Monthly Archives: September 2013

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Guest Post: The Awesome Magic of Investing Like An 8 Year Old

Howdy everyone! Pretired Nick here. Both Pretired Baby and I ended up getting sick this week so I’m a little behind on my writing. I have some fun pieces I’m working on, but propping myself up at the computer hasn’t felt like a lot of fun. Fortunately, Joe Saul-Sehy of the very well-regarded Stacking Benjamins web site and podcast graciously offered to write a post about investing. Since I don’t consider myself an expert on investing (except for maybe in real estate), I jumped at the chance. Here is his post. Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments and hopefully Pretired Baby and I will be back in action next week! 

The Awesome Magic of Investing Like You’re An 8 Year Old

“Money is not the most important thing in the world. Love is. Fortunately, I love money.”
– Jackie Mason

Image courtesy of arztsamui / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of arztsamui / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of the biggest complaints I hear about money management is, “I just can’t get into it” or “I’m really not into checking investments and statements.” It’s as if these people think that money management is something geeks sit around and do after they trade baseball stats and Magic the Gathering cards.

The simplicity of the financial markets surprised me. Previously, I’d assumed they were filled with magical investments that moved in ways I’d have trouble grasping. That wasn’t the case at all.

Really, it’s more like an eight-year-old kid and a bike. Remember learning to ride? You’d jump on and were terrified that you’d fall. The first several times you wobbled and your biggest nightmares came true — you fell. Then you realized that the price isn’t nearly as hard as the payoff. Riding a bike is awesome when you’re eight years old. It’s a no-brainer when you’re an adult.

Are You An 8 Year Old With Your Money?

When I began road biking seriously I asked a friend if he’d ever been hit by a car. He answered, “The question isn’t if you’re going to get hit… the question is when.”

Just like when riding a bike, it’s always better to think about the payoff than the hurt. Sadly, the media generally focuses on the roller coaster economy and on the downsides of investing (“the Dow Jones Industrial Average today…” …plummeted? When else do you use that word?). You need to reframe investing if you’re afraid so the payoff climbs to the top.

Here is what investors know:

  • There is no way to meet your goals without investing. Don’t think about the funds — think about them as fuel for those goals.
  • Falling down is a part of reaching happiness. How will you know the magic of success if the goal isn’t just a little dangerous and exciting?
  • By keeping that long term goal in mind, sure you might miss your mark, but look at all that you’ll achieve on the road to 95 percent of your hoped-for dream finish!

Your Investments And You

When I was in middle school I started saving for a bike. It had a saddlebag on the back and I was going to put a tent in the bag and ride it across the state.

When you want something badly, that’s where you begin. Not with “what can I do with these dollars?” Start with the bike you want. How much is it going to cost? How much will you need to put away to buy it by next spring?

It’s the same with pretirement, retirement, a new house, a sabbatical, whatever. How much will you need to live a year? What income can you count on? How much do you need to save to get there?

Pretirement, retirement, college, a new house — they all work better with this approach. If you want something special for yourself, start with the vision, translate that to money, and then do the simple math.

If you tell me, “I don’t like math”, I’ll tell you that, like investments, you need to look behind the weird formulas and instead focus on the giggles math can bring you. There’s an awesome power in knowing the answer to the question, “How much” for an adult. While a child will just get back up on the bike 1,000 times until they finally ride, an adult thrives on the answer to “How much pain before I’m secure.”

Once You’ve Answered How Much, You’re Nearly Home Free

I asked my mother, how much further? She answered, you’ll know when we get there. She was right every time.

Here’s the question: can you afford the cost of the bike? Is it currently possible for you to save enough money to get it by next spring? If not, now you have to ask an important question:

How can I lower my other expenses or raise enough revenue to get the bike? Maybe I have to cut out Big League Chew. Maybe I have to sell a little lemonade along the street for a few weeks. Maybe I can negotiate with mom for a bigger allowance. Whatever. Raise income or lower expenses — pretty easy, huh?

This makes shopping decisions easier. If I have no goals, I might accidentally shop at J. Crew. With goals, I become laser focused on my budget.

If your goal is big enough you know that you’ll need to invest your money. To get my big goal, I’m going to need an 8 percent return to make up for the money I can’t save.

….and that’s when the magic of investing happens

See what happens there? By the time I get to the investments, I could care less about them — except as fuel toward buying the bike. I know it’s going to take 8 percent to reach the bike goal, so guess what I’m going to do?

I’m going to search for investments that reach an 8 percent return with the least amount of risk.

