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How to Benefit from Investing in Real Estate

Aug 17, 2007
I bought my first apartment 10 years ago, on my 20th birthday. I had spent the previous 5 years working and saving for college; but when I finally entered college at 19 on a full academic scholarship, I decided that instead of spending my accumulated savings, I would try my hand at investment. Here I am 10 years later. This is not a story of extreme or fast wealth building.

But it is a story of effective "forced savings" that has provided me significant insight into financial planning, real estate investing, and balancing the books. While it hasn't always been a barrel of laughs, overall, I'm reasonably satisfied with the outcome so far.

I thought I would share some real world real estate investment thought. Let's start at the end, where I am today: I currently own 7 condo apartments in my general geographic area. All of these condos are revenue neutral or revenue positive. I don't have significant savings to fall back on, and I am just now in the process of "cashing in", by selling my first apartment. My approach is best described as "slow and steady"; my outlook is 20 - 25 years.

Here the top points I like to share about investing in real estate:

1) Path to (instant) riches

I will never argue that real estate investing is an instant, or even particularly easy, path to significant wealth. My bank statement demonstrates that. I am willing to grant that many people are able to turn real estate in wealth quickly; I'm afraid that hasn't my approach. Instead, I've taken the long view, with the hope that my real estate portfolio will provide a steady cash flow in 10-15 years time. For me, slow and steady really does win the race.

Just think about it: if you can manage to buy and hold 5 properties, within 15 years all five will turn in heavy revenue and heavy profit. For example, my two oldest properties now generate $3500 in revenue each month, with monthly expenses of just $1400. Imagine what that will look like once I've paid off all the mortages!

2) For a cautious investor, take the long view

This a vast generalization, but I hold to it pretty firmly: if your outlook is long enough, you will not lose money. At the worst, investing in real estate is a forced savings.

That's not to say that you'll never lose money; circumstances such emergency repairs, a destructive tenant, or rapidly inflating interest rates certainly increase the risk. But, if you can hold on through any such upheavals, you'll find that within two or three years things will settle and you'll start to benefit from increased appreciate in property value, increased rental income, or both.

And, while property values might dip for periods, keep in mind that over 5 years it's virtually impossible that your overall property won't appreciate. At the very worst, you'll have paid down some of your mortgage.

Plus, you have a tangible, physical asset. There's a lot to be said about that kind of peace of mind.

3) Operating costs - if they balance, you're in the good!

You're probably not going to earn back your down payment quickly - that's ok! Keep in mind that the portion of your down payment that goes toward principle (ie: the part not eaten up by lawyer and realtor fees) is still in your hands. It just happens to now be in your property. You will see this money again when you sell.

So, the real goal is to be at least neutral on an operating basis. Ideally, that means that your rents will cover mortgages, strata fees, taxes and maintenance. This might not be possible for the first year or three, but even if you're paying out a few dollars each month, you are still gaining more than if you were not investing.

4) Tenants - do your research,

I learned this lesson the hard way, when I had a tenant cause about $5000 in damage to one of my apartments. What I learned is that tenants have histories; if they are unwilling to share, or if you don't receive sufficient references to make you comfortable, it's probably better to just wait. Personally, I now ask for 3 references, and I require proof that the people I'm talking to are actually who they say they are (requiring a work phone number, for example). It might seem extreme, but this type of due diligence at the beginning increase comfort throughout a tenancy and reduce the chances of serious damage.

5) Tenants, Part Two - Late rent is forgivable - Once and don't be afraid of the eviction notice

Real estate investing is a business. And, like many small businesses, it is sometimes operated on small margins. That means, if a tenant doesn't pay their rent, it comes out of my pocket. I know that nothing works perfectly, so I will always forgive the first missed rent if there is a reasonable explanation. However, a second missed rent, and I will immediately begin eviction proceedings.

The laws of our state are very strict when it comes to evictions; there must be good and reasonable cause; here, at least, missed rent is just cause for eviction. Don't misunderstand; I always keep an open mind. But many individuals will take advantage of a situation if they believe there is no consequence.

All in all, I'd say real estate investing has been a very positive experience and I would recommend it to anyone who has patience and fortitude. Do your research, though, because real estate investing has highs and lows, just like any other type of investment vehicle.
About the Author
Michael Lee-Smith has been investing in residential real estate for over a decade, and in that time he's learned real-world strategies for financial success in real estate. Learn more about how you can succeed in real estate at http://www.vnetwork.info/.
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