live in the house.  You are also able to more readily deal with problems as they arise.
And, finally, landlords must remember to be human. To make money, you must maintain good relations with your tenant. Some landlords feel entitled to abuse their tenants just because they own the property. This attitude is not only unethical, it’s also illegal, in many instances, and it's just bad business. During a dispute with a tenant, maintain an even temperament and treat them like any customer. If they are late with a rent payment, for instance, inform them that you would be perfectly happy to keep them housed if they pay.  Never lose your temper. If you choose to live in the house that you are renting, treat your tenants like your roommates rather than your subordinates to promote a sense of equality. 
If you do decide to take drastic action against a tenant, such as an eviction, or billing them for additional fees due to damage or non-payment of rent, or for housing more tenants than are allowed either by the terms of your lease or by the municipality, be sure you follow local and state laws regarding these situations. 
In summary, successful landlords are astute, deliberate businessmen who meet problems with composure, and treat their renters with respect.