Dear PoPville – Should I get a professional property manager?

Dear PoPville,

I own a duplex in NW DC, I live in one and rent the other one. Since I live close to my tenants I have been pretty good at keeping the property up, calling contractors when needed, and doing little fixes here and there.

The problem:

I will be temporally moving out from DC for 1-3 years and will be renting both apartments, I am wondering what is the best way to manage my property…Is it possible to manage a property long distance by just calling contractors when needed and getting the bill sent to me or do I need to hire a professional property manager?

I have a limited budget, the rent equal the mortgage so hiring someone will be a stretch for me, it’s my last option.

1- please share you experience, have you managed a property while living out of state? or do you have an out of state landlord? How do you pay the monthly rent, how do you deal with issues/repairs?
2-For those who have used property manager, how much do they cost? are they pay by hour? per incident or monthly salary ? do you have anyone you could recommendation?
Any other suggestion is very welcome 🙂

34 Comment

  • We had an out of state landlord. It was very very difficult getting anything done in a timely fashion. They had someone “on call” they used for repairs and such, but they wanted to wait until you had a list of things, not just call him out for one thing. And when you did have that list, the guy showed up at 7am on a Saturday, unannounced. There was a major incident one time and we were left arranging for and organizing plumbers, contractors, insurance inspections, etc. It sucked. And we resented it. I guess it just depends upon how available and responsive you will be from out of state.

    Our rent was paid by mailing a check along with one of their deposit slips. It was a PITA and the only reason we even had to use checks. Online payment would be my preference.

  • We have an out of state landlord. I deposit rent directly into his account at his bank. It’s really simple, and the bank is close to my office. If it was a more inaccessible bank, I’d probably just mail him a check.

    So far he’s been really responsive and just sends a handyman or contractor (he has a list of them and shared their contact info with us as well) anytime there is an issue. He just asks that we let him know what’s up before we call someone to fix anything.

    It seems to work well for him, but he’s great about quickly answering emails and his phone.

  • Our landlord lives in California. The situation can work but it requires effort on both parties. We typically pay for repairs/fixes etc. and then just deduct from next months rent or if the expense is really big, he speaks with the person and pays over the phone or sends a check directly to them. Our landlord has an account at PNC so we just deposit rent into that account and that works for us. There had been problems with previous tenants that he should’ve known about but had an unofficial “property manager” who rented the basement apt. who never told him about any of the issues arising at the house. I would suggest if at all possible, being available for move-out inspections so that you can deduct appropriate amounts from deposits or finding a trusted family member/friend to do them and report to you. Obviously a professional prop. management company is ideal but we have made the situation work and for the most part we’ve been happy.

  • I live in a rowhouse owned by one person, but split into two separate apartments. The owner lives whoknowswhere, and a management company runs the house. They’re mostly responsive, but are pretty quick to call the electrician or other professional without really checking it out themselves. I’m sure it costs the owner a bit more than they’d want to spend. Not sure how much they charge, but I’d proceed w/ caution if money is a concern…

  • I’m a long-distance landlord, not by choice; when I moved to DC from Austin, TX a couple of years ago, I couldn’t sell my condo there, so I’ve rented it out. I looked into property managers, but they charged a lot — typically one month’s rent per year. So I do the property management myself. It works pretty well for me, but I have a short list of pros to call when something breaks (an appliance repairman, an A/C guy, etc.), and stuff doesn’t break very often. Plus I got a good tenant who pays his rent on time (he mails a check to me each month) and wants to stay for a long time. It would be a lot more of a pain if stuff broke more often, if I had a bad tenant, or I had a lot of tenant turnover.

  • I’m a landlord of a similar set-up. When I started reading, I was all set to tell you no way do you need a landlord — when you’re on the spot, you can manage very easily. But then I saw that you were moving for 1-3 years and the concern is understandable.

    I hate to say it, but unless you plan to be back in DC with some frequency/regularity, I think you want a property manager. Managing from a distance can be a pain (it’s a pain to do it from where I live, which is in the Metro area). It’s doable, however, if you have a good relationship with and trust your tenants to exercise sound judgment in the event of an emergency. I’ve known some friends who had this type of relationship, and it was at worst a minor annoyance and at best actually a pretty good deal for everybody involved. But if you might be gone up to 3 years, it’s far-fetched to think you’ll have the same 2 tenants for that entire time. In fact, it’s possible that you could go through 6 1-year leases during that period, and it’s axiomatic that some of those tenancies will be less favorable to you than others.

