38 - Surprise! Unexpected Changes

SurpriseI find the vast majority of mainstream real estate reporting in the media is either all or nothing: the market is going gangbusters or it’s the next worst thing since the Great Depression and all hope is lost (I’ve given up paying any attention to the news…). There’s no middle ground. Similarly, the property spruikers only share the positives and conveniently overlook the details when they do cite a one-off example of something gone wrong.

Although many of the posts on this blog have been relatively upbeat—in line with our experience to date, I strongly believe in reality, facts, and the accurate, fair reporting of our experience. On that note, today’s post is a recounting of what is likely to be the largest single “upset” (not to dramatize) so far along our property investing journey.

Earlier this month we had three tenants in the Brisbane property and over six months remaining of a 12-month lease; then, suddenly, we had one tenant plus an “unknown” (or rather, the girlfriend of the remaining original tenant) and a pet request for a middle-aged, large-breed dog. On Friday morning last week, a water leak in the metre box was also reported.

How quickly things change from a seemingly stable position to near chaos. Fortunately, the exemplary property management team at West Property is handling all of this for us but I won’t deny I’ve found it remarkable that tenants can simply walk away from a contractual agreement they’re legally obliged to uphold. If nothing else, this doesn’t make for a good lease reference for them and they may end up have to cover re-letting fees for us.

I’m not sure why two of the three roommates have left but I believe they were together as a couple and I assume they either now aren’t or have decided they needed more privacy. I suspected there may be some instability when we took on the trio (we very much expected to end up with a family—mum, dad, two kids, and a dog) but they were the first application after a few weeks of home opens and they were happy to pay the advertised weekly rent. I thought one of them might leave eventually but wasn’t expecting any changes in the first year. In my mind, you sign a lease for twelve months, go to the hassle of moving, and then you stay put for a few years—call me simple and old fashioned.

We were notified by the property manager the pair have now moved out and requested to be removed from the lease. We had the option of saying no to this request and they would be obliged to continue paying their share of the rent—regardless of whether they’re actually living there. Practically, that option may be difficult to enforce.

In their place, the girlfriend of the remaining tenant had moved in, I’m told, but she had neither applied nor was she approved by us to live at the property. The wording in the lease document is quite specific to this point and clearly notes no one else can live in the house without prior agreement by the landlord.

If this new couple are keen to stay on, can afford the rent, and seem to be acceptable, then we’re all for that. Ideally that means no break in rental income. Plus there’s less wear and tear on the house for them to move out and be replaced with new tenants. But who is this mystery woman? Does she have an income? Does she have any prior rental referrals (or a criminal history)? Does she smoke? If she’s not paying her way, can her partner afford the full rent on his income after paying only a third of the rent to date?

Technically, there are more questions to be answered if the girlfriend checks out. Do we amend the lease to include her or have the tenants sign a new, 12-month lease? Do we increase the rent now as part of the new lease or after six months via some kind of special conditions clause (which may be tricky to do in Queensland—I’m not sure)? If the couple opt for a 50/50 split, the original tenant will need to increase his bond contribution from 1/3rd to 50%—or 100% if he’s covering the lot.

The worst-case scenarios I can imagine are having the remaining tenant vacate (for whatever reason), leaving us with an empty house to re-let and the resulting loss of income, or—if he stays—having a gap in the rent payments from the departing couple while all of this is sorted out. If all else fails, we are still covered by the Open Corp rental guarantee but that does mean having to accept any tenants they pre-screen and put forward to us (which could be good or not so good). Without checking the finer points of our insurance policy, we may also be covered for loss of rent if the rental guarantee were not in place.

Here’s another good fact sheet if you’re interested: http://tenantsqld.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/You-Want-to-Leave-Nov-09-SD_NEW.pdf

On the dog front, I simply wasn’t mentally prepared to deal with this request so early into the original lease and the property manager has recommended we say no for now (which was a relief). Before today’s revelation, we had considered allowing the pet if the (original) tenants were willing to sign a new 12-month lease effective immediately—using this request as a trigger event to keep the tenants on for a longer period. That’s less of an issue now.

We also hadn’t yet decided whether there would have been a corresponding rent increase; we can’t increase the rent mid-lease in Queensland so even a token increase would likely be the way to go to a) ensure we achieve an increase within the 12-month period, b) condition the tenant that the rent will always increase at renewal time, and c) cover any issues related to the dog (i.e. damage) as we can’t charge a pet bond in Queensland.

Meanwhile, the water leak is still being investigated by the water company. At least it’s outside and I’m told it’s likely on the water company’s side or will otherwise fall to the builder to rectify.

A few weeks on, and after consulting with Open Corp and receiving a tenancy application from the girlfriend, we offered the couple a six-month lease to see how it works out. We also increased the rent by $5/week. The lease was accepted and signed and we shouldn’t have missed any rental payments (the outgoing tenants would have been required to continue paying their share of the original lease until it was terminated). It will be interesting to see if the relationship lasts and what bearing a breakup has on the remaining tenant’s affordability; it’s easy to say a married couple with kids would have been a more stable tenant option but who knows—with the frequency of divorce I’m not convinced marriage equates to tenant longevity.

I suppose a disclaimer is also worth posting: I'm just a guy, I'm not an accountant, lawyer, solicitor, tax agent, mortgage broker, banker, financial adviser, insurance agent, land developer, builder, government agent, or anything else so I disclaim your application of anything I write here is to be applied at your own risk. What I write may be incorrect and you are best to seek your own professional advice (tax, legal, financial, and otherwise) before entering into contracts or spending your money. Your situation is unique to you and what I write here reflects my experience only. This content is not professional advice and is not tailored to your situation. I'm learning too and expect to make many, many mistakes along the way.

Enjoy,

Michael

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