While there are people who enter real estate investing decisively from the get-go, many of us, on the other hand, stumble upon it. As familiar as this story is, it is nevertheless still fascinating and inspiring to hear those who managed to find success in it. Monick Halm interviews another real estate goddess who is crushing it in the real estate space, Letizia Alto. Leticia is a physician real estate investor and a blogger at Semi-Retired MD. In this episode, she shares with us her journey of getting started with her husband on investing in a small multifamily real estate and growing their portfolio from thereon. She shares some tips and tricks as well as the pitfalls to look out for when entering the industry—from finding agents to work with to hiring and even firing property managers. At the end of the day, whether you got into real estate on your own or not, it is heavily a team sport. Dive into Monick and Leticia’s conversation to know why it is crucial to success.
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Real Estate Is A Team Sport With Letizia Alto
I interview badass real estate investor goddesses, women that are crushing it in the real estate space. My guest is certainly no exception to the bad-ass rule. I’m super excited to have her with me. Letizia Alto is a physician real estate investor, blogger at Semi-Retired MD. She and her husband started investing in a small multifamily real estate in 2015 and have grown their portfolio to 61 units. On her blog, she helps physicians learn to invest in real estate to achieve financial freedom and live their lives on their terms. She’s speaking my language. I’m excited to have her. Welcome, Letizia.
Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here and to spend some time with you.
You started off as a doctor. You’re still a physician and I started off as a lawyer. It’s similar, not having thought about real estate at all for our lives. How did you get started in real estate investing? What got you into the game?
My husband is a bit of a serial entrepreneur. He was always thinking outside the box and had done real estate previously, but we had never talked about it. By luck, one trip we took was through New Zealand, which I know you’re now hanging out in Australia. We were in New Zealand. We were in one of those little camper vans driving around. Our camper van had some issues with its electricity and we were freedom camping, which is not in a campground every other night. We didn’t want to use up our electricity. We didn’t have any electronics. We had no service on our cell phones too, unless we were hanging out in one of the campgrounds with Wi-Fi. I had brought Rich Dad Poor Dad with us. I started reading it and within a couple of chapters, my mind was totally blown.
I finally understood that I was an employee. I had never thought that way. He had read it years before. I was like, “This is amazing. Let’s read this together.” We read it out loud for ten days driving through New Zealand. By the time we had finished it, we had decided we were putting all our money into real estate investing. We were previously looking for a primary residence in Seattle. We had put in a couple offers before we left on that trip and then had been bid out. We were trying to buy a house. We came back from the trip. We’re like, “We’re real estate investors. We don’t want a primary residence anymore.” We took our primary residence real estate agent and we’re like, “You’re going to help us find investment properties now. This is what we’re looking for. What we read was bid ridiculously low, so that’s what we’re going to go do. Come help us.”
He had no idea what he was doing. We were putting in offers in a duplex next to a cement factory. We had no clue and putting in ridiculously low offers. We weren’t getting anything and we had no luck. We luckily got introduced to an investor agent who had her own portfolio. It was finally like, “We have somebody who can help us.” We went crazy. We got up to twelve doors in the first year. We claimed real estate professional tax status for Kenji. We had him cut back at work so we could stop paying taxes. The trajectory after that was up because we weren’t paying taxes and we put every dollar we had towards real estate.
What happened then or where are you now? What are your investments?Real estate is a team sport. You got to have good team members to make you successful. Click To Tweet
We’re at the point of turning over some of our first investment. That was the beginning of 2015. We’ve forced appreciation on a lot of our properties. There’s been market appreciation because we started about an hour outside of Seattle. Some of our properties have had market appreciation too. With a new bonus depreciation for us, we realized that the more properties we turn over and harvest that lazy equity and also get bonus depreciation, do cost segregation studies, get that bonus depreciation, the better we’re going to be in terms of sheltering all of our income. We’ve sold two out of our three single-family homes. We’re selling off some of our duplexes. We’re in the process of buying a 32-unit right now, which should close soon. We have a fourteen-unit under contract too, so we’re going bigger.
I want to pull out and highlight some of the nuggets that you dropped that people might not get. First, you talked about changing brokers and what a difference that makes. A lot of times, real estate is a team sport. People must understand that you need the right team players. You’re a doctor. What kind of physician are you?
I’m a hospitalist.
