For many real estate investors, it’s tough to make a profit. It’s not as easy as the TV shows make it seem. But with some basic best practices, you can make some serious money.
I’ve invested in rental property for over 10 years now, and I’ve learned some tough lessons. However, I’m more bullish on real estate investing than I ever have been. There has never been a better time to be a landlord in America.
Real estate doesn’t change much, as it can take decades for a property to appreciate. What can change rapidly is how you manage your properties.
Before modern technology, tenants would:
- Drive around and/or read the newspaper classifieds to find available rental properties.
- Call and schedule a tour of the property.
- Fill out a paper application.
- If accepted, they would meet you at the property, an office, or a coffee shop to sign the lease.
If you’ve used any kind of technology in the past five years (like a smartphone), you’re aware of the benefits.
Real estate is prime for disruption because many agents and investors are using technology from the 90’s.
If you like the idea of using technology to save time, here are some ways to make your real estate business more profitable:
1. Install A Programmable Thermostat
Housing is a commodity and isn’t, by itself, personal. However, people crave personalization and want to feel special. If you are targeting a particular demographic, think of how you can offer extra and personalized features to the property. One of my friends caters to senior citizens, for example. He makes sure his doors are 33 inches wide and that the properties have security systems.
I like to target energy-conscious tenants. Even if you don’t personally care much about the environment, you probably don’t like having a high utility bill. I suggest getting the first-generation Nest to save money.
Nest is a programmable thermostat. Although programmable thermostats have been around a long time, the Nest is different because of its simplicity of use. My wife installed ours in less than 10 minutes and had it integrated on her iPhone in fewer than five minutes. And best of all: The Nest learns your behavior and automatically adjusts its settings. A Nest pays for itself in about a year.
Another great item to personalize a property for your energy-conscious tenant is the Philips Hue lightbulb, a programmable, color-changing LED bulb that gives users flexibility over the color of light emitted. This allows you to set the mood for any occasion.
2. Install High-Tech Locks
What happens when one of your tenants gets locked out?
Many tenants live on their smartphones and enjoy the productivity benefits. So consider adding a smart lock that can open with a key or bluetooth. This is a benefit to tenants in case they need to let a friend in, and it’s a benefit to you as you can grant temporary access to maintenance workers.
3. Use Online Systems
Offline and paper-based transaction methods are time-consuming and costly.
The cost with using a paper-based system is with the extra time it takes to sort through paper-based applications, screen tenants manually, and process checks. This problem is exacerbated in my business, since I have a business partner and we like to share information.
To solve this, I use Cozy. With Cozy, all these processes are fast and easy because we have a company log-in that we both use.
4. Collect Rent Electronically
The number one complaint I hear from tenants is that their landlord doesn’t accept electronic payments. Making tenants write a check and mail it to you is not timely, efficient, or convenient. Other tenants want to pay in cash, which requires you to collect in person, which is also inefficient.
Cozy offers a way for tenants to pay their rent electronically.
- If your tenants set up an ACH transfer, payments are deposited within 3-5 days of the tenant initiating the payment, and it’s free for them.
- If your tenant pays with a credit card, they pay 2.75%. The money is deposited 1-2 days after they pay.
I encourage you to visit the “How Payments Work” section on Cozy’s website for more information.
5. Develop a Niche Brand
Branding your business by clearly communicating who you are to the public can be beneficial.
I’m a coffee fanatic, for example, and I make it a point to buy a coffee mug from every title company I have a closing with. Recently, a title company was trying to get my business, and they brought my team and me branded glasses. I told them this was unique. They responded with:
We know you have everybody else’s coffee mugs, so we thought you should get glasses.
I guess my brand is getting around!
Business cards are often thrown away, but coffee mugs with the name of your company and phone number are incredibly useful.
You can also offer a monthly giveaway for local products and services. The cost of this branding doesn’t have to be expensive, and the payoff from longer-leasing tenants and referrals can make this a huge return on investment.
6. Upgrade Your Computer’s Security
With wireless connectivity for several applications in your properties along with Wi-fi that is sometimes public, security will be the forefront of any conversation about technology advances.
As landlords, we collect a lot of information about our tenants: names, phone numbers, address, income, workplace, next of kin, references, etc. It’s not too farfetched to think of personalized services based on this information. However, what would happen if this data were stolen?
I recommend taking extra security precautions with internet-based tools such as using a password manager like 1Password, which saves all your PINs, passwords, and even credit card information in one place. When you need to sign into something, you just have to click once. 1Password information is encrypted, so you never have to worry about that information being hacked.
Credit to Jimmy Moncrief
Jimmy is a multifamily real estate investor and bank credit officer.
Whether you’re a renter in an apartment building, a duplex, or any other rental home, you deserve relatively quiet living conditions, no matter how many neighbors live nearby.
