Early on in our investing in real estate, we were told to make regular walk throughs of the properties. We were taught to use changing the HVAC filters as the guise to get into the property and look around once a quarter, even if changing the filters was put in the Lease Agreement as the tenant’s responsibility. Realistically, we have mostly great tenants that will tell us what goes wrong in the house and take good care of it. But this isn’t always the case. Plus, once we added two kids to our lives and I no longer worked (i.e., no longer have a set schedule for being out of the house), the rental properties moved to the back burner unless a tenant brought something up specifically.
After our experience with House 9 – both the hoarder and the guys who just turned off the gas to the stove instead of telling us about a gas leak (yea….), we decided it was important to get into these houses at least once a year. In many instances, either one of us or our handyman is in the house at least once a year for a repair, so it’s not a big deal. But there a couple of houses we hadn’t seen in a while. Add in the pandemic, and we really haven’t been in houses all that much.
We moved out of Virginia, where we have 9 properties, last Fall. That means getting into these properties is more of an effort that needs to be properly planned and orchestrated now. We already planned to be in Virginia for a wedding in September. However, the issues that stemmed from the flooring replacement in House 3 made it imperative that we get there as soon as possible.
I emailed all the tenants to let them know that I planned to walk through the property for a quick inspection. I asked if they had any definitive times of day or times of the week that they would prefer I not arrive (e.g., works night shift, child’s nap time). I let them know that they didn’t need to be present for the walk through, that I would send them a document outlining anything I noted, and that I would try to avoid their times of being unavailable, but didn’t guarantee it.
Of the 9 properties, 3 are with a property manager. We took two off the list after they responded positively about how they replace the filters, had several conflicts around the holiday weekend, and we have been in these houses for repairs in the last 6-9 months. One is a house that we had been in regularly and knew she was treating it like we’d treat our home, and the other had our handyman in it recently, who said, “they seem to be by-the-book people.”
While there, we took pictures of the front and back of each house to give to our insurance company. We have a commercial liability umbrella policy, and the underwriters like to update the file every 3 years (details in a future post!). So instead of posting pictures of all the “dirty laundry” (literally and figuratively) I encountered, here’s a picture for this post that’s of our nice, pretty house with great tenants. (Note – Mr. ODA tucked in that piece of vinyl on the back right just after I took this picture!)
HOW DID IT GO?
Well, I started in a house that I’ve only seen one room of since we bought it (this is owned with a partner – he and Mr. ODA have handled most issues to date). I was overwhelmed. There were 5 full/queen size beds in the house, where the lease holds a husband/wife and adult daughter. There was stuff everywhere. We just replaced the HVAC in the house, but they had all the windows open, fans on, and the HVAC running. I knew that there was water damage from a plumbing issue, but I didn’t realize that it had affected the kitchen and the basement (thought it was just a part of the basement). It was a hard way to start. I should have started with an easy one that I knew would be in great condition. 🙂
From there, it went pretty well though. Most people obviously cleaned and changed the filter because I was coming. This is a good thing and a bad thing. If I don’t show up for a year, is the house cluttered and a mess? Then there was a house that I went in, where he didn’t bother picking a single thing up for my arrival. Dirty socks, things strewn about. It wasn’t to the point of hoarding, and I didn’t find any food laying around to attract pests, but it wasn’t how I would manage a household.
I ended two days of seeing 7 houses with a lengthy to-do list. Plumber, HVAC technician, roofer, electrician, pest control, and then a random assortment of things that I don’t know who to call for (e.g., replacing bedroom doors, closing in literally 2 sections of chain link fence that are missing). I also made note of things that will require our attention during a turnover, but that don’t necessarily require attention right now (e.g., removing old caulk around the tub and re-caulking it).
TENANT FOLLOW UP
I sent an email to each tenant. I thanked them for their time, outlined the items that I noted needed attention (e.g., vacuum HVAC filter cover, vacuum dust build up on bathroom, unblock exits), documented anything we did while we were there (e.g., gutter clean out, caulking), and sent a list of reminders that are the lease items we see most frequently broken (e.g., only adults that have passed the background check and are on the lease may reside there; any fines incurred by lack of yard maintenance will be passed onto the tenant who is responsible for yard maintenance per the lease; change air filters no less than every 3 months; all surfaces are to be cleaned and remain clear of food particles as to not attract pests).
Contractors are scheduled a couple of weeks out, so nothing is moving very quickly, but at least we’ll get into these houses for some preventative maintenance.
Lesson learned that when life gets in the way and active management of rental properties becomes a little too passive, the to-do list grows pretty long. There was nothing critical that we weren’t aware of, and we could handle these things during turnover, but I’ll try to get ahead of some of it in the near term, especially where we have long term tenants.
