First time rehab on a rowhouse in an up and coming urban area


I’m thinking about pulling the trigger on a property on a rowhouse in an up and coming area of Washington, DC. It’s a small 2 bedroom building that is separated into 2 units. It needs work (electrical, plumbing, painting, tile etc.) but is not a full shell.

As a first time rehabber and rental property buyer, who hopes to do some of the work on my own, can someone offer advice on what I can fix myself and what I should contract out? Are there any other free online resources for rehabbing and landlording that are good?

Additionally, what types of materials should I use? Should I go for high quality, mid-grade or durable, low cost-long lasting? ie. ardwood flooring vs. Pergo etc? Wall paper vs. painting? Things of that nature. I know that’s a pretty subjective question, but want this place to be done affordably, but not shoddily.

Also, should I do direct deposit on monthly rent? How can I screen for tenants, but be discerning without facing potential discrimination lawsuits? Should I incorporate myself into an llc or C corp. or just get good homeowners insurance?

Also, is there a chronological order usually followed by any of you to your rehabs? I mean should I tackle plumbing first or attack each portion at the same time?

thank you so much!

*sorry I meant should I keep the property in my name or under an llc? legally, what would be the best option?

One more thing, does anyone know where I can find free rental forms or offer advice on what provisions would be best to include if I choose to draft my own?


*okay last revision.

Is there a formula or approach you use when inspecting a house in need of rehab for sale, that helps you determine potential costs? I mean are there general set prices for flooring, electrical or plumbing that you automatically reference in your mind to assist you in compiling construction costs so you can better weigh the decision to invest?



I recommend buying a book called “FLIP” - How To Find, Fix, and Sell Houses For Profit. It is by Rick Villani and Clay Davis. My edition is from 2007, I don’t know if there is a more recent one.

I don’t do house flips, but I do renovate units to use as furnished rental homes. I thought “FLIP” was an excellent resource because it has improvement costs per square foot charts, rule of thumb charts and lots of basic info. It also covers holding costs, etc. Great basic book for anyone. Follow that book and you can do it.

Good luck on your project.

I’m a newbie too (I don’t even have a property I want to buy yet) but I agree on the Flip book. I read it and they go into detail about the order of things to do. I don’t know if you need this but there was another book I bought called “The Illustrated Home” has drawings of every feature in a house and what can go wrong with it. The book is expensive but I was very glad I bought it.

Only you can determine what you can fix yourself and what you’ll need to hire out. You may find yourself willing to try some repairs you’ve never done before in order to save money. You know your skill level. With some good guidance, you’ll be surprised at what you can do.

Some generally easy things you should be able to do yourself are painting, light drywall repair, replacing light fixtures, etc. You should also try to do as much demo as you can. If you’re inexperienced, don’t rip out walls, but you should pull up whatever carpet, vinyl, or tile you’re going to replace.

I think this website is by far the best resource for REI information - period.

Your material choice should be determined by the type of rental as well as how much money you can afford to put into it. Don’t over-improve for what it is. If you’re putting $2 or higher per sq ft. flooring in a low income rental, you’re over-doing it. There’s plenty of carpet and even some laminate out there for $1/sqft. Hardwood is way too expensive for rentals. You can replace countertops for $50-100 or so depending on the size. You can get new formica ones that look decent for that. If you’re going for $1500/mo rent and you’re in a nice area, step it up a bit.
I CAN’T STAND wall paper and will rip it out every chance I get. I’d rather paint than paper walls.
We don’t have any people on direct deposit for rent (other than section 8 tenants paid by the govt). Some of our tenants pay by check - some by money order. You could offer direct deposit as an option, but the companies that do that charge fees.
Federal Fair Housing Laws state you cannot discriminate against anyone based on age, race, religion, national origin, handicap, sex, or familial status. You can deny applicants based on other things outside of these criteria. You can set your own reasonable monthly income criteria, criminal history, etc. for screening purposes. If you state you’re not going to accept applicants with felonies, that’s fine. Just apply that criteria evenly with everyone no matter what age, sex, race, etc. they are.
You don’t have to incorporate. Some people do; some don’t. If you incorporate, you won’t be getting FHA loans. There’s tons written in the legal forum about the pros/cons of LLCs.