While neighborly noise is to be expected once in a while, a neighbor’s blaring stereo, shouting matches, or late night dance parties might take things too far. So what should you do when you can’t handle the noise?
What Not to Do: A Personal Story
During my renter years, I moved into what seemed like an ideal scenario: a budget rent price for a modest upstairs unit in a landlord’s house. Things seemed great at first, until the landlord and her teenage daughters regularly shouted at one another from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m., consistently waking me after just a few hours of sleep. If I tapped on the floor (their ceiling) to remind them of the noise, the landlord yelled at me to shut up! Unbelievable, right?
They also kept a young doberman in a cage while they were away at work and school. Naturally, he wasn’t thrilled about and he barked. A lot. When the kids came home from school, he barked even more, at which point the angrier of the teens would shake the cage and shout at the dog. I’m sure it was traumatic for the dog, and all the noise and anger traumatized me for years, even after I left.
I couldn’t afford to move out, so I dealt with the nighttime noise by turning on a loud fan before bed each night to help lessen the impact of the downstairs discord. I was afraid to complain too much for fear of eviction, especially since we didn’t have a written lease. Once I finally earned enough to move out, I moved, posthaste.
Don’t put yourself through the anguish I suffered for years when I was too inexperienced to know how to handle such things. Every renter — even in a situation such as mine — has a right to quiet enjoyment, the right to a peaceful place to live. This doesn’t mean you won’t hear an upstairs neighbor walking or moving furniture from time to time. It means the place should be peaceful enough from day to day to sleep or to carry on daily activities without being interrupted by aggravating levels of neighborly noise.
Step 1: Give a Simple Neighborly Suggestion
If you know your neighbor — at least well enough to share a friendly smile or “hello” once in a while — point out in a calm, gentle manner that their speakers, dog, or television is so loud it’s disruptive. It could be that they’re unaware that anyone else can hear what goes on behind closed doors, or maybe they think their dog is quiet while they’re away for the day. For your own records, write down the date, a summary of what each of you said to one another, and whether the issue was resolved.
If you feel intimidated about approaching your neighbor directly, go to Step 3 below.
Step 2: Read Your Lease
If your neighbor isn’t responsive or repeatedly causes a cacophony that keeps you up all hours of the night, it may be time for more serious action. If you live in a building, read your rental agreement to look for any language about excessive noise. Make a copy of the page, highlighting the appropriate information, and give it to the noisy neighbor. Be sure to point out any verbiage about potential for eviction due to noise violations or information about “quiet hours” in which all tenants are expected to be relatively quiet.
Step 3: Contact the Landlord
Contact your landlord, and spell out exactly what’s going on: the type of noise, when and how often it happens, and any methods you’ve taken to try to resolve the issue yourself. If the noise has been going on for hours, ask an on-site property manager or the landlord to check out the situation while it’s happening.
Step 4: Get Your Town Involved
If your neighbor’s noise can be heard outside or from shared common areas such as a hallway, they may be in violation of local noise ordinances. Contact the non-emergency police number if you can’t find this information on your town’s website. Ask the representative for information about noise regulations. If your neighbor is in violation of the ordinance, let the landlord know. It’s in the landlord’s best interest to deal with the problem since he or she could be held responsible and receive a warning or citation.
If the noise sounds dangerous or threatening or all of your efforts have seemed in vain so far, contact the police. This approach works best if the noise has been going on for hours or if it happens at the same time regularly. The police or a noise-enforcement official may visit with a decibel meter to determine whether your neighbors are in violation of local laws.
Step 4: Arrange a Meeting
Contact other neighbors to see if they’ve been bothered by the noise. If so, arrange a meeting with your landlord and all affected, including the noisy neighbor. Power in numbers may be enough to convince the neighbor to quiet down or for the landlord to evict a noisy tenant. If it seems the noisy person isn’t interested in quieting down, inform them that you and the others plan to take them to small claims court if things don’t change. Also say that the cause is well-documented by you, other tenants, the landlord, and even local authorities. All of this evidence may be enough to create a peaceful environment.
Alternate Action: Moving Out
Since you are guaranteed a peaceful living environment, you may have the right to terminate your lease if lack of peace is an ongoing issue.
Credit to Kathy Adams
Kathy is an award-winning investigative journalist, not to mention a writer, brand blogger, decor/DIY expert, renter, commercial landlord. She also writes for brands such as Behr, Kroger, Canon and Black+Decker on topics pertaining to home and apartment decorating and maintenance.
Simply understanding how to use a few key camera settings and pieces of equipment can make all the difference.
It can’t be stressed enough: Great photos help sell homes. The National Association of REALTORS®’ own research shows that well over 90 percent of home shoppers look online for at least a part of their search. For almost half of all buyers, accessing digital listings is the very first step in their process. And while there’s been much speculation as to the homebuying behaviors of millennials, this much is known for sure: Digital natives are much more comfortable with browsing home listings from mobile devices.
