Money talk: how owning a house can bring in passive income

When I first moved to Napa, I thought I may just rent indefinitely. After owning a home for more than 16 years, I wanted a break from maintenance and upkeep. That feeling didn’t last very long, though.

I think I finally hit my limit of waiting for someone else to approve maintenance requests during Memorial Day weekend of 2016, not quite a year and a half from when I started renting. That was the weekend when the main drain line clogged, and the only bathroom in the house became unusable. I had a couple of friends visiting that weekend, and we weren’t able to take a shower or use the only toilet in the house until an emergency plumber responded. I had been reporting issues that pointed to imminent failure of the drain line for over two weeks, but the landlord was dragging his feet on approving a company to come out and address the issue. I’m sure he was regretting it when he got the bill for that emergency call on a holiday weekend.

After an experience like this, I realized that I wanted to be the one to make the choice of when and what type of repairs should be made. Yes, it could be a hassle to find good people to do the work, but I preferred that to being stuck in a situation where I was forced to find a place to squat in the yard to pee.

There are many articles and blog posts one can find about the “rent vs buy” debate that outline the pros and cons of each. This isn’t one of them. I’m just sharing one of the reasons I find that owning works for me: I can choose to bring in extra income by renting a bedroom in my house. Renters are legally bound by the terms of a lease, which usually do not allow sub-letting the unit or portions of the unit without landlord approval. As an owner, I don’t have this restriction.

I first started renting rooms in my home when I lived in Chicago. I had a fairly large house that was perfect for this arrangement. I had my own bedroom and bathroom on the main level of the house, and I rented out the two bedrooms with a bathroom on the second floor. The kitchen area was shared, and while I made it clear that my housemates could use living and dining room, too, they rarely did.

I used the equity from my Chicago home sale as a down payment on my house in Napa. Property values are much higher here, and the house I purchased is smaller than the one in Chicago. I went from owning a house with four bedrooms and three bathrooms to one that has only two bedrooms and one bathroom. I use the larger of the two bedrooms and rent out the smaller bedroom. The kitchen, bathroom, living room, and dining area are all shared space.

Potential renters are plentiful. During the harvest season or “crush,” there are frequently people hired on a short-term basis to work in the labs and support the winemakers. Additionally, many of the wineries hire interns throughout the year to work in the tasting rooms or with back office functions like marketing, sales, and events. The local hospital employs many “travelers” to fill nursing and technical positions, too. Vacancy rates for rentals is very low, and like all of the Bay Area, housing is expensive, so sharing housing is quite common here.

The local community housing organization actually has a free program to promote home sharing by matching applicants with owners. I thought about using this program to locate a new house-mate, but I wanted to have the option of having a month or two “off,” so I decided to rent my room through Airbnb.

As long as I have my listing set for a minimum rental of 30 days, I don’t trigger any issues with the city. The demographic I am targeting — people who are in Napa for short-term work assignments or internships — are also looking at online sources such as Airbnb or Craigslist to find housing, so the service works well for me. I have full control of who I accept through Airbnb, and I require that they be “verified” by Airbnb (verification of government issued IDs) before I consider their request. I also usually have some back and forth messaging with the guest first to confirm their reasons for booking. While I could make more money by renting directly through Craigslist, I prefer the extra protection provided by Airbnb and their verification process.

This may be obvious, but I rent the room furnished. I already had a modular shelving/desk unit and chair for the room, and the closet has an organizer with built-ins. I had to buy a bed, bedding, some linens, and hangers for the closet. I saved the receipts for all of these up front costs for tax purposes.

The extra income I get from renting my room is taxable income. But while I do collect income for the room, I also have expenses, such as extra costs for utilities (water, gas, electric, and internet), supplies (paper and cleaning products), maintenance, and fees to Airbnb. Keeping track of these expenses and itemizing them on my annual tax form works in my favor. For individuals with income less than $150,000 a year, the IRS allows these expenses to offset the income under their rules for “passive activity losses.” Those making less than $125,000, get the full benefit of passive income loss rules, which are gradually reduced up to the upper limit of $150,000. However, for those making more than $150,000 it’s still worthwhile to keep careful records and report expenses every year as any losses are applied when one sells the property.

