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How Justine Built her Real Estate Portfolio

Today, I’d like to feature Justine, a young real estate entrepreneur and licensed real estate agent in New York City.  She has built a portfolio of 4 apartments in 5 years.  She blogs at LiveWithPlum.com where she helps to empower other women to make educated decision on their home buying journey.  Justine is here today to tell us her story.  Do keep in mind that this is New York City, which is quite a unique market- cash flow is limited and property appreciation is rapid.  However, Justine brings up some very valuable points here that can be helpful in a lot of markets.  The Frugal Physician has no financial relationship with Live with Plum.   

Meet Justine

Hi everyone! I am Justine. I started Live With Plum after going through my own real estate journey and seeing how little resources there were for homebuyers, especially first-time home owners. Also, as a single millennial woman of color, there weren’t many stories that looked like mine even though we are a substantial and growing segment of homeowners in America.

In this article, I will discuss my own home buying journey of how I looked at real estate as part of my overall investment strategy.

First Unit- Start Small and Learn the Process

The first apartment I bought was at 25, right after I graduated from business school.   I was eager to lay down some roots after moving around too much previously. I had a short timeline (since I was uncomfortably couch surfing with friends) and a small budget since I had never bought a home and was slightly risk-averse. 

After weeks of exhaustive searching, I found a tiny 300 sqft studio in Gramercy and made a full price offer.

My thought process for this purchase was more like a primary residence, though I also took note of the investment opportunity. Over the years, I’ve come to see how most people, when prioritizing the criteria of their search, purchase only with an eye to live but don’t fully consider the investment side of it. I chose my unit because I wanted to live in it. But, I could see the potential future rental value.


I was also particular about the sublet policies since this was an apartment building, which meant it had a set of rules for owners to follow. In NYC, many apartments are cooperatives with strict rules towards subletting so it was a rare find to find one that allowed unlimited sublets after 2 years of primary residence.

My lesson learned from this first purchase was to understand the target market for the unit, in terms of who you will rent to and who you will sell to. The reason why the apartment was so cheap was because the unit was barely bigger than a walk-in closet.  But I knew that if I wanted to live there, then someone else of my similar background would also want to live there and it would not be a problem when selling or renting. I eventually rented this apartment out then sold it for a comfortable profit, both times to other single women seeking starter apartments, proving my hypothesis was right.

Second unit – Location is Half the Battle

I repeated many aspects of my first purchase for the second one, including making a modest purchase (by NYC standards) of a studio and again in a co-op building with a liberal sublet policy. The biggest difference was that this time I decided to purchase in an upcoming neighborhood instead of an already established one. Specifically, I purchased my unit in Hudson Yards which is now one of the largest areas of private real estate development in the United States by area. Though I had to live with the downsides of constant construction, I knew that was the hallmark of an area that will appreciate rapidly. 

With this purchase, I learned how to identify up and coming neighborhoods to invest in for the longer term. One way of doing this is understanding and investing where the commercial money is going. These development plans are made many years in advance and are public knowledge. For example, construction for Hudson Yards started in 2012, four years before I purchased my apartment, which still benefited from the appreciation. 

Third Unit – Keep Doing What Works

Following on with my investment strategy of identifying up and coming neighborhoods, I decided to search for a property in Jersey City which has lower dollar per square foot than NYC but is still relatively easy access via the Path train. My hypothesis was that over time, more people would seek cheaper pricing than NYC but still want access to it, thereby choosing to live in Jersey City.

This was the first time I purchased in a different state, which meant that I had to file taxes separately. While not a big deal in the long run, in hindsight, if you are not a full-time investor, it probably makes sense to keep everything as streamlined as possible in the same state. 

Fourth Unit – Taking on Bigger Risks

After completing 3 successful transactions, I was ready to take on more risks and purchased my largest property in 2019, which was a 3-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx. Area-wise, I kept with the hypothesis of rising neighborhoods but kept diversifying on the actual neighborhood. 

While I chose to live in this apartment, I decided to rent out 2 of the 3 bedrooms to create additional income. In the end, the rent (market rate) from my 2 tenants covered the mortgage and homeowner association fees for the apartment, so I ended up living for free through something commonly known as house hacking. 

I probably will not continue to have roommates in the long term as I get older and want more privacy, but this is a good way of living within your means in a high cost of living city.

Takeaways

When I reflect back on my journey, I am proud of the work I put in and absolutely believe that a successful investor is the product of experience and the willingness to test. My biggest lessons learned are:

  1. Start small and start early: If you are more risk averse at the start like I was, then start small but most importantly, just start

  2. Keep doing what works: Once you identify something that works for you, keep at it!

  3. Take risks along the way: Though I advocate to start small, once you have more experience, taking on more rick can bring higher rewards

  4. Enjoy the process: It will be a lot of work but remember to have fun along the way

Thanks for being here, Justine!

Stay Frugal, ya’ll!

Disha

Standard Disclaimer:  Not meant as individualized financial or medical advice. Cover photooto by Precondo CA on Unsplash             

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