None of this is breaking news, but it does highlight just how important digital representation can be when you’re trying to show a home. One industry study found that when listings were accompanied by high-quality photos taken with professional equipment, they spent significantly less time on the market and fetched a premium of $3,400 on average.
Unfortunately, interior shots pose a variety of photographic challenges that are difficult for amateur photographers. Real estate pros shouldn’t be expected to transform overnight into professional camera wielders, but you can certainly benefit from a few tricks up your sleeve and some decent equipment.
Don’t Turn Toward the Light
This scenario might feel familiar: You want to show off the new windows in your client’s living room, but every time you snap a photo, the image is totally blown out. Photos with dark foregrounds and overexposed windows are a common problem that happens when ambient light from the outdoors tricks the camera’s light meter into overcompensating. A flash will balance out the lighting in the room, giving you a better shot. Alternatively, you can use your camera’s manual controls and settings. The right settings depend on the kind of equipment you have, however. For many point-and-shoot digital cameras, it’s mainly a matter of adjusting the ISO, although you may want to set the aperture to f/2.8 as well, if your camera offers that flexibility. For shots near a window, typically an ISO setting of around 400 to 800 works well, although you may want to go higher if you have particularly low light in the foreground. If you have full manual control of your camera, you can increase the shutter speed, which will allow less light into the camera sensor.
Try HDR Tonemapping
The main problem with photographing daylit interiors is that it’s difficult to balance between ambient daylight, artificial lighting, and dark shadows behind walls and in rooms away from the foreground. This situation presents a range of different exposures, and while the human eye automatically adjusts for the various levels, the camera will have a hard time making sense of it all. HDR, which is short for high dynamic range, is a common tool for handling such lighting situations. In essence, the photographer takes three or four photos in rapid succession, which are then combined into one image using specialized software like HDRSoft. Usually, one shot is at normal exposure, one is overexposed, and one underexposed. When those three exposures are combined into one, you’ll see all the details that the human eye can perceive. This results in photos with a vibrant, luminous quality.
Many point-and-shoot cameras have an exposure value meter, which can help you compose under- and overexposed shots. Generally, the meter reads a value of zero on the normal setting, +1 or +2 for overexposed shots, and —1 or —2 for underexposure. Use a tripod so you can play with different exposures while maintaining the same angle on each shot. You’ll also want to make sure automatic flash is turned off for this method. It takes time to perfect this technique, of course, but it can help you capture more detail in challenging settings.
Buy the Right Equipment
Unless you have a surgeon’s steady hands, you’re going to need a tripod in some situations. A tripod helps compose poised shots and avoid blurry photos, but it’s also incredibly important if you’re dabbling in HDR or mixing up shutter speeds. The longer your exposure time, the more likely it is that subtle movements will show up in the final product. You should use a tripod anytime you nudge the ISO to a higher range. Also, if you’re taking wide shots of the home’s exterior or enlarging your photos, even the tiniest shake will be a lot more obvious. In certain conditions, even the slightest breath can create a shaky shot. Avoid this dilemma with a lightweight foldable tripod.
You may also want to invest in a point-and-shoot with a wide-angle lens. When buyers are browsing through real estate listings, they really want to get a sense of the space. But that’s difficult to translate into photos unless you have a wide-angle option. This is important not just for exterior shots but for indoor compositions as well. A wider lens in the interior gives rooms a sense of luxury and space that you just can’t get with a regular shot. Point-and-shoot cameras that have a large range in their focal length specification are ideal; the lower the value at that end of the range, the wider the shot will be.
If you’re really interested in refining your shots, you’ll want a camera with manual controls that allow you to adjust shutter speeds on your own. Or it may be time to graduate to a digital single-lens reflex camera, especially if you want to experiment with wide-angle lenses (with focal lengths under 35mm, used for very wide shots). DSLRs have come down in price recently, especially since manufacturers like Canon and Nikon have introduced entry-level DSLRs aimed at beginner photographers. Usually these run for around $300 to $700, and they are available with bundled lens kits to get you started trading out lens lengths for sharper photos.
Get Rid of the Clutter
Staging photos ahead of time by cleaning off counters, tabletops, and floors can turn an ordinary listing into a real stunner. Clear your photography appointment with your client before you arrive, and tell them to clean, clean, clean. Even a detail as minute as a crooked picture frame or a rolled carpet edge can detract from your photos, so be sure to run over your shots with a fine-toothed comb. Decluttering means no power cords or vacuum cleaners in the shot—but it doesn’t mean completely sterile surfaces. A few welcoming touches like a stack of books, a vase of flowers, or a set of candles will make the space feel lived-in and homey. After all, that’s what you’re really selling anyway: a vision of buyers’ future lives in a new and welcoming abode.
Erin Vaughan is a blogger, gardener, and aspiring homeowner. She currently resides in Austin, TX where she writes full time for Modernize, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.