This is a good one. This is the one we use when people say “how can you handle all those properties,” and I respond, “if we survived this one tenant, we know we can handle whatever gets thrown at us.” Hoarding, mice, court dates, eviction. But its not always like that. The sun shone down on us for the current tenant though, who signed a two year lease and take care of the house (like, even power washed it on their own accord). The stories below show that you need a thick skin and a smooth temperament to be a landlord. Treat this as a business.
This house was purchased ‘as-is,’ but we still had a home inspection contingency in the contract. It was listed at $139,500; we purchased for $137,500 with $2,500 in seller subsidy. We went under contract on 8/14/2017 and closed on 9/22/2017. The appraisal came in at $141,000, so we were content with our decision.
We refinanced the loan in May 2020. Our original loan had a balance of $105,800 at the time of the refinance. We rolled closing costs into the new loan and cashed out $2,000, making our new loan amount be $111,000. The refinance reduced our interest rate from 4..875% to 3.625%, shaving $104.25 off our monthly payment. I went into detail about the refinance in my Refinancing Investment Properties post.
Following the 1% Rule, we would be looking for $1,340 in rent (net of seller subsidy), but we haven’t received that yet. The first tenant’s rent was $1,150 and the second at $1,250. For the third potential tenants, we listed at $1,300, but the new tenants negotiated to $1,280 for a 2-year lease.
TENANT #1: OUR WORST
The application. It’s hard to not give someone a chance when their application is borderline, but I suggest letting the information on the screen speak to their character. Before the official application was run (which includes a background check), she admitted to a felony that she served 2.5 years for, and she filed bankruptcy due to a stolen identity while she was incarcerated. It seemed like she paid her dues and was building a new life. We got her application about two weeks after closing, so it wasn’t like we were desperate to rent it at that point. But she was quick to fill out an application and provide necessary documentation, so we decided to give her a chance. She moved in on 10/1/2017 with her 3 children, one of which was born days after she moved in. Her rent was $1,150.
We didn’t have any unreasonable situations with her in the first year. We did have a maintenance call for a leak under the kitchen sink, and we noted that the house wasn’t tidy. It seemed like she was a coupon-er, where she stocked up on a few items and probably resold them, which supported how she kept wanting to pay us in cash. The house wasn’t to my standard, but I didn’t look close enough to notice that it was dirty in addition to cluttered. I wanted to say something, but didn’t know my place at that point. Hindsight: I should have told my property manager and had her issue a written notice. This won’t matter down the road for legal proceedings, but perhaps we could have saved ourselves some headaches if she took the notice to heart; I was just afraid of offending her. But, other than that small concern at the time, we had no issue renewing her lease for another year.
The tenant complained about seeing a mouse around February 2018. We informed her at that time that pest control was up to her because of her living style that was attracting the pests. She claimed to have a quarterly treatment through Terminex. She complained further of mice in November 2018, but I wasn’t part of that conversation. It appeared to be that she was upset that there were still pest issues while she was paying Terminex. Well, that’s an issue to take up with the pest control company, not us. Our property manager gave her the information to our pest control company and shared that it would be a bit cheaper for the quarterly plan too. We heard nothing more until all hell broke loose in April 2019.
She sent pictures of mice poop all over the house on April 9, claiming that she had been out of the house from March 31 through April 8 and came back to this sudden mouse infestation and would be leaving the house. Well, that’s not how it works. She claims that was her ‘prompt’ notification, as if mice set up camp in a lived-in house that’s well maintained out of nowhere (news flash: it wasn’t well maintained and clean). She claimed that because of the living conditions (that she perpetuated), this would be her last month in the house. We knew we had the lease to fall back on, so we continued to remind her that this wasn’t on us and she couldn’t leave us with the financial burden and walk away. We had our pest control company go to the house as soon as possible, and we received their report on April 12.
But wait! While complaining about the condition of the house (that she caused), she wanted to know if she could buy the house!!!! Logic always seems to abound in these situations; it’s hysterical. We offered her to purchase the house from us at $148,000. She ignored it after that offer.
Both the pest company and our HVAC person noted a dog on the premises, which was in violation of the lease. HVAC was called out to fix a wire on the outdoor HVAC unit that the dog had chewed through. She also wasn’t taking care of the yard, and the City of Richmond was fining houses that violated their weed and grass clauses, which we notified her of on May 9.
