Heard tales of guaranteed rent payments, courtesy of Section 8? Deposited by the government, and paying higher-than-market rents?
If these stories perked up your ears, you’re not alone. Section 8 landlords can make good money, with a lower risk of rent defaults – at least on the government-paid portion.
But Section 8 tenants come with other risks as well. If you’re looking to become a Section 8 landlord, here’s a quick overview of what you need to know, and how to get started.
The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program
When people today talk about “Section 8,” they usually refer to the Housing Choice Voucher Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
This program does not provide public housing, but rather rent subsidies for low-income Americans. The benefits follow the tenant — the voucher holder — who can take their voucher and apply to any rental housing.
Though funded by HUD, Section 8 is administered on the local level. Local public housing authorities (PHAs) review tenant applications for subsidized housing, choose recipients, screen landlord applications, inspect rental properties, and generally manage the rental assistance program. So participating landlords interact with their local housing authority.
Once upon a time there was a second Section 8 program, the Project-Based Program. These benefits tied to the property owner, who partnered with the government to provide affordable housing for low-income families. However HUD stopped awarding new contracts for this program in the ‘80s, so only already-participating landlords can renew their contracts today.
Tenant Eligibility & Income Limits
Designed to support low-income families and prevent homelessness, most Americans don’t qualify for Section 8.
Generally speaking, only families earning less than 50% of the local median household income qualify. Renters earning more than 50% of the local median income are on their own to find affordable rental housing. Local public housing agencies do take household size into account however when evaluating families’ annual income.
Only United States citizens and specific legal immigrant statuses qualify for Section 8 supportive housing benefits.
Do Landlords Have to Accept Section 8 Tenants?
In most areas, landlords have a choice to accept Section 8 vouchers or not. But not everywhere.
Some states (such as Oregon) and cities (such as Seattle) impose laws that require landlords to accept Section 8 tenants. To deny Section 8 voucher holders constitutes discrimination in these jurisdictions, similar to Fair Housing Act violations.
Granted, it’s largely a moot point in middle- and higher-income areas. But if you buy rental properties in low-income housing markets, your local laws may require you to accept Section 8 vouchers.
As a final note, remember to always keep copies of all rental applications, tenant screening reports, and your own screening notes, even for applicants you reject. If a declined applicant sues you for discrimination, you need to prove to a judge that you chose one tenant over another for a legitimate business reason. These include insufficient income, poor credit, eviction history, and bad landlord references, among others.
Contrary to some internet myths, landlords do not receive a tax credit for accepting Section 8 renters.
The Basics: How To Rent a Home to Section 8 Tenants
Tenants apply with the local housing office in order to get Section 8 approved vouchers. Those prospective Section 8 tenants usually sit on a waiting list to join the program. In some areas, it takes years for the local PHA to even review their application!
Once approved, they submit rental applications to landlords like any other renter. They can use their vouchers for any type of housing units, from large multifamily complexes to detached single-family homes. Or rather, units owned by any private market landlord who accepts Section 8 vouchers (in areas where landlords have a choice).
But wait one moment… does the good ol’ government pay for all of the tenant’s rent?
Usually not. Generally speaking, the tenant pays 30% of their household income toward the rent, and Section 8 picks up the balance above that.
When you accept a tenant who has been accepted into the Section 8 housing assistance program, expect some red tape. Your property will undergo an inspection for approval, at the very least.
And that’s if everything goes smoothly. But more on that later.
Advantages to Section 8 Tenants
So should I become a section 8 landlord? What are the advantages to signing a lease agreement with Section 8 tenants?
Here are a few pros of accepting Section 8 tenants.
1. Reliable On-Time Payments
Well, for the government’s portion, anyway. But don’t expect a guarantee that the tenants will pay their portion on time.
Through good ol’ fashioned tenant screening, you can weed out unreliable renters with a poor credit history, showing a pattern of paying bills late (or not at all). It helps if you automate your rent collection to receive rent electronically, direct-deposited into your bank account.
