3 costly mistakes I learned the hard way being the landlord of a 12-unit apartment complex

Author Ryan Lais.
Ryan Lais.

  • Ryan Lais is a career counselor for high school students with disabilities and real estate entrepreneur.
  • After several years as landlord of an apartment complex, Lais says he learned to communicate more with tenants.
  • Ask your tenants to share any issues up front, and be on top of garbage and parking lot maintenance.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In October of 2018, my in-laws, wife, and I purchased a 12-unit apartment complex in Madelia, Minnesota. I had a tremendous amount of anxiety about the $100,000 down payment and the $300,000 we borrowed to invest in the purchase.

Besides the money, I also worried about getting phone calls at all hours of the night with tenant issues and maintenance requests.

But over the first year, the phone didn’t ring. Texts trickled in, but in an underwhelming fashion. In all of our brilliance had we purchased a maintenance free building? Not so much. Here are three costly mistakes I learned the hard way.

1. Invite your renters to “complain” from the very beginning – it’ll save you money

As leases ended and people moved out we did walk-thrus and suddenly heard about leaky pipes, broken bathroom vents, and mold. We’d ask, “Why didn’t you tell us?” and heard, “Didn’t want to be a bother” or “I thought you’d charge me.” I am forever grateful to those that complain – especially about “small” leaks that turn into big moldy nightmares.

2. Secure your garbage – it’s worth a lot

Dumpsters are for garbage and we threw away a lot of money each month that first year. I learned that dumpsters are like big metal magnets that attract everyone in the neighborhood to dump their oversized mattresses, old TVs, and microwaves. Each month there was another big ticket item by our apartment dumpster that we had to deal with, often paying for it to be removed. A $15 a month wireless data plan and a $200 security camera ended the War on Garbage for us at a fraction of the cost.

3. Be on top of parking lot maintenance

Don’t overlook that huge slab of concrete or blacktop you parked on when looking at the building you’re considering buying. I could’ve tripped on the pothole in the parking lot on the way in and still would’ve overlooked it. Turns out little potholes become big potholes. Big potholes become a big liability for someone to trip on, fall, and sue you. We found ourselves needing to borrow another $35,000 to replace the crumbling parking lot. Check the condition of the parking lot or driveway before you purchase a rental property.

Despite these challenges, after three years in the rental property business we’ve reached $150,000 in equity, so I’m grateful for having quality tenants and the opportunity to use real estate to build long-term wealth.

Ryan Lais is a career counselor for high school students with disabilities, real estate entrepreneur, freelance writer, and father currently based in a small prairie town in Minnesota.

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