There are many areas one can invest in. Since I was 15 years old I have looked for the fastest, most effective way to accumulate a lot of wealth, with the least amount of risk. I am now 58. While looking for this road to truth, I spent a lot of time in the school of hard knocks. The school of hard knocks is a very interesting but painful school to attend. It is also the most expensive way to learn something, but when you graduate you have a PHD in what to do and not do with your time and money. The schools I attended were: Investing in businesses as a silent partner, owning my own businesses, working for another family member-in my case my father, buying publicly traded stocks and securities, penny mining stocks, commodity trading, investing in gold and silver, real estate private lending, real estate development, real estate remodeling, buying foreclosure properties. I also worked as a real estate problem solver/matchmaker, bringing business owners together with business buyers, and matching up real estate owners with real estate buyers.
Writing about all of these activities would take an encyclopedia, so we will limit this essay to the kinds of situations you can run across in the real estate school of hard knocks. I will present my solution with the given situation. There are more than one possible solution and I invite you to come up with other possible solutions as you read. If you get some value from my experiences that will hopefully lower your tuition to the real estate school of hard knocks. Feel free to e-mail me your comments, alternate solution or stories. Do, please, let me know that it is all right for me to publish them.
My Real Estate Philosophy
As a way of introducing myself, I thought you might find what lessons I have learned, after all these years of real estate, interesting. Buy real estate instead of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or commodities. When you pick a winner in one of these non-real estate areas you can make 5-10 times your money. When you are wrong, in one of these non-real estate areas, you can actually loose up to 90% of your money. In real estate, if you are not greedy-not trying to get rich quick-in one year, you can make 100 times your money, on the upside. The downside risk is only based on how well you looked at all the possibilities ahead of time. If you did, the downside risk is reduced to only the holding time to fix a mistake. If you rush in and do not explore all the possibilities of a business venture, you can actually loose 100% of your money. In my mind an upside of 100 times profit is better than 10 times profit.
My philosophy on real estate ownership has changed in the last 15 years. I used to think that selling at the top of the market was the smart move and buying in the crash. Now I feel that buying when prices are down is still a smart move but never selling is the way to go. In order to hold on to a property in a down market you require proper planning to survive the crash. This I call a back door or emergency plan. This is have a plan and knowing what you will do if everything goes wrong with you original plan. When you have a backup plan, you rarely need it. This is the basis of my philosophy. With this understanding, you might more clearly see why I did what I did in these situations.
The Stories and article:
The area of real estate investing is one of the most complex because it is a combination of law and real estate. It is one of the most interesting because fortunes are made and lost in this area, and the numbers are so enormous. Lastly it is an area where crooks can make a lot of money and many times get away with it. Following are some stories (case histories) I have dealt with and some articles I have written on the subject of fraud in real estate. Finally, I have included an article on the basics of foreclosures and real estate in general, for your interest. I hope you enjoy them.
It was early March 2000 and I received a call from Kevin. He said that he had heard about me from some mutual friends. He wanted to speculate in buying HUD houses (Properties that the Government had foreclosed on). He wanted to buy them, fix them up and then sell them at a profit. He had heard that I had bought many foreclosures in the 1970’s and 80’s and he was hoping I could advise him. We met for lunch and he told me his life story. The important part of this conversation is that he had bought a boarded up 14 unit apartment building in downtown San Bernardino, across the street, from one of the roughest high schools in California.
By the end of the meeting, I had figured out that he had overpaid about $75,000 for the building, he had already wasted $200,000 trying to remodel it, and it was still $100,000 away from being finished. He had bought it 1.5 years ago and a large part of his costs was the interest on all his loans, related to this project. He was now broke, and in deep trouble, but in his mind, the badly needed money was coming.
It is interesting to note where he got the money to invest in this project. 4 years earlier he was given money to buy an apartment building by his father. He was given enough money that he only needed a very small $150,000 real estate loan to purchase a building in Pasadena that cost him a total of $525,000. In order to buy the San Bernardino rehab project, he first refinanced the first trust deed on the Pasadena building and jumped the loan balance to $385,000. When that money was gone he borrowed $74,000 as a second Trust Deed on both the Pasadena and San Bernardino properties. By the way, that loan cost him 15% interest and $15,000 in up front fees to get the money. Before we parted, I told him that he made a very expense mistake in buying San Bernardino. I explained that from the day he bought the building it was a sure bet that the project would fail. I then had to tell him that I would not lend him any money on San Bernardino, to save his butt.
Over the next 2 months I received periodic phone calls, telling me the progress of the fund raising. One of those updates I was told that the existing 2nd Trust Deed lender was saying that he might give Kevin the added $100,000 he needed to finish the project. At the same time, Kevin also believed he had found a bank that might refinance all the loans of San Bernardino. The difficulty with the bank loan was that the appraisal fee was $3,000, and it had to be paid in advance, even to just apply for the loan. Again Kevin asked me for money. Again I refused to put more good money down his black hole.
