Got a question related to old houses, interior design, renovation, gardening, rental property management, or real estate in general?  E-mail me at caramia447[at] gmail[dot]com, and I’ll give it my best shot.

See below for:

  • how to find tenants for an apartment in Brooklyn (NEW)
  • how to assess a house as a seasonal rental property (NEW)
  • what items in an older house are likely to be most expensive to fix or re-do (NEW)
  • being an “absentee landlord”
  • looking for property under 150K
  • where to find good buys on mid-century furniture
  • contemplating a move from the Hudson Valley to Philadelphia
  • entering the Brooklyn real-estate market as first-time home-buyers
  • renting in Brooklyn with three dogs

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Q:   I own half a brownstone in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn: a condo conversion with 3 bedrooms and 3.5 baths. Agents have suggested listing it from $6K to $7,500. I’m moving out for a year and I’ve been dragging my feet listing the property for rent. On the one hand, I don’t really want to deal with showing it. On the other hand, I’m morally opposed to the 15% broker’s fee, even though all the brokers are nice people (even friends!) I see that you never do exclusives, although I wonder if brokers will accept non-exclusives. Should I try on my own for a few weeks and, if I am unsuccessful, list with a broker then? When I had tenants before, the only nightmare one was the one found by a broker. Given how Craigslist disappoints, do you pay to list anywhere like the NY Times? I want a good price, but mostly, I want good people who don’t torture me and accept some of the apartment’s quirks. Thoughts? – Ali

A:   Sorry, Ali, there is no perfect solution. It’s a dilemma. I share your revulsion at the broker’s fee (even though the incoming tenants pay it), but it does signify the prospective tenants can likely afford the apartment. And you are talking a high-priced apartment, so it’s important that the tenants be unquestionably solvent.

Your first line of defense should be the Boerum Hill group on Yahoo. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/boerumhill/ It’s a neighborhood mailing list with 1600 members, very active. You might not need to do anything else.

Simultaneously, you could start with one broker and see how that goes. If she doesn’t find someone in, say, two weeks, then you could list with others. You don’t have to give anyone an exclusive, and I don’t think any broker would demand one.

You didn’t ask for this particular piece of advice, but I’ll give it anyway… since you have a 3 BR, the ideal tenants are a family. More stable than roommate shares, with all the comings and goings. If you rent to an unrelated group, you could end up with totally different people than the ones with whom you signed an initial lease.

Even after 30 years of being a landlady with 10 rental units, and innumerable tenants, I still make mistakes in choosing tenants. You just have to go with your gut and not be pressured by a broker, if you use one, to take whomever they bring. Word to the wise.

Re Craigslist, it has become a source of spam and not much else. Of 50 replies, half will be from someone overseas wanting to take the apartment sight unseen, and some will be so cleverly worded to appear real you’ll think they are. However, there aren’t many other ways… I haven’t used the NY Times in years, but perhaps it’s time to go that route. At least it’s legit.

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Q:  I am thinking of purchasing a house in an area of the East End that is pretty desirable for a rental market. My idea is to use the house primarily for rental income. I am not too familiar with what makes a house a good summer or fall rental out there. I am looking in the 500-600k range. Are small properties workable as income-producers? Is it better to have a minimum number of bed/baths?William

A:  What makes a house a good summer rental on the East End of Long Island, whether South Fork or North, is being near the beach — ocean, bay, or sound. A view of the water is ideal; second best is easy walking distance. A lot of people want a pool, too.

If you can walk to the beach, you may avoid the need to buy beach parking passes for your tenants. In East Hampton, that cost is considerable. Last summer, it was $375 for a beach parking sticker, whether for a two-week tenant or a Memorial Day-Labor Day tenant (the stickers have license plate numbers on them, and are only good for a particular car).

As far as size of house: minimum two bedrooms, 1 bath, for an easy-going couple plus house guests or family of four who don’t expect overnight visitors. But the more bedrooms the better for a summer rental. With prices as low as they are at the moment, you should be able to find something with three or four bedrooms and 2 baths in your price range.

Remember that the East End rental market is ONLY good three or four months a year (June-Sept). The other eight or nine months, the rental market is no great shakes, and you’d be lucky to find an off-season tenant to cover your monthly expenses (and one who is willing to vacate by Memorial Day to make way for the summer people). If your hope is to have the house carry itself, you’d need to do really well in those summer months.

Good luck, William, and write again if you have further questions.

