Building Wealth Through Real Estate ft. Mindy from Bigger Pockets
At the end of last year, #BradtheBoo and I purchased our second home and began renting out the first home we bought and renovated the year prior. In today’s episode above and the complete post below, I’m sharing how we made that happen with the help of real estate investor Mindy Jensen.
Mindy is the co-host of the BiggerPockets Money podcast and the Community Manager at BiggerPockets, one of the most respected online real estate platforms, which has been instrumental in my own foray into real estate investing.
- Learn more about Mindy Jensen & Bigger Pockets
- Learn more about how FHA loans can you help you buy a home here
- Here’s the BiggerPockets real estate investing book I read
- Here’s the rad Do-It-Herself book my mother-in-law gave me!
On today’s podcast episode, I mentioned that I’d written down the full story behind how Brad and I ventured into the real estate business. Here’s the full epic tale, step by step:
1. Saving up for a down payment
Buying a home typically requires a 10% to 20% down payment. So for a $200,000 home, that adds up to $20,000 to $40,000. For a $400,000 home, you’re looking at $40,000 to $60,000.
Finding a way to not only dig out of debt but actually start stacking cash like that is that hardest part, just as getting started on any daunting goal often is. You can learn more about the 3-step process to financial freedom that I ascribe to (slaying debt, upping your earnings, and stacking your cash) on the live Bossed Up podcast show I hosted in DC about women and wealth here.
Granted, there are some first-time homebuyer programs out there that allow you to put less of a payment down on your first home purchase, but when buying real estate with the explicit intent to immediately rent them out as landlords, you often need to finance those deals with an even larger down payment.
When it came to saving up for our first down payment, I’ll be honest: #BradTheBoo really came through in this department. Although he’s never earned more than $50k a year in salary, this man is an absolute savings whiz. He spent the entirety of his twenties living on the cheap, which is what made everything we’ve done in our thirties possible. For a year after college he lived rent-free with his grandfather in northern New Jersey and commuted into New York City for work. Despite the hellish commute, living this way meant he was able to paid off his student loans in their entirety within 2 years of graduation.
Brad spent the majority of his years in DC renting a room in a group house in Adams Morgan for only $500 a month. Granted, the house was fairly disgusting in my opinion, but it was never boring. The first bedroom he occupied in the house was so small we dubbed it “The Shoebox” but it was cozy and more importantly, just a 10-minute walk down the street from my more spacious but also relatively affordable 2-bedroom walk-up, which I shared with a roommate for $1250 a month each. We waited over 4 years to move in with one another precisely because of this incredibly close, affordable living arrangement.
When things started to get more serious between us and we started planning our move across the country to Denver together, I figured it was time to get super clear with one another around finances, so we had the money talk. I laid out my outstanding student debt (I graduated with about $30k in debt, mostly in the form of very low-interest, government loans that I slowly chipped away at), and he shared the impressive cash savings he’d been squirreling away for a rainy day.
I knew Brad lived on the cheap – after all, this was a man who was more than happy to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch at work 4 out of 5 days a week. But I had no idea how much his low cost of living was allowing him to stack his cash. By the age of thirty, Brad had saved six figures of cash reserves. When he told me this, I think I nearly fell out of my chair.
I lectured him endlessly until he finally invested a good portion of that cash in a Roth IRA account, but he tends to be wary of the stock market and has the mentality of a Depression-era baby. I swear, he would have rather stockpiled his cash under the mattress.
I was impressed, somewhat intimidated, and also felt a bit challenged to learn how to keep up with his impressive savings habits. I come from a family of spenders, and it took me the entirety of my twenties to learn the value of price-shopping, budgeting, and aggressively saving. But once I’d made it my mission to catch up to Brad’s seemingly obscene savings, maximizing my earnings and stacking my cash became an unabashed objective of mine. I ate out way less, opted for outdoor workouts instead of paying for a gym membership, and I raised my rates as a career coach, speaker, and corporate trainer.
Together that year we managed to save up $10,000 to fund our move across the country to Denver. Brad was able to use the Pre-Game Your Career Change method to land a total dream job out there, and while negotiating his offer, he successfully asked for a $7,000 moving bonus to cover our costs. His employer knew Brad was taking a slight pay cut and moving halfway across the country, so giving Brad a one-time moving bonus seemed very reasonable. As a result, we were able to hold onto the money we’d saved for the move to add it our future down payment.
