HELOC

HOME EQUITY LINE OF CREDIT or HELOC

A HELOC is a line of credit secured by the equity in your home. This is different from a loan or mortgage.

What is equity? It’s the appraised value of your home that is not mortgaged. You may have put 20% down when you bought the house, and now you’re looking to tap into that equity along with the principal of the mortgage you’ve paid down. Or perhaps your home value has increased drastically, and you want to utilize the equity.

What is a line of credit? It is a revolving account of credit. This means that when you close on a HELOC, you don’t get a check cut for that amount right then. You need to “draw” on the account, as needed, which is essentially writing checks from that account to either yourself or another entity. As you make principal payments, the amount of principal becomes available again for a future draw, as long as you’re within the draw period of the line of credit.

Do you have to disclose the purpose of the HELOC? There are no parameters on what you can use the money for when you draw it from the HELOC. You may want to pay off a credit card that has a higher interest rate, do home improvements, do other construction projects, medical bills, etc. While you’d want to utilize this for larger purchases, you can draw smaller amounts as long as you draw the minimum required by your terms (e.g., no less than $100). You earn interest from day 1, so this isn’t more beneficial than a credit card that gives you a short-term “loan” for your statement period (you don’t pay interest on a credit card balance that is paid off by the due date).

TYPICAL TERMS

The application process is similar to applying for a mortgage. A bank wants to see your credit report, along with some backup documentation (e.g., tax returns, account statements). We also had to update our homeowners insurance to show the HELOC as a mortgagee.

A HELOC will typically only cover a portion of the equity in your home, depending on the bank’s terms. If your appraisal value is $400,000, and your mortgage balance is $250,000, then the equity in your home is $150,000. While there may be instances where a bank would approve a HELOC for the full amount of $150,000, most are going to approve 80% or 85% of that amount.

There are no closing costs associated with the HELOC. Typically, the bank processing the HELOC will cover the costs associated with the line of credit initiation up front. However, they will require those fees to be paid back to them if the HELOC is closed within a certain period of time (usually 36 months). For our first HELOC, when we closed it within the 36 months, we paid back a prorated amount of the fees (e.g., if the fees were $300, and we closed it after a year, we owed $200). For our current HELOC, if we close it within the 36 months, we’re required to pay back 100% of the fees they covered, not the prorated amount.

A HELOC has a variable interest rate, which may adjust monthly or quarterly based on the lender’s terms. A variable interest rate can adjust up or down. But this is something to be aware of because it’s not like a loan or mortgage that has a fixed rate made known up front. The rate, in our case, is set at the index rate with a margin. However, there’s a floor to the bank’s rate. What does this look like? The index rate is 3.50%. The margin is -1.00%. However, the bank’s floor is 3.00%. Therefore, even though 3.5-1=2.5, the minimum interest rate they’ll lend at is 3.00%. Therefore, our current rate is 3.00%.

There is a “draw period,” which means you can only take funds from the line of credit for a certain period of time (e.g., 10 years). When you do draw from the line of credit, you’re charged interest on the principal balance. During the draw period, you must make the minimum required monthly payments on the account, which is typically the monthly accumulated interest owed, but some banks may require principal payments during this period also. When the draw period is over, it enacts the principal repayment period, meaning you have a certain amount of time (e.g., 10 more years) to repay the principal balance of the HELOC. There is no charge for the HELOC existing though; it can be there and never drawn on.

OUR PROCESS

The most recent HELOC we closed on had a different process than the first. We expressed our interest, and since they already had our documentation on hand from a commercial loan, they didn’t ask for supporting documentation (e.g., account statements). However, for some strange reason, she said she couldn’t use the credit report from our commercial loan, and she had to pull our credit again. At the time we were applying for another mortgage, so the hit on our credit counted as “mortgage shopping,” so we gave up the fight and let it happen.

This company would have given us 100% of the equity available in our home. However, two weeks after initiating the HELOC process, we told them we needed a pre qualification letter for an offer we made on another personal residence. They then told us that since we’re on record as wanting to sell our home, they would only approve 80% of the equity.

The loan officer asked for two references for each of us. There was no information given on what this personal reference had to know about us. We both handed over our people, but they were never contacted, so we won’t know the purpose.

Finally, they asked for our homeowners insurance to show them as a mortgagee on our policy, which I was able to do with one quick phone call to that office.

Typically, the process will include an appraisal. This bank had a valuation system that they used. Based on this woman’s inputs into the system (which were all wrong), she said that she could approve us for $100,000 without paying for a full appraisal. We don’t need more than that, so that was sufficient to us.

We closed the HELOC a month after expressing interest. Our process may have been slower than the typical period it would take because we were fighting the credit pull for a while (not to mention the company we were working with is notoriously slow at responding to inquiries). Mr. ODA expressed our interest in pursuing the HELOC on April 12th. We were cleared to close as of May 11th, but we chose to close on that following Friday. We went to a local bank branch, and a relationship banker went through the documents with us as we signed them.

WHY THE HELOC FOR US?

My general plan was that we’d have a HELOC initiated, so that when we found a new personal residence, we could use the HELOC for the down payment of that house without having to sell our current house first. In the past, we’ve sold our home, went into temporary housing, and then moved into a new home. Granted, all our past home purchases were in a completely different locale than where we were living, but I really didn’t want to manage storage of goods or go into temporary housing with two kids and a dog again.

We initiated the conversation on the HELOC without having any intent to move yet. Not to go into too much detail on this topic, but we need to be residents of this house for two years to avoid paying capital gains. Our 2-year mark isn’t until November, so we weren’t in a rush to move before then. A home with the same floor plan around the block from us sold for $190k more than what we bought this house for less than two years ago, so we expect there to be a hefty chunk going to capital gains if we don’t meet the two year requirement.

I was keeping an eye on the market, but clearly had no plans to move. To me, a regular check on Zillow lets me know what I can get for my money. However, there are some things related to our current personal residence that are concerning, and we had decided that this wouldn’t be a long term location for us. With the market right now, I knew we’d either be paying a higher mortgage than I ever anticipated in life, or I’d be compromising on my wish list. Well, a house that met a lot of our wish list popped up in the area we liked for less than $500k, so we jumped on it. The house needs work, so even though we’ll close on it over the summer, we aren’t in a rush to move into a construction zone.

Once we close on the new house with funds from the HELOC, we’ll start accruing and paying interest on the balance. We’re not required to make principal payments until after the draw period, which is 10 years. When we eventually sell our current home, the proceeds from the sale will pay off the HELOC seamlessly through the closing process.

Year in Review: Part 1

Just over a year ago, I decided it was time to put more effort into sharing what we’ve been through. When I’m looking to learn something new, I like to find examples of how other people handle it. I want to know the places they struggled and how they learned. I find it a better way to form my opinion than by reading an article that doesn’t have any meat in it, only providing an outline.

In the last year, I learned that blogging wasn’t as easy to keep up with as I thought it would be. I have a list of topics still to cover, so it wasn’t a matter of content. But raising two kids hinders my ability for an uninterrupted thought process to write an article, unless I get to it before they wake up.

The blog was started by Mr. ODA in 2018. He wrote a few posts, and then it sat for two years. I decided to pick it back up in January 2021. During 2021, we published 65 posts. Each month, I wrote a post about our financial update; I included any major expenses, how management of rental properties was going, and how our personal spending may have changed month-to-month. I shared our purchase of 11 out of 13 of our properties, our sale of one property, refinancing mortgages, paying off mortgages, renting properties, maintaining properties, etc. I also shared just general life decision making along the way.


Part 1 for my year in review will address what happened with our rental properties. I’ll dive into our personal finances in Part 2.

As a quick recap, we have 12 rental properties. Nine of them are in Virginia, and three of them are in Kentucky. Two of the houses in Virginia are owned with a partner because we still had cash available to buy more houses, but at the time we had the maximum number of mortgages allowed by Fannie/Freddie (max is 10). The houses were purchased between February 2016 and September 2019. All 3 houses in Kentucky are managed by a property manager, who gets 10% of the monthly rent each month. I manage 5 of the Virginia houses personally, and then we have a property manager who manages the remaining 4, who also gets 10% for each house.

RENTAL PROPERTY MORTGAGES

In January 2021, we completed a refinance of one property, and then in December, we completed three cash-out refinances. The loan balances on these 4 properties increased; one increased because closing costs were rolled into the loan balance, and the other 3 included $190k worth of equity taken out from the houses and creating new loans.

We went from 11 mortgages (two of which are actually owned by a partner) down to 8. House 6 had a balance of $26,447 coming into 2021, and that was paid off by June. Two other houses had a total balance of $157,500 at the beginning of the year. Their balances dwindled through regular monthly payments and one lump sum payment right before we completed the cash-out-refis and completely paid them off.

We have been working on paying down another mortgage that is owned with a partner. Between the two of our families, we paid off about $44,000 additional principal for that mortgage. We’re matching each other’s additional principal payments so that the math is easier to follow, so we can only make additional payments in line with what he can do also. We each owe about $10k on this mortgage now.