It’s equally as important to recognize what I’m not gonna do. I’m not going to pay any attention to investments that pay 3 percent or those that pay 12 percent Think about how much work I saved myself, especially if I don’t really care about investments!

Now, when I get my statements, I know what the bottom line represents. Not some meaningless investment but my new bike, retirement, a new home, an education, whatever.

Less time, more fun, and with a bike at the end. What eight year old wouldn’t be happy with that approach?

Joe Saul-Sehy blogs about earning, saving and spending with a plan at Stacking Benjamins.com and is the cohost of the popular podcast series Stacking Benjamins. His first bike had a banana seat. Don’t be a hater about it. 

Now, tell us what you think! Does it help you to think like a kid when approaching your investments? Have you thought about investing like an 8 year old? Can you use this idea to help alleviate some of your fears? 

What is the best way to invest $100,000?

What would you do if someone handed you $100,000?
Do you think you know the best way to invest this money?

money3Americans have a unique challenge in life and have developed an adaptive skill that people from many other countries can barely even conceptualize. Although it’s a very real problem for we Americans, in many parts of the world they’d give almost anything to have this problem.

The problem: Too much choice.

The other day I spent 30 minutes looking around on Netflix for the movie that was an exact fit for my mood at that exact moment. We walk into our grocery stores and have to apply our well-honed, complex analytical skills to decide which cheese to purchase. Want cereal? Flakes or biscuit? Sweet or savory? Real sugar or HFCS? Should my eggs be cage-free or vegetarian fed? Both? But those are $6! Time to paint the living room? Choose from 10,000 unique shades of light brown! Whatever the choice of the moment might be, we in America spend a lot of our time wading through various buying choices and these choices are a reflection of our person and a projection of our aspirations.

I would flip through catalogs and wonder, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”
-Jack, Fight Club

If you’ve ever seen a recent immigrant shopping in an American supermarket, it can be fascinating. Often it’ll take them forever to make a decision as they carefully wade into this sea of decision-making. Those of us who have been running this gauntlet for some time now have built up resistance to the sensory overload that is a modern store. We can usually zip through using well-tread criteria and remain unscathed.

When it comes to deciding the best way to invest, it’s not always so easy

Since I recently sold my fourplex, I now have some investment funds to redeploy. After cleaning up some other financial loose ends, I’ll have about $100,000 to invest elsewhere. Getting to this point was easy compared to the next step of actually pulling the trigger. (Incidentally, the first step in getting organized in investing is to sign up for a free account with Personal Capital so you can get a handle on your current situation. You can learn more here.)

Like a freshly arrived Somalian’s first visit to a Seattle Safeway, I’ll admit to being somewhat overwhelmed by my options. So I turn to you, readers, to help me out. What’s your advice for someone with a chunk of change in his pocket?

I’ve been considering a few different options over the past few years I’ve been trying to sell the fourplex. Many of them I was completely ready to move on at various points but since I couldn’t access the funds, they never happened. Some of those ideas have been completely dismissed while others are still being considered.

A few of my favorites:

Is more real estate the best way to invest this money?

Real estate is like a drug, and I’m hopelessly addicted. I love how it’s in my control (mostly) and I love how it’s tangible. With my own effort, I can enhance a property to increase its value. During the depth of the real estate crash, I was licking my chops at some very underpriced single-family homes, particularly in the city of my birth, Vancouver, Wash. Check out the inventory! There are a ton of decent houses available for less than $200,000 right now. Using my funds and tapping our home’s HELOC fund, I could pay cash* for one of these babies. Hard to resist! Rents in that area are pretty low, at maybe $1,200/month for something pretty nice. I could basically earn a 5%+ yield (although surprises always await with real estate!) and potentially also get some additional gain from equity growth as the market improves in that area.

(Interesting side note about this area: A few months back I was looking at what kind of inventory was available and I noticed almost every listing’s status was “short sale pending”. Page after page of listings. Then I read about how companies like the Blackstone Group were buying in big to the single family housing market and renting the homes out. I’m pretty sure these big investment firms were single-handedly driving up the prices. If I could have sold my plex a couple years ago and pounced, I could have already made well over $100,000 down there.)

So if I get lucky, I could earn something close to what I could earn investing more traditionally PLUS there is the potential to hit another jackpot. If the economy got quite hot in the Portland-Vancouver area, a price increase of $50,000 to $100,000 isn’t out of the question. But if the economy was doing that well, a stock market investment could do quite well also.

