Updated: Jan 9
The world hasn’t seen a pandemic in over a decade, since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu killed approximately 12,460 people, but the current COVID-19 one is hitting the population around the globe in a big way. Currently, there are more than 1,188,489 coronavirus cases, and over 64,103 deaths. These stats change daily, and they’re taken from the Worldometers Information on coronavirus.
Certainly the biggest impact is on the health of the population, as COVID-19 has been called ten-times more lethal than the regular flu. However, the virus is also taking its toll on multifamily properties, and many adjustments need to be made in order to keep the properties running efficiently, safely, and profitably. I’d like to share with you what we’re doing with our properties to mitigate COVID-19’s impact on our properties, with the hope that you can use some of these ideas and strategies on your own properties.
Start with Safety Precautions
The safety of your tenants and your employees is paramount, so there are several precautions you can take that help to minimize exposure to COVID-19. For example, any areas where tenants may congregate, including the lobby areas, club houses, gyms, or dedicated workout areas should be closed until health officials declare social distancing is no longer needed. Even outdoor areas, like basketball courts or fire pits where tenants tend to socialize should be closed and considered off limits.
One of the keys to surviving this crisis economically is to continue to rent vacant units. But it’s tough to practice social distancing when you’re taking prospective tenants on a tour of the property and available apartments. The answer: offer virtual tours. I’m not suggesting you go out and hire a video crew; simply use your smartphone and take videos of your model apartments, if available, along with a walking tour showcasing the highlights of your property. That might include recreational facilities (pool, tennis court, exercise equipment) and beautifully landscaped grounds.
We also sent a letter to all our tenants and educated them about social distancing, sheltering in place (if that’s been mandated in your community) and other Center for Disease Control guidelines like hand washing, hand sanitizers and other measures people can take to be safe from the coronavirus.
With many areas under a shelter in place mandate from their governor, as well as a mandate that only essential businesses be open, you should limit maintenance work to critical jobs. For example, if an HVAC isn’t working, that would be considered critical.
If an HVAC system is broken, or a unit has no running water or a backed-up sewer line, maintenance is definitely appropriate. I have our maintenance people use the downtime to plan for projects we were going to do later in the year, just as long as they can do the work remotely. For example, if we’re planning on implementing a green program at our property, maintenance people can begin to research new faucets and other parts needed for the programs implementation, so they are ready to be purchased once we get back to a normal workflow.
Maintaining Rent Collections
One of the keys to keeping the property economically viable is to maintain rent collections as high as possible. If a tenant claims to have lost a job or has been given reduced hours, require them to fill out a questionnaire and show proof of their unemployment claim. This will enable them to be put on a payment plan for their rent, but be sure they understand that it doesn’t mean that the rent is forgiven. That’s why it’s important for you to require proof to prevent tenants from taking advantage of the situation, who might decide to stop paying rent even if they still have a job.
Many states have limited or prevented landlords from evicting tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Let your tenants know you won’t evict any tenant who can show proof they’ve lost their job or have been forced to work a reduced number of hours. Building a “we’re all in this together” consensus is a smart way to retain your tenants at this critical time. However, make sure that your tenants understand that they have to show proof of a job loss, and that their rent is not forgiven; they will be put on a payment plan. This is an important step, because there’s a dangerous misconception amongst tenants these days that they don’t need to pay rent and cannot be evicted.
Put your attention on lease renewals and on those tenants who have leases that will end in the next 3-4 months. Those are the critical tenants that you need to secure. Offer rental renewals without any rent increases. Doing so will show that you’re compassionate to their immediate needs, and will increase your chances of collecting rents and not dealing with higher vacancies.
Here are some other creative ideas to consider in order to maximize rent collection: offer short-term leases of 1-4 months, or even a month-to-month lease, without any additional premium. Usually, leases less that 12 months have a rental premium added. By eliminating the premium, you’re increasing the chances of filling up vacant units.
You can also lease the model unit as a furnished apartment for short-term leases or even on a month-to-month basis. Renting to traveling nurses can be a creative solution to rent your model units.
