Real Estate vs Stocks: A Real-Life Look at Returns

by Joel - Published July 10, 2020

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There will always be a hot conversation in the personal finance community about investing in real estate vs stocks. I do both, so today I’m gonna share details about two of my long-term retirement assets.

Asset #1 is a Rollover IRA account. The balance is about $109k. Asset #2 is a buy-and-hold rental property I’ve owned for five years. Coincidentally, it’s also worth about $109k!

Although both of these investments are worth almost exactly the same amount as of today, they’re in different asset classes, have different risks, and one is a passive investment while the other is constantly managed.

Over time, I think it’ll be fun to track their individual growth side by side and see which one we might be able to call the “better investment” in the long run.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter to me which one outperforms the other because I already own both and will hold them for the long term regardless. But I hope it’ll be an interesting journey for you to follow and help answer some questions … and maybe help me prove out an overall hypothesis. More on that below!

(Also, note that anytime I use the words “me, my, I, or mine” about these investments, I really mean “ours.” All of the assets I talk about are co-owned by my wifey!)

Asset #1: Index Funds in a Rollover IRA

I have an IRA account with Fidelity. The money inside this account is a result of two past employer 401k programs. When I left these old employers, the 401k funds were rolled over into this regular IRA account. I haven’t touched or contributed to this account since I left my last employer two years ago, and because I don’t have a current 401k plan, I won’t be contributing more to this rollover account for a long while — the initial investment amounts are on their own to appreciate for now.

The current balance (as of 7/1/2020) is $109,602. 

This is invested entirely in a total stock market index fund, which gives me a diversified portfolio without any of the work of creating one. The balance represents about 1,250 shares of FSKAX. (For you Vanguard lovers, this is Fidelity’s equivalent to VTSAX). All dividends are set up to automatically reinvest in the fund, and it will all compound over time.

I’m anticipating that this account will grow at an average rate of about 9% per year if left untouched. Only time will tell what the actual returns will end up being — nobody can predict the future in stock investing! I’m assuming this 9% growth rate based on historical returns and not taking any inflation into account.

The thing I love about index fund investing is there’s no effort involved. It’s a set-and-forget stock investment that doesn’t take any physical or mental energy to maintain. I wish I invested more in the stock market earlier, but I only moved to the USA 12 years ago and was late to learning the 401k game!

Asset #2: A Buy-and-Hold Rental Property in Texas

In mid-2015, I bought my first out-of-state rental property in Texas. It took about 10 months of research before finding and closing on this place, and it’s been a steady little wealth grower ever since. This property is cash flow positive, with incoming rents exceeding the outgoing expenses.

The property is worth about $220k right now. Between the latest tax-assessed value ($220k), comparable properties in the area (values range between $180k to $250k), and my local real estate agent’s “feelings,” a $220k valuation seems like a fair market price.

I have an outstanding mortgage of -$123,708 for this property as well as an emergency fund checking account with $13,334 sitting in cash. All of the rental income is deposited into this checking account, and all of the expenses are taken out of it.

All in all, this asset is currently worth $109,626.

Real Estate Property Growth Potential

Growth for this rental is a little harder to project. It’s also extremely boring to research and write about (at least for me) … so for now, I’ll oversimplify it by breaking down the growth into three categories.

This rental makes money three ways:

1. Loan pay-down. Because the tenants are covering my mortgage payment, there is a small amount of the loan balance being paid down each year. This year in 2020, the loan balance will go down by about $2,820.

2. Positive cash flow. This property brings in $1,975 of rental income each month but has expenses of about $1,750. So that’s about $225 of positive monthly cash flow, or $2,700 per year. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, but this is the average.

3. Appreciation. Over time, real estate prices in the area should rise, and this house should be worth more and more. My best guess is that it will increase by about 2% per year. Of all the assumptions I’m making, this is probably the biggest. There are a million reasons why property prices become more expensive — faster in one housing market, slower in another — and my way to calculate this was very conservative. My guess (and minimum hope) is that this property will appreciate at the same rate as general inflation.

In total, I estimate this property will increase by $2,820 (loan paydown) + $2,700 (cashflow) + 2% of property value for this year. Which is about $9,920 this year.