Then one morning I got a call from Kevin, “If I don’t make the $2,000 payment to the 2nd trust deed holder, he will start foreclosure in 2 days. Kevin also told me “The 2nd trust deed lender said that he would buy the Pasadena apartment building for what I had paid for it, 4 years ago, $525,000.” The offer had a stipulation to it. Kevin had to bring the loan current first. In my mind, if Kevin could bring the loan current, why would he even bother to sell the property for a wholesale price? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
After hearing all of this I decide that it is time I stop saying no and help. What Kevin thought he wanted was a real estate loan for a lot of money. The truth is, that money was not the solution to his problem. The problem had to be different than what Kevin believed, which is why the problem persisted. The real situation was not more borrowing. More borrowing meant more money down the drain.
Experience has taught me, “If the problem was what Kevin thought it was, it wouldn’t be a problem.” What does this phrase mean? A businessman has a financial set back. He thinks that with some short term funding he can recover from the set back and return to the top. After looking around, our businessman will usually find the money, but strangely enough the problem doesn’t resolve. If the problem did correct itself, then the businessman was right about what the problem was, and the problem would be gone. Usually the money doesn’t help, but the businessman doesn’t understand that. He doesn’t realize that the problem wasn’t money in the first place. If it were, the problem would now be gone. Lets continue the explanation. The last money borrowed is now gone and the problem persists, so our businessman goes out to find more money to solve the problem that didn’t solve with the money he borrowed, the first time. What happens the second time? The same thing. The money is used up and still the problem continues.
Our businessman is working on the wrong problem. The problem is not money, or the problem would have been gone. Kevin thought the problem was money. It wasn’t. He had already poured $300,000 into the San Bernardino building, on top of the $209,000 1st Trust Deed loan that came about when he bought the building. Before he was finished, he spent over $500,000 in a building that needs $100,000 to finish, but was only worth $475,000, after it was finished.
What could I do? Use what the good lord gave me. 30 years of experience, on the subject of getting out of problems that I created when I was young and inexperienced. Here was the war strategy. I got Kevin to agree to turn over total management of the two properties to me. Knowing that I was managing the property and working on what I believed was the correct problem, I felt comfortable about loaning money on this deal. If I can’t trust myself to solve this problem, whom can I trust? I started by loaning Kevin $25,000 to make needed repairs to the Pasadena building, pay the property taxes and to bring the first and second loans current on the Pasadena property only. Nothing was to be spent at this time, on the San Bernardino building.
Now that I controlled the Pasadena apartment building, I discovered what repairs the building needed. The list was so long it took one man three months, full time, to fully handle it. I then did a very detailed market study and determined what the market would pay in rents. I asked the tenants for a list of everything they wanted done in their apartments to be happy. I then did everything the tenants requested and I then raised their rents 30%. After the building was full, I raised the rents another 15%. The value of the building went up and I received an offer for $725,000. This was $200,000 more than its value 6 months earlier. I put it into escrow, and then I realized that I could raise the rents some more. I raised the rents again in escrow and forced the buyer to pay another $25,000 for the building. Bringing the price to $750,000. That $225,000 profit was needed to help cover the money being lost in San Bernardino.
Author’s Note: The escrow fell through and the building was kept until this update, December 5, 2004. The building is now in escrow for $1,583,000
What did I do about San Bernardino? I contacted the seller/lender and asked him if he would like me to pull the security guard out of the building and let him have it back in foreclosure. He didn’t want it back, even though he pretended that he was willing to do that. He offered me $25,000 in incentives to get me to personally lend the money necessary for the completion of the building, so he wouldn’t have to take it back. For 3 months he tried to get me to put money into the building, with the idea that once I put my money in I wouldn’t walk away from it. The real story was that I wouldn’t put a dime into that black hole until I figured out how to make it recover at least $100,000 of Kevin’s lost money. I asked for a $70,000 discount on the note, and offered to pay him off. We negotiated for two months. Just when I was ready to finish the deal, the seller sold his note to someone else for only a $30,000 discount. I was not able to make the money I wanted because now the new note holder wanted 100% of interest and principal due. This threw a monkey wrench into my negotiating. All this time, I had a buyer standing in the wings to buy the building from Kevin while I was negotiating. I was then forced to sell the property to this buyer and Kevin recovered only a little bit of his investment. The lender and I were both playing a high stakes poker game. I lost this round. If I could have gotten the payoff reduced, Kevin would received a large hunk of money from an “as is” sale. This is what I call playing “Craps” on a very big Monopoly board.
