7 Ways even experienced landlords can lose money

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Even smart landlords lose money with their rentals occasionally.  You may be an experience landlord, or just beginning.  Here are 7 ways landlords can lose money if they are not careful.

1.  Government regulations and taxes

Ronald Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” I think you would probably agree with me that whenever the government steps in, no matter how well intentioned, they will probably do a poor job of whatever it is they are doing.  And it will come at a cost.

Government rental inspections

Recently many cities and municipalities have started compiling lists of landlords and renters .  These cities require landlords to register with the city for the purported purpose of neighborhood preservation and for “health, safety violations, or in case of emergency”.  The City of Sacramento regularly scans the tax records looking for non-compliant landlords.   At first glance, this may all seem like a reasonable request, but usually it doesn’t stop there.  In several cities, including the City of Sacramento, there’s an annual inspection that is necessary that requires a city inspector to be have access to the interior of the rental.

The landlord must schedule a time with the tenant and the inspector – all at the landlord’s expense.  In addition, to the inspection, these cities and others are requiring a business license and or a rental fee for every rental.  The Cities of Rancho Cordova and Sacramento charge an annual fee for owning rentals in their cities. In addition, to health and safety violations, these inspectors are increasingly citing building code violations and unpermitted structures.  In some cases, they can actually red tag a property forcing you to find and pay for housing for your tenant until the repairs are made to your rental.

Rent controls

Next, think about rent controls.  Landlords have to pay for improvements, maintenance, and vacancies while at the same time keeping the rents below government thresholds.  The result is that landlords aren’t able to keep up with all of the necessary repairs, and the properties suffer.  Given time, the quality of the rentals available begins to decline, and with it the prices landlords can collect for rents, adding further fuel to the problem.  With the recent Oakland warehouse fire and the legislature getting concerned about affordable housing, is it possible Sacramento will be next?

Landlords lose money with bad tenants

Are your tenants destroying your property?

2. Bad tenants

Finding good tenants can be difficult. No matter how hard you try to find good tenants, there are unscrupulous people who know how to beat the system.  The first thought that might come to your mind is clogged toilets, but that’s the easy stuff.  More expensive are those tenants who call the local government agencies to report their landlords for issues.

Bad Tenants Next Door

You may be very good at screening your tenants.  However, if the property manager for the rental next door isn’t, it will affect the type of tenants you keep.  Years ago a friend had a three unit rental property next to several other rentals.  He made a very profound statement that I’ve never forgotten.

“I can screen my tenants to make sure I have good tenants.  Unfortunately, I don’t get to screen the tenants in the  rental property next door and they keep driving my good tenants away.”

This is common problem for many landlords.  You have the best of intentions to only approve the best possible tenants.  But what do you do when the tenants next door repeatedly drive your good tenants away?  Try talking to the other property management company?  Good luck with that.  Unfortunately, many landlords buy run down rental properties that they think they can turn around.  They think that by changing out the bad tenants for good tenants they can improve their property, but forget the other rentals nearby that they have no control over.

Not paying rent

I recently purchased a property from a reluctant landlord in Sacramento where her tenant was not paying rent.  The tenant had reported the landlord to the city for a light that didn’t work.  Then because the light didn’t work the tenant stopped paying rent.  When the city came out, they also cited the landlord for an unpermitted garage conversion that had existed for twenty years!  The city then gave her 30 days to correct the problem.  The landlord’s relationship with her tenant became so deteriorated, that she didn’t perform an eviction for six months for fear of what the tenant would do to the property.  Meanwhile, her tenants continued to live off of the landlord for free costing her several months of rental income and added expenses.

3.  Location

There’s a lot of things that you can fix in a house. You can paint them and put new carpet in them, but there’s one thing that is impossible to fix – location.  The old saying is that everything in real estate can be boiled down to “location, location, location” is still true.

Neighborhood and Schools

Sometimes locations are deceptive.  I recently went to look at a rental property that was in a great school district.  Everyone wants to send their kids to school in this district.   As I drove through the neighborhood, I realized that the neighborhood didn’t match the school district.  I had remodeled a house in the same area just three years earlier and things had looked great then  However, since that time things had not gone well for the neighborhood.  The area had become predominantly rentals with lots of deferred maintenance.  It was only a matter of time before these tenants started looking for nicer neighborhoods.