    So why invite the headache of trying to find and vet new tenants AND having to respond to normal obligations you take on as a landlord from a distance? It seems to me to be more than you want to take on, especially if you’re going to be really far away and traveling back is going to be costly.

    Possible alternative: instead of a professional property manager that will charge a % of rents, do you have a responsible and handy friend who’d do it for some flat fee, rather than a % of rent? That could cost you less, give tenants a local point of contact, and give you some sense that a trusted party would be there to find new tenants and make informed judgments about what needed to be done with your property.

    • BTW — Don’t forget that your management fee is going to be tax deductible. It really depends on your tax bracket, but if you’re up there, consider that you get a coupon for that much off the management company’s expense. Plenty of folks likely will attack my math on this, but for instance, if you got charged 10% of rent for the management and were in the 30% marginal tax bracket, you’d really only be paying 7%.

  • The woman who “manages” our rental lives in New York. It’s been a mixed bag — we live in a condo building, so she usually just asks the on-site maintenance to fix it if we have a problem and adds it to the condo association bill. If something is broken, she takes our word for it and replaces it or fixes it. This is great in some ways — it has meant a new kitchen floor, new kitchen faucet, and new fridge in the three years we’ve lived there — but can also be less convenient — we have to mail checks, communicate via e-mail or phone, and can’t control or predict when people show up to do stuff (case in point: our new fridge showed up on a saturday morning at 8am with some non-english-speaking handymen, and while the situation was pretty self-evident, they probably charged her more because we weren’t prepared so it took us half an hour to clean out the old fridge, clean the floor underneath, and move everything over. I’d recommend a property manager especially if you’re not in a condo building — at the very least, it’s someone to check in on the claims of tenants who say they need a lot of fixes.

  • I’m the owner of a couple of rental properties out of state, and we use a professional property manager. We pay 7% of the rent for the service.

    It’s totally worth the money as far as I’m concerned. Unless you have some reason to believe that all of your tenants will stay the apartments the entire time you are gone, you have to consider that you will need to show the apartments to prospective new tenants every time there is a vacancy. This would be very difficult to do from a distance.

    Then there are maintenance issues. These always will come up, and depending on the circumstances, it could be very difficult for you to manage these without actually being there.

    Not to mention if you have a tenant who doesn’t pay on time or damages the property somehow, which can always happen. You’ll want someone around if that starts happening.

  • We did this exact same thing for 4 years. It was absolutely necessary to have a professional management company. We found one that worked out perfectly (after one that did not at all). I *strongly* recommend “Property managment specialists inc” at

    Property Management Specialists, Inc.
    1107 B Spring Street
    Silver Spring, MD 20910
    f 301-565-3191
    [email protected]

    They were great in all ways.

    The thing you need to do, for your part, is make sure you are very responsive when issues come up. There *will* be repairs needed and other things will go wrong. You need to factor in funds for that and you need to trust your management company. Make sure they have a good stable of on-call contractors to do repairs, and will find multiple reliable quotes for you if big issues come up. PMSI did all of this for us. We rented out our 100+ year old rowhouse in CH, and had a variety of things go wrong. But we were living on the other side of the world but came to trust PMSI to take care of everything when things went south. While away we had to replace the roof, and a number of other things, but when we came back the house was perfectly maintained.

    Also, it is critical to vet tenants. This is obvious. But get good tenants that you trust. Ideally, a reliable family with stable income etc – but that can be difficult to do in this youngster-filled town. So make sure your management company will do extensive credit and referral checks and interview prospective tenants to help ensure you find ones that will respect your place.

  • For those of you who are mentioning professional property managers and have been pleased with their services, can you mention them by name? I have heard some horror stories, particularly from people who used a few of the local realty companies to rent out and manage their properties. Unqualified tenants, poor follow through on repairs, damage to the units, lack of rent payments, etc.

    • I’ll go ahead and toss out some thoughts as the co-owner of Nest DC – a boutique property management company that specializes in residential units in DC. If you find the right management company that really cares about the value of the investment – cares about the quality of the overall space and wants to be sure tenants feel really well taken care of – then it’s worth it. If the management company is more or less a fiscal agent and an emergency number but isn’t interested in your actual home – then it isn’t worth it. It’s true you can call contractors etc. yourself – manage bills and give a discount to tenants if they help you coordinate visits. Essentially – that’s all a lot of companies will do. There are some good ones though – who care quite a bit about excellent service. For folks who are out of the district and managing their own unit. When you get your DCRA registration – you need to designate a company and/or person to function as your agent of record (it’s essentially a person who can receive mail locally in case you need to get served an official notice). Without that – in the event that you (knock on wood) need to evict your tenant or serve notice of intent to evict – this gives you the proper registration to do so. Good luck everyone!