Even though there were so many mortgage-related transactions in the year, our overall loan balance only decreased by $6,000.

The market has continued to rise due to the limited supply, and so our home values on the rentals actually increased over $500k over the last year.

RENTAL PROPERTY LEASES

We turned over 1 property the whole year! The tenant that was living there had already told us that they were renting until they found a place to buy, so we knew they wouldn’t be long term tenants. We had a relationship with them from a previous house, when they had moved out of the area and then back. They had a poor experience renting in another area and reached out to us since they appreciated us as landlords. They found a house towards the end of their first year, but we let them out of the lease early. Their lease was slated to end October 31, 2021. We don’t usually have leases that start/end in the Fall if we can help it, but we had let the previous tenant out of her lease early to purchase a house also. The tenant said she was able to be out at the end of August, and we preferred moving the lease closer to the summer months anyway.

We raised the rent on 6 properties.
– The one house that was turned over went from $1200 to $1350 per month. However, we added a property manager who gets 10%, so our cash flow only increased by $15 per month.
– Two of our properties have long term tenants; the rent is significantly below market value, but we value not having to turn over the house. These houses are on a cycle where we increase the rent $50 every two years.
– Our KY property manager tried to increase rent on the 3 properties she manages. One was increased by $25, another by $5, and the other one cried that she couldn’t afford an increase. That’s the one where we plan to increase by $75 next month, and if she doesn’t accept, we’ll turn it over and get $75-$100 more per month.
– We increased rent by $150/month for one of our properties that we have with a partner. It was a risk, but this is a house that claims 3 people live there, but they have 5 queen size beds in the house. We figured either they leave and we get several big things fixed up that have been deferred because of all their things in the way, or we make up for all the years that we didn’t manage their rent and didn’t increase it. They accepted the increase.

RENT COLLECTION

We were very grateful that we made it through those initial months of the pandemic without tenants not being able to pay rent. We had a few people let us know that they were laid off or unable to work (e.g., restaurant business), but we learned most of our tenants worked in the health care field. So while we made it through 2020 without many issues, 2021 brought more challenges. Nothing was insurmountable, and it wasn’t debilitating financially, but it was still something to manage.

We had some big struggles with non-payment of rent on one house. She was 31 days late paying August rent, then she didn’t pay September’s rent, and then she applied for rental assistance to cover September, October, and November, which we didn’t receive until February 2022. That was all on top of her generally being a week late in paying through the beginning of the year too. She doesn’t maintain employment, she doesn’t communicate, and we’ve just had something new and different pop up as an issue every few months. We eventually received January 2022’s rent, but we still haven’t received all of February’s rent – just in time for March rent to be due.

We have another property (the one that was raised $150 per month) that is perpetually late. They eventually pay, and they’re getting better about actually paying the late fee (when they pay rent 20+ days late…), but they were late for 10/12 months of the year.

Everyone else paid their rent on time. In general, we’re lenient with late fees and issues. If you reach out to us and mention that there was a hiccup and you’ll need one more pay check to pay rent, our response is typically: please pay what you can now, pay the rest next week, and don’t worry about the late fee. However, when you don’t communicate and/or you’re consistently weeks late and we’re having to carry the expenses, there needs to be a consequence to incentivize you getting back on track.

RENTAL EXPENSES

We replaced the flooring in House3 ($4,000), hot water heater in House9 ($1,500), HVAC in House10 ($3,300), washing machine in House10 ($250), and HVAC in House12 ($3,900). We also had various electrical and plumbing work that needed to be done in several houses. We also spend about $7k per year in property management fees.

Usually turn over is an area that requires us to put a lot of money into a house. Luckily, the one house that we turned over this year only required some paint work, and we didn’t have any other turnovers.

While it’s nice that our assessments have increased and our housing values have increased in our net worth calculation, it comes at a price. Our taxes have increased on all the properties. In total, they’ve increased over $2,500 in just the one year (meaning, that doesn’t include all the previous years worth of assessment increases that have occurred!).

GOALS

In this year, we hope to add one more rental property to our portfolio. We’ve been actively working on it, but this market is crazy! We’re not willing to overpay on a property and get into a bidding war just to be done with the search. It’s interesting to see that we haven’t bought a new rental property in almost 2.5 years, when we had purchased so many all at once. We had gone back and forth with saving for another down payment or just paying off more mortgages after we paid off House6 in June. Once the cash-out-refi was a possibility, we decided to go ahead with purchasing another property. We’ll self-manage whatever we acquire. We had been looking in Virginia and Kentucky, but have started to settle into a Kentucky property (I like the laws for tenant/landlord relationships better in Virginia) so that we can save the 10% management fee and the expensive leasing fee, since housing prices are significantly higher than what we’d prefer for the rent ratio we’d be getting.

We have 8 houses that still need negotiation and/or lease termination coming this year. Two houses have already agreed to their rent increase, and we just need to get the new lease signed. Five houses will be offered a new lease term with a rent increase (averaging about $50 per month on the increase). One tenant will be asked to leave at the end of her lease term.

We want to remove the tenant from House2 at the end of her lease term. She has been a concern in numerous legal ways, does not hold steady employment, and the house is well under market value rent. Turning over that property will require us to go to Virginia to work on it. It’ll need repainted, the carpet will probably have to be replaced, and I worry that she’ll do some damage when we tell her we’re not interested in renewing her lease.

SUMMARY

I like to look at the details of the rental properties all at once in this format. Sometimes, I get caught up in all the things that I need to get done, and I feel like it’s so much work. In those moments, I forget that there are most days of the year where I don’t even think about the properties. Even when expenses seem to be piling on top of themselves, to look back and see that our expenses totaled less than $15k over 12 houses is encouraging. We’ve also reached the point where we’ve replaced most HVACs and several roofs, which are areas that can create problems that compound on themselves, whereas a replacement is expensive, but then I don’t have to get all the calls that something went wrong.

“Comps” in Appraisals

You hear this term in real estate often. “What are the comps?” “Have you run the comps?” It’s short-hand for “comparables.” These are the houses that are similar to the house in question (whether you’re trying to list a house for sale or purchase a new house) can be used to determine the value of a property. It’s touted as if it’s difficult, and I’ve seen several comments in a “moms” group that told me more people need to know about appraisals.

An appraisal is an expert’s estimate in the value of something. It can be something small like a piece of jewelry or something big like a house. During a closing process that includes financing, the bank issuing the loan is going to request an appraiser evaluate the property being purchased. The bank is using this as a mechanism to verify that the property is worth the contract amount.

A recent appraisal we had done stated the following (for context). This report is based on a physical analysis of the site and improvements, a locational analysis of the neighborhood and city, and an economic analysis of the market for properties such as the subject. The appraisal was developed and the report was prepared in accordance with the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice.

If your real estate purchase is through a loan, the bank is going to require an appraisal. Have you ever looked at the appraisal? The lender is required to give you a copy.

Let’s dig into one of mine.

THE APPRAISAL

This particular appraisal was completed for a refinance of a loan. It was done in December 2021 and is 37 pages long, granted a lot of that is teaching documentation.

First, the appraiser identifies the property’s characteristics. Things like the address, plat number, taxes, house size and details, utility hookups, and neighborhood demographics are filled out. Here are a few snapshots with that information. All appraisal reports I’ve seen have looked like this (across multiple states).

Once the appraiser identifies the property’s details, he moves on to finding nearby homes that have sold recently. The comparable sales are of similar age, construction quality, and condition. There are formulas available to the appraiser to determine how differences between the property he’s appraising compares to the similar nearby homes. For instance, having another bedroom increases a property’s value by a certain amount, having a garage could increase the property value, having a fence affects the value, etc. Here’s a snapshot of one of the comparable sales for this appraisal. The first ‘description’ column contain the details of the house being appraised. The second ‘description’ column contains the details of the address he’s using as a comparable. Then there’s the adjustment column to identify how those differences affect the value of the home. This home being used had sold for $255,500. Each difference is calculated to account for a value of the home had it been even more similar to our house. So this house having a porch instead of a stoop is affecting the value at $3,500 (I don’t know how these values are determined, but I assume it’s all a software calculation that keeps it consistent).

This appraiser used 7 comparable sales. We’ve historically seen 3-5 houses used, but this market has created more options than usual. The appraisal was determined by removing the value of the land (since that’s calculated by the tax records regardless) and applying the average price per square foot amount to our house. The valuation came in at $230,000. We purchased the house for $117k 5 years ago, so that was a nice surprise. We were able to take out a loan for up to 60% of the appraisal’s value.

YOU CAN DO A RUDIMENTARY APPRAISAL YOURSELF

The point here is that an appraiser is using the specifications of nearby, similar real estate transactions to determine the value of the house in question. Since the concept of an appraisal is straightforward, you shouldn’t feel like you’re incapable of doing your due diligence on a purchase or determining the sale price.

