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Today, we have a guest post from Benjamin Davis, who runs the show at From Cents to Retirement, a blog where he reports his steps towards financial freedom. He published his first book, My Strategy to Retire Early, earlier this year. Sadly, he developed a debilitating, chronic disease while doing his PhD and decided to retire early. He is committed to grow his real estate portfolio to 100 rental units before he turns 35 and turn From Cents To Retirement into a reference blog for early retirement, inspiring others with his story.
My story is pretty simple to wrap up: in 2013 I developed CFS – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – and I started to believe I could not work for much longer. Just so you have an idea, I felt tired all the time, and I had random dizzy spells and pain throughout my body. Being tired all the time was the killer, though. It was natural for me to think I could not work much longer. I decided to do something about it, and I started to educate myself financially, reading over 100 books on personal finances and investment in general. I usually post summaries of the books on my blog (for instance, check out the Rich Dad Poor Dad summary). My goal is to retire by the time I am 33, and I estimated I had to generate about $2500 net per month (in today’s dollars). I chose Portugal to retire because I grew up there and because it offers a phenomenal quality of life.
After educating myself financially, I decided to go the Real Estate route. There were a few reasons for me to choose Real Estate: 1) I actually got pretty good at finding good Real Estate deals, 2) the stock market seemed too volatile at the time, 3) I had great references of Real Estate, from other people and other bloggers.
How I Started It
Being a PhD in applied math, you can imagine that becoming a landlord was one of the last things that crossed my mind. You can probably relate to this – as a reader of Mustard Seed Money, you may have invested or consider to invest in Real Estate.
After I considered to invest, I saw the merits of Real Estate right away. I spent a long time looking for the right deal and I submitted over 30 offers to get my first offer accepted. I ended up buying a small 2-bedroom condo all cash, which turned out to be a great first investment because it gave me status I needed to negotiate with banks the mortgages that followed.
Like I said, I started with a condo, but soon after I moved to multi-units. Most cities in Portugal have the so-called “historical center” and they grew around that. In the “historical center” you find properties that can be 2 centuries old. Most of these properties are multi-unit buildings. I found that Real Estate like this sells quite low, because the common homeowner doesn’t think of buying these – first, they prefer to buy new Real Estate, second the typical homeowner doesn’t think of a multi-unit as his/her home. However, these properties rent quite well – to students (as universities are usually close to the center), nurses, lawyers and young couples in general. I simply embraced this market and I never looked back…
My Current MO in Real Estate
As with any business, I like to feel I am creating value for people. This should the basis of any business, in or out of Real Estate. I love to buy distressed properties (typically I get better deals on these properties – even considering the renovation budget – than on properties that can be rented out right away). My favorite thing to do is take an ugly, distressed property and turn it into something amazing I would personally like to live in:
You also find bright tones (white and gray) all across my properties:
As a scientist, I got to travel all around the world during my PhD. I flew to many different countries and stayed at 5-star hotels. That gave me the chance to see many cool renovations and fancy rooms. I sort of try to do the same in my own properties, using medium-chain materials. I actually post often on how to improve your Real Estate business with this sort of hacks – if you are into Real Estate, check out my blog and list posts under the tag “Real Estate”.
Many hacks are easy to replicate. For example, you can renovate a shower with regular tiles and then easily (and cheaply) add a “shampoo window” like this:
You won’t pay more than $30 or $40 for it, but I am sure the shower will look incredibly more appealing with that hack.
All my 4 properties (14 units total) were bought way undervalue. The key thing I specialized in was to look for properties that sat in the market for a long time. Those are my favorite ones because most owners are more receptive to negotiate. I also targeted properties that are second homes and belong to immigrants. Usually, when an immigrant lists a property he/she is more receptive as well.
