Moving Up

Become a Landlord or List?

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It is rare that a person’s first home purchase is their “forever home” for a variety of reasons — from the cost of entering the market (especially in pricier markets like DC) to ever-evolving needs (as people marry, divorce, have children, grow older, etc.). When you make that decision that it’s time to find a new home, you also may have to decide if you want to keep your current home or find a new owner…and that can sometimes be an even tougher decision.

If you have paid off or down the mortgage on your first property, you may be in a position to buy your next home without selling (either your cash on hand and DTI ratio will allow or you may be able to apply some of the equity in your current home to help purchase your new home). When that’s the case, you are going to want to ask yourself a few key questions:

  • Do I want to be a landlord? If the answer is a definite “no,” proceed ahead talking with your agent about the best way to maximize your exit from your current property (considering timing and the three P’s). Similarly, if you live in a condo or coop that won’t allow you to rent out your unit (perhaps there is a blanket restriction or a limit on the percentage of units that can be rented), get ready to sell. However, if the answer is “maybe” or “yes,” proceed to the next question.

  • How will being a landlord impact my bottom line? If you have an outstanding mortgage, use that as the base for figuring out your break-even costs. Then take into account additional recurring costs, like condo and HOA fees, ongoing maintenance and paying a property manager (if applicable). Next, compare this to the going market rate for similar rental homes (have your agent gather comps for you and make a recommendation). If the carrying costs exceed or are close to your carrying costs, are you prepared to subsidize the difference to maintain ownership of the home? Also, don’t forget to keep in mind that your home will most likely not be rented 100% of the year and you will have costs to clean and prepare the home for the next tenant(s). Be conservative and calculate a 70-80% utilization if finances may be tight and re-run your numbers.

  • How will this impact my lifestyle? If you can’t afford to hire a property manager (or prefer not to), are you prepared to play that role, potentially getting late night calls when something goes wrong? If so, will you be local and be able to be hands on to ensure repairs are completed and handled in a timely manner? What if you run into larger issues with your tenant? For many people, this isn’t a bother at all. Thinking about how finances impact your lifestyle, if you will be running in the red to maintain ownership, don’t forget to consider how this will impact your purchasing power for your new home and your budget for daily living.

  • What are the potential long-term financial implications? Real estate is an investment and often the largest source of wealth for people. If you are more risk-adverse, real property can feel like a safe way of saving money (in fact, it is forced savings). However, if you prefer to play the stock market or identify other opportunities to invest, you may be able to put proceeds from a sale to a higher and better use. This is very personal consideration and there are no guarantees on returns in any investment, so engage your financial advisor to model out potential scenarios and choose what fits your risk profile and investment strategy. If you’ve dreamed of becoming a real estate mogul, this could just be the first step!

These are just a few of considerations I discuss with my clients during our one-on-one consultations. Being a real estate agent is about more than selling houses; it’s about helping people make their best housing and life decisions. There’s no singular best conclusion, but by enlisting the help of subject-matter experts — from your CPA and financial planner to a local Realtor — you can best discern the right path to your happiness at home.

And a shout out to Pearl and all the landlords out there…may you never have a tenant like this:

Amber Harris is the owner of At Home DC and a licensed real estate agent with Keller Williams Capital Properties working with clients in DC, Maryland and Virginia.