Problems happen. The dishwasher leaks, the heater doesn’t heat, or the air conditioner only makes noise. A maintenance request helps ensure that your landlord (or the building’s management company) does something about the issue in your rental unit.
To make sure the issue is addressed properly and in a timely fashion, your maintenance request should contain useful information and be thorough. The more helpful and specific the information, the more likely your maintenance request receives an appropriate resolution.
1. Call As Soon As Possible
Call your landlord or property manager shortly after you’ve noticed an issue. Read your rental agreement to ensure you call the right party. Calling an out-of-town landlord is far less efficient than calling a maintenance person or site manager within minutes of your rental.
If the situation is an emergency, such as a broken pipe causing a flooded bathroom, look for an emergency maintenance phone number on your rental agreement, and call it immediately.
If it’s not an emergency, let the landlord or site manager know whether the maintenance crew can enter your apartment while you’re away. If you prefer to be home when the work takes place, offer a block of several hours in which the work can take place.
2. Follow Up in Writing
If you request is addressed within two days (or within the time the landlord or manager said it would be handled) — great — your work is done!
If not, or if you left a message via voicemail and haven’t heard back within 24 hours, it’s time to put your request in writing. The Cleveland Tenants Organization offers a simple notice to correct conditions. A more formal request form is available through the Tenants Union of Washington State. Here’s what to do:
- Fill out all the required information and spell out in specific detail exactly what needs repaired in your apartment.
- Include written notice of when you first placed a call requesting repairs.
- Mail (or drop off) the notice to the landlord or property manager (whomever is indicated in your original rental agreement).
- Send the notice via certified mail, or take the letter to the post office and pay for postage directly with a postal clerk. That way, you can get a receipt that has tracking information. (A stamped letter dropped into a mailbox isn’t trackable. You’ll have no proof that the other party received the letter.)
- Have the person sign a piece of paper stating that they received the letter. This applies if you dropped the letter off directly to the person in charge of handling your request. (Prepare this in advance and take it, along with a pen.)
- Keep written records and proof of all maintenance requests and communications regarding the maintenance issue.
3. Wait the Proper Amount of Time
In many cases, maintenance issues are taken care of within 48 hours, but the legally required time frame varies by state. For instance, in Washington State, serious issues such as no hot water or electricity must be dealt with within 24 hours. But 72 hours is acceptable for a refrigerator or oven repair. If you’re concerned that repairs are not happening in a reasonable amount of time, look up your state’s laws here.
4. Consider Dealing With Minor Issues Yourself
Minor issues, such as a small hole in the carpet are not required to be fixed.
A landlord is legally required to keep the property in habitable condition. But minor repairs such as a dripping faucet or a small hole in the carpet are not required repairs, according to a tenant’s rights article on FindLaw. You may not be able to force the landlord to handle such repairs, but a well-written request pointing out the benefits of repair can greatly help your cause. For instance, spell out that a running toilet or dripping faucet wastes water, leading to an increasing water bill that wastes the landlord’s money.
Even if you have a great relationship with the property manager, a written request matters more than a verbal request. This is true even when renting from an individual that you see nearly every day, such as a duplex owner that lives in the other unit of the duplex. A written and dated maintenance request leaves proof of the issue in case the responsible party takes a while before doing anything about it.
No matter what your reason for submitting the request, be sure to make it look as professional as possible. Consider typing it out instead of writing it out by hand so there’s no question of legibility. If you do all these things and submit the request to the proper party (as spelled out in your rental agreement), your maintenance issue should soon be resolved.
Credit to Kathy Adams
Kathy is an award-winning investigative journalist, not to mention a writer, brand blogger, decor/DIY expert, renter, commercial landlord. She also writes for brands such as Behr, Kroger, Canon and Black+Decker on topics pertaining to home and apartment decorating and maintenance.
If you rent out a house in the middle of nowhere, you can rent to the noisiest tenants imaginable. Why? Because no one can hear them.
But if you rent to tenants who will live in close proximity to other people, you hope they’ll respect their neighbors’ right to quiet.
If you rent to noisy tenants, a few things might happen. You might receive a formal complaint from a building manager, a nasty email from the neighborhood HOA, or a nuisance complaint from the city if a neighbor complains to the police. If you don’t do anything about the complaints, you could receive fines until you do something.
So what should you do if you get complaints that your tenants are so loud they’re disruptive?
Determine Whether the Complaint Is Valid
Before you confront your tenant, find out the nature of the noise complaint. Your tenant could very well be causing a disturbance, but it’s just as likely that the complainant isn’t warranted. Tenants are allowed to live their lives, and sometimes that includes making noise.
Your job is to determine whether your tenant is crossing the line by being excessively noisy.
If your jurisdiction places a limit on noise decibel levels, then your tenants should not exceed this level. If your rental property is subject to noise laws and you receive a complaint, ask the department that issued the complaint to come out and measure the noise levels to determine whether there is a valid reason for the complaint.