She didn’t pay April or May rent, so we had a court date set for May 10. We had told her that she had to pay all overdue rent and late fees for us to cancel the May 10 court date. She didn’t pay, so our property manager went to court. The judge awarded us possession of the property, but since there was such outstanding rent and damages, another court date was set for July 1 to award us the money owed. In front of the judge, the tenant handed the keys over to our property manager, saying she was moved out. Immediately after leaving the court house, the property manager arrived at the house to do a walk through, only to find several people inside. She called the police.
The officer assessed the situation. He said that since they’re still moving things out (and there was a lot to move out), that it was a benefit to us that they were still working on it. He suggested asking their input on when they thought they would be done. One guy said at 3 pm. We agreed to let them stay, and I would go by after work to change the locks.
I showed up at 4 pm to change the locks, only to find people still coming in and out of the house. I called the non-emergency police line and waited for the cops to show up. It’s officially trespassing, and we were prepared to press charges. The officers knocked on the door and asked the people inside (none of whom were the tenant on the lease) to leave. One woman started a whole spiel about how she’s on probation and everything that she’s been arrested for, so she didn’t want to be arrested. The officer was funny to watch, and he just kept saying, “I’m not arresting you. I just want you to leave.”
After they drove away, the officers let me walk the property to ensure everyone was out. The place was destroyed!
By Virginia law, we are required as landlords to make every attempt possible to get the unit re-rented and let the old tenant “off the hook” for unpaid rent. Meaning, we can’t hold them to the entire term of the lease and have a vacant house. Regardless of this, we wanted to get everything fixed and replaced in the house so that we had an exact amount to claim during the July 1 court date.
The linoleum replacement was the critical path. She had destroyed it (looked like some chemical ate through it) beyond repair and it had to be replaced before we could re-rent the house. Home Depot’s timeline was really behind, and they weren’t able to get us scheduled for installation until June 20th (after she had “vacated” May 10th).
I compiled a list of lease violations with my documentation to support the claims in which she violated the lease on top of the obvious (e.g., dog on premises, smoking in the house). We had invoices from the pest company, the HVAC company, the trash removal company (over 40 cubic yards of garbage was left in the house when they finally vacated), and the “hazmat” cleaning company, all corroborating an unclean and unkempt living condition.
We went into court with a claim of $9,250. This was unpaid rent for 3 months, late fees, junk removal, pest control, HVAC fixes, professional cleaning that included a ‘hazmat’ charge, and all our paint and flooring charges.
We won the first judgement in court, simply because the defendant didn’t show up. We were awarded $9,250 plus the court fee and 6% interest. Well, somehow the court accepted her plea of needing another court date after not showing up to this one, and that was on July 10th. The judge that day reduced our rent and late payment owed by one month, and reduced our reimbursement total by a bit more than the security deposit we had already kept, bringing the judgement to about $6,600 plus the court fee and 6% interest.
Per the court process, we were required to work with the ex-tenant to develop a payment plan. We offered her a payment plan via email that was never responded to. From there, the next step is to retain an attorney for wage garnishment.
I contacted the attorney we use to help with wage garnishment, but he wasn’t experienced. He referred me to someone, who let me know that he’s already representing someone who has a claim against her. He said that he could still represent me, but I’d be second in line to any money they get from her. He offered me another attorney’s name to see if that one could help me instead, but that attorney said he couldn’t represent me because he already has another client looking for money from this woman. Interesting that two attorneys had different answers, but we went with that first. We haven’t seen a dime. Once the money was spent and we paid off the credit cards, it wasn’t on our radar anymore. Anything we get from this woman will be a bonus at this point.
TENANT #2: BLISSFULLY UNAWARE OF HOW LIFE WORKS
Two kids just out of college were our tenants that came in after that mess. They were great tenants, but a bit unaware of how the world works. They didn’t get the utilities into their name timely, so we charged them for the bills that came to us. After that, they paid their rent on time, and even when their restaurant jobs shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, they prioritized paying rent over other things they could have spent their limited income on; I was impressed. At the end of their lease, they were a bit lost too. Our lease requires 60 days notice of your intentions – either leave, or renew. Our property manager reached out to them at the 60 day mark, and they said they weren’t sure what they wanted to do, but were looking for other places. Since, realistically, we weren’t going to list the house for rent at 45 or 60 days, we told them that was fine. They came back after a week and said they were going to move out.
We moved forward with listing the house for rent and vetting new tenants. We had our property manager show the house on June 10 for what would be a July 1 lease. About a week later, the current tenants asked if they could stay longer because they didn’t get the place they were looking for. Sorry, but that’s not how it works and it’s already rented. The new tenants were OK with moving in July 15, so we allowed the college guys to stay until July 10. Then we hustled to get the house put back together before the new tenants. Specifically, one of the tenants was an artist, and he hung a huge canvas on one of the bedroom walls to paint on. Well, the paint bled through.
