Tell-Tale Signs You’ll Be a Good Landlord
Four professionals share how to do the job effectively
Becoming a landlord is a big step. You need to find the right property, secure a loan and close the deal.
But learning how to be a good landlord is about more than just signing on the dotted line. You need certain skills, personality traits and tools to do well in this industry. We asked landlords and property managers how to make it in this profession.
You respect your residents
“The corporate culture has to be one of love and respect for the tenants," says Steve Davis, Lead Real Estate Consultant, CEO and Founder of Total Wealth Academy in Houston, Texas. Davis has invested in around 4,000 properties himself and trains students to do the same.
“When I'm running an apartment complex, we focus on the fact that money only comes from one place in a real estate deal — the tenants," Davis continues. “We create a culture where we understand that our service to other people is providing them a safe, clean, functional place to live."
You can't be a successful landlord without satisfied tenants. Your residents need to know they're more than just a number on a balance sheet.
“Get to know your residents as more than just money coming in," says Collin Lindhorst, who worked as a Section 8 Housing manager in South Dakota and Minnesota for almost a decade. “Treat residents with respect and kindness and you won't have to worry about a ton of yearly turnover. An empty apartment, even for a day, loses money."
A landlord or property manager works with residents at all phases of their lives, including the most challenging moments. That's when empathy is the most vital.
“Property managers need to be interested in learning about people's stories, whatever that may be," says Matt Schober, who owns 11 rental properties and is the President of Mortar Property Management in Burnsville, MN. “I have encountered tenants who are going through the most difficult times, including divorce or stage 4 cancer."
You're a creative problem solver
Being a landlord involves solving complex problems every day. So finding creative solutions is an important skill.
“Problem-solving is the biggest thing I use in my day-to-day life," says Amey Haas, property manager and co-owner of MinneStPopolis, which counts 60 single-family homes across Minnesota in its holdings. “Being able to figure out how something works — communication problems, electric issues, maintenance breakdowns, legal issues — and tweaking one little thing to make everything else work differently, being able to think outside the box."
You're a good salesperson
Developing empathy and problem-solving are key parts of learning how to be a good landlord. But one skill is especially vital.
“Everything in real estate — and really, life — is sales," says Davis. “You're selling the seller to give you a good deal. You're selling the bank to loan you the money. You're selling your staff to take care of the tenants and the property. You're selling the tenants to move into your property. It's all sales."
Classes, books, conferences and podcasts can help you refine your sales pitch and interpersonal skills. Developing empathy, active listening skills and outside-the-box thinking will give you an edge. You'll get better with time and practice.
You can be assertive
Good interpersonal skills and a winning personality will help you with sales. But a good landlord also has to know when to be tough.
“It's really good to be personable. It helps you attract and retain good tenants," says Haas. “But you also need to disengage and pump the breaks and be the bad guy if you need to. You will go under if people don't pay their rent. You won't survive."
Striking the right balance is one of the hardest things to teach. That's why EPIC Management in West Fargo, ND, doesn't teach it. When the company is hiring someone to manage some of its 1,000 units, they look for a few key personality traits instead.
These traits include “a sense of fairness and understanding, while at the same time maintaining the ability to withstand confrontation and criticism," says McKenzy Braaten, VP of Communications for EPIC.
“It's about finding the good, healthy balance between the two. We hire based on someone who is an excellent fit for the position over someone's skillsets, as we can usually train someone (in) the skills they need, but you can't teach personality traits."
You have good communication skills
“Communication is the most important skill a property manager can have," says Schober. “Sure, you can have the knowledge — and a lot of us do — but staying in constant communication with both property owners and tenants is critical to success."
Landlords should be skilled verbal communicators. You'll need to communicate with your residents, contractors, staff and support team.
You should also be a good writer. Landlords and property managers communicate with residents in writing through memos, posters, mailers and emails. You'll also have to correspond with staff and other professionals.
Writing and editing lease agreements is a big part of how to be a good landlord. These documents define the rental experience for you and your residents. They're also legally binding documents. So it's important to get them right.
“When you lease to somebody, you need to make sure you've detailed all the rules for them to follow, how you want the relationship to look year after year," says Haas. “And if you do need to change that, you have to put that in writing and keep all the documents organized."
Your communication skills go beyond just English
You'll probably also need to communicate in a language other than English at some point in your career.
The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to deny renters based on their national origin. (It's one of several Fair Housing protections.) So it's smart to brainstorm ways to communicate with residents who speak other languages in advance.