If you don’t have regulations, you can use some common sense measures to evaluate whether your tenants are the problem or whether the complaining neighbor is just being fussy.
Here are some examples:
- Dinner Parties
Having people over for a get together that ends by 11 p.m. is not complaint-worthy, but regular loud parties that go late into the night are a problem.
- Noisy Feet
Tenants walking around their own apartment, no matter what time of day or night, is not complaint-worthy from a downstairs neighbor, but if your tenant is jumping rope or acting out their own WrestleMania session at midnight, that’s valid.
- Barking Dogs
A dog that barks occasionally is not complaint-worthy, but a dog that barks incessantly all day or night is.
- Loud Arguments
Disagreements between partners are bound to happen, and an occasional argument is not complaint-worthy, but a nightly screaming match is.
If the Noise Complaint Isn’t Valid
Let the complaining party know that you have researched the noise complaint. Tell them what you did to determine whether your tenant is guilty of a noise violation or not. If you found out your tenant didn’t do anything wrong, let the complainant know that you didn’t find any evidence to suggest the complaint was warranted.
If the Noise Complaint Is Valid
If you’ve received multiple complaints from a variety of sources, your tenant is probably being too noisy. You might also wish to witness for yourself whether the complaints are valid by driving by your rental property and seeing for yourself.
You need to address this issue with your tenant immediately. If your tenant is being too noisy and interfering with the neighbors’ peace and quiet, you should tell your tenant to keep the noise at acceptable levels. Explain the problem and what you expect your tenant to do to resolve the problem.
Sometimes the resolution is easy. If a downstairs neighbor complains about noise coming from upstairs, for example, put down area rugs. If your tenant listens and stops the noisy behavior, problem solved. If not, and the complaints continue, you may need to evict.
Have a Clause in Your Lease
You can protect yourself from noise problems by including a noise, or quiet hours, clause in your lease. That way, if your tenant violates the noise clause, you can act based on the lease terms, such as fining them if you receive a valid noise complaint.
Here’s a sample of a noise clause from a lease, courtesy of the University of Rhode Island.
PARTIES/DISTURBING NOISES/NUISANCE: The Tenant agrees that he/she/they will not breach the covenant of quiet enjoyment for the other tenants and/or neighbors. Tenant agrees not to make or permit any disturbing noises (e.g. hooting, yelling, shouting, singing, music inside a car). Lessee shall keep the volume of any guests, radio, stereo, television, CD, musical instrument, or any other piece of equipment which emits sound sufficiently reduced so as not to disturb nearby residents, in accordance with local noise ordinances. If the Tenant and/or Lessor receives a notice from the local police department that there has been a disturbance at the rental premises, which has caused a nuisance to the neighborhood, in violation of Rhode Island General Law §11-30-7, there will be a $50.00 penalty fee per Tenant for the first notification. At this point there will be a three month period which will be considered a probationary period. There will be no further penalty fee during the term of the lease if there are no further disturbances. If there is a second such notification, the rent will increase $100.00 per Tenant for the remaining term of the lease. If there is a third such notification, the rent will increase $150.00 per Tenant for the remaining term of the lease. Eviction can result from any nuisance/noise violation depending on severity. Tenants will receive written notice of eviction. Parents and/or cosignors may also be notified of any incidences. Any breach of Rhode Island General Laws relative to disturbing the enjoyment of the homes by the neighbors, or disturbing the peace of the neighborhood, will be considered a breach of this contract. No kegs are permitted on the property without the prior consent of the Lessor. Tenants are not allowed firearms on the premises at any time. Tenants agree to comply with the attached town rental ordinances which address ordinances for Public Nuisance, Noise Disturbance and Unlawful Possession and Consumption and any associated penalties. ABSOLUTELY NO FRATERNITY OR SORORITY ACTIVITIES MAY OCCUR IN HOUSE OR ON THE GROUNDS, UNLESS OTHERWISE AGREED TO BY THE PARTIES.
Note: This lease pertains to university students in the state of Rhode Island. You can, however, personalize your lease to meet your needs. Please consult a lawyer when preparing your lease.
The best way to ensure you’ll rent to tenants who won’t cause trouble is to screen them first. Run a background check and check references to determine whether potential tenants have a history of complaints against them. I use Cozy tenant screening, and I recommend it.
If you get complaints about a noisy tenant, you need to do something about it. Don’t rush to judgment by automatically blaming your tenant. But don’t ignore the complaints, either. It’s best to come up with a compromise that everyone can live with.
Now, peace out everyone.
Please let us know in the comments your experience with noise and how you handled it!
Credit to Laura Agadoni
Laura is a landlord, journalist, and author of New Home Journal: Record All the Repairs, Upgrades and Home Improvements During Your Years at…. Her articles appear in various publications such as Trulia, The Houston Chronicle, The Motley Fool, SFGate, Zacks, The Penny Hoarder, and loanDepot.
