Make friends with Mr Fixit

Buying to let? In a tenants' market, on-call handymen and all the mod cons are a must, advises Christopher Browne
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The Independent Online

What did the landlord say to the tenant? No, it's not a trick question. But it is an important one. For while some owners speak to their tenants, others bundle them through the front door the moment they pay their deposits and forget about them. They are what's known as absentee landlords.

What did the landlord say to the tenant? No, it's not a trick question. But it is an important one. For while some owners speak to their tenants, others bundle them through the front door the moment they pay their deposits and forget about them. They are what's known as absentee landlords.

Anyone who lives overseas or 100 miles or more from their holdings is a genuine absentee and relies on a letting agency to find tenants and manage their properties. Owners who live nearby and neglect their tenants are absent by choice and risk an early exit. Some manage their properties, though it can be time-consuming and if you have a busy job or growing family, it's best to use an agency. Most charge 15-16 per cent of the annual rent - 10 per cent for finding tenants and 5-6 per cent for day-to-day management and maintenance.

For the hands-on owner, DIY letting is a cash-saver. But you must expect a few headaches. Like the Sunday evening phone call about a blocked drain or the 6am rude awakening about the faulty power-shower. So be prepared and draw up a list of handy fixers and repairers you can call on at short notice. The key ones are Corgi-registered heating engineers, inexpensive plumbers (they do exist) and electricians. It's best to have at least two of each to cover holiday periods.

It'll save your blushes if the boiler breaks down. A pal of mine who rents a flat in Kilburn, north-west London, said that when his combination boiler broke down recently, his landlord didn't know how to get it fixed. Suddenly a snag turned into a catastrophe - and my friend spent a time-taxing six weeks cadging baths and showers from friends and neighbours. A local heating engineer would have repaired the boiler or replaced it in a matter of days.

Whether you self-manage or not, give your tenants a written guide to the local rail stations, bus routes and key roads plus specialist stores, schools and health clubs - your local council may produce one free. Landlord John Socha, who owns 17 buy-to-lets and is vice-chairman of the owners support group the National Landlords Association, says: "If you give your tenants a good service, they'll return the compliment by taking care of your property and staying for longer periods."

If you're still at the buying stage, however, it's a good idea to invest locally as you know the area and can keep an eye on your holdings. If you go farther afield, test out property prices and capital growth on two handy websites - rightmove.co.uk and www.propertyfinder.co.uk.

Once you've settled on your area, visit the local letting and estate agents to decide on your target tenants. You'll find most tenants fit into three distinct groups: singles, couples and twenty- to thirtysomethings with young families.

Now it's time to make an offer on that property. New or almost-new townhouses with hi-tech fixtures and well maintained mid-terraces are wise options in residential areas. If however you want to let in a village or small town, you should seek out a well built, low-maintenance house or cottage near key transport links. In city and town centres, apartments are the favourite. A two-bedroom one is the investor's choice as it has a higher rental income-to-cost price ratio - or yield - than a one-bedroom version and couples and sharers can split the weekly costs. Apartments and flats are also easier to maintain than houses and cottages.

Should you let furnished or unfurnished? Most tenants expect to move into ready-made homes. Two exceptions are families with furniture and fittings who rent while they look to buy or couples with a family heirloom or a favourite double bed. So a dry garage for storage would pay dividends - if you can find one. You'll get the same rent for both options, though you can claim 10 per cent of your rent as a business expense on furnished buy-to-lets.

Letting properties is competitive. There are 750,000-plus landlords and the number of investment homes keeps on growing. Tenants can be choosy and often view 10 or more houses or flats before making a decision. So a unique letting point could clinch your next tenancy for you.

Three recommended ones are a leather three-piece suite (it's smart, hard-wearing and wine-stain-proof), a widescreen cable TV and an internet link for a home computer. Otherwise, power-showers, washer-dryers, fan-assisted ovens and microwaves are the standard fare and, if you are in the £1,000-a-month-plus category, dishwashers, tumble dryers and parquet floors.

Get it right and you may find your tenants stay for three or four years instead of the standard 18-month let. Pick up more tips in the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' free guide "Letting: What Every Landlord Should Know" on www.rics.org/public.

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