On the other hand, if I get unlucky, just a few repairs could wipe out every year’s income. Or, even worse, I could get dragged into negativeland and would need to cough up cash to support the endeavor. Additionally, the sporadic, unreliable income is what made rentals so unappealing with my fourplex. If I’m only going to earn 5% or less, I’d better not have to take a bunch of annoying phone calls to get it.

If I went this route, I’d plan to hold for three years minimum, and hopefully five years maximum.  Hmmm…

What about REITs?

Instead of buying real estate that I have to personally deal with, buying Real Estate Investment Trust funds might be the best way to invest this money. These funds let you be invested in real estate and as an investor with others instead of holding the bag all by your lonesome. I have a few REITs already but hadn’t bought in further because I was already so deep in real estate. I’m still considering this direction.

Why not just buy individual Dividend stocks?

If you read my post on Dividend Mapping, you know I’m somewhat entranced by dividend stock investing. Yes, like any investment it carries some risk and has its own share of pros and cons. My favorite things about dividend stocks are that they’ll continue paying as normal whether the price goes up or down. From an income standpoint, it’s a little more “controlled” in the sense that the dividends drip in like clockwork, helping me avoid some of the wild swings of real estate. That stability alone is worth something to me after dealing with the roller coaster of real estate income over the past decade.

I’ve done a bit of looking around at what individual stocks I could pick up, in a modified version of Dividend Mapping. Really it’s closer to creating my own mini mutual funds. I’m pretty happy with my selections so far. I found some stocks that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed that I really like. So why not just buy in? Well, my track record of buying anything outside of a fund is atrocious. You know how it always rains after you wash your car? That’s how it is with me and stocks. I used to joke to my friends that they’d better sell because I was buying in, thereby guaranteeing a drop. Yes, it’s been that bad. So that eats at me when I consider pulling the trigger.

Could a good ol’ fashioned Vanguard fund be the best way to invest?

In what is probably the simplest approach, I could just buy into one or more Vanguard funds, such as the Total Stock Market Index (VTSMX). They are tried and true and in some ways this would be the lowest risk approach. They also have some managed payout funds that I haven’t really looked into yet. Probably the smartest thing to do from a traditional investing perspective would be the classic combination of total stock market, bonds, some international, etc. to provide the diversity needed down the line.

So on the plus side, there are solid, relatively safe investments available. On the negative side, I’ve felt like we’re overdue for a market correction and buying in now would almost guarantee it! If the market took a fairly big dip, that would certainly make my decision easier.

How about a combo platter?

Naturally combining several different approaches is often the best way to go. It gives you good solid diversity and also lets you catch a wave if a particular sector takes off. But what combination?

I could also dollar-cost-average my way in to some of these choices to protect myself from a sudden drop, but that entails leaving a big sum of money uninvested.

So how do I decide on the best way to invest this money?

I’ve (obviously) never been a very skillful investor. I did well investing in myself (education and career learning) and I got lucky more than once. My lack of confidence in market investing pushed me toward real estate and I was fortunate that my timing coincided with a low interest rate era that caused a big housing spike.

The interesting thing about my current conundrum is that had I received the same amount of money over a number of years, it would be much easier to decide where to put it. It’s the Power of the Chunk in action! Get a big chunk all at once, the stakes immediately seem much higher! Taking a big hit in the market would hurt much more after dropping in a big sum of money than it would before I was using it as income and when it was just a collection of smaller investments (if you follow me).

So here I am, looking at my various options, thinking about what to do next. I can tend to be an over-analyzer and the waiting carries its own danger as well. I’ll be sure to let you know what I decide!

What do you think? What is the best way to invest $100,000? What would you do if someone stopped by your house and handed you a check for $100,000?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. And if anyone wants to write a guest post on this topic, send me a note through the contact form. I think it’d be great to have a few different voices weigh in on this topic. 

*Paying cash isn’t my first choice, but last time I checked, the credit market was so tight that getting a loan was near impossible even though I wouldn’t be using my income from working to pay for it even if I had a job. It might be possible these days, but I haven’t looked into it. 

Pretirement story: Planning a move to Spain

Hey, everybody, today I’m sharing a guest post from Buck, the writer behind one of my favorite blogs, Bucking the Trend. One of my favorite things to do on Pretired.org is share interesting stories of pretirement, such as the recent story of my friend Rebecca who gave up her fancy corporate job to move to Mexico

Buck is planning to pack up his family and move to Spain and is well into the planning and preparation stage. Read on for his story and be sure to share your thoughts and advice for Buck in the comments! 

Introduction

buck-spain

Earlier this summer, Pretired Nick and I were comparing notes.  We share a goal of living abroad with our families and he asked if I’d do a guest post.  This is the latest on our story.