  • We managed our DC condo from across the country for 5 years. It was a pain at times but with the right tenant it can work well and it is quite a bit of savings. We rented the place below market to try to keep the tenants happier and to keep it occupied. Never had a vacant month while we were gone (we moved back in last year to reclaim our primary home exemption). It really depends on the tenant in my experience. If they are expecting a ‘full-service’ apartment where they don’t have any part in repairs or maintenance then it won’t work but if they are ok with scheduling repairs and you have a few friends who could check in on things once in a blue moon you can do it.

  • janie4

    As someone who has a family member in a house rented by owner, I would ask you to please have a professional manager. In their case, the issue is that the owner is a do-it-yourselfer who doesn’t always answer her efforts to communicate, but that experience informs this post.

    1. You could give your tenants a list of people they should call, but if one of those people isn’t available, what then? Is the list going to be two or three people deep?

    2. Again, it can work if you have a personal relationship with the tenant, and trust them to call and arrange repairs and deduct rent, but what if you don’t? You’ll have to pay, which can be problematic. You’ll either have to have accounts with these people to pay for repairs/contracting, or be available to pay by credit card – or find professionals who will take checks mailed a few days later. May not be possible.

    3. If you’re very far away, time differences will make managing stuff difficult.

    4. In a rental, one expects the HVAC, leaks and pest issues addressed promptly. Which means it can’t take a few days to get the HVAC guy in.

    So for the sake of your tenants, in the hopes of getting tenants who will stay for multiple years, I recommend getting a professional company.
    My recommendation – find a good

    • As an owner, I can’t get HVAC/Pest Control/Plumbers to show up “promptly.” It always takes a few days to get those guys to come out. I guess I should start renting for faster service!

      • So true. If you rent from a small-timer (as opposed to a big building with its own service staff and technicians), you have to understand that your landlord is equally at the mercy of the scheduling idiosyncracies of contractors as you are. It has nothing to do with where the landlord is located.

        I think a lot of Janie4’s comment still rings true, but it does reflect some unrealistic expectations being placed on the landlord. As in all things, there are good landlords and less good ones and really bad ones … tenants and landlords alike have a real interest in finding a good match at the outset.

  • I rent my apt. from a landlord that lives relatively close near Baltimore but basically never comes in for anything. We’ve worked out a deal, where I basically get someone to fix things and then deduct the bills from the rent.

    It can be a pain at times, but the rent is decent, and the landlord is a nice guy, so I deal with it. Having a property manager might make things better perhaps, but I’ve basically always had a similar setup everywhere I’ve lived. I think it only works if the landlor is laid back and doesn’t penny pinch if I call a plumber for a busted faucet, and I recognize that I have to be laid back about calling the “Fixers” myself.

    I’d say do one of two things:
    1. Hire a property manager as others suggest
    2. Have a list of people that can fix basically anything available to a tenant (electrical, plumbing, washer/dryer, etc) and then find a good tenant, charge ~10% less than you would and tell them to call your people when something breaks and deduct the costs. You could also just keep a tab with the plumber, electrician, etc. and pay them directly. The tenant basically becomes their own property manager, which is how I’ve basically lived for a while, but I think this can only work if the tenant/landlord are relatively easy-going.

    Good luck!

    • This is ideally how things should work. Realize that the landlord probably has a limited budget to operate on and still break even on your place. Tenants who accept that they can put in a little legwork and save the landlord the mgmt fee probably also will have landlords who won’t be so penny-pinching when things really do need to be fixed. I’d much rather hire a good plumber fast and pay for the upgraded parts, etc. than spend 7-10% on a mgmt company and then, when they tell me something went wrong at the place, direct them to put a budget-conscious band-aid on it. I assume that’s what my tenants want, too.

  • When I moved into my apartment my landlord had just moved to Vancouver and discovered he was not legally able to manage the property from outside the country. He hired The Rock Creek Group (formerly TIPS DC) and they are terrible. If you do go the management company route, DO NOT hire these people.