Another idea is to offer your tenants the opportunity to switch to a security deposit insurance program. Here’s how this works: instead of paying an upfront security deposit at move-in, qualified renters are able to bypass the security deposit and pay between $5 to $10 a month. The tenants benefit because they don’t have to come up with a cash deposit at a time when they’ve lost their jobs or had hours cut. Landlords benefit because the insurance company covers double the typical one-month rent security deposit that is usually collected for any damage that may occur to the apartment. It’s a win-win for everyone. If someone lost their job, they can apply the deposit they already paid to the rent, and sign the security deposit insurance instead.
While the measure outlined are designed to retain tenants during the pandemic and resulting economic hardships that occur, it pays to do everything possible to reduce expenses. We always try to find ways to cut our costs, but now we’re taking that cost-cutting effort to the next level.
I would suggest starting by renegotiating contracts with all of the property’s vendors. This would include landscape companies, HVAC companies, plumbers, cable and phone companies, maintenance contractors - everyone and anyone involved in the maintenance and upkeep of the multifamily property. This is a critical time to cut expenses as some income may be lost to unpaid rents due to layoffs and reduced hours for tenants.
Another tactic is to search for credits from utility companies. Some utilities offer credits to landlords for energy-efficient appliances, HVAC equipment, and many other environmentally friendly upgrades, like low-flow faucets.
If you’ve started renovating your property’s apartments, put a hold on it. Most of these renovations are done as value-add upgrades in order to increase rents. During the resulting employment fallout from the current pandemic, it doesn’t make sense to shut down a unit for two weeks for renovation and then try to lease it at a premium rent. Wait until the economy stabilizes before continuing to do your value-add upgrades and renovations.
Minimize all non-essential expenses. I’m not going to stop taking care of my properties and let them deteriorate, but I have taken steps to reduce our expenses. For example, I’ve decreased the number of landscape visits from every 2 weeks instead of every week. This is one way, and by adding similar cuts, the savings will add up quickly.
Manage your Loan Documents
Make sure you read all of your loan documents carefully in order to understand your options on forbearance. Forbearance is an alternative to foreclosure. If you have an unusually high number of tenants who can’t pay rent during this time, it might be difficult to make your mortgage payments on your loan. Rather than going into foreclosure, some lenders will allow forbearance. This is a mortgage plan where you agree to bring your loan current over a certain time period.
During this time, your payments may be reduced or suspended, but the loan will continue to accrue interest. Many lenders agree not to report the forbearance to the credit bureaus if you maintain the terms you agreed to with the lender. It is far less damaging than a late mortgage payment would be on your credit report.
Though forbearance seems tempting, it’s not as easy to implement and you may bear some risk. While you are under forbearance, you cannot pay distributions to investors, charge asset management fee, or evict tenants that proved they had lost their jobs. You should consider a lawyer if you consider a forbearance, to make sure you do not trigger the bad boy carve out covenant in the loan agreement, which will eliminate the non-recourse protection.
The current COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc to the nation’s health, as well as the employment status of many workers. This in turn will have an impact on investors in multifamily properties if steps aren’t taken to mitigate the overall fallout. Start by implementing safety precautions. Close down any areas in the property where social distancing wouldn’t be possible, and offer virtual tours to prospective tenants to minimize in-person contact. Maintain rent collections by offering tenants shorter-term leases without a premium, and consider adding a security deposit insurance program. Limit maintenance whenever possible, and do whatever can be done to reduce expenses. This can include renegotiating contracts with your vendors. Place any planned renovations on hold until the economy recovers. Finally, review your loan documents to see if forbearance is an option to foreclosure and make sure you are comfortable with the limitations that come with using forbearance.
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About the Author
Ellie is the founder of Blue Lake Capital, a real estate company specialized in multifamily investing throughout the United States. At Blue Lake Capital, Ellie helps investors grow their wealth and achieve double-digit returns by investing alongside her in exclusive multifamily deals they usually don't have access to.
Ellie is the host of REady2Scale , a podcast that focuses on the "APS" of real estate: Asset, Process, and Strategy. Each episode discusses how investors can scale their real estate portfolio and/or businesses.
She started her career as a commercial real estate lawyer, leading real estate transactions for one of Israel’s leading development companies. Later, as a property manager for Israel’s largest energy company, she oversaw properties worth over $100MM. Additionally, Ellie is an experienced entrepreneur who helped build and scale companies by improving their business operations.
Ellie holds a Masters in Law from Bar-Ilan University in Israel and an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management.