Lack of savings makes becoming a landlord risky

Dear Liz: My husband and I, both 44, own and live in one side of a duplex. The owners of the other side are moving next year and have offered to sell it to us. We don’t have enough in savings to cover a 20% down payment for a traditional mortgage, but our neighbors offered to do owner financing. Rentals are hot commodities in our area, and we’ve been told by real estate agents that they could get the place rented within a week for more than we’d make in mortgage payments. This would be an amazing opportunity for us, but if for some reason the property went vacant we couldn’t cover the payment unless we make some major changes to our budget, such as selling our RV ($325 a month) or temporarily suspending contributions to our 457 deferred compensation plans (we contribute $300 a month and both our jobs come with pensions that will replace 60% of our salaries). We currently also make a truck payment ($350 a month) and have $2,300 in credit card debt, but we only have $1,000 in accessible savings.

Answer: You’re not in a great position to be landlords. You have too little savings to cover the inevitable repairs and vacancies you’ll face. Plus, your credit card and vehicle debts indicate you’ve been living beyond your means.

Still, this may be a promising opportunity. A rental that is cash-flow positive ā€” in which the rent collected exceeds the cost of the mortgage, property taxes and insurance ā€” can be a decent long-term investment. If you’re willing to commit to improving your finances and taking this risk, it could work out.

Talk to some other landlords first to see what challenges they face and what typical vacancy rates they experience. You’ll want to locate a lawyer who understands your state’s landlord-tenant laws to draw up any paperwork you’ll need.

If you decide to proceed, sell the RV and use whatever’s left after paying off the loan to pay down your credit card debt. Then redirect the RV payment to paying off the rest of the cards and building up your savings. (A note for the future: RVs are fun, but they’re luxuries, and luxuries should be paid for in cash.)

Don’t compromise your retirement savings. Your generous pension could get whittled down in the future, or you might lose those jobs. Having a decent retirement kitty of your own is simply prudent.


  1. This sounds like a smart risk to take. These people should investigate the rental situation in their area but if all seems well, they should go for it.

    The fact that they live in the other side of the duplex and knew the previous owners means that they already know what kinds of quirks and repairs are normal in this type of building.

  2. I think this is a great idea, but of course it would depend on what city you live in and what the rental market is like. In cities where rentals are a hot commodity, like they are in Austin, Texas, I say they should go for it. The rental of the other side (especially if it is larger) should be enough to make the mortgage payment and save for repairs. The money that can be saved from not having to make a mortgage payment, or pay rent, could be funneled into a 401K and other types of savings plans for retirement.