Austin Real Estate Investing Not Always Profitable

investing in real estate

Sylvia and I just sold a couple of acreage lots that we purchased in Oak Hill back in Feb 2007. For those who remember, Austin’s real estate market was still running full tilt in early 2007. I bought three lots in a new subdivision, we built a new custom home on one of them and moved in, and held the other two for investment.

The Original Plan – what was suppose to happen 
We bought the lots directly from the developer for around $85K and $90K each. I figured they would be worth $150K or more within the following year or two. The house we built, which we really didn’t need but which I though would be a good investment, cost about $475K to build turnkey, including lot purchase. It appraised for $610K when we closed the loan, which I thought was a bit high, but nevertheless I figured the value would appreciate to over $700K within two 2 years. We’d sell it, take the tax free capital gains, and buy again in Westlake near the high school.

I think of this strategy as “laddering up”, whereby each successive home purchase/build and move-up results in tax free income and an increase in net worth. Others I know have done this with “slow flips”, buying fixers and staying the required 2 years while renovating, then capturing the tax free capital gain and reinvesting into the next home. Over time, this is a powerful formula.

On paper, this all made sense. The home we’d lived in prior and sold to build this one was built in 2003 on another lot we’d owned since 1999, and it had appreciated nicely. Because of our convoluted tax system, there was a sizeable capital gain profit to be taken tax free on the sale of that one. Those proceeds were dumped into the new one to start a new two-year clock ticking. Any home you sell that you’ve owner-occupied for at least 2 of the past 5 years is not subject to capital gains tax upon sale, so in an appreciating Austin real estate market, moving often can actually be a wealth building strategy and a way to earn tax free capital gains.

What Actually Happened
The plan didn’t work out as expected.

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Austin Fence Dramas – Dealing With Unreasonable Neighbors

Austin Fence

Most homes in Austin have fenced back yards. Most fences are built on the property line. The standard wood fence lasts about 8-15 years before it needs replacing (less if it’s a cheap starter home fence).

Usually, when replacement is needed, reasonable neighbors work it out and get it done, sharing materials and labor in a way agreeable to both, depending on who gets the “good” side and who wants the fence the most. Ideally, this is just an old fashioned handshake agreement and all goes well, and both neighbors are happy with the result.

But often things don’t go well. It only takes one unreasonable neighbor to make things difficult. Having managed and owned rentals in Austin for 20+ years, I’ve had many more “fence encounters” the past three months alone than most Austinites will encounter in 2 decades. What have I learned? … there are some very weird Austin kooks out there when it comes to dealing with fence issues.

Scenario #1 – Petulant ManBoy Brat and his Parents, Fiancee and Great Dane
I own a duplex in South Austin. I use to own the duplex next door as well. I purchased both in 1999 and sold one in 2003, keeping the other. There had never been a fence between the two duplexes, though there had always been fences along the surrounding lot lines in back and the outer sides. I’ve never rented to tenants with pets at the duplex, so I never needed or wanted a fence for each individual yard.

At some point, the new owner next door, without my knowledge or permission, installed a chain-link fence connecting the front corners of the two duplexes, thus creating a large combined “shared” fenced yard in back encompassing the back yard of my Unit B and their Unit A. Apparently, the tenant (daughter of the owner) asked my tenant at the time if it would be ok for them to have a dog. My tenant, as I’m told by the neighbor, said it would be ok. I never knew of this. Besides, the tenant wasn’t the proper person to ask as they don’t own the property.

Recently my new tenant reported to me ongoing problems with the neighbor, now the owner’s son, and dogs roaming the back yard, crapping in it, and making the yard a health hazard for her small kids because of all the dung.

At this point, and perhaps I expect too much of people, one would think:

A) Good pet owners don’t let their dogs run loose and crap in their neighbor’s yard.

B) it should take no more than a simple request to keep someone else’s dogs off my property.

That’s not how it went.

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Staying in Touch with Past Clients without being a Pest

One of the toughest things to balance as an Austin Realtor is finding the right frequency and methods for staying in touch with our past clients. On the one hand, we have the National Association of Realtor (NAR) surveys of buyers and sellers showing that over 90% of real estate consumers never hear from their Realtor again after closing.

Wow! This, in an industry where repeat business and referrals are extremely important to succeeding, is amazing. Clearly most Realtors drop the ball on “after the sale” follow up.

At the other extreme are those Realtors who follow up too much. Consider the quote from this Inman article titled “Is your real estate client a friend?“:

“There are salespeople out there who have inserted themselves into my life with constant contact, and I don’t seem to be able to get rid of them. They put themselves into my online conversations and follow me everywhere. Once we get onto their mailing list we can never get off”.

As my teenage daughters would say, “Eww, creepy”. I know what the author means. I’ve met mortgage and insurance people at industry events such as “lunch and learns”, we exchange cards, and next thing you know I’m receiving regular automated email newsletters and junk mail, getting followed on Twitter and Friend Requested on Facebook and LinkedIn.

None of those “connections” makes me more likely to become a customer or referral source. And in these instances, I’m not even a client or past client.  That said, I do receive follow-ups and “just touching base” calls and annual birthday and/or holiday communications from various vendors, and I do value those follow-ups. But the weekly email newsletters from the mortgage gal I met just once at a Realtor lunch? Not valuable or useful in an way.