Some companies use interpreters. Davis says 30 to 40 percent of his tenants speak Spanish, so he always employs bilingual staff. But sometimes you'll have to get creative.
“Have a communication style that is flexible," advises Haas. “I have a lot of tenants who don't speak much English and they'll use to voice to text. And I have a few tenants who only speak Spanish. I'll have them text me and I'll use a translation service to text them back."
Or go right back to basics. Patience, empathy and non-verbal communication can go a long way.
“If you've got a corporate culture where you love and care for your tenants, you can break down any language barrier," Davis says. “I've had a little grandmother that didn't speak a word of English that I took care of, and got hugs from afterwards, just because she pointed to the problem."
You can multitask
A good landlord needs to know a lot about many topics. And they have to pivot between them constantly.
“Basic skills needed to run a property are budgeting, business management, a general knowledge of construction and building repair, a knack for marketing and a willingness to learn and be flexible," says Lindhorst.
“Other skills necessary to run a successful property varies from building to building, and depends on factors such as building location, property type (market rent or low-income) and local/state laws regarding housing."
You have great organizational skills
Keeping track of all those tasks is a challenge. Developing organizational skills is an important part of learning how to be a good landlord.
Leases aren't the only documents you'll need to organize. Tax forms, legal documents and financial records need to be filed too. Haas recommends creating a system that works for every aspect of your business.
“You need to have some kind of system to just be able to compartmentalize things in your brain," she says. “ To keep keys straight, to keep payments straight, to make sure payments are going into the right accounts, to handle invoicing, taxes. And you need to be someone who can keep good records."
You've developed a professional support network
If that sounds like a lot to do by yourself, it is. Part of learning how to be a good landlord is deciding when to delegate. Braaten recommends outsourcing maintenance, marketing, accounting and legal advice to other professionals.
“Anyone who has come from a property management background is important to include in your network," she adds. “Both past and present, and from all departments —maintenance techs, owners, managers."
Haas and her team do a lot of the maintenance and repair work on their properties themselves. But they also outsource tasks to other professionals when it's better for their bottom line. She says you can find smart, helpful colleagues in many places.
“Have a relationship with people who are good at their jobs," she says. “People who do your taxes, tradespeople, lawyers and just general handy people, like the guy that works the window counter at your local hardware store. Find people who know what they're doing and develop those relationships."
You've mastered basic maintenance
Solid maintenance skills will take your career as a landlord to the next level. Even a landlord with a team of maintenance professionals on staff could get called into action at any time. So it's good to know how to make basic repairs and troubleshoot common household problems.
“They should know a lot about the way that properties work, have a basic understanding of home maintenance systems and not be afraid to get their hands dirty," says Haas. “If you're hiring a handyman or if you have a whole maintenance team, then it's less important. But sometimes you're visiting for something totally unrelated and you'll have to go down and scrub the flame sensor on the furnace."
You keep up with local laws
“Stay up to date on your local regulations," recommends Schober. “For example, Saint Paul imposed a rent cap and that has real-world implications that need to be followed. Staying up to date on legislation is critical to protect both property owners and tenants."
Breaking local and state laws can have disastrous consequences. So review legislation that affects your industry. And study what a landlord can and can't legally do.
You're connected to your colleagues
Connecting with other landlords is a great way to keep up with changing laws and learn about pressing industry issues. There are already associations set up to help you meet your peers.
“If you're in the multifamily space, you need to be a member of the National Apartment Association," says Davis. “That's the best way to keep on top of local rules and regulations."
There are city and state apartment associations too. They offer classes, resources and conferences that can help you sharpen your skills and meet new colleagues.
“Joining local apartment associations and attending any conferences that are available are good steps," adds Braaten. “This helps to make connections with other landlords in your area or nationally."
Ask for referrals as you grow your network. Colleagues are an important source of advice and practical support.
You utilize technology to grow your business
A good landlord or property manager embraces new technology. You can use it to communicate with existing tenants and attract new renters.
Integrating new tech also makes it easier to connect with your employees, your colleagues and the team of professionals that help you run your business.
“Our company is incorporating tech into all the work we do, including e-leasing, texting, mobile apps and even smart connected devices," says Schober. “There are all kinds of opportunities to innovate in this space, and I really believe that property management is the next frontier to be transformed by tech."
Learning how to be a good landlord or property manager is a process. But developing these traits, skills and tools can help you find success in the industry.