The tagline on my blog says “Save. Invest. Retire @ 42. Move family to Spain.”  If everything were to go exactly as planned, we would reach our goal in the year 2017 or thereabouts.  We all know things rarely go “as planned” but it’s good to set goals, right?

This was the plan up until about a month ago when my wife and I decided to turn everything on its ear.  The tagline should now read “Save. Invest. Pretire in 2014. Move family to Spain.”

The Goal

For as long as my wife and I have been married, we’ve had a goal of living abroad.  We tried to navigate our careers so that we could live and work in a place other than the U.S. but the stars just never aligned to allow us to do it.

Our plans were put on hold with the birth of our twin boys a little over 8 years ago. Now that they’ve grown and we have some money in the bank, we’ve been able to rekindle our dream to include the entire family.

Our goal is to move and immerse ourselves in a Spanish-speaking country for at least one year starting in June 2014. The following are some of the questions we’ve asked ourselves that have led us to this decision.

Why?

I went on my first trip abroad during my sophomore year in college. And while it was only a month-long whirlwind tour through some parts of Western Europe, I returned with a new appreciation of different cultures.  It also struck me how most everyone we met that was close to my age was able to speak English – at worst in a conversational way, at best with an authentic British accent.

I learned that many countries teach English at very young ages, most at the start of any sort of formal schooling around age 5. I thought this was wonderful and vowed to give my kids the gift of bilingualism and the time to take in a different culture and all the things that go with that (language, food, people, sites, etc.) I think this experience will go a long way into making our sons more well-rounded.

Why Now?

Like many big decisions in life, there is rarely the perfect time to do something like this.  The more relevant question when I first brought it up with the wife was why not now?

As we evaluated our original plan of waiting another 4 years to move, we started seeing bigger issues that would potentially be roadblocks. Two of the bigger considerations were:

  • Age of our boys. The twins just started 2nd grade and the thought of waiting until they were nearly teenagers seemed like it would be more impactful both from a schooling and social perspective.
  • Age of our boys’ grandparents. We are very fortunate to have both sets of grandparents with us. Everyone is in relatively good health but with ages already in their early-to-mid 70s, no one is getting any younger. To wait another 4 years to make this move would push the elder grandparents closer to their 80s. Besides, I think they are excited to have a new place to visit their kids and grandchildren as well.

Why Spain?

Because our twins are in their third year of a Spanish-English dual language immersion program at their school, it’s only logical that we seek out living in a Spanish-speaking country. This experience should cement their fluency in the language.

While we have several target countries in mind (most of which are in South America), Spain remains #1 on our list.  I spent some time studying and working in Madrid nearly two decades ago and my wife and I have been back a couple of times since. There is something about the Spanish lifestyle that appeals to us and I suspect it has something to do with siestas, jamón serrano, and the nearly 3,000 hours of sunshine that pours down on southern Spain every year.

How?

You know how most personal finance blogs at one point or another always mention the word ‘freedom’ that financial independence brings?

While we aren’t yet financially independent, we’re taking advantage of the freedom that our savings has enabled. We’ve fully funded our tax-advantaged retirement and are diligently saving almost everything going forward in cash to be able to qualify for the needed visa. More on this in the next section.

To get into some specifics, we have about $90K in taxable investments and another $50K in cash that is more than enough float us for a year or two while abroad.

As long as we don’t end up in one of Spain’s larger cities (Madrid or Barcelona), it appears that living in Spain may actually be cheaper than our current location in the U.S. Rents in Andalucía appear to be reasonable and my goal is to live in a town/city center where we can walk or bike as part of our daily routine without the need for a car.

Next Steps

At this point, we have a lot more questions than answers and are glad to have the better part of 9 months to put a plan in place and make it a reality. The following are the most immediate to-dos at the moment.

  • Visas – Figuring out the needed visas is the first priority. We’re leaning toward applying for a non-lucrative visa. This is a one-year visa typically granted to retirees who have ample savings (or passive income) to support themselves.  This visa does not allow you to work in Spain. We’ve done our best to save enough money to live on for a period of time that I’m hoping we can qualify.

While I haven’t found it spelled out in black and white, it seems the magic number is around $85K in savings plus an additional $15K needed for each dependent. If my math is correct, that means our family will need to prove a savings of around $130K to be able to qualify for this type of visa.

