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how to be a landlord

Are You Ready To Be A Landlord?

This is the first in a four-part series explaining how to buy rental properties, teach you to generate passive income and how to be a landlord.

How I Got Started

There are many ways to get started in real estate.  In this installment, I’ll explain my background, where you might invest, and who you might rent to so you can begin earning passive income each month. I hope you can learn something from the path we chose.

My journey into real estate started as many others do. I became an accidental landlord.  My husband and I bought our first house in 2004 while he was in school.  We had only lived in the house for a year before he graduated and joined the Air Force.

We had to move and I didn’t want to sell the house.  We decided to hire a property manager and let them secure a good tenant for us.  The house was rented within a month and we have continued to rent it ever since.

Our first stop with the Air Force was Fort Walton Beach, a nice beach town in Florida.  I had the grand vision of buying a house every time the Air Force moved us and then renting it out after we left – building a real estate empire around the country!

But during the years we lived in the house we had to evacuate three times for hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina, and the thought of maintaining a rental property with high risk for floods or hurricane damage wasn’t appealing.

We sold the house in Fort Walton Beach, used the proceeds from the sale to completely pay off that mortgage and the rental property mortgage and moved to the next military assignment: Dayton, Ohio.

A Detour

Now it was 2008-2009 and the recession was starting, housing prices were forming a bubble and the market in Ohio was not one we wanted to jump into.  We decided to rent and my dream of buying property all over the country ended.

During the recession years our investment balances kept going down. This motivated me to learn more about how the stock market worked.  I read books on investing, I watched TV shows that talked about the markets, and even subscribed to an investment newsletter on the Motley Fool.

I wanted to understand what was influencing my family’s net worth.  What I learned was that there are thousands of things that influence the stock market – individual company performance, the economy, politics, world events and so many other factors.  I could not possibly understand all of them.   The one consistently positive investment we had during the recession years was the rent check coming in every month.

I had faith that the stock market would eventually improve so I kept depositing money into our workplace 401ks and Vanguard IRAs knowing that dollar cost averaging was going to pay off big once the market rebounded, but some of the excitement of the market was gone for me.

Back On The Property Ladder

I wanted something I could physically see and point to as ours.  In 2010 I decided to start saving up for a second rental property.   We went into our first home purchase not knowing anything about real estate so I had a lot of learning to do this time around.  I wanted to treat this as a business, not a hobby and to do that I had to learn more about real estate.

Like stock market investing, I am a buy and hold real estate investor — I do not have the skills or time to flip houses. I just wanted to find some good homes to invest in that would provide a steady monthly income.

I started reading books about real estate and found it hard to filter through the hype and sales pitches of most real estate books.  In the beginning I focused on books that gave a general overview of real estate investing, like Retire Rich with Rentals by Kathy Fettke.

 Where To Buy And Whom To Rent To

Real estate is all about location, location, location!  Real estate investing is certainly no different.  You should select a city with strong rental demand; this is often found around colleges, military bases or urban centers.

Vacancy rates are available online to see if rates are rising or falling.  A city with stable or declining vacancy rates is preferred, as this builds confidence about the demand for future rental properties.

After choosing a city, I further narrow down my search to a few neighborhoods. Your real estate agent can provide you the average home costs, average household incomes, unemployment rates and job growth.

Once I have chosen several neighborhoods to examine and had some money in the bank for a down payment, I scheduled a trip to the town to examine the location first hand. I normally drive around the neighborhoods to get a feel for income level, transportation options, vacancy rates and general home conditions.

The closer you are to amenities, the more desirable your location will be to renters.  Are there businesses, shopping, or good schools nearby?  Look for negatives as well; where is the nearest waste water treatment plant, prison, garbage dump, or flood zone?

Will you be looking for single family homes, condos, or apartments? Just driving around the neighborhood for 20 minutes will give you far more insight than hours looking at pictures on Zillow or realtor.com.

If you plan on managing the properties yourself, then they should be close to your home or job so you can respond quickly if there is a problem and so you can show the house to a potential renter on short notice.

Along with finding the right location for your rental properties, you need to decide who you will rent to.  We focused on college students but perhaps your neighborhood would be better for young families or single professionals.

My advice is to appeal to the middle income bracket, which in my college town is $100,000 homes and $1000/month average rent.  This is the widest group of renters who will consistently pay their rent.

All of our houses are single family homes with fenced in yards, within two miles of a university campus and right on a major bus line.  A supermarket and several restaurants lie within walking or biking distance.   We allow pets with a clause in the lease that there is a $500 non-refundable pet deposit to cover damages.

