We’ve ended up with a much safer retirement nest egg than we had worried about before quitting our jobs. Why? Partly, because just after I left my real job and entered the world of financial freedom, I “bought” myself a side gig. It was 2011 and real estate was on sale everywhere. Even crazy, leaky, old, falling apart places with great possibilities to someone just crazy enough to try it. Like me!
I was reminiscing about this when I was reading a recent blog post by DocG at DiverseFI called Safe Withdrawal Rates: Why We Are Kidding Ourselves. Check it out. It’s about how people in the personal finance community are the type who can’t help making money after trying to “stop working”. It happens. We are a productive lot.
For me, I just enjoy trying a variety of things and I’ve always had an interest in home design projects and tricking my husband Matt into joining me (translation: he does most of the work and I just dream about it all). This was one of those dreams.
But because Matt was still working for another couple of years, I actually did a lot of the manual labor. And I got in pretty deep. Really deep, as you’ll soon see.
Getting In Deep
I found this house in Lodi. Yes, that is the town made famous as Stuck In Lodi Again. My first offer was $87,000, nearly the entire asking price. A great buy for a 3 bedroom 2 bath place in an emerging wine region just up the road from our house. But we got it for $84,000 because we had cash. Oh, and probably because during the inspection, we found a major plumbing problem that explained why the main water supply to the house was shut off. We got it turned on briefly to see water gushing all over the back patio due to a break somewhere unknown. The house was in foreclosure and they weren’t looking for a buyer who needed a mortgage.
Ok, I’m not Paula Pant and I didn’t know formulas to figure out whether we should invest in this property. So I started calculating and I thought I could probably rent it for around $1200/month, so a budget of about $36,000 would bring my investment to $120,000. Subtracting costs for insurance and property taxes, I was thinking this could be something like a 10% return on my investment.
Recently I found a much better way to analyze real estate return. It was part of a post the Big ERN wrote about your house being an investment. He has a spreadsheet that calculates the Internal Rate of Return, or IRR. It’s a really great resource. Okay, it’s years later now, but I downloaded it to an Excel spreadsheet just to see what it would have shown if I had used it at the time. Entering the numbers I hoped for — to spend $120,000 — then my IRR would have been 9.7%. I wasn’t too far off. Of course, being an engineer, I knew that all projects cost twice as much and take 4 times longer than you plan, but….
That huge investment return motivated me. Not just that, but most of our investments are in the stock market, whether those are in IRAs or after-tax accounts. This property could bring diversification and in addition, it would be a hedge against inflation. That would be great.
My biggest excitement came from the kitchen though. I have to admit it. I loved the possibilities of remodeling this kitchen.
While many other people were “underwater” on their homes at that time, we quickly found ourselves under water with every facet of the house.
It started really great though. I got the water main repaired for only $1200. That made me feel really smart because I negotiated a $3000 reduction off my original offer when they disclosed that water issue.
But then the plumbers offered to do a free video scoping of the sewer line. Reason being? Homes built in the early 50s, following WWII often had this odd material called Orangeburg pipe, which is made from materials a bit like thick cardboard. Great. I could begin to hear that “ca-ching” sound for the first of many, many times!
That thread started getting pulled on and the next thing you know our backyard looked like an anthropology excavation site. And it was shortly after that when we realized we needed to re-plumb the entire house.
This turned into quite an adventure. Six months, pretty much. What all happened during this time?
The Police Report
One of the things we learned at the start was that the Lodi Police department gets involved with foreclosures and our property was sited for violations on the makeshift garage electrical work and the gas line to the house, which was gerryrigged in an odd attempt to have a laundry setup in the garage. The items on the police report forced us to do our work using a building permit. (Of course we planned to get one, right!)
What started with a single permit to correct the garage, expanded to three permits by the time we were done. These were all caused by plumbing.
One story that was funny involves how you don’t have to upgrade any item in on older house, but if you do upgrade it has to be to current code. Once we started on our third plumber and the new PEX plumbing lines were being routed overhead, we decided to put insulation and sheet rock on the ceilings, rather than keep the old open beam look.
But these beams were 6 inches thick. Current code required 12 inches of insulation. We had to choose between no insulation at all or we would have to redo all the beams to make them 12 inches deep. It seemed ridiculous that it was okay to have no insulation at all, but wrong to put in 6 inches. Crazy! So, I chose to have “no insulation”.
What this actually meant was that we had to wait for the inspector to approve our plumbing and then secretly put in the insulation before the sheet rock people arrived.
In order to not delay those workers, we got to do our work on Christmas Eve and Christmas!
The Gas Line Goes Last
It was a cold winter. This is California, but still, each morning as I opened up the house I would look at the indoor temperature, which was usually around 48 degrees. It was that cold because we could not hook up the gas line until the end of the final permit.
The reason is that any nailing or other construction might shake things up. So even though the gas line was one of the first things installed, it was going to be last on the list to complete. Buuuurrrr!
You Can Buy a Kitchen at IKEA for less than $5000
And it all fits in a little stack. I loved using IKEA. They have a great design tool with 3D views and you can click a button to print a parts list with prices. It was great for planning and fun to use.
I was lucky that there was a 20% off sale going on at the time, if you spent over $5000 on the purchase. I played around with that design tool, adding an appliance or faucet, until I got over that line. Then the actual cost ended up being $4700. Nice!
