Someone wise once said: When times are good, you should renovate. When times are bad, you must renovate. They’re words Franco Lee and his wife Mai have taken to heart as the economy continues to dip.
“We strive to keep our units in tip top condition and are still looking at ways to update our units now,” said Franco. “It’s a tough time, with fewer applicants for a large amount of inventory of homes.” Like virtually every other landlord, Franco and Mai are looking for ways to entice renters.
They are trying to add value to their properties through different ways, such as by using the current secondary suite program through the City of Calgary.
Franco and Mai endeavour to be responsible landlords who are committed to providing safe and affordable housing. They also ask their tenants what kind of improvements can be made in their units, understanding what matters to them through questionnaires. They have reduced rents and are considering other rental incentives. Their relationships with their tenants are a No. 1 priority, and tenants can expect a welcome gift and package, Christmas-in-the-summer presents, and other tokens of appreciation.
Franco and Mai have regular 9-5 jobs like most folks and manage the properties on the evenings and weekends. They say getting to know tenants has been gratifying.
“It’s been great to get to know people from all walks of life and understand who they are,” said Franco.
It’s the free market at work, and Franco and Mai sees no need for change with the current rental system in Alberta.
“If the market is not doing well, we adjust accordingly to stay competitive,” said Franco, who often tracks how other rentals are priced so that his units remain competitive in not just price, but with the overall quality of the suite.
“It’s fair, the way it is working now. I don’t think rent control is required. In a free market, when the economy is good, rents will go up. And when the economy is struggling, there is an adjustment to remain competitive. As a landlord, keeping my units in excellent condition gives me an edge with both the quality of my tenant and the price point of the rent. Quality suites attract quality tenants. With rent controls, as a landlord, the motivation to stand out and offer a top of the line product will deteriorate if my unit and another unit with long overdue maintenance issues are priced the same.”
The Lee's became landlords some years ago when they had difficulty selling their first house. “It was on the market and wasn’t moving, and someone said to us, "Why don’t you rent it out?”
They scraped together a down payment for a second house, then moved and became landlords with their first home.
They see their properties as investments in the future, as a way to create a legacy for their children and for themselves.
“From our standpoint it is about growing equity over time,” said Franco.
“We want to be able to have a place to hand over to our two kids, to give them an option – they can live there, sell, renovate, whatever. It can help pay for university for them and support other future goals or aspirations they might have down the road. It’s a good economic starting point for them because everyone needs a place to live.”
As for security deposits, Franco says they “are super important” as they allow the landlord to have a safety net from potential damage.
Usually there isn’t a problem. Any time work is required, proper quotes are given to tenants so that any expenses are deducted from the security deposit; all monies are responsibly accounted for and documented. The security deposit has always worked. It’s an agreement between the landlord and the tenant, said Franco.
“Our goal is ensure our home is provided to tenants in tip-top and pristine condition and all we want is that our home is provided back to us in that same condition.”
Mary Zorko has been a landlord for 41 years.
As with all small businesses, she has had to adapt to deal with the struggling economy.
Mary has long-term tenants, one of whom has been with her 35 years.
Good tenants are important, so Mary does what she can to keep them with her.
A rent decrease of 25 per cent finally got tenants in an apartment in the southwest.
Another tenant now commutes to Saskatchewan to work, with his wife and children staying in Calgary.
Another found work after a five-month layoff.
Mary has accommodated them all as they struggle through difficult times. “I try to keep rents low because I have good tenants and I want to keep them,” said Mary.
“This is their home, and that’s how they look at it. I try to look after my tenants – I always try to be fair and equitable.
“After losing her job, one tenant said she would have to move. I asked what she could afford; she said $500 a month. So that’s what she’s paying,” said Mary. “People don’t have jobs, but they still need somewhere to live.”
Mary expects the economy will recover, and so will her ability to charge an increased market rate.
It’s also why she doesn’t think government should be considering rent controls or reducing security deposits.
“People will only pay what the market demands,” she said. “Falsely restricting a landlord’s ability to charge fair rent will lead to a couple of consequences. “They will be less able to do maintenance and upgrades, because they won’t be able to afford it.
“And many landlords will think twice about rental properties as investments. They’ll just sell them, which ultimately works against keeping a good supply of clean and safe housing for people.”
Mary pointed out that over time, the ebb-and-flow nature of the economy keeps rents pretty much on par with the consumer price index.
“There is no need for more government interference in this industry,” she said. “They should focus on improving the economy, then everyone will benefit.”
Sheila Turner hadn’t necessarily planned to become a landlord. But after buying and fixing up her condo, she decided to go back to school to get a business degree.
To live more economically while offering help to someone else, Sheila rented out her condo and looked to Calgary Homeshare to find a senior citizen looking for a roommate and some assistance around home.
Now Sheila is working full-time, going to school, and learning about what it’s like to have tenants. “It’s has been a great experience,” said Sheila. “The condo is an investment in the future, and going back to school and living where I am is a great way to invest in myself and society as a whole.
“Part of my spiritual belief is service to others, and this has been a great opportunity to help. It has been really good for me, too.”
Sheila says her tenants are great, something she feels blessed for.
She has also seen the market fall and rise, and like the vast majority of landlords, has been responsible in how she has responded.
The market will bear what the market will bear, and when you have good tenants you make sure to treat them right, she said.
A security deposit is a valuable part of the landlord-tenant relationship.
“I have been very fortunate to have had good tenants, but damage does happen,” she said. “If there’s no security deposit to rely on, it all comes out of my pocket. And I just can’t afford it.”
If there’s no option to collect a security deposit, Sheila wonders what landlords will do.
“Ask someone for a credit card imprint? Hotels do that, but it’s not something I want to do,” she said.
