In our last post, we shared six tips to help first-time landlords hit the ground running. This month we’re sharing six more tips to help you find your ideal renter, create your lease and manage your property once it’s rented.

1. Perfect Your Application Process
While there are regulations that your application process must adhere to as we mentioned in our last post, having a clear and consistent process in place will allow you to carefully select your tenants without breaking any rules.

Make sure your process is the same for all applicants and includes a credit check, income verification, and rental history/landlord reports. Only once you provide a preliminary approval can you run a criminal and background check. This process is specific to DC. Depending on the outcome of the screening, you may need to ask more questions.

If you must reject someone, make sure it’s for a legally defensible reason, provide the applicant with written justification and keep a copy of that justification letter for your records (Adverse Action Letter). If this process seems worrisome or complicated, this is another area where a property management company can come in handy, helping you to manage property showings and screen applicants.

2. Understand and Enforce Lease Terms
When creating your lease agreement, it’s to your advantage to make sure it has been reviewed by a real estate attorney familiar with DC rental laws. A lawyer will ensure the lease conforms to federal and local laws and that it includes necessary inclusions as well as waivers that benefit you as a landlord. For example, your lease should include a waiver of “Notice to Quit” to avoid having to wait an additional rent cycle before being able to file a non-payment of rent case in Landlord Tenant court.

Once you’ve got solid lease terms, NEVER provide keys to a tenant without a signed lease, security deposit and first month’s rent. While a written lease is not required in DC, possession reigns over all else. Whoever has the keys has possession of apartment and has established tenancy. It’s much harder to remove a tenant once they’ve taken possession of the apartment, so make sure it is on your terms (signed lease) and with the maximum amount of cash you can collect up-front (one month deposit plus rent due).

3. Hire a Good Landlord/Tenant Attorney
While we’ve mentioned it before, this tip bears calling out separately. Not only can a landlord/tenant attorney help with creating a binding and legal lease agreement and other legal documents and forms, an attorney can also help navigate any issues with unpaid rent, evictions and other legal issues that might come up.

In DC, tenants can stay for as long as they want after the lease term is up, provided they keep paying rent. And even if rent isn’t paid, they can cite housing code violations to delay eviction, get rebates on rent and stay in the unit for extended periods. Even once a judgement is received from the Court, tenants can avoid eviction up to the moment the US Marshall arrives by paying all owed back rent. All of this can lead to long legal battles, legal expenses and court fees that could be avoided with some negotiation and intervention by a lawyer early on.

4. Stay on Top of Repairs
It is important to respond to your renter’s requests for repairs and maintenance in a timely manner. It is one of the most common areas that create negative experiences for tenants and neglecting their needs can generate official complaints to regulatory agencies. Avoid common housing code violations and keep the rental in good condition.

There are certain types of requests that must be handled as emergencies. Clearly if there is a fire or flood you will want to respond immediately because your property is at risk. But, there are other issues that justify your prompt response as well. If your tenant indicates they don’t have heat, if there’s a broken toilet, they’ve seen pests, or they report another significant hazard, you must handle these as emergencies and address them quickly. Remember that housing violations and unaddressed repair requests can be used against you if your tenant refuses to pay rent.

5. Inspect the Property Regularly
Avoid having to make major repairs by checking the property condition with reasonable frequency. Typically, an inspection schedule quarterly or twice a year should suffice. These help you to catch minor repairs before they become major issues and will also help you to ensure tenants are caring for the property appropriately and not violating other terms of the lease agreement.

It’s also recommended that you thoroughly document the property’s condition at move-in, move-out and whenever you conduct a property condition check. Take pictures, use checklists for forms and make notes of tenant damages or anything to repair or monitor for the next check. Document instructions given to tenants for notifying you of changes or problems that might come up, such as faucet drips or leaks, moisture in bathrooms or basements or other minor problems that might become bigger over time.

Don’t have the time, energy or motivation to manage inspections and stay on top of wear and tear? There are third party property condition companies who can conduct the assessment for you and a property management company is well trained to spot issues for you.

6. Make Sure Your Basement Apartment is Legal
All rentals need to have a rental license. If yours is a basement apartment, or there is a basement apartment in the house, it is also required to have a valid Certificate of Occupancy, if they are separate units.

Keep in mind that if there is a staircase inside the house leading to the basement unit, the whole house must be on one lease and it is considered a single-family house for the purposes of licensing. Also, it is only legal to allow tenants to sleep in the basement if the ceiling height meets specific requirements, there is egress from the sleeping room (window to the exterior), and there are no gas meters or gas burning appliances in the sleeping area. There are additional requirements, but these are a few of the major ones.

Becoming a landlord is a big responsibility and can be a large investment of time and financial resources. Bu,t when you are willing to do your research you’re armed with the right information, you’ll be collecting rental income from your new rental property in no time.

Want more information on becoming a landlord? Looking for more hands-on help? Contact us at Columbia Property Management for a free consultation to see how we can make renting your property stress-free.