My Landlord Life: Sandra Lester

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This week we met landlord Sandra Lester, a retired mental health nurse who has invested in multiple properties over the years, but sadly has struggled through the pandemic. She spoke to us about her journey so far: 

How did you take your first step onto the landlord ladder?

​​I began over 12 years ago after my mother died and left us her house to update, rent and manage. I always wanted to be a landlord and had an idealised view of easy money with very little overheads. 

At 52 I was making headway with an assortment of issues that would have caused most people to give up on balancing three improvement projects on four buildings, on a limited budget, whilst in full time work. I say four, as this included renovating my own home, which is often left till last.

As an RMN I was used to dealing with problems, but this landlord business was not just finding a solution; I ultimately had to be more creative in finding answers to seemingly un-achievable projects. This meant working my mind night and day, investing many hours of research, sourcing cheap but sturdy materials and finding the right people to put my plan together. On the plus side I found excitement in planning and organising and visualising the end product when everything went well. 

The process of bringing houses back to life gave me immense pleasure, seeing my ideas come together as I found my artistic background lent itself readily to interior design. 

Have you had any nightmare experiences?

Over the past 10 years, I have bought and refurbished eight houses, sold three and upgraded my portfolio to five good houses in up-and-coming neighbourhoods, which should be giving a higher yield. 

Unfortunately, during the last two years, I would say operating under the restrictions of Covid-19, attempting the building of two extensions at a distance and finding good tenants has been rather a lucky dip. I recently fell foul of cowboy builders and two non-paying tenants, one of which I later found out one was dealing in drugs, despite being credit referenced by a well known agent, but they had not looked into her character. 

They stated it would be wrong to keep a list of offending tenants as it would contravene their civil rights, but this does not consider the rights of her harassed neighbours or mine as the wronged landlord, who needs to be paid. It seems keeping to the straight and narrow has more costs than benefits. 

Now after around 21 pieces of legal evidence applying to the council to assist her, as she would not talk to me, I am in the position of taking her to court myself over the £7,000 unpaid rent, which is likely to last another six weeks. 

In the meantime, I am having to rebuild the brick-built conservatory, abandoned by a cowboy builder which has been condemned by the building inspector.

I am retired, but still soldiering on trying to make something of what is left. My job entails referring to structural engineering reports, managing everything from benefits to points of law, doing accounts,  EPC reports, regular boiler checks, gas, electricity and fire safety checks and being fully safety conscience 

As an RMN and Therapist I had been used to managing laws, understanding the way people’s minds work and having to see through what was happening, but with Universal Credit I came up against a brick wall of silence, where the benefit money was being paid to the tenant. I was left in the dark as to who had the money or who was keeping it became an investigation worthy of Sherlock Holmes, having to follow the clues to find my forms for direct payments to the Universal Credit department,  which went missing for a month. 

What have you learned in your landlord career?

So what have I learned so far? To have insurance to cover you when the rent does not appear and get into a good deposit scheme. 

I am still curious how this new Lifetime Deposit will work out, as I have already found a glitch with the Zero Deposit Scheme, which has to have an independent inventory before and after, and only comes into effect once the tenancy officially ends or via a court order. 

Would you change if you could do it all again?

On reflection, what would I have done differently? I perhaps should not have bought three properties at the same time, but then I was able to rise to this challenge and feel stronger for doing so. 

I should not have let my house out to people during Covid-19 without meeting them or liaising with their previous landlord. I should also not have started building extensions during the lockdown.

Incidentally, I found it really good to talk with other landlords in the same position as myself, hearing their opinion of how the landowner is seen as the villain. Perhaps it is a bit of fantasy that they are all super wealthy and do not actually need the money, which is a throwback to the peasants and Lord of the Manor days. 

Certainly the masses are much more educated as to their rights and appear to be given the benefit of the doubt over the unscrupulous masters. In a recent Mashroom discussion on what would happen post Section 21, I was able to share with concerned others what had happened to my once picture-perfect home, which had been rented out by a well-known agent to a drug dealer who had failed her payment date from the start . 

What would be the best piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out?

Recently, I have been taking advantage of free webinars, with the eager beavers that seem to be throwing themselves into the flames of property development at random and telling newbies to dive in and discount others warning to go slower. 

I am usually positive, but am reserved in this respect and join those in saying take more time to assess the risk and only follow a reasonable path. 

I wish the up-and-coming landlords good luck and I stress the need not to borrow too much and whenever possible slow down, use their own money carefully and hold a contingency plan with the warning  that any financial burdens of setting up will have to be carried for some time. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

I now understand it is really important to look ahead to what will happen 10 years into the future. Well, hopefully I will have a thriving portfolio that is worth more money, I will have added value by making  my portfolio bigger and better. I will have a specifically drawn-up contract with clauses for pets, damage etc., end dates and clear expectations of how we will treat each other. Avoiding long legal wrangles is a must for the future. 

I must also mention that during this time my family have made sacrifices. My husband has been left with trying to clear debt whilst maintaining the payment of our household bills due to the finances being used elsewhere on the houses.

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