Randy Roberts and his wife take pride of ownership in the rental properties they own.
“We would live in any one of them,” he said. “We think it’s important to make sure they are the kinds of places we would want to make our own home.
“When we renovate we add the same quality we would put into our own home like a 23” soaker tub.”
Randy bought his first investment property at the end of 2005.
“We met with a Financial Planner and they wanted to take money out of our house to buy mutual funds,” he said.
Randy figured there was a better way to get a return, so he and his wife did some research.
“We used the equity built up in our own house to buy a second home,” he said, which they rented out.
Randy and his wife give back to the community, because they think it’s important to give back.
“We contacted the Genesis Centre for Wellness and asked how we could help out. We donated to their YMCA Strong Kids Campaign.”
“I know there are some kids who can’t afford to go there, so hopefully this helped.” They’ve also passed along their experiences to tenants, helping them get into homes of their own.
“We bought a house and there were tenants in place there,” said Randy. “It was an engineer, his wife and two kids.
“We got to know them and in 2006 after a couple of months as our tenants we suggested ‘you need to buy a house.’ We had been watching the market and knew it was going to take off.”
The family took the advice, and two months later were in their own home.
“They invited us over, they were so excited,” said Randy. “Then the Calgary housing market had great growth in 2006 and 2007 and it was a fantastic investment for the family and a great feeling to be able to help this family.”
Mary Babowal was a teacher, married with two small children.
“I decided to stay home with the children and not work full-time,” said Mary.
In the late 70’s Mary’s husband built two properties intended to provide income for Mary when she was older as she did not have a teacher’s pension.
Her life took a tragic twist when her husband died a short time later, but the properties helped her survive.
Now Mary spends her days managing a duplex and a four-plex.
“It keeps me out of mischief – it’s like a job,” she says.
“We’ve kept them in very good condition over the years, and I keep the rents reasonable because I have good tenants. I could get more money in rent, but I have really good tenants that I’ve had for quite a few years, so why rattle the cage?
That’s not to say there hasn’t been the odd bad experience over the years.
“But For the most part being a landlord has been a good thing for me,” she said.
“It provided for me after my husband died, and gives me a reason to get up in the morning now."
“And I’ve gotten to know some really good people over the years, and that has been wonderful.”
Richard and his partner Matt are young professionals who work full time jobs, in school part time and are also landlords. Rich and Matt owned a home in Valley Ridge but decided to sell it and buy a place in a more mature inner city community to be closer to work and school.
“We put all our money into a 1950’s triplex in the up and coming neighborhood of Ramsay,” said Richard.
“It was kind of a derelict property, we put in probably $150,000, fixed up three units bringing them up to code, moved into the upper one and rented out the bottom two.”
It was part of a strategy to try to secure their financial futures.
They took on debt with the goal of building equity and having revenue coming in when they’re older.
When the economy dropped over the past year, one of the units was hard to keep rented.
So the couple came up with an idea. “We decided to fully furnish it and now we AirBnB it.”
Even though it turned out to be much more work to manage, it was a decision that is so far paying off more than they could have imagined.
“Matt is a very financially minded individual. He is very good with money while I am more the planner and risk-taker, so we make a good team” said Richard.
Matt and Rich collect a security deposit (“We call it a ‘damage deposit’,” he says) and it has been a crucial part of renting out the properties.
As with most landlords, Matt and Rich find most tenants work out well if properly screened.
But there are exceptions.
Rich and Matt also rent out their first home which was in Fort McMurray before the fires decimated their property.
“About a year before the fires, our Fort McMurray tenant had been sub-letting the townhouse without our knowledge then abandoned the property, breaking the lease three months early and when we went into the unit it was disgusting.” said Richard.
“We had to use the damage deposit to cover her last month’s rent – it only covered ¾ of it – and the damage cost came directly out of our pocket which included repainting nicotine stained walls, fixing holes in the walls and having to completely replace the bathroom.”
He is also a believer in the market.
Landlords can only charge what the market demands.
“For example, we have had to lowered our rent by $475 because of the sudden high vacancy rate,” he said.
If landlords are prevented from setting fair rent according to the market, Richard and Matt would re-think the set up they have now.
“If we ended up with rent control I would stop taking in long-term tenants. I would sign short-term tenants and maybe even turn everything into an AirBnB rental, ultimately taking three long term rentals and good landlords out of the that market” said Richard.
Debbie Niessen became a landlord when her son started post-secondary.
“He was in university in Lethbridge, so we bought a house and rented out the other rooms,” said Debbie.
Debbie and her husband viewed it as an investment. The return on mutual funds seemed lacking, so they looked at alternatives.
As a result, Debbie ended up as a de facto den mother to a parade of students over the course of her son’s years of study in Lethbridge.
“There was a lot of moving in and out and I enjoyed the students very much,” she said. “They were really neat people to talk to and to get to know.”
For many, it was their first time away from home.
In one case, a new arrival was reticent staying a night alone in the house as other students were scheduled to arrive the next day.
"He had never stayed alone in a strange house before – one that wasn’t his family home,” said Debbie. “So it was a new and interesting experience for him.”
They have built their holdings into four homes in Calgary and Okotoks.
“It’s for our retirement, for sure. We don’t buy RSPs anymore,” she said. “We’re both self employed so there is no pension fund or employment insurance.”
The rent also provides a small cash-flow top up, which is particularly important in difficult economic times.
“Our retirement goal is to have that income coming in,” she said.
Tenants are key to success, said Debbie.
“I like to build a relationship with my tenants, get to know them somewhat,” she said. “I know all seven tenants, their kids names, what they do for work.
“I have wonderful tenants.”