Author’s Note: The buyer, thinking he was going to put $125,000 to finish the remodeling, notified me, after one year, that he had spent $300,000 to finish the building. The apartment building values were increasing rapidly during this time period, so Kevin’s project was increasing in value at the same time the buyer was going deeper and deeper into construction costs. The buyer made out all right in the end. If the market had died, he would have lost $200,000 on this building after Kevin had already lost a fortune. It’s all about timing, isn’t it?
Kevin learned that money alone was not the answer to his problems; he needed a Genie, to turn his turkey into a swan.
Janet is the daughter of one of my oldest and wealthiest friends and clients. We have been doing real estate deals together since 1975. Janet and her husband started buying distressed real estate in Phoenix Arizona in 1994, which was 8 years ago when it was the thing to do. It was now Dec 2000. The market appears to be slowing down and did after September 11, 2001. Janet had been continually borrowing money from her father, whenever things got too difficult. She later sold everything in Phoenix and bought property in Northern California. Then in 1999, one year before I was brought in, she started buying real estate in Kansas City. One day Janet’s father called me and asked for my help. He had loaned his daughter $200,000 and felt that everything she owned was upside down. (Loans more than the market value.). This was further complicated by the fact that if she sold her properties, to pay off her father, the capital gains taxes would eat up any cash, from the sale. On top of all this, Janet kept asking for more money to keep up the payments on the properties that had a negative cash flow and didn’t have enough rental income.
He hired me to help his daughter and agreed to pay my fee. I would work with this 40 years old kid, to get her to return her fathers $200,000 and make herself totally debt free. Janet and I met. She was brilliant. She did know what she was doing, as far as picking good real estate deals. She owned, at the time of our meeting, 10 properties located in 2 different states, and there was $500,000 in equity. If we could get it out, before her father had a stroke things would be great. Janet agreed to the arrangement, happily, if I would be her adviser, not his. Her father agreed to fund whatever money was requested as long as I approved it. Also I had to be the one to ask Janet’s father for the money, since the upset between the farther and daughter was getting unbearable.
This is what we did. A list of needed repairs was created for each of the 11 properties. Bids were received and the work ordered to be done within 30 days. This was not to take months. It had to be done immediately so we could go to step two. Step 2 was to put on the market all of the expensive Northern California property. To my disbelief, Janet wanted to move her family, to a new city, in the middle of all this and her father agreed to let her do it. She had found an old run down house that she felt was undervalued. That meant that her old residence was put into the group of properties to sell. Sell is what we planned to do. Everything was to be put on the market, and sold at the best price to be gotten, but sold regardless. The property in Kansas was to be repaired and fully rented. The properties that could be sold at what we thought was full retail, were also put on the market. The plan was that when everything was sold, the father would get paid off; the loans on the remaining properties would be paid off and the balance of the cash would be put into the bank. Since all of the Kansas deals appear to be a good investment, Janet could now continue to buy more Kansas property, (she had only been spending $25,000 on each deal) but for all cash. The rents coming in would generate enough income for her family to live on without having to ask for money from dad or touching her investment nest egg. That was the plan.
I forgot one last thing. Because many of the properties had been bought years ago on a 1031 exchanges (tax-free exchange), the capital gain tax was going to eat up the cash proceeds. That was one of the traps Janet fell into. She felt she couldn’t sell without buying a replacement. Of course by not liquidating before starting anew, she would never get out of debt with her real estate lenders or her father. The solution, for this problem was simpler than one would think.
First, the father did a 1031 exchange with Janet for one of the big profit houses. The father sold Janet his personal residences for no money down. Now Janet rented her father the house he lives in. So much for capital gains tax on the $150,000 profit in that one big sale. The second big profit was in the house Janet currently lived in. That was tax-free under the current laws. Since the other houses sold had smaller profits, it was decided that the business decision to get out of debt was more important than avoiding paying any taxes.
Author’s Note: That was the plan. So what happened? Janet decided she didn’t want to sell the junk in Kansas and fired me. She refused to pay her father back and as of December 2004 he had not seen a dime. Father has deducted what she owes him from her inheritance, which will be put into a trust administered by her brother for the benefit of the grandchildren. Real estate in California skyrocketed after 9/11/01 terrorist attack and her properties all doubled in value.
Summary: Everyone thinks that his or her problem is not confrontable and therefore unsolvable. I have found that someone other than myself can solve my un-confrontable problems in 10 min and I can do the same for them. It is not a question of being smarter, or more experienced, though experience helps a lot when coming up with easy solutions, quickly. It is really that we all are willing to confront someone else’s problems much easier than our own. When we are willing to confront our own problem head-on, solutions begin to appear miraculously. What I do is help people take their mountains and turn them into molehills. The molehills are then flattened with ease.
Lessons to learn: First, do not think you are smarter than the people who passed this way before you; you’re not. Second, markets never go up forever, have not performed as if they will. Third, if you are not prepared for the worst, it will kill you. If you are prepared, it will only hurt a little. You will survive and come away much richer in the end.