Since my current equity is $109,626, this puts the growth rate at around 9% (return divided by equity). This return % will float up and down a little year by year, but at this time, it’s my best estimate of future growth.

Tracking Real Estate vs Stocks Over Time, Comparisons, and Questions I’m Pondering …

So we have two completely different assets, both currently worth about $109,600, and both hopefully growing at about 9% per year. Let’s forget about tax and capital gains for a moment … Here are some things I’m wondering:

  • If left untouched, will they both be worth the same amount in 10 years? What about 20 or 30 years?

Maybe, but probably not. Because the index funds involve zero management, the return will be whatever it turns out to be. There’s not much I can do to affect the price of the overall stock market.

For the rental property, there is a lot I can personally do to affect the returns. I can raise rents, refinance the loan, negotiate expenses, make profitable upgrades to the property, etc. All of these things might deliver me a higher return.

On the flip side, if I neglected or poorly managed the rental property, I could drive my profits into the ground. Many a new real estate investor believes his rental properties are passive income investments and accidentally lets his profit slip away over time. He doesn’t realize that future returns depend on his ongoing actions.

  • Which one will outperform the other?

Only time will tell. I will certainly try my best to make sure the rental property is managed correctly. But I truly have no idea which will grow faster. (And capital gains tax will have a major effect if and when I decide to sell either of these assets.)

  • If the real estate investment outpaces the IRA, will the excess growth be worth all the hassle/time/risk that goes into managing the investment property?

This question keeps me up at night.

Let’s say I bust my balls and manage the rental property like a rockstar for the next 10 years. After years of staying diligent and efficient, I might achieve a 10% annual growth rate instead of my projected 9%. Over 10 years, the difference between 9% and 10% is an additional $25k in value.

Is this extra $25k worth all the risk and monthly hassle that goes into managing a rental property for 10 years? What if the difference was only $10k? Honestly, I don’t really think the extra $ is worth it. Rental properties are hard work. Plus, if I ever sell the place, it could cost me $25k in commissions and transaction costs just to sell it!

  • If I can achieve “similar” returns in index funds vs. the rental property over the long run, why invest in real estate in the first place?

Back in my 20’s, I was hungry to make money and passionate about real estate. If there was a choice between a simple path and a hard path to build wealth, I would choose the hard path. (I have a subconscious philosophy that choosing the harder routes in life is more rewarding, even if you fail.)

But now, as I mature more and learn about risk-adjusted returns, I’m feeling that the simpler path to wealth might be a better choice. Why make it harder than it has to be?

While I am still pro-real estate investing, I’m hesitant to blatantly advise others to go out and buy rentals willy nilly, without fully understanding the long-term commitment and ongoing hard work of owning an income property. That’s an investment strategy I don’t endorse!

Real Estate vs Stocks … Let’s See How Things Grow Over Time!

I hope that tracking both these assets publicly will help give you some insight into the different ways index funds and rental real estate property can help you build wealth over time. Also, I’ll do my best to talk about the *effort* that goes into managing residential real estate as an investment and share stories along the way.

We’ve had a whacky 2020 so far, which is making the stock market do weird things. The real estate market is also being affected, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens the next few years.

More to come on all this. If you’ve got any questions for now, throw them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer!

Cheers!
Joel

*Image by Nattanan Kanchanaprat

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Backpack Finance July 10, 2020 at 6:22 am

For me to dip my toes into real estate investing, the returns have to be really higher than the stocks. Significantly higher. Can I achieve that? Yes, of course. However not where I live and not even in my country. That would mean venturing out globally, researching night and day, probably making a shit ton of mistakes in the beginning and only then seeing the fruits of my labor. I’ll skip for now and stay with stocks.

In the foreseeable future I can only see myself purchasing a primary residence to enjoy. Everyone knows this is a pure emotional purchase and I don’t expect any money to be made here.

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2 Joel July 10, 2020 at 11:53 am

Great mindset. Yes also buying overseas means different taxes, LLC’s, currency conversion rates, and other local partnerships needed. Maybe even travel to/from the area. I would say skip it and focus on the simpler path. :)

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3 Timias July 10, 2020 at 10:08 am

Joel, thanks for sharing information about your assets and in particular your real estate investments. Real estate is definitely more intensive than an index fund. I believe in diversifying your income sources which is why real estate is a great addition to index fund investing. If the market is down and you have real estate assets, you can pull income from those assets and give your portfolio time to rebound.

