The Part-Time Investor’s Guide to Truly Passive Rental Income

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Working 9-5, but trying to build some extra income streams?

Rental properties are a classic income-producing investment and can help you reach your goals of financial independence. With enough investment income, you can quit your job and spend more time with your family, travel the world, volunteer, or go work a not-so-high-paying job you just like more.

But do rental properties create truly passive income?

Not every month. When you have a vacancy, it will probably take 10-20 hours of work to find a responsible new tenant. Then there are the maintenance problems, property emergencies, and repairs. Occasionally, you’ll have a nightmare tenant who takes you to court or decides they aren’t going to pay the rent anymore. It can leave you scrambling to create more time for your real estate investments while trying to balance all the other demands on your time.

Still, few investments can rival rental properties for predictable cash flow and return on investment. As a working professional with a full-time job, a family, a social life, and (hopefully) some hobbies, how can you earn some extra money from income properties without draining time from the rest of your life?

Related: Passive Investing: How to Have a True “4-Hour” Real Estate Workweek

In other words, how do you maximize the “passivity” of your rental portfolio?

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More Cash Flow Means More Options

Your march towards passive income starts before you ever buy a property. You must, must only invest in properties with truly strong cash flow.

Why? Because with good cash flow comes the option of hiring a property manager to handle all the headaches for you.

Advertising vacant units for rent? Done. Screening tenants? Done. Signing leases, collecting rents, handling repairs? All handled by someone else — but only if you can afford to pay them.

A $2,000/month rental with $200 cash flow is not going to cut it. Your entire cash flow would go to the property manager, leaving you with nothing to cover repair costs, accounting costs, vacancies, etc.

It will mean much more work invested up front, a more difficult hunt to find only properties with outstanding cash flow. Be sure to calculate estimated annual repair costs and CapEx, vacancy rates, property management fees, accounting fees, and other oft-overlooked costs. If the property still has good cash flow, then full steam ahead!

Avoid the Slums

Low-end housing means low-end tenants, and low-end tenants are more likely to be difficult, time-sucking tenants. They are less likely to pay the rent on time (if at all), making you chase them in court for it. And the way they’ll treat your property? Don’t count on kid gloves.

You may think that the cheap house that more than satisfies the 2% rule is a good find. But how about when it’s vacant four months out of the year? And what about the carpet replacement and new paint job required every single year, as tenant after apathetic tenant abuses your property and eventually has to be evicted?

Speaking of bad renters, just wait until you’re hoodwinked by your first professional tenants who just game the system.

Oh, and if you think anyone will laud your efforts to invest in affordable housing, think again. You’ll be vilified as a “slumlord.”

These are hard lessons I learned the hard way, after some starry-eyed mistakes in rough neighborhoods. Skip the slums and invest in middle-class housing if you want your rental income passive instead of passive-aggressive.

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Screen the Living Daylights Out of Tenants

How does passive income happen? It’s a byproduct of leasing to good tenants who pay their rent on time every month, rather than calling you every month to whine and moan.

Finding those tenants means getting extreme with your tenant screening. Credit reports and criminal background checks are just the start. You should also run eviction history reports, that include nationwide data. You should call up their employer, chat up their direct supervisor about what kind of employee they are, then transfer over to the HR department to confirm their exact income.

Related: The Truth About Passive Income: Is it Ever REALLY “Passive”?

Did they exaggerate their income? Don’t lease to them. If they lie about little things, you can’t trust them about the big things.

Walk through their home! You can be sure that how they treat their current home is how they’ll treat your investment property.

Good tenants will leave you free to work your 9-5 job in peace — no muss, no fuss, just truly passive income.

Lease Long-Term

Turnovers are where most of the work — and expenses — lie in managing rental properties. If you want more passive income, shoot for long-term leases.

Lease for two, even three years if you can. Sell the idea by telling new tenants that you typically raise rents by $25-75/month every year, but tell them you’re willing to lock in the current rent price for them.

And all the Airbnb buzz in the burgeoning vacation rental industry? Sure, you can theoretically earn more money in a given month — but at what cost to your time? From coordinating with vacationers to deep cleaning the unit between each tourist that comes through, it’s a lot more work. If you must go this route, hire a vacation rental manager to do the work for you. Just know that they will charge more than typical property managers because they do more work.

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Retention Is the Name of the Game

Remember a few paragraphs ago when we talked about turnovers creating massive work for you? Let’s talk a little more about that.