You can even buy a rent guarantee insurance policy for a few hundred dollars per year. Check out Steady or Rent Rescue to buy rent default insurance, that kicks in and pays you the rent if your tenants stop paying.
Remember, Section 8 no longer pays all or even most of the rent for the tenant. The tenant typically pays 30% of their household income toward the rent themselves.
Nor does Section 8 pay higher-than-market rents anymore, for the most part.
2. High Allowable Rent Increases
Most cities allow landlords to raise the rent in the 5-8% range per annum. These are determined by the federal government’s findings of fair market rents; more on this below.
But since the government pays much of their rent, Section 8 tenants tend not to complain as much about rent hikes.
3. Fill Vacancies Faster
When you accept Section 8 tenants, you can fill your vacancies faster. To begin with, many landlords don’t accept Section 8 vouchers, which leaves these tenants with fewer options.
But there are also extra websites and newsletters specifically for Section 8 rental listings. Check out GoSection8 and WeTakeSection8 as two examples where Section 8 landlords can market their vacant rentals.
4. Lower Vacancy & Turnover Rates
Because tenants with financial assistance often have a harder time finding landlords who accept vouchers, they tend to stay longer-term. That in turn means lower turnover rates and vacancy rates.
Both of which mean higher profits and better real estate cash flow.
5. Potential for Higher Rents
While it was more common in decades past, sometimes Section 8 tenants do pay higher rents than market tenants.
To research Section 8’s “fair market rates” (FMR) for your market, go to HUDuser.gov, select your state and then your county. There you will find a chart providing the FMR for efficiencies up through 4-bedroom rentals.
Disadvantages to Becoming a Section 8 Landlord
Section 8 tenants can come with plenty of their own risks and drawbacks. Before you take the plunge and invest time and money into becoming a Section 8 landlord, consider some of these disadvantages.
1. Red Tape
The bureaucracy can cost time and money, and delay new Section 8 tenants moving in. Worse yet, local housing departments often require extra steps in the eviction process, delaying eviction of non-paying Section 8 tenants.
Which, in turn, means months of unpaid rent.
2. Delayed Initial Payments
Sometimes your first rent check can take up to two months. Oh, you will get it eventually, but count on covering your expenses out-of-pocket for the first few months.
Just imagine telling your mortgage company “I’ll get it to you eventually!”
3. Inspections, Inspections & More Inspections
Did I say inspections? We are talking about a white-gloved, look-everywhere inspection.
This is the top reason many landlords do not accept Section 8 vouchers. It’s also why Brian stopped accepting Section 8 tenants — every year, his entire cash flow for the year would be wiped out by repairs ordered on a whim by local inspectors trying to prove they visited each home on their schedule.
4. Tenant Quality
Sure, the government portion will come in every month, but what about the tenant’s portion?
The simple fact is that lower-income tenants sometimes mean lower credit, lower reliability, and less stable income. Look out as well for “professional tenants” who know the system better than any landlord accepting Section 8 rent vouchers.
5. Property Damage
Higher-risk tenants aren’t just a risk for rent defaults. They also pose a higher risk to your property itself.
Tenants can put the proverbial beatdown on your rental unit leaving you, the homeowner, with the bill. What, you thought the government will accept liability for the Section 8 tenants’ actions? That you’d be reimbursed for any damage caused?
Sure, you can take that low-income individual to small claims court and sue for the damages, but don’t count on getting that moolah, even if you win a judgment.
Brian shared some of his horror stories with me, and pointed out that the less financially invested people are in, well, anything, the less attention they pay. His Section 8 tenants often treated his properties badly, because they had little or no financial investment in it.
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Infographic: Should I Become a Section 8 Landlord?
As a quick-reference summary of the pros and cons of becoming a Section 8 housing landlord, here’s a simple infographic outlining each. Keep in mind that Section 8 tenants vary widely in quality by geography as well; I know a landlord in rural Alabama who swears by them, while Brian has nothing but horror stories about the Section 8 renters he had in Baltimore City.