Sylvia and I don’t generally seek out clients online and try to “Friend” them or otherwise get connected. Many “Social Networking for Realtors” workshop classes encourage this as a lead building strategy and as a way to stay in touch and “connected”. No thanks. Feels too creepy. They should title those classes “how to be super annoying and bother people”.

The exception is for the clients who actually do become real off-line friends as a result of the real estate transaction, or for those who initiate the connection with us themselves.

So, for an Austin Realtor, what is the right mix and balance of staying in touch with past clients without bugging them or becoming a creepy Social Networking Stalker?

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Austin Buyers and Sellers-How Much is a Dollar Worth to You?

image of a dollar

Last year I made (saved) $120 by spending 3 minutes on the telephone. All I did was call Sheraton Hotel in Seattle and say “I’d like to convert my reservation to the internet rate“. A couple of minutes later it was done. No fuss about it. I then paid $30 less per night during our 4 night stay, saving me $120 plus whatever the taxes would have been on the extra $120, so probably more like $150. That paid for all of mine and Sylvia’s dining out.

Why didn’t I make the original reservation with the internet rate? Because the “internet rate” is non-refundable and is charged to the credit card immediately. The “normal” reservation is refundable and you don’t pay until you stay. A lot can happen in the two or three months between a hotel reservation and an arrival, so paying in full months in advance, and having it be non-refundable, just isn’t the best way to manage your travel expenses. The smart-money thing to do is make a fully refundable hotel reservation and convert it just prior to your arrival, thereby receiving the benefits of a refundable reservation at the discounted non-refundable price.

I use this example because so much of our modern money management efforts require knowing stuff and doing something extra as a result of what you know. Prices that seem “cheaper” are often not, especially in the airline and hotel industry when you factor in the risk value of up front non-refundable charges. And they gloss over that small detail that when you make the reservation (and/or you don’t read the fine print). You have to know about it, or learn about it the unfortunate way, when life circumstances force the cancellation of a trip.

I bring up this topic because so many real estate consumers get bogged down in the infinitesimally small cost factors of buying and owning a home, as if the homes we live in are the only source of expenses and savings in life. And, as American consumers, we often remain blissfully unaware of the multitude of simple things that can be done daily to, as Clark Howard puts it, save more, spend less, and avoid being ripped off.

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Dear AT&T, I Received Your Love Letter

Goodbye AT&T

Dear AT&T,

Thank you for the nice letter you sent me after I terminated my business phone service with you and switched to Ring Central. I had no idea I was such a coveted customer. You did such a good job of fooling me into thinking I wasn’t important through your nearly 20 years of abuse and poor customer service. Wow, you really did love me though. I guess the joke’s on me, you stinker!

The outside front of the envelope containing your love letter to me has printed in large-font blue lettering “We miss you already“. Awe, shucks. Really? I’m blushing. Immediately below that is something that you had heretofore not shared with me, “How about Broadband and Unlimited Nationwide Calling, now starting at $60/month*? Plus, a one-on-one business consultation. Details inside”.

Wow, if I knew you had such a great offer that you weren’t telling me about, I would have left sooner! As soon as my goosebumps settled, I opened the letter to be greeted with more love. “We want you back”. I especially like how, after almost 20 years as a loyal customer, I’m affectionately known to you as “Dear Business Customer”.

But the overwhelming amount of goodness is ladled on even thicker in the rest of the letter.

You invite me to “Come back today and get it All for Less. Now starting at $60 a month”, and you say that I can “have everything you need and nothing I don’t”. Fancy words. Very enticing.

But here’s the thing, AT&T. You truly do suck, and you always have.

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Renting to Those Displaced by Austin Fires

Steiner Ranch Fire
Steiner Ranch Fire

I’ve received a couple of calls already from agents trying to help folks displaced by the recent fires in and around Austin, including the Steiner Ranch fire and the fires in Bastrop. I currently have one vacant home ready for move-in, and would be more than happy to place new tenants in it immediately. But thus far, in both cases, the agents representing the tenants wanted me to cut corners and make accomodations that would violate my fiduciary responsibility to my client. This presents a tough quandry.

Should fire victims be granted a more lenient and expedited approval process than non-victims?
Yes and no. Property Managers who decide to waive requirements such as credit check and criminal background search and who otherwise might think it “good hearted” to skip certain parts of the application and verification process could be exposing themselves and their owners to greater liability in the event the tenant doesn’t pan out. More on that below.

On the other hand, I see no reason why we, as professionaly property managers, can’t expedite the processing and make reasonable, defensible accomodations should we receive an application from a displaced fire victim. But one agent I just spoke with basically wanted me to say whether or not I’d approve the application before it’s even brought in. I can’t do that. All I can say is that I’ll try to make it work, but it’s still going to have to be brought in and processed like any other application.

But here are some examples of what I think would be reasonable accomodation.

No Picture ID
We require a copy of a picture ID with every application. What if the applicant’s purse, wallet and all identification documentation got burned up in the house?

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