15 Tips for First-Time Landlords

Mon Feb 8 2021

Being a landlord isn’t always easy, especially if you’ve never owned an investment property before. These tips for first-time landlords can help you start off on the right foot.

Remember, the habits you form at the start of a new venture can establish how much time, money, and frustration you’re spared throughout your career as a landlord. Invest early in creating a tried-and-true system for managing your real estate so you can reach your financial goals faster and be a great landlord. Here are some ideas to get you started.

1. Create a Bookkeeping Process

Being a landlord is a business, and you’ll need to treat it that way. That means tracking your income and your expenses so you don’t have a mess on your hands during tax season. Creating good bookkeeping habits now can be a huge help.

Your process can be as simple or as complicated as you want – there’s plenty of accounting software to choose from. The important thing is to keep a good record of your deposits, rents, and expenses, like the mortgage, property taxes, maintenance expenses, and any materials used on the property. For example, if you buy cleaning supplies to clean the property, that’s a deductible expense.

2. Get Everything in Writing

You know how important a lease is – you can’t do business on a handshake alone! But don’t assume that a boilerplate lease accounts for everything. Make sure your lease clearly outlines your policies about late rent, subletting, pets, noise complaints, etc.

Every communication you have with tenants about the property should be in writing, too. This includes giving tenants notice when maintenance workers need to stop by or when you’d like to show the property. If there is ever a dispute, you can rely on these records to show you complied with your state’s notice requirements.

3. Plan for Taxes

If you only own one property, it can be easy to forget that you’re technically running a business. But you are, and you need to plan for taxes accordingly. Remember that rent payments are considered income and what you spend to maintain the property is considered an expense.

It’s smart to talk with a tax advisor before you become a landlord so that you know exactly what to expect on your taxes. For example, you may need to start paying estimated self-employment taxes on a quarterly basis. This covers your Social Security and Medicare tax obligations, similar to what your employer would withhold from your paychecks. You’re often required to pay these at the federal, state, and city level.

You also don’t want to miss out on property tax exemptions that may help ease your tax burden.

4. Know the Housing Laws in Your Area

You will probably need to apply for a Certificate of Occupancy in the county where your property is. This will often give you a crash course on the housing laws and tenant rights in your area.

Even if you don’t need a COO, make sure you understand your responsibilities to your tenants. At the end of the day, ignorance isn’t a defense if there’s a problem with the property and it doesn’t pass a city housing inspection.

5. Establish Business Hours

Emergencies can and will crop up, but in general, create business hours for yourself and stick to them. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself working around the clock, and that can make any business harder to run.

Make sure tenants know the days and hours you’re available and give them both your email and phone number. Make it clear that you only respond during business hours unless it’s an emergency, like a plumbing issue with the house.

6. Don’t Rent to Family and Friends

It might seem like a win-win situation to rent to someone you already know. But the truth is it’s harder to say no to friends and family, and renting out your property is all about maintaining boundaries. For example, if a friend falls on hard times and can’t pay the rent, they may expect a favor that you wouldn’t give other tenants. The easiest way to treat tenants like clients is to rent to folks you don’t have a personal relationship with.

7. Screen Your Tenants

A typical tenant screening usually costs about $50. These often include a credit check, work history, criminal history, and eviction history. Though it’s a little investment, it can help make sure you’re renting to tenants who are financially prepared for their ongoing rent obligations. Calling references can also give you a better sense of who your applicants are.

8. Don’t Expect Profits Immediately

If you still have a mortgage on your property, chances are most of your rent payments will go toward the mortgage. Any extra usually goes toward maintenance and upkeep and whatever’s left over is your profit. But even without a lot of profit, your rental property is still valuable. All those rental payments help you build equity, which pays off over time.

9. Be Clear About Lease Violations

Your lease should clearly state what happens when its terms are violated, including late rent, policy violations, and other lease agreements. Clearly outline the process for resolving these violations, such as a written warning, fines, or eviction.

10. Take Before and After Photos

Take before and after photos of the property when tenants leave. While normal wear and tear is to be expected, you want to document damages that the deposit would cover. Photos are your best evidence.

11. Find a Great Handyman

Your tenants are entitled to livable space and timely repairs. Even if that weren’t the case, you need to maintain the property to keep up its value. That’s easiest when you have a reliable handyman you can call for maintenance work. They can take care of the little things like leaky faucets or installing a new ceiling fan.

Not sure where to start? Check out this guide for hiring contractors you can trust.

12. Install Hardwood Flooring

Hardwood flooding can be a big selling point for tenants, and it’s easier to clean and harder to stain or damage. Plus, that renovation can increase your property’s value. While you might be required to replace carpets after every few years, you can keep quality hardwood floors for years to come and new tenants will appreciate it.

13. Make a Call on Pets

Every animal lover knows that pets can be a handful. Make a call on whether you’ll allow tenants to have pets in your property, and outline those rules clearly in your lease. This might be a no-pet policy or one limiting types of breeds or animals. Or you might allow any kind of pet – your property, your call!

At the end of the day, you’ll need to decide if a pet deposit or pet rent is enough to clean and repair the home after the tenant leaves. The problem is that you really won’t know until after the fact, so it’s something to consider in advance.

14. Prepare for Vacancies

If you go years without a vacancy, consider yourself lucky. Most of the time, you have to prepare for months where you’ll have to cover the mortgage without rental income to offset it. Develop a contingency plan or savings fund for these lean periods.

15. Get the Right Insurance

Protecting your investment property shouldn’t be an afterthought. If you rent out your second home, you might think you just need a regular homeowners insurance policy. But you need landlord insurance for this situation. It protects the property’s structure, other structures on the premises (like sheds and fences), lost rental income, and liability. Notably, it doesn’t cover all the belongings inside the property – that’s a job for your tenant’s renters policy.

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