One of my Favorite Tools

As a landlord, I actually try to limit the number of tools that I own.  My belief is that the more tools you have, the more work you end up doing.  To this end, I also drive a Toyota Matrix station wagon, not a pickup truck.

Anyway, I do have a few favorite tools that don’t fit in the tool bag.  Today it was my drain snake.  Ten years ago, I don’t think I had any idea what a drain snake was and now I know I own at least two and maybe a third hiding in maintenance room somewhere.  It is a simple, hand-held device that allows you to run a long, thick metal spring into a drain and spin it around to clear a blockage.

In my experience, a drain snake is most effective on bathroom sinks and bathtubs.  You do have to disconnect the P-Trap (or J bend), but usually you can save yourself about $75-100, if you are willing to get a little dirty.  Make sure if you are going to use a snake, that no one has poured Draino down the sink recently.  Then messy becomes toxic.

As you incrementally push the snake further into the drain line while rotating it, you usually can feel when you hit the clog.  Also, when you pull the snake back out, you usually will find a clump of something wrapped around the tip (most of the time, hair, sometimes a dead bird).  For really clogged drains, I usually snake it a few times.

Here’s what I have learned in my seven years of snaking:

  • Bring gloves, channel locks, a roll of paper towels, a garbage bag, and  a bucket
  • The channel locks are to take apart the P-trap and the bucket goes underneath to catch the water (directly underneath while you are taking the drain line apart)
  • As you are pulling the snake back out, hold a clump of paper towels in your hand and run the snake through it to clean off the gunk. If you are really diligent, you will also spray it with WD-40 to inhibit rust.
  • Kitchen sinks are often better left to the professionals.  Handheld snakes just seem to be a little too small to solve the problem.

And of course, if you want to accessorize your drain snake, you simply must add a toilet auger and a Zip It.  The toilet auger is a little less fun to use since you are dealing with someone else’s waste, usually solid, but again, it can save you $100 if you don’t have to call the drain service (try $300 on Christmas Eve.  Bad call on my part!) It follows the same principles as the snake, although I seem to manage to break every auger I buy.  The Zip It is a cheap plastic strip that slides into the drain and grabs any hair that is close to the opening.  It is perfect for anyone with long hair and drains without good screens. I also use it when turning units over as preventative maintenance.

Finally, always be sure to show your tenants what you pulled out of their sink and tub drains (not so much on the toilet).  It can help prevent repeat performances in the future.

Happy drain snaking!

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Inspiration

Whenever I get overwhelmed about the amount of maintenance work that constantly needs to be done, I try to remember to look at these before and after pictures.  I even printed them out and posted them on the bulletin board in my office.  This duplex was the first investment property I purchased.  When I bought it, it smelled so badly that you couldn’t stand inside for more than a minute.  I have since sold the property, but it still serves as a source of inspiration when I feel like a project or maintenance task is insurmountable.

                        

Working with Contractors: Finding the Good Ones and Keeping Them

One of my favorite parts of my job as a landlord has become working with my contractors.  Seriously.  Without them my properties wouldn’t function as well as they do and I would have a lot less fun.  When certain things go wrong with my units, I actually get a little excited because it means I can call up my favorite contractors.  And, to be honest, it was not that hard to develop a list of top-notch, reliable contractors who I also like as people.  It just took some time and some trial and error (be sure to read my first post to laugh at my share of errors!).

I started as a landlord soon after I relocated to a new city so I did not have the benefit of an established professional network.  Therefore, I started using what I call the “Rule of Three” in earnest.  When in doubt, call and meet with three contractors.  And when meeting them, trust your instincts.  If after talking with three contractors, no one stands out as the obvious choice, keep calling.  Do not settle for what is in front of you.  If you are not satisfied with a contractor in an initial meeting, just imagine how things will be when power tools, deadlines, and money come into play.  It is always worth the time to keep looking if you have any hesitation about working with a particular individual.