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Q:  I’m a longtime reader of your website and like the angle you bring to beach houses for the mere mortals out on the East End. I’ve been invited to look at a family friend’s house on the North Fork that will be available soon. It’s a 1920s house that has been in the same family since it was built. I would characterize it as very well built/maintained, but in need of an updated kitchen and eventually bathrooms. Bedrooms and living room/dining room just need new paint or wallpaper. Roof and septic system are pretty new, oil heat is new. Electric is probably old.

I have a pretty good sense for what the financials will look like from a mortgage/insurance standpoint, but I am not well-versed in re-doing older places. What things could be expensive to fix or re-do that might not seem obvious? – Adam

A: Hi, Adam. Sounds like you have a great opportunity there to get in on something before it goes to market. The house itself sounds in fine shape. My best advice to you is to get an engineer to inspect the house, even though it’s owned by family friends. That’s a step one should never skip when considering the purchase of any property (it costs a few hundred dollars for an extensive report). That will tell you everything you need to know, including structural problems, if any, that may be invisible to the eye, and the extent of the electrical repairs needed. You’d also want to know about past or current termite activity.

Other than that, major costs include things you say are fairly new: roof, heating system, plumbing and septic. Windows are another hefty expense if they need replacement. Ultimately, it depends on how much or how little you want to do in terms of renovation. Sounds like you could live in the house pretty much as-is and make changes gradually. Dated kitchens and bathrooms, if they’re functional, aren’t the worst things in the world.

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Q: How do you handle being a landlord in multiple cities? I’m in Brooklyn. My girlfriend and I are building a little investment house in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Going to rent it out…the house is comprised of 3 little lockout apartments and can easily convert back to single family. Any tips or advice on how to be an absentee landlord?Reid

A: Hi, Reid. Good luck to you on your Charleston project. I was in that city once, years ago, and it made an indelible impression. It’s an extraordinarily charming place, and of course it inspired fantasies of owning property there one day, which I see you’re carrying out.

What you’re proposing is entirely do-able. I have ten rental units, five in Brooklyn and five in Philadelphia. For the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been living at the end of Long Island, 2-1/2 hours from Brooklyn and 4 or 5 from Philly, so I’m an absentee landlord all around, I guess. I don’t love the term “absentee landlord,” though. It suggests tenants running amuk because they think you won’t know or don’t care. It reminds me of New York in the ’70s, when “absentee landlord” was akin to “slumlord” in the tabloids.

Anyway, in this day of cell phones, texts, email, and FedEx (for leases and keys), it’s not hard to be “present” as a property owner/manager, even at a considerable physical distance. I always try to meet new tenants face-to-face at least once, so they know I’m a real person who will a) take good, prompt care of building issues, and b) personally take notice if the rent is not paid by the first of the month. Sometimes that’s meant making a special trip to Philadelphia and staying over one night in a hotel, but that’s rarely necessary, as I don’t have a lot of apartment turnover.

When maintenance issues arise (roof leak, boiler problem, new appliance needed, whatever — few of which you’ll have since you’re building new), I’m not going to do the repairs myself anyway. I’m going to call a roofer, plumber, Home Depot, etc., whether I live nearby or far away. I cultivate good contacts with tradespeople in both cities (and have made a point of trying to meet them face-to-face at least once, as well, and paying them lickety-split so they’ll be responsive next time I call). I’m not a great one for phone schmoozing, as my friends know, but in the case of a roofer, I’ll schmooze.

The trickiest part is when a tenant leaves and an apartment needs re-renting. In Brooklyn, I may use a real estate broker, since the tenants pay the fee (though just as often, I’ve rented through word-of-mouth). I don’t give ‘exclusives.’ I may mail keys to several brokers I’ve come to know over the years, and I make sure to collect them all afterwards. In Philadelphia, the landlords pay, so I’ve never used one there. Craigslist used to be a godsend, but lately it’s more a source of spam than anything else. I had a vacancy recently in Philly. I got about five “real” inquiries from Craigslist. Three people saw the apartment. One of them took it. When you have a nice apartment (with some ‘value added’ like outdoor space, great light, etc.), in a good location for a fair rent, people want to live in it.

How did I show it? Well, as in the past, the outgoing tenant was kind enough to show the apartment for me, for a consideration of $25 per showing. If it happens that the tenant is gone and the apartment is vacant, someone else in the building has always been willing to show it, with me pre-screening applicants by phone and email and their setting up appointments at their mutual convenience. That works well, because tenants can answer questions about utility bills, parking, etc. that I myself don’t know the answers to. I ask them not to discuss matters like painting and repairs, but to refer such questions to me. Another reason it pays to cultivate good relationships with tenants, which you’ll have if you’re responsive to their needs.