It’s important to note that you’re focusing on houses that have SOLD. You’ll see houses nearby listed for sale at different prices, but that doesn’t mean that’s what the market deems a “fair market value.” You want to focus on the sold prices because that means someone was willing to pay that for that type of property, and a bank likely confirmed the value with an appraisal.

In this “moms” group I mentioned, several people told a person that she needed to hire an appraiser before listing her house. An appraiser is about $400-600. In a house sale, the buyer is responsible for the appraisal. Therefore, as the person listing the property, you’re not “ahead” in any way by paying for an appraisal up front because it wouldn’t have been your cost to bear anyway. Instead of paying someone to perform an appraisal, you look at houses nearby that sold recently.

Back in 2018, we were using sales for 6 months to a year prior to the date we were searching. The housing market hadn’t changed all that much year-to-year that you couldn’t use sales from a year ago. These days, you need to be looking at houses that have sold in the last 3 months, and maybe go back to 6 months if you don’t have any good options. If you need to use sales from a year ago these days, then assume a hefty inflation (in most areas) from the price it sold at, but it’ll at least give you a good starting point on the price.

For recent sales you dint, you’re looking for properties with the same number of bedrooms and bathrooms, approximately the same square footage, and approximately the same size yard. You’re hoping for pictures too so that you can evaluate if the condition of the property is objectively better or worse than the property you’re considering.

PERSONAL EVALUATION EXAMPLE

We’re currently on the hunt for another rental property to add to our portfolio. Things are moving fast, so we’re doing quick evaluations on the fly with best guesses of value. We have the benefit of doing several of our own real estate transactions, including plenty of searching for options outside of the ones we did purchase. Therefore, we have the knowledge to be able to eyeball the value. In the beginning, it would probably work best if you write down the details (similar to what’s found in the appraisal screenshots above) to identify the appreciable differences between your options.

We were looking at a property that was in poor condition. The listing even stated that they were offering a $3,000 flooring allowance as part of the sale, acknowledging that the condition was poor. The house is 3 bed/1 bath (colloquially referred to as ‘a 3/1,’ and was listed at 169,900. The listing photos showed a scratched up floor, but otherwise looked ok.

Not bad, right? Well, I don’t know what filter they used, but these colors are a lot more vibrant than the condition of those cabinets and appliances were in person. The photos didn’t capture the gouged walls or layers of paint that weren’t properly painted between coats. And, unlike popular HGTV shows would you have you believe, the paint color isn’t something we’re caring about. It’s a bonus if it doesn’t need a coat of paint before we rent it, but we’re generally expecting to paint a house after we buy it. The photos also don’t portray the filthy bathroom with the mismatched patchwork tiles in the shower. We stepped back and seriously considered flipping this or improving it and using it as a rental still.

I opened my Zillow app. When I’m looking for quick information, I’m focusing on price per square foot, rather than actual purchase price. This house came to $151/sqft. In the Zillow app, on the upper right corner, click ‘Filters.’ I always click ‘Reset’ before I start a new search because I never know what I last changed in the parameters. I chose the ‘Recently Sold’ toggle, left everything the same, and then at the bottom I changed ‘Sold in Last’ to ‘6 months.’ In this area, if I looked at a broader spectrum of recently sold houses, I’d have too many to look at, and the prices in 2019 would be drastically different than what’s currently happening in this market. If I still had too many results, I would have filtered down to 90 days. However, it’s January when I’m looking, so there hasn’t been too much activity in the last 3 months, and I want to capture more options that sold during the summer months.

Then I just started clicking the yellow bubbles of prices. I want to first focus on the ones closest to the house I’m looking to buy. As I get further away (or cross major roads), I’m probably looking at a different school district, or different crime levels, or different ‘feel’ of the neighborhood; be careful how far out you look.

Here are my thoughts on the first comp I found. The parentheses identify how it relates to the property I’m viewing: either it’s the same (=), my property is better (+), or my property is worse (-). It’s a 2 bed (+), 2 bath (+), with low curb appeal (+), smaller lot (+), nicer floors (-), covered deck (-), stainless appliances (-), kitchen cabinets were original and the stove’s vent hood was outdated (+), the master bathroom needs a facelift (+). This house sold in September 2021, so it’s a fairly similar market to what I’m looking in now. It sold for $117/sf. With the difference in the number of bathrooms and bedrooms, it’s hard to compare. Subjectively, the house I’m interested in is worse than this house, but it has another bedroom and a bigger lot. I decide that this comp doesn’t get me close to $151/sf for the house I’m looking at.

Comp 2 is around the block. It’s very close to the size of the house we’re evaluating (=) and is a 3/1 (=). It’s adorable, with great curb appeal, so it draws me in. Then I start noticing some things that are red flags. The roof doesn’t appear to be in bad shape, but my eyes are drawn to a water stain on the living room ceiling (+). It appears to have laminate flooring in the kitchen and carpet elsewhere, whereas the house we’re looking at has hardwood everywhere; our hardwood is beaten though, so this is hard to compare. I see that there’s old vinyl in the laundry closet that wasn’t addressed when new laminate appears to be laid, there’s some poorly laid wood flooring in just the entrance to the master bedroom, and there are several stains in the carpeted bedrooms. The backyard has power lines running through it (+); I see several issues with the vinyl siding on the house (+), but it has a covered deck (-). They had tried to sell this house from July to October, which tells me that plenty of people were drawn in, but those defects were clear (and probably more) in person. They started their listing at $166/sf and ended up selling at $146/sf. While this house looks to be in better condition than the one I’m evaluating, this tells me that I’m probably looking at the $140s/sf for the one I’m looking at.

There’s a 3rd ‘comp’ that caught my attention right behind the house I’m evaluating. Zillow claimed it was sold for $334/sf. Interesting anomaly. Our Realtor was able to pull the MLS and see it actually sold at $150k, so about $115/sf. So moving on.

I found a brick ranch around the block, so I’m excited that it’s very similar to the house I’m looking at. It’s a 3/1 (=). It sold in September 2021 for $149/sf after having first been listed at $163/sf in July. I dive into the pictures. The floor isn’t destroyed (-)! There are mismatched, yet updated, appliances in the kitchen. It’s frustrating, but they probably have a better lifespan that what’s in the house I’m looking at (-). The bathroom has been updated recently, but it’s small, and there’s no picture of the shower side of the bathroom (concern, but still better than the house I’m viewing) (-). There are minimal pictures, but at least one of every room. After comp 2 went for $146/sf, and this is better condition at $149/sf, I’m now putting the house I’m evaluating below $145/sf.

There’s a brick 3/1 next to Comp 4 that sold for $162/sf. But there are no pictures and it was for-sale-by-owner, which tells me someone probably overpaid for a higher list price because they were desperate. I’m throwing this out and not using it as a true comp.

At this point, I’m just standing there trying to evaluate whether this is worth pursuing or not. I can do detailed looks at comps later on a computer with a pad and pen. I decide that $145/sf is my highest value of this house and it’s horrible condition. However, even with that, I don’t want to go that high because of all the work that needs to be done right away on the house. The comps told me that’s the value of other homes that needed some work, but looked livable from day 1. I decided to sit on it. Well, the next day, it went under contract at a reduced price of $146/sf. I won’t know the actual price of the contract until it closes, but for now, it looks like someone bit on the $146/sf.

Now this is really important if you’re evaluating for a purchase. Do not overpay for a house. Do not feel pressured into needing it now. We’ve put in several offers on houses, but we’re not going to get into a bidding war. We also put in an offer on one house, and the seller said “raise it $5k and state the offer isn’t contingent on an appraisal, and you have a deal.” No. Requesting the appraisal clause to not be checked says we were probably overpaying even at the offer we made. So thank you to this man for letting me know that it was time to walk away.

SUMMARY

You can typically rely on your Realtor to provide you comps through the MLS. If you have questions about their valuation, ask for the details. I have an instance where I didn’t agree with my Realtor on a list price of our last personal residence. In this particular instance, I had better knowledge of the housing market where our house was than he did, because he focused on sales within the nearby city limits, and we were in the suburbs. He ran comps based on basic metrics (number of bedrooms, square footage). I had the benefit of knowing details behind some of the sales he was using or how some houses weren’t a good fit to use as a comp to the house we were selling. I was able to sway the list price to even higher than he suggested, and we were under contract that weekend.

I know how it works. I’ve taken the time to research and understand the process just enough that I can protect my finances and interests in these transactions. I’m not sharing this as an example to fight your Realtor on their suggested list price, but as a way to show you need to be an informed consumer.

February Financial Update

This month is basically just story telling, from insurance tidbits to mortgage annoyances, while not addressing the decline in the market and our investment accounts. πŸ™‚

It seems all my mortgage payments are increasing on 3/1, so I’ve been managing those changes. I mentioned recently that one of our houses had the escrow analysis done incorrectly. Luckily, that was addressed, and the increase in our mortgage payment is only about $100 instead of nearly $200. Our personal mortgage increased by $16, another property increased by $52, and then our last 3 mortgages were all refinanced in January and this ‘first payment’ has been a bear. The information out of the refinancing company has been contradictory, they requested a bunch of information weeks after closing to support all the money they already gave us, and it’s just been rough. Rough enough that I ran to the post office to get a check in the mail at 4:48 pm today, only to get home to an email saying that I had to send that check (due tomorrow) to a different address. Ugh.

