It wasn’t the Yorkie that did his business all over the hardwood floors. It wasn’t the squatter, or the tenant who thought lightbulbs for his personal lamp were included in his rent.
I can’t remember exactly what it was that pushed me over the edge, but after 12 years and numerous missteps in owning and renting out four properties with my husband, John, I knew we had to get out.
Over that time, we learned that property management is a massive endeavor for a couple—one that has the potential to intrude into all areas of your life, including your marriage.
“A rental property is like any other business, so partners need to be in agreement that it can work for their family,” says Josh Hetherington, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Chicago Center for Relationship Counseling’s Northside location. “Can the couple afford whatever happens financially, logistically, and emotionally?”
I sure wish we had talked to Hetherington before we bought our first property. Ultimately, we got out of the rental game, deciding that it wasn’t healthy for our finances or our relationship.
The silver lining here is that our landlording misadventures weren’t a total loss. Those years spent bickering with my husband and dealing with crazy tenants actually taught me some valuable lessons about property management—and marriage. So if you’re contemplating buying and renting out a property with your significant other, don’t make the same blunders we did.
1. We overlooked major details
When a tenant allowed her boyfriend to move in, we didn’t rush to get him on the lease. Eventually, she vanished in the night, but the boyfriend remained as a nonpaying squatter. It was an epic failure on our part. Fortunately, we were able to convince him to leave without taking formal legal action.
Lesson learned: Landlords must commit to detail, especially when it comes to lease agreements. A detailed lease will help clarify and protect all parties involved, says Carrie Tangorra, an agent with First Weber Realty in Monroe, WI, who has owned rental properties.
Attention to detail, of course, is also important in a marriage, from squaring away the mundane but crucial details of insurance policies to drawing up a will and to discussing where you’ll spend the holidays. I learned that John and I had overlooked a lot of these important details, despite the fact that we had young children. It’s amazing we didn’t have more calamities than we did.
2. I wasn’t all in
The rentals were John’s idea, and I went along reluctantly. And when the going got tough, I bailed—at least emotionally. I still helped my husband with the day-to-day tasks, but did so from my first-class seat on the self-pity train. My resentment grew the day I had to shovel 6 inches of snow from the rental’s sidewalk, because my husband, who was off at work, had let the tenant off the hook for snow removal.
Lesson learned: Make sure you are both invested from the start.
“When one person in a couple is ambivalent about a choice that involves shared resources, time, and money, there will almost always be ongoing conflicts about it,” Hetherington says.
Managing residential property is a huge undertaking. There are bills to pay, tenants’ backgrounds to check, clogged pipes to fix. It’s a big job, even for two people, and especially when you have other full-time employment. Both partners need to be ready to pitch in.
3. We didn’t clearly define our roles
Ours was a loose arrangement: John would take care of property maintenance and I would handle paperwork. But we left tenant management—arguably the most challenging part of being a landlord—out of our equation. So every time we needed to talk to a tenant, we tried to palm it off on the other. That led to frustration all around.
Lesson learned: When you manage property with another person, know who’s doing what—and hold each other accountable. “If the landlords have a clear conversation about division of labor around tenant management, things will go much smoother,” says Hetherington.
I learned that we had equally blurred lines regarding roles in our marriage. We had the same loose arrangement in our personal life: John took care of home repairs and the yard, and I took care of, well, everything else. By not clarifying our duties in our personal lives, I ended up feeling overworked and under-appreciated. It was a recipe for discontent.
4. We weren’t realistic about finances
A vacant unit is the easiest way to lose money. So we sometimes wound up leasing to questionable tenants instead of letting the apartment sit empty. Big mistake. Some of those bad tenants caused damage that far exceeded their security deposits.
Lesson learned: In addition to the mortgage and property taxes, “include a budget item for down-time (vacancies) and overall maintenance of the property,” says Tangorra. Budget for any potential setback, including natural disasters, replacing the appliances or flooring, landfill costs, and legal fees.
And be realistic about repair and maintenance costs as well. When the hardwood floors in one of our units became scuffed-up and unsightly, I favored slapping down cheap carpeting, while John saw the value in spending the money to restore them. If we had only been able to compromise—like restoring the hardwood floors in the front rooms and replacing the carpeting in the bedroom—things might have gone more smoothly.
I eventually learned that the power of compromise was also lacking in my marriage: We seem to function better when it isn’t my way or my husband’s way, but instead embraces an outlook that includes the best of both points of view.
Ultimately, John agreed the rentals were more than we wanted to handle as a couple. Fortunately, our finances survived. And our marriage did, too.