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4 Joel July 10, 2020 at 11:56 am

Thanks Timias. That’s mostly why i’m remaining invested in both paper and physical assets. Diversification helps me feel better when the stock market goes up and down, and same with the rental going up and down month over month. Cheers!

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5 no one important July 10, 2020 at 10:20 am

Anecdotal story: I bought a duplex in 1982 for $70,000. Thee first five years or so were tough with the cash flow and DIY maintenance, barely paid for itself.

Flash forward to the present day, it’s paid off and I have it managed by a separate company. I get a do-not-reply email once a month stating that approx $1500 has been deposited to my checking account. The property is now worth about $220K. Taxes, ins, maint is about 5K/year.

Yes, when I sell it I’ll have a lot of capital gains to account for, but the ROI over 30+ years, has gotta be decent…

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6 Joel July 10, 2020 at 11:59 am

It can take a long while for real estate assets to “stabilize”. Rentals are definitely a long term play.

Love the fact also that as you get older and own the place longer, it automatically turns into a dividend paying investment. Cash deposits regularly without you having to sell anything. I hope to hold this rental (it’s also a duplex) for as long as you have had yours! Cheers for sharing Mr. no one important :)

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7 J July 10, 2020 at 10:23 am

I’m looking forward to these comparisons. I’m still trying to decide if I want to go through the hassle of being a landlord or not, and it is a decision that can become a reality in the near term. I own my first house outright (as of July 2019), and I’ve been contemplating moving to another neighborhood that will enable more of the lifestyle that my husband and I are looking for. But in my area it would be almost stupid to sell a house that I bought at the price point I bought it for given what housing is worth now. Even in this downturn the market for homes is competitive, and likely to remain so for the quite some time. But the thought of risking my home by getting stuck with a renter that refuses to pay and that I can’t evict while I foot all the bills is completely untenable to me. So for now, I’m trying to stay put. Plus, there are the questions of what happens tax-wise if I were to have to transfer the property into an LLC. The minute I do that I lose any chance for the homestead exemption if I were to decide that renting it out isn’t for me and sell the house. Waiting a year or two to do the transfer also technically puts my own assets at risk. So….questions. Looking forward to the new series.

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8 Joel July 10, 2020 at 12:03 pm

There’s no rush, and no harm in waiting. Congrats on owning it outright – that’s already a huge accomplishment.

As for being a landlord, there are property mgmt companies that can help. That’s what I use. But, don’t underestimate the work involve in ‘managing the manager’ :).

As for the LLC thingy… You can always buy umbrella insurance for asset protection. Something to consider maybe?

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9 J July 13, 2020 at 6:27 pm

Umbrella insurance might not be a bad thought for the first few years (until I would no longer be qualified for the homestead exemption), but it will depend on whether or not the policy would cover rental tenants. I know we were looking into it a little for when my husband was starting to think about taking more side jobs relating to rigging and other odds and ends for performance arts clients, but I don’t think we ever found one that would cover it. So I think they might be picky in this state. But I’m going to file that tip away as a good possibility. The other benefit with having the property in an LLC is if I wanted to use a management company and be more anonymous no one would be able to tell who owned the property and where they actually lived using our city/county website. You also mentioned in a comment below that many rentals are only really profitable for 1-3 years and fade off after that. I would love it if you included why that was in your next article on the topic. Thanks.

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10 Joel July 14, 2020 at 10:10 am

Yep, anonymity is a great benefit of an LLC.

As for more profitability in early years of ownership… This is mainly due to purchasing at a discount, increasing rents which brings a higher market value, or forcing appreciation with repairs/upgrades. These activities boost the ROI right pretty quickly. But, once a property has reached it’s max potential, the return will slow down. There’s only so much manual “boost” an investor can give a property before it has to rely on it’s fundamentals to for growth.

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11 Spike July 10, 2020 at 10:30 am

With what COVID is doing to the economy, it will be hard to predict the winner. Stocks are manipulated tools and many expect the market to experience a large correction. If we go into recession, real estate prices will go down, dramatically in some areas. The only real answers I’ve found — and perhaps the answers going forward for a time — is diversification of investments and consolidation/elimination of debts.