I always always check prospective tenants’ references, by calling both previous landlords (more than one, if they’ve moved recently) and employers. I don’t run credit checks or ask for tax returns; that seems like overkill.

For more about what it’s like to own and manage property (including a bit of the dark side), take a look at this post, “So Ya Wanna Be a Landlady?”, and this one, “A Landlady’s Woes.” Overall, though, it’s a winning situation, and while some wonder how I can possibly manage 10 apartments, I could actually handle many more.

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Q: I am very much enjoying your blog, the articles, the topics, and the photography. As a soon-to-be-retired academic librarian and artist, I’m looking to find a small barn/building that I can rehab into a studio/living space. I’ve been combing the Island but, so far, no luck. I’m currently renting in Northport, N.Y., a place I can ill afford to live, once retired, given a severely diminished pension (yes, A.I.G. got to me, too).  Any ideas about where to find “cheap” digs ($150,000–don’t laugh) with a touch of well-disguised aesthetic, within two or so hours of New York City (in any direction)?  Tall order, I know, but any help will be greatly appreciated. – Ilona

A: Hi, Ilona. I’m not laughing at your budget, but I do think you can forget Long Island. A much better bet in your price range would be to go north, to the Hudson Valley or Catskill region. Check my blog posts in the “Properties for Sale” category. The adorable converted houseboat in Athens, N.Y., for example, has just been reduced again, to $108,000. It’s great for one person and has a river view. But it may be too small for a studio, or just not what you’re looking for. Definitely go to this website, which has upstate New York and Berkshire-area listings, and search in your price range. You will be amazed at what comes up. Glad you’re enjoying the blog. Good luck, and keep us posted.

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Q:I have a beautiful contemporary home in the woods of Berks County, PA, and love the aesthetic of mid-century and Danish/Scandinavian furniture. The one major downside of this area: not much good mid-century — better, none. Where would you suggest traveling (within 100 miles) to look for some great buys? I am more interested in the look than in collectibility. Specifically looking for dining chairs and any other great find. - Haia

A: Thanks for writing, Haia. Foraging for mid-century is best in urban areas: New York, Philly, or mid-sized cities like Allentown and Scranton. It sounds like designer names are not important to you, so I won’t suggest R20th Century or Donzella in Manhattan, where it’s great fun to look but prices are high. Mode Moderne in Philadelphia’s Old City is my favorite vintage modern store in Philly. The most fun of all, to me, is scouring used furniture, used office-furniture, and thrift stores. In Brooklyn, a good vintage modern store that springs to mind is Two Jakes in Williamsburg. There are many more; you can find leads on blogs like Apartment Therapy, design*sponge, and the websites of New York Magazine and Time Out New York. And how about timing a visit to New York with the Triple Pier Expo? The next one is in November. If you haven’t been, you will be astounded at the size of it; one whole pier is devoted to 20th century design.

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Q: My daughter has moved to a place outside Philly. I miss her and my granddaughter terribly, and at the age of 60 am considering moving to Philly. It’s a big decision, as my business is up in the Hudson Valley, but I read your blog and you LOVE Philadelphia. I absolutely love old houses and antiques, so as I read about the Philly you know, I feel I will be happy there. But to start in real estate there at this age, well, I need some inspiration. Just seeing your blog, I feel, is a “sign.” P.S.  Your site rocks! – Sandy

A: Hi Sandy, getting an e-mail like yours is very gratifying:-) You really didn’t ask a question, did you? But I just want to encourage you in the direction of Philadelphia. I’m nearing the same age (unbelievable!), and am energized by the idea of living in Philly some day — just to take advantage of the gardening (there are something like 36 public gardens, and their gardening season is a month longer than New York’s) and, of course, the history and architecture. I suggest exploring the neighborhoods of Society Hill, Queen Village, Fitler Square, the streets west of Rittenhouse Square, and the Art Museum area. It’s all walkable, affordable (certainly compared to NYC), and civilized, with great restaurants and the possibility of a rich cultural life. I can’t advise you on making the career switch, but I feel certain you would love Philly as much as I do. Let me know how it goes.

