How to Be an Absentee Landlord (Don’t!)

THERE’S A NEW QUESTION on my Q&A page. I’m putting it up today as a post; it will remain in perpetuity on the Q&A page along with others I’ve answered in the past:

  • 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

Check it out when you get a chance. Here’s the latest:

Q: How do you handle being an 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. 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 amok because they think you won’t know or don’t care. It reminds me on New York in the ’70s, when “absentee landlord” was synonymous with “slumlord” in the tabloids. That’s not us! We need a new term (suggestions welcome…)

Anyway, in this day of cell phones, texts, email, FedEx (for leases and keys), and Craigslist, 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 issues do 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 fix them personally 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 meeting them face-to-face as well, and pay 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 good roofer, I’ll schmooze.

The trickiest part is when a tenant leaves and an apartment needs re-renting. In Brooklyn, I often use a real estate broker, or several — I don’t give ‘exclusives’ — since the tenants pay the fee. But just as often, I’ve rented through word-of-mouth. In Philadelphia, 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 only four or 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 there.

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. They then set up appointments at their mutual convenience. That works well, because tenants can often answer questions about utility bills, parking, etc. that I 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 check prospective tenants’ references, by calling both their previous landlords and their 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 wouldn’t mind having many more.

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