Property managers

When William Howell, left, needed to rent out his home in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood to accept a yearlong fellowship at Stanford University, he turned to property manager John Ketner, founder of Revolution Management, to find a qualified tenant and handle any problems with the home that arose while he was away. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune photo / October 7, 2010)

When William Howell got an opportunity for a fellowship at Stanford University, he assumed he would rent out his four-bedroom home in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood through the housing office at the University of Chicago, where he is a professor of political science.

But when there were no takers for the house, which is in an unfamiliar neighborhood to visiting faculty and is some distance from the campus, he, like a growing number of owners across the country, turned to a property manager for single-family homes.

"In order to make the finances work, we wanted to rent," said Howell about his family's West Coast year.

"We worried about a whole bunch of things that could go wrong," he said, recalling that as a teenager he lost his dog when tenants, who didn't get along with the pet, put it down during the year his family went abroad.

It was important that everything was in place when the family returned, Howell said.

To ensure that would happen, Howell hired Revolution Management, a young Chicago firm that's typical of the burgeoning number of such services in Chicago and around the U.S.

Founded less than two years ago by John Ketner, a Chicago sales agent for @Properties, the company manages 15 residences in the city, from Lakeview to Pilsen. Ketner said he sensed a need for residential property management when an architect client who was being sent to the Middle East asked for help in renting and maintaining his Chicago home.

Revolution found a qualified tenant and helped Howell with the relevant paperwork for the equivalent of one month's rent. While he was out of the city, the company, for a monthly fee, collected the rent and was the tenant's key contact.

Managing single-family homes and condos, though common in resort areas and places with a significant number of second homes, has been a rarity in Chicago until recently.

Jim Merrion, regional director for Re/Max Northern Illinois, said only one in every 20 or 25 realty offices had such services five years ago. He estimates twice as many offices offer management services today.

The reason: When the real estate market stalled, many sellers found they needed to move but could not sell, he said. Lenders struggled with a growing inventory of foreclosure homes that needed oversight, and investor-buyers snapping up housing bargains need help filling and maintaining the property as well, he noted.

Membership in the National Association of Residential Property Managers, which provides education and networking to single-family home managers, has doubled in the last five years. A Chicago chapter was formed this year.

Michael McCreary, president of McCreary Realty Management, in Marietta, Ga., and a 30-year veteran of single-family property management, said the group's membership has exploded as brokers and realty agents realize they cannot live on sales commissions in the current market.

"When someone has to leave an unsold home behind when they are relocated, the question is, 'Who are we going to trust to take care of it?'" said McCreary, whose company manages 300 homes for 175 owners in Atlanta's northwest suburbs.

So many newcomers getting into the business, however, means owners have to do their homework before signing a contract, McCreary said.

In general, most single-family-home managers charge a month's rent to advertise and to identify qualified tenants. Owners then pay a monthly fee, which, on average, runs from 8 to 15 percent of the monthly rent, for duties ranging from rent collection and paying homeowner assessments to more complicated matters such as managing major events like a flooded basement.

The specific services, fees and terms of a contract can vary, as will the expertise, personal service and commitment to property management.

Although third-party property managers in Illinois and many other places must be licensed, McCreary urged owners to interview several companies and only those with a top rating from the Better Business Bureau.

In the interview, ascertain how long the firm has been in business, staff size and where they operate.