Busy Streets

Lots of things go into location besides school districts.  There are issues like flood or fire zones, where the f insurance can cost several thousand dollars per year more than a normal policy.  I’ve seen appraisers mark down the value of a house by ten thousand dollars because it backed up to the police station or for being on a moderately busy street.  I’ve even seen appraisers mark down the value of home for being across the street from a busy park.

Do you have a property in a less than ideal location?  Are your tenants regularly move out after just a year?  Do you have to deal with vacancies more often once every 2-3 years?  You might have a location issue.

4. Renting to family

We love our families, and therein lies the rub. Johnny comes home from college and can’t find a job.  To make ends meet, he starts working a minimum wage job while looking for better employment.  He says it’s just a short term problem until his prospective employers start to call him back.  He feels good about everything.

Boomerang generation

Does this sound familiar?  The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 19% of young men between the ages of 24 and 34 are now living at home with their parents.  Many times a parent rents a home to their children thinking, “My property is vacant.  Why not help them out?”  Often times this starts at a discounted rent while their new tenant works things out.

Fast forward a few years, and often Johnny is still their tenant.  But Johnny still hasn’t been able to find steady work.  Now his landlord is left footing the bill for property taxes, insurance and possibly even a mortgage.  More costly yet, Johnny hasn’t been taking care of the property and is behind in his rents again.

What do you do?  You can’t very well evict him.  You’d never be able to go to another family get together again.  So, you’re stuck, with a tenant you cannot evict, a mortgage to pay and maintenance costs mounting.

Does Johnny rent from you? If so, checkout how Pat rented a house to his nephew to help him out. That didn’t go well. Pat said.

“I found dope in the house, his anger is an issue and he makes holes in the wall. He cusses me out and disrespects me and destroys the house. He refuses to leave. Now I find that he has his pregnant girlfriend living with him and I don’t know what to do. The cops say we can’t kick them out without going to court.”

5. Unexpected maintenance costs

When was the last time you had an unexpected repair come up at your personal residence? Appliances don’t last forever.  Dishwashers, garbage disposals, ranges all have a limited life time.  But when you live in your house, you see those items and probably take care of them quickly.

It’s the little costs

How many times does your tenant call you with little stuff?  Nothing big, just little things that still requires sending a handyman or repair person out to look at?  “The heater doesn’t seem to be blowing warm air.”  “The AC doesn’t seem to be blowing out cold air.” “Part of the fence blew down in the last windstorm.”  “A crack just showed up in the backyard window, after I ran the weed whacker.”   These aren’t necessarily big expenses, but they slowly eat away at any profit you may have expected from your rental.

Your tenants’ little secrets

Then what about those needed repairs your tenants don’t tell you about?  Do they tell you about the water leaks under the kitchen sink damaging your new cabinets?  Do they call you about the showers and sinks that drip driving up your water bill?  Have you ever had a tenant tell you the hose bibs outside are leaking water onto the wood siding causing dry rot?  If your tenants are like mine, they don’t even tell me about the broken sprinkler heads that are wasting water.  No they just turn the irrigation timer off causing that nice green lawn to turn brown.

When you bought the property, every was in good condition  Now, just a few years later when your tenant moves out, they finally tell you about it saying, “Yea, I put a bucket under the sink to try and catch the leak”.  What about the clogged gutters that rusted out, the hot water heater that leaks, and wash machines that aren’t hooked up properly and leak all over the floor?

How much more will these unexpected repairs cost you?  How many more little expenses can you afford before you are losing money?

“My home in Sacramento I priced too high, I can not sell, then I found someone and rented. Now I have problem with tenants. They turned me in to code enforcement. Now I need to make repairs I can’t afford” – anonymous landlord

6.  Bad property management companies

Not all property management companies are bad. There are definitely some great property management companies out there,  But, how would you know if they are more interested in your success than theirs?  How do you know before you hire a property management company whether you will be happy with them?

What’s their incentive?

Let’s be honest, property management companies don’t pay their bills by collecting a 10% commission off of your rent check. Could you run a business that was successful based on that kind of income?  It would take so many rentals to pay your salary that you’d need extra help, which you’d then have to pay a salary for too.  No, I’m sure you realize that the way management companies make their money is with extra customer services.  Rent ups, vacancies, repair services, evictions, etc.

To be sure, all of these things are part of the nature of being a landlord.  However, is your property management company trying to reduce the amount of services they are providing to you or are they trying to provide you more?  What’s the benefit to a property manager who truly makes everything go perfectly smooth, places the truly best tenants, and keeps your property in great shape while reducing your costs?  But isn’t that what you expect of your property manager?

