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My 5 biggest mistakes as a landlord

Victorian buy to let house

So many landlords and property investors only talk about their successes, staying silent about their mistakes. However, I think it’s good for us to share what we’ve learned so far.

After each project, we should reflect what went well, and what might have gone better, if we’d approached it differently.

When I bought my first buy to let in 2019, the above Victorian house, I thought I had it covered. After all, I’d been an accidental landlord with a property I already owned, and that had gone well. However, I made a number of classic newbie buy to let landlord mistakes.

I’d got the basic fundamentals right: good size and layout in a popular location with high demand from renters. The mistakes I made were more of the “how” rather than the “what”. What I mean about this is how I went about things.

In this blog post, I fess up about what I got wrong with my first buy to let, and share what I do differently now. I hope that being open will help others learn from my mistakes as they go about their journey as a landlord!

Mistake 1: Being in too much of a hurry

Cork board with note pinned saying More haste less speed - needed to avoid landlord mistakes

It might be surprising that I think my number one mistake was that I was in too much of a hurry. Normally it’s the other way around, with landlords getting into financial trouble because of delays (as well as interest rate increases!) Let me explain why I think this earned its place as number one.

When I bought my first buy to let property, a pretty Victorian house in Maidstone, I was anxious to let it as soon as possible, so it would produce an income. It had been let by the previous owner, and seemed to be in fairly good condition. I appointed letting agents the day after completion, and asked them to start viewings straight away.

However, what I’ve since realised, is that I should have taken a bit more time to get to know the property and refurbish it, while it was empty. I did a few things, like repainting the exterior woodwork and taming the neglected garden. But, with hindsight, I should have done a more extensive refurbishment, taking time to replace carpets, put an extractor in the bathroom and redecorate it throughout internally.

I’ve been playing catch up ever since, bringing it up to the same standard to the properties I’ve bought since, which I did refurbish. I’ve replaced the carpet, put insulation in the loft and cellar (suspended floor) and have replaced most of the windows.

Doing these few improvements has been difficult, as the family living there complains about the dust and upheaval each time I do improvements. Even though the improvements make the house better for them and they were keen for me to do it. I’ve learned from this and will decorate the rest of the house when they choose to move on.

Mistake 2: Under-estimating the cost of upgrade to EPC C

House on top of pile of £10 notes on EPC chart to illustrate landlord mistake of underestimating cost

Until Rishi Sunak’s U-turn on EPCs in September 2023, we thought we needed to upgrade the EPC ratings of our buy to lets to a C rating, capped at £10,000. Whilst that has now been put on hold, all other political parties in England want to bring it back again. I’ve come to the conclusion to carry on with the upgrades. Not only is the work inevitable, it’s good for renters and the planet, as well as making my properties more valuable.

>> Related Post: Where the main political parties stand on the PRS

In 2019, I bought the red brick Victorian house you can see in the featured image above, and like so many Victorian houses, it had an EPC E. However, I admit I didn’t fully appreciate at the time just how expensive the energy efficiency upgrades would be. If I had, I’d have deducted the £10,000 from the purchase price. Alternatively, I’d have chosen another property that already had an EPC C, or a high D.

I learned I shouldn’t rely on the estimates given in the EPC, as they’re out of date or frankly inaccurate. For instance, the EPC stated that the total cost of UPVC windows would be £3,300 – £6,500. I found out cost of the bay windows for the front elevation alone would cost £4,000. The EPC also assumed there was no loft insulation, whereas there was.

Work on improvements is also disruptive for tenants, and is best done when the property is empty. You can read about my experiences of upgrading this property to an EPC in this blog post here.

My lesson? Given the increase in materials and the sheer hassle of retrofitting, I now only buy rental properties that are already an EPC C. I’d only consider buying one with an EPC E if it was substantially below market value and I was having to do a back to brick refurb anyway. Something I’m not keen on, which leads me to my next mistake.

Mistake 3: Under-estimating the cost of refurbs

Man fitting grey carpet to a buy to let
I hadn’t budgeted for new carpets in a 2022 project

Under-estimating costs of refurbishments is a very common mistake for new (and not so new) landlords. Especially in these inflationary times. Until you’ve bought the property, it can be difficult to discover what really needs doing. Even with a survey.

In some ways it’s easier with a back to brick full refurbishment, as you budget to replace everything. What’s more difficult, is a project that seems only to need a light touch refurbishment, but you end up needing to do more than you originally thought.

For my third buy to let project in 2022, I had a list of things that I knew needed doing. However, I over-estimated what I could do myself in terms of decorating, in the time I had available. Once the property was empty after completion, I could see that every room needed decorating, and a myriad of repairs doing. It was in far worse state than I realised.

