Owning a Rental Property: Insights for First-Time Landlords

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Written By SmarterrMoney.org

The latest in personal finance to help you make smarter money choices. 

While the idea of owning a rental property is exciting, it’s not without its complexities. 

For instance, dealing with unexpected vacancies and navigating local regulations can be challenging. You might even find yourself overwhelmed by the responsibilities of becoming a landlord rather than basking in financial freedom. However, there are ways to make the overall process easier to manage.

In this article, we dive into the intricacies of owning a rental property and guide you through top strategies to turn your dream into a reality.

The pros and cons of owning a rental property

Owning a rental property is a journey. While there are many thrilling moments, there are also a few learning curves. 

Let’s look at some of the pros and cons to get you started on this adventure.

Pros of owning a rental property

The upsides of owning a rental property include the following:

  • Monthly income: With a rental property, cash flows in every month. Over time, your property might just pay for itself, and you’ll still draw an income.
  • Appreciating value: As communities grow and develop, your property’s market value could see a significant rise.
  • Tax benefits: Region-specific tax deductions can be a game-changer. It’s possible you’ll earn deductions on property taxes, mortgage interest, and even some property expenses.
  • Investment diversification: While stocks are a good investment, the stock market can be volatile. Real estate is a different type of investment that can offer lasting value and help to balance your portfolio. Additionally, the property world, from city apartments and cozy suburban homes to bustling commercial spaces, is vast. Property investment is not just about diversifying beyond stocks and bonds but also exploring various avenues within the real estate landscape.

Cons of owning a rental property

While there is a lot to gain, there are also potential downsides you should be aware of before investing. Here are the main cons of owning a rental property:

  • Higher insurance costs: An ongoing cost, insurance is vital to protecting your investment. And to get full protection, you’ll likely need to pay more insurance for your rental property than you would for a traditional home. 

It’s also important to get the right insurance to avoid the risk of tenant rental damages not being covered. 

  • Maintenance costs: Unpredictable and varied, this recurring responsibility could be anything from a small leak to a major repair. It’s always best to prepare for the unexpected.
  • Vacancies: Empty rooms mean no rent. Maintaining occupancy can be a challenge in slower markets.
  • Addressing tenant complaints: A balance of diplomacy and firmness is key. Conversations can resolve many issues, but sometimes, standing by your policies is essential.
  • Declining economy or neighborhood: Shifts in local economies can influence property desirability and resale value.

Types of rental properties

There are many rental property options for you to choose from. As you step into property investment, understanding the subtle distinctions of each type can help guide your decisions.

1. Single-family homes

Single-family homes are standalone houses built to accommodate a single family. They offer a flexible choice of location, ranging from urban to suburban and even rural settings.

Pros:

  • Simplicity in management: With only one tenant or family to interact with, issues like lease renewals or property inspections are generally less complex.
  • Consistency: If you land a good, long-term tenant, you can enjoy a stable rental income without turnover headaches.
  • Suburban appeal: As city centers become busier and remote work becomes more common, many tenants are seeking the tranquility and space of suburban homes.

Cons:

  • Vacancy impact: If a single tenant moves out, your income stream halts until you find a new tenant.
  • Maintenance: From lawn mowing to roof repairs, you’re the sole handler of all upkeep.

2. Multifamily homes:

These properties, which include duplexes or quadplexes, offer a middle ground. They have more units than single-family homes but aren’t as large as apartment complexes. 

Pros:

  • Diversified income: Even if one unit is vacant, the others can still bring in rent.
  • Opportunity to live in one unit: You can choose to live in one unit to minimize your own expenses, while the rent from your tenants covers most of the upkeep costs and the monthly mortgage. 

Cons:

  • Management intensity: Juggling multiple tenants’ needs and potential conflicts requires a proactive approach. The intensity of this juggling act increases if you also live in one of the units.
  • Tenant turnover: More units can mean a higher turnover, increasing the costs and time you spend on property readiness.

3. Apartments

Apartments are large buildings with numerous individual rental units. They can range from average-sized mid-rises to massive high-rises.

Pros:

  • Economies of scale: With many units in one location, per-unit maintenance and renovations can be cheaper.
  • Amenities galore: Swimming pools, gyms, and community spaces can help attract and keep tenants.

Cons:

  • Big initial spend: The initial investment required can be significant.
  • Regulatory hurdles: Managing larger buildings often comes with stringent regulations, such as specific safety codes or accessibility requirements.

4. Condominiums

A condo, short for condominiums, is a group of individual units within a larger building where common areas are co-owned by all the unit owners.

Pros:

  • Maintenance ease: The homeowners association (HOA) typically manages common areas, exteriors, and amenities, reducing your to-do list.
  • Modern lures: Many condos, especially those in prime urban locations, are attractive due to their proximity to workplaces, entertainment hubs, and urban amenities.

Cons:

  • HOA limitations: There might be restrictions on renovations, rental caps, or even specific tenant criteria.
  • Additional fees: Regular HOA dues can strain your returns, especially if they unexpectedly increase.

Whether you’re seeking simplicity, a diversified income, or a blend of both, there’s a property type tailored to your investment palate. Dive in, assess your comfort and goals, and pave your path in the property market.

The costs (seen and unseen) of owning rental property

Considering a venture into the rental market is exciting. However, it’s crucial to understand the costs involved. 