What is a hospitalist? What does that mean?
We’re the primary care doctors at the hospital. If somebody comes in, they’re in the emergency room and they’re sick enough to get admitted, we’ll take care of them while they’re in the hospital and we send them back home or to a nursing facility.
You’re generally helping people. There are a lot of specializations. With real estate, it’s the same thing. There are specializations in real estate. The agents are helping you get your single-family home, which is what most agents and brokers do, are not the same as the ones that focus on investment properties or larger commercial, multifamily. Some brokers do multifamily. There is a large multifamily of brokers that do mobile home parks and self-storage and have specializations. You’re not going to want to go to a podiatrist for your heart surgery or even necessarily a GP, a General Practitioner, to do your heart surgery, your brain surgery. You do want to get people who know what they’re doing with real estate. That makes all the difference in your story highlights like having people that understand what an investor is looking for. A big myth that a lot of people have is that what you would look for your own residence would be the same thing that you’re going to look for in a rental and they’re not the same at all.
For us, what I’ve realized over time is if you can find an investor agent who focuses on investments but also owns their own, that is like a trifecta because now they understand what it’s like to be an owner. They have all the right contacts for you. They have a construction person. They’ve worked with them. They know an accountant who does real estate and has a lot of real estate clients. Finding that person that is both an investor agent and owns their own property is even better.
I like having all my team members own properties. I like a CPA that’s an investor and lawyers that are investors. The more property managers that are investors or the more that they understand from the investor side, I find them better than they are with helping you. Switching gears a little bit, and this is a question that I ask all my guests because I find that we learn so much more when things don’t go well, it’s not smooth sailing. What would you say was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
My biggest mistake was we bought the six-plex in Oklahoma City. The biggest mistake in that was not firing our contractors soon enough. In that case, we had hired a contractor who our agent knew and hired our agent to oversee the major rehab and it was not going on time. It was supposed to be six weeks, eight weeks. It ended up being six months, way off. We didn’t fire the contractor soon enough. We kept hoping it would work. We needed to step in way earlier. That’s something we’ve learned over time too is when to get rid of team members that aren’t working. That’s been a learning curve for us. We had property managers who are our favorite, our best property managers and it fell off because they decided to step back from the business and have somebody else run it. We stuck with them for months where we should have abandoned ship as soon as things started to go downhill, as soon as there were problems. That’s one mistake we’ve made along the road, is not leaving vendors who are not working fast enough.
Specifically, this Oklahoma City property, how about having the agent managing it? Would you have done that again?
That was an interesting thing. We made an assumption and the assumption was if we had a contractor who was being overseen by the agent and the contractor worked with the agent on a lot of other projects that the contractor was going to be accountable. They were going to know that if they messed up on our project, that it was going to reflect badly on them. It was going to affect all these other projects so that they were much more likely to do a good job with this agent overseeing them who they worked within other properties. That wasn’t the case. I still don’t quite understand why and whether or not this was a pattern that we didn’t know about or whether or not we were a one-off. It happened to be that he had so many other projects he got behind and that was random.
I don’t know if the agents knew he wasn’t good. I don’t know at this point. The alternative and what we’ve always done with all our other major projects were dealing directly with the general contractor and touch base with him and/or her, and make sure we have pictures and make sure we have frequent updates. You’re right with having a middleman, we’re assuming that was happening and we got pictures every once in a while, but we weren’t on top of it like we could have been. It may have been better for us to take responsibility upfront instead of having that middle man and be on top of it, rather than sitting back and assuming somebody else was doing it. That probably is a good point to take out of that too.
I don’t know if that’s necessarily how to do it. I was curious why the agent because that’s not necessarily part of their wheelhouse. Normally, what we’ve had is we’ve got our property managers managing the rehab and that’s generally worked well. That’s generally what they’ll do. That was interesting to have. I was like, “The broker is doing that for you.” That’s what I was curious about because that’s not usually what they do.
Do you usually pay your property managers to oversee the project or do you consider it part of their work? We were having an agent go every week and taking pictures of the project and supposedly keeping it on schedule.Take action. Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis. Click To Tweet
That’s typically part of their pay. That’s part of what they do is they’ll manage the renovations. I could see that there might be somewhere it’s an extra fee for them managing the renovations, but with our property managers, that has been included. This is also a large multi-family, so six-units is a little different. Was it empty while they were doing the renovations too?
