What if you're not handy???

28 Replies

So, something has always bugged me a little bit reading these forums and blog posts. If someone is self managing a few MFH, why does everyone seem to feel they have to run over at 3am to deal with a clogged toilet? What if you're just not handy and/or don't particularly care to be on call in that way? Aren't there emergency plumbers or handymen who can be hired for quick urgent jobs? Tell me about your solutions that are midway between full on property management and being chief cook and bottle washer for your tenants every whim?

Also, is there a point where it's up to the tenants to solve their own problems and how do you draw that line--eg if there's noise or loud music in the neighborhood or other quality of life issues that don't apply to the physical integrity and function of the property. When do you say, "I'm sorry you're going through that; let me know how it works out of if you need additional ideas." or "let me put you in touch with a good handyman."

I feel like the choice between full PM and self management is painted in drastic black and white terms. Surely there's a middle ground?

Tell me your stories!

@Michael Healy

We self-manage and do not run over in the middle of the night to unplug plumbing.  We have a list of "approved" service providers (plumbers, locksmiths, etc) which we provide each tenant on move-in (there is also a copy affixed to the inside of a kitchen cabinet door).   If a toilet is clogged at 3-am, they can call the plumber.  If the tenant is responsible for the obstruction, the tenant will get the bill.

It's all spelled out in our "house rules" which we review with the tenant at the time the lease is signed.

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If one of the tenants is handy, then they can be the building/complex manager and handle those 3am clogged toilets for you. They can be compensated with a discount on rent, or however is agreeable to both of you. This would be a middle ground option between full PM and you doing everything yourself.

Hey @Michael Healy

There is a middle ground between all this stuff, for instances, tenants I have will handle anything that are minor fixes, but if it sounds to be even beyond my capability, then a professional is sent out. If a property manager sits waiting to go handle every single issue, then there will be this self entitlement mentality, and the tenants will call for every little thing; or if the tenants come into the rental thinking that we will do everything for them on a beckoning call, then there is some training that needs to be done. 

Thanks,@Tom V. I definitely hope to find such a tenant. Other than the fact that I live two hours away from my properties, the least helpful place you want me if your bathroom is clogged at 3am is there trying to do something about it myself. Though I do know how to operate a snake and have done so on many occasions...

@Michael Healy I am not a handyman at all.  I can't fix much of anything and personally really don't care to learn.  So I have built a system where I have a contractor and electrician on call basically anytime.  But there is a big difference between not doing the work and what to look for. For instance I can walk a property and I can have a good idea what the issues are in the house and how much they would cost.  I think the important thing is to ask your contractors questions so you have enough knowledge to understand what is going on. Also from a tenant perspective you need to make sure you have everything in your lease and you enforce your lease.  

There is a middle ground of course. It comes from experience more than anything else. It is also very much about training tenants. Training tenants is the primary responsibility of a landlord and designed to make a landlords life easier.

I would never allow a tenant to do service work nor would I ever allow a tenant to call a repair tech directly. The risk of abuse by tenants is far to high to ever allow any tenant those discretionary powers.

It is rare you get calls that require immediate responses aside from giving  advice over the phone. Repair techs are rarely available the same day so in most cases it is a situation where either you or a tech will be out the next day. It is no different than being a home owner and having issues.

Imagine yourself in the position of being a home owner and requiring repair work to be done. You do not call and expect a service person there immediately. The exceptions would be issues such as heat in the winter. These types of issues usually have 24 hr service but still require some time to respond.

As a self managing landlord you can opt for fully hands on, having a call list of reliable repair techs to call or a combination but the majority will still be next day service at best. You will learn that it is extremely rare that any issue requires immediate attention.

You could also try to negotiate a "a la carte" deal with a PM company, where they only handle the maintenance calls and you still handle everything else. Not sure if a PM company would be willing to do that, but might be worth asking.