I was excited to share some positive news this month, but that got overshadowed by these mortgage payments! Anyway, we came home to some surprises after our vacation.

First, I had a medical procedure done in January. It was originally scheduled for November, but the week of the procedure, I had my heart go crazy on me. That cancelled my procedure because I couldn’t go under anesthesia until they knew my heart would be OK. We got my heart sorted out enough that I was cleared for the procedure, but once I was able to reschedule it, it went into 2022 ….. a new deductible year. They said that I needed to pay half the cost of the procedure before they’d schedule it. Since I had been waiting since September for this, I wasn’t going to question anything, and I gave my credit card number for $1200. Well, my insurance hasn’t processed the procedure yet, but I guess since I paid in advance, some sort of system review showed I had overpaid, and they refunded me $1196. I don’t know how they decided to keep $4, but I’ll cross that bridge when I see my claim is processed on my insurance website.

Second, I’ve mentioned before that you need to stay on top of insurance! I received a bill for my heart-related-ambulance-ride for over $900. The last time I was in an ambulance, I ended up owing the full bill, which was $500 at that time. When I saw $900, I figured, gosh 10 years later and a new jurisdiction, and THAT is what I owe. It said “we billed your insurance, and this is your balance.” Hmmm. Log into my insurance website and see there’s no claim history for an ambulance ride. I then learned, for the first time ever, how to submit my own insurance claim. I let the fire department know I submitted the claim, and then they said they’d do it for me! Why did your paper say you already did?! Well, the surprise I got was that my insurance covered all but $46 for the ride!!! I couldn’t believe it. That’s the happiest I’ve ever been to spend $46.

The most random thing that happened was a check from our electric company from our Virginia house. We sold that house in September 2020. Our mail forwarding isn’t active anymore and it was sent to our old address, so I really have no idea how we got it. It was $31.09 due to a required review of all accounts every 3 years. It’s not anything crazy or life changing, but that was truly a surprise!

RENTAL UPDATES

We had our usual suspects not pay rent earlier this month. One flat out said they won’t pay until the 23rd. I’m not even sure how to handle them anymore. I keep reminding myself that we raised their rent $150/month to get them to leave, but they accepted. So at least we’re in a good position there? The other paid us $700/$1150 on Friday (late). She at least emailed us with the awareness that we shouldn’t have to hunt her down for rent payments, so she got a pass because I was about to send the default notice at 12:01 am on the 6th. I’m also once again in a position of tracking down a rent relief payment on another house that’s supposed to cover December, January, and February. While the tenant ended up paying December rent, we’ve still been floating the January and February finances. The approval of their application (that was submitted in November) was January 10. As of today, no information from the State and no check in the mail.

I got a tenant renewal processed this morning. We increased their rent by $50/month (starting 5/1 when their current term ends), after it having been steady for 2 years. Our usual baseline to keep a good tenant is a $50 increase every 2 years.

We gave two property managers notice to increase rents on 2 properties that are up for renewal on 4/30. We do 60-day notices. It’s not entirely necessary, but I look at it as a way to negotiate with the tenant for a month, and then if they don’t agree to new terms, we have a month to get it rented. One ‘cried COVID’ last year, and we let her by. She’s been there 2.5 years at the same rate, and she even got the house under market value originally because it was November (bad timing). She’s at $875 and we said we’d go to $950. That’s a larger increase than we usually do, but the market rate for the house is $950-1000. If she balks, we’ll manage the turnover and get a new tenant in there. For another house, they’re at 1025 and have been since October 2019. They even negotiated a discount back then for an 18 month lease, so they’ve been under market. Despite our efforts to grieve our taxes, the City thinks this house is in an affluent neighborhood and has charged as such. We’re offering them a bump to $1100. Again, more than our usual $50 increase, but it’s been more than 2 years and $1100 is under market value. Then we had a 3rd person say she wants to stay in the house, but her lease isn’t up until August. She’s been there since August 2017 and has been at $850 rent since then. We’re looking to increase her rent to $900. She’s an awesome tenant that never needs anything, and I know she’s in grad school without much money. We’ve made her so happy for the last several years by renewing her without an increase, so I hope she understands the need to increase it now.

I paid the insurance on our townhome, which is a property we own outright, so I need to manage the escrow-type transactions. That was $210.

After our cash-out-refis in January, we have been looking for a new property to purchase. We’ve made 4 offers that have been out-bid. Mr. ODA has been trying to work the off-market angle. We made a full price offer for one of the houses contingent on seeing it, and the guy said that he’d now prefer to sell off his portfolio as one instead of each individual house. He declined our full-price-off-market offer. Sketchy. Then another guy said he wanted to wait until the new flooring was installed in his house before letting us see it, and then he won’t respond to messages now a week or so later. Interesting. We’re now trying to work another off-market deal through our Realtor, but the seller and our Realtor are out of town. I ran the comps on it and come to $235ish, while they were expecting $250k. I don’t deny that they’d get an offer in this market at $250, but I don’t know that it’s worth it to us. Then again, to be done with this driving around, seeing houses, making offers, and losing out, may all be worth an extra $15k.

PERSONAL TIDBITS

This month, we went on a trip for just about a week. The flight was paid for in a previous month, so that’s not captured in our spending. We stayed with a friend, and she made us nearly all of our food. We paid for our brewery visits with her. It was a great trip, and I definitely recommend Bend, OR! We did a last minute change from Touro for our rental car to a ‘regular’ car rental place at the airport, so that charge shows up in this month’s finances. We also booked 2 last minute hotel rooms, once for the night of our arrival and one for the night of our departure (we flew in/out of Portland, which is about 2.5 hours from Bend, so it was easier with the kids sleep schedules to be near the airport those two nights instead of arriving really late or leaving really early).

We bought Hamilton tickets. We were late on that band wagon until we finally found a friend with Disney+ who wanted to watch it with us even though they had seen it 257 times. Since December 2020, we’ve watched Hamilton a whole lot. We got on right when tickets were being sold and were about to accept the $200+ ticket price until Mr. ODA found the ticket sales through the actual venue were only $130! It’s not until June, but that’s something to look forward to!

We finished our basement over the last year and have been using for the last month now. We had a projector on hand that we used as our TV down there, but it started to die shortly after we hooked it up. We bought a new projector and have been really happy with it, and I was happy with it only being $270.

While our electric bill was surprisingly low last month, it was surprisingly high this month. They did an estimated meter reading, putting the estimated kWh usage at the highest it’s ever been. When I questioned their estimation process and shared the current meter read, they said that next month will probably be an actual reading and since it’s not more than 1000 kWh difference, they’re not going to change anything. Sure, I can afford this $414 bill that may be offset next month, but many people can’t. Their estimation process shouldn’t put the projected energy usage at an all-time-high, thereby dumping surprisingly large bills on people. Regardless, it’s something that works itself out, and isn’t something I’m going to fight any harder on right now. It’s just annoying knowing that our energy usage was high last year because we had a broken unit without our knowledge, and then with a working unit, they’re estimating that we’ve used more than ever.

Mr. ODA changed one of our credit cards, so I’ve been all out of sorts here now. The credit card was a travel-related card, and they increased their annual fee by $100. He ran the numbers and determined the benefits didn’t outweigh the cost increase. Instead of closing the card, they agreed to change the type of card. However, all the things we used that card for are now on different cards, and this change “activated” an old card of mine. Our credit card usage is convoluted; perhaps I’ll do a new explanation and update my last post on it (and then maybe that’ll get me to remember all the changes!).

NET WORTH

Our net worth dropped about $15k from last month, but that was due to the market. While not fun to see those numbers go down, it doesn’t affect our day-to-day. Our cash balance is really high right now while we keep cash liquid for a downpayment while finding another investment property.

Expense Tracking

In January, I mentioned how I have a very detailed spreadsheet to track my expenses. I started this spreadsheet concept in 2012 when my husband and I started combining living expenses. We also moved from NY to PA to a VA apartment to a VA house in a matter of 22 months. I needed to have a way to make sure I didn’t miss any bills. I didn’t want to rely on receiving the bill itself in the mail or in my email before paying it. I chose to develop the spreadsheet based on our pay check dates, which were every 2 weeks.

Here’s my sheet, in essence. Pay no attention to the actual numbers in this screenshot, as I didn’t take the time to make sure they were made up but still proportioned to each other. The format is exactly as I use it though. I set it up at the beginning of each year.

For the entire year, I record the pay check receipt across the top of the sheet. The dates are based on the day the money hits our account. This has changed over the years, as we used to get paid on Tuesdays, but now Mr. ODA’s pay check shows up in our account on a Saturday.