To find three contractors to call first ask everyone you know who they have used, then check the classified ads in small, local newspapers, and finally open the Yellow Pages.  I find the hard copy of the Yellow Pages better to use for this purpose than online searches because it allows me to compare the size of ads and check addresses.  I usually shoot for the mid-sized ads and prefer to use contractors as close to the project as possible.  The full-page ad companies are often too impersonal and the small print people may not have enough experience.  Proximity to the job means they can easily get to the property and they most likely are familiar with the material suppliers and hardware stores nearby.

When I am interviewing contractors and through the first time I work with them, I have the following expectations from them:

• High quality work

• Reliability

• Reasonable prices

• Good communication

• Respectful behavior towards my tenants

• Feedback/recommendations for ongoing maintenance or preventing problems in the future

It is important to remember that the contractor also has a choice about whether they want to work with you or not.  Believe me, once you find a good one, you should treat them well!  Once a contractor has met the above expectations, I am prepared to offer them the following things:

• They get paid when the work is completed.  Not a week later (unless that is our arrangement). If I have to go out of my way to hand them a check, I will.

• I will pay them more than they are asking if their amount seems unreasonably low (my plumber refuses to charge me for the hour drive he has to do from his home to my property).

• The job site will be ready for them and any materials I am supplying are on hand.

• I do not keep them waiting.

• I am available while they are working to answer questions and get supplies.

• Clear communication and expectations.

• I let them do their work without interruptions and try to avoid having multiple people working on the same unit at the same time when possible.  Most contractors like to work by themselves (that’s why they became independent contractors).

Using these simple guidelines, I have been able to develop a team of excellent contractors who have had a dramatic positive impact on my business.  At this point, the only reason I ever look beyond my core list is when there are significant scheduling conflicts that would have a negative impact on my tenants.

Getting Started is Rarely Pretty

When I started as a real estate investor, I had only been in Spokane for about 4 months and I did not know anyone.  On top of that, I am a woman, which somewhere else may not be a big deal, but still is a bit of an issue in Spokane.  My first project was a major remodel of a severely distressed duplex (meaning you could barely stand inside for more than ten minutes without gagging because of the smell of cat pee, not to mention the pile of dirt, garbage, and hypodermic needles in the basement).  I was in a relationship at the time and made the classic mistake of hiring my significant other as my handy person.  It made perfect sense, right.  He had the tools and the time and the experience doing the type of work I needed.  Wrong.  We nearly killed each other and it was an uphill battle every step of the way.  We had very different expectations—I saw him as another contractor and he approached it as more of a partnership.  He was also not used to working for someone who had as much or more experience and knowledge then he did and my clarity caused a great deal of friction.  I wanted him to show up, do the work, and go home.  He wanted us to work on things together (but from my perspective, he had no financial investment in the property or any ownership interest so all the risk and responsibility fell on me).  Fortunately, he was only doing a portion of the work and we managed to muddle through with everyone’s body parts still intact.  If anything, it was the contrast between working with him and managing my other contractors that help me start to get clear about how I wanted things to go in the future.

Project number two, I wish I could say it went great and I implemented all of my new awareness and here is my “Six Point System for Working with Contractors” that you can purchase for $23.95 and implement tomorrow to build wealth beyond your dreams. No, I hired a meth addict to be the general contractor on my second house.  Of course I did not know that at the time, I’m not that dumb!!  In fact, this general contractor was recommended to me by the drywall contractor I had worked with on the duplex.  They had done a great job for me and managed to complete the work between Christmas and New Year’s at a fair price and high level of quality.  Licensed, bonded, the works.  So, as I started the second house and the company owner recommended this guy to me, I thought “Great, maybe this will be someone I can build a long term professional relationship with.”  Let’s call this guy Chad.

I am a cautious person by nature, so I originally met with Chad just to get his perspective on the house and what I was planning to do with it. Supposedly, he had been rehabing houses for a while and I was looking for some experienced input on my construction budget.  I met Chad in person at the house and we got along great.