I had already budgeted for the main jobs, and the contingency went on the extra decorating. However, the following £6,000 of unexpected costs that came to light during the refurbishment:

  • I thought the carpets would come up well with a good clean. Once the tenants had moved their furniture out, it was clear the carpets needed replacing: £1,500.
  • The composite front door looked fine, but shortly after completion, it became clear that the door window clip in the door was broken. It had been stuck back, but it came away. This was an accident waiting to happen. Unfortunately it couldn’t be repaired or replaced, and a new door cost £1,575.
  • The boiler had a current gas safety certificate, but when I got it checked, it was condemned. The gas engineer said it had never been serviced. The replacement cost me £2,200, including the Google Nest smart thermostat.
  • The heated towel rails in the bathrooms looked fine, but on a closer inspection had started to rust. Another accident waiting to happen. Both needed replacing: £575.
  • Replacing the rear guttering and down-pipe: £376.
  • The flushing mechanisms of both loos needed replacing: £118.

Maybe I should have anticipated these? Another time, I will add an even bigger contingency to my refurbishment budget, plus an extra 10% to cover inflation. I’ll also check each of these things more closely before I exchange. That’s what comes from experience.

Take a look at my blog post to find out how to avoid the classic mistakes that landlords make when refurbishing rental properties. I also share some tips on how to minimise costs during refurbs in this blog post: The 7 hidden costs and risks of refurbs.

Mistake 4. Not checking the house myself between tenants

magnifying glass on house to illustrate importance of checking house

One of my tenants asked to leave her second fixed term tenancy 7 months early as she was in financial trouble. It was in March 2021, during lockdown. I agreed she could leave with one month’s notice, without insisting on her staying or paying for the remaining 5 months. She wasn’t in arrears, and I knew I’d be able to find another tenant quickly. Rents had also started to go utp.

My mistake here was a variation on mistake #1. I was anxious to reduce the void to a minimum, so I asked the letting agents to start showing the property before the tenancy had ended. The new tenants moved in the day after the previous ones moved out. Just enough time for a contract clean, an inventory, and a quick check by the letting agent.

Efficient, I thought. Too quick, I now say.

I was away on a short break in Wales that week, which I’d booked a few months earlier, hoping the travel restrictions would end in time. They did, and I wasn’t going to cancel our holiday. Consequently, I wasn’t able not check the property myself before the new family moved in. The letting agent said not to worry, as they’d give the house the once over. They arranged the inventory and the contract clean (with a mark up, of course).

It turns out that there had been heavy wear and tear on the house, that didn’t show up in the check-out inventory. Disappointingly, the letting agent didn’t flag anything either. For instance, the ceiling had started coming down in the cellar. There were also lots of holes in the walls from where the tenant had screwed things in, without making it good. The inventory didn’t detail all the problems.

Everything looked that much more tired than it did 18 months earlier. I’d not done my usual full landlord inspection in the previous months because of the Covid lockdowns, which meant I’d not seen the state of the property.

With hindsight, I should have waited until I could check the property myself, allowing time for repairs and redecoration, before new tenants moved in. If I’d done this, I’d have nipped quite a few new problems in the bud.

I now know that if I’m not able to get to the property myself, I can arrange Viewber to do a full property inspection on a contract basis. As it’s a specific specialist service they provide, I’d have more trust in them than a letting agent.

Next time I’ll allow for at least a week between renters, and not worry if it takes a bit longer. As I now self-let using OpenRent, I’ll have full flexibility over when I market the property for letting. Which leads me onto my final mistake.

>> Related Post: How to achieve a positive end of tenancy checkout

Mistake 5: Using letting agents to find tenants

Like most newbie landlords, I assumed I needed a high street letting agent to find tenants. They’d told me about all the checks they had to do, and had made it sound complicated.

After a couple of years, I realised I’d spent £7,650 in letting agent fees for four tenancies. I’d always self-managed my buy to lets (which was one of my good decisions!), so these were the “let only” fees.

Incidentally, you can read my guide on successful self-management here: How to self-manage your buy to let.

The agents had started off pretty well, but with a change in personnel, the service had drastically deteriorated. Even the basics had been lacking. For instance, there was no floor plan, the photos had clearly been done on a mobile phone, poor deposit registration, slow with tenancy agreement (despite being a £250 extra), poor communication, important information on my refurb not being given to the person doing the viewings. It was difficult even getting updates from them.

With this poor service, it’s no surprise I began to wonder if I’d do a better job, and save myself a fortune.

I decided to use OpenRent, an online letting agent. Not only was I surprised just how easy it was to find renters without a letting agent, it was actually far less hassle. I didn’t need to phone for updates, or hear feedback second hand. It was easy doing the viewings myself.

I was able to answer the questions about the refurbishment better than an agent. I liked meeting the applicants and making the decision myself. It also meant I started to build a relationship with the renters from day one, rather than the letting agent handing it over.