The first section, which is all gray, is the rental income. I then record all the rental income near the 1st of the month. If a pay check isn’t near the first of the month, I record it for any pay check date that shows up in the first 10 days of the month. Realistically, I receive the majority of our rent on the 5th of each month, so it doesn’t make sense to record it as a projection any earlier than the 1st, and as near the 5th as I can. The ‘Net PM’ is because I don’t collect rent on our KY houses; the property manager collects rent, removes their expenses, and then we receive the net by the 10th of the following month.

The next section is the light green, which captures routine expenses on the rental properties. I record the HOA due date every 3 months, each month’s mortgage payment, the payout to our partner (I take in all the rent each month and then pay him out his half plus our half of the mortgage payment), and then the VA property manager’s expenses.

The white section covers all our personal expenses.
– The bottom two gray lines are simply an indication to me that those affect Mr. ODA’s account and not our main checking account.
– I pay our personal mortgage near the 1st of the month (some time between the 1st and the 10th, but I typically prioritize this getting paid as close to the 1st as possible).
– Our personal residence’s HOA is only due one per year, which is why there’s nothing on that line for this particular snapshot.
– Then I have all our credit card payments. For the year, I project based on the previous year’s average bill. As I get closer to the statement end period, I update the projection. If I project that a credit card bill is going to be $1000, but as we spend through the month, we had more expenses than I thought, I update the projection on the spreadsheet to reflect that. So where it said $1000, I may put $1700 to cover my savings projection.
– I project our my utilities too. I know that I have an electric and water bill each month, and I have a cell phone bill that I pay in 3-month increments to my sister-in-law for a family plan. When setting up the sheet for the year, I simply keep the same numbers from last year for the utility lines. While I can log into my account and see the details, it’s easier if I already have it laid out like this. Then I can see, “last year, for this month, my bill was only $40; why is it $70 now?” One caveat here is that I usually keep the lines on this sheet to those items that are going in or coming out of our checking accounts. The water bill can now be paid by credit card (since we moved to KY last year). Technically, I should remove that from the sheet because I track bill due dates separately from this part of the sheet, but since I’m used to tracking the water bill’s due date like this, and I like seeing how the bill changes from last year’s amount due, I’ve kept it on the list.
– I have our IRA contributions listed as well, since that’s a big chunk that comes out each month. The maximum contribution into a Roth IRA is $6,000. We have automatic contributions twice per month, so that’s actually $500 out of each ‘pay check’ grouping.
– The “other” line is for expenses that happen every year, but they aren’t worth having individual lines because there’s only one or two payments per year. As I type that, perhaps my own HOA payment could be added to the other line since it’s only paid once per year. In Virginia, we had personal property tax that would be due each year. We also have our taxes that we owe (because we purposely plan our taxes so that we don’t get a refund because that means you’ve given Uncle Sam an interest free loan). We have vehicle registration fees due. All these ‘one off’ payments are recorded on the “other” line and then I describe the expense two lines below with the asterisk.

As for the savings projection, this is probably mislabeled. It has always said ‘savings,’ but it’s really just the net of that two-week period’s income and expenses. To know if I’m in good shape (if perhaps I’m in a position where my account balance is being kept really low), I net the two ‘savings’ next to each other (so I would add the $60 and the -$19 to know that my income from that first two-week period will cover my expenses for the second two-week period also).

In practice, as I receive the income or I pay a bill, I change the text from black to gray. This tells me that it’s paid and accounted for. I also update to actuals as I go. So if I projected a credit card payment to be $150, but the actual payment was $147.34, that’s what gets put in the sheet when I make the payment. This helps me track actual amounts through the year, as well as sets myself up to create projections for the next year.

I have a separate tab in my workbook that tracks additional income for the year. For example, when I was working part time, I recorded that income on that other spreadsheet. Each time we get money from our credit card rewards, it gets recorded on my income spreadsheet. By keeping track of our additional, unplanned, income, I have the ability to identify our actual savings net for the year. I take the ‘savings’ bottom line from this spreadsheet and add all the additional income we’ve brought in from the other sheet.

While I’m not budgeting the details of our expense categories (e.g., $300 per month for groceries), I’m tracking my income and overall expenses based on bill payments. Last year, I had tracked my expenses by category to see if overspend in one area in particular. I didn’t keep up with it though because the billing cycles didn’t line up with when I’d be running my financial update, but I hope to get in a better grove this year. This set up makes me feel comfortable that I’m not missing a bill. If I get to the end of a 2-week period, and I haven’t grayed out an amount, then I know it’s time to investigate why I didn’t receive mail or an email prompting me to pay a bill. Usually what happens is I’m tracking Mr. ODA’s credit card payment and wondering how much longer he’s going to wait to pay it until the due date. πŸ˜›

I hope that was easy to follow. I don’t want to put all our exact numbers in there, but I wanted to share how I “budget.” If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out!

House7 Escrow Analysis

We received a notice that our escrow needed to be increased by $185 on this account. That seemed to be a huge jump, considering this was a new account for this year (we refinances January 2021). Our taxes went up about $35 per month, so the $185 increase stood out.

Mr. ODA’s brain works best in these scenarios, and he quickly noted that the analysis double counted our tax payment (they claimed it to be paid in December 2021 and January 2022). My brain can figure it out, but I need to write down every step of the math to understand it. πŸ™‚ Since I took the time to analyze the escrow changes, I thought I’d share it in case anyone was interested in knowing how their analysis works.

They double counted our tax payment, so the increase truly should only be $58*. As someone who needs to see the details and can’t think in the abstract when it comes to math, I ran my own escrow analysis.

First, you need to know your taxes and insurance total for the year. Take that total, and divide it by 12 to get your monthly expense. This is because your escrow additions occur monthly. For this property, our monthly cost of our taxes and insurance comes to $199.25 (green). The old escrow amount of our monthly mortgage payment was $156.92 (orange).

The ‘Escrow Needed’ column is increased each month by $199.25. The ‘Required Balance’ is double the monthly expense for our account (199.25*2). Then the difference between the ‘Escrow Needed’ and the ‘Required Balance’ is the column in blue. The escrow shortfall is determined by the greatest negative. Therefore, I took the difference for that month (May 2022) and divided it by 12, getting $16.60*.

The escrow analysis then results in an escrow increase of $199.25 (the amount needed to cover projected expenses), minus the old escrow contribution amount of $156.92, plus the shortfall amount of $16.60*, bringing the increase to $58.93 per month and making the new monthly escrow payment $215.85.

EDIT: *These numbers are not right. For a detailed edit, see this post: https://onedollarallowance.com/2022/02/14/escrow-analysis-update/.

A ‘month’ in the life managing properties

I started including this information in my monthly update post, but it got to be really long. I thought I’d separate it out as a way to share what has been happening and how I’ve been managing the properties over the last month.

RENT RELIEF PROGRAM

We’re still waiting for a check from the Rent Relief Program for one of our houses, and that’s to cover September, October, and November. So that’s fun. The program volunteered to pay for 2 extra months after the tenant only applied for September. We had already entered into a payment plan for September and October, and she was going to be able to pay November on her own. Instead, the program volunteered this, and all we’ve received for these 3 months of rent is $550. Technically, this now goes towards December rent, so maybe I should see it as we’re ahead for that one month and pretend I haven’t floated 3 mortgage payments on this house after this tenant was extremely irresponsible? I was especially frustrated that she received approval, and then 3 weeks later we were told that our payment hadn’t been made yet because there was an issue with one of the forms (how did approval happen if the forms weren’t complete???). A week ago, I learned that we should hopefully see the check in two weeks.

We actually found out on Wednesday that another tenant applied for the program. Luckily though, they applied for assistance with December’s rent. The program will probably approve two more months. Hopefully, we’ll get December, January, and February from the program before Christmas (I expect it to not be in time for December’s rent).

The tenant is using an organization that will help gather the information and apply to the Rent Relief Program on behalf of them. I’m sure their intentions are good and they’re all good people, but I was put off that they identified themselves as “with the RRP.” You’re not employed by the State. You’re not employed by the RRP. You’re an organization that helps tenants pay their rent. I refused to give them my W9 – both because I didn’t want my tenant to have my social security number and because I knew I could email the RRP directly so they wouldn’t have access to my social security number. They fought me on it, but I won and submitted my W9 directly to the program.

They didn’t identify their connection to the RRP until I mentioned they silence on the matter. I finally got “non-profit organization working in partnership with the Department of Housing and Community Development to help administer the Rent Relief Program.” But I still don’t agree that they’re directly related to the program, just that they work with tenants to get the money. And as with the other tenant and her girlfriend’s desire to guilt me with prayer for expecting rent to be paid, this person guilted me with “Hope all goes well to ensure [the tenant] receives the help she needs.” I was forthcoming with the documents that they asked for, giving them that same day. I was overly polite on the phone call where this person didn’t even know why she was getting in touch with me for several minutes. I even completed forms that she didn’t directly ask for, but that I knew would be asked for eventually, and I created other forms that I had made another tenant do on her own (If you’re nice to me, I’m super helpful. If you leave the country, get sick, and then never tell us when you’re back in the country, while still not paying rent, right after I had just given you an entire month to pay rent the month before, then I’m going to make you do the forms that you’re supposed to be doing).

