What Are the Differences Between Renting from an Individual Landlord and a Property Management Firm?

Who's your ideal landlord: a professional property management firm or an individual owner?

There can be significant differences—both good and bad—between renting from an individual landlord who's leasing out a single-family home and a professional management company that oversees hundreds of apartments. Which type of landlord is best for you depends on a number of factors, such as:

  • how often you expect to interact with your landlord,
  • your personal desire for a hands-on relationship with a landlord,
  • how important professional practices and predictable policies are to you, and
  • your overall impression of the person or people who you will be interacting with during your tenancy.

Differences Between Individual Landlords and Property Management Firms

You don't need your landlord or property manager to be your friend. But what you should expect is prompt service handling repairs and other problems (such as noisy neighbors), reasonable and predictable rent increases (if necessary), no hassles regarding return of your security deposit, respect for your privacy and other tenant rights, and honest and clear communication.

Here are some issues to consider:

  • Accessibility. An individual landlord who handles all the property management work might not always be available when you lock yourself out at 2 a.m. or have a weekend plumbing emergency, while you can probably expect a property management firm to provide round-the-clock service. On the other hand, an individual landlord who lives nearby and has only one or two rentals, might provide more personal (and faster) service than you would get from a larger firm. You'll want to evaluate your individual situation: Do you lose your keys often? Are you clumsy or prone to challenging the plumbing where you live? Consider how often you think you'll be calling on your landlord, and whether you're more comfortable contacting the same individual repeatedly or whoever happens to be on call during your time of need.
  • Resources. Property management firms might be more professional than individual landlords when it comes to handling repairs and maintenance. Often, firms have on-call repair persons and set procedures for seeking assistance. They also tend to have more financial resources enabling them to take on big fixes immediately. And, when there's a problem with a unit that is significant enough as to require a tenant to move out, a property management firm is more likely to have another housing option available for the displaced tenant. Individual landlords might be less willing to spend their time and money on repairs if costs are coming directly out of their pockets. However, these generalities do not always hold true—we've all heard nightmares of the mega-managers who never return calls and don't make repairs until threatened with legal action. What's right for you when it comes to resources will come down to your assessment of the individual entity or person who will be managing the rental you're considering.
  • Procedures and protocol. Professional property management firms tend to be sticklers for rules and procedures, such as doing move-in inspections and rekeying of locks with every new tenant—after all, these firms are likely to have a corporate hierarchy with performance and accountability standards. Property managers working for a firm are likely to be less emotionally involved than an individual landlord or owner, and therefore more driven to arrive at business-based decisions and compromises. Individual landlords, on the other hand, might be more flexible and responsive to your particular needs and interests (such as having a cat, as opposed to enforcing a strict no-pets policy, or adding a roommate). The downside of this individual attention it that it might sometimes be more intrusive than desirable. If you like to have personal rapport with whoever is managing your rental, you're probably going to want to rent from an individual. But if you want a hands-off, business-like relationship, go with a property management firm.

How to Check Out Landlords and Property Management Firms

Although you might be inclined to just "go with your gut" when sizing up your potential landlord, it's worth your time to do some research. Here are some time-tested ways to do your homework.

Talk to Current Tenants

Ask current tenants (if at all possible) about their interactions with the landlord or property management firm. You'll want to know how quickly repairs were made, whether the landlord ever entered their rental unit without permission, and whether tenants are generally satisfied with the relationship.

Get a Sense of Turnover Rate

The frequency of vacancies in the building can sometimes be a good indicator of the quality of the landlord. A low rate of turnover suggests that tenants like living there (and that the landlord has chosen considerate, law-abiding renters who will be good neighbors). However, high turnover doesn't always mean the landlord is a nightmare: If the rental is in an area with traditionally high turnover, such as a university town or vacation area, don't read too much into it. To find out turnover rate, you can talk to current tenants, neighbors, or search for the address online and see if any old advertisements for the rental pop up.

Check Out Online Reviews of Landlords and Property Managers

You're likely to find a lot more online reviews of professional property management firms than you will of individual landlords. That being said, it's not unheard of for past tenants (especially unhappy ones) to post online reviews of individual property managers. And, it's worth searching for an individual landlord's name online regardless, as it's possible you might dig up some unsavory information about the person that would make you leery of trusting them with control over and access to your home. Aside from Googling your potential landlord's name, check out these landlord rating sites:

Also, you might find recent Google or Yelp reviews of a landlord when you search for a specific name. Keep in mind that most of the time, only disgruntled tenants will leave reviews of their landlords, so take these reviews with a grain of salt. But if you find detailed and consistent negative reports, steer clear of the landlord in question.

Know Your Rights as a Tenant

In the unfortunate event you find yourself in a battle with your landlord—whether a professional management company or an individual owner—your best course of action is to arm yourself with knowledge about your rights as a tenant and the landlord's legal duties. You can find more tenant-oriented information in Nolo's Renters' & Tenants' Rights section. You can also find helpful forms and information for tenants in the Nolo books Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart, or California Tenants' Rights, by Janet Portman and J. Scott Weaver.

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