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.

Property Walk-throughs

Early on in our investing in real estate, we were told to make regular walk throughs of the properties. We were taught to use changing the HVAC filters as the guise to get into the property and look around once a quarter, even if changing the filters was put in the Lease Agreement as the tenant’s responsibility. Realistically, we have mostly great tenants that will tell us what goes wrong in the house and take good care of it. But this isn’t always the case. Plus, once we added two kids to our lives and I no longer worked (i.e., no longer have a set schedule for being out of the house), the rental properties moved to the back burner unless a tenant brought something up specifically.

After our experience with House 9 – both the hoarder and the guys who just turned off the gas to the stove instead of telling us about a gas leak (yea….), we decided it was important to get into these houses at least once a year. In many instances, either one of us or our handyman is in the house at least once a year for a repair, so it’s not a big deal. But there a couple of houses we hadn’t seen in a while. Add in the pandemic, and we really haven’t been in houses all that much.

We moved out of Virginia, where we have 9 properties, last Fall. That means getting into these properties is more of an effort that needs to be properly planned and orchestrated now. We already planned to be in Virginia for a wedding in September. However, the issues that stemmed from the flooring replacement in House 3 made it imperative that we get there as soon as possible.

I emailed all the tenants to let them know that I planned to walk through the property for a quick inspection. I asked if they had any definitive times of day or times of the week that they would prefer I not arrive (e.g., works night shift, child’s nap time). I let them know that they didn’t need to be present for the walk through, that I would send them a document outlining anything I noted, and that I would try to avoid their times of being unavailable, but didn’t guarantee it.

Of the 9 properties, 3 are with a property manager. We took two off the list after they responded positively about how they replace the filters, had several conflicts around the holiday weekend, and we have been in these houses for repairs in the last 6-9 months. One is a house that we had been in regularly and knew she was treating it like we’d treat our home, and the other had our handyman in it recently, who said, “they seem to be by-the-book people.”

While there, we took pictures of the front and back of each house to give to our insurance company. We have a commercial liability umbrella policy, and the underwriters like to update the file every 3 years (details in a future post!). So instead of posting pictures of all the “dirty laundry” (literally and figuratively) I encountered, here’s a picture for this post that’s of our nice, pretty house with great tenants. (Note – Mr. ODA tucked in that piece of vinyl on the back right just after I took this picture!)

HOW DID IT GO?

Well, I started in a house that I’ve only seen one room of since we bought it (this is owned with a partner – he and Mr. ODA have handled most issues to date). I was overwhelmed. There were 5 full/queen size beds in the house, where the lease holds a husband/wife and adult daughter. There was stuff everywhere. We just replaced the HVAC in the house, but they had all the windows open, fans on, and the HVAC running. I knew that there was water damage from a plumbing issue, but I didn’t realize that it had affected the kitchen and the basement (thought it was just a part of the basement). It was a hard way to start. I should have started with an easy one that I knew would be in great condition. 🙂

From there, it went pretty well though. Most people obviously cleaned and changed the filter because I was coming. This is a good thing and a bad thing. If I don’t show up for a year, is the house cluttered and a mess? Then there was a house that I went in, where he didn’t bother picking a single thing up for my arrival. Dirty socks, things strewn about. It wasn’t to the point of hoarding, and I didn’t find any food laying around to attract pests, but it wasn’t how I would manage a household.

I ended two days of seeing 7 houses with a lengthy to-do list. Plumber, HVAC technician, roofer, electrician, pest control, and then a random assortment of things that I don’t know who to call for (e.g., replacing bedroom doors, closing in literally 2 sections of chain link fence that are missing). I also made note of things that will require our attention during a turnover, but that don’t necessarily require attention right now (e.g., removing old caulk around the tub and re-caulking it).

TENANT FOLLOW UP

I sent an email to each tenant. I thanked them for their time, outlined the items that I noted needed attention (e.g., vacuum HVAC filter cover, vacuum dust build up on bathroom, unblock exits), documented anything we did while we were there (e.g., gutter clean out, caulking), and sent a list of reminders that are the lease items we see most frequently broken (e.g., only adults that have passed the background check and are on the lease may reside there; any fines incurred by lack of yard maintenance will be passed onto the tenant who is responsible for yard maintenance per the lease; change air filters no less than every 3 months; all surfaces are to be cleaned and remain clear of food particles as to not attract pests).

Contractors are scheduled a couple of weeks out, so nothing is moving very quickly, but at least we’ll get into these houses for some preventative maintenance.


Lesson learned that when life gets in the way and active management of rental properties becomes a little too passive, the to-do list grows pretty long. There was nothing critical that we weren’t aware of, and we could handle these things during turnover, but I’ll try to get ahead of some of it in the near term, especially where we have long term tenants.