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12 Joel July 10, 2020 at 12:07 pm

Yep, it’s tough to predict. That’s why i think this will be a good case study, even though they are contrasting assets. If there is a stock market correction soon, the real estate market might have a big lag before it starts to hurt also. We’re in for a fun couple of years no matter what happens!

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13 Rounding the Bend July 10, 2020 at 11:55 am

You say you spent 10 months searching for the property. You have a lot of hidden costs associated with the property that you are not recognizing. Owning property is part job, part investment.

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14 Joel July 10, 2020 at 12:11 pm

Yep – that’s very true. It’s like an unpaid side hustle.

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15 K Money July 10, 2020 at 12:50 pm

First off, I love the idea of these two investments battling it out to see who is best! lol

I am going to go with my gut and say the Index Fund especially with a longer window of analysis.  Your dividend reinvestment provides 9% compounding interest which gains a lot of momentum over time. 

You can reinvest your positive cash flow from the rental property back into this property via additional debt buy down &/or equity investments but the rate of growth on these investment is unlikely to compound @ 7% every year. (unless your mortgage rate is over 7%) Even this is a short term opportunity because, eventually, the rate of growth on the property will become stagnant once the mortgage is paid off and/or you have maximized equity of the property based on comps in the area.

Are you able to increase rent rates with any consistency? The increased compounding cash flow will help the rental property a lot in a short term analysis.

If you want to give the rental property a shot to win against the Index Fund, I would think you would need to reinvest your rental profits into another rental property. You could pull the latent equity out with a HELOC or cash-out refi.

It would be interesting to see how tax factors in….. the profits from the rental property are much more accessible & also sheltered through depreciation right now. Early withdrawals from IRA have an additional 10% penalty tax hit. ( w/ few exceptions) IRA is great when you are 60, but what about now?

idk, I am probably missing something here. “Fun” post here 5 am Joel! For us nerds that is. :)

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16 Joel July 10, 2020 at 6:08 pm

Hey K Money, (nice name btw :))

It’s a tough comparison, because these assets are essentially apples and oranges. It all comes down to *how* they are managed and what additional options are exercised.

– Like you said, dividend reinvestment could be great. I could also put my emergency find (13k) into a high yield savings account to get additional interest (hang on a sec, I SHOULD definitely do that!!)
– Tax on rental income pretty low. And it’s pretty much all wiped out by additional deductions for the mortgage interest. But regardless, my wife and I are in a very very low income bracket. We don’t pay much, if any, taxes anyway.
– I could account for depreciation, but it’s hard due to recapture later when the place is sold. There could be benefits, but it depends on how long I hold the place for.
– As for capital gains, there are some tactics that could massively advantage us later with the rental property. For example, we could move into the property for a few years before selling it. As a primary residence we could make our capital gains tax free (up to a certain amount – probably all). This would be a huge advantage.
– On the flip side, we could also do a ROTH conversion with the IRA, in low income years, and effectively remove a lot of tax that way too. There are advantages on both sides.
– HELOC or cash out refi are great ideas. But i’m afraid to take on more debt in this economy (and honestly I don’t even know if I’ll qualify given my small income rn.)

Anyway, this is the first of hopefully many tracking posts. We’ll see what happens over time! Thanks for reading K Money!

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17 Luigi July 10, 2020 at 2:00 pm

Joel, great article thanks for sharing. What made you buy in Texas vs another state? I know property taxes are higher than most states in TX, however property prices have also appreciated in the last few years and people keep moving at least into the largest cities, so I am sure prices will be at least stable. Have you considered buying a property somewhere else? I am wondering about the effect those higher property taxes would have on your cashflow vs buying somewhere else like the midwest or south. Thanks!

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18 Joel July 10, 2020 at 5:58 pm

Hey Luigi!

A few reasons I chose Texas:

1) Los Angeles real estate was too expensive at the time, so I was going to buy interstate anyway. It’s very difficult to meet the 1% rule, only a handful of states really cater well to rental property investing for cashflow.
2) At the time, it was the fastest growing state (might even still be?) or at least it hosted 4-5 of the top 10 fastest growing cities in America
3) TX is typically landlord friendly. It’s easy to evict tenants and uphold leases in TX.
4) Tax free state income in TX
5) If i’m being completely honest, I was just following what everyone else was doing at the time. I heard Texas was booming, so I just jumped on board. This is a horrible reason in hindsight, but it’s true :( I’m a sheep.