  • Schools – Apparently there are three main options when it comes to schooling in Spain:  public, semi-private, and private. We need to determine which option we can afford and which is going to be best for our boys given our goals (to learn the language and culture).
  • Immersion – Even though we have the luxury of not working, I still think it is important that my wife and I find ways to become part of the community. To this end, I’ve found several programs that hire native English speakers to be part-time language assistants in schools around the country. I’m thinking this may help us get some immediate contacts in the area that may be more difficult to obtain on our own.
  • Stuff – What are we going to do with our house and all the stuff it contains? Since we plan to return back to the U.S. at some point, the current thought is to rent out our house and put anything we want to keep in storage.

Fears

As with anything new, we have our list of fears and unknowns. Will we miss our friends? Will we hate it? Will we love it? Will we ever come back? (That last one is my mom’s fear and not necessarily mine).

Admittedly, this prospect “terrifies the bejeezus” out of my wife (her words). But at the same time she is up for the challenge and equates her fear to the nerves and anxiety that our children regularly have to face, but which we avoid as adults. It seems only fair that we should also be put in uncomfortable situations in the name of growth and new experiences.

Thanks for reading. If there is anyone out there who may have a bit of advice for us about Spain or any other Spanish-speaking country that you think should warrant our time in research, please comment or reach out to me directly via the Contact form on my blog. ¡Muchas gracias!

Pretired Nick here again. Well, what do you all think? Is Buck on the right track? Any advice for him as he plans this move? I was in Spain a couple years ago and also fell in love with the country. When I researched a move to Spain I found very challenging visa issues and a barely functioning bureaucracy to complicate matters even further. Buck has a lot of these issues figured out already and I know I can’t wait to read the posts when he packs up and makes his move to Spain!

Also, for anyone else considering a move to Spain, I do highly recommend the book Moon Living Abroad in Spain (affiliate link). I read it from cover-to-cover when I was seriously looking at making the same move. Although my plans to move to Spain are on hold, I still highly recommend this book.

How (not) to sell a fourplex — Part II: Angry Bird Boogaloo

How to sell a fourplex — the lessons learned

Angry BirdsWelcome to Part II of my saga on how to sell a fourplex.

In the last episode we learned how I went from mid-level, average pay employee to suddenly relatively wealthy in a very short time period. Having grown up as a dirt-poor farm boy, I was desperate to not blow my opportunity. I put some of my windfall into two fourplexes, one of which I sold some time ago. When we last left our story, it was spring and I had just received an offer on my fourplex. 

After years of trying, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: A legitimate offer from a well-funded buyer who was already pre-approved and ready to go. The offer wasn’t for full price, reflecting the current buyers’ market. But I’d raised my price by $20,000 over the previous year’s selling price so I was still in great shape. I assumed there would be some requested repairs but my starting place was so much better than the prior year.

I was also much smarter about the preparation on the front-end this time. My realtor and I met my property manager at the building and did a walk-through to try and catch any obvious surprises that might scare away a potential buyer. I hadn’t actually been to the site in years and was hoping to never see it in-person again, but there I was, once again smelling that distinct aroma that for some reason only rentals give off.

Why would I sell?

My reason for selling was half emotional and half practical. I could make a convincing argument for holding it or for selling it just depending on how I looked at things.

The practical side:

  • I had been theoretically living off this income since I left my last corporate hellscape. Unfortunately the maintenance costs had been running very high (mostly due to various improvements aimed at selling it).
  • I was at the point where the kitchens and bathrooms needed a major overhaul if I was going to keep it. At at least $5,000 for each, that’s $40,000 more I’d need to invest in the building. And that’s if I did the work. And I couldn’t really even do that myself right now while I take care of Pretired Baby so I’d really need to pay someone to do it for me, dragging the price even higher. It’d take awhile to make that back. If I was honest, it really should be completely replumbed and rewired as well. Essentially the building was reaching the end of its useful life. Nothing really “wrong,” just basically wearing out.
  • Now that I was in a place where it was becoming possible to sell it, I began looking around at other investment opportunities. When I did the math on what I could earn by reinvesting my money elsewhere, I could clearly do better or at least as well in another avenue. Additionally I was watching some great single family homes go for dirt cheap. (I missed out on the best deals already because I couldn’t get my funds out of this property.) I did my best to look at the situation dispassionately: If I were a ruthless corporate holding company, would I continue to invest in and hold an under-performing business unit? Or would I eventually cut my losses and reallocate the funds in a better performing place?
  • The clincher: aluminum wiring. The building was built in the 1970s, which was the source of nearly all its headaches. Now I advise people to avoid buying anything built in the ’70s, but before I was such a brilliant person I blundered into buying something built during this cursed decade. There are many problems directly related to the cheap construction of this era, but the worst one was the aluminum wiring. Now electricians will tell you that aluminum wiring isn’t necessarily “unsafe”, especially if it’s maintained correctly. Its two main problems are that aluminum expands and contracts at a higher rate than copper, causing connections to loosen over the years, and, more importantly, it doesn’t mix well with copper, which is what you’ll find in every electrical device  you can buy. The mixed connections will heat up and can even cause a fire. So while it wasn’t an imminent danger and I always took very good care of the electrical system, it was always a worry.

