You probably know her from the super informative blog Afford Anything. I’ve been a big fan of Paula for a long time, so I’m so happy that I was able to interview her.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
How she got into real estate investing.
How she was able to afford so many rental units.
What she looks for in a rental unit.
The types of property she invests in.
How much time and money it takes to invest.
How she manages rentals in a different part of the country.
Her worst renter.
The sacrifices she had to make to make this all possible.
And more! This interview is packed full of valuable information!
She also created a freebie for my readers – download her free step-by-step guide!
I asked you, my readers, what questions I should ask her, so below are your questions (and some of mine) about Paula’s story and how she has accomplished so much. Make sure you’re following me on Facebook so you have the opportunity to submit your own questions for the next interview.
1. Tell me your story. Who are you and what do you do?
Today, I’m a frequent world traveler and digital nomad, who is financially independent — which means that my investments bring in enough money to give me a comfortable foundation. But, that’s a fairly recent development.
I graduated from college in 2005, and took a job with a starting salary of $21,000 per year. When I left that job in 2008, I earned $31,000 per year. That’s the most I’ve ever earned through a full-time employer.
But, during that time, I was building out my side hustle, freelancing for magazines and websites. I saved $25,000 and used this to backpack around the world for two years, living on a budget of less than $1,000 per month.
When I returned to the United States in 2010, I didn’t want to go back into the traditional 9-to-5 workforce. I decided to ramp up my freelancing into a full-time business. It took about 18 months, approximately, before my freelance business escalated into the equivalent to a six figure salary. (In other words, I enjoyed my very first five-figure month.)
Rather than spending this income, I decided to invest. At the time, I lived in Atlanta and was paying $200 per month for rent, sharing a bedroom with my then boyfriend, now husband, who was also paying $200 per month.
The two of us shared one bedroom within a three-bedroom apartment, so there were a total of five strangers from craigslist sharing this tiny space. I drove a 15-year-old car and we ate vegetarian food from Costco. I rarely bought clothes or anything fancy.
My husband and I managed to save $26,000, which we made as a down payment for our first rental property. We moved in, bringing our roommates with us. That rental property was a triplex, so between the rent that we were receiving from our roommates, plus the rent from the other two units, we lived for free, with zero out-of-pocket housing expenses.
This meant that we could save any money that we would otherwise have been paying out of pocket towards rent or mortgage.
Within one more year, we saved $21,000 and purchased our second rental property.
Fast forward to today, and we own a total of seven rental units, which last year grossed $125,000 and netted $43,000 after expenses.
I also run an online business that pulls in six figures annually.
2. How did you afford to purchase so many homes?
I outlined this in the question above, but we lived very very very very very cheaply. We lived more cheaply than the majority of people would be comfortable doing.
I also earned money through self-employment and entrepreneurship, which meant that I could escalate my income to a much greater degree than I could if I were still a full-time employee, at the whim of a boss to give me a raise.
When you’re earning six figures and paying $200 per month in rent, because you crammed five strangers together into a dinky three-bedroom apartment, you can save quickly.
3. What have been some of your favorite financing strategies?
I wouldn’t say that I have any favorite forms of financing. I don’t enjoy taking out loans, and I prefer to pay cash for houses if possible. This requires buying homes that are cheap enough that I could purchase them outright, which means homes that are $50,000 or less. I’ve been able to do this with two of my houses, and that’s my favorite form of financing.
4. How would you recommend finding good income producing rentals? What do you look for in a rental?
Those are two extremely large questions, so let me break them up and take them one at a time.
First, properties that are publicly listed on the MLS, which are the properties that you will typically see on Zillow or Redfin or Trulia, are most likely not going to be the ones in which you get the best deals as an investor. If you want exceptional returns, you have to dig harder. And, what that means is that you aren’t necessarily going to be “finding” deals, you’re going to be creating deals.
For example, you might drive around the neighborhood and look for properties with signs of deferred maintenance, like clogged gutters and long grass. Then do a public records search to find the name of the owner, and contact them to see if they might be interested in selling the property as-is. This is one way in which you can make an offer on a property that is not yet listed on the market.
Alternately, you can run a public record search for all absentee or out-of-state property owners within a particular ZIP Code, and then send them letters asking if they might be interested in selling.
Or, you can work with a professional wholesaler or other investors who do this groundwork, paying them a finder’s fee if they are able to take the steps, and then bring those unlisted properties to you.
