Landlord Diaries: Lessons from a Newbie Landlord
Landlord Diaries profiles different types of landlords, sharing their hard-won lessons learned along the way. In this article, first-time landlord Ryan breaks down the time and cost invested in his basement suite rental, and the surprising joy of being a landlord.
I became a landlord about a year ago, after buying my first property in the Hastings Sunrise area of East Vancouver. It’s a small World War II-era bungalow in an underrated neighborhood facing the water and the mountains. I’m guessing it’s underrated because it used to be (still is?) on the rough side: there were bars on the windows when we moved in.
There was no basement suite when we bought our house. We built one with the help of a good general contractor and a lot of after-work labor. We did the concrete leveling, insulation, flooring, painting, and tiling ourselves to save money (pro tip: insulation gets in your eyes and it burns—wear goggles).
We wanted to build a suite that would attract the kind of tenant we would identify with, so we didn’t cheap out. We put in a nice bathroom with herringbone tile in the shower and modern light fixtures, built custom wood shelves, and didn’t dumpster dive for appliances.
It paid off when we found tenants through Craigslist who loved the space, were around our age, and had some of the same interests. They’re awesome, and even help us with home improvement projects in their spare time.
It pays to invest in your rental suites. The return usually comes in the form of better tenants.
The first complaint
We thought we were nailing the homeowner thing until we got the first (polite) complaint: “Where should I lock my bike?”
The email from our tenant helpfully included links to a few Rona and Walmart bike storage options—all of which cost at least $400. Suddenly our rental income didn’t look so sweet. After ordering it, and spending an entire weekend setting it up (with the help of our tenant), it hit me that I now had a new part-time job: landlord.
When budgeting for property management, make room for the unexpected stuff beyond repairs and paint. Pendo’s expense reports can help with that.
The first maintenance call
After only a month, the washing machine broke—the one we just bought (albeit used). Two service visits and $250 later, all was right in the world. But I did lay awake that night and wonder, “What’s going to break next?”
If you’re not a very handy person, invest in warranties and service guarantees for things like appliances. Multiplied across several properties, coordinating repairs can be stressful and expensive.
The first awkward situation
I hired our tenant to paint the backyard fence. He was between jobs and had to look at our eyesore of a dilapidated fence every day. Progress was suddenly halted after a few weeks, with no update as to when the work would continue. I started to get frustrated, regretting mixing the landlord and employer role. Turns out he had started a new job with 12-hour shifts, coupled with a bunch of pre-planned weekend trips. Eventually the work got done, and I realized a quick phone call smooths out most awkward situations.
The landlord-tenant relationship can be complicated enough. Try to keep the relationship free of any other formal obligations.
1 awkward situation
When landlording is worth it
Being a landlord hasn’t been all work and awkward situations. It’s brought far more joy than headaches. Because of the mortgage helper, I’m able to be a flexible freelancer, working from home and spending time with my wife and newborn son.
And having great tenants means having a friend right in your house. We’ve supported each other through the death of pets and the birth of children, grown vegetables together, built fences (and messed up royally, but laughed about it in the end), and shared deep thoughts about life and work over beers.
We’ve found that it’s far more rewarding to think of tenants as partners, rather than just a side job with income and expenses. Managing a property is a responsibility with financial implications, but to a tenant, it’s not your “property”, it’s their home. Keeping those things in tension has helped bring balance to this whole landlording thing. It’s still a job, but a meaningful one.