Since I started, I followed the “buy low, rent high” model. Yet, I try to have slightly above average properties, for slightly below market price. Therefore, to rent high, I focus on multi-units. In Portugal, buying a 4-plex is definitely not 4 times more expensive than buying a single property. This way, I achieve very juicy yields. On the other hand, I specialized in distressed properties I could buy at least 50% below the market price. I can’t really explain all the methods I use, but at the end of the day, it comes down to (1) very good contacts among real estate agents (I typically buy them a beer and tell them how serious of a buyer I am – should the right deal pop up), (2) good negotiation skills and (3) an ability to lock great deals fast (I try to hold onto cash as much as I can). These properties can yield all the way from 10% to 25% a year (and I am talking about yield – not cash on cash returns).
I am a complete real estate junkie and I’ve read so many books solely on Real Estate that I care to remember. I publish free resources and free books on Real Estate often. If you are a landlord yourself, check out my blog for tips on land lording.
My Other Real Estate Business
Since I started to buy Real Estate, I’ve been commenting on many forums besides publishing on my blog. I’ve been approached by all types of investors, all over the world. While I wrote my book “My strategy to retire early” to answer questions about retiring early and how I plan to do it, I found myself spending days answering e-mails from investors interested in Real Estate. Some investors were attracted to the yields I offered, while others were simply interested in diversifying. Portugal is actually a great market for diversification because it is pretty cheap… You can pretty much start investing in Portugal for as little as €55,000.
Eventually, I set up a financial consulting firm which specializes in Real Estate investments. This company actually became instrumental for me to retire early. 95% of my clients are foreigners, and at least 60% are Americans. Since the beginning of the year, one product has gained considerable traction: long-term, ensured-return investments. I work closely with a company that rents out homes from investors (for X) to sub-lease them to real tenants (for Y > X). The cool thing about this is that they offer 8-16 year leasing contracts and they manage the properties so that it is a 100% passive investment for investors. What I do is to come up with a list of properties that are adequate to this sub-leasing model, and a financial analysis for each of the properties. Then, I take care of the entire process for investors, from setting up accounts to get approved for mortgages – if need be, working closely with lawyers, banks and real estate agents.
Should you be interested in passive, ensured-return real estate investments in Portugal (starting from €55,000 – roughly $65,500), shoot me an e-mail at email@example.com.
A Projection for My Real Estate Portfolio for the Next 3 Years
While my plan to retire early involves a diversified portfolio, real estate will always be the backbone of my investments. Because I believe I will have at least 75-85% of my net worth in Real Estate. Therefore, I am projecting a Real Estate portfolio that is sufficient to retire off of. I plan to hit €670,000 (about $774,000) in net worth until December 2018 and one million dollars by December 2019.
I plan to continue to acquire multi-unit properties in four/five cities in Portugal until my portfolio pays my fixed expenses. My focus will continue to be distressed properties, that can be bought at 50%-80% discount. These are usually properties that need to be rehabbed and yield nice numbers. To hit $775k, I will need to double my current portfolio. I plan to have the capital to do that by saving aggressively, together with my rental income and my businesses. By December 2018, I expect to have a monthly income of $4500, and at least $7000/mo by December 2019. I expect my portfolio to evolve as follows:
What Will I Do After I “Retire”?
Financial freedom won’t mean stopping for me, even having to cope with CFS. However, I will live a very different lifestyle, including:
- Blogging. I will post more often and invite people to post with me and create top-quality articles. I would like From Cents To Retirement to become a reference for Early Retirement (especially through Real Estate). My main goal is to inspire as many people as possible.
- Going into nature more often. I love to be into nature, hiking and jump into a waterfall if I find one. Portugal is such a nice place to do this…
- Write more books. Last year, I published my first book but I am working on a few more. Maybe I can publish a book every quarter or so, once I retire.
- Grow my consulting business to a massive Real Estate project, across the Portuguese coast. I’d love to continue to work with investors from all over the world, as I do now. I’d also like to work on awesome projects that deliver a ton of value to people while outputting juicy yields.
- Mentoring other people. I never really had a mentor and I had to figure things out from scratch. I feel that there is a lot of struggle out there and it doesn’t have to be that way.