The emotional side:

  • Like I said the building needed significant modernization if it was to remain a viable rental. They were pretty nice units as rentals in this sector of the market go, but beyond just being a little rough around the edges, they really needed to be brought up to modern standards. And I was just sick of dealing with them.
  • Tenant hassles. Although I fortunately didn’t have to deal with tenants directly, I was still dealing indirectly with all the stupid nonsense that takes place. And even when it wasn’t extra costs due to a renter throwing their trash outside instead of actually putting it into a garbage can, it was someone not paying their rent or bringing in a prohibited pet cat and stinking up the place.
  • Even beyond the aforementioned aluminum wiring, every year (especially around christmas) there were occasional news reports of a tenant burning down an apartment building. The most common cause seemed to be overloaded electrical outlets (multiple extension cords and plug expanders on one outlet) followed by smoking or candles. I never had any problems, but I was always worried about a tenant doing something stupid.
  • Although the cashflow was normally good, it never failed that a big repair would coincide with a vacancy. So while the building did OK on a yearly basis, it wasn’t exactly a reliable stream of income.
  • Feeling trapped. While I’m still a big believer in real estate investing and find it actually pretty hard to lose money with real estate, it’s obviously not very liquid. When the market took a big downturn, I was salivating at the cheap stocks and houses for sale but I didn’t have the free cash to pounce. Frustrating!

So after putting my doubts to rest, I decided at minimum I was in the win-win situation. Either I’d sell and reallocate my money to some place more lucrative, or I’d hold it and pocket another year’s rent. Which is why I now found myself walking through my units after all these years, trying to see them through the eyes of a potential buyer.

Actually, the place was in great shape. The best shape it’d been in since it was built, probably. There wasn’t much to request. I asked for some dirt to be evened out in the backyard, a new light fixture cover, a few other minor repairs, but generally there wasn’t much to complain about. The roof was brand new, fixed the prior year after some potential buyers complained it was feeling soft (it was due anyway). I replaced the gutters and brought in fresh bark to spiff up the street view. There were still some signs that birds had been accessing some areas in the attic space and I asked the property manager to have someone come out and seal that up a little better.

After my walk-through, I had to think about it a bit. Did I really want to sell? After all, it looked like something I’d consider buying today, even knowing what I know. Maybe I should hold another year and pocket a little more rent? After all the market could run up another year or even have a nice jump. But in the end, I knew my reasoning was sound and even if I could squeeze a little more money out of it by waiting another year, I knew I was done.

An offer — immediately

We polished up the listing paperwork, threw it out on the internet.  My realtor was very nervous about my strategy of raising the price so substantially (we’d be the highest-priced fourplex in the area and hardly anything had been selling). But I wanted to present a show of strength — I wasn’t a short-sale. I didn’t need to sell at all. Buy a great building at a fair price, people!

Well, imagine our surprise when an offer came through right away. A little below my asking price, but still higher than I’d tried to sell it for the year before. And it was clean. The buyer’s realtor boasted of his clients “business sophistication” and how well-funded he was. We accepted the offer and braced ourselves for the inspection phase.

It was some time around this point when I was informed that one of the tenants wasn’t paying and couldn’t be reached. So it was time to launch an eviction process on top of everything else.

Anything that involves gaining access to the interior of a rented unit takes a lot longer than you think it would. You either have to work around tenant schedules or you have to post legal notice and wait a couple days to get access. Plus I now had a wildcard. Would the tenant simply be gone or would there be a stubborn refusal to cooperate? Would the unit be destroyed in the middle of this transaction? Would the buyer walk away?

So it was nearly a week later that we got the inspection response back from the buyer. And the response was they wanted further inspection. The roof apparently still seemed soft in a few places (even though it was brand-new). They wanted to cut holes in the upper units to gain access to the attic space — WTF?

Would I ever close?

