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!


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.

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