I realized there are a ton of downsides too… Appreciation is definitely slower in average small cities outside of the major booming towns. Taxes in Texas SUCK. For this place, I pay over $5k per year in property taxes. It’s horrible.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the midwest when I was doing my basic research. Things seemed a little too cheap and too good to be true out there. I’m probably an idiot cause I know a bunch of people making a killing in the midwest. I just found that TX was filled with local people i related to more. Trust was a big factor when making my outreach phone calls.

Hope this helps! Thanks for reading!
Joel

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19 Luigi July 19, 2020 at 3:10 pm

Thanks for replying Joel! that makes a lot of sense…

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20 HAF July 10, 2020 at 9:42 pm

Hi Joel, thanks for sharing! I am curious about how do you manage the rental property remotely? Do you manage through a local agent? I believe there are many many stories behind it which you could share. Cheers!

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21 Joel July 12, 2020 at 10:25 am

Hello! Yep, I have a local property manager who handles all the tenant related stuff. Their fee is included in the expense figures. I’ll definitely get more into that over time and have a ton more stories to share. Cheers!

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22 JoshDoesFatFIRE July 11, 2020 at 3:41 am

Love this post Joel.
Real estate is going to be part of my long term investment strategy even though I place most emphasis on index fund and some share picking.
Unless my circumstances change, I am going to try and use my first property to house hack and build from there.

Best wishes!
Josh

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23 Joel July 12, 2020 at 10:26 am

House hacking has a tremendous ROI. Would be great to hear your story and experience when you get into property investing! Cheers Josh!

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24 khaleesi July 11, 2020 at 9:50 am

This a very interesting post as I am contemplating the option to buy another rental property in a few years. I own a 2 family home that I bought in 2009 when the market was down. Not really as an investment, because my parents lived in one unit and, I lived in the other. I bought the property for $179k and today is worth close to $649k without major effort honestly, just keeping up with time. I got married, bought a single family and, now my unit is rented for $2,000. Expenses are $900/month. Housing prices in this area have always been high, so taking advantage of that opportunity back in 2009 was the right move and wish I had the mind set I have now (I was 22). I would have bought at least one more property and be in a much better position right now. My 401K, I could do much better there!

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25 Joel July 12, 2020 at 10:32 am

Wow that’s a huge success – congrats! For the 401k, I was just contributing a small amount each year to get my employer match. I wish I had done a little more, but, it was good to be saving cash on the side for my rentals. The 2008 housing crisis was a great opportunity for young people who were just starting their investing careers, because they could pick up rentals with great immediate ROI. But it’s hard to replicate that these days, so young folks just starting out buying real estate can’t expect the same returns.

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26 jm July 12, 2020 at 11:35 am

Very timely post. I recently sold my sfh rental in the Dallas/Ft Worth area a couple of months ago. The reasons were many. I have 4 sfh rentals and I live in CA, and for the same reasons as you’ve stated, I invested out of state. I bought it in 2015, and the appreciation was great but the property taxes were killing my return. I thought about a refinance option, but with the increased property taxes and all the equity I had in the property, I decided to sell.

Even with the depreciation recapture and capital gains; I still made a profit (according to my accountant-based on rough numbers), and I don’t really regret at least at this point trading in a marginally cash flow positive rental when all expenses are taken into account to realize all that tied up equity.

I have other rentals and that particular one was the lowest cash-flow wise per month. I remember one particular stretch of a few months in 2018 when vacancies, repairs and property tax hikes all hit at the same time! Ouch! There went my emergency fund! Index funds are so much easier.

I’m at a point now where I want to see my debt balance decrease including mortgages. I’ve paid off one rental already, and I’m in the process of paying off the rest.

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27 Joel July 12, 2020 at 2:42 pm

Hey JM, sounds like we are in similar situations. A lot of rental properties make great money in years 1-3, then slowly the returns deteriorate as years go on after that… Dallas in 2015 is a great example – one of the fastest growing cities in the area and appreciation was big for a few years. So it’s smart to sell and close out the project with high profits.

