We use a property rental company to rent out our first house (which happens be in Montana, so we couldn’t really manage it ourselves). 6% commission is not bad; we pay 10%. I would do your own research on rent prices in your area, though. You might find the management company is spot on, or you might find that they are a little low or high. Anyway, it’s always good to look at comparables every year to make sure your rental prices are similar to the local market.
One thing you’ll want to ask the management company about is how utilities are handled. At our place in Montana, if the renter defaults on utility payments the utility companies are legally allowed to come back against the property owners to pay those bills. Similarly, where we live now, sewer, water, and garbage are not allowed to be placed in a renter’s name. Even in a rental property, the property owner is responsible for those utility bills. We’ve avoided this pitfall by including utilities in our monthly rent; we charge a little more for rent, and all of the bills stay in our names.
Next, if you decide to rent your property, I would really suggest opening a separate savings account with emergency funds in it, just for the rental property. If something breaks, or if the house needs immediate repairs, the management company will usually take care of it, but you’ll get a bill afterward to cover the costs. We found this out the hard way when our water heater exploded on our first tenant, and we had to quickly send a check for almost a grand to cover a new water heater and plumbing and the water damage. Now, we have about $1500 that just sits in a savings account for this purpose.
Also, make sure you are very clear with the management company about what type of renters you want living in your house. They should ask you to specify if you will accept pets or smokers, and if have any other preferences, let them know. Ask how often they do home checks, too (ours do checks before a new renter checks in, after the renter ends the contract, and every 6 months for long-term renters) and verify that they require renters to show a proof of carpet/floor cleaning before the renter gets his/her safety deposit back.
Lastly, about buying a new house. Once you can show a rental history in that house for one year, the banks will consider it an “investment” property, and you will be able to purchase a new house as easily as you did your first house (provided you have the money). Before one year of rental history, the banks will treat any new home purchases as a “second home,” making it a lot more difficult to secure funding.