What’s it costing you?

Bad property management companies fall into two categories.  The first are those who don’t take care of the property you spent a lot of money for.  The second are those that go beyond great service to providing completely unnecessary services.  One company generates their income by pretending to keep your repair costs low, while creating unhappy tenants.  Then you’re unhappy having to fill a vacancy each year.  The other company generates income by taking great care of your property, but at the cost of unnecessary repairs.  Costs that ultimately you pay for out of any profits you may have been expecting.

How much are you spending in unnecessary property management fees?

7. Vacancies

Vacancies are the biggest reason landlords lose money in rentals. There are lots of reasons for vacancies, many of them attributable to items already mentioned – poor management companies, location, schools, but there’s more.  California is a still losing jobs to out of state companies.  Texas is in a hiring boom.  People are moving out of state to find work, even if it means breaking their lease.  Some people get job transfers, others are buying a home and are no longer going to be renting.  It may not be long before people are moving out of state just to find water.

Every time this happens, it costs you money; whether you manage your property yourself or you have a property management company do it for you.  It costs you lost income, it costs you the maintenance costs of paint and other repairs.  And if you hire out your management, it costs you their service fee.  You can try and do everything you can to reduce vacancies and to quickly fill them, but the truth is they happen.  And unfortunately, a vacancy no matter how short, can quickly eat up any profits you may get from the rest of your tenants rental period.

What are your vacancies costing you?

Are vacancies eating all of your profits?  How much are your vacancies costing you?


BONUS SECTION – more ways that landlords lose money

Well, that’s the first 7 ways landlords can lose money in Sacramento.  However, I always like to leave you with more than you expect, so here’s some additional costs you may have already thought about.

8. Too much money tied up in a property that produces too little income

You’ve probably heard of the term, Return on Investment or ROI. It’s a simple formula that takes the total net income produced by an asset and divides it by the total dollars invested.  It’s a way for investors to compare two different opportunities to determine which has a better return.  This is also called “yield”.  Here’s an example, suppose you paid $200,000 for a rental property that rents for $1,200 a month.  Annually that’s $14,400, which seems like a pretty good yield at 14400/200000 = 7.2% (remember income divided by purchase costs).  That looks pretty good.

What’s the real ROI?

But did you really receive that much income?  What about those management fees above, or the unexpected repair costs, vacancies, and government fees that ate away at your rents?  It’s not unheard of to see 25-30% of rents go toward these operating costs.  If you subtract 30% off of your rental income for these expenses that leaves you with $10,080 net annual income.  That’s a 5.04% yield.  That’s actually costing you money.  You could have invested that money in a decent stock or index fund during the past few years and had a better return without all of the headaches.  And then what about the big expenses that come up along the way like new roofs, HVAC systems and other big ticket items.  These can erode your yield even further.

Note:  Check out our free Rental Property Evaluation Tool to see what your true ROI is.

False assumptions

Some people buy properties because they have the mistaken belief that property values always go up.  I suspect that the recent Great Recession probably has dispelled that belief for many.  Robert Schiller, winner of a Nobel prize in economics and author of what some consider to be the two most important economic charts of the last two decades, has shown that since the 1890s, home prices appreciated roughly 3%, just in keeping with inflation.

If you’re counting on your property value going up or not including all of your expenses in your mental accounting, you’re rental property may be costing you money, rather than making you money.

9. Paying for expenses with credit cards or other lines of credit

We all know better, but often when surprise bills start coming in on a property, we start paying more and more of our bills with our credit card.  We have every intention of paying them off when we can, but somehow we just never seem to be able to get caught up because those repair bills just keep coming in.

If we’re not careful these debts can get quite large and start to weigh on us.  The interest we pay on this debt can be quite large and we forget that in addition to all of our other expenses for a property, we may still be paying monthly interest on those previous expenses, costing us thousands of dollars a year.

We can completely forget after a time that the reason our credit lines are maxed out to begin with is because of paying too many bills from our credit line for that property.  We may have even been dishonest with ourselves and not associated our extra debt as being related to non performing properties and expensive repairs.  Still the interest has to be paid and we keep on making the monthly payments, long after those unexpected bills were paid with our credit card.

That’s it.  There’s nine commons ways landlords lose money on the rental properties.  Be sure to check out the evaluation tool we mentioned earlier to help you evaluate what your real return is.