Meanwhile, on our road trip out to Denver, I was negotiating my offer from the HowStuffWorks network to co-host the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast. I played my cards well, if I do say so myself, and got off the phone with a 6-figure contract. As proud as I was in that moment, my pay would later become the reason why I was let go. When a new CEO took the reins after just 6 months of Bridget and I hosting the show together, he looked at our pay and knew he could get other, cheaper, in-house talent to do the job instead (which in all fairness, was true!). I didn’t have much say in the matter since it was an at-will contract, but after negotiating the deal at a gas station in the middle of Kansas, Brad and I were gleeful all the same. We set off to Denver with a sunny financial future on the horizon.
When we landed in Denver, we signed a 1-year lease to rent a 2-bedroom apartment for $1,450 a month. We were astounded by how much more affordable Denver was compared to DC, especially since all our new friends in Colorado were constantly commenting on the rising cost of living. To us, it felt like everything was suddenly on sale.
Critically, we kept our spending habits more or less the same and squirreled away the added income (a.k.a. podcash) that was suddenly coming my way in a savings account, knowing that we were aiming to buy a house if the right opportunity came our way. Our goal was to rent for at least a year while we got to know our new neighborhood, but opportunity came knocking a little earlier than we’d anticipated and we were able to break our lease without penalty.
2. Finding the right investment opportunity for you
The longer we lived in Denver, the more we loved it. We knew we wanted to stay for a while and started reading more about the massive investments the city was putting into the very neighborhood we lived in. We were renting in RiNo (the River North Arts District) which was hip enough for the New York Times to take note and was the epitome of gentrification, with both its good and bad components. Locals who’d lived in RiNo their entire lives were being priced out, old factories were being retrofitted into hipster microbreweries, and there was actual, completely non-ironic graffiti in my neighborhood that said “Go home, yuppie scum.” We were the scum they were talking about.
I have mixed feelings about all this, of course, in that I liked a lot of the changes coming to RiNo and frankly I didn’t enjoy hearing the occasional gunshot nearby in the evening. But at the same time, I understood why locals might not welcome folks like us and all we represent. So Brad and I chose to support the local panaderia and a mom n’ pop grocery store in our neighborhood, as opposed to the more yuppified options available, and did what we could to be friendly, considerate neighbors. That said, we were also starting to see the huge potential of buying a house in neighborhoods that were transforming as fast as north Denver was.
Since Brad works in the building trades and has some friends from his days in architecture school here, we were hearing a lot about the urban development and public works projects already funded and breaking ground in this area. Sure, they would take a decade to complete, but they had the goal of essentially extending downtown Denver right into our neighborhood. We knew we wanted to get in now, while things were still affordable, and hold on to a house through the completion of these grand urban plans if possible.
So we walked and talked about the kind of house we might want to buy one night and came across a mostly burnt-down white brick house just a few blocks away that was for sale. We called it “The Burnt Marshmallow” and started reading online about how to fix up a disastrous property like this one to see if it was something we wanted to take on. Turns out, it wasn’t. The only real way to proceed with that project was to bulldoze it, and we didn’t want to get too in over our heads on our very first home purchase. Plus, no bank would ever loan us the money for a project that complex, when we had absolutely no experience, so we were back to square one.
That said, the mental exercise allowed us to really start thinking about how much of a fixer-upper we were game to take on. Between Brad’s handy skills and the money I was bringing in at the time, we were excited about making substantial improvements to a property, so started looking out for bargains on the market by browsing Zillow.
A few days after we first looked at The Burnt Marshmallow, we found The Brick Bungalow. It was in a nearby RiNo-adjacent neighborhood that still felt like a hidden gem, Globeville. There was only one little hipster bar in the area, but otherwise felt like an oasis of a residential neighborhood, despite being only a 5-minute drive from the heart of downtown.
It was Sunday evening when we stumbled upon the Zillow listing and figured we’d just contact the agent and see what happened. A few minutes later, he called and said if we head over to the property now, the owner could show it to us. Little did we know that the day prior, they had hosted the most popular open house in the entire Denver metro area and were already considering cash offers from professional flippers. But the agent liked the sound of us, especially the fact that we were just a regular young couple trying to buy our first house, so he opened some doors.