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Q: I happened upon your blog by way of Brownstoner and really enjoy paging through it. I appreciate the level of thoughtfulness with which it is written and the personal insights you have to share. I am hoping you might be willing to share your thoughts on the best approach to entering the Brooklyn market as first- time home buyers. We have been working with a broker since November and are looking to spend under $1.1M. We are looking in Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Fort Greene, and have been disappointed by the over-abundance of new condos and chopped-up brownstones. Our goal is a two bedroom, two bathroom of at least 1100 square feet. While we would love to buy a house, I don’t think it’s within our means, or at least it doesn’t appear to be. Do you have any suggestions of neighborhoods (someone was recently suggesting Victorian Flatbush)? Or maybe a specific broker who could point us towards the kind of thing you are looking to rent but for sale? - Sally

A: Hi Sally, thanks for writing. First of all, I don’t think you’re doing anything “wrong” – it takes a long time to find the right home (I should know – we looked at sixty houses over a period of a year before finding our place in Cobble Hill!) You might expand your search to more neighborhoods - certainly Victorian Flatbush, if you can handle a detached one-family (a lot of maintenance, no rental income, but some very pretty blocks) and also (perhaps surprisingly) Brooklyn Heights, which seems to be more reasonably priced lately than in the past, especially for co-ops and condos in pre-war apartment buildings.

I would also work with more than one real estate broker. Why limit yourselves? I am working with half a dozen just to find a rental apartment! There isn’t anyone I would suggest specifically – it’s a matter of who has the right listing. My experience is that they are all people of reasonable integrity or they wouldn’t last long in the field. Save everyone’s time and energy by narrowing your focus as you go along (to, say, brownstones rather than condos, and particular neighborhoods) and insist on seeing photographs in advance whenever possible, because brokers have a tendency to drag people to whatever listings they have, appropriate or not.

I am generally in favor of buying a whole house rather than a condo, and if it IS a condo, I would recommend an older building and avoid new construction. If you’re going to buy in Brooklyn, why not buy a piece of Brooklyn? A 19th century row house has intrinsic and historic value that a new condo does not. It also provides the option of rental income in most cases. As for ‘chopped-up’ brownstones, that’s a pity, but don’t rule them out altogether. You don’t say if you’re willing to do any renovation, but if you are, things open up considerably.

Your budget of $1.1M sounds do-able; I’m not entirely conversant with recent sale prices, as I’ve not been actively looking to buy in Brooklyn myself, but I am aware of houses having sold recently in that range in Boerum Hill. You also don’t say whether you’re willing to be landlords and rent out part of your house, but I would recommend that too. There’s no mystery to it, and collecting monthly checks far outweighs any minor hassles finding tenants or addressing maintenance issues.

Keep looking and ye shall find. Good luck!

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Q: My family and I want to return to Brooklyn after a self-imposed five-year exile in the suburbs. We do not plan to buy in Brooklyn, but to rent. We have three dogs: two little ones and one big one. The bigger one is 11 years old, practically silent, sweet and good, and the others are papillons; together, they hardly weigh 20 lbs. They are cute, funny and lovable. We always crate or pen the little ones when we are out of the house.

In general, we are meticulous, considerate pet owners and great tenants, having rented in brownstone Brooklyn previously for many years. We’re middle-aged, with long-standing jobs, good FICOs and references, never missed any kind of payment, etc., but I am concerned this time about having three pets as renters. I am looking for advice, thoughts, observations, tips, etc., on how to present ourselves. Should we take the dogs with us when looking at apartments so they can charm prospective landlords from the get-go? Offer a pet deposit before they even ask for one? Help! – C.P.

A: Hi, C.P. By now I hope you are ensconced in a Brooklyn apartment you love with your 3 dogs. Personally, however, as a landlord, I will do just about anything to avoid renting to people with dogs. I have sustained dog damage in both cases where I rented to dog-owners — scratches that virtually ruined a door, and pee on wall-to-wall carpet. I’m not a dog person myself — I’m a cat person, and I don’t love renting to cat-owners either, mainly for reasons of pee, again (which is worse than dog pee, of course) — but cats at least keep the mouse population under control where that’s an issue.

Your best bet is to find dog-loving landlords. In my case, bringing along 3 dogs on a go-see would NOT be a good idea. I have next to no interest in them, and would not be charmed. (Everyone says their dogs are the “best ever,” by the way.) I would only rent to dog-owners if I was absolutely desperate for a tenant and had exhausted all other possibilities. The pet deposit offer wouldn’t influence me that much. In the case where the door (an exterior door to the backyard) was deeply scratched, I had a deposit and did not return it. But in general, I’m a ‘no dogs’ kind of landlady. Sorry!