If you’ve been watching reruns of HGTV’s “Income Property” and wondering if it’s time to buy a rental property and become a landlord, you’re not alone.
Between our slow-growth economy, historically low interest rates, and the mood of millennials to rent instead of own, income property has been on an uptick since the Great Recession.
In fact, real estate is now Americans’ favorite long-term investment, according to a recent Bankrate study. The popularity of real estate is at its highest point since Bankrate started the survey seven years ago.
Should you take the plunge on a rental property?
Experts offer a qualified yes, provided you do your homework first. Here are some things to consider before diving into income property.
1. It’s not as easy as it looks
Forget the TV sitcom stereotypes of clueless landlords. To make the most of income property requires an accountant’s eye for detail, a lawyer’s grasp of landlord-tenant laws, a fortune teller’s foresight and, should you choose to manage your rental property yourself, a landlord’s firm but friendly disposition.
“Where people who want to become landlords fall short is, they don’t realize how much work goes into it,” says Diana George, founder of Vault Realty Group, now part of Century 21.
So before you leap in, you’ll want to consider whether you have the time and skill to put into managing a rental.
While rental property is considered a passive investment, that doesn’t mean you’re fully passive in managing it.
2. Success requires a long-term outlook
Jeremy Kisner, a senior wealth adviser at Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix owns two Las Vegas rentals. The unit he’s held for 13 years has had two tenants and low maintenance, while the other has had three tenants in four years — the last one a costly eviction.
He’s taking the same advice he gives his clients.
“The way that people get in trouble with almost all investments is, they just don’t hold onto things long enough,” he says. “With rentals, if you break even on a cash-flow basis, that’s actually not too bad because you’re paying down the principal and building equity that way. Then, you hopefully also see some appreciation.”
So if you’re looking to make money in real estate, you’ll want to think long term. As you pay down or eliminate principal over the years, you should be able to grow your cash flow.
3. It’s easy (and costly) to break the law
State landlord-tenant laws can act like an open manhole cover for rental owners who ignore them, according to Kathy Hertzog, owner of Erie, Pa.-based Landlord Association.
Case in point is tenant security deposits. It’s not as simple as collecting and holding the money.
“There is definitely bookkeeping involved. You need to have that account for each tenant and keep that money in that account and save it,” Hertzog says. “Security deposit laws govern how much time you have to return a security deposit when tenancy ends, less any expenses for cleaning and repair, all of which have to be itemized.
“In some states, if you don’t turn that in, the tenant can go after the landlord for double their security deposit for failing to return it within the specified time period.”
Of course, this is only one aspect of the laws surrounding rental property, and there are many others that landlords must know in order to avoid running afoul of them. You’ll want to be familiar with rules around eviction, fair housing and other regulatory requirements.
4. Make sure you’re landlord material
If you purchase a rental property, should you be your own landlord or fork over 6-10% of your rental income to a management service? While there’s no right answer for everyone, George and Kisner prefer to subcontract the work.
“They do the background check on your tenant, make sure they sign the lease and pay their rent on time,” George says. “That frees you up to manage your money, not your property and tenants.”
Hertzog says there’s a potentially steep downside to being your own landlord.
“If you get too close to your tenants and the tenants have financial problems, you can find yourself stuck because you don’t want to evict them,” she says. “You have to be very professional about it, because if somebody doesn’t pay their rent, they’re stealing from you.”
On top of this issue, are you comfortable making the executive decisions that must be made in managing a property? Will you repair or end up replacing that failing air conditioner or leaky dishwasher? You’ll need to make the call as to what is the best course of action.
5. Analyze whether buying or financing is better
While some financial pundits insist you should never buy a rental unless you can pay cash for it, Surevest Wealth’s Kisner begs to differ.
“Leverage (that is, a mortgage) typically magnifies returns, on both the upside and downside,” he says.
For example, imagine a rental property purchased for $100,000 in cash. The house yields a rent of $12,000 annually and is taxed at $1,000. With a depreciation schedule of 27.5 years and an income tax rate of 20%, an investor would earn just over $9,500 in cash annually. So the investor’s annual cash return is about 9.5%. Not bad.
Here’s how the investor using leverage performed, assuming the same house. This investor has a mortgage for 80% of the house, which compounds at 4 percent. After subtracting the operating expenses as well as additional interest expenses, this investor earns almost $5,580 in cash annually. With $20,000 invested, the investor’s annual cash return is about 27.9%.
In fact, the situation for the leveraged owner is actually a little bit better than these numbers suggest.