I put one of my rentals on the market in January, but wasn’t truly committed to selling. In hindsight, I wish we got rid of it and used that cash to pay down additional debt on my other mortgages. It’s a good time to think about your overall debt balance and ratio compared to asset values.

Thanks for reading! More to come – and please let me know how your other 4 rentals are going!
Joel

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28 Dollartrak July 12, 2020 at 9:39 pm

Great article. I have felt the same way about real estate vs stocks but have never quantified it like you did.

You should also talk about liquidity, which is a major benefit to stocks.

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29 Joel July 13, 2020 at 10:23 am

Yes there’s many things I need to clarify and cover. Will do so over time! Liquidity is a blessing, and sometimes a curse!

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30 Big T July 13, 2020 at 11:24 pm

Thanks for the post Joel,

As someone already mentioned, very timely. I’m similarly diversified 50/50. And similar to your real estate agent, I have a “feeling” here. And I feel safer with real estate.

I stare at our retirement account balances and wonder about how little control us little people have there. We pick the funds and the manager – that’s it. As long-term investors, we’re told not to react emotionally to the market. Well it’s crazy out there – and seems to be built upon so few tech companies. And now that I want to access that capital for real estate – I wouldn’t dare incur those penalties.

In real estate I’ve got a great little cash-flowing duplex (nicknamed ATM). Made an offer on our second investment duplex today. You can play with the numbers all day, but in the end you end up with an appreciating property – or one that is cash flow positive in a serious downturn. I can drive by, schedule and inspection, pick my tenants, choose my rehab etc. I enjoy the control. But, this business is built on a debt – an internal battle I’m always aware of, and makes me hesitate to scale too quickly.

In the end, who knows. I guess I better start a baseline over here so I can check in 10 years to see how it all played out. I do know I didn’t enjoy watching my stocks drop 25% in a week in March, while my ATM pumped out a healthy $539 after-tax cash flow to my checking account.

Look forward to future posts!

-T

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31 Joel July 14, 2020 at 10:24 am

Hey T! That’s funny – I also nickname my rentals “ATMs”. I learned it from an investor conference a while back and the name just stuck. It’s the perfect description of a cash-flowing rental.

Definitely track your ROI year on year, and keep looking at your overall return on Equity. As your debt gets lower, your return gets lower. I’ll share more of the backstory of this rental in a later post.

Congrats on your offer! Let me know if it works out!

Joel

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32 SP July 20, 2020 at 3:55 pm

Woah! You bought an interstate???
Kidding aside, are you going to sit on the equity on one investment property and once it is paid off, get a big monthly check, or tap into it and buy more properties and grow?
Here’s my story. I grew up in a foreign country also. Moved here for graduate school. After I was employed, I too was late to the 401k party, but just by 1 year. Since then I have been investing only enough to get match.
In 2015 I bought my first rental condo in an auction, sight unseen, with owner still living there, for $38k renovated it with another $10k. It has been rented since for ~ 950-1050. I had bought a small SF primary residence in 2013 for $161k. In 2018, I tapped into equity of both these properties for down payment on a bigger primary home which I bought at $360k. The old home is rented for 1550. In January 2020 values of these 3 properties were 400k, 250k and 115k. I refinanced the condo, and got HELOCs on other 2 properties, and bought a townhome in auction, sight unseen for $126k, renovated for $10k, and is rented for 1300. I will get $100k equity out this week to keep building on my portfolio. Or maybe I will sit on this cash to ride out the COVID uncertainty.

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33 Joel July 20, 2020 at 6:30 pm

What an awesome snowball you’re creating! That’s such a cool story. I’m not sure what to do with the equity just yet. The older I get, the less risky I am, so having low leverage sounds good. But I also that’s not mathematically the fastest way to grow wealth. I’m a little exhausted with the properties I own, so before I go out and buy more I really want to think about what the easiest management route is. Thanks for reading – more to come!

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34 SP July 20, 2020 at 4:15 pm

Did you consider a 1031 exchange?

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35 Joel July 20, 2020 at 6:32 pm

Nah, I only have a small amount of capital gains on this place so far, and I’m in a fairly low tax bracket. If I ever sold I would just pay the cap gains tax I think. I’m not looking to trade up just yet for this property.

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