I clearly am not looking to prohibit the tenant’s application or slow things down, but I am looking to protect my identify and personally identifiable information as much as possible. As far as I know, the tenant’s application was fully submitted yesterday, so hopefully we’ll here soon for an approval.

OTHER RENT COLLECTION

We also had a tenant, who usually pays late, pay on time! It sure helps when the 5th of the month happens on a Friday, so most people get paid that day and pay their rent. I don’t mind getting paid on the 5th because I usually get a few who pay before the 1st or on the 1st. I also don’t pay my mortgages until the 10th of the month, so I maintain that wiggle room.

We have a tenant who usually pays half of the rent before the 1st, and sometimes even all the rent before the 1st of the month due. She’s been in the house since we bought it in 2017 and has always paid. Sometimes she has to pay late, but she always communicates that to the property manager, and we’ve actually waived her late fees in these instances. Last month, she told the property manager that she was going to struggle to pay November’s rent on time, but she’d pay by the 12th. She ended up paying rent in full before the 1st. She’s just the sweetest.

HIGH UTILITIES

We had a tenant in Kentucky ask if we’d help them pay towards a high water bill. At first, I was given a copy of the last water bill and then a copy of May’s water bill, which was the lowest water bill she had in the last year – interesting, and I don’t appreciate that approach that appears to be trying to ‘pull a fast one.’ I asked for more water bills and more details on the issue being claimed.

The tenant reported that the toilet was running constantly on 9/16. The property management company went to fix it on 9/20. Then on 10/11, the tenant reported that the toilet was still running and shut off the water valve. The property management company went back out to “rebuild” the toilet on 10/15.

While it’s unfortunate that the toilet was running during that time and could have affected the water bill, this wasn’t adding up to being our responsibility. I was trying to wrap my head around why I was responsible for paying for two separate visits by the management company, materials that were probably useless for the first visit, pay the management company’s monthly fee, and then also pay towards the tenant’s water bill. I agreed that it would be a nice gesture to help the tenant out, since she’s been there for two years and doesn’t ask for much. I asked the property management company if they’d be willing to chip in on the concession granted to the tenant since it’s their work that wasn’t timely or complete after that first visit. They politely said that their technician made a good faith effort to fix the toilet on the first visit and then agreed that the second call on 10/11 wasn’t timely. “Our techs do well most of the time, but statistically, we will not have success 100% of the time.  The tenant should have reported earlier that the problem was not fixed.” He also said, “In the end, I don’t think anyone is really at fault.” Again, if no one is at fault, why am I the one having to carry all the financial burden?

I looked through the bills that were provided to us. I saw that recently, the tenant’s water usage probably was accurate because it fluctuated up and down (versus it continuously climbing from the lowest point in the year). Plus, water usage tends to increase in the summer, and a toilet running is unlikely to double your water bill on its own. The tenant’s bill was probably $50 more than expected, so I offered the tenant to take $25 off next month’s rent. I didn’t receive a response from the property manager, but I assume she’ll take me up on it. That should equate to $2.50 less taken by the management company, but if they don’t adjust their commission for that, I wouldn’t be surprised nor would I fight it.

PEST CONTROL

We have a new tenant in one of our houses. That tenant has been difficult. She complained of a mouse and roaches. I completely agree that there shouldn’t be an infestation of bugs and rodents. For some reason, we’ve had issues with this house and mice from day 1. I don’t know why. The neighborhood is nice, with mostly original owners in the houses. There are a lot of trees behind the property, and then there’s retail stores behind that. I don’t know if that somehow contributes, but every tenant has had a mouse or two scurry across the floor. I’ll note for anyone reading – mice show up everywhere. It’s not a matter of cleanliness.

The roaches on the other hand, I just don’t get it. This house has never been dirty with all our tenants. There aren’t dirty people or junk piled up in the neighboring houses. I will happily call pest control to manage any bugs like that. Since October 1, the pest control company has been out there seven times. Seven. I just can’t understand what is happening and how they can’t get this under control (and I’m questioning whether there’s really an issue). Luckily, I’ve only paid for the initial treatment and haven’t had to pay for each additional visit, but phew that’s a lot in basically one month, especially when this hasn’t been an issue with any previous tenant. I’ve digressed.

LEASE RENEWAL

In the meantime, we had a tenant reach out requesting to renew their lease. Their lease doesn’t expire until June 30, 2022 so this was not on our radar! They’re very bright people. They offered a lease renewal to 5/31/2023, which is the end of his schooling program. We agreed to extend the lease until then, but at $1300 instead of $1280. We had the property listed at $1300 originally, and he had negotiated to $1280 for a longer term lease. He agreed to the extension, and we had the lease addendum signed on 10/30.

He had asked for it to go month-to-month after that while they search for houses. We shared that we weren’t willing to take on that risk because we don’t want to be left with a December 1 lease that we never intended to have. Our property manager did share with him that we’ve been reasonable in the past with other tenants, and that when it came time, we’re going to work with them to get them released from the lease and into home ownership.

MORTGAGE CHANGES

I discovered that a couple of our mortgages changed due to escrows this month (which I mentioned in a post earlier this month actually). Even recently, I was pulling information for some refinances we have underway and discovered that the payment made by our partner on one of those houses was less than what I had verified just a few months ago. Since it’s not our mortgage, I don’t see the month-to-month transactions. I updated a future payment to account for the $5 he would owe us based on the mortgage change, and then I updated future payments out to reflect the new mortgage amount.


While that seems like a lot, it really hasn’t been much time in the month. I collected everyone else’s rent, paid the mortgages, and made sure my spreadsheets were up to date. This month I had to field more texts and phone calls than usual, but it wasn’t too much. I’ve even received a partial payment for December rent from a tenant already.

Escrow Payments

A theme I stick to in this blog is that you need to watch your money. I’ve talked about ways that I’ve fought to get money back where it wasn’t billed correctly (e.g., medical bills), and today’s warning is about escrows.

An escrow account, in the sense that I want to talk about it, is tied to your mortgage. Your monthly payment includes an amount that goes into a separate account held by your mortgage company, and they manage paying out your taxes and insurance on your behalf.

The benefit of an escrow is that you don’t have to manage your insurance and tax payments. You don’t have to pay out a large sum of money once (or twice) a year because you’re paying towards this account every month that will manage that billing for you. The downside is that this escrow account requires you to maintain a balance, so it’s holding your money where your money isn’t working for you. Another downside is that your money movement is less transparent, and you just expect that the payments will be made accurately. The bank basically takes on the administrative burden of paying these bills on your behalf, in exchange for continually holding this money without paying you interest.

Each month your mortgage payment includes principal, interest, and escrow. For example, I have a mortgage payment that is $615.34. The P&I total will remain the same amount each month, but the principal portion of each payment will slowly increase while the interest slowly decreases. In my example, the total P&I is always $428.11, but the breakdown of what’s principal and what’s interest changes (e.g., October’s payment due included principal of $119.58 and interest of $308.53; November’s was $120.03 of principal and $308.08 of interest). The escrow amount each month for this mortgage is now $187.23; this number stays the same until there’s an escrow re-analysis.

An escrow analysis is conducted once per year to verify that the escrow account will have sufficient funds to pay out the bills received (typically taxes and insurance), while maintaining the required minimum balance. Sometimes the increase is known ahead of time because you can see that the estimates for the initial escrow contributions were off (or in our case, new construction uses estimates based on last year’s tax payment, which only included land value and not the final sale of the home, so we know there will be an escrow shortfall in our future). A shortfall may also occur when there’s been a drastic change in your property value assessment, causing taxes to increase more than an expected amount (like in 2021!), or when insurance costs change more than projected.

Below is an escrow analysis of one of our accounts. The highlighted row shows that when our taxes are paid, the balance will fall below the required minimum. The document says that the minimum “is determined by the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), your mortgage contract, or state law. Your minimum balance may include up to 2 months cushion of escrow payments to cover increases in your taxes and insurance.” If you are projected to dip below the required minimum, they’ll offer you the opportunity to make a one-time contribution to the escrow account or your monthly payment will increase to cover that projected shortfall.

The increase is calculated in the image below. My payment to escrow at the time of this analysis was $126.18. They take my insurance and taxes owed, divide by 12, and come up with my monthly base escrow payment ($149.81). At the lowest point in my escrow balance (highlighted in yellow above), the account will be -149.43. The difference between this balance and the required balance of $299.62 is $449.05. Divide this number by 12 to get the $37.42 in the image below indicating the monthly shortage for the account.

The new escrow payment is added to my P&I payment (which stays the same), and this is my new monthly mortgage payment.

