by Scott Trench
When I first read Brandon Turner’s article, “How to ‘Hack’ Your Housing and Get Paid to Live for Free,” it was like a light switch flipped in my head. That was the first article that truly made sense to me as a wannabe investor. It seemed so clear, so right, so obvious that everyone’s first real estate investment should be in a small multi-family property.
I immediately set out to implement this strategy — to buy a property, to move into it, rent out the accompanying units, and to start living for free. Unfortunately, I quickly ran into a little problem: I had set myself up to attempt to meet four seemingly impossible criteria:
- The property needed to be affordable with conventional financing.
- The property needed to be in a location that I wanted to live in.
- The property needed to generate positive cash-flow.
- The property needed to offer a reasonable chance at appreciation.
After spending six months looking for an investment property to acquire house-hacking style, I’m not convinced that the truly difficult thing for a first time investor is in getting financing, or even in finding properties that cash-flow sufficiently. The truly difficult problem for me was deciding on where I wanted to make that commitment. Buying a rental property that you intend to live in and actively manage is more than just a financial commitment. You are likely going to live, work, and invest in that area for at least the next few years.
I actually feel that I had plenty of opportunities to purchase duplexes and fourplexes that would have been decent from a cash-flow and appreciation standpoint within 20-50 miles of Denver. Those opportunities seemed almost too easy. The real trick in my opinion is buying those types of properties right downtown. I’m talking inside the city limits.
I’ll admit it, I’m a spoiled, immature 24-year-old, and I refuse to live in an area that isn’t near the heart of my city (Denver, CO). I want to be close to where my 20-something friends live — by Coor’s Field, downtown restaurants and nightlife, convenient to I-70 (the highway that grants easy access to the awesome Rocky Mountains), and, of course, right by my workplace.
In this article, I want to walk through why I believe that all four of those previously mentioned criteria are so important to first time investors and explain some of the basic things that I did to buy a property that I believe meets each of them. I think that this approach is possible for many people who live in urban environments and are willing to be patient and methodical.
Here are four questions that I believe every first time house-hacker should ask themselves, and how I personally answered them.
4 Questions for First Time House Hackers
Question #1: Can I afford the property with conventional financing?
There are two obvious followup questions to the “can I afford this?” question:
- How much money do I have?
- How much money does property in the area I want to buy in cost?
If you want to house-hack and still live in a reasonable place in an urban area, you need some cash. Even with great owner-occupier financing terms, you’ll need a substantial amount for the downpayment if you want to live in a somewhat desirable spot near a happening city. I’m not interested in living in Detroit and putting down $500 for that $10,000 home. I want to live and invest in Denver, CO, where a comparable structure might cost 10,20, or even 50 times more than that.
I spent a full year working hard and living frugally to save up an amount that would comfortably cover a 5% down payment on properties in the area that I wanted to live in. If you don’t like this strategy for gathering funds for your first downpayment (the “save more money” strategy), then I’d suggest that you seriously question whether you want to get into real estate investing in the first place.
Another critical thing to keep in mind is that if you are purchasing a property that needs repairs, minor or major, you will need cash to pay for them. Among other expenses, I’ve shelled out thousands in plumbing and electrical work, appliances, and DIY tools and materials. If you are transitioning from renting to an owning property, then there might be a chance that, like me, you don’t own a robust set of tools and don’t have familiarity with the materials needed to work on even relatively simple projects like painting and drywall repair. By ensuring that I bought the property with a good $10,000 cash cushion, I was able to easily cover all the little repairs and contractor costs that came up, and I now have a pretty solid little toolset that has proved to be much more enjoyable to work with than I previously would have thought.
Question #2: Will I be happy living there?
I think that many of us as investors, new and experienced alike, have to acknowledge that we are investing to improve our financial position and in doing so, to improve our lives. I believe that house-hacking does not work if it means that you have to live in an area that you don’t want to be in! For me to be happy with my living situation, I needed to live in the city. It was not acceptable to purchase property in the boonies and move far away from the places I enjoy going to on a regular basis just to get a good return on my first investment. For me, that meant I had to limit my purchasing area to properties close to the heart of downtown Denver, CO.
Buying property actually downtown (less than 5-10 blocks away from Coor’s Field in my mind) was simply not a reasonable option — the only properties that most newbies can reasonably purchase might be condos, which are not a traditional type of investment from which one can generally expect great rental cash-flow. It’s just too expensive in the true heart of the city, and the only properties that are being purchased there are multi-million dollar homes and swanky apartment complexes. There’s a reason why buildings go straight up in big cities.
Fortunately, Denver has several surrounding neighborhoods with properties at price points affordable to folks making less than $50K per year. These neighborhoods are convenient to downtown with good bike routes and cab/Uber rides that are less than $10 a pop. I ended up picking two areas to search for property. Both areas were roughly equidistant from downtown Denver and my workplace (BiggerPockets HQ happens to be about 5 miles directly Southeast of Lower Downtown Denver).