  • My husband & I live in an apartment in Mt Pleasant & our landlord lives out of the country. It has worked out pretty well for us, but I wish he had left some contact numbers for plumbers etc. He wants us to get 3 estimates for every repair (which means being home & paying for people to come out 3 times even for “emergency” repairs aka broken gas heater in December and hot water heater flooding the apartment). Also my husband and I are fairly handy and can handle small repairs. So I think with the right tenants and landlord relationship it can work. But definitively leave them some contractors you can trust to call!

    • 3 estimates? Thats b.s. I would never do that. I have a good landlord/tenant relationship (I’m the tenant), and I will deal with repairs from time to time and will call repair people, but my landlord has a list of people he trusts and would never expect me to deal with getting 3 estimates! Who can be home for all of that, especially if you work 9-5?

      I can deal with minor inconveniences, but I also have a little kid, and I would never have the time to sit around and wait 2-4 hours for each estimate.

  • orderedchaos

    Definitely, definitely get a management company for your property. We use one for our Adams Morgan condo, and it’s totally worth the 9% they take off the monthly rent.

    What clinched it for us was this: We did NOT want to get calls at 2:00 am if there was a leak, or some other problem with the condo. We also didn’t want to be the ones to find someone to do the work, confirm the work was done, etc. And we sure didn’t want to have to chase down tenants if they were late with their rent.

    Simply put, the hassle of being a “landlord” wasn’t worth the slight cost savings versus a management company.

  • We have an out-of-country landlord and use to automatically transfer funds from our account into the landlords. Super easy.

    When we met with our landlord initially, he asked if we would prefer a property manager, and we decided that we’d try it out first to see if we thought it was necessary. If your place is nice and your renters are responsible, make decent money, etc. then you could end up with folks who want to stick around the whole time and who won’t cause problems. However, if your place is not so nice and it ends up in more of a group home situation, I’d think a property manager would save you some serious headaches.

  • Just a thought – have you considered a tenant/manager? S/he may have a primary occupation in the area, and power-of-attorney may be required, but someone well-vetted on-site may be an option.

  • I am in a similar situation–moving overseas for a couple of years, starting in August–and decided to get a property manager. After asking vainly for recommendations from friends and colleagues, I happened to click on an advertisement (on this site) for Nest DC. After sitting down with the principals for a little while, I decided to go with them. I haven’t actually moved yet, so my track record with them is somewhat short, but I have been impressed with them so far. They specialize in the greater PoPville area.

  • One quick warning I would send is that be careful using a property manager if you actually care about the property. I work in an industry that deals with property managers on a daily basis. Many in the plumbing, heating and air, carpentry, windows, etc (most any construction) dislike working with Property Managers. They are rude most often, not very knowledgeable (although they seem to think so) nor very articulate as to what your wishes are. Many property managers will be using the cheapest labor and companies to do repairs and look after the upkeep on the property. Not all but if you really want to keep the property in good condition a hands on approach would work best, albeit more work for you.

  • Also EJF Real Estate is a great company if you wish to hire a property manager. Definitely check them out if you are going to be feeling out several companies.

  • Another suggestion is to find a family member or good friend willing to act as an emergency contact. Of course, you’d have to find a way to compensate them, monetarily at least. But, at least you know you could trust them (probably).

  • I have lived in MtP in a row house split into 3 apartments for 2 years. I have never met the landlord who supposedly lives in London. The building is managed by Fred A Smith Mngmt and they are terrible–though I suspect some of it is because we are just a house and they manage many, many large buildings with on-site maintenence/managers.

    It takes at least 1 week from any time we report a problem to get it fixed. This includes the time the toilet seat broke off! And of course repairmen show up at random times with no warning. (Except the time they painted and we had to move all of our own furniture/art from the walls.)

    I would also say that if you care at all about your property, you won’t go with a property management company. As others have said, they aren’t interested in maintaining the condition of your building–they want to make money. The wood floors near our bathroom are slowly rotting away but the management company only bothered to make the immediate fix to the leak in the wall.

  • Short version: probably
    I am renting a unit in ch.

    There are a few times when it would have made it much easier to have had a management Company.

    I have probably paid the equvilant amount in time alone, not to mention hassle.

  • I’m neither a tenant or a landlord of such setup but here’s an idea: I would make a deal with one of the tenants do the property management for a minor discount. you would do the legwork of arranging the maintenance and the tenant would help with the final arrangements. May be attractive with a lot of tenants for the discount

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