An escrow analysis showing that we’ll fall below the balance required inevitably means that my monthly cash flow will decrease (because we always opt for the change in monthly payment instead of a one-time contribution). As taxes and insurance increase, so does your requirement to fund your escrow account. While the reason for the escrow increase is to cover the taxes and insurance, which I would have to pay anyway, the escrow increase is higher because of the required minimums. One of our houses started with $766.96 as the monthly payment, and it is now $802.96 due to the escrow analysis. Another one started at $477.77, and it’s now at $537.60.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

Honestly, the only way I’ve checked my escrow balances in the past is at the end of the year when I’m verifying the insurance and tax payments “make sense.” I’m not even verifying the details behind the numbers, just that it was similar to last year’s amount as I update my spreadsheet. Well this time, I logged in to update my spreadsheets with the new mortgage balances for the October Financial Update, and I saw my escrow account was negative by over $1000! That makes no sense because these accounts are reviewed annually through an escrow re-analysis to ensure you’re not projected to dip below their required minimum balance, and if it were to be negative, it would only be by a much smaller amount.

We had recently changed our insurance. Usually when we change insurance providers, we pay the current year on our credit card (to get those points!), and then all future billing goes to our escrow account. I don’t know why we didn’t do it this way for the most recent change, but I’m inclined to blame the fact that the process took months to get new insurance because this company hasn’t been responsive, so we just wanted it done and weren’t thinking. Since we didn’t get the new policy issued before our old policy was billed, both insurances were paid out by our escrow. Sure, that should have affected our escrow balances, but still not by $1000.

One house had a policy that cost $573.31 and the other had a policy that cost $750.06. The new policy includes both houses under one policy (this becomes annoying and it makes me uncomfortable for reasons I can’t seem to articulate to the agent) and costs $1,180.87. Each mortgage escrow paid out the original policy amounts since we didn’t execute the new policies timely. After these were paid out, the mortgage company received a bill for $1,180.87. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, the company paid $1042 from each of our escrow accounts, and then one escrow account paid $138.87 (which is the balance of 1180.87-1042). The $138.87 covers the policy fees; so someone realized that there was a separate line item for policy fees, but didn’t realize that the $1042 should have been split between two houses (even though they knew there were two houses because they took from both escrows).

I questioned the process with the new insurance company, but he didn’t take responsibility for it. He claimed that the mortgagee had to know to split it and they don’t manage any of that. I explained that I’ve had multiple houses insured by one company and have never been given one policy number for it. He acted surprised. My gut says this is wrong and isn’t going to work, both for future billing and the possibility of a need for a claim. We did receive a check in the mail for $903.13 (the difference of $1042-138.87), but we still have paid the $138.87 and want it reimbursed. I sent an email this morning explaining again that I’ve confirmed with my mortgage company that this insurance company was paid $1042+$1042+$138.87. He again responded that the $138.87 is the fees portion of the bill, and I again said that I know, but it’s been paid twice, and I’d like it back. So now I’ll stay on top of that $138.87 to make sure we get it back.

You need to fight for yourself. You need to know what companies are owed and know what you’ve paid. Then don’t back down to keep asking for an update. I recently discussed how I had to fight for medical bills (multiple times) for a year at a time to get the money reimbursed that I was owed. I even recently had to call on another medical bill that I paid before realizing it hadn’t been submitted to insurance (I would love to understand why this keeps being an issue that my medical bills aren’t submitted to my insurance before billing me). Then they submitted it to insurance and sat on my reimbursement until I called twice asking for the reimbursement (that both times they agreed I was owed and it was “in process.”). Manage your money. Especially because that $138 that I’m waiting for now could mean a big difference to a family in need or living paycheck to paycheck.

Should You Use a Property Manager?

The key to financial freedom is passive income or cash flow so that you don’t have to work, right? Well, managing rental real estate isn’t truly passive, so a hiring a property manager to do that work on your behalf is enticing. But are the benefits worth the cost?

We have 12 rental properties, and 5 of those are self-managed. While I’ve mentioned the benefits of a property manager, I wanted to run through the reasons we don’t have a property manager on all of our properties. It comes down to time management and cash flow.

THE DETAILS ON SELF-MANAGED HOUSES

The very first property we bought was in Kentucky, while we lived in Virginia, so we needed a manager on that one. But then we bought two houses in Virginia. They were right next door to each other, and I worked about 10 minutes away. Without kids, I had the time and flexibilities to manage them. Plus, both houses had active leases on them when we took possession. Without having the immediate need and learning curve of finding a new tenant, it was easy to manage the rent collection and any minor issues that came up on the houses. A property manager would have cost us $105 each month on each of these houses. Even now that we don’t live near them, the houses are newer and we know they don’t have any major issues, and the tenants keep renewing their lease, so it’s [relatively] easy to manage from afar. There are some maintenance hiccups – like the flooring debacle – but mostly I just collect the rent electronically. One house is routinely late on the rent, so I have to manage that property more than the norm, but it’s all via electronic communication and doesn’t require me to be on site.

Our third purchase in Virginia was of a vacant 2 bedroom house. Still, no kids meant that I could manage listing and showing the property to prospective tenants. This was the first time that we had to figure out the tenant search process, but we were able to show it to a couple and have it rented the first weekend it was listed. Again, the house requires very little attention, and I just collect rent. Even when the house had to be turned over, the tenant leaving put us in contact with a friend of their family’s, and that’s been who’s living there for several years.

Our last two that are self-managed are the two that we have with a partner. I handle the rent collection and paperwork. When we have an issue, we’re more likely to call a handyman than do the work ourselves anymore, but again, phone calls and emails aren’t that difficult. We just had a handyman go out to look at two broken doors and to replace a missing fence panel. While I was there over the summer, I had secured the railing that was loose, but I didn’t want to do any of the other work. It also helps that we have a partner, so the cost of any work to be done is only half for us.

For the past year, we took over management of a property that had been with our property manager in Virginia. We knew the tenants from a previous house of ours, and we felt that our management of that house from afar would be easy as compared to the $120/mo we were saving by self-managing. We didn’t have any issues we couldn’t manage during the year. However, they’re now purchasing a home. We’re obviously not there to manage showings, so we gave this property back to our property manager. She listed the house and showed it for us. It’ll cost us $300 for the listing and 10% of the monthly rent for her management ($135). For the last 11 months, it has been rented at $1200. That means that we’ve had an extra $1620 worth of income for the year than we would have ($120 for 11 months, and the $300 listing fee).

PROPERTY MANAGEMENT

For our Kentucky houses, we are very hands off. We don’t weigh in on costs less than $200, and we don’t get any updates regarding rent payments or tenant searches. Sometimes it’s too hands-off for me. For instance, I don’t even get a copy of the executed leases until I ask for it, and I don’t get a copy of any receipts (I just get a summary of charges taken out of our proceeds). It has been hard on me psychologically, but I’ve learned to let it go over the past few years.

For our Virginia houses, we’re more hands on, and sometimes it’s too much. We still discuss all the details when an issue arises, so it’s just saving me the time of calling and coordinating contractors, which is rarely necessary. Then there are times that I even handle ordering and contractors; for instance, I just handled replacing the hot water heater and refrigerator at one of our houses. All of our tenants pay rent electronically, so that’s not even on our property manager’s radar (she used to collect rent and then deposit it in a joint account we gave her access to). Since she’s not responsible for rent collection, it’s then on me to let her know if someone hasn’t paid, and she handles the follow-up communication.

However, our Virginia property manager has been worth her weight in gold because she has handled multiple lease defaults for us (with one actually leading to an eviction), which involves going to the court house to file the motion and then showing up for the hearing(s). We had one tenant who had to be served multiple notices, but she eventually left on terms mutually agreed upon. We had another tenant vacate a house because his kids were attending a school out of the address’s district (and blamed us for that.. I don’t know!), but we took him to court to require payment of past due rent from before he vacated. Then we had a true eviction, where the tenant stopped paying rent and had to be taken to court multiple times. The judge ruled in our favor and told her to vacate the premises, which involved police officers escorting them out of the house. We have been very lucky that the houses we manage haven’t ventured into the realm of taking them to court (although one in close), and that our property manager has been able to handle everything on our behalf for these instances.

SUMMARY

We can get caught up in the “we’re paying for nothing to happen” mentality with our property managers. Each month, we pay out $720 for property management. In Virginia, our property manager doesn’t even collect rent, so most months there’s no action from her for the houses. In Kentucky, the property manager collects rent, holds it, and pays out our share the next month. It can be hard to see that total number that we’re paying, but for those months that involve a lot of coordination in receiving quotes, going to court, or meeting contractors, it’s nice that we don’t have to deal with it.

Sometimes it’s worth paying for peace of mind and relaxation, knowing someone else is handling your problems for you, but you need to choose where that balance is for you. Do you want to manage it yourself to know your money is being spent fully at your own discretion; do you want to have a manager while maintaining a lot of the decision making; or do you want to be fully hands off with a management company who you can trust to handle your property with your best interests at the forefront? It’s all a balance of how much you think that’s worth compared to your time spent and knowledge on managing rentals.