We met the owner, who we soon learned would actually be our neighbor, since she was moving into her family’s other house down the street. The Brick Bungalow had fallen into disrepair and due to financial hardship, the family needed cash, so they were reluctantly selling the property and wanted to ensure it would be going into good hands. We shared our story with the owner and tried our best to be straightforward and honest: we were looking to purchase our first house in a historic neighborhood like Globeville and would do everything we could to be good neighbors and restore the home to its glory days. Given the situation she was in, the seller didn’t seem to care much, but when it came down to a bidding war that pit us against professional house flippers, we won out. I can’t help but think that going the extra mile to connect on a human level helped, but so did matching those offers with a competitive offer of our own.
3. Figuring out the financing
This was, by far, the most complicated part. Often times people work with an agent and put together a formal offer to the seller with the confidence of a mortgage pre-approval already processed. We had neither of those, not because they’re not excellent, prudent steps to take.
Feeling more than capable in my own skills as our chief negotiator and after bringing in experts we paid by the hour to help us gauge the property’s improvement potential, we didn’t see the need for an agent and in fact, appealed more to the seller’s agent because he knew in working with us he could get double the commission by acting as a broker of the deal on behalf of both parties – instead of just the seller’s agent. While proceeding without your own agent certainly comes with some inherent risks, being on the good side of this particular seller’s agent’s was critically important for the bidding war we were about to enter.
The Brick Bungalow was put on the market for $199,000, which was wildly low in a hot market. But who the hell has $199,000 in cash to offer up?! Apparently, quite a few professional flippers do, and offer they did. The price of the house ultimately rose to $227,000, with multiple all-cash offers on the table. We were happy to put a large down payment down, but would need to proceed in getting a traditional mortgage to get the rest. But that process takes 4-6 weeks and the seller couldn’t wait that long. So for us to be competitive we had to find a faster way.
After talking with a half dozen or so traditional lenders, I found my way to a hard money lender, basically just some guy who personally loans out some of his retirement fund for real estate purchases like these at a very high interest rate. To be honest, I don’t recommend going this route unless you know you can get out of it quick. Brad and I ended up paying nearly $10,000 in interest and fees alone over the course of 3 months, which is how long it took us to finish the majority of the renovations the house desperately needed and refinance our hard money loan into a traditional mortgage, which required another round of closing costs.
Fortunately, in most real estate markets, you’re not going to find yourself in a bidding war with multiple cash offers, so the best first step to take to figure out your financing is to start by getting pre-approved for a mortgage (to figure out how much house you can afford, according to the bank who can help make your purchase possible). That said, creative financing solutions like the one we went with to win The Brick Bungalow can work in a pinch. Just make sure to carefully consider the amount of risk you’re willing to take on and to make sure your cash flow is going to work. And please, talk to a financial professional first, as I am not one.
4. Fixing it up!
We were working full-time when we got possession of The Brick Bungalow, so we knew we’d need to hire a contractor to help us work on our renovation so we could tear the house apart and build it back up as quickly as possible. We were also now paying a super high interest hard money loan, paying for expensive construction insurance, paying for renovation permits from the city, and still paying rent. So the longer this renovation took, the most money we were losing every day.
Over 3 very intense months, Brad and I spent almost every night and weekend hour (when I wasn’t traveling for Bossed Up) peeling off decades worth of wallpaper, sanding and painting 100+ year-old plaster walls, pulling up carpet, refinishing the home’s original hardwood floors, busting out a partial wall, and cleaning out an industrial dumpster’s worth of crap from this old house. It was not glamorous work, but we figured it out.
We brought in a plumber to inspect and replace the plumbing throughout the house. We brought in an electrician to rewire all the electrical throughout the house in order to bring everything up to code and pass city inspections. Brad designed, fabricated, and installed our custom kitchen with the support of his place of work, Vonmod, where we spent weekends working on our project. It was very intense.
Also during this time we brought in foundation repair experts who installed helical piers (basically giant stilts for your house that drill way deep into the earth) and blasted “shotcrete” (a kind of concrete that flies out from a firehose) throughout the crumbling sections of our foundation in our basement to shore things up, structurally. We took them up on their offer for 12-month interest-free financing to cover the majority of the $30,000 expense and figured we’d find a way to pay for it later. Mercifully, we somehow did, but meeting a big financial deadline like that just a few weeks prior to our wedding was a pain in the ass, if I’m being honest.
