For the sake of keeping this post short and sweet, we’re going to skip the big, complex explanation about what capital expenditures (CapEx) are as opposed to operational expenditures (OpEx), as you can Google that info.
Instead, let’s get straight to the meat. You’ve got yourself a new-to-you rental, but you’re looking at a home built right after WWII where you have no idea what its 17 prior owners replaced or when. How do you know what will need to be replaced today, what can wait a year or three, and what can wait five or more years?
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CapEx Items (Nearly) Every Rental Will Have
To answer that question, we need to lay out a list of CapEx items common to (almost) all rentals. There’s absolutely no single rubric that will simultaneously encompass all of these, so we’re going to have to break them down one by one. We’ll do so by telling you when you are in definitely-replace-now territory, when you should call an expert to take a look at the situation, and when you can sit on it for at least a few years without a disaster likely. We’re going to cover the following:
- Sheathing (siding, brick, etc.)
- Driveway, sidewalks, patios, etc.
- Water heater
- Wiring/electrical panel
- Doors, trim
When to Replace a Rental’s Roof
- Replace immediately if: you can see more than a few quarter-sized holes of sunlight through the roof as you stand in the attic, there are 20 percent or more cracked or warped shingles on the roof, the valleys of the roof (where major runoff gathers) show significant damage, or the entire roof is sagging.
- Call maintenance if: there are any holes with visible sunlight coming through, 20 percent or more of shingles are curling, cupping, or clawing, you have any noticeably missing shingles, your chimney flashing is not metal, you are finding roof debris (be it shingle granules, tile powder/fragments, or anything else) in the gutter.
- You’ve got time if: you have moss or algae gathering visibly on the shingles or if only a few shingles are cracked or warped.
When to Replace a Rental’s Sheathing
- Replace immediately if: the siding is visibly sagging or cracked, has any visible holes in it, or poking under any warped or loose pieces reveals that the material underneath is no longer firm; a long vertical crack reaching across 4 or more layers of brick, or more than a couple of bricks are badly flaking or soft to the touch.
- Call maintenance if: the siding is bubbling, a few pieces are cracked, or the wallpaper or paint on the inside of the exterior wall is peeling or coming loose (might mean moisture inside the wall); the bricks have visible or tangible salt deposits more than 3′ off the ground.
- You’ve got time if: your siding is fading or a few pieces are cracked or warped, but not enough to easily fit a piece of paper into/underneath; the bricks are discolored or have insects congregating on them (even en mass) but not getting inside.
When to Replace a Rental’s Driveway, Sidewalks, and/or Patios
- Replace immediately if: the cracks in the cement are more than 1/4″ wide or 3″ deep, the cement has already been patched and is 25 (asphalt) or 30 (concrete/pavers) years old, the cement has already been patched but is cracking again in the same places.
- Call maintenance if: cracks are less than 1/4″ wide and less than 3″ deep, but are more than 2′ long in any straight-ish line, or are extensive in any 2′-square area, the cement is meaningfully impacting the rentability of the home. (Having someone resurface it is much less expensive and less ugly than a full replacement!)
- You’ve got time if: cracks are minor, there’s grass growing between slabs.
When to Replace a Rental’s HVAC System
- Replace immediately if: it’s not working!
- Call maintenance if: your tenant’s heating/cooling bills are going up month by month, your home has humidity problems when the system is active, or the system blows dust every time it comes on.
- You’ve got time if: some room are hotter or colder than others or the system is noisy.
When to Replace a Rental’s Water Heater
- Replace immediately if: the water coming out of the faucets is below 100 degrees or there is water leaking around the base of the tank.
- Call maintenance if: you hear sizzling or hissing noises during normal operation, the water coming out of the most distant faucet is below 110 degrees (assuming the water heater is set to 120), the pressure-relief valve is leaking, or the water heater is more than a dozen years old.
- You’ve got time if: leaky water supply pipes can be fixed by tightening them yourself or the water isn’t as hot as the tenant might prefer but is still coming out of the most distant faucet at 100 degrees or more.
When to Replace a Rental’s Plumbing
- Replace immediately if: you have lead, polybutylene, or galvanized steel pipes; the line connecting the house to the sewer is damaged (incoming or outgoing).