Most professionals believe these ideas will improve their personal security in the field. Sometimes, they’re wrong.
Real estate brokers and agents have hyped certain safety protocols in an effort to beef up personal security in the field, but some of the ideas that have become popular in the industry don’t necessarily make you less vulnerable to attack. In fact, some may have the opposite effect.
It’s not that these suggestions don’t have any value in the pursuit of safer practices, but none of them are foolproof. You shouldn’t rely too heavily on any one safety practice; to truly conduct business in a safer manner, you must incorporate a multitude of safety measures. As a longtime real estate safety educator, I offer these five personal security myths from agents around the country, along with my suggestions for how to work around them. (Request a handout to learn 7 More Safety Myths That Can Get You Hurt or Worse.)
Myth number one: Meeting prospects at the office first will enable you to vet them properly and ensure you work with only legitimate clients.
It’s always a good idea to ask prospective clients to come to your office or meet in a public place before taking them out on showings. But you are not equipped to properly vet prospects to determine whether they are criminals. Making judgment calls based on how a person looks, acts, or talks is not a science, and while you may be able to spot obvious red flags during a face-to-face meeting, you cannot guarantee that a prospect won’t intend to do you harm. Many offenders are repeat or career criminals, and they know how to present themselves in a manner that makes you feel comfortable and safe. Never consider yourself safe after meeting with a prospect.
Asking for a prospect’s ID and mortgage approval letter can provide some clues as to their legitimacy as a client, but you should do background research on new clients to get a fuller picture of who they are. Searching for them on Google is the typical place to start, but also search court records and public documents online as well as sites such as Anywho.com and Spokeo.com, which combine public records, social network information, and other online references.
If you want to go a step further, customer relationship management tools such as Great Agent provide prescreened customer leads. The program conducts a soft background check on potential clients and delivers a report of the findings to you. Though this decreases the level of danger in the prospecting process, you must remain alert and vigilant once you begin working with a new client.
Myth number two: Using a code word is a good way to discreetly signal you’re in distress.
Who doesn’t know what the “red file” is? It’s probably the most commonly used safety code word—and not just in the real estate industry—so you can bet criminals know what it means. Could you use a less conspicuous code word? Sure. But here’s the problem with code words in general: In a perfect world, the person you’re calling for help will immediately know that the code word means they should call authorities and have them dispatched to your location. That requires everyone at your office—all brokers, agents, and administrative staffers—to be properly and uniformly trained on the code word procedure. How likely is that to happen?
Unfortunately, when you make that call using your safety code word, there’s a high risk that the person on the other end of the line will have no idea what you’re talking about. If you can safely make a phone call and talk to someone—even briefly—your best option is to call 911 and give police as much information as possible about your situation. If you can’t speak freely, try using apps such as Life 360, which sends covert notifications to your predesignated contacts that you need help.
Myth number three: Safety apps will save you in a dangerous situation.
Speaking of safety apps, more agents are embracing them. Forty-two percent of REALTORS® use a smartphone safety app, according to the National Association of REALTORS®’ 2016 Member Safety Report. While those are a good tool in the real estate professional’s safety arsenal, the problem is that some agents rely solely on them to save their lives. But if you’re in a situation where your cell phone isn’t accessible, you lose a signal, or a criminal takes your phone away, those apps become useless. Safety apps should be part of a layered plan; they alone will not save you.
Investigate standalone or wearable safety devices that offer added features, such as Alert Lion, a pendant-type device that can be used to call for help with the press of a button. Once the button is pressed, an Alert Lion representative can listen in and make the call to authorities or medical personnel.
Myth number four: Dressing to impress will always attract the right customer.
For real estate professionals, the appearance of being successful is an important marketing tactic. Do you broadcast on social media how many millions of dollars in real estate you’ve sold? If you’re a luxury agent, do you take marketing photos of yourself in a high-end car or in front of a mansion?
Wearing expensive jewelry, watches, and other accessories, or carrying around costly gadgets such as tablets and high-end cameras, may project the image you want your clients to see. But it can also garner unwanted attention from criminals who see the cash you’ve got on you. If you think dressing to impress will only attract people who are qualified to work with you, you’re wrong.
Dress professionally, but leave the bling and flash at home. And you typically don’t need expensive devices—aside from your smartphone—when you’re out on showings with a client. Limit the places you take your gear. While trend-conscious clients may appreciate your fashion forwardness, the people you want to attract will be more interested in your service than your cachet.
Myth number five: Avoiding working in the “bad” parts of town will keep you safer.
I always get agents in my classes who tell me they don’t do business in dangerous neighborhoods and never work at night, so they feel safe. These same agents also say they don’t work with “strange” or “scary looking” people.
