An interview with HMO Landlady -Serena Thomson

Googling around for lesbian tenants in the UK, on a lazy afternoon, I came across the blog of Serena Thompson, the HMO landlady. Under the pretense of an interview I tricked her into introducing me to the lovely lady tenants from Portuguese! Being a person of a very generous nature and not entirely devoid of compassion for my fellow humans I’m publishing the interview here as folks running an HMO might benefit from it. Me? I’ll be sipping on some orange juice with the lovely ladies in the afternoon.

Serena, how did you get started with your website HMO Landlady?

The blog started in August 2011 when I realised there was so little information available on the practical side of running HMOs. Ever since I’d entered the HMO world in 2007, other landlords almost sneered when I told them I was room letting and they made me feel as though I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. What’s more, most of them were experienced mature male landlords who had no time for me. 2010 had been a pivotal year when one of my tenants had died, one went to prison and another smashed the house up. On top of that, I was going to through a divorce and ended up with custody of not only my own children and the dog, but all 25 tenants as my ex husband made it they were all ‘my responsibility’.

Your articles on HMO landlady have a very positive vibe to them in-spite of occasionally nasty behaviour of your tenants. It’s quite obvious that you enjoy writing about HMOS. But has it been the the same in real life? Has running an HMO been a positive experience overall?

Whilst some articles lend themselves to a little artistic licence, they are all based on true events. Names have been changed to protect the tenants’ but if anyone recognises themselves they would agree that everything was factual. The last couple of years have seen my tenant profile to be more economic migrants than DSS so the behaviour has settled down dramatically. Economic migrants want to keep their heads down, earn as much money as possible and rarely squander it on drink and drugs. The DSS tenants still with me behave as they know they won’t find any other accommodation due to their circumstances. The result is little room turnover and the houses now feel like home.

You’ve often talked about a “practical way” of managing HMOs. The practical side of HMOs is something that seems to escape many people who are diving in the world of HMOs for the first time. Why do you think this is the case? Is it because letting is usually seen as a get rich quick scheme?

Ah, yes I think you’re right. It’s dead easy to make theoretical profits on a spreadsheet but the reality can be very different when you’re starting out. When investors contact me for advice on how to start, I always ask:

“How much money do you have to invest?” If you don’t have much (e.g. £50k), then open a savings account until you’ve saved enough to invest in the purchase and setting up an HMO properly

“Do you have a day job?” If you are just taking on one HMO at a time and it’s locally based, you could probably keep doing the day job. If you want to take on 5 at once, your boss is going to get a bit fed up of your taking personal calls during the day.

“Do you have a wife/husband and young children?” If they like you and want to spend time with you in the evenings and weekends, they’ll soon get fed up of seeing you disappear to sort out yet another issue when you should be spending quality time with them. If you don’t like your partner and children, then get yourself an HMO as it’s a fantastic excuse NOT to be at home!

I’ve been running HMOs for almost 10 years. The profit has all been ploughed back into other projects, new roofs, boilers, etc. I wouldn’t want to live off the income but hope to be in a position to use them as a pension in 15 or 20 year’s time as I haven’t invested in anything else.

Your approach to managing your properties is very traditional and “hands on” which goes against the trend to outsource their property management to a third party. Do you like taking care of your properties on your own or are their any hidden benefits to this strategy?

I met my new husband whilst showing him a property I had bought on behalf of a friend. He was recently divorced and had some money burning a hole in his pocket. Coincidentally, I also knew a distressed seller so I put the two of them in touch and he bought his first HMO and I helped him to set it up. We quickly found another and then invested in the last one together (I needed to make sure I trusted him!!). At the same time, he was building up his letting agency in Brighton so these projects dovetailed in nicely. I now run the agency with him and we were given a contract to run 12 student houses in Brighton which has opened my eyes to new markets. I’m not a massive fan of students but I know many people who wouldn’t rent to anyone else. The agency is my husband and myself, we work from a garden office with the dog and we set a limit on the number of properties we are able to manage. Our success is down to the effort we make to deal with tenants face to face and not hide behind a desk. This allows us to develop good professional relationships and they are more likely to contact us with an issue before it becomes a problem. Most of them make great coffee and appreciate the time we spend listening to them.

Be given 70% proof orange liquid by some the Portuguese sisters/lesbians at 10am Please elaborate.

We have two fierce ladies living in one of the rooms. They said they were sisters but rejected the offer of twin beds. They absolutely terrify the hell out of me but keep the rest of the tenants in line. Therefore, when they offer you a traditional Madeiran tipple which could theoretically unblock drains, you don’t refuse.

Serena, have you ever had good tenants? The kind that pay their rent on time, don’t damage the property and are usually sober at 8 am?

I’ve had loads and loads of really lovely ones which I am genuinely sad to see leave. I’d like to force them to stay but life moves on and often they find a soulmate and want their own space. That’s why I get left with the ones who have no intention on moving on with their lives and will live in a room forever and ever. After all, it’s cheap, easy and there’s little responsibility – what’s not to love?! Again, I don’t have many alcoholics any more or hapless drug dealers which is why my stories are a bit thin on the ground. Whilst my nerves aren’t constantly shattered, I do miss being part of the drama.

If you could start all over again what would you do differently?

I would make sure that I had money in the bank first!! My ex-husband enjoyed gambling and, once the houses were bought, he took little to no interest in them. My son (now 9 years old) has grown up with most of the tenants and my 16 year old daughter collects the rents on a Saturday (I pay her, of course). My 13 year old daughter has vowed never, ever to be a landlord. They also know that, if they don’t move out of home and get a job, they will be assigned a room and will be expected to hand over their housing benefit on time every week – no family favours.

On a serious note; I would make sure that every house is set up properly before any tenants move in. E.g fire regs, electrics, new boiler and programmer locked away, smoking area, named kitchen cupboards, clear instructions, etc. It’s much quicker and easier to do this in an empty house than trying to do work around tenants. You can then fill it up, give it a couple of months to settle down and move onto the next one.Thank you for talking to us Serena

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  • On March 05, 2016