Another possible way is to specialize exclusively and look at foreclosures and short sales, which is what I’ve done.
Many readers leave comments on my website that say, “I looked at Zillow, and I can’t find any deals.” Well, of course not! If you spend an hour or two looking at publicly listed properties, what do you expect? Deals will not fall into your lap. You have to go out and search for them, and this is what separates investors from onlookers.
So, that answers the first half of the question, which is “how do I find deals?” Now, let’s talk about the second half of the question, which is “what do I look for in a rental?”
First, as minimum criteria, the gross monthly rent on a property should be at least 1% of the total acquisition price. That means that for every $100,000 worth of house, the property should rent for at least $1,000.
When I say “acquisition price,” I’m referring to the purchase price plus initial repairs required to get it rent ready for the first tenant. That way, if you’re comparing two properties and one costs $100,000 and needs zero repairs to be ready for the first tenant, and other costs $70,000 and needs an additional $30,000 of repairs to get it rent-ready for the first tenant, you can make an apples-to-apples comparison between the two.
To be clear, I wouldn’t buy every property that meets the one percent rule of thumb. It’s simply a first-pass glance. I eliminate properties that don’t meet this requirement.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “nothing in my area meets the one percent rule,” then invest elsewhere. Go where the money is. There’s no reason that your rental property needs to be in your backyard.
The second thing that I look for in a property is a solid cap rate. The cap rate is analogous to the dividend, or income stream, of the property. It’s not an expression of the total return, but it does tell you what type of dividend you will receive relative to the value of the asset. For example, a cap rate of 6% means that the dividend payment from the property will be 6%. If the property also keeps pace with inflation, which historically been at 3%, then the total unleveraged return of the dividend plus appreciation would equal 9%.
The Cap Rate calculation is a little complicated, but here’s a short description: calculate the rental income from the property at 100% occupancy. Then subtract for vacancies. Then add supplemental income like pet fees, parking fees, laundry fees.
After you’ve arrived at that number, subtract out operating expenses, such as maintenance, repairs, management, property taxes, and homeowners insurance.
Do not include the principal and interest portion of your financing within this, because those are not operating expenses, they’re debt servicing expenses. Your goal is to evaluate the asset itself, not the strength of the financing arrangement.
Once you have subtracted the operating overhead, you are left with a figure that is known as the net operating income. This figure, relative to the value of the asset, will tell you your cap rate.
There are more details I could go into, but that’s a brief synopsis of the equation.
For more information on how to calculate cap rate, download this free step-by-step guide!
5. What types of properties do you invest in (single family, apartments, commercial, etc) and why?
I specialize in residential rental properties, which include single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes. Anything that has five or more units is considered commercial. Anything with four or fewer units is considered residential.
Buying, financing, and insuring residential properties can, in some ways, be simpler than dealing with commercial properties, such as mobile home parks or office parks, especially for beginners.
I don’t necessarily believe that any particular asset class is better or worse than any other one. They all have advantages and disadvantages. I do, however, believe that there is wisdom in choosing one area of specialization and becoming excellent in that niche, rather than spreading yourself too thin trying to analyze across a wide variety of asset classes.
6. How much of a time and money investment should you expect getting into this?
If you’re willing to invest where the returns are, rather than in your own backyard (because proximity to where you happen to live is not a good investment criterion), then you don’t need much money to get started. There are many areas of the country where you can purchase a single-family home for $40,000-$60,000 in a respectable, safe neighborhood. Even if you made a 25% down payment, that would still only come to $10,000 for a $40,000 property.
And, if you happen to live in an area in which these properties are in your own backyard, you could take out an FHA loan for 3.5% down, owner-occupy the property for one year, and then move out and turn it into a rental. In this case, you would only need a 3.5% down payment on a $40,000 property, which means that you would need $1,400 for a down payment.
That said, I would highly highly recommend not doing any of this until you first have a solid emergency fund.
7. Do you buy turnkey properties or properties that need work and why?
That’s also a big question, and I won’t get into the nuances of turnkey providers, but the short answer is that there are a lot of red flags around dealing with turnkey companies, and I would not recommend them.
For that reason, I have never purchased a turnkey property, and I don’t think I ever will.
Absolutely all of my properties have needed a significant amount of work. This is where opportunity exists. When you can buy a property for significantly less than the after repair fair market value, you can make major equity gains in addition to the cash flow from the rental income.
