When you’re talking to real estate investors, they’ll often tell you how many doors they own, meaning how many rental units they have in their portfolio. Stating door numbers, however, can often be misleading. Generally, the real metric to keep track of is cash flow because, after all, profitability is what counts in any business, right?
Sometimes, though, the two can get conflated, and on occasion, owning just a few doors, irrespective of cash flow, can be a good strategy for building long-term wealth.
Confused? Don’t be. Rapidly appreciating areas can often generate far more wealth than simply adding doors that make $200-$300/month without the headaches of multiple tenants. In those instances, clinging to the side of a speeding real estate train might be the best investment strategy to generate wealth quickly, giving you investment options further down the line.
Note that most landlords in America are not Wall Street behemoths or incredibly successful businesses with hundreds of doors in their portfolio but mom-and-pop owners with a few units to supplement their income.
In other words, relax if you still need to purchase your first unit. You’re not getting left behind in the stampede touted by investment gurus to scale your portfolio. Owning just a few units puts you alongside most owners. If you already own a primary residence, turning it into a rental is relatively easy if you plan to move.
If you want to scale your portfolio, however, there are some important things to consider before starting.
Where Do You Intend to Buy Your Rental Units?
Your purchase power will be sorely limited if you intend to buy rental units in expensive areas. Assuming you’re not sitting on a trust fund or haven’t written songs for Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, there are the practical issues of how much you can borrow and earn from your day job, which will directly influence your purchasing power.
If you are a high earner or have investors and can afford to start your rental buying quickly, scooping up dozens of properties in cheaper markets can help your scale. However, there are pros and cons to both approaches.
What’s More Important: Cash Flow or Appreciation?
In an ideal world, you can have both. If you purchase a home in a transitional neighborhood and ride the demographic and economic turnaround, you’ll score a double whammy.
For example, many homeowners in the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens became millionaires over 10-plus years simply by house hacking and renting out small multifamily buildings in which they also lived. Their appreciation far exceeded any cash flow they could have made by purchasing rentals farther afield.
If you’re not desperate to leave your job, have no problem house hacking, and live in a major city, getting an FHA 203K loan for renovations is a great way to start building wealth without the hassle of long-distance investing and leaving the running of your properties to third-party management companies.
If scaling your portfolio is a priority, you must decide how much time and money you can dedicate to real estate investing. If your immediate priority is to leave your job, cash flow is king.
Whatever your chosen method—BRRRRing, multiple house hacks, or syndication—you’ll need to earn over your income to cover inevitable repairs and vacancies. However, leaving your job might affect your ability to scale securely.
Choose Your Location Carefully
In a rush to earn cash flow, many new investors make the mistake of thinking that buying low in D+/C- neighborhoods will allow them to scale faster and earn more. They could be setting themselves up for disaster. High-crime neighborhoods come with a lot of risks—vandalism and nonpayment of rent being the most obvious to investors. Your only hedge against this is to buy so cheaply so you can easily absorb the rental loss.
It’s usually more profitable to add fewer doors in better neighborhoods. Although the cash flow in less expensive neighborhoods is appealing on paper, this is rarely achieved. Scaling sensibly, not over-leveraging, and remaining in solid neighborhoods where you’re not afraid to walk the streets at night almost always makes more sense than simply adding doors to your portfolio if that keeps you locked in landlord/tenant court.
Your Job is Your First Business Partner
Another mistake of newbie investors is being too quick to leave their steady, W2-paying job. Not only will banks be more willing to lend to you with a job, but the income it generates will help you manage the unforeseen expenses that come with real estate investing, allowing you to scale faster.
Rick Matos and Santiago Martinez live and invest in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. They are friends and have done deals together in the past. Both have a similar number of properties in their portfolio—Rick has 44 units, and Santiago has 47.
However, their investment strategies have differed. Here’s a look at each.
Rick took 10 years to accumulate his 44 units, generating a gross rent roll of about $40,000/month and $25,000 in cash flow today. When he started investing, he was a full-time employee earning six figures. He took a HELOC on his personal residence (which was paid off) to buy his first investment property. At the same time, he earned his real estate license to help him purchase more properties, saving on commissions.
“A lot of the properties I bought at the time were REO/foreclosures in Center City, Allentown, and Easton, so I was buying them at a clip for cash for $20,000-$30,0000 using my 401(k), borrowing from local lenders and my dad who owns real estate in New Jersey,” Rick says. “In addition, I did a few flips and bought a few houses on credit cards. I was adamant that I wanted to keep scaling, and having a good income through my job helped me do that.”
Did Rick regret buying in a rough neighborhood? “Not at all,” he says. “In fact, if you look at how both areas turned around, all the investment poured in there, and how the property values have gone through the roof, I wish I had bought more! I was buying these houses so cheaply that I couldn’t lose.”
“The rents paid down the loans quickly, and then I did a few BRRRRs, enabling me to scale, Rick adds. “But it wasn’t overnight. “It took me 10 years. For most of that time, I had a good income from my job, so I never touched the real estate money to live off. I could always put it back into the business. In fact, when I purchased the properties, they were often in bad shape, so I just used the income from my job to fix them up.”
When Rick finally left his job three years ago to focus on real estate full-time, he supplemented his cash flow by doing more business as a real estate agent (he is currently affiliated with the Iron Valley Real Estate brokerage), as well as managing properties for out-of-state investors from New Jersey and New York.
“I learned from my dad that real estate is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” Rick says. “It’s about buying homes that make sense and doing it slowly and methodically.”
While in his early thirties, Santiago Martinez was an Olympic standard wrestler representing his native Colombia when he got his real estate license and began to scale rapidly. He amassed 41 units in four years (he previously purchased six from 2016-2019), borrowing private money—”usually at 8% with three points on the back end”—then refinancing and building a team to oversee renovations and management.
Although his portfolio currently generates about $43,000 per month in gross rent and he has close to $3 million in equity, thanks to the Lehigh Valley’s rapid appreciation, Santiago hardly sees any cash flow because net profits are eaten up in paying his virtual team of four to five people and three full-time contractors and various subs.
“I scaled and built the portfolio and the equity but didn’t make money personally because the drip system I was using meant that there simply wasn’t extra cash after all my expenses,” Santiago says. “Now, I’ve changed my strategy. I’m looking to make an active income by flipping and paying down mortgages. The portfolio is great, and I got some great deals, so I’m happy I could scale when I did before the rates went up, but now it’s about making them cash flow.”
Both Rick and Santiago benefitted from the Lehigh Valley’s rapid increase in sales prices to build equity. Because he got in earlier, maintained a full-time job, and built his portfolio slowly, Rick could scale without any sleepless nights, generating equity and cash flow at the same time.
Meanwhile, Santiago’s rapid scaling is a testament to his networking, determination, and risk tolerance. It hasn’t been easy or without stress, as he readily admits, but his trade-off has been equity and doors rather than cash flow, which is no small feat. The next phase of his investment strategy is about paying down debt and realizing his portfolio’s tremendous cash flow potential.
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Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.