The Remote Landlord: How I Live Overseas & Still Manage My U.S. Rentals

by | BiggerPockets.com

The world is flat.

At least Thomas Friedman made a great case for it in his book by the same name.

You can live and work from anywhere in today’s digitized, interconnected world. My business is 100 percent remote—we have people in Pennsylvania, Pakistan, Texas, and Abu Dhabi (the latter is me!).

And as a landlord, the old geographic ties binding you to your rental properties have broken. It’s easier than ever to manage your rental properties remotely without sacrificing on returns.

Here’s how I live overseas, while managing rental properties in Baltimore.

First Things First: You Don’t Need a Property Manager

Don’t get me wrong, property managers have their uses. In fact, I use one for my lower-end rental properties, that come with greater aggravations.

But they’re expensive. Don’t kid yourself into thinking they only cost the 8% that they advertise; most property managers also charge leasing fees (often a full month’s rent), and some less-scrupulous managers find all sorts of nickel-and-dime-you-to-death fees to slip into the contract.

I had a terrible property manager a few years back, who charged for every visit to the property, every service call to a contractor, every lease renewal. They even charged for vacancies, removing the incentive to keep the property occupied. All on top of 8% rent collection fee and a one-month leasing fee.

If you use a property manager currently, double check exactly what fees they charge. I wouldn’t use anyone who charges fees beyond ongoing rent collection and new tenant leasing fees.

In fact, you should consider saving yourself the 10-15% that property managers end up costing once you include leasing fees, and manage the properties yourself.

The Local Help that You DO Need

While you may not need a full-service property manager, you still need some local help. Some boots on the ground. We live in a physical world, and you’re leasing a physical location.



Related: Why It’s About to Become a LOT Easier to Invest From Afar in the Next 5-10 Years

Here are the three types of local support personnel you need:

1.A Leasing Representative

Someone needs to show vacant properties for you. Sure, you could use a smart lock and allow prospects in to view vacant properties for themselves.

But it’s poor marketing and sales. A bad user experience, if you will.

So, you need someone to show vacant properties, someone personable who can bring a level of charm when showing the unit. This person could be a professional property manager, that you hire solely as a leasing agent to fill vacant properties. You’ll still end up paying them a month’s rent as a fee, but turnovers and vacancies are the most labor-intensive part of managing a rental. The headaches are worth outsourcing.

It doesn’t have to be a pro, though. It could be your niece, your friend’s little brother, a college student looking for some extra cash, a neighbor, even another tenant of yours.

There’s one other task your leasing rep needs to do for you: they need to do move-out and move-in walk-through inspections with outgoing and incoming tenants. When you negotiate the fee with your leasing rep, include these tasks in it.

2. An Eviction Representative

If you screen your tenants thoroughly and manage them well, you won’t need an eviction rep often, if at all.

But you still need one on standby, just in case.

An eviction rep will serve eviction notices on badly-behaved tenants and appear on your behalf at eviction hearings. In most metropolitan markets and many non-metro areas, you should be able to find eviction services ready and able to take these headaches on for you.

3. Contractors of All Skill Levels & Specialties

The other people you need available locally are contractors.

You need specialist contractors who work with HVAC, plumbing, electrical, roofs, basements, and so on. Even more importantly, you need a couple cheap, versatile handymen, who can quickly and affordably tackle all the little problems that pop up. Leaking S-bends, worn-out toilet flanges, repainting—you know the drill.

Ideally, you want to build relationships with these contractors over time. My primary contractor is extremely versatile, and he has keys to my properties.

With a single phone call, you can mobilize your contractors and resolve the problem.

Communication

Speaking of phone calls, you’ll also need ways of communicating with tenants, leasing reps, contractors, and so on. This can be especially tricky if you live overseas.

Anonymous Phone Number

I don’t like to give tenants my personal cell phone number.

Instead, I use an anonymous number from Google Voice. That phone number is then routed to my Skype account. It’s worth mentioning that you don’t have to make this as complicated as I did—you can just buy an anonymous Skype phone number directly rather than going through Google Voice. (I wanted to preserve an old phone number, hence the extra step of Google Voice.)

Tenants call me, and it rings on my Skype, both on my laptop and on my phone. Their caller ID still appears, and I know who’s calling, but I don’t have to give them my personal cell phone number.

Skype

Living overseas, I need a cheap way to call the U.S. After all, my business is in the U.S., and all of my family lives there.