Without further ado, here are the most common Section 8 housing landlord problems and upsides!
Infographic courtesy of Venngage Infographic Maker
Would your readers appreciate this Section 8 landlord infographic? Click here for the embed code.
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Tips for Working with Section 8 Tenants
Still want to become a Section 8 landlord?
We’ve got you covered. Here are some tips for success, when starting out with Section 8 vouchers!
Screen Tenants Like $150,000 Depends on It
Or however much your property is worth. Because you are handing complete control and possession of your asset worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to these people.
Think of tenant screening as a mechanical process — remove any attachment and emotion from the equation. You need a written policy on your tenant screening criteria, that you follow like clockwork every time you collect rental applications.
List out all your tenant screening criteria such as income, criminal history, employment, credit score and credit history requirements, eviction history, landlord referrals, and condition of their current home. Feel free to start with a free tenant background check (hint hint!).
Following a set procedure also keeps you in compliance with landlord Fair Housing laws. Assuming, of course, that your policy adheres to FHA regulations.
Tenant-Proof Your Rental Property
Make your rental “strong like bull”! Start tenant-proofing your property by painting the walls with glossy, neutral-colored, inexpensive paint. It’s easier to rub scuffs away on glossier finishes rather than flat paint.
I personally steer clear of both carpets and real hardwood floors in rentals. However, sturdy lookalikes are perfect, from waterproof luxury vinyl tile (LVT) to faux wood to bamboo.
If you insist on installing carpets, use a thick, higher-grade padding, and lower-grade carpets with darker colors. You’ll have to replace the carpets often, but not the padding.
Use tamper-proof smoke and carbon monoxide testers. If you provide appliances, install second-hand ones with few bells and whistles. The more complex an appliance is, the more likely the tenant is to misuse and break it.
Likewise, remove other unnecessary features. No reason to include garbage disposals (they break easily), ceiling fans, window air conditioning units, or anything that is not a required addition. Bare minimum equals less inspection, less maintenance, and less damage to worry about.
Don’t provide screen doors. Tenants – particularly Section 8 tenants – end up breaking them, and if you include them when tenants move in, they’ll expect you to repair or replace them when they break them.
Many of the common repairs can even be done cheaply and by you, thus saving money but still maintaining the property in a good strong condition.
Inspect the Property Every 6 Months
Your goal is not to harass, but to look for needed repairs and ensure the tenant is complying with all lease agreement rules.
Schedule inspections and throw in a “I am doing a smoke detector check” surprise. Check for running toilets, leaking faucets and anything else that may be literally or figuratively flushing money down the drain. (Did you know that one toilet with a slow constant run costs about $75 per month?)
You will also be able to be sure that the tenant is complying with your lease agreement terms. Are there any unauthorized occupants? Dogs? Alligators in the bathtub?
File for Eviction Immediately if Tenants Break the Lease Agreement
If the tenant, the tenant’s visitors, or their kids are breaking rules, get right on top of it. Start the eviction process as soon as possible; it takes several months (or longer, for Section 8 tenants) from the initial eviction notice until the eventual lockout. So the tenants will have plenty of time to correct the violation and avoid the eviction.
Often tenants who break their lease agreements will be bounced from the Section 8 program; they have much to lose by not following the rules.
Landlord Note: As of early 2021, the federal coronavirus eviction moratorium is still in place, banning most eviction proceedings. Until the federal and any applicable state- or local COVID-19 eviction moratoriums end, note that you may not be able to evict non-paying tenants.
Above all, know your neighborhood. If you have a great rental in a desirable neighborhood, you may want to rethink becoming a Section 8 landlord. Chances are that the FMR will be lower than what you can fetch on your own.
Now that you are armed with the info, the good, the bad and the truth, go forth and choose well! The Section 8 Housing Voucher program has its place and can be a viable option for many landlords. But before jumping in, make sure you know exactly what it is you’re getting into.
What to Do Now:
1. Comment below: Have you ever worked with Section 8 renters? How did it go? Will you consider working with Section 8 renters in the future?
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