Forced to become landlords

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2011 - 8:38 AM

Stuck with homes they no longer live in but can't sell, owners who don't want to walk away are reluctantly resorting to renting them out to try to cover expenses.

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About six years ago, when Jennifer Bryden was single and housing prices were rising like a helium balloon, she bought a condo in Uptown. She negotiated hard and thought she got a bargain. "I was so proud of myself," she said.

Then Bryden got married, moved into her husband's house, and the real-estate market deflated, leaving her with a condo she can't sell for even close to what she paid. Now a busy working mom with two preschoolers, Bryden is stuck in a role she never wanted: being a landlord.

Owning rental property used to be a choice made by investors, not a last resort for desperate homeowners. But the housing-market meltdown has spawned a multitude of owners who want to sell but can't, or who would take such a loss that they've resigned themselves to renting out their homes in hopes that the market will improve.

"Being a landlord is a challenge," Bryden said. She's tried her hand at refrigerator repair and painting, but she doesn't have time to tackle bigger repairs so she hires them out.

"Every time I sink money into the condo, I feel so stressed," she said. "My house needs repairs, too. I dread the condo board calling to say I need to contribute to a major repair."

The rental market has seen a flood of formerly owner-occupied homes, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. In 2009, almost one-fourth of single-family detached rentals were owner-occupied two years earlier.

Renting out a former home generates some cash flow, but many owners report they're barely covering their expenses or even losing money. Others struggle to take on time-consuming and

stressful chores, such as finding tenants, dealing with repairs, collecting rent and sometimes eviction.

Instead of cutting their losses, as a traditional investor might, many of today's reluctant landlords say they won't walk away from their former homes.

Kurt Rees of Minneapolis lives 100 miles away from his rented hobby farm in Litchfield. "I don't need the complexity of being a landlord," he said. "I'm barely breaking even, and upkeep takes a lot of effort and money. I could let the bank have it in foreclosure, but that doesn't seem ethical. That's one reason the market is as messed up as it is."

Jennifer Strangis Lundquist also has thought about letting her lender take over the townhouse she bought in 2004. "But I'm not going to do it," she said. "I have a sense of pride."

Instead, the Zimmerman newlywed rents out the Woodbury townhouse at a loss of several hundred dollars each month. Finding good tenants and dealing with repairs are "kind of a headache," she said. She'd rather sell the townhouse than be a landlord. "But I'd have to come to the closing with 30 grand."

Waiting for recovery

Emberly Hermann-Johnson of St. Louis Park considers herself one of the luckier landlords. Her former home in Minneapolis has never lacked for tenants and she's been able to cover her costs. But she's had her share of hassles, such as a $600 plumbing emergency and a new water heater that set her back $1,000.

"Things like that take away any profit," she said. While she hasn't tried selling because of the market, she doesn't want to be a landlord long-term. "I'm hoping to sell within two years, whether the market recovers or not."

When -- or whether -- the market will recover is anyone's guess. Real estate agent Mike Weiland of the Weiland Group, Keller Williams Realty, tells his clients to expect a five-year wait. "That's not news they want to hear," he said. "Some people will be able to wait that out, others won't."

Some experts are even more pessimistic. "I don't think there's going to be a big appreciation in the market for a while," said Kathleen Longo, principal with Accredited Investors, an Edina wealth-management firm. "People may have to readjust their expectations."

She advises clients to "take a realistic look at what it really costs to maintain a property. You have to add a cushion for repair and maintenance."

Landlords in a hurry to generate cash flow are less likely to screen tenants and can end up with problems, cautioned Joann Velde, housing manager for the City of Minneapolis.

"It's a business. You should not go into it blindly." Many first-time landlords are unaware of their obligations, which, in Minneapolis, include an inspection within 90 days and paying a $1,000 fee for converting from owner-occupied to rental. "There are different code requirements when a property converts to rental."

The Minnesota Multi Housing Association has fielded so many questions from accidental landlords in recent years that it developed a booklet and classes to help them learn the basics, said Tina Gassman, director of public relations. "Even though they're not our members, they need help."

Professional help

Those who want even more help are turning to rental-management professionals. "It's been a huge boon for us," said Brenton Hayden, president and CEO of Renters Warehouse, Golden Valley. Unintentional landlords now represent more than 50 percent of his firm's customers, up from about 10 percent just two years ago. "We've had to staff up and train people on the ins and outs."

Real-Time Leasing, a Burnsville company, also has seen an increase in accidental landlords, according to co-owner James Wagley. The chores that such landlords are most eager to outsource are "confrontations," often related to collecting rent, and maintenance, he said. Many amateur landlords seek professional help after a tenant fails to pay rent for several months. "They [landlords] try to be nice, then feel duped and embarrassed" when the nonpayment persists, Wagley said.

Anne Healy's year as a landlord was so frustrating that she put her St. Paul house back on the market and recently sold it -- for $50,000 less than an offer she turned down last year.

She and her husband, Tobias Shapiro, moved out of the house after buying one in Plymouth that her grandfather had built. "We couldn't not buy that house," she said. "We were confident we could sell this one." But after turning down two offers, they decided to rent it out instead. "We were in denial; we've learned the hard way."

First, their tenant said she had one dog, then moved in with two large ones. The wear-and-tear they put on the house was painful for Healy, who had lovingly restored it room by room. "When we left, the house had never looked better," she said. But after the tenants moved in, every time Healy saw the house, it looked worse. "That was hard. I'm so emotionally invested in it."

By the end of the lease, Healy was hounding the tenant to pay her rent, and she'd stopped paying her utility bills.

"You never know what people are going to do," Healy said. "It's been a stressful year."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

  • related content

  • Tobias Shapiro and Anne Healy Shapiro rented their house but found it so stressful that they recently sold it for thousands less than an offer they turned down earlier.

  • FUNDAMENTALS OF RENTAL PROPERTY MANAGEMENT IN MINNESOTA

    What: A course for new owners or managers of rental housing, offered by the Minnesota Multi Housing Association.

    When: 6-8 p.m. Oct. 18.

    Where: 1600 W. 82nd St., Suite 110, Bloomington.

    Cost: $49 ($29 for MMHA members). To register, call 952-548-2215, e-mail allison.harkness@mmha.com or visit www.mmha.com.

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