There’s a reason the government offers property owners a depreciation deduction: the minute you buy a property, it starts to deteriorate. It weathers. It grows old. Roofs begin to leak. Paint peels and wood rots. Carpeting wears out and equipment goes bad.
That’s why maintenance and repair are essential components of property ownership, particularly if you want to attract and hold desirable tenants paying high rents, which in turn brings strong valuations.
And the key to good property maintenance is a good maintenance person, or team.
Unfortunately, hiring a good maintenance person, or team, is very tricky. You have to find people who are competent, not a prima donna, trained and experienced in a wide variety of trades and skills, and – perhaps most important – honest and uninterested in stealing from you and your tenants.
Over the years, I’ve hired a great many maintenance people, some good, some not so good. I’ve learned what to look for in a maintenance person, and what to recognize as a “red flag” of danger.
In this article, I’ll share some of that experience with you, and provide guidelines you won’t find anywhere else on how to hire a good maintenance person, whether this is your first, or your last in a long line of such hiring decisions.
The Interview Begins On Arrival
To begin, notice your maintenance candidates from the minute they arrive at your location. What are they driving?
Whether your maintenance person is going to work for you full time or part time, you want the person you select to have a large, reliable van. Many maintenance people drive trucks, and those are a better sign of competence than a worn-out sedan. No matter what make or model, if the candidate drives up in a car, that’s not whom you should hire.
Before you even begin an interview with a candidate for your maintenance position, ask yourself a simple question: If he or she is driving a truck, how will your maintenance person lock up not only his tools, but the materials, appliances, and other equipment he buys for your properties and transports there?
The work-vehicle is such an important indication of a maintenance person’s qualifications that I suggest you tell every candidate to bring his or her work-truck to the interview.
Tools and Materials Reveal Readiness
Look over the tools he or she is carrying. You want to see more than basic outfits for plumbing (check his or her torch), drywall, tile work, carpet installation (ask to see his or her carpet stretcher!), and carpentry.
Whether the candidate will be working for you full time or part time, he or she should already have on hand, readily available in his or her van, most of the materials needed to turn an apartment. Paint and brushes, drop cloths, ladders, tools, electrical items, and various incidental items and materials should all be ready to hand. If they’re not, this candidate has not been busy working, and he’ll be on your payroll as he takes the time to come up to speed not just on skills, but on supplies.
Performance Tests and In-Depth Interviews Make For Better Hiring Decisions
Your goal should not be simply to hire the first candidate who talks a good game. Instead, plan on interviewing a number of candidates until you find three or four who seem qualified. You will then give these top candidates some practical tasks to do. After one or more of these candidates show their maintenance chops to your satisfaction, you’ll send them to a psychologist for an in-depth interview and background testing.
You’ll do your hiring from among those candidates who run this entire gauntlet and pass it to your satisfaction.
A good trial assignment for candidates who seem qualified is to turn around a recently vacated apartment. Give each good candidate a different unit. Walk him or her through the unit and get a sense of what he sees wrong, and how he plans to bring it up to standards. Offer a fair wage for the work. Then see how quickly, and how well, he or she can finish the job.
If an average apartment takes a candidate more than three days for a standard paint-up/fix-up turnaround, keep looking for someone more qualified.
Quality, Consistency, Efficiency
As you evaluate the completed apartment, look at the quality and consistency of the work, the efficiency of material usage, the amount of disturbance – noise, smells, hallway clutter, and so forth – for other tenants, and the candidate’s overall competence at handling the project.
One key indicator: your potential hire for the maintenance position must be able to do great drywall work. When he or she is done with a wall, you shouldn’t be able to see there was ever a hole in it. Patches should be dead smooth, and large wall expanses should not show any ripples or waves. Even if he or she is good at everything else, if your candidate can’t do a great job with drywall, keep looking.
If your property is located in Florida, or any state where people are going to run their air conditioning for several months in a row, your new maintenance hire must be A/C Technician certified. That means he or she has essentially earned a license from the state by showing he or she knows how to fix a variety of air conditioning systems. Hiring a maintenance person with this kind of certification will save you a serious amount of money during the warmest months of the year, year after year after year.
Honesty Is Critically Important
Be particularly wary of hiring anyone who might turn out to be a thief. Even if a thief doesn’t take cash from tenants or from you, a larcenous maintenance person can transfer a great deal of money from your pocket to theirs.
Just think how easy it is to buy too much of any item or material that’s regularly used in maintenance and repair. You can’t monitor these quantities with any real accuracy. A dishonest maintenance person can regularly buy too much, get reimbursed by you, then return the excess for cash or sell it to someone else.
You can’t protect yourself from this kind of theft by buying the materials yourself. Compared with buying materials for your properties on his or her own, it’s no more difficult for a dishonest maintenance person to ask you for too much of an item, then use only what he or she needs and return or sell the rest.
It’s reassuring if your candidate is a licensed contractor, or certified by the International Maintenance Institute, ABMS or ABIM, or any of the other trustworthy certifiers.
One important guideline: Don’t hire the candidate who’ll work for the lowest rates. You want a maintenance person who is supporting himself honestly. If you pay too little, you’re only providing more incentive to steal from you.
Stay Fully Stocked
Once you select a maintenance person, especially for full time work, make clear you expect him or her to stock most of the common items he’ll be using on his truck at all times. The alternative is very expensive.
For example, if you’re paying $15 per hour, it costs you $45 for your maintenance person to go to the store: an hour to get there, an hour to shop and check out, and an hour to come back to your location. That’s three hours gone from an eight hour day, leaving only five hours for actual, productive work.
It took me only a few years of experience hiring maintenance people to learn that these workers just love to go to stores once a day. They get to blow off steam and talk to their buddies. Not on my dime, please. I tell my maintenance people to stock their trucks every Monday morning so they don’t have to go to the store for the whole rest of the week.
I’m so sold on this idea that if I have a choice of paying someone with a fully stocked truck $20 per hour, or someone working out of a car $13 an hour, I’ll hire the $20 per hour person. Because he or she stocks the materials and doesn’t need to go shopping for each job, it works out much cheaper for me in the end.
Additional Security Issues
Hiring extra helpers for individual maintenance jobs is inherently risky. There’s the question of whether your workmen’s compensation policy will cover the helpers. There’s also the question of the helpers’ honesty: you screened the maintenance guy, but what do you really know about his or her helpers?
Some jobs require helpers, but I try to make sure these temporary workers do only jobs on the outside of my buildings, or that they gain only limited access to locations where they could be tempted to steal. If my maintenance person needs a helper frequently, or for extended periods, I’ll pay for a full-scale screening so I can be sure that helper is trustworthy.
In my experience, the biggest problems with maintenance people occur when they use drugs or alcohol. I simply don’t tolerate this. Every two months, I buy some simple drug test kits from a local pharmacy and have my maintenance guys pee on the test strip. In most states, you have the right to test your employees, and I suggest you make that a routine part of your policy.