Carry good LL insurance with a generous amount of liability coverage. Get $1 million if you can. It’s generally not much more expensive to bump up to a million from $300-500K.

As far as timeline, I’ll usually get everything else done and then save flooring for last. I don’t want to scratch up or stain my new flooring. It just depends on what needs done as to what my order is. Sometimes I base it on what I feel like working on that day.

You can find example leases in some LL books. I’ve taken some clauses out of some of them to add to our lease. You can PM me with your email address & I could send an example to you. There may be some things that are required to be in a lease in your state. You would have to check into that.

For my first rehab, I made a big shopping list and just went to Menard’s and priced everything. I’ve got a good idea about some repairs. Other things I just call around and get estimates on. Some surprises will pop up though. You may not know about some of the problems because the utilities might be off.

Thanks for the advice - it’s well received. Tenant screening is an issue I’ll need to thoroughly verse myself in. In fact, how does one perform criminal and credit checks. Are there websites for this or any way to it for free?

Regarding incorporation vs. keeping a property solely under my name, I may do the latter and heavily insure myself. I may want to apply for an FHA loan as isn’t one of the advantages a lower rate and a 3% downpayment vs. usual 20% on a 30 year fixed?

In truth, this rental is to be directed at young working professionals, pioneers if you will, who aren’t afraid of a little grit for easy metro access. Thanks for the information and for supporting the collective effort of this wonderful resource.

Tenant screening -
Check your county’s website and see if they post public records online. If so, this would be the easiest place to start. You should have each potential resident fill out a comprehensive application. Get as much personal information as you can. If your county posts the records online, just search the applicant’s name and see what comes up. Make sure you get their birthdate on the application so you can be sure you’re seeing the correct record. If the info isn’t on the web, you can go down to the public records office at the court house to do the same thing in person. This should be free and can be your first way to weed out the bad apples. You should also verify their employment. I like to do reverse phone number searches for free online to verify the phone number they gave me is actually for a legitimate business and not their friend Joe who was told to act like he’s their supervisor at work. Have them list at least their last two addresses and the landlord for each place. This doesn’t always produce fruit if they are young and were living at home or are a recent divorcee and previously owned their own house, but if you do get two prior LLs it can be helpful. Keep in mind their current LL may tell you they’re great just to get them to move out. The prior LL where they no longer live has no reason to tell you any lies.
There are websites you can use for background checks and credit checks. Here are some (some links may not be current):

These websites charge varying rates for background and credit checks. The rules are fairly stringent for credit checks. You can get the agency to make a “credit decision” about the applicant, but you won’t be able to find out specific account information for them unless you have a home office set up, get it inspected, pay extra fees, and have the applicant’s signature stating you can pull their credit. Many lower income renters have horrible credit & that’s why they rent. You can generally rule out most people by doing a public records check on them and verifying employment. A couple misdemeanors are probably ok, but felonies should be grounds for denial. Just set your criteria and apply it evenly while also adhering to Federal Fair Housing Laws.

FHA probably has some programs that could get you into a property for less money than if you went the other route. Realize you’ll also run into the mortgage limit by doing it this way. Like I said, there are pros/cons of either way you do it.


Maybe the most important thing: Accept the fact that you are going to make mistakes. Lots of them, since this is your first house.

I hired drugged up lazy workers, an incompetent rip-off plumber, and spent way too much money on that first house. I put in too-cheap flooring that had to be re-done, and light fixtures that still don’t look right.

But I also found my permanent SWAT plumber, and learned which locals not to hire. (No teeth = Meth user). And it was fun turning that little cracker-box house into a cute rental cottage.