It was two different buildings. One was empty, one wasn’t. We rotated. It was largely empty when they were doing the rehab project in it.
That’s a good learning point in general about having the right people on the team and making sure that you hire well, but you fire quickly when they’re not working. This is something that I’ve had that same issue that keeping property managers on too long or other people are not working. It’s an expensive mistake.
It’s wild how somebody will be so good and fall off. You don’t see it coming. We’ve had this with contractors too. They’ve done rehab after rehab and been very good. Something happens in life or who knows and suddenly, they’re not reliable anymore and it changes.
It’s hard to know at what point to say, “What is going on? Is this an aberration just this week or is this going to be longer?” That is a tricky thing when they’ve been working fairly well. I’ve also had this same challenge where they’re amazing. They’re scaling but the team members were not the same, so you’re not getting the same product. It’s the same vendor in theory, but different people are working on it. It’s a completely different experience.
You’ve got to have good team members to make you successful. One thing I do is we want to pay our team members well, at least that’s my philosophy too. I could try to find deals myself and be my own real estate agent or I could pay my agent well and they’re very motivated to bring me the best deals out there. I want to pay my people well and have them succeed at the same time as I succeed, rather than try to save every dollar and not have good people on my team.
We were on this investor cruise and he was talking about Robert Kiyosaki. Once they’re working a lot with team members, they’ll try to nickel and dime them, “We’re giving you so much work so you should give us a discount.” They’re always trying to discount people. He says, “No.” He pays extra to his broker. If it’s 3%, he’ll pay 5%. He wants to be the first person that they call when they have things. He’ll go above and beyond. I thought that is so genius. It’s so true and a good way to be. The flipside of the biggest mistake is what are you most proud of?
I‘m most proud of taking action. A lot of people read books and say, “This is awesome,” and don’t do anything. They get stuck in analysis paralysis. One thing I can say about my husband and me is when we decide on something, we take action right away and we keep going. We don’t look back, doubt and do a lot of soul searching, “Was that the right decision? Was it not?” We go. We got back from reading that book and we went and that allowed us to be successful. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be talking about this because we wouldn’t have acted and we’d still be working full-time.
Take massive action. A lot of people get into analysis paralysis. It’s not going to be perfect action, just take action. You might have answered this, but to what do you attribute your success?
The other thing I attribute it to is having a great teammate, which is my husband. A lot of people probably get stuck when one partner is risk-averse or has ideas about real estate or is comfortable. It doesn’t feel like they want anything else. Whereas the other person is like, “I had this dream. Let’s go for this. I know we can make it work.” You’re stuck in this position where one person doesn’t want to do anything and one person does. I’ve seen that a lot because we have a course where we train physicians on how to invest in real estate. I’ve had a lot of students. Usually, the women sign up for the course. They’re like, “My husband, he’ll come along.” The husband is not necessarily aligned and they get them to watch some of the videos. They’re like, “I’ve got him on board and now we can make this happen.”
Dragging somebody along the hallway is difficult. I’ve been lucky that my partner and I have been aligned. We had a strong why, which was we wanted to get financial freedom so we could spend time with our kids, so we could spend time with our families so that we could host and have our friends stay with us. We developed that why very early on. We both had a shared goal and vision that we were going for. We both had aligned on the fact that real estate was going to get us there. The fact we could align on both those things, where we were going and that real estate was our vehicle, allowed us to turbocharge, act, move and put all our money into it rather than one of us off spending the money on fancy cars. Both of us were. We knew what we wanted. I would say the partner part was helpful to me.
I work also with my husband. We have an event, Real Estate Investors Soulmates, for couples that want to work successfully together in real estate. You highlighted two important parts of that. One is getting aligned with the vision, having the same vision and knowing your strong why. Also being aligned in the what but also the how, the vehicle. Those are two important components of being successful together as a partnership. It sounds like you’re also both action takers. You both will take action. Even some people are aligned and they don’t take decisions in the same way. Do you think you are aligned in how you decide or are you different from your decisions?
We are a little bit different. I tend to want to be more leveraged. I’m accepting a little more risk than is. He went through the 2008 downturn. He’s been investing since 2001, but he invested in appreciation place early on. He ended up with 2008 with raw land in Florida, which was making no money and taking money out of his pocket every single month, and some high-priced condos in Seattle, which he couldn’t rent for the amount he had put into them. They weren’t even close to the 1% rule. He got burned. He is more risk-averse now than I am.