Fortunately, Skype offers an unlimited calling plan, for people living overseas to call the U.S. I pay around $6/month for it.

But Skype also offers anonymous U.S. phone numbers, for you to give out to tenants.

Related: The Core 4 Members Vital to a Profitable Long-Distance Real Estate Investing Team

Our online landlord app is actually preparing to launch an anonymous phone line service for landlords that automatically tracks and records all phone calls and voicemails for later reference.

Anonymous Email

I also don’t like to give tenants my personal email or my work email.

Instead, spend two minutes creating a free email and setting up forwarding to your primary email.

As a side benefit, all tenant email exchanges will be centrally located on that one email account, for easy reference.

Private Mailbox

I’ve had tenants show up at my door at 9:00 at night before—when I had a date over, three-quarters of the way through a bottle of wine.

You don’t want that.

Spend a few bucks on a P.O. box or a private mail service. They can sign for packages and either forward mail to you or open and scan it for you to access online.

I use St. Brendan’s Isle out of Florida and have been mostly happy with them.

millennial-rent

Online Property Management Automation

So, you have your boots on the ground and you have your communication channels in place. What about automated property management?

Online Rental Listings

This one is easy. You list your properties for rent online through a service that syndicates it to several popular platforms.

The only tricky thing is photos since you can’t just pop by the property to take photos yourself. Make sure you have a good set of photos of each rental unit, either vacant or staged, that you can post in future rental listings.

In a worst-case scenario, your leasing rep can take fresh photos for you, or you can hire a professional real estate photographer.

Rental Application & Tenant Screening Reports

Another easy one.

All you have to do is enter the applicant’s name and email address, select which reports you want, and select who should be charged for them. Obviously, our online landlord app offers this, but there are other services that offer it too.

The applicant gets an email alert, they fill out their information, and you get everything delivered to your email inbox. Easy peasy.

Lease with Digital Signature

In good online landlord automation platforms, once you select an applicant you like, it automatically imports their information into a lease for you. Ideally, you then click a button to digitally sign it, and the tenant can do the same.

But even if you use an old-school Word lease, you can still use third-party digital signature services. No ink or snail mail required.

Automated Rent Collection

I never want to hear the line “check’s in the mail” again.

What I want is for my rent to just show up in my bank account every month, which, fortunately, is also extremely easy.

Take five minutes to set up online rent collection, whether through our landlord app or another service of your choice. Then you never have to worry about paper checks, cash, deposits, or any other 20th Century rent headaches again.

As a bonus, good online rent collection systems also have integrating accounting, for instant income and expense reports, and instant Schedule E tax reports.

Financial Accounts

If you want to live overseas like I do, you’ll also need to a way to access money easily.

You’ll need:

  1. A U.S. bank account to receive rents electronically (as outlined above)
  2. A (hopefully free) bill pay service with that account, for the rare instance when you need to send a paper check
  3. A linked credit card, with no foreign transaction fees
  4. A way to transfer money cheaply overseas

For the latter, try TransferWise or OFX.

You may also want a linked brokerage account, that you can easily move money back and forth from your checking accounts.

After all, you may want to invest in more than just real estate!

Flat… and Shrinking

The world is flat, but it’s also shrinking.

Increasingly, real estate investors are spreading beyond their own market, to invest in out-of-state or overseas markets. According to one study from Redfin, the percentage of sight-unseen real estate purchases leapt from 19% in mid-2016 to nearly double that rate, 35%, only 16 months later.

Real estate investors and landlords are no longer tethered to their home cities. Start working towards financial independence, and you can truly live and manage your rental properties from anywhere in the world.

And send me a message at any time. I’m happy to share what it’s like being an overseas landlord!

Do you own any long-distance rental properties? What have you done to successfully manage them from afar?

Comment below!

About Author

G. Brian Davis

G. Brian Davis is a landlord, personal finance expert, and financial independence/retire early (FIRE) enthusiast whose mission is to help everyday people create enough rental income to cover their living expenses. Through his company at SparkRental.com, he offers free rental tools such as a rental income calculator, free landlord software (including a free online rental application and tenant screening), and free masterclasses on rental investing and passive income. He’s been obsessed with early retirement since the early 2000s (before it was “a thing”). Besides owning dozens of properties over nearly two decades, Brian has written as a real estate and personal finance expert for publishers including Money Crashers, RETipster, Think Save Retire, 1500 Days, Lending Home, Coach Carson, and countless others.

