Tenant-landlord relations are always of considerable concern to small investors in property. And for many people who have acquired their first rental house or apartment, the most difficult problem is the initial one: ffinding a suitable tenant.

One approach is to hire a real estate agent. This is expensive. It can cost a 10 percent commission on each rent payment, or a combination of both. In addition, it will mean you are not in direct touch with your property.

This lack of contact can, in the long run, be the greatest disadvantage of all. However, if like many residents in this area, you may be moving in and out of the area for the next several years, you must have a reliable agent to take care of your property if you are hundreds or thousands of miles away for months or years at a time.

By careful management, those who do move in and out of the area periodically, as was the case with our family before I retired, can often use these transfers to pick up an additional house. For those who are permanently in the area, it would be best in the long run if they get their own tenants and collect their own rents. Following a few basic steps can help.

First, decide how much rent you want to charge and how much income your renters should be making. Also decide the number of occupants (and whether you will take children), length of lease, payment of water and sewage charges, the amount of the security deposit -- one month's rent is standard in this area -- and if you will allow pets.

The latter is the biggest single problem for many landlords. As a general rule, we do not accept pets. An untrained pet can cost more in damage in a few days than a piece of property can earn in months. After you have decided what you want, draw up a lease to fit your needs. Blank forms can be bought at stores that sell standard legal documents.

Next, put up signs on the property and on nearby arterial streets; place classified ads in the Saturday or Sunday newspaper. Three lines should do it. It is generally best to put your phone number on the signs as well as in the ads.

As the calls come in, make a note of the names and numbers of those who seem to be likely prospects. Have a brief description of the property and your requirements written to read to callers. Be sure to stress aspects you consider especially important.

In showing the property to prospective tenants, try to schedule several consecutive appointments about 30 minutes apart on the same day. This will save time, and there is no harm done if one prospect sees another looking the place over.

When a prospect expresses interest in renting the property, have him or her fill out an application. You can draw this up in advance and duplicate it.

The form should include the date, prospect's name, address, home and business phone numbers, and place and duration of employment. It should also have questions on previous residences, and names, addresses, and phone numbers of previous landlords.

It should also call for two or three personal references in the area. In the case of a family, an application should be filled out by each adult family member employed outside of the home. For groups, each adult member of the group should fill out an application.

While the tenant is looking over the property, you should be looking over the tenant and, by judicious questions, clarify andy uncertainties that the tenant may have raised in your mind.

If the prospect is definitely interested and looks promising, give him or her a copy of the proposed lease to look over on the spot, so you can answer any initial questions. Set a time and place to sign the lease. If possible, arrange to meet the prospective tenant at his or her current residence. This will give you a chance to get a look at how the prospect lives and whether he or she seems likely to take good care of your property.

Checking a prospect's credit background is difficult, but not impossible, especially if you ask the prospect to tell his or her references, etc. to be expecting your call. Within three working days you should be able to determine if you want to rent to that person.

Don't keep the prospect dangling: As soon as you have decided, let him or her know. Once you have given a tenant your approval, do everything within reason to facilitate moving in and getting settled, and paying rent.

Once the tenant moves in, it is important to keep several things in mind. First and foremost is the adversary relationship between landlord and tenant.

Unless both are careful, latent feelings can turn into inconsiderate behavior. On the part of the tenant such behavior can range from chronic tardiness in paying the rent, through abuse of the rental unit and its facilities, to running out with several months rent unpaid.

On the part of the landlord this can include lack of candor in discussing the rental unit's shortcomings, unwillingness to make repairs promptly and to provide services agreed on, and failure to be understanding when a tenant occasionally has trouble paying the rent on time.

Even with the best intentions in the world, misunderstandings can develop. In such instances, a common and costly mistake some landlords and tenants make is to immediately resort to the courts and lawyers to settle their differences. As one small landlord in Maryland remarked: "Litigation makes money for lawyers and headaches for landlords."

Especially in a new relationship, a lease is good to have. However, as a practical, and time-and money-saving matter, we explain to our tenants that we feel a lease is best thought of as a listing of the responsibilities of landlord and tenant, and only in the most dire cases as a legal document to be enforced by the courts.

After the lease is signed, the key to making a go of it as a small landlord is to maintain contact with your tenant and property. A landlord must understand and accept the fact that each such contact, whether a hone call, a note, a casual drive past the property (we try to do this at least every other week), or a face-to-face encounter is characterized by the "good news, bad news" syndrome.

The bad news is that each time you come in contact with your tenant and property you will very likely be made aware of something that is going to cost you money and time. The good news is that you will become better acquainted with that tenant and piece of property, and thus better equipped to manage both more profitably.

One word of caution. While a certain amount of contact is good, too much can cause problems. Keep in mind that you have primarily a business relationship with your tenant, and too close a relationship is usually a complicating factor. Because of this factor, avoid renting to relatives, friends, and friends of friends. Renting to these individuals is almost guaranteed to lead to misunderstdandings.

At for upkeep and repairs, keep the place in the condition you would want if you lived there. Do as much of the upkeep and repairs as you can yourself, but know your limits. If you can do the job, but will not be able to get to it for several weeks, and, in the meantime, the tenant is suffering considerable inconvenience, by all means pay a repairman to do it quickly. In the long run consideration of your tenant will generally pay off.