As long as criminals are mobile, there is no safe part of town. Some areas may be safer than others, but agents need to be alert wherever they are. The worst thing you can do is let down your guard because you think you’re in a nice neighborhood; some criminals target higher-end areas where they can find more valuable items. They also may perceive agents who work those markets to be wealthier.
Your prejudgments on what kinds of people look legit may also cause you to miss out on business. I always reference Sam Walton, the late founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, and his signature overalls and old pick-up truck. Many may have assumed based on his appearance that he couldn’t afford high-end property. By the same token, famed serial killer Ted Bundy cleaned up quite nicely.
Instead of judging people or neighborhoods by their appearance, agents should rely on taking the proper screening steps and always trusting their intuition, gut, or instinct. We all possess a built-in warning system designed to protect us from danger. Too often, we ignore that feeling in the pit of our stomachs. If your body sends these signals, listen to them and get out of the situation. Do not try to rationalize your feelings.
Tracey Hawkins, a.k.a. “Tracey, the Safety Lady,” is founder and CEO of Safety and Security Source. She is a former real estate agent who, for more than 20 years, has been a national speaker and educator on real estate safety issues. She has created the country’s only real estate safety designation, the Consumer Safety and Security Specialist (CSSS) program.
What’s Your Retirement Plan?
You know how you go the extra mile for your clients—running a quick vacuum before a showing, bringing in flowers or even your own furniture to create that wow factor, wearing out your tire treads to find someone the perfect home. That’s because you’re taking your clients’ dreams seriously.
But even as you help your clients with their plans, are you thinking about yours? What about that ultimate plan-ahead task, your own retirement? Without an employer-based 401(k) or pension set up for you, your long-term financial wellness is fully on your shoulders—and it can be a daunting responsibility.
Financial planner Tad Cook, who specializes in serving real estate clients at @Financial in Chicago, says that a quick rule of thumb is to set aside 25 to 35 percent of your gross income for taxes; save 10 percent for retirement; and then base your working budget on the remaining 65 percent.
What plans are best for real estate professionals? Take a look at four retirement options for independent contractors.
But this is a key point to remember: Retirement plans are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. “It really all depends on the volume of business you have and how aggressively you want to pursue a program,” Cook says. “We have to look at the whole financial picture—and age comes into it.”
Here are stories of three individuals at different ages and stages of their careers. What you learn about their situations and solutions may help you come up with your own set of strategies.
How to face down inflation
Alison Parker, 36, a newly licensed practitioner with Keller Williams in Glen Ellyn, Ill., recently had her first closing. She loves real estate, is a mother of two toddlers, and is excited about how she can blend her budding career with the rigors of motherhood. Her husband, who works in IT, has a pension and 401(k) through his company. She does not. Parker knows she should save for retirement, but at the moment, she’s concentrating more on building her business and setting up college money for the kids.
The plan for the kids, in fact, is pretty well developed: Alison’s young family recently moved from Chicago to the suburbs, but instead of selling their condo when they bought their single-family home, they decided to refinance the condo on a 15-year note and turn it into a rental. It will be paid off when the kids are ready for college. The plan is to sell it at that time to generate funds for the children’s college. At least that’s the thinking so far.
Cook strongly endorses the Parker family’s decision to hold on to their first property, but instead of tapping it for college funding, that second property makes more sense as a retirement vehicle. “Income is so much the key to retirement,” says Cook, “and inflation is an issue.” Because the cost of living is always rising, you can expect living expenses to increase during your retirement. If all your assets are in a fund, you would need to take more money out to meet rising costs. “But with a rental,” Cook says, “you can raise the rent every year and fight inflation.” Cook says real estate agents who have investments in two or three homes have the easiest retirement planning, so there’s no time like the present to get something in place. And even while many practitioners are advising clients about investment opportunities in real estate, a majority haven’t heeded that wisdom themselves. Only about 30 percent of REALTORS® currently own investment property, according to the latest Member Profile by the National Association of REALTORS®.
If you’re looking to set aside money for college, Cook says investments in a 529 college savings plan are recommended since they grow tax-free, at an average of 6 percent, which may be more favorable than real estate values, which tend to increase at an average rate of 3 percent a year. Of course, as a caveat, he adds that performance of any asset can vary. Another cautionary note from Cook: Don’t pay for your kids’ education out of your retirement fund. “That doesn’t work well for anyone,” he says. Think about it: Most kids would rather pay off their student loans than support you in your old age. And, if for some reason you do have to take funds out of a 401(k), Cook advises that you replace it as soon as possible.
How to sock it away
Dave Mattes, 52, has been a real estate agent for most of the last 20 years, not including a five-year excursion into mortgage lending before returning to his passion. Now a sales associate at RE/MAX of Reading in Wyomissing, Pa., he and his wife Melanie, who is also an agent, are aggressively putting money into two Roth IRAs and a SEP IRA . “I’ve been slow to the party, like most people, unfortunately,” Mattes confesses. “It is truly ‘do as I say, not as I’ve done.’ You need to be socking money away starting at age 25 and never, ever, ever stop.”
