The other downside of rental property is that it turns you into a landlord, complete with deadbeat tenants and 3 a.m. calls to fix the broken boiler.
Not everyone is up to the task.
You can pay a property management company to handle the dirty work for you, but you'll have to pay them between 7 percent and 10 percent (higher in some resort locations) of your monthly rent for their trouble.
What to look forIf you're looking to purchase a rental property, McLean says you should focus on single-family homes in a good school district, since those are the two most important criteria for future tenants.
Also, buy a property large enough to accommodate future additions or renovations, he says.
"Get the largest piece of land you can for future development," he says.
Average investors should focus on properties that generate positive cash flow of at least 6 percent (above costs) and should be prepared to buy and hold, especially in today's spotty market, according to Pietrowski.
"You have to be in it for the long haul," she says. "One thing you don't want to do in a market like this is overextend yourself. Those who do eventually get a bad tenant and end up losing their house. Those who don't can wait it out."
Perhaps the most important point is to buy a place close to home. That way, you can keep tabs on your investment, even if you choose to use a property management company.
"You run into problems if you go too far away, particularly out of state," McLean says. "I've heard of cases where an unscrupulous management company told the owner that the property was vacant when it wasn't, and kept the monthly rent for themselves."
However, in some cases, taking the risk of buying and renting in another town may pay off. For example, if you're 10 to 15 years away from retirement and you know where you'd like to live, it's potentially wise to purchase a rental property in your future town, Pietrowski says.
"That is a very viable strategy," she says. "Buy a house now, get it mostly paid for before you retire using income from the renter and when you sell your current house and move, pay off the rest of the mortgage."
Elements of a good buy
- Single-family home
- Good school district
- Enough land for future renovations
- Close to landlord's main home
- Generates positive cash flow of at least 6 percent (above costs)
Do your homeworkBefore you buy anything, hire an inspector to rule out any big-ticket potential repairs, like problems with the foundation, roof or structure of the home.
Also, do some research to determine expected monthly costs, including insurance, taxes, mortgage and maintenance fees.
Local real estate agents (and the newspaper classifieds) can tell you how much comparable rental homes command in the area, how long properties are staying vacant between renters and how quickly similar properties are appreciating -- in case you need to sell.
Always consult a tax adviser for any tax implications rental property may have.