How to manage a buy-to-let property yourself

Last updated: 10 April 2018

Tenants: found!

Tenancy: all set up, check-in done and deposit protected!

So… now what?

Well, that depends on how things go. If you’re lucky, there’ll just be a few regular jobs to take care of: routine inspections, the odd bit of normal maintenance, and renewing the tenancy when your happy tenants want to stay longer.

If you’re not so lucky, there could also be emergency repairs to arrange and non-payment of rent to resolve.

How to communicate with your tenants

The first thing to remember is that your property is now their home, their right to “quiet enjoyment” means you can only access the property with their permission after giving appropriate notice. You need to give at least 24 hours' notice in writing (a text message is fine), and the tenant is free to refuse permission without giving a reason.

The next thing to consider is general ground rules for communication. I recommend encouraging text-based communication wherever possible: email worked well for me when I was self-managing, but texting or a messaging service like WhatsApp is fine too.

Text-based communication is beneficial for two reasons. Firstly, it’s generally more convenient: you don’t have to stop what you’re doing to answer the phone, and they can send messages whenever they think of it rather than wait for a suitable time to call. The second benefit is that it provides a written record: if you get into a dispute and they claim that you’ve left a repair ignored for weeks on end, you can easily retort by showing your time-stamped replies where you offered to fix it.

Dealing with emergencies

Managing a property involves two different types of responsibility: proactively taking care of routine maintenance and safety issues, and reacting to any emergencies that arise.

What is an emergency? Basically, it’s anything that will have an impact on the health, safety or wellbeing of your tenants, or cause damage to the property, if it’s not dealt with pronto. A non-exhaustive list would include:

There's a strong possibility that your definition of an emergency and your tenants' definition will be different. Situations like “the bedroom door is stiff to close” are considered to be an emergency by some tenants (yet weirdly I've had other tenants not bother to report a leak for weeks on end), so it's a good idea to establish upfront what qualifies for rapid action.

For most emergencies, the most appropriate action probably won’t be for the tenant to attempt to rouse you from your bed at 3am. While there may or may not be something you can do about it, it’s still not a sensible plan because the tenant won’t be able to guarantee getting hold of you instantly – so it’s a good idea to cover in the house manual what to do in the main categories of emergency situation.

Arranging non-emergency maintenance

However top-notch your property and gentle your tenant, repairs will be required at some point. Either you’ll notice something in a routine inspection that clearly needs attention soon, or you’ll get a call that something has suddenly broken – but either way, you’ll have to get on the case and sort it out.

The tenant, however, should be expected to take care of routine odd jobs, and not expect you to be their mother or servant when the tiniest thing needs doing. Changing a lightbulb or unblocking a sink would clearly fall into this category.

For anything that is your responsibility to sort out, you're legally bound to attend to it in a “reasonable” period of time – and there's nothing to be gained by delaying, because you'll only annoy the tenant and risk the problem becoming worse.

You can either fix it yourself if you have the skills, or instruct a tradesperson if you don't. (Either way, remember the requirement to give the tenant enough notice.) In time, you’ll build up a little black book of reliable trades to cover all the major areas – general maintenance, plumbing, decorating, electrical work, etc. – but at first, you’ll probably need to be in “reactive” mode and go searching for someone every time an issue comes up.

If your tenant waits in to meet the tradesperson without you being there, make sure you instruct the tradesperson in advance not to take instructions from the tenant: they just need to report back to you, and you will decide what gets done and when. If it’s something that can potentially be sorted right away, you might ask them to call you from the property and get your permission to go ahead, thus saving another visit.

Once the work is done, you won’t want to make payment until you’ve checked that the problem is fixed and the standard is acceptable – which you could accomplish by asking the tradesperson to send you photos, asking the tenant, or going to see it yourself.

Inspecting the property

It’s a good idea, if at all practical, to visit the property every six months to check on its general condition. This isn’t a full inventory like you’d conduct at the start of a tenancy, but just an opportunity to check that the tenant is treating the property responsibly and there are no major items of maintenance that haven’t been reported.

The tenant can be present for inspections or not, but either way the visit should be presented to them as a chance to look for anything that might need sorting out for them – not an excuse to come into their home and judge their behaviour. And just like any other type of visit to the property, the tenant needs to have at least 24 hours’ written notice of your intention to visit – which they’re free to decline.

Inspections are quick and easy to do yourself if you want to, but inventory clerks will also be willing to conduct inspections if you don’t have the time or confidence to do it yourself.

Look carefully around each room to check for anything that could be repaired or replaced to improve safety or just provide the tenant with better living conditions. For example, if a piece of carpet at the top of the stairs has come loose, that’s something worth recording and correcting right away. Don’t forget to also look at the exterior of the building.

Also look for signs of condensation (so you can advise the tenant about how they can stop it from getting worse), and any areas where it appears that they’re using the property in a way that could result in damage – such as overloading electrical sockets.

If you spot anything likely to cause damage to the property, you have the right to insist that it’s put right quickly: put in writing what needs to be done, and arrange a re-inspection once they’ve had a reasonable amount of time to fix it.

Once the inspection is complete, sign and date it and ask the tenant to do the same (either in person or over email), then file it away with the tenancy agreement and other paperwork.

What if the tenant doesn't pay the rent?

Yes – other than “property issues”, the other aspect of property management is “tenant issues”. And the most common one of those is the rent not being paid, or being paid late or erratically.

You'll have taken the first month's rent before the tenant moves in – so one month into the tenancy is the nervy moment when you wait to see if the tenant is going to pay on time.

If it isn't paid, it's vital that you get onto it right away – to send the message that the “rent due date” isn’t a guideline or an aspiration: it’s the date on which the rent will be paid.

Chances are that it’s just something innocent – like the standing order not being set up correctly. But still, be on the lookout for excuses. Most tenants are perfectly upstanding individuals, but the bad ones can do an excellent impression of being an upstanding individual and string you along for weeks with perfectly plausible excuses and apologies.

If a subsequent rent payment is late, there's even more cause for concern: you know the arrangement had been set up correctly in the first place, so it must have been cancelled or failed because the tenant doesn't have the money in their account. Again, get onto it immediately.

If it’s not an honest mistake – or a one-off shortfall where the tenant is straightforward with you and commits to a firm plan to put things right – you don’t want to let things drag on for any longer than they have to.

Once someone’s behind with their bills in general, how likely to do you think they are four months later to suddenly get everything back on track and send you the lump of arrears they’ve built up?

Unfortunately, whether you’re the victim of a “can’t pay” or “won’t pay” situation, the result is the same: legal action. It’s expensive, time-consuming, hard to get right and all-in-all no fun for anyone.

You can be a bit more relaxed about the situation if you've taken out Rent Guarantee Insurance – read my article about it here.

And there's more!

If this is all sounding like a lot of hard work, the bad news is that what we've run through is really just the tip of the iceberg. A managing agent's fees might suddenly be looking like less of a rip-off – in which case you can revisit the decision about whether to self-manage or use an agent.

For all the gory details about property management – including how to select and work with a letting agent – check out my book, How To Be A Landlord. It's had over 150 five-star reviews on Amazon, and includes contributions from 60 experienced landlords as well as my own knowledge from owning a national letting agency.