Question #3: Will the property cash-flow?
Here in Denver, CO, we’ve got a little bit of a tough housing situation. Houses and investment properties are being listed for less than one day and then selling for ten, fifteen, or even $20,000 more than asking price. I’ve heard from some readers that cities with similar characteristics, like Austin, TX, have similarly tough markets for investors.
Luckily, as an owner-occupier looking to buy multifamily property, I had a couple of serious advantages over the competition. First, I was looking at properties that most other would-be homeowners weren’t interested in; first-time buyers usually aren’t looking to purchase a duplex, triplex, or fourplex. Second, I had the opportunity to bid on properties before investors that did not intend to inhabit the property because of a special government program — the First Look program from Fannie Mae.
In my opinion, these two advantages that I had as an owner-occupier house-hacker are the trump cards that gave me an edge in looking for great multi-family deals in an urban environment. After months of searching, my agent suggested a duplex to me. This property was listed on the MLS and was like a lot of other opportunities out there that I had looked at, but with one small difference: this property was part of that “First Look” program.
Because investors couldn’t make offers on the property for several weeks, and because the demand for duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes among first-time homeowners is very small, I had little competition. I was able to run the deal by my friends, family, mastermind group, and by investor friends I’d met through BiggerPockets. That window gave me the confidence I needed to pull the trigger and make the largest financial commitment of my life to that point — while competing investors never even had a chance to offer.
Question #4: Is there a reasonable chance at appreciation?
If you read around on BiggerPockets, you are going to learn that experienced investors refer to appreciation as the “icing on the cake” — it’s usually not even considered in the purchase of investment property. While it’s still a good idea to look at cash-flow first as an owner-occupier, putting in the extra time to look for investment properties that offer a good chance at appreciation as well can reward you handsomely in the long run.
As a house-hacker, appreciation can produce a more powerful financial impact for you than it can for a traditional investor, because of a special tax-law that benefits owner-occupiers:
Assuming that you live in the property for more than two years, when you sell property, much of the capital gains are tax-free.
This tax break is incredibly powerful for those looking to house-hack with small multifamily properties because we have the opportunity to take advantage of appreciation as it relates to both income properties AND smaller residential properties:
As multi-family properties, increasing the income of the property can force appreciation.
As hybrid properties, duplexes – fourplexes can also benefit from appreciation caused by an improving local market.
I carefully selected properties that I felt offered me the opportunity to get both types of appreciation:
- Forced Income Appreciation: I chose a property that needed what I considered to be a reasonable amount of cosmetic work and that had multiple opportunities for improvement. Since moving in, I’ve had the entire plumbing system overhauled, I’ve added appliances like washer/dryer units and refrigerators, and I’ve put in substantial cosmetic work, Do-It-Yourself style. These improvements should reduce the operating expenses of the property over the long run and give me an advantage in attracting and retaining tenants, hopefully improving the property’s long-term income potential.
- Market Appreciation: One of the benefits to purchasing properties in an area that you yourself want to live in is that, generally speaking, other folks want to live there, too. This presents a decent opportunity for appreciation in itself if you have personal reasons for for desiring to live in a certain area that are applicable to large demographics. However, I didn’t stop there, as I looked for properties within these neighborhoods that were also in the path of government sponsored infrastructure projects.
In my case, a light-rail project is currently under construction and will offer convenient and low-cost transportation options to my neighborhood. It is my hope that infrastructure projects like this one, coupled with the overall tremendous growth of the Denver local economy, will allow me to benefit from market appreciation, though I understand that having purchased the property, this is now out of my control.
The hope here is that I can leverage both types of appreciation to create substantial value from this property over the next few years. I then hope to cash out on that increase in equity, tax-free, and reinvest it in a larger income producing real estate asset.
This is my first investment property. There is every possibility that I’ve made a huge mistake somewhere along the line. I could be way off in my estimation of expenses, long-term rents, desirability of the neighborhood, or I might have simply gotten ripped off on the purchase in general. I hope that none of those things are true, and I certainly feel that I did my due diligence at each stage of this investment — but only time will tell if I correctly analyzed each critical input.
Maybe I’m slower than other investors, and maybe I suffered from a great deal of “analysis paralysis.” It took me a long time to pull the trigger and finally make a serious offer on my first investment property. I had been researching my market and defining my criteria for at least 6 months — not to mention the full year that I had been saving up for such a purchase!
That said, I believe that my first investment is by far my most important. A bad choice could cripple me financially, discourage me from investing again, or at the very least, significantly slow me down in accumulating the funds to make a second investment. But, in spite of all the potential negative outcomes, because I did just one thing right, I can sleep well at night:
That one thing was buying in an area that I am happy to live in.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t truly matter whether I’m able to keep my unit rented out, or if the market tanks. Worst case scenario, I get an expensive education in real estate investing and live in a place that is slightly smaller than I could have otherwise afforded.
I’ve got the ultimate exit strategy.
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