The standard is common sense based on how a home owner would respond. Would a home owner call a plumber at 3AM for emergency service to unplug a toilet? No, they would temporarily just use a near by gas station, neighbors house, sink or just go behind the shed. Then they would call someone on a non-emergency basis the next morning. 

I do not let tenants call repair people directly because the amount of unnecessary work that could be done can be costly. 

To answer your question, I would prefer to hire more work done but it is near impossible to find handymen that will respond quickly for me as a small landlord. I can hire plumbers that get there quickly but they will charge through the nose. I had a situation recently where a stand-up shower was leaking water where the drain meets the tub. Two different plumbers looked at it and told me the entire shower needed to be pulled to install a new drain piece. I did a google search and found a repair piece that could be installed from the top. I ordered it on Amazon for $20 and it took me one hour to install and it works great. I saved over $1000. I tried to get the plumbers to install the top repair piece, but they refused to. They even seemed annoyed I would suggest it. Bottom line is they don't want to waste time on a $100 repair. That is why I am stuck doing some stuff myself.

Two key points:

- Set the right expectation on urgency of repairs and respond according to severity.

- Always interface between the tenant and the repair person to monitor work being done.

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Originally posted by @Michael Healy :

Thanks so much Roy N. !! Would you pm me and would you mind sharing the basic outline of your house rules? Awesome stuff

As others have outlined here, the 3am plumber is an extreme example outside the norm experience.  At 03:00, our plumber is probably not going to answer the phone ;-). 

Training your tenants on what is expected from them; what is permitted; and what is absolutely out of bounds is by far and large one of the most important things you can do.  Greg and several others have driven that message home.

In your 3am plumbing example, our tenants guide makes it clean that they are only to call a service provider in an urgent situation if they cannot get ahold of us or, depending on the building, the superintendent.  If the matter were simply a clogged toilet, the common sense response would be to clean-up the mess (maybe put a sign on the toilet) and call either us or the plumber in the morning.  The tenants guide and house rules also make it clear the tenant would be responsible for this type of call ... unless it could be demonstrated there is an infrastructure failure.

Contrary to some practices given here, we do not forbid our tenants from calling our service providers directly - as mention in my original post, we provide them a list (and a call tree).  We have made previous arrangements with our service providers for just this purpose.   The Service Providers are very good a performing triage over the phone (i.e. clean-up the mess, turn the water off to the toilet and we'll see you in the morning) and knowing when the tenant will be responsible for the cost of the visit versus the landlord.   In the end, we would rather have someone called pre-maturely than a potentially damaging (i.e. overflowing toilet) situation persist.

I self-managed from about 3 1/2 hours away for years, but I had good systems in place and a retired tenant who could always be there for any repairs or maintenance.  I never let her call repairmen herself as that would create way too much room for abuse.  And I did have issues when her daughter would try to fix things herself rather then call.  I had to stress to the tenant that she would be charged for fixing any "repairs" her daughter did.    I've had tenants, though, who you couldn't walk through turning off the water to a toilet or how to check the breaker box without actually being there to show them.  So it depends on the tenant and the systems you have in place.  

As far as the noise issues, I tell them to call the police.  But I have had situations where it's so bad that I've had to step in and find the other owners and contact them directly as the property manager for the unit next to mine was awful and let anything go on.  I actually let the tenants out of their lease early on that one as no amount of calls to the police were solving the problem.    

Thanks all. This just seems like common sense and I'm glad I'm not missing something.

My first ever tenant called me a lot to ask things like if I could get a replacement rod for one of the blinds and I was like "$1.99 at Home Depot--feel free to deduct from next months rent. " She also called me about light bulbs. A little training and she never called again and has been a model tenant ever since.

When you get a new tenant you will learn quickly whether you need to run them through puppy training school or that they have already been well trained by their previous landlords. You must always do some training to get them familiar with your system but that is part of the business.

