Friday, July 13, 2018

Advice for the small residential landlord

When I first became a landlord over 20 years ago,  I was not focused on maximizing profits.  I had other business interests, and I saw real estate as a reasonably safe and stable investment.  While renting the units did not give a large return on investment, selling them a couple years before the real estate peak in 2001 made for some healthy capital gains.  When I decided to go back to being a landlord a few years ago, I did it with no expectation of getting lucky again and riding a wave of appreciating real estate values.

What I mean by a "small" landlord is no more than 10 houses for rent.  That limit comes from the maximum number of residential mortgages banks will give a landlord.  BMO and Scotia have a limit of 10, while the limit at RBC is only 6.  Once you go over that limit, you'll only be able to get commercial mortgages, which will have a much higher interest rate than a residential mortgage.

My first piece of advice is something that applies to most business endeavors, not just property rentals.  I find many people in business are too focused on growing revenue instead of reducing costs.  I find it is easier to find a way to save $20 a month than it is to get $20 more in rent for a property.  For example, saving 0.2% on a $120,000 mortgage is $20 per month.  Rental mortgages are complicated, so the trouble of shopping around for the best rate may not seem worth it for a $20 monthly savings.  However, once you find a lender that can give you the best rate on one of your mortgages, they'll often be able to give you the best rate on your other mortgages as well.

When you are mortgage shopping, I recommend dealing with branch staff rather than brokers or bank mortgage specialists.  The reason is that the job of brokers and mortgage specialists is to bring in new clients.  Once you want to renew or make changes to your mortgage, you'll have to work with branch staff that will first have to get up to speed on your file.  My wife and I recently saved over $1000 through working with a financial services manager at BMO.  He noticed that we had a 5-year variable rate mortgage at prime - 0.5% with 4 years left.  BMO was offering a special rate of prime - 1%, and our BMO rep had calculated that with the lower rate we would save more than the 3-month interest penalty by renewing early.

Another expense that can vary greatly for landlords insurance.  Until recently our rental properties were insured by Pembridge under a residential policy along with our home and vehicles.  Most insurers have a limit of 4 or 5 rental properties before you have to go with a commercial policy.  At first it looked like we would have to pay a bit more for commercial insurance, but after a lot of shopping around we were able to find a commercial policy for less than what we were paying Pembridge.  With Pembridge, the cost of the insurance with a $5,000 deductible was around 0.3% of the building replacement value, so insurance on a $200,000 property was about $600/yr.  Our commercial Actual Cash Value policy is only 0.21% of the insured value, with an additional separate charge for commercial general liability.  Overall, it's about 10% cheaper than what we were paying under a residential policy.

Probably the most important thing a landlord does is screen tenants.  One bad tenant can turn a profitable rental business into the red.  It's also something that is probably as much art as it is science.  It should be clear that just looking for "nice" tenants is not a good idea.  You could end up with a professional tenant.  I find the best indicator of a tenant's reliability is their work history.  If they have been working full time for several years at the same company, they'll probably make a good tenant.  I ask for both work and previous landlord references, and will ask their boss specific questions that indicate reliability, such as the last time they were late for work.  Don't ask past landlords if they were a "good tenant", ask specific questions like if they ever paid their rent late, or if they even paid their rent early.  I don't waste money on screening services that charge to do credit checks on prospective tenants.  A bad tenant can have a great credit score, and a great tenant can have a bad credit score.  Many people don't realize that something as simple as refusing to pay for a cell phone billing error and switching to a new provider could take your credit score from good to poor if your old provider sends your disputed bill to collections.  Sure, they aren't supposed to send a disputed bill to collections, but you probably even have a friend or two that has had it happen to them.

My last piece of advice for small landlords is to stay out of the big markets like Toronto and Vancouver.  The return on investment for a condo in downtown Toronto will be much less than a couple townhomes in Oshawa.  Some investors think a downtown condo is a safer investment than a residential property in a small city.  Other investors like the idea of having a place in a big city where they can stay for short visits and rent out the rest of the time.   Whatever the reason, if you look at reports on rental investment returns across the country, cities like Toronto and Vancouver are consistently at the bottom of the list, while places like Halifax and London are near the top.

As for what you can expect for investment returns, 10% is a reasonable target.  That is based on putting 20% down, a mortgage with an interest rate of 3%, and a 1-2% vacancy rate.  If you are handy and can do maintenance like painting and minor plumbing repairs yourself, investment returns of 15% are achievable.  Returns of over 20% can even be made if you are in a market where you can purchase properties in need of repair that you fix up and rent.  Flipping houses may seem like the glamorous thing to do from today's TV shows, but buying that fixer-upper and renting it will make you more money in the long run.

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