When Dave Claiborne's employer transferred him to Orange County from New Jersey two years ago, he decided to put his home up for rent instead of selling it.
"One day I'll move back there, and I want a place to live, plus I like it," he says. "But I had never been a landlord before, and I needed to do some studying on it."
His experience mirrors that of many homeowners who, because of job relocation or a desire to move to a different home, have become first-time landlords, renting out their property.
Though there are plenty of reference materials dealing with the legalities and paperwork of renting your house, not much deals with just how to prepare your home for a renter.
"I've had three different renters over the last two years and I've been lucky," says Claiborne. "All of them have kept the place up reasonably well. I think that most renters are good about taking care of the house they're renting, but it's the horror stories of people who have demolished an apartment that gets our attention. But even an observant renter is not going to watch over your house with the same eye as yourself."
There are laws that require landlords to provide a safe, clean property. The local library or bookstore has information for landlords on preparing a rental property, and you also might want to check if there are any relevant city codes. Some of the basics are common-sense items that should be in every home.
"You should have smoke detectors in every room, and you should check to make sure they're working and their batteries are fresh," says Alex Torres of Triple S Lighting and Supply in Mission Viejo, which specializes in parts and equipment for rental properties. "You also might want to add a carbon monoxide detector for the house."
Ground-fault-interrupter receptacles need to be installed in place of regular electrical sockets where they might be exposed to water in kitchens and baths.
Also be sure the water heater is properly strapped. You could insert a pan under the tank to catch water if a leak should develop.
Starting at the Top
Roof maintenance is crucial at any time, but it's especially critical on a home being rented. A leak that goes on long enough to drip water into the living area could damage the renter's furniture as well as the landlord's flooring.
Check the attic for water stains on the rafters. If there's evidence of a leak, hose down the roof and see if you can spot the leak.
It's also a good time to clean out the gutters. Leaves and debris can collect and cause overflows that can damage paint and landscaping.
Have you ever had your chimney cleaned? A professional can sweep it and remove excess soot and creosote.
Out the Door
The outside of your rental property should look nice, but simple. "You don't want a lot of delicate or high-maintenance plants that have to be continually dealt with," says Jim Gorman of Westminster, who owns several rental homes.
"It's a good idea to contract with a gardening service to come out and take care of the lawn and landscaping," he says. "This way, the renter doesn't have to worry about the yard work and you'll be assured that the landscaping will be kept up."
Consider installing a sprinkler system, or if you already have one, adding an automatic timer.
"If you'd like the lawn to be in great shape, this is essential, since you don't want to expect the renter to be out there every day with the sprinkler," he says.
Fix broken vent screens to keep rodents out the attic or crawl space, and throw out any discards in the yard or garage.
Also look for wood around the house that's worn or shows signs of rot.
"If you need to replace some fascia board or lawn edging, it's not a bad idea to use redwood," says Gorman. 'It's going to last longer, but be sure to prime and seal all bare surfaces."
Called on the Carpet
Carpeting often causes some of the biggest snags in renter-landlord relations. Renters want clean, relatively modern, preferably neutral carpeting with few worn spots. Landlords would often rather leave the floors bare than see carpets ruined by several renters and their pets over a few years.
"On average, figure that you'll be getting a new renter each year," says Torres. "Based on that, you should expect to get five to six years out of a good carpet. Moving really takes a toll on the carpeting. Once the knap is broken down in the major walkways and it's virtually flat, it's probably a good idea to shop for new carpeting."
A professional cleaning service can help squeeze a few more years from your carpet. "Many of the pros out there have just the right solvents to get grease, juice, even rust stains from the carpet," says Torres. "And hopefully, you'll have remnants of it stored away that can be used to patch in repairs."
If it can't be saved, don't fall into the old trick of buying the cheapest carpeting available. "Go for a middle-grade carpet," says Torres. "A cheap carpet is just going to have to be replaced that much sooner. And add a good-quality high-density padding, like a three-eighths-inch rebond pad. Good padding keeps the carpet from getting squashed against the concrete or wood subfloor underneath."
Neutral colors are the rule for rental properties--beige and gray. You may want to consider a slightly darker tone, though, to help hide stains. In some places, you may want to pull out the carpeting permanently.
A Plumb Assignment
Longtime landlords know the value of staying on top of plumbing problems.
"I saw a survey recently that said that nearly 40% of all drains in the United States have a leak," says Rich Haagsma of Faucets 'n Fixtures in Orange. "A renter may not notice or be aware of a leaking pipe or water heater, which is why you should make sure everything is in good working order before you turn over the keys."
Try to arrange to make regular inspections of the house with your new renter. "Tell the renter you want to come and check everything out two or three times a year," says Gorman. "That will give you some peace of mind to know that everything is functioning."
Inspect your plumbing fixtures and the water heater for leaks and replace washers or the fixtures if necessary.
"Don't get the cheapest fixtures available, but you also don't need the best," says Haagsma. "And make sure they're chrome; that's the easiest to maintain."
If you've recently done any kitchen or bathroom remodeling and installed some high-quality fixtures, you've got a decision to make if you'll be renting your house. Without some upkeep, brass can tarnish and deteriorate.
One option is to take them with you to your new house, but the pros and cons of this idea have to be carefully weighed.
"It's a tough call," says Haagsma. "Once a faucet has been set in place, even for a short time, the gaskets develop a memory, and they won't fit the same on the new sink, so you may have some problems. That combined with the work of pulling out the old one and reinstalling it elsewhere make it hard to recommend that plan."
They're not the most attractive way to dress a window, but vertical blinds do the job when it comes to a rental. They're relatively inexpensive, easy to clean and they go with any decor.
"Drapes seem to get dirty and dusty over a short period of time, and they have to be dry-cleaned, and mini-blinds bend easily," says Torres. "Vinyl vertical blinds are easy to use, and it's easy to replace a slat if it becomes damaged."
If you have a tricky thermostat on the furnace or something out-of-the-ordinary that needs to be done to use an appliance, don't just tell renters before handing over the keys; type it out in a letter they can reference when they need to, says new landlord Claiborne.
"That's where you can tell them, 'Please don't use cleanser on the marble tile in the entryway,' " says Claiborne. "It helps the renter out if you can't be reached and they can't figure out how to get the oven to work."
Make sure your renter has your home and work phone numbers, as well as pager or cellular numbers.
Also make sure you have an emergency plan if you're out of town when the water heater springs a leak. Arrange with a friend or neighbor who can be easily reached to handle the situation.
"I rely on my brother in New Jersey to take care of most of the problems at my condo," says Claiborne. "Which is fine, although being an absentee owner makes you neurotic sometimes. I don't think I could own more than one rental property. I'd go a little crazy."