When it came time to make the purchase, it felt a little strange and exciting to walk up and get in line with people buying lamps and pillows. I found that contractors and other home flippers usually don’t go the IKEA route. Why? Too much labor cost.
But I was getting the labor for free.
Free Labor — Matt Took a Month of Vacation Time Off
Isn’t it “cool”?
I ended up traveling to our nearest IKEA in Sacramento three different times to correct flaws in a few little items on the parts list. That place is designed like a maze, perfect for most people in the rat race. And the kitchen area is in the upstairs back corner, the furthest possible location in the huge store.
But I love IKEA. Maybe because it rhymes with Idea!
Who would have ever guessed we would end up selecting a pricey countertop for a rental? But one of the guys we hired had a lot of buddies. He insisted we check into using a friend of his and purchasing granite at the outlet in Sacramento.
That turned out great. They make slabs with the bull nose already connected. You can choose left or right hand corners or straight. I was able to do the kitchen with just two slabs that ran $229. The installer charged us $650, so the total was only $879. Not too shabby for a newbie like myself.
In a Tight Spot, Peeling the Onion
Only to realize a short while later that all the walls were coming down. In the end, I thought the bathroom turned out really nice. But it was a long time coming.
One of the craziest parts of the house was the “crawl” space. There was only one spot down the main hall that wasn’t vaulted. That one area was just the length of the hallway into the bedrooms, about two feet high, most of that filled up with the heater ducts. Luckily Matt is thin, very fit, and totally a do-it-yourselfer.
He got himself into that attic crawl space, probably about 10 different times, to put in overhead lighting in the bedrooms and add ground wires to the electrical outlets. I would be down below with a flashlight or voltmeter, yelling so he could hear and help guide him in the latest attempt to feed something through the little space into one of the ceiling openings.
And then there was the night that he dropped his favorite hammer and it went into the “abyss”, falling down one of the hallway walls, probably never to be seen again. But we know it’s there!
You can see Matt in most of the pictures. There are only a couple of photos of me during the long hours I spent while he was still at his day job (only for another 2 years though!). Here’s some of the things I did during my six month adventure:
- Set tile on the backsplash and replaced broken floor tiles
- Bleached and recolored all the floor grout
- Painted every wall, 15 new doors and all the new moldings
- Stained and finished the front and back doors
- Got on the roof to coat the gas line and check the new shingles
- Installed all new vent covers and electrical plates
- Went to Lowe’s and Home Depot possibly over 100 times
- Cleaned all the water stained windows
I hired all the contractors, developed a great relationship with the hauling guy, brushed up on my high school Spanish, and learned to humor the Building Inspector.
Some of the contractors were overpriced. Especially the ones I found at the beginning of the project. I got better at a lot of things as we went along, but when I saw what seasoned flippers were doing, I knew I was out of my league.
All in all, I got a great education.
ZZZZZ — Sleeping on the Job
Toward the end we moved in. Sort of. All we really needed was an air bed and a barbeque.
Oh, and our little bird friend, Sterling. Yeah, we have a 22 year old Senegal Parrot, and she got to come too. In fact, she started copying some of the sound effects she learned on the job. She learned almost as much as we did!
What happened that created a self-imposed deadline? I found a tenant, a little early than we were ready. Actually, I was shopping (evil — yes, evil — I was in a deprived need for retail therapy). I met the store manager at our local Coldwater Creek and got to chatting. Next thing you know, she wanted to come by and check the place out.
When she saw what we had done with the house, she wanted to move in. After six months of work, I was anxious to wrap things up. Oh, and start collecting some MONEY. That’s what this was all about, wasn’t it????????? Hey, sometimes shopping works out ok, right. 😉
Before or After?
I am not sure how to label these “final” pictures. They are the photos after the project was finally complete. But in a way they are the before pictures.
Before tenants, that is. It was satisfying and fun. As I like to say about most of the jobs I’ve ever done,
We had a million dollars worth of fun, but didn’t want a dime more!
Yeah, it was a job. Nice and temporary. Looking back, it was well worth it. Especially “net worth” it.
I went over budget. Big surprise, huh? All totaled, the projects cost $51,000. With the original $84,000 purchase price, I had $135,000 invested. So going back to the original IRR spreadsheet, how did it work out?
Using the calculator, it amounts to just over 9% return on investment. Better actually, because the spreadsheet expects a 2% price appreciation per year. Real Estate in our area has skyrocketed since 2011. Here is the current Zillow overview:
One of the beauties is that the property tax is so low. Even in 2018, after 7 years, the assessed value is just $90,910. Property tax is one of the few taxes that are cheap in California, but in our case it was even lower. In spite of 3 building permits with extensive work, they didn’t reassess the house because we didn’t add on. Technically they could have, but according to a friend who works as a county assessor, they don’t like to adjust for remodeling. Even something pretty massive like this.
All in all, it has turned out to be a good investment. We have had just 2 tenants so far and they have kept the place in good condition. The cash flow has been a key to not touching any of our investment accounts for income. So far. We expect to have repairs as the years pass, but rebuilding the majority of the home has kept the fix-it list really short.
Now our biggest problem is how to avoid the coming Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from our IRAs if we haven’t started moving money out before we each turn 70. Figuring out how to hack that item is my next “job”! Tricky for us, as we keep our income somewhat low in order to take the Obamacare subsidy. The subject of an upcoming post, for sure, so stay tuned!