The worst tenants to get are either moving straight from mommy and daddies nest or have been allowed to run wild by previous landlords. Bad landlords result in the worst type of tenants. They either never inforce rules or they molly coddle the tenant fulfilling their ever whim to keep them happy. Those tenants develop a scenes of entitlement and some times the only recourse sadly is to have them put down.

Everyone here has great advice. Make sure your tenants understand their rights and obligations as stipulated on the contract.

Each of my rental units has fridge magnets with the contact information of my plumber, pest control guy, and electrician on it for the tenants to contact directly. I negotiated standard fees with them in advance for service, and both my tenants and my contractors know what constitutes an emergency and what doesn't. They just send me the invoice for any job under $150 once they're done.

Does it cost me a bit more money? Maybe, but I doubt it's more than $50 or so a month, which is certainly worth reducing that hassle in my life.

Okay, I can't help myself.

Can we stop using the word "trained"?  It makes me cringe.  There's teaching and setting boundaries - but would you like to hear that someone "trained" you?  Other than the obvious training?  It's so patronizing, and sounds kind of manipulative and arrogant.

Whereas, words like "teaching" or "setting boundaries" can still keep a modicum of respect about them, at least.

Not to say we won't ever think of someone as stupid or unteachable lol.  But, they're not dogs or serfs.

I just told tenants if they can't reach me ever, to call 911.  As a tenant before I became a manager, I once had an overflowing bathtub situation that I couldn't manage - broken pipe and water wouldn't stop pouring out of the wall.  Nothing from after-hours maintenance, so I called 911.  The fire department actually dealt with getting the water off, and they even used their flood pumps to pump the water out of my apartment.  I hope they sent a huge bill to that landlord (management company from hell).

I learned over the years to just turn the ringer off on my phone overnight.  The world will still be there tomorrow.  The freaking out tenant and whatever happened can be resolved after I get my shut-eye.

And the only housewarming gift I strongly suggest you give your tenants, is a new toilet plunger you leave by the toilets.

Originally posted by @Michael Healy :

My first ever tenant called me a lot to ask things like if I could get a replacement rod for one of the blinds and I was like "$1.99 at Home Depot--feel free to deduct from next months rent. " She also called me about light bulbs. A little training and she never called again and has been a model tenant ever since.

I would strongly recommend not doing that again. If you give your tenant authority to deduct items from their rent you will very likely get taken advantage of. If the rod was there when they moved in then it is their expense for breaking/losing it. If not, and you decide to let them do things, charge them the full rent and then send them a check for the cost after they provide a receipt. You should never negotiate your rent payment. Rent is rent at all times. Anything not rent is a separate issue.

It also seems like there is a gap between what you are calling property management and being a handyman. I've met very few property managers who actually do work. They have people they call and they go do the work. That is management. I self-manage a property close to 2 hours away. Prior to having people in place, I had it "professionally" managed. If you don't have your own teams, you should hire someone that does. If you do, then it isn't hard to be the one to call them instead of a professional manager.

Best of luck and happy investing!

Originally posted by @Sue K. :

Can we stop using the word "trained"?  It makes me cringe.  There's teaching and setting boundaries - but would you like to hear that someone "trained" you?  Other than the obvious training?  It's so patronizing, and sounds kind of manipulative and arrogant.

Whereas, words like "teaching" or "setting boundaries" can still keep a modicum of respect about them, at least.

Trained is an appropriate word. The relationship with a tenant is very similar to the employer/employee relationship. When you hire a new employee, you train them on their duties. If they are not trained properly they will likely not meet expectations. Training is not a bad word, arrogant, or any of that. I think you are adding in connotation that does not belong.

We've all heard that phrase "don't call me at 3AM unless the house is on fire"

Why would a landlord want a 3AM phone call to hear that their house is on fire? I don't know about you guys but I don't own a firetruck so I wouldn't be much help. 

The only thing that requires a 3AM phone call is an emergency and that is what 911 is for. The only thing that shouldn't wait till morning is water leaks but so long as the tenants know where the shutoff valve is that should not be an issue either. Everything else can wait until the morning.