This was such a positive experience that I’ve decided never to use letting agents again. I’ve also since become an OpenRent Affiliate.

If you’d like to know exactly how I went about it, click here for my guide to self-letting.

On the other hand if you can’t or don’t want to self-let or self-manage, here are some tips to get the best from your letting agent.

>> Related Post: How to choose good tenants

Final thoughts

List of lessons learned from mistakes made by a newbie landlord

It’s normal to make mistakes when we do something new, especially when you’re a new(ish) landlord. However, the important thing is to keep reflecting on what went well, and also what we could improve next time.

Sharing our experiences is part of the learning process! I hope you found that useful.

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3 thoughts on “My 5 biggest mistakes as a landlord”

  1. Here’s a little piece I wrote after getting insulted online when I said I was having to increase all my rents… For all the tenants/general public/man/woman/Press or general observer that are complaining and bashing landlords about how much rents are increasing or how much money landlords are making from this Let me educate you, we landlords don’t all live in mansions, have 6 holidays a year and drive sports cars, I know I certainly don’t!

    Most landlords have Buy to let mortgages which generally tends to be on an interest only basis because the profit margin isn’t big enough to pay it on repayment so you are not paying off our mortgage so let’s make that clear. Those of us that use this interest only model make money from property prices going up, if they stay the same we make nothing if they go down we make a loss but obviously if you look at this model over a 10, 15, 20, or 25 year period the odds are you will make a good profit, some landlords will remortgage along the way as prices increase and release money in order to either buy more properties or to pay themselves, the monthly profits from the actual margin between the mortgage payments and rent are not huge, in fact they can be quite small and sometimes non existent.

    Landlords have a lot of other costs as well as the mortgage payment, Other costs include and are not limited to, insurance, boiler & gas safety checks, EICR reports plus remedial works, general repairs, tax, ICO registration, accountant, re letting fees, remortgage fees, broker fees, deposit protection fees, service charges and ground rent if it’s a flat (That costs me £2000 per month on multiple flats) banking, council tax and utilities during voids, cleaning on tenant change overs, interest rates rising! Also I self manage my properties but what is never considered is how many unpaid hours I spend managing all of this and driving about? (I also work full time 48-60 hours a week)

    Personally I replaced 8 boilers 4 years ago and it cost me over £30,000, 6 washer dryers 2 years ago which cost £2700, £3000 towards cladding issues 4 years ago, god knows how much on decorating and carpets over the years, so where do u think this money comes from? ‬If a Tenant calls and says toilet won’t flush or door handle is stuck or No heating or No hot water or we have a leak or dishwasher won’t work or all the lights have gone off etc… How does the landlord pay for the plumbers, electricians etc…. to fix these things?

    If a landlords mortgage is say £800 pm what do you think you should pay in rent? £900? So landlord makes £100 pm, £1200 per year, what if you need a new boiler at £2400 is it ok for the landlord to say sorry you have to wait 2 years for me to make £2400 to buy you a new boiler? In which case the landlord has made no profit over those 2 years but because of Section 24 tax the landlord will still get a tax bill for those 2 years even though they made £0 so how does the landlord pay the tax?

    Rents are rising and will continue to do so until the government stop targeting landlords as cash cows, it’s pretty clear to us all the government do not want private landlords they what corporations running the PRS not your average joe which is why our government are trying to squeeze us all out. I’m
    All for legislative changes to improve the sector and all tenants deserve to have safe secure accommodation and to be looked after but the constant attack from
    Our government towards landlords is just unacceptable, because Interest rates are rising plus the introduction of Section 24 tax, Tenant fee ban, government legislation, reduction in CGT allowance, new EPC standards, the supply is reducing and landlords are selling up.

    Example: A landlord has mortgage fixed at say 2% with an interest only mortgage of say £500 a month and the rent is £1100, the landlord has to renew the mortgage this year but it’s at 5% if he’s lucky so the new mortgage will now be £1250 pm! So what do you think is going to happen? Either the rent goes up or the landlord sells. If you want to complain to someone complain to your local MP, this situation of high rents is caused by our government not by your landlord.

    1. Thank you for your long comment. I appreciate it.

      I agree it’s only reasonable for landlords to increase rents, which is why I say in my long blog post about how landlords should handle rent increases. Not increasing it is the same as decreasing it because of inflation. It’s about getting the balance right. I also agree about s24 and EPCs (in fact my next blog post goes on about it and a lot of the points you raise), and have had many meetings with my MP. She must love me! Government policy is a shambles.

      Thanks again

  2. Charlie Bradford

    This article sheds light on common mistakes landlords make and provides valuable insights to help them navigate the challenges of managing more effectively. The tips and advice offered serve as a useful guide for landlords aiming to enhance their property management skills and ensure a successful and profitable rental experience.

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