A Second Home & Summer of Travel

Why did we do so much traveling and activities this spring and summer? Most people probably assume all our travel was making up for a year of not traveling during the pandemic, but we came at it from a different perspective.

We’ve had a long term goal of a beach/lake/mountain home. After another failed search to make this dream come true this past Spring, we decided to redirect that money to trips this summer. I’ll run through the background, the financial decision, and how we spent our travel “budget.”

BACKGROUND

We first looked into a vacation rental in Snowshoe, WV – six years ago. Snowshoe is a ski resort, and one of the better available ones to those of us south of the Mason Dixon. It also has a draw during the summer with hiking and mountain biking, albeit not as constant of a stream of people needing a rental. The draw for us was that it was halfway between our home in VA and Mr. ODA’s family in KY.

We went as far as meeting a Realtor and looking at properties. If the house was off Snowshoe proper, it was a good distance from the ski lifts and not in great condition. If the house (condo) was on Snowshoe proper, it came with a lot of rules and regulations and costs. Everything near the ski lifts had to be under Snowshoe’s management, which included their cleaning costs, and their booking process. This meant that someone couldn’t necessarily go onto the website to book our unit. Someone would go on their website and book “a 2 bed and 1 bath unit” and the system would cycle through the bookings. With the high condo costs and the uncertain bookings for those units, as well as the distant location of the units that weren’t subject to the condo process and cost (plus finding a management and cleaning company for that), we stopped the search.

Since then, it’s been on the wish list, but we weren’t sure what direction we wanted to go. 

When we moved to KY, we decided to look into a lake house. We want it to be close enough that we could just pick up and go (e.g., trying to keep it under 2 hours), we want it to be on a lake that allows motor sports (so this rules out anything that’s “no wake” or prohibits motors of any kind), and we want it to be lake front (we learned this during our recent search, and hadn’t fully realized how much we wanted this until we saw a house that wasn’t on the lake directly). 

We looked at parcels of land and kept an eye on a few houses listed in the March/April timeframe of this year. Our initial thought was that we would purchase land and hold it until we were ready to have a house built. The parcels of land we looked at didn’t meet the criteria we wanted (good size, on the water, ability to build a dock). I started to feel like we were pressuring ourselves to make a decision for something that we didn’t actually need. 

We took a break and just kept an eye on Zillow. We went to see a new construction house on Herrington Lake, but it wasn’t actually on the lake. It was next to the community pool, across the street from the community’s dock, had 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms with a loft, and it was brand new. It even had a two car garage, which wasn’t something on our wish list. However, the price tag was high; it had been listed for many months, and we didn’t feel the comps supported such a cost for it not being literally on the lake. We spent a lot of time mulling it over, but decided to not even put an offer in. Lucky for the seller, they did get a full price offer shortly after that. 

I decided that we should wait at that point. I figured we may have better luck waiting until the end of the summer (perhaps people will think they’ll spend their last summer on the lake and then unload it?), and that we shouldn’t force this decision to not get exactly what we want for something that isn’t a necessity. 

THE FINANCIAL DECISION

If we purchased a $250,000 second home, and I assume an interest rate at 4.5% (even with excellent credit, the rates you see advertised are for primary residences), we’re looking at a mortgage payment of $1,200. On top of that, we’ll have escrow costs, HOA costs, the possibility of management fees, and then even PMI costs. That was another big factor; we’ve been throwing any ‘extra’ money towards paying off two rental property mortgages, so we don’t have $50,000 liquid to cover a 20% down payment. Without having the 20% down payment, it wasn’t even guaranteed that we’d be able to get a loan for a vacation house.

Knowing $250,000 was even more than we expected to spend, I conservatively assumed $1,200 in monthly house costs. Instead of spending $1,200 each month to go to the same destination over and over again, why don’t we just mentally allocate $1,200 each month to travel and go to all different places? And so, months of a crazy amount of travel began.


HOW DID WE SPEND OUR ENTERTAINMENT ALLOCATION?

MAY: $618

We started with a last minute trip to Atlanta to see the Braves. We spent 4 nights in Atlanta, went to two baseball games, met up with family for lunch, visited Stone Mountain, and explored the city parks. We stayed in a 2-bedroom hotel room because it was cheaper than any AirBnB options, and I was highly focused on giving the kids separate sleeping spaces. The hotel experience was less than favorable (dirty, AC broken, limited breakfast, roaches … and a good name hotel!), and after some conversations with the hotel, we ended up not paying for it. They had credited us one night without us asking after the AC continued to not work after their “fix.” Mr. ODA then had a casual conversation with the manager about the stay as he was checking out, and the manager credited a second night. I thought we paid for the rest of the nights, but it never showed up on the credit card. Our total trip cost was $460.

Later in May, we went camping in the Daniel Boone National Forest with some family. We booked a “cabin” (I used that term loosely; it was walls, a roof, and platforms for sleeping bags, but it had electricity and AC!) for two nights. We went swimming, rode bikes, and hung out under a canopy while it poured on us for most of the main day we were there. Our dog got to come on this trip, so we didn’t have any pet fees. We brought groceries to cover our meals since there’s nothing close by. Since we’d be buying groceries anyway and gas is negligible since it’s an hour away, I’ll just focus on lodging, which cost us $158.

JUNE: $200

Almost a year ago, we planned a trip with the extended family to Hocking Hills. This shouldn’t really count against our “monthly allowance” mentality since it was going to happen regardless, but I’m including it anyway since we didn’t do any other June trip. Mr. ODA’s parents covered the cost of lodging, and the rest of us covered the cost of food and our canoe rentals. We went hiking, got rained on, and played games at our rental. On the last full day, we rented canoes and went down the Hocking River, which was a great experience. We went with 6 kids, 3 of which were under 3 years old. So if you’re a beginner or looking for something to do with little ones, this was a fun time for $52 per canoe! This trip cost us about $200.

JULY: $690

Before we left Virginia, we discussed doing walk throughs of our properties and being more present with them. There were some properties that we hadn’t seen since we bought it because they don’t have maintenance requests or we call someone else for the work. Well, it was a whirlwind to move, and we didn’t do that last summer. After the debacle with the flooring replacement at one of the houses, we knew we needed to get back there to tie up loose ends. We have a wedding to attend in the area in September, but decided this couldn’t wait until then. The first weekend we could go ended up being the 4th of July. Being in Richmond, VA, there isn’t a large AirBnB market for a normal sized family. All of the options that were available were meant for multiple families in a large house, and we just aren’t interested in paying $700 per night for ourselves. We went with a hotel halfway between Richmond and our old neighborhood, and because we stayed for 5 nights, it was considered “long term,” and it only cost us $525, which included $75 for the dog being with us. Since our entertainment was either working on rental houses or visiting with our old friends, we just had food and gas costs. The total trip cost was $690 (and most of that was tax deductible!).

AUGUST $1069

We learned that St. Louis is only about 4.5 hours away from us, so we looked to see the Braves’ schedule. They were scheduled for mid-week games for the first week of August, so we marked it down. Unfortunately, things were busy, and I didn’t make the plans in advance. I struggled to find pet care for our dog, and I ended up booking an AirBnB the morning before we left. We searched and searched, and this one randomly popped up that morning, and it worked out well. Lodging cost us $585. Our entertainment (tickets and parking) cost us $135. Food and gas cost us $213. Total trip cost was $933.

My plan to visit my family in NY in July didn’t come to fruition because we had to manage 4 days worth of our builder being here to fix things in the house, and then I had a doctors appointment pop up that had to be a specific time. Instead of driving there and back (12+ hours each way), we booked some flights. We’re able to go from Cincinnati to JFK directly (such a blessing with 2 kids under 3!). The flight was 2 hours, plus an hour on each side for driving (although, it took us an hour and a half to get to my parents’ house when we landed at JFK because a 3:20 arrival, plus what felt like a 2 mile walk from the gate to passenger pickup, put us at getting on the Belt Parkway at 4 pm – that’s not good for that area!), and getting to the airport an hour early. We left out of LGA, but it was still a direct flight, and we arrived 25 minutes early! We had hardly any wait at TSA for either leg, no issues with boarding or the flight, and we got our gate checked bags easily. I’ll take 5-6 hours of travel over 12+ hours. The flights were booked through our Chase Travel Portal, costing us the equivalent of $833 in points. The parking is $9 per day, the gas to get there is negligible, and we actually didn’t spend anything on food (I very much owe my parents for that!). Our entertainment goal was to go swimming in my parents’ pool the whole time, and that’s just what we did! The trip cost us $36 in parking and $100 for our dog’s boarding.


On top of these long trips, we also did a lot more activities that were just for one day. We went to 2 Reds games, the Cincinnati Zoo several times, a UK baseball game, Bernheim Forest, and random family/friend activities. It turns out we didn’t spend the $1200 per month we had mentally allocated, but we kept ourselves really busy and had a great time making memories! 

Now it’s time to enter a new phase of life: preschool and sports! I’m pretty excited!