- Call maintenance if: the water meter shows flow even when all water inside the house is shut off, you have red or yellow-tinted water coming out of your faucets, you have sediment in the bottom of the shower/sink after running the water for a while, visible pipes have signs of corrosion or are sagging, or you have brass or older PVC pipes.
- You’ve got time if: None of the above applies.
When to Replace a Rental’s Countertops
- Replace immediately if: they have deep cracks, pitted areas, divots (for which you don’t have the relevant chip) in stone, or large chips in Formica.
- Call maintenance if: you have scuffs, very fine cracks, small scratches, or divots with intact, or glue-able chips in stone.
- You’ve got time if: your countertops are intact.
When to Replace a Rental’s Wiring/Electrical Panel
- Replace immediately if: one or more outlets (or breaker switches) are turning brown and/or are warm to the touch, a burning smell occurs every time you use a certain outlet, circuit breakers flip within minutes of being switched “on,” or the wiring is aluminum or is more than 40 years old.
- Call maintenance if: a light is flickering even after the bulb has been replaced, a circuit breaker is flipping irregularly when the circuit is clearly not overloaded, you lack GFCI outlets in the kitchen and bathroom.
- You’ve got time if: you have only 2-prong outlets in most of the home.
When to Replace a Rental’s Cabinetry
- Replace immediately if: the cabinetry cannot hold the weight of a 16-person set of dishes and glasses, the wood/particleboard is warped badly enough (after drying) that glasses can’t stand straight, the veneer over the particleboard/plywood has large missing patches.
- Call maintenance if: the wood/particleboard is bulging or warped and still wet; the fixtures are loose or ugly; or the cabinets are scratched, marred, or otherwise ugly in a fashion that can be solved with a refinish.
- You’ve got time if: the doors won’t quite close or the cabinets look out of place but aren’t obviously damaged.
When to Replace a Rental’s Flooring
- Replace immediately if: there’s a problem with the subflooring; the flooring is ugly enough to drive tenants away; hardwood is cracked or deeply scratched; tile is shattered; or linoleum, vinyl, or carpet has cuts large stick your finger in or flaps you can pull up with your fingers.
- Call maintenance if: there are large stains; hardwood is scuffed; tile has cracks large enough to let water in; vinyl, linoleum, or carpet has cuts large enough to collect grime; or the transition pieces are missing, broken, or are a tripping hazard.
- You’ve got time if: tile has fine cracks that won’t let in water; vinyl, linoleum, or carpet has small cuts that are hard to notice; or transition pieces have stuff collecting underneath them.
When to Replace a Rental’s Doors and/or Trim
- Replace immediately if: trim is rotting or moldy, trim is badly cracked or broken, or door won’t latch.
- Call maintenance if: trim is cracked (but not enough to fit a piece of paper in), trim or door is warped enough to feel air flow under/around doors/windows, door is hanging off-level but still closes and latches.
- You’ve got time if: trim is ugly or doesn’t match the décor or door is hard to latch.
When to Replace a Rental’s Appliances
- Replace immediately if: appliances aren’t working or appliances work but smell strongly of ozone and/or burning.
- Call maintenance if: appliances are making unusual noises, vibrating excessively during use, or are performing inefficiently but effectively; or appliances work but smell off during functioning.
- You’ve got time if: appliances are less than the age given on the chart below.
The Appliance Age-to-Repair Chart
- Gas Range, Gas Oven: 25 years
- Boiler, Freezer (Single-Purpose), Electric Range, Electric Oven, Gas Dryer, Fridge: 20 years
- Dishwasher, Washing Machine, Electric Dryer, Mini-Fridge, Garbage Disposal: 15 years
- Window A/C Unit, Microwave, Trash Compactor, Range Hood: 10 years
Stick with these guidelines, and you can keep your CapEx expenses to a minimum while also minimizing your chance of having to spend even more on an emergency replacement to keep your rental livable according to legal standards.
What has been your experience with replacing CapEx items in your rentals? Any nightmare situations that have occurred due to waiting too long?
Let me know with a comment!