Also on that note: our general contractor was a decent craftsman, but I don’t recommend hiring someone off Craigslist without calling through their references, as we did – and will never do again. We were a little too trusting and things got real weird at the end, culminating with our work together ending on a sour note (mainly due to his outright misogyny).
We would have taken things slower and done even more of the job ourselves if we weren’t paying over $50 a day in interest on our hard money loan and unable to live on the property while fixing it up. But once the house was looking decent enough to say our renovation was complete, we finished our city inspection and had an appraiser come by to re-evaluate the home’s property value (at that time she deemed our home worth $276,000). With all that complete, we got approved for a traditional mortgage and were able to refinance our way out from under that hard money loan. I don’t entirely understand how all that works, to be honest, but had been in touch with our mortgage broker to ensure the process would work throughout our renovation. This left us with a 15-year mortgage, set at the lowest-possible interest rates under 3% (woohoo!) and a monthly mortgage payment of about $1,450.
5. Finding our new normal
Finally, we could come up for air and see where we were, financially, once all the renovation and refinancing dust had settled. Our budget normalized and Brad and I spent the next year paying down the money we still owed for the foundation repair, while simultaneously planning for our wedding. At that point, after all, we figured if we could get through that hairy a real estate venture together, we should probably make things official between us.
We slowly chipped away at finishing projects around the house. Brad refinished our half-basement and installed the kitchen backsplash. I had the second bedroom (my home office) carpeted and repainted the exterior trim. We finally nailed into place the baseboards that had just been leaned up against the wall for god knows how many months. We tried our best to grow grass and improve the curb appeal by tearing down old chain-link fencing and putting up wood fencing instead – complete a peep hole for Teddy, the dog. Slowly but surely, the place was truly feeling complete.
While I no longer had a ton of podcash coming in, and we didn’t have much at all left in the form of cash savings, we were sitting pretty on a ton of home equity. An appraisal we had done on the house earlier this winter came in $336,000 – over $100,000 more in value than the money we spent to purchase the home. With our remaining mortgage loan of only $165,000, that’s a big difference between what we owe on the house and what the house is worth. As such, we were recently able to access a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) via a local credit union, which is essentially a low-interest way to access capital for just about any reason. Our HELOC has become our de facto emergency savings fund while we work to replenish our actual cash reserves.
So when Brad stumbled upon a total gem of a house in a nearby neighborhood in the midst of a weird blip in the otherwise bullish Denver housing market this October, we pounced. It’s still a modest home (only 900 square feet!) but with 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and nothing disastrous about it to fix, it’s a very different purchase for us. Importantly, it also has room to improve. We’ve dubbed it The Basic Ranch because it could use a total kitchen renovation and could lose a big wall that currently divides the kitchen and living area, but we hope to turn it into The Cool Ranch before we leave it.
To be honest, we hadn’t been planning on buying so soon, but when Brad found this place while browsing on Zillow and I was able to negotiate the price down by over $15,000 (in a market where multiple offers and bidding wars has been the norm for years), we had to find a way to make it happen. By comparison, getting a traditional mortgage this time around was much easier than our more creative route from before, and the sellers were able to patiently wait the 6 weeks it took to finalize everything.
We put less cash down to purchase this house (because frankly, we didn’t have any more!), so we’re now paying a monthly mortgage insurance fee to make up for the fact that we only put 10% down instead of the traditional 20%. But even now with our second mortgage payment coming in around $2,100 a month, it’s offset by the rental income The Brick Bungalow is already generating. Plus, there’s room in our budget for a $2,100 monthly mortgage payment either way, so we’re not buying more house than we can realistically afford.
To be clear, Brad and I don’t know what the future holds and are fully aware that we have taken big risks to get where we are right now. But in truth, what we’ve done is double down on the city Denver, which we believe in, and we are committed to doing right by our community here. As we figure out how to be good landlords and hopefully attract and keep the right tenants for The Brick Bungalow, I’m still focused on slaying our debt, upping our earnings, and saving up for our next investment. And while no investment – real estate or otherwise – is ever a sure bet, we’re truly excited and energized by the potential inherent in improving property.
I promise to keep you in the loop as we learn more – through both our success and stumbles – and am happy to answer any questions or clarify anything described above in the comments section below.
For more resources and to hear from an actual real estate investment expert, be sure to listen to today’s new podcast at the top of this post!
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