They also didn’t tell us that the range wasn’t working. When we asked about it, they said something to the effect of, “oh yea, we smelled gas, so we just cut it off. That was back in March.” Goodness!! So we quickly ordered a new range. We also had to have the carpets professionally cleaned, which was especially frustrating since they were only a year old. Luckily, the ladies who came to clean the carpets worked their magic, and they came out looking good as new. The microwave handle was broken off, and when we looked to buy a replacement, it was essentially the same cost as a new microwave, so we installed a new one.
While we were working in the house, we noticed that the air conditioner wasn’t keeping the house cool. We had an HVAC tech come out to the house, and it was either $1,400 to repair (after we had already previously put money into the HVAC unit), or $5,000 to replace it. We decided to replace it after it died shortly after the third tenants moved in.
TENANT #3: SOME OF THE BEST
These tenants have been wonderful. They’re both pharmacists at the local college and have been very self-sufficient. They’re great about alerting us of issues, but not in a way that it seems like they’re nitpicking. For instance, they wanted to store their lawn mower and other things in the shed out back, but the handle was broken off it. We told them that if they wanted to purchase a replacement, we would reimburse for the cost. Then they noted that the closet dowel was broken and they replaced it. I told them I would pay for that, so just take it off the next month’s rent. When they sent me the receipt, they had only taken the rod itself off the rent, but not the brackets to hang the rod. I immediately sent them the rest of the cost!
They’re one year into a two-year lease, and we’re very happy with them. They always pay their rent on time, they communicate regularly, and they’re taking care of the house.
MAINTENANCE AND REPAIRS
Since I’ve covered a great deal of the repairs we’ve managed in this house through each of the tenant stories, here’s a quick summary of other items.
Shortly after the third tenants moved in, they politely let us know that their dishwasher wasn’t cleaning the dishes. They very clearly identified the problem and the steps they had already taken to attempt to fix it, but it wasn’t working. We purchased a new dishwasher the day after they let us know. So in the matter of a month, we replaced the built in microwave, range, dishwasher, and HVAC. The only appliance we haven’t replaced in this house now is the refrigerator.
There was an electrical issue that we had sort of noticed before, but hadn’t pinpointed it without having things to plug into all the outlets. We had an electrician go out and fix the switches and outlets that weren’t working in master bedroom.
AN OVERALL LOOK AT THIS HOUSE AS AN INVESTMENT
Remember how real estate investing provides multiple avenues for wealth building? Here’s how they’re looking for this property.
Cash Flow – As we have had to replace nearly all appliances, including HVAC, and all the flooring among several other smaller issues, our total cash flow on this property is nearly nothing. But, like mentioned before, we shouldn’t have any big purchases coming and will start to be able to pocket the profits on this house once again.
Mortgage pay-down – The tenants have paid our mortgage for us, but due to closing costs of refinancing and choosing to take $2,000 cash back from that refi, our principal is actually higher than when we bought it.
Tax Advantages – We always depreciate the cost of the structure for paper losses that help offset profit on properties for tax purposes. All those repairs and appliance replacement expenses that eat into the profit margins are written off. So come April 15, the silver linings of those expenses are realized.
Appreciation – This one is good for us. This house is in a developing neighborhood and the area around it is being revitalized. Coupled with standard appreciation and the *hot* real estate market we’re in now, the value of the house is 150% of what it was when we bought, in less than 4 years.
We’ve put about $10,000 into this house at this point. But that means we have a lot of brand new things in it. Now isn’t the time to give up on the house, since we should be in a position to not deal with many maintenance requests. Rent continues to climb, increasing our cash flow, while we just brought our mortgage payment quite low with the refi, and the property will continue to appreciate in value.
We learned a lot about the eviction process, even dealing with local police officers in the process. The court system and law enforcement are fairly simple to work with, as long as you are a fair and respectful landlord, keep documentation, and follow landlord-tenant laws. When the tenant doesn’t live up to their end of the bargain, justice will be served.
I shared that I would tell the stories of our home purchases. Instead of starting with #1, I decided to start with the most interesting. This property was being sold by a licensed Realtor, so we had a false sense of security. It ended up being the sketchiest (technical term) deal we’ve done. This is in Virginia.
We started with a home inspection, which revealed several issues. We requested the HVAC condensate line be cleared and the water in the backup pan removed. We also agreed to have our attorney withhold $1,300 at closing, to be paid to a contractor of our choice after closing, to repair other items found during the inspection. I can’t remember why we were handling the home inspection items, but that should have been the first red flag.
Our closing was scheduled for 8/18.