The Matteses may have been late starters, but they made other investments along the way, now owning eight properties, most of them in the Reading area. “It’s perfect for self-employed agents to acquire properties with 10 percent down,” he says. Mattes purchased his properties with conventional 30-year mortgages, then gradually converted to 15- or 20-year notes. The properties will be paid off as the couple moves into their 60s. “Now I’ll have an asset sitting there that I could cash in, or will have rental income that should provide a decent quality of life.”
Mattes acknowledges that the advice to put money away for retirement was always out there, at the fringes of his awareness. “You know the whole time you need to do it,” he says. His brokerage even encouraged people to make retirement planning a priority by providing contacts and programs for agents and staff. “Our office is very proactive about making tools available to us. They bring people in from outside—accounting firms, financial advisers. They make it easy for us to put a percentage of our income into various accounts.”
Mattes himself now relies on his accountant and financial planner to guide him with his savings program. “They were referred to me by someone I trust,” he says.
But real estate pros should be sure they understand whose best interest their financial counselor is committed to. The Trump administration in February sought to delay the Obama-era “fiduciary rule” that was slated to take effect in April and would require investment advisers to disclose whether they had a commission-based payment structure that favored their own financial gain over their clients’ interests. Cook from @Financial says it’s important to inquire about how investment advisers are paid for their work with you. “First and foremost, ask about fees, which can involve commission, startup costs, ratios, percentages, or other management expenses,” he says. If you’re getting advice from stockbrokers paid on commission, their greater loyalty may be to their brokerage and its products rather than you. Independent financial planners are paid directly by clients, so their interests are not aligned with any particular investment product or brand.
The important point, Cook says, is that the earlier you start saving, the more you earn over the long term. In fact, when you start saving matters more than how much you save, because of the power of compound interest. Mattes finds he must now put away three times as much each month as he would have if he had started years ago. “So I’m taking the complete opposite approach with my son, who’s 26,” he says. Mattes is strongly encouraging his son to start putting money away in a retirement fund—and he is matching those contributions for him.
How to be a serial investor
Wayne Reuter, 62, and his wife, Teresa, 58, retired in 2016 and 2014 respectively, after lengthy careers. Wayne originally worked for the Union Oil Company of California, then 20 years ago joined Teresa’s real estate business RE/MAX Excels in Geneva, Ill., and they continued to build their practice together.
For decades, Wayne has been a religious tracker of the family’s income and expenses. He could tell you what he made and spent in any given year, going back to the 1990s. “In ninth grade, a Ouija board said I was going to live to 86,” he says wryly, “so that’s what I’m planning for.”
He and Teresa made many real estate investments, over the years. The first house they bought was in Boca Raton, Fla., in 1978. They paid $37,500 for it, and when they moved, instead of selling it, they decided to make it a rental. They finally sold the house for $185,000 in 2016—but more important than the appreciation was that in the interval, it generated more than $300,000 in income for them.
Over the years the Reuters bought and sold about 30 other properties in Illinois, owning usually about five at a time. They bought them, rented them, managed them, paid them off, then sold them.
“If you’re in real estate,” Wayne says, “you know what a good deal is.” His advice: “Get one investment property and see if you like being a landlord.” Some people find it a headache, but not the Reuters. “Managing a property and being a landlord is similar to managing people,” he says. They communicated carefully with their tenants, striving for flexibility and honesty. “And the good thing about being a landlord is that you can delegate tasks (for a fee).”
But real estate was not the Reuters’ only investment. They always saved. “You can start with saving 1 percent of each commission in year one and increase that amount in each subsequent year, but get in the habit of saving and every year putting money into your retirement accounts.”
Not everyone has this kind of discipline, and according to Cook, age 50 seems to be the magic number that kicks people into gear. “If a real estate professional has not done a lot of savings in their 20s, 30s, or 40s,” he says, “then in their 50s, that’s when people wake up to fact they need to be saving aggressively for retirement. At this point, the Solo 401(k) is often the vehicle that we use.” That’s because the higher contribution limits can help you do your best to make up for lost time. Or you can split your contributions between types of accounts, deductible and nondeductible. Find a certified public accountant or financial planner you trust who can advise you. The best retirement advice is to practice smart money management—the rules you’ve always heard about. Says Reuter, “Spend less than you make, pay off your credit card balance each month, try to keep three to six months of cash on hand for emergencies and the months you don’t make enough, plan your taxes ahead, and make your quarterly payments. And put away 10 percent every year.”
And own real estate. “Once you get your short-term expenses under control, you should have a property. There’s nothing like having someone else to pay the mortgage.”
Reuter makes it sound easy, and of course it isn’t for everyone. So if you feel overwhelmed at the prospect, it might help to remember that adage about how to get a big tree in your yard:
The best day to plant a tree is 20 years ago. But the second-best day is today.