I was exhausted and still finishing up on the duplex, so I decided to have Chad and another contractor bid on the second project as general contractors rather than just sub out certain portions of the work.  I put together an excruciatingly detailed bid packet and checked their licenses, insurance, bonds, and worker’s comp complaints.  So when Chad’s bid came back in budget, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and gave him the job.  He warned me that he couldn’t start right away because he had other work lined up, but even with a start time in early summer, it would still be done in time to get it on the market for sale before the winter.

So I kept plugging away at the duplex and started to look for other projects.  As the time came for Chad to start in June, I would drive over to the house in great spirits, glad to know the project was in good hands and I had hired someone else to do the dirty work (just like all the books say you should do it).  I wasn’t going to have to pick up a hammer or a paint brush, or . . . well, I started to have to pick up the phone. “Chad, where are you?  I thought you were going to start last week?”  “Chad, I am concerned that nothing has been done at the house.  Please call me and let me know when you plan to start.”  And so forth.  And nothing was happening.  And then Chad would call and I would say “Are you still able to do this project?  If not, I still have time to find someone else.”  And he would reassure me, yes, he could do it, he was just getting tied up in a big job for one of the real estate brokers in town.  Finally, I said “If you don’t get started by this date, you are fired.”  And guess what, he started.  Hugh sigh of relief, now we are on our way, back on track.  Except he never showed up again.

Then his wife got involved. How could she help, how we can make this work?  She was a landscaper and would do the yard work at a reasonable cost.  She was so sorry, they really liked me and wanted to make this work.   Could she meet me next week and look at the yard with me?  And when Monday came around and she didn’t show up—I officially instituted the “one strike and you are out rule”.  Fortunately, I had only paid Chad a small amount of money for the demolition work and was only out a few hundred dollars.  After a few attempts to contact him about the money, I realized that my sanity was more important and I just walked away.

It was a few years down the line, when I signed up as a real estate agent with the above mentioned broker, that I learned the truth.  To be honest, I had a bit of a grudge against the broker for tying up “my contractor’s” time with all of her change requests.  So when I met her, I casually said “I think we have a contractor in common.  Do you know Chad so-and so?”  She nearly hit the floor and so did I when she quickly exclaimed that he was a meth addict and had cost her thousands of dollars and months of lost time.  All of the sudden, his erratic behavior made sense.

But back to the house.  By now, it was September.  I had owned the house since the end of January, very little had been done, and winter was coming.  In the meantime I had purchased and completed a cosmetic rehab on a four-plex and was even more exhausted.  I was overwhelmed with this house and didn’t know what to do.

Anyone who tells you that there are no emotions in business has never been in business. The emotions are always there, it is just what you do with them that matters.  Without them, we wouldn’t have gut instinct or intuition or creativity, which would make business very dull and less profitable.  When, however, you are exhausted and disheartened you should never listen to your emotions.  It is time to Go Back to the Numbers. Fortunately, that’s what I did and then I generated a short List of Options:  I could cut my losses and sell the house as a fixer, I could jump in and manage it myself, or I could try to find another contractor.

Emotionally, I just wanted to cut my losses and move on.  More than anything, I wanted to sweep this whole mess under the rug and pretend it never happened.  But when I looked at the numbers, I saw that it was really in my best interest to finish what I had started.  I was completely gun shy about general contractors, so I decided to jump in and take over the project myself.

More happened on that house in six weeks than in all of the previous six months.  I started using the Rule of Three in earnest.  When in doubt, call and meet with three contractors.  And when meeting them, trust your instincts.  If after talking with three contractors, no one stands out as the obvious choice, keep calling.  Do not settle for what is in front of you.

Because I was trying to accomplish so much in a short period of time, I ended up having a lot of people in the house which gave me a great deal of hands on experience with different contractors. I emerged from this mess with two of my favorite contractors–a handyman/carpenter and a plumber.  In both of them, I recognized exceptionally skilled people who took pride in their work, had good communication skills, and were extremely reliable.   Now that I have worked with them both for a number of years, the only reason I would use another contractor would be because of schedule conflicts.

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