3 Mistakes I’ve Made as a Real Estate Investing Newbie

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Mistakes and Lessons of a Real Estate Investing NewbieI’ve learned that real estate rental property can be one of the best methods of passive income.  Instead of putting all your eggs in one basket with the stock market, you can set yourself up with steady rental income that can last a lifetime.  Additionally, you pick up some tax benefits and might even get some appreciation off the properties as some icing on the cake.

Because of that, I’m starting to chase this a little more.  However, I’ve also made some mistakes as a newer investor.  The good news is that if you’re a newbie as well, maybe my mistakes and lessons I’ve gone through can be an opportunity for you to learn from them as well to avoid these same blunders.

No investor gets by without making mistakes – the key is to learn and grow from them.

If you’re not familiar with my experience in real estate investing, as of this writing, I currently own a single family rental house and a duplex that I purchased in 2015.  I bought that first house in 2003.  The game plan was to live there for a few years and fix it up and then move out and start renting it out.  Unfortunately, I fell victim to a big time mistake…


Mistake #1 – Location, location, location

The house was probably about a half hour south of my normal lay of the land growing up.  I had been to the area, but I didn’t know it well enough.  While I was living there, I quickly learned that this was a much lower class area than I had thought.  While living there, there were meth labs busts on neighboring streets and I realized it was not a place I (much less my wife) would ever walk down the street alone.

So, I changed the plans and after a short amount of time, my wife and I moved out of the house and tried to sell it… ever so unsuccessfully.  I then decided to go back to the plan of renting it out and, fortunately for us, we’ve been lucky and had a family in there for the past 7 years.

In the time since I moved out, there was a shooting in the street directly in front of the house by some punks, which, for whatever reason, didn’t spook the tenants from leaving.  Regardless, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, this is not one of those houses that followed the location, location, location mantra.

What I learned:

You need to 100% know the area where you plan to buy… period.  I was young and stupid when I bought the house and didn’t understand that (obviously!).  Since then, I’ve changed the area where I’m looking for real estate and found a couple great sweet spots that I know much better.  That’s where I made my subsequent purchase of the duplex and where I’ll be looking for future real estate purchases.


Mistake #2 – Not Understanding Cash flow

I made another newbie mistake thinking that my monthly cash flow was my rental income minus my mortgage payment.  Makes sense, right?  Nope.  I actually learned this one after I bought my duplex a couple months ago.  I’ve been learning a lot from the BiggerPockets podcasts and webinars recently and this was a topic that has been discussed on several occasions and was a real eye opener for me.  In other words, there are plenty of other expenses that you need to take into consideration other than just the mortgage: taxes, insurance, repairs, vacancies, long-term capital expenditures (you’ll need a new roof someday!), etc.  And this is just scratching the surface – here’s a great article that helps you to figure out what your cash flow really is.

My rental house is not a good cash flow property – I about break even when everything is said and done (and that doesn’t even count saving for CapEx items like saving for a new roof).  Lucky for me, I will have it paid off in a handful of years and then the cash flow will be really good.  In the meantime, I try to look at it from the perspective that the tenant paying off the house for me, so that’s not so bad.

On the duplex, my financial mentor had helped me vet it and even with my previous misunderstanding of the formula, my cash flow is good.

What I learned:

Your cash flow can make or break you.  If you don’t do the math correctly, you can easily start breaking the bank on expenses – not something you want on an investment property.  The good thing is that rental properties are a numbers game and you can actually get a pretty accurate idea of what your cash flow will be even before you buy the property.

There are plenty of good calculators to help you figure out your cash flow.  BiggerPockets’ calculator is pretty nice though – however, you can only try it for free.  If you want to use it on a regular basis, you would need to become a Plus or Pro member.  This will run you either $90 (Plus) or $290 (Pro) a year – I haven’t made the jump yet, but when I’m ready to start looking for my next duplex, I think the investment will make sense (there are a bunch of other benefits you get as well!).


Mistake #3 – Complacency

When I read Rich Dad’s Prophecy probably around the year 2002, my world changed… I finally got it.  You can sit around and follow the same day in and day out (time to make the donuts!) or you can make something happen.  So here’s the thing – I made something happen.  I bought that first house the year after I read that book and eventually started renting it out.

But then I stopped.  Life happened.  I got promoted at work.  My wife and I got married.  We bought a house.  We had a baby.

Here’s the problem – if you just ride the waves and don’t hustle in your free time, nothing changes.

When I actually took a few minutes and looked back and realized that I had only bought one rental house since I read the Rich Dad book, it was a new wake up call.  That’s why I stopped thinking and started doing.  That’s when I bought the duplex.

What I learned:

So here’s the deal – and this might be the most important takeaway from this article – I know a lot of people who have an interest in real estate but are too scared to make the jump and convince themselves that it’s a bad investment.  And some people want to understand and analyze everything before jumping in.  The problem with this is that you’ll never know everything and this can keep you from ever doing it.  I was actually part of this latter group – even though I had purchased the house and rented it out, I wanted to understand everything better before buying the next one… and that ended up costing me another 12 years where I could have purchased several other properties!