There were no attic access panels in my building at all — something I’d never noticed or thought about before. In retrospect, it was a little surprising that the inspector didn’t notice that when I bought it. I greatly dreaded letting someone cut into my ceiling. For one, who knows what they’d find? Did a $50,000 problem lurk up there unbeknownst to me? The unit where the cutting-in would need to be done would be in a unit where a new tenant had just moved in. How annoyed would this tenant be with the noise and drywall dust? Plus, I felt terrible that I’d have to disrupt this poor person’s life again.

In the end, however, I decided it was reasonable that a buyer want to look up there. After all, if I said no, they’d assume I was hiding something, so I acquiesced.

Now in the 1970s, developers here in the Seattle area tried to replicate a lucrative strategy from California. It was pretty simple: Build a lot of cheap housing and flip the buildings off to hungry investors. Unfortunately they also tried replicating the construction techniques, the silliest of which was a flat roof design. One thing you might have heard about the Seattle area is that we have this thing called “rain” here. Sometimes a lot of it. In the area where my property was located you get a ton of it.

Once the inspector peeked up into my attic, we learned that my building had once been a flat-roof construction and the sloped part was added later as sort of a superstructure sitting on the top. Worse, the inspector felt it was flimsy and had even been built with scrap materials. Naturally the buyers acted as if this was an extreme hazard (even though the building had already lived through 40 years of rain, snow and wind without any problems). They demanded it be rebuilt to modern code. This was a big problem because not only would it cause big delays and be expensive, but the tenant impacts could be significant.

Additionally they reported there were STILL BIRDS living in the attic.

So we managed to talk them into a credit for the roof so that we could close sooner (ouch!). We sent the contractor back out AGAIN to deal with the birds. He did some additional sealing and assured us that this time it was definitely all sealed up.

Feeling like we were finally in good shape, the buyers did another reinspection and quite indignantly told us several items hadn’t been completed. Aaaarggh! Worse, they said the building still had birds penetrating the structure and what were we trying to pull?

Our contractor went back out once again and did find one spot where there still some birds. They were babies and in a corner where he couldn’t reach. He could seal them up inside, but we none of us wanted to do that. He agreed to leave a gap so the cheeping babies could escape when they were old enough and told the buyers we weren’t baby bird killers so that would have to be good enough.

A wackjob realtor

Early on in the process I began to get the sense that buyer’s agent wasn’t playing with a full deck. The tone of his emails were disproportionately indignant and there was always a lot of complaining that his buyer was “taking all the risk”. Worse, he became increasingly dishonest, abusive and rude. On top of that we experienced occasional passive-aggressive behavior where he wouldn’t respond to emails and calls from my agent and wouldn’t rationally discuss how to work through the various issues to reach a closing. Somehow we had blundered into a deal with a nightmare opposing realtor.

As the months rolled by, I began to regret not listening to my instincts. I should have canceled out of this deal as soon as I realized I was dealing with an unprofessional nutjob.

I am a very good negotiating partner. Having taken negotiation training, I go into all my deals knowing my walk-away point and work cooperatively with my opposing partner to reach agreement. If we can’t reach agreement, it’s based on our interests not being aligned and both sides typically walk away feeling OK about the interaction. So I was willing to accept nearly any reasonable request. After months of dealing with this psycho, however, I told my realtor I was done. If they asked for even $100 more the answer was no and I would flush the deal. I had completely had it.

Fortunately(?) my realtor was able to talk me down and held things together and we finally reached the point where all sides were satisfied and we were on to the closing.

Just one hurdle left: the birds. Would they be satisfied with our plan? To make everything extra legit, I had a pest control company go out and tell us what should be done. They suggested some additional screening be added on top of what the contractor had done. So once again, we had him go out and seal up the building, leaving a gap so the baby birds could escape when they were old enough. Everyone finally seemed satisfied.

I’m brushing over a lot of detail and back-and-forth that took place. It was endless. I lost track of how many close-date extensions I signed, but it was several. But finally, we just had to wait for the closing paperwork from the lender to come through and we’d be there. Just a few more days.

I got the invite to sign papers. My wife and I went out to an expensive dinner to celebrate and I started to relax.

D’oh!

As you might expect, the dinner was premature. The next day, I got a call from my realtor. “I hope you didn’t crack open that bottle of wine yet,” he said. There was a hold-up on the lender side. Turns out my brilliant, well-qualified, “business-savvy” buyer thought it’d be a really good idea to buy another house right in the middle of our close. Um, what?

The lenders had to re-analyze the situation. We signed another extension. And waited. I started thinking about next steps in the event we didn’t close. I’d need to fill the vacant unit asap. Since summer was now nearly over, I could keep it listed, but it’d be unlikely to get another offer before winter kicked in so I began thinking about rehabbing the units.

