Mom & pop landlords: stay competitive with discounted shiny bells & whistles

Mom & pop landlords: stay competitive with discounted shiny bells & whistles
This is "the one that got away" (sniff)

Recently I’ve been working on filling my vacant units with new renters.  Since I wanted to attract a higher quality of applicants (translation: people who pay rent, um…….regularly), I knew it was my responsibility as an owner to improve the quality of my product.

Ten years ago I bought and rehabbed an 80-year old solidly built 2-flat.  We replaced old linoleum with ceramic tile in the kitchen and baths.  We put in all new good quality light fixtures.

I had no trouble getting my units rented and I could choose from multiple applications.

At that time,  my units “wowed” prospective tenants with shiny hardwood floors and a ton of lovely original wood trim.

They were clean, livable, and adequately maintained.  Over time I’ve kept them so adequately maintained that I had to get some assistance from the Cook County Judicial System to encourage some very comfortable long-term residents to look for other accommodations.  Despite this, there was no getting around the fact units that are maintained but don’t have that sparkle, that pizzazz, that razzle dazzle, that “je ne sais quoi” cannot be competitive with other sexier units.

Nothing is broken and I’ve kept everything in good shape.  What I’ve learned is that renter’s expectations are so much different from what they were before.  I’m also learning that if you only replace something when it breaks then you might get left behind.

And therein lies the problem.  Let me tell you a little about my “competition.”

Brand new vanity set still in the box. Perfect condition. Got it for $165.

Brand new vanity set still in the box (cabinet, sink, mirror).  Perfect condition. Got it for $165.

When the housing market crashed  many homes in my economically precarious neighborhood were lost to foreclosure.  You might remember people saying at that time, “Anyone who has money now should invest it in real estate right away.”  The only thing was that very few people had money during the nationally terrifying roller coaster ride in the years 2008 to roughly 2011.  People who did have money (and vision) at that time made out like fat rats.  Some big time real estate investing institutions with deep pockets came in and bought up a lot of very decent properties at bargain basement rates.

During this time, not only were residential properties being bought up for ridiculous prices, but the housing bust also put contractors out of work (plumbers, carpenters, electricians, roofers, etc.) and left materials suppliers with a lot of inventory on their hands that they couldn’t move.

Mr. Moneybags, meet low priced/good quality housing stock, a motivated workforce and a free-for-all on bulk rate materials and fixtures.

I was a also a Realtor at that unique time in housing history and I watched as my showings changed from middle of the road, average residential properties being sold by average Joes to high-end, extra fancy properties recently purchased and rehabbed by huge investing operations.

I started to see marble countertops and stainless steel appliances in areas where I had NEVER seen them before.  Sometimes I almost needed to step outside of a newly rehabbed listing and check the street sign to verify that I was still in a neighborhood I thought I knew.

This trend continues today.  There are still a lot of good deals in my area which leave enough flexibility for a buyer to invest a lot of money in upgrades and improvements.  This is great and I really can’t complain about raising the level of quality in a neighborhood–especially MY neighborhood.  As a resident I was thrilled to see homes that could have sat vacant turned into gorgeous showplaces to attract stabilizing families.  As an independent landlord, though, I worried about how I could afford to raise my units to that level of fanciness when I didn’t have the same resources and connections.

And I nursed that worry.

Used vanity but great condition. Clean and well kept (cabinet, sink, faucet). $130

Used vanity but great condition. Clean and well kept (cabinet, sink, faucet). $130

And I fed it.  And I nurtured it. And I let it flourish.  For years.  All the while I rented my units at below market rates and stayed in “toxic relationships” with renters who paid rent when it was convenient and paid for other things when it was not (vacations, vehicles, high end furniture, parties, satellite dishes, etc.).  Until I finally got so tired of sponsoring families with this expensive hobby (because that’s exactly what it is when you own rental property that doesn’t make you money) and I started to look for ways that I could put in some of those bells and whistles that my competition has.

At exactly the right time a friend turned me on to sites like LetGo, OfferUp, Craigslist, etc. as they are used by rental property owners.  Of course I was already familiar with the sites and I use them often to buy personal and household items.  But it wasn’t until I talked to my friend that he turned the page for me and showed me just what I can REALLY do with those sites.  And I tell you, I’ve been like a kid in a candy store.  Or a landlord at an all-you-can-carry estate sale.

I never knew or never considered you could buy fixtures, appliances and certain types of furniture.  I got some great deals on quality ceiling fans and I’m very excited that I was able to update my bathrooms with complete vanity sets (cabinet, sink, faucet, mirror, light fixture).

Of course, every new adventure in life will involve a story about “the one that got away.”  I made a deal with a seller on LetGo to buy a great bathroom vanity set valued at over $500 for ONLY $75!!!  Was it my birthday??? Was this stranger giving me a gift???  But when it was time for me to pick it up he said “sorry I gave it to a family member.”  The old heart still hurts a little when I think of that one.  But when I add up all I saved and I look at all the lovely ways I was able to make my places more desirable I have to tell you that using these sites is one of the happiest “discoveries” I’ve made in a long time.

Details of the one that slipped through my fingers.  A complete set! Everything I needed.  Alas, was not meant to be...

Details of the one that slipped through my fingers. A complete set! Everything I needed. Alas, was not meant to be…

It’s always smarter to get higher quality items at a greatly reduced rate vs. paying for low-priced, low quality items.  Higher quality items stand up much better to rental unit wear and tear and extend the time between updating.  If you have unused storage space (a garage, attic or basement) you could even take your time and catch deals at the very lowest possible prices and store them until you need them.  One more benefit is you can then re-sell your old stuff if it still has any value and apply the proceeds to the cost of the new stuff.  Check them out. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Caution: Always be mindful of personal safety when using online buying and selling apps.


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