10 Real Estate Investing Tips from a Successful Investor

I began investing in single family homes with a good friend and business partner about 4 years ago. In that time, we’ve purchases and remodeled 5 single family homes, all of which are rented by reasonably reliable tenants. Over that time we’ve learned a thing or two about investing in real estate. In this article, I’d like to share with you what we’ve learned.

real estate investor
Photo by sleepyneko via Flickr

1. Know the Neighborhood

We invest in properties located in the hometown where we grew up. Most of the properties are just minutes from the home I grew up in and where my mom still lives. We know the neighborhoods and school districts very well. This makes valuing the properties and rent extremely accurate, which is critical. Some successful real estate investors invest in areas they know nothing about, but it adds significant risk to your investments.

2. Find Professionals that Know What They are Doing

I’m fortunate in that my friend has invested in real estate for years and his father has been a realtor and investor for more than 30 years. When the three of us drive through a neighborhood, I hear things like, “I’ve sold that home 2 times” or “that home had major fire damage 10 years ago.” The point is, seek out and find professionals that know what they are doing.

3. Use Rents to Drive Value

Unless you plan to flip the home, use expected rents to determine the value of the home. As a rule of thumb, we look for homes whose expected monthly rent is 1% of our total cost (including rehab expenses). If we have $100,000 into a home, we want rents of $1,000. This works nicely where we invest (mid-west), but will not work everywhere. If you invest on either coast, for example, rent to value ratio will typically be much less. Regardless, focus on expected rents, because that is what drives cash flow.

4. Seek Long Term Tenants

Vacancy and turn over are what will kill a real estate investment faster than anything. When one tenant moves out, you not only lose rent while you’re looking for a new tenant, but you inevitably spend money touching up the property. For this reason, we look to lock in a tenant for 2 or 3 years. It was a surprise to me, but tenants of single family homes are generally willing to agree to long term leases.

5. Start Slow

It was pretty exciting when we bought our first rental property. Actually, we bought two at the same time. Both were HUD foreclosures. And I was scared to death. Taking on two additional mortgages for two properties that required renovation and the prospect of finding good tenants was overwhelming. For this reason, start slow. There is always time to ramp up once you know what you are doing.

6. Just Say ‘No’

Don’t fall in love with a property or a deal. No matter how good a deal you think something is, another one is just around the corner. We thought the first four properties were great deals, but the fifth one was far better. And who knows, #6 could be even better.

7. Find a Portfolio Lender

Most mortgages are sold soon after the transaction closes. Freddie and Fannie buy a lot of mortgages, for example, and the mortgages they buy must meet certain very strict and unforgiving standards. A portfolio lender, on the other hand, keeps the loans in their portfolio. The result is you can find terms that are more favorable than a traditional mortgage.

For example, we are able to borrower 100% of the post-renovation value of the home on a 20-year note with a variable rate that resets just once every five years. Not a bad deal for an investment property. Most portfolio lenders are small local and regional banks. To find one, ask a real estate agent or investor.

8. Maintain Your Properties

You will get maintenance calls, the roof will go bad, and siding will fall off the house. That’s the reality of real estate investing. The key is to stay on top of repairs. It keeps tenants off your back and the home in good condition.

9. Don’t Negotiate with Late Paying Tenants

This one was tough for me to learn. When a tenant calls to explain why the rent is late, don’t cut them slack. If they leave a voice message, we typically don’t return the call. This sounds cold-hearted at first, but imagine how the bank would respond if you called to say the mortgage would be late. The point here is not to be mean to tenants, but the best response is to initiate eviction proceedings on a set schedule. For us, we have a late fee that kicks in after 5 days and we typically start eviction proceedings around day 15. This can change depending on our schedules, but you get the idea.

And by the way, we have yet to evict a tenant! So far, all late paying tenants have paid once they get the eviction notice. This is related to point #8 above. We keep our properties in excellent condition. Having held up our part of the bargain, it’s reasonable to expect the tenants to keep their end of the deal.

10. Keep Your Own Finances in Good Order

This is absolutely critical. So many real estate investors live life on the edge, fully leverged in their investments and personal finances. It’s the wrong approach. My business partner and I could pay the mortgages if all five of our homes were vacant. It wouldn’t be easy, but we could do it. If your personal finances aren’t in good shape, you’ll find yourself cutting corners and making bad investment decisions as a result.

About the Author

By , on Jun 22, 2013
Rob Berger
Rob Berger is the founder of the popular personal finance website, The Dough Roller, which has been features on U.S. News & World Report, Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money, and The Wall Street Journal.

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Leave Your Comment (9 Comments)

  1. Mark ferguson says:

    Thanks for the link back to my portfolio lender article. These are great tips!

  2. Wef Wef says:

    For stock investment i could say it’s negligible and is already built into the projected annual growth. However, it’s not so simple with real estate investment, because there are significant costs that must be considered:

    * Closing costs as a buyer, and then later as a seller
    * Mortgage principal payments
    * Mortgage interest payments
    * Private mortgage insurance (if any)
    * Property taxes
    * Home insurance
    * Home improvement
    * Repair and maintenance
    * Other costs associated with running a rental business

    Which may be offset by:

    * Rental income
    * Depreciation
    * Tax deductions

  3. Ferg Flanagan says:

    Great post!

    Do you have any advice regarding contractors.
    How to make sure the property cash flows and the current times/state of housing. (House prices continue to fall etc).

  4. Curt says:

    Excellent article with some great advice. The only thing I would at is that his is a bad time to invest in real estate – especially with variable interest rates that are going to be a lot higher when you refinance.

    As unemployment continues to rise, property values can only continue to come down. I would wait another few years before investing in real estate. I realize that a lot of people have make a killing in real estate, but those days are gone.

  5. Just found your blog, some really good information. I look forward to checking out future post. I was suprise you start your late fee after 5 days. I start mine after day one and it is $5 a day each day after. Great way to increase your cash flow, and also a great way to get paid on time if they don’t like paying late fees.
    Regards,
    jscottalexander

  6. AJ says:

    This is great. I am considering investing in real estate in the next few years.

  7. Dawn says:

    The paragraph about maintaining your properties is really important. I am a firm believer in better rental = better tenants. If you offer people nice places to live and find good tenants, they will take better care of your property. The same thing goes for repairs – make an effort to repair your properties ASAP (and have an emergency fund to do it from.) Maintaining good tenant relations helps maintain profits.

  8. mapgirl says:

    This is a great post DR! Now that I’ve moved in with my SO and rented out my condo, I can really appreciate the advice you give here.

    The article is only missing one thing, which is compliance with landlord-tenant laws. Knowing the law and having it on your side is very important. In places like San Francisco and DC, the law sides primarily with the tenant so when you choose your property, make sure you have an understanding of what the laws are. For instance, in some places, it is illegal for a landlord to write a lease longer than 12 months. So to screen tenants, I asked what their intention upfront about staying over a year, and then I wrote the lease to encourage them to sign a 12-month lease renewal instead of rolling into month-to-month. But per the law, I could have just had it set to automatic renewal too.

    • DR says:

      mapgirl, fortunately we rent out properties in Ohio, and the landlord-tenant laws there are not so lopsided as they are in places like DC, NY or Boston. Longer term leases, for example, are fine. And what surprised me was that most tenants really want a longer term lease. They want to lock in the rent and stay put.

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