Keeping good tenants needs to be a priority if you want to keep your income passive. You can postpone the heavy work and expense of turnovers indefinitely by renewing leases with your best tenants.

Beyond avoiding the work of turnovers, new tenants mean new risk. No matter how well you screen your applicants, there’s always a risk they’ll turn out to be no good. But you already know that your current good tenants pay the rent on time and treat your property well.

Birthday and/or holiday cards are a good start and cost almost nothing. Keeping a note in your file about their children’s names, their job or their hobbies costs you about 30 seconds, but asking your tenant about them sends the message that you care and you think of them as people, not just check-writers.

Occasionally make property improvements — it will encourage your renters to stay, and when they eventually leave, it will continue paying for itself in attracting good tenants and higher rents. The cost of upgrades is even tax deductible, either immediately as a repair or depreciated as a capital improvement.

Passive income doesn’t happen on its own; it’s designed. It starts with which properties you buy and continues with how well you attract, secure, and retain excellent tenants. With a little strategy and a proactive approach, you can build an empire of income properties — all from the comfort of your full-time job.

Where have you found yourself tangled up spending time on your rentals? Have any tips to share for streamlining properties and maximizing passivity?

Share your stories, so someone else can learn from them!

About Author

Brian Davis

Brian is a real estate investor and landlord with 15 rental properties, who writes fascinating articles for SparkRental.com. His rental management is almost completely automated by now, allowing him to travel the world frequently (if not always in style).

14 Comments

  1. Chris Billington

    Great info! Love the hint to chat up the tenant’s supervisor – never thought of that! Also the leasing longer term focus. What do you think about pricing slightly under market to increase the applicant pool. I’m always shooting to rent as soon as possible to a stellar candidate (easier now in the hot Denver market).

    • Brian Davis

      Thanks Chris! I personally don’t like positioning my rentals as the “cheap” option in the neighborhood, I think you can attract better renters by positioning a rental as a higher-end option in the neighborhood. But ultimately it depends on some of the unchangeable aspects of your rental – if it genuinely is a lower-end layout or location in the neighborhood, then by all means compete on price.

    • Brian Davis

      As someone who owns some affordable housing in Baltimore City, I can say from firsthand experience that I’m always the “bad guy” in court, held to a much higher standard for evidence than my tenants. My rentals are much, much nicer than most in the area, but that doesn’t matter when you’re arguing in front of a judge and the tenant is trying to thread a loophole or game the system. Of course, not every market is as tenant-friendly as Baltimore, and not every tenant population is as antagonistic. I would urge rental investors to invest in those sorts of markets, not aggressively anti-landlord markets like where I cut my teeth.

  2. Mark Douglas

    Great advice Brian! One question, you mentioned walking through the prospective tenant’s current residence..? Do you ask them if you can look at the place they’re living in..? If so, is that for every applicant or just the ones you feel have a good shot on paper, before going to their home..?

    • Brian Davis

      Thanks Mark!
      I only physically walk through the homes of applicants who otherwise check out. It’s the last thing I do, when screening tenants. In fact, I usually drop by on the pretext of dropping off a copy of the lease to go over with them.

  3. Matthew Ward

    Great article! I’m new to researching being a landlord and plan to be purchasing my first property within two years. I’ve heard so many horror stories from friends and family that have rental properties, but most of them have them by default. I always thought proper screening is one of the keys to not having most of the headaches they have. These little tips you speak of will surely help me in the future. Thank you

    • Brian Davis

      Thanks Matthew, and you’re right on the money when you draw the distinction between accidental landlords vs. intentional, strategic rental investors. Good things don’t usually happen by accident, they happen based on intentionally creating a specific outcome.
      Talk to as many grizzled veterans in your area as you can, find a mentor or a senior partner for your first couple deals, and don’t be afraid to jump in and start earning some rental income!

  4. Matt Schuberg

    Great article Brian. I agree that everyone should work on making their income as passive as possible. This gives them more freedom and potential for scale.

    I think investors should also consider other passive real estate investments, such as turnkey properties, syndication, or crowdfunding. These all have their unique advantages, depending on what the investor is looking for. Thanks for the post!

  5. It’s incredible how few people think about renting. We all have something to rent, from some equipment to real estates. We can make these work for us and generate money without us moving a single finger. It’s that simple. I couldn’t say it any better: More Cash Flow Means More Options.

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