When I was bringin in a lower salary in Chicago, I had passive losses most years. I was getting money throughout the year from my renters so I had cash flow, but a portion (about 40%) of the maintenance costs — landscaping upkeep, and repairs to the house — was a business expense. I didn’t end up having to pay taxes on any of that income due to the fact that I had a loss every year. Now I have a high enough income that I can’t claim any passive losses on my annual income tax return, but I still keep records because if the tax laws aren’t changed and I sell the house, I can perhaps use those losses to offset any taxes on any gains I earn.

My income in 2017 from renting out my spare bedroom has offset the expense of caring for my elderly dog and given me extra breathing space in the budget every month. I had hoped to use the extra money to pay down the mortgage faster, and eventually I may be able to do that.

I’ve also met some great people. I’ve had five people stay with me over the course of the year, and only one left me less than happy with the experience. Last year’s harvest intern was a tad immature and messy. I quickly got tired of living with a sloppy boy, who seemed genuinely clueless about his bad habits such as running the hot water in the shower to “warm it up” for so long that there was water beading in the walls. He did respond when I directly talked to him about correcting his behavior, at least.

The intangible benefits of having someone else living in the house are that I tend to keep the house neater and cleaner. I’m not generally a person who lets dishes pile up, but when I’m on my own I’m more likely to put off dusting and vacuuming. I also have some additional opportunities for socializing by occasionally sharing a meal or taking a walk with a guest.

Ideally I’d like to have the house to myself and build what is called an Accessory Dwelling Unit in my large backyard. I’ve also thought about putting an addition on the house to expand the back bedroom into a suite with its own bathroom, or perhaps add an entirely new master suite, giving the house three full bedrooms and two bathrooms. While there is plenty of room in the backyard for any of these ideas, I simply lack the capital and don’t yet have enough equity in the house to even think about using it to get a loan.

Sharing one’s home with strangers isn’t for everyone, but I often recommend it to people who live alone and have extra space. It is a great strategy for bringing in extra cash, and can provide an extra level of socializing and security.

If anyone has ideas on how to raise capital for major home improvements, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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3 thoughts on “Money talk: how owning a house can bring in passive income

  1. How much capital are we talking about raising? That might effect the answer.

    We still have almost six figures of repairs still ahead of us but we are very much a pay as you go family…so for a big expense like accessory dwelling we do not get loans. But break up big jobs into chunks. Permits and floor plans may be the first step.

    I would be depressed and overwhelmed if I tried to save everything in advance before pulling the trigger. Pouring a foundation can be saved for first, then framing, then siding and roof. Then interior and so on.

    Renting is a great moneymaker. I also work a fun Job on the weekends. It doesn’t make much money but I get hotel discounts and a free gym membership so it’s more like cost avoidance thing.

    I tracked Selling stuff one Craigslist and amazon to see if it was worth the hassle of nickeling and diming things but over the course of a year, I made $1500 vs just donating the stuff.

    Do you have a bonus plan at work? At one point I realized I could make way more money as a top performer and it was a better ROI than splitting my time on my side gigs so I did that instead.

    I also have gotten calls for “expertise requests” from LinkedIn. They pay $150 an hour so it may be worth updating your profile so that people can find you. I didn’t say yes to those due to conflict of interest but totally would if I was retired or changed industries.

    I used to tutor. That also falls in the fun category for me.

    Ok summary, my philosophy is to save for smaller bite sized achievable goals ao it’s not so daunting. This is not for everyone as some folks can’t live with long term unfinished projects.

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    • You’re right, I should get someone to work with first on plans and how the process of permits works here. I keep reminding myself that I lived in my last house for 13 years and that it took that long to get it remodeled, updated, and landscaped to my liking. I’ve only been here 1.5 years, so I need to be a bit more patient.

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  2. Pingback: Link love and challenge update | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured)

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