That’s because part of the rent goes to pay down the mortgage’s principal. So while the investor couldn’t pocket the cash flow because it was used to pay the loan, the investor still profited (and paid tax) on that money.
That’s the power of leverage to swing an investor’s return.
George concurs: “I definitely agree with going conventional (mortgage). It’s a really good way to maximize your dollars.”
6. Budget for the unexpected
Failure to plan for the myriad expenses of owning a rental can become a fast track to disaster.
“As a landlord, you want to save about 20% to 30% of your rental income for upkeep, maintenance and emergencies,” says Hertzog of the Landlord Association.
“You want to make sure you’re not just living off that,” she says, “because then when something big happens, you won’t have any money to fix it, and now you’re stuck because you’re a landlord with a property that needs to be repaired quickly, and you don’t have that money.”
Kisner couldn’t agree more: “It’s been my experience that you always underestimate all the different expenses that have a way of coming up and always overestimate just how positive the cash flow is going to be,” he says.
7. Remember to renew your leases
If mom-and-pop landlords have one glaring blind spot, it’s the failure to renew tenant leases in a timely manner, according to George.
“You’d be surprised how many landlords don’t renew their leases every year, so they’re letting their tenants go on month-to-month leases,” she says. “What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong is, their whole thinking is that now, if I want to get my tenant out, I can’t because now they’re not strapped to a lease.”
“Also, they can’t raise rent,” says George. “The only way you can change rent is if you have them sign a form changing the lease every year. That’s how you keep your tenants in check. When you let it slide like that, it can be really difficult to get your tenants back on track,” George says.
Depending on the state, landlords can give notice of eviction for a specified period. In California, where George is based, the state allows landlords to give 60-days’ notice for tenants who have lived in the property for more than a year (or 30 days for less than a year), though the situation may be different in rent-controlled cities. The landlord also might offer a new lease contract at the same time.
8. It’s all about location, location, location — sort of
That old realtor mantra about the importance of location takes an interesting turn when applied to income property.
“The best locations with the most appreciation are where you’ll potentially have the worst cash flow with a rental,” Kisner says.
Why? Investors can earn a return in two ways: cash flow and appreciation. In some areas investors may want higher cash flow in order to compensate them for slower appreciation. But if investors expect an area to appreciate substantially, they may be willing to forgo some of the cash flow in order to enjoy that appreciation. The result: house appreciation outstrips the growth in rents, and houses appreciate while yielding relatively low cash flow.
“As a result, the property has to appreciate more in order to compete as an investment with properties in less desirable areas,” Kisner says.
His solution: Err on the side of appreciation. That’s what he’s doing with his two rentals, which, in a good month, barely break even. “But if I hold them until I turn (age) 60 when they’re paid off, even after property taxes and insurance, I’ll double my Social Security income,” he says.
9. Want long-term tenants? Consider Section 8
Sudden tenant vacancy is the bane of every rental owner.
“Each month that a rental stands vacant, you’re having to pay mortgage, utilities and maintenance out of your pocket, so turnaround is one of the things you need to address really quickly,” Hertzog says.
One popular solution? Give Section 8 renters a try.
Section 8, aka the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, typically caps the rent for low-income Americans who qualify at 30% of their adjusted monthly income. While some landlords are skeptical of the paperwork and potential upkeep problems presented by some Section 8 renters, Hertzog views Section 8 tenants favorably.
“Older populations and persons with disabilities are usually excellent tenants. They take excellent care of the property because this is their home. This is where they want to be. Plus, if they don’t pay their rent or ruin your home, they risk losing their Section 8 voucher,” she says.
10. Don’t forget rental property at tax time
There’s a singular ray of sunshine that beams down upon income property owners each spring as they hunker down with their accountant to prepare their federal income tax return.
“When you have your own home, you can write off the interest and that’s about it,” George says.
“But when you own an investment property, your Schedule E tax form enables you to write off nearly everything under the sun, from painting the home to changing the light bulbs.
“So, even though you have rental income to report, you can show less income than you’re actually collecting and write off your mortgage payment and interest while building equity at the same time,” George says.
It’s that powerful combination of tax benefits and investing returns that helps keep investors interested in rental properties.
Rental property can be an excellent investment if you approach it in a business-like way. But you’ll want to understand (as much as possible) what you’re getting into before you lay down your money. While the appeal of generating a passive monthly income with real estate is high, it’s important to remember that it often requires a lot of work to keep that income flowing.