Finally the call came in: the lender was still going to make the loan, but they would have to redraw the paperwork. Because it would put us past the 15th of the month, I’d need to make another mortgage payment (which should be refunded back to me later). Annoying!

In the meantime, the contractor swung by, noticed the baby birds had flown away, and sealed up the final gap in the building.

Finally the day came. It sounded like the paperwork would be processed by noon and we should be closed by 3 p.m. Amazing! I kept my phone handy all day, frequently checking my phone to make sure I was still signed in to Google Voice (see my lower cell phone bill project for background!) Then the call: No, I wasn’t closing. The lending paperwork wasn’t in yet and could be another week. At this point, I pretty much gave up. If it closes, fine, if it doesn’t, whatever. I. Was. So. Done.

But the next week, the call I was waiting for came in from escrow: the deal was closed. The paperwork arrived via email later that day.

That night I slept the long, deep sleep of the relieved and awoke to a shiny summer morning. A cool breeze was blowing in the window and everything felt clean and carefree.

The next day I called my property manager to let him know we no longer owned the building. He sounded relieved after months of hassle. “That’s good timing,” he said. “I just got off the phone with a tenant. Her shower isn’t working. I’ll let the new owner know.”

Postscript: lessons learned

Looking back, I can now see I made many errors throughout the ordeal, many of which were caused by my emotional desire to move on with my life. Fortunately I was in the win-win position where I was OK if we sold and OK if we didn’t sell. Here are a few of the lessons I learned, just in case it helps anyone else down the road:

  • Don’t be bullied. I’ve always found the best way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them (they’re nearly always so stunned someone is saying no that they collapse immediately). But in this case my posture was too accommodating. I wanted to be helpful, transparent and honest. They took advantage of my attitude and I should have put a stop to their craziness long before I finally did.
  • Say no to stupid requests. One of my dumber blunders was agreeing to do the sewer inspection for them. I just agreed to it without thinking, since it seemed like a small thing. Later I was like, “Why the hell am I doing their inspections for them?” I knew better and fumbled right into that one. I’m sure the buyer got a good laugh out of that one. Fortunately for me, my realtor agreed it was a blunder and he picked up the tab for that.
  • Make sure tenants are stable before you list. We were very close to having an empty unit filled when we decided to list. The vacant unit made for a nice convenience since the prospective buyer could view the empty unit and make sure they were fine with the basic set-up before making an offer and requesting access to the other units. However in the midst of the sale process, another tenant stopped paying, triggering an eviction. That meant the buyer would be buying a half-empty unit, sending up all kinds of red flags. In my case they buyer wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand the potential impacts, but it could have been a major problem. Most worrying for me, was that the lender could actually hold up the deal until all units were full. In the end, it was just an additional stress point, but it didn’t have any real impact. The buyer asked us to fill the unit where the eviction had taken place and we in turn asked if they had a lease they wanted us to use or if they wanted to review the potential renters first. They never responded to our questions on that so the building actually closed with just three units full.
  • Place time limits. Earlier on I should have realized they were just toying with me, signed a final two-week extension and let them suck it. But I kept playing along until the very end.
  • Refuse additional inspection. Now for something reasonable, I think it’s only fair to allow further inspection. But my building had been operating just fine for 40 years without issue. To allow someone to cut into a tenant’s unit to look for trouble was a bad idea. I should have refused. They may have backed out of the deal, but I would have been left then with a sane buyer or another year of rent.
  • Pre-inspect your own building. It wouldn’t have saved me from a ton of hassle in my case, but I could have avoided a few glitches by hiring my own inspector first. I think it’s definitely a good idea.
  • Hire a local realtor who knows the area and who knows multifamily. I love my realtor and I especially like that he knows how to hold deals together, but his distance from the property did create some hassle and if he’d been local he would have known the buyer’s agent was a loon and we could have avoided a mess early-on. He also didn’t have a ton of multifamily experience. That was OK but it could have been helpful if he had a little more savvy in that area.
  • Don’t deal with crazy. In the latter years of my working career, I pretty much just stopped dealing with crazy people (which is harder than it sounds given that at least 30% of the workforce is basically nuts). I should have backed away once I saw I was dealing with a crazy person. Instead I tried to fight through it, causing myself all kinds of stress.

Maybe one of these days I’ll write up some advice on owning rentals in general. But hopefully if anyone out there is looking to sell a fourplex, some of this advice will be helpful.

Let me know what you think! How badly did I botch this deal? What else could I have done differently? 

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