Friday, December 11, 2009

Bob Vila Needs to Make More Than the Mortgage

Lori and I have entered a new phase of owning a home: we have rented it out. Lori began vet school this month, so we needed to relocate to Massachusetts). Rather than sell the home and buy a new one (or not), we rented the house and are renting a condo near school.

We ended up using a property management company. I spent almost two months in DC trying to rent the house myself and eventually gave up. Given the work that the management company did on the house, it is possible that we could have rented it ourselves. But the quality of applicants I screened on my own wasn't good. What I've been told (and my experience bears it out) is that financially problematic tenants look for owner-landlords, thinking they won't be strict on financial criteria and/or won't do their homework. I did my homework, and what I saw was not pretty.

This is my game theory rationale for why a management company can pull better tenants. The agency cost is born by the landlord, who pays as much as first months rent in finders fees. The tenant pays nothing. High quality landlords and tenants are trying to find each other (or rather, if you are a high quality landlord, you want a high quality tenant, and vice versa). The agency cost acts as a selection signal - that is, if I am willing to burn my first month's rent on agency costs, I must believe that I will be able to sustain a high quality tenant in the long term, because my house isn't falling apart. High quality tenants know I am serious from this.

Since the finder's fee is real money, it's not a signal that can be faked easily by a landlord with a problematic house. But...why should the landlord pay the fee and not the tenant?

My answer is: asymmetric risk. As a tenant in a blue state, my landlord can't do much to me. His business is heavily regulated, the courts are sympathetic, and best of all, since he's sitting on property, he's a sitting duck for lawsuits. (That is, if he won't pay, I can get a judge to put his lien on his house.) I didn't realize how much leverage tenants had until I read the law as a landlord.

The landlord, however, is not in a great position. Give me a bottle of scotch and let me loose in your bathtub, and I can do damages to your house that will cost a full year's rent to repair. Against damage to an insanely expensive asset, a landlord has a few thousand dollars security deposit. And in terms of practical collections on damages, the tenant can skip town.

So it doesn't surprise me that the landlord pays for agency. It's worth a lot more to me financially as a landlord to have a good tenant than it is for me as a tenant to have a good landlord.

(As a tenant in Boston in 1998 I did use a broker, and it was structured where the tenant paid. Perhaps this is consistent with the brutally tight Boston housing market, where landlords can do pretty much whatever they want?)

So, Did You Make the Mortgage

The most common question I get asked when people here we're renting out our house is: do the rental payments cover your mortgage?

The short answer: yes.
The long answer: it's still definitely the lesser of two crappy housing options.

The problem is that the total cost of renting a house goes well beyond the mortgage. Besides the mortgage (which gives you a deduction against income tax on rental payments), you have property tax (a surprisingly big fixed cost), agency fees (in our case), repair and maintenance costs, and return on equity.

To focus on that last one: if you have positive equity on your home, it is not enough to get $1 more in after-tax rent than you spend per month in mortgage, maintenance, property tax, and any landlord-paid utilities. You are also losing the interest income on the money "tied up" in the house - your equity. If you would get cash out by selling, that cash could be sitting in a bank account, so it wouldn't be returning squat right now, but in theory there is such a thing as interest.

I don't know what the long term outcome of renting the house will be. I do know that in the very short term, we're still in the red due to one-time costs to get the house ready to rent. (A lot of that stuff is repairs we could have done but put off as owner-occupiers.)

I will describe the trade-offs of selling vs. renting out in a future post.

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