Here’s a breakdown of expenses you may or may not have considered: 

  1. Property taxes: Location is more than just a selling point — it’s a tax determinant. Higher-end neighborhoods typically come with steeper property taxes.
  1. Mortgage: Most investors rely on mortgages to finance their properties. While monthly mortgage payments can be predictable, remember that interest rates fluctuate if you have a variable-rate loan. And when they climb, so do your costs.
  1. Insurance: Landlord insurance differs from regular home insurance since it covers not only property damage but also liability, loss of rental income, and sometimes even eviction costs. So, shop around to see the different options. Premiums vary based on location, property age, and even tenant demographics.
  1. Maintenance and repairs: Maintenance encompasses more than exterior upkeep; interiors are equally demanding. There’s plumbing, electrical, and general wear-and-tear. And while you might budget for regular maintenance, a surprise like a sudden roof replacement can make you wince.
  1. Advertising and marketing: Even the most attractive properties require effective advertising. If no one knows about the property, those rooms stay empty. Investing in effective advertising, whether through traditional media or creating online listings, keeps tenants knocking.
  1. Legal fees: From lease agreements and evictions to disputes, the legal realm of rentals is complex. And even if you hope to never see the inside of a courtroom, you’ll need some legal advice to navigate this journey.
  1. HOA fees: If your property is part of an HOA, there’s a fee that covers communal amenities, like pools, gyms, and landscaping. Each HOA has specific bylaws that you and your tenants must adhere to. Otherwise, there’ll be a penalty charge. 
  1. Unexpected costs: These are unforeseen expenses that can catch property owners off guard, like sudden pest infestations or basement floods. Consider keeping an emergency fund as a cushion for these “just-in-case” moments.


Before investing, account for all potential costs — not just the obvious monthly outflows. And be prepared for a few curveballs.

The biggest risks of owning rental property

Rental property ownership isn’t just about scouting locations and knowing the costs; it’s also about assessing risks. 

Here are some of the most significant challenges you should be aware of:

Tenants:

  • Unpredictable dynamics: Some tenants might skip paying their rent, violate the lease agreement, or even be challenging to communicate with.
  • Vacancy rates: Empty properties don’t just mean missed rents. They signify ongoing costs without any incoming revenue, and the search for new tenants isn’t always easy.

Economy:

  • Market fluctuations: Property values can swing, and sometimes not in a property owner’s favor. A downturn in the housing market can affect both rental income and resale values.
  • Recessions: An unstable economy can mean fewer tenants or reduced rental rates.

Property damage:

  • Without robust insurance, you might find yourself digging deep into your pockets for repair costs.

Knowledge is your best ally in the property ownership game. Fortunately, awareness of potential pitfalls can help you strategize and, ultimately, make informed decisions.

Is owning a rental property profitable?

Location is key when it comes to owning a rental property. Nail the right spot, and you could be looking at a steady stream of rent every month. And if that neighborhood starts to buzz? Your property’s value could skyrocket, giving you a nice financial cushion.

But here’s the real talk: profits aren’t a sure thing. The type of property, the market, and even your skills as a landlord play a huge role. Unexpected costs, bad tenants, or a market slump can all put a dent in those projected profits.

The bottom line is that a rental property can be a solid moneymaker. But it’s not as simple as just buying a place and watching the dollars roll in. It takes research, understanding the local scene, and some smart moves. Do it right, and that property could be a goldmine.

How to step into the rental property market

Follow these steps if you’re ready to get started as a property owner:

Calculate ROI

Have you ever bought a gadget for $100 and sold it for $110? That $10 profit means you’ve made a 10% return on your investment (ROI). 

While it’s a bit more complex with real estate, property ROI is rooted in the same concept. 

Here’s a basic formula: ROI = (Annual Rental Property Income – Annual Expenses) / Total Property Cost. 

While every property’s specifics differ, many real estate professionals believe a “good” ROI hovers at around 6% to 8%. And a “great” ROI? Anything above 10%. 

Why is this the case? Well, considering that the average stock market return is around 7%, a real estate investment that exceeds this can be a lucrative choice.

Consider your long-term goals

What’s driving you toward real estate investing? Perhaps your goal is to build a secure financial future. Or maybe it’s setting aside funds for your children’s education or branching out into diversified investments. 

Recognizing your motive will help guide your property choices.

Get your financing in order

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution in real estate financing. From going with traditional mortgages to federal-backed loans or even pooling resources with friends, it’s essential to understand and weigh your options.

Research the market

Knowledge is power. Dive into online platforms, your local news, or community development plans. 

Here’s another tip: Attend open houses. They offer a blend of firsthand experience and invaluable research.

Understand landlord-tenant law

Being a landlord isn’t just about collecting rent. Familiarize yourself with regional landlord-tenant laws. And remember, these laws can evolve, so staying updated is crucial. Consult local legal resources or even a lawyer to ensure you’re on the right track.

Decide on a management method

Managing your property on your own (with landlord software) can save money, but it’s also a time investment. Hiring a property manager might be more costly. But they can manage challenges and emergencies, granting you some well-deserved peace.

Build a support team

Real estate isn’t a one-person show. Assemble your team, which can include an accountant, a maintenance person or vendor, and possibly a mentor. Networking events can be your compass, leading you to the right people.

Owning a rental property isn’t merely a financial move; it’s charting a course for your future. Equip yourself with the right tools and insights to succeed.