The lessons I've learned as an accidental landlord

As her first tenants move out, one landlord reflects on what she’s learned…

It’s two and a half years since I became an accidental landlord. We needed a bigger house but we were unwilling to sell our first home, which had lost around £30,000 in value thanks to the housing market crash, which I wrote about in Should I get a buy-to-let mortgage.

This week our first tenants left, and we’ve been back inside the property repairing and cleaning ready for the next couple who move in on Monday. It’s been a bit of a wrench seeing my former home looking so shabby, and it’s made me reflect on what I’ve learned as a landlord, that I wish someone had told me at the start.

Letting agents are not (always) on your side

You’d expect that your letting agent would be your partner, especially as an inexperienced landlord. But our first letting agent lied to us, over-charged us and abused our tenants, then tried to bill us £600 just to walk away. It's clear that we aren't the only ones to experience such a horror story.

We’ve now found an excellent letting agent and formed a good working relationship with the team. We used them to find our new tenants, and arrange for work to be carried out. However, we’ll be managing the property ourselves – we want our tenants to know that if there is a problem then they can call someone who genuinely cares.

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Don’t get attached

Our buy-to-let house used to be our home. It was where we lived when we got married and was the house that I first brought my son home to, so I have a pretty strong emotional attachment to it.

That’s why it’s been quite heartbreaking to see it this week. Our first tenants treated it fairly well, but there is still damage; burns in the carpets, the garden is a mess and everything is looking pretty shabby.

I have this irrational desire to make it lovely again, to spend thousands repairing the wear and tear, fitting a new sink and having the garden completely redone. Of course, spending a few thousand pounds every time it’s empty will mean investing a lot more money in the property, but it won’t increase the amount it brings in. I have had to accept that the house is an investment and not my home, meaning I should carry out the necessary work but not go above and beyond.

Do treat tenants well

Although we won’t be spending thousands making it into a show home, that doesn’t mean leaving it as a dump. I want our new tenants to feel good about moving in because I hope they will stay a long time and treat the property well.

That’s why we are redecorating, fitting new carpets in rooms with burns, having the bathrooms professionally cleaned and generally getting it back into good shape. We’ll also be leaving a bottle of wine in the fridge for the new occupants – a small gesture of goodwill that went a long way with our first tenants.

Don’t get too friendly

In fact, perhaps I became a bit too chatty and friendly with the last tenants. When their relationship broke down and they had to move out, each one actually spent time on the phone to me complaining about their ex – a very awkward position for a landlord who just wants to know if they’ve taken meter readings and cleaned the fridge.

Do have savings ready

It’s so important to have emergency savings in place when you’re a landlord, even if you’re an accidental landlord.

When your tenants ring because the fridge breaks in the height of summer, or the boiler gives up in the depths of winter, you have to be able to get it fixed immediately. I spent years living in rented accommodation belonging to landlords who just didn’t care, so now I think I have a duty to treat tenants as I would want to be treated.

You’re going to have to pay for the repairs at some point, so it’s far better to have the money sitting ready. It avoids nasty surprises and helps keep your relationship with your tenants positive.

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Take your time finding the right tenants

When our tenants said they wanted to leave, we had a bit of a panic. We imagined the house lying empty for months while the mortgage swallowed all our spare cash, so we almost let the house to the first couple who expressed an interest.

But they weren’t quite right and couldn’t provide references from their last landlord, so we turned them down. That turned out to be the right decision, as there have already been issues at the house they eventually moved into.

The second person who wanted to move in had dogs that she intended to leave crated all day while she worked, and we didn’t feel comfortable with that. You might say it was none of our business, but we didn’t like the idea that two dogs would be left in crates for eight hours just because we had raised concerns about damage to the house while she was out.

Finally, our new tenants came along and (fingers crossed) they are perfect. A young, professional couple looking to move to a larger home together and with a history of happy landlords; we’re confident that they were worth waiting for.

Vet your tenants yourself

Our agent was very happy to conduct the house viewings on our behalf, but I turned her down. I was keen to meet every prospective tenant so I could judge for myself if I was happy leaving my property in their hands.

No matter how good a letting agent is, their main concern is getting the property rented so that they can get paid. Yes they will conduct financial checks, but as long as the tenants pass those they will usually be happy just getting the place rented.

If I hadn’t shown all prospective tenants around then we would have ended up with the first couple, who have turned out to be quite difficult and problematic for their landlord. It’s my former home, it’s my property and it made sense for me to protect my investment by vetting prospective tenants myself.

What about you, what lessons have you learned as a landlord or tenant? What standards should landlords abide by? Share your thoughts with our writer and other readers using the comments below.

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