A way to help get past this is to set goals for yourself.  I’ve always scoffed about writing out goals – that’s just a lot of blah, blah, blah hype.  I’m here to tell you that I still don’t write my down goals in a notebook or anything, but this blog has definitely made me a lot more accountable so I don’t look like a fool in front of you guys!  😉

As of this writing, I’m leaving my job in just over 9 years.  That really doesn’t leave me a ton of time.  However, I don’t want to look back once I’ve left my W2 income behind and not have any new purchased rental properties.  My goal is to get another two multifamily properties before I leave my job… maybe three if things really start rolling.  That isn’t a tremendous amount of time, but I think it’s a fairly reasonable goal to give the dust a little time to settle from the duplex I just bought, buy another, let the dust settle again, and then get another.

This should play directly into my aha moment and make my financial freedom even less reliant on the money I have in the stock market.


What I Did Right – Living First in Your Rental Property

Ok, so I’ve made some mistakes, but I thought I would share with you something smart that I did… but not necessarily on purpose.  When I bought my first house in 2003, my sole purpose was for it to be a rental property.  And then I did something smart – I lived in it first.

Why is that a big deal?  First of all, you’ll likely get better terms on your loan.  Loans for an investment property tend to have higher rates than rates for place you’ll be living.  You usually need to put a larger percentage down on a conventional loan for rental property as well.  To satisfy lender requirements though, you’ll need to live there for likely at least a year before leaving and renting it out.  I believe putting less down and getting a better rate has helped me to be in a position to get that loan paid off in just another handful of years.

As an added bonus, while I was living there, that was my house.  So while I worked on fixing it up, I wasn’t stressing that I had a place that was sitting empty with no tenants and a mortgage payment rolling in.  I was able to take my time and get it to where it needed to be before making it available.

If I had to do it all over again and was in my younger days, I would have purchased a duplex and rented out one side while living in the other.  Then I would have moved to another duplex and done the same thing.  On BiggerPockets, they call this House Hacking and can make you rich without a lot of the risk.  Now that I’m older and married with a child, I think I would have a hard time convincing my wife to do this.

Here’s the deal – just like anything else, you’re going to make mistakes as you start taking on something new.  The important thing is to be well-informed so you can help to minimize the mistakes.

Do you have any rental property and did you make any mistakes that you want to own up to? 🙂  If you don’t have any rental property, has this post helped or hindered any interest you might have had in going down that route?

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

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10 thoughts on “3 Mistakes I’ve Made as a Real Estate Investing Newbie”

  1. Hey there Jim. Good article about being aware and realistic about real estate investment. I have somewhat of a different take on your point #1, given that I live in an area where there are no adequately cash-flowing deals in five hundred miles in any direction. I think the corollary there when it comes to long-distance real estate is to research the area exhaustively, and to employ a team that you trust implicitly. To this day, I the cities where I invest, I can only generally speak to which areas are best, which are up-and-coming, and which are warzones… but where my knowledge is lacking, I have a team that is willing to warn me off, to encourage me to reconsider when I have unnecessarily written off a property, and to give me an honest assessment of the type of tenant and cashflow I can expect. Without them, I wouldn’t be nearly as profitable!

    1. That’s great that you have a good team to help you! I still need to work on building a solid team even though I’m doing local investing. I’ve been relying mostly on my financial mentors who have been a great asset. However, my one mentor is actually the one who recommended the area where my “war zone” house sits! He owned over 20 properties in that area at one time, but it was a lot different when he was invested there.

      Thanks for the insight!

      — Jim

  2. My biggest mistake is that I didn’t start early.

    I went right from a rented apartment to buying our first house. When we moved, we upgraded and essentially used up our equity to buy a bigger house.

    Now I’m pretty sure Ms. Financial Slacker wouldn’t be too thrilled selling our house and moving into a rental.

    My biggest challenge now is converting our investment portfolio into an income stream and real estate will probably be a component of that. But I have yet to take the plunge.

    1. Haha – my wife wouldn’t be big on moving back into a rental either to take one for the team and build up our finances! 🙂

      I’m late in the game to start building up a real estate portfolio, but I’m also very lucky to have a couple mentors who know the real estate investing game inside and out and that has helped tremendously. If you think you’re going to go down that path and don’t have a connection that knows that arena well, I would highly recommend getting involved in BiggerPockets. That has just been a wealth of solid information for me.

      — Jim

    1. Thanks, Tawcan – I’m far from the expert as I have a lot to learn on this as well. However, if I can give any advice, it’s to learn everything you can, but don’t try to become an expert from that alone. Sometimes you just need to jump in and get started. Listening to my old-man podcasts every day, I’ve come to realize that you even the guys who have been doing this forever and own hundreds or thousands of units are still learning something new all the time.

      — Jim

  3. Great article Jim!
    Definitely made the same mistakes as you and definitely agree that location location location is key.
    I purchased a duplex for $60k with an ROI of $1K a month, wow, what a steal! Only to realize that the location was the city’s slum area and after purchasing it, it took me about 3 months to get someone to be brave enough to rent it! Now I’m trying to sell it for $30K and there are no takers. So yeh, lessons for newbies:
    1. Get a realtor that really knows the area you’re interested in
    2. Pay a little more for a better location


    1. Thanks, Hubert! That’s definitely a tough lesson to learn. I really like real estate and I’m glad I didn’t bail after my first learning experience on the rental house.

      Hopefully you’re able to find a buyer on it soon and can find a deal in a better location.

      — Jim

    1. There are so many resources available though (books, BiggerPockets, etc.) to help educate you on real estate. Take some time to learn. You definitely want to know some of the major things to lookout for. But, you’ll never understand all the details until you just jump in and do it. Good luck!! The rewards have the potential to be great!

      — Jim

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