We were told that the HVAC repairs agreed upon were completed. We went to check on the progress of cleaning out the house and the HVAC repairs on August 10th. The HVAC’s backup pan still had water in it, and the house was filthy (after being told it was ‘vacant’ and ‘cleaned’). Plus, the electric was turned off. We had our Realtor reach out to the seller to cover our bases. Here’s his email:
While waiting for a response on this email, we checked with our closing attorney to ensure everything else was ready for closing; it wasn’t. We fully expected a “we’re clear” response, but instead we were told they were having trouble clearing the title. We weren’t given the specifics, but that’s not what you want to hear a week before closing. It ended up being cleared, but that was one more thing to worry about!
As typical, we had to do a final walk-through of the house to ensure it’s in the same condition (or better) as it was when we went under contract. Knowing how poorly the seller communicated over the previous month, we wanted to see the house the day before closing, rather than right before we head to the closing table. The electric was still not turned on, and it wasn’t cleaned. Our Realtor contacted the seller again. We were assured it would be addressed, and the electric would be on. We made plans to walk through the house in the morning.
Our Realtor was unavailable that morning, since this wasn’t supposed to be part of the schedule, so he sent a team-member to let us in. As luck would have it, she dropped the lockbox key below the front porch, so we couldn’t get in. We called our attorney and postponed the closing to later in the day. The Realtor was able to obtain a copy of the key to let us in, where we learned the electric was still off.
I contacted the electric company. I explained that I was the buyer, and the seller kept saying the electric would get turned on, but here we are at the 11th hour with nothing. The woman on the other end couldn’t tell me what she was seeing since it wasn’t my account, but she carefully played with words to let me know: sorry, hunny, but there’s no way this electric is getting turned on while under this person’s name because there is a high outstanding balance. She assured me that if I put it in my name, there wouldn’t be any issues. However, I wasn’t about to pay fees and put it in my name before the house was legally mine.
This is where we learned that a good attorney is worth his weight in gold. We never really understood the role of a closing attorney, since all our closings had gone smoothly (I mean, we could sign all the closing documents in about 20 minutes at this point). Since the electric wasn’t on, and we couldn’t verify the condition of the home, as required by the contract, our attorney withheld $5,000 of the settlement proceeds. The seller’s attorney was NOT happy, but it was entertaining to watch from our standpoint.
We had been provided a ‘receipt,’ dated 8/17 (the day before closing), that indicated an HVAC repair man had been out to do the work required. We are pretty sure that this was falsified. There was no electricity in the house that day, and there was still water in the pan on 8/18. Here’s the email I sent to our attorney releasing the $5,000 withheld, less the cost of my HVAC technician performing the repairs.
It cost me $125 for the HVAC technician’s trip. Our attorney told the seller’s attorney that he would release the $5000 less the $125. The seller’s attorney said he didn’t have any authority to allow that; so our attorney said he didn’t have any authority to release the $5000. Well, the seller’s attorney decided $4875 was better than nothing, and I got my $125 back.
All in all, everything fell into place, but there were many days and hours that felt like we were about to fall into a pit.
We purchased the house for $89,000, plus the $1,300 for contractor repairs, and the seller paid $2,000 of our closing costs (this minimizes the amount we have to bring to closing and allows us to leverage every last dollar we can for maximum efficiency). Our first lease was for $995/month, exceeding the 1% Rule. We closing in mid-August, and the first lease didn’t execute until October 1, which was one of our longer vacancies. That tenant renewed her lease once. Currently, the rent is $1,025/month. We sought $1,050 for a 12 month lease, and the prospective tenant negotiated an 18-month lease at $1,025. We accepted this because it was rented in October, and an 18-month lease brought as back to spring-time turnover. Even though taxes have risen since the purchase, we still maintain the substantial cash-on-cash return that is provided for in trying to obtain the 1% rule on investment real estate purchases.
After closing, I painted nearly the entire house (including the trim) over the course of a week; the house looked significantly better with just a fresh coat of paint. We also had to do a more thorough cleaning job than we’ve typically had to do on houses we purchase, including caulking the tub and cleaning the carpet.
We replaced the dishwasher with the first tenant, and then replaced the refrigerator after the second tenant kept complaining about the seal not working well. Most costly, the house has had several roof and siding issues. The kitchen was an addition with a flat roof, which typically causes problems. We replaced the gutters, fixed the flashing, repaired some siding, and then eventually replaced that part of the roof altogether. We also had to replace a cracked window, which was surprisingly under warranty. It took a lot of work to find the window manufacturer and a local distributor, but it surprisingly all worked out because it was a stress fracture and covered under a lifetime warranty.