That said, it’s not necessary to buy a fixer-upper. You can make great cash flow as a rental investor by buying a property that’s already in rent ready condition. I just prefer to buy fixer-uppers so that I can create forced appreciation in addition to the ongoing rental income.
8. How do you manage rentals from another part of the country? What happens if there’s a repair needed or if a tenant moves out?
If you have a great team in place, it’s easy. If a repair is needed, the property manager calls a contractor, or if I’m self managing the property, then I call a contractor. It’s quite simple.
Think of it this way: there are millions of people who run businesses that have offices or branches in other parts of the country. It’s common to run a business that has locations outside of where you yourself live. Rental properties are just another business, which abide by all of the same rules as any other type of business.
9. What challenges have you had in dealing with management companies and how have you handled them?
We used one property management company that was just a little sloppy at everything. They weren’t bad, per se, but they used terrible listing photos, they clearly didn’t put much effort or attention into the quality of the written listing, and you could just tell that they were trying to get things done quickly rather than done well. So, we fired them, and hired a different manager, and she’s fantastic.
My number one tip is to not penny-pinch when it comes to hiring property managers. I meet so many investors who are concerned about whether the manager is charging 8% versus 9%. My recommendation is to prioritize quality professionalism over that incremental additional percentage. I would happily pay 10% to somebody who is excellent, rather than pay 8% and have somebody who’s mediocre.
10. Have you ever had a bad renter? How do you deal with them?
We had one bad renter who moved out and left the place in shambles. There were holes in the wall and dog pee on the carpets. We hired a contractor, and he managed a team of other contractors who patched and repainted the walls and replaced the carpets within 24 hours. That’s the beauty of having a really excellent team. Your contractor handles everything.
11. What kind of work is required from you in order to manage your real estate empire?
The management is rather simple. Hire an excellent property manager and a top-notch contractor, and then get out of the way and don’t try to micromanage them.
In that regard, it’s very similar to running a blog or podcast. You hire an excellent podcast editor, send him the audio files, and then let him do his thing. Or, you hire an excellent social media assistant to handle your Pinterest page, and then get out of the way. I have somebody running my Pinterest page, and I haven’t looked at it in months. Remember, rentals are just another business.
Choosing properties takes a lot of work. But once you have the right systems in place, then the team handles the day-to-day operations.
12. What sacrifices did you have to make in order to reach this milestone?
My husband and I lived with roommates until I was 31 and he was 35. As a result, we kept our out-of-pocket housing expenses at zero, which allowed us to save so that we could invest.
I drove a 15-year-old car until a few years ago. Our preferred recreation is hiking and camping, both of which are free or cheap. We travel internationally, but we use frequent flyer miles and spend a lot of time in countries where the dollar exchange rate works in our favor. And, we mostly eat vegetarian food, which is cheaper than eating meat.
13. Do you have any predictions for up and coming strong rental markets?
Never ever ever ever ever try to time or predict the market. Buy when it’s a good deal. End of story.
Don’t speculate on the future. Just buy when it currently makes sense, given the numbers at the present moment.
14. What’s the best way for a person to get started?
Read the articles on my blog, Afford Anything, listen to the real estate related episodes on my podcast, and decide what specific state, city, neighborhood, and ZIP Code you would like to target for your first rental property.
15. If you were starting back at ground zero, what would you do differently from the beginning?
I would have outsourced more from the beginning. I was under the false impression that we could improve profits by doing the work ourselves, but that’s just BS accounting. You cannot value your own time at zero, value somebody else’s time at greater than zero, and make a fair comparison. You must always run an analysis based on the assumption that you are outsourcing everything. And, if you choose to do so, this frees you up to focus on the growth of your business, such that you can work on it rather than in it.
16. Lastly, what is your very best tip that you have for someone who wants to reach the same success as you?
I don’t think there’s a single very best tip, because I don’t think that these years of collective knowledge can be boiled down to any silver bullet.
But, if I had to choose something, I would say focus on earning more rather than saving. I used to be obsessed with penny-pinching and frugality, and in many ways I still have that tendency. But you cannot shrink your way to greatness. Your potential to earn more exceeds your potential to clip coupons.
Keep your focus on entrepreneurship, investing, and earning more, and play the long game. This is not about overnight success, this is about success within the next five to ten years.
Are you interested in getting into rental real estate? What other questions do you have for Paula?