Communicating with tenants is essential. “I encourage tenants to tell me when a faucet is leaking,” says Willie Sullivan, 50, a public employee who lives in Pearland, Texas, and owns two rental houses in nearby Houston. “I can get over there and see if it just needs a new washer. Fixing a small leak soon can prevent a big plumbing bill later.”
Sullivan screens prospective tenants to get an idea of how diligent they will be about maintenance. “Before I start with a new tenant, I find a reason to see where they’re living now,” he says. “I may come by to pick up a security deposit. When I go in there, I’m not looking for cleanliness as much as I’m looking for damages. Are the ceiling fans broken? Are the doorknobs all in place?” The condition of the tenant’s current quarters will be a preview of how they will treat your place.
Send the right message. When dealing with applicants, spell out your requirements up front. “If tenants have cats, for example, insist that they keep the litter pan in only one area of the house,” says Gulley. “Once a cat smell is all over the house, it can take quite a while to get it out.”
Some conditions should be put in writing. “When I offer leases to tenants,” says Sullivan, “I have the tenants initial another sheet as well. They sign off that they’ll be responsible for the yard and that their cars will be kept in running condition, among other provisions.” This lets tenants know that they may not litter the property with old vehicles that are being worked on.
Tenants may be required to bear other obligations, too. “Always make the tenant buy the stove,” says Gulley. “If a child burns [his or her] hand on a stove that you bought, you could be liable. When they leave, they will take the stove with them, so the new tenants can provide their own stove.” It should be kept clean, Sullivan tells tenants, if they want to avoid having unwanted housemates. Requiring a tenant to buy his or her own stove, however, is not legal in all states.
In return for requesting that tenants take on such responsibilities, a landlord should make certain commitments. “I promise them that they will get a response to any calls within 24 hours,” says Sullivan. “If it’s just a faucet leak, the work might wait until the weekend. If the commode is stopped up, I’ll be there that night. And if I can’t fix it, I’ll have someone who can do the repair working on it the next day.”
Line up a winning team. Being able to call for skilled help is critical for a landlord. “You should have a list of contractors so that you can send somebody out to do a job at your property if you’re unable or unwilling to do it yourself,” says Dunagan.
Who should be on your team? Norton suggests a plumber, an electrician, and a roofer. Sullivan adds