Tuesday, August 7, 2007

What I've learned after buying houses for 28 years

After graduating from college I rented for a year and since then have been buying single family homes with a spattering of duplexes, triplexes and one 6 unit building. My success rate has not been spectacular, more mediocre at best. In my mind my real estate ventures are heavily linked to my career choice. I majored in chemical engineering and was so enamored with working with one particular chemical company that I have intrinsically linked my real estate purchases to locations where my company provides work. And nearly all of those locations are away from growing metropolitan areas. I've also had the ability to watch my brothers (I have 6) locate to growing areas and prosper tremendously in their real estate purchases. So here is what I have learned:

  1. Location is everything. If you are not living in a growing metropolitan area the chances of making a lot of money in real estate diminish exponentially. I lived in Parkersburg WV for 20 years and population declined by 25%. What happened to real estate demand? Certainly not the same as my brothers who live - near Boston, near DC, near Philly, near NYC and Charlotte. Values of properties in WV tanked for years and then was flat. I could buy property for $0.50 on the dollar but then couldn't sell it for half of what I'd paid. I'm living outside of Buffalo now and although some suburbs are growing slowly the population of this area is and has been in a steady decline. Admittedly, some suburbs have seen some 4-6% appreciation during my 9 years here as whites have fled the city, but Buffalo and it's closest suburbs are shrinking. I've never lived in one of America's fastest growing Suburbs.
  2. Timing is crucial. There have been 2 major real estate booms during my life. In the early 80's interest rates dropped from 16% to ~7% and for most of the country real estate took off. But like the past 6 years, the boom was uneven throughout the country because location is everything. I watched my brother living near NYC rehab houses and make $100k in profit. I tried the same thing in WV and lost $100k. The key to timing in my mind is watching interest rates. During the past 6 years they trended downward towards the lowest on record and real estate boomed. When interest rates are rising real estate will not do well, when there is a long term downward trend, there are large opportunities for even the dumbest investor to make piles of cash.
  3. Buying from desperate people is one way to off-set the above 2 trends. Many people make money in poor markets and against the trends. The main skill that they possess is the ability and patience to only buy from people who are facing foreclosure (this doesn't mean they are behind in payments, just that some circumstance in their lives will push them there eventually). This could be people going through divorce, job loss or transfer, heirs of property, medical problems, etc. Locating these people requires lots of patience and a willingness to alienate lots of Realtors and sellers by making low ball offers. Most people buy houses based on emotion and don't have the self-discipline to wait for the right deal. I have purchased 17 properties in my life and I can say that the majority (12) were purchased based on an emotional decision rather than the numbers.

A lot of home owners have made a lot of money buying in the right location and during the right time. I watch Flip This House and Flip That House and notice that they don't do shows in Buffalo, but only in growing areas. See this Forbes article on Best Places to Flip a Home. There is a reason for this - that's where people can make money and don't have to be too smart about how much their budget or timing.

I still am a strong advocate of using real estate as a strong component of building wealth. I just need to buy smarter to offset the location and timing factors. I won't be one of these people on TV flipping a house for $100k profit after going over budget by twice, but I believe I can make small profits that will get me closer to my goals of financial security.

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