This combination of location, amenities, and allowing pets has been key to our success.  Our homes appeal to families starting out, university students, and young professionals.  The broader appeal your property has, the more successful you will be.

It is tempting to reach into lower income areas hoping to scoop up a “real deal” house for only $40,000 and getting $700 month in rent.  You might get lucky and find a great family who will pay rent and take care of your property, but I think you will be frustrated in the long term.

You will have less credit worthy rental tenants, less home value appreciation, and increased repair costs. Lower income homes require more time and energy from you to make the home run profitably.

Investing in a university town has proven to be a great choice for us for several reasons:

-University towns have a lot of turnover which makes for a great rental market since few people want to purchase a home but they all need a place to live for a few years.

-Big state schools have graduate students and international students who tend to have families and treat your home better than undergrad students.

-Parents can co-sign the leases to provide backup in case the students fail to pay.

-Homes are cheaper a mile or two away from campus, but rent is well priced.

-Single family homes have strong rental demand.

Baby Steps

If you are ready to buy a new property I recommend that your first house be a “turn-key”, which means the house is immediately ready to be rented without any renovations or major repairs needed.  A simple house that can rent easily will get you started and provide you with the confidence to expand your portfolio in the future.

Once you have several homes in your portfolio you can start reaching for more complex and possibly more rewarding investments.  You might be tempted to buy a beat up foreclosure house for cheap and then fix it up on weekends before renting it out. Unless you’re a professional contractor, I can guarantee you will underestimate the repair cost and the repair time and that is lost rental income for you.

If you really want to go that route, move into the beater while you are renovating and rent out your current home!  Flipping houses and major renovations are beyond the scope of this article, but if you have the skills to renovate a home there is profit to be made.

If you already own a home your first step in real estate could be to rent a room or a floor of your house.  This would generate income with very little additional expense or risk to you.  It may seem like you are sacrificing part of your life or that you are stepping backward by having roommates again. But perhaps it is the sacrifice you need to make to get your finances in order and start bringing in extra money.  An empty guest bedroom in your house or a basement full of junk is not earning you any extra money each month!

If that seems like too much of a commitment, try renting out a room to vacationers.  That way the commitment is only a few days or weeks long.  If you absolutely hate it, you won’t have made a long term commitment.

In next Thursday’s article we’ll look at how to determine if a house will be profitable for you, how to calculate return on investment, and what renovations are worth doing.

Next Up

real estate investing math

Real Estate Investing Part Two: The Math Behind Investing

The money and math behind investing in real estate. If you want to invest in real estate you will need to be able to do some basic math.


Rental Property Part Three: The Power of Leverage

Before buying rental property you need financing. There are several places to get it. I will describe what I did and what someone getting started might do.


Rental Property Part Four: Forming A Real Estate Team

If you want to build up a portfolio of rental properties, forming a real estate team will make the process easier.

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  • My aunt owns a boarding house, with 7 rooms. Her place is really perfect because it’s just near in school and grocery stores.

    • Allison

      Yea finding the right location is so important. A 7 room house should be making your Aunt nice cash flow each month!

  • jb1907

    Do not own property if you can’t visit the property easily. Even with property management companies, you need to be close to your investment. We have a house that has been vacant now 3 months. That will kill your returns.

    • Good point. That or you’ve really gotta have a killer management company that you trust. I know a guy who pays a pretty penny for the service but they consistently set him up with great tenants. In stark contrast to a co-worker of mine who does it himself and literally gets calls when lightbulbs break.

      • Daniel

        A good point. You get what you pay for and this goes for contractors as well. Low rates often come with less than stellar workmanship or reliablity.

    • Allison

      Yes I don’t live in this town anymore but my parents live 2 hours away and frequently go there for events and I have a few friends who still live there. Sometimes I ask them to drive by and check on things for me between updates from my property manager. Also your property manager works for you, so communicate with them and tell them what you want. Do you want weekly updates when vacant, monthly updates when rented or just to be contacted if there is a problem. It does take a real level of trust if your out of state, so do what makes you comfortable. Not everyone lives in a good real estate rental market and those people might have to expand their area if they want to invest directly with real estate.

  • Wellington

    Allison do you recommend any books? Looking at the Amazon reviews, most of the books on real estate investing are loaded with fluff and little concrete data or information.

    • Allison

      I think one of the best places for more information is biggerpockets.com There are tons of books out there depending on if you want to learn about how to buy a home, how to flip a home, how to be a landlord, etc.

      • Wellington

        I started listening to their podcast. Mindblowing.

  • Guest

    Thank you for article. I learned a lot.

  • Chris ZaguhZtuh

    Thank you for the article. I learned a lot Allison.