24 Comments

  1. Mike McKinzie

    Brian
    You are correct in that it is possible to be a “remote investor.” And you are correct in that many Property Managers OVERCHARGE for so many things. That is why I have fired NINE PM’s in the last 10 years. But then again, I do own rentals in 8 different markets in the US. You can always negotiate the rental fee. I have one company, who manage 7 rentals, who do it for a flat fee of $50.00 per month, no overcharge for repair calls and a flat $100.00 for filling a vacancy. Are they successful? They are currently managing over 3,000 doors so I would say YES, they are very successful. Any PM who charges a fee on top of a repair bill or who charges more than 50% of a months rent to lease or charges to do a drive by does NOT have the investor’s return as their number one priority. The monthly fee, no matter what it is, should cover collecting rent, disbursing funds, making repair calls/orders/payments, doing a quarterly drive by for inspection and one annual interior inspection. If any property takes more than 15 minutes per month to manage, then the PM has poor systems in place (I ran a PM for five years, BEFORE cell phones, the internet and computers and managed 100 units by myself using hand written ledgers). Next, I do not want to work, I didn’t “BUY A JOB”. So even remotely managing my units is work. I look at it this way, “If I die today, will my heirs be in trouble or will the cash still flow?” For me, nothing changes, financially, if I am removed from the equation. It does make vacations very nice indeed! So, I agree that remote ownership of investment real estate is not only possible, but also very profitable. Just make sure your local “boots on the ground” have YOUR best interest at heart.

  2. Christopher Smith

    My managers do everything for 8 percent and only on actual rent collected, no additional costs ever for anything else. I’ve even had others PMs bid as low as 5 percent. But I’ve developed a great relationship with my PMs, and 8 percent all inclusive is really fair and I doubt it can be done for less without cutting corners or asking for trouble.

  3. Chelsea Ross

    Great read. This is my end goal, so it’s always interesting to hear how others are doing it. Since I currently manage properties a few states away, I’ve implemented a number of these organically, but still some helpful tips.

    Thanks Brian

  4. Dapo Oduba

    Nice article as usual, Brian. Regarding your first point – using a leasing representative, I would suggest checking the state law before using an unlicensed person for showings. I know that in the state of Texas, only a licensed person may show a property for a fee. Anybody may do the showing as long as there is no fee or expectation of a fee involved. The Texas Real Estate Commission (TREC) may come after an unlicensed person who shows a property for a fee. I suspect other states may have a similar rule.

      • Bob Ebaugh

        We have similar laws in Florida. But still manage 15 doors while out of the country. We use a virtual assistant to open doors for prospective tenants, give them a list of common questions and answers to hand out, but are available by phone for any additional questions, We prepare all leases, review by phone with the tenants. The virtual assistant is there to take deposits and put them in the bank for us.

        Is this sufficient to pass state scrutiny? I think so, especially since we only handle our personally owned properties.

        This approach, at $35 an hour for virtual assistant costs us maybe 1/4 of traditional PM. Our time savings are pretty small, but it does successfully remove the geographic shackles.

  5. Tomer Versano

    Thanks, Brian! I’m new in the investing game and live in NYC so looking to buy in a different state (looking in Florida). I manage over 100 people and 4 stores in my day job so managing is easy for me but was a bit concerned to manage my first property remotely. This definitely gives me hope!

  6. Kathy Castrigno

    We own properties in 3 different remote markets. Local vendors are key, We have found that a PM is able to get priority service from locals because they use them more often. IMO this is an added value to the monthly fee; Not to mention time zone differences when contacting anyone locally for access and follow up.
    If I tried to maintain connections with 3 Boots on the ground groups, well, that monthly fee keeps adding more value to me.
    Leasing rep needs to do more than open the door and wave the prospect from room to room. They need to size up the applicant based on appearance, language they use, and demeanor to determine if they will be reliable or a problem. Again, happy to pay 50% rent which include running back/credit checks. PM has incentive to place good tenants so their monthly fee keeps rolling in.
    Good PM’s are knowledgable of local ordinances (grass too tall, public right of way sidewalk not shoveled) and associated fines, some of which can end up as liens on your property if not paid because the city sent the bill to the tenant who promptly tossed it. They will keep an eye out for tree limbs endangering either the building or power line the utility company might bill you for if they decide it was taken out by your tree.
    Certainltly possible to fully self manage. Be prepared to spend considerable time with it. Only you know if that time is worth the savings you might realize.

Leave A Reply

Pair a profile with your post!

Create a Free Account

Or,


Log In Here