We’ve disagreed with how much equity we want in our portfolio. We’ve had a lot of discussions about that and discussions about growth even for a while. I was saying, “Let’s go bigger.” He was like, “What we’re doing is working, let’s stick with this. Do we even need to grow anymore? Maybe we should sit back, take fewer risks, pay them off and stay where we are instead of growing.” We had a whole discussion around that too. One thing that’s helped us is one of us has veto power in decisions. This is specifically in decisions. If we both agree with a property, we’ll buy it.Dragging somebody along the tollway is difficult. Click To Tweet
If one of us doesn’t agree and one of us wants it, that person has unilateral veto power over the decision. That’s where it helped us stay out of trouble because if one person can see something they don’t like about it and the other person’s emotionally involved, it keeps us from making bad decisions. I would say generally we’ve done better because one of us has veto power. As frustrating as it is at a time when he’s like, “We’re not going to buy this.” Looking back on 20/20 vision, he was right.
You both have to be a yes or it’s a no.
Our idea is if it’s a clear right answer, we’ll both get it. If it’s not, we won’t. You’re a Tony Robbins Platinum Partner. Our first Tony Robbins event and he’s like, “We should sign up for Platinum.” We haven’t read any Tony Robbins books. We’ve watched I’m Not Your Guru. That’s it. I’m like, “No.” He takes me over the Platinum desk and within a day or two, I’m like, “This is the right decision. I get it. Let’s do it.” We both signed up. I signed up and an hour later he was like, “I want to come too.” I’m like, “You sign up too. We’ll figure it out.” To both of us, it was a clear right answer. We both jumped in, both feet first, instead of waffling or reconsidering or whatever because we both knew it was right.
What advice do you have for a woman who’s starting out in real estate investing?
Women are awesome at real estate investing. 70% of our students are mostly physicians that are women. Women stay out of the real estate in general. The general population statistics are that it’s mostly men. I have never quite understood that because women multitask all the time and we create awesome relationships. I feel like that’s what most of the real estate investing is. Multitasking, balancing different projects and having good people who’ve created solid relationships with. Women are phenomenal at that in general. I would say if you’re a woman, get involved and don’t let the fact that it’s a “man’s world” out there stop you. A lot of women are phenomenal investors. We don’t even consider it.
In general, we have better results. We do about 30% better.
This is not surprising to me. I didn’t want to say it because I didn’t want to sound sexist, but in colonoscopies, they’ve done studies of gastrointestinal docs and female physicians catch a lot more cancers. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s innate or if it’s training or whatever. We tend to pick up those cancers if we’re a GI doc. I’m not surprised that women, in general, do better in real estate investing either.
What do you wish you’d known at the beginning that you now know?
I wish I had known about forced appreciation. I didn’t understand that at the very beginning. Luckily, I figured it out partially in year two, I would say. In year two, we did a major rehab project in a fourplex. It was $100,000 rehab and we increased rents from $700 per unit to $1,100 per unit. That’s when I realized the government paid like a fourth of that rehab because we wrote it off. We were real estate professionals. We could use it to shelter income. The government paid for a fourth of that rehab and I collected all the increase in cashflow. I collected all the increases in the value of that property. I could do a cash-out refi and go buy something else. The velocity of that money and the amount it can make is compounded immensely. I didn’t figure that out until the second year, but after that, we realized we need to buy value add properties. Looking back on it, forced appreciation and the tax breaks are the two big things. Everyone thinks it’s about cashflow and certainly cashflow is nice, but it’s forced appreciation and tax benefits that take you that huge step up in wealth.
We have no goddess left behind and you did mention forced appreciation before, so I want to make sure that I want to understand what that means. Once people understand there’s appreciation generally in the market time, the property will increase in value and that’s called appreciation. You can force appreciation by doing targeted rehabs and make the property worth more. You can rent out for more, but also there’s more value there. You were talking about this amazing strategy, which is to force appreciation, do a cash-out refinance, which is not a taxable event. You can pull out that money and use it to reinvest in compound in that way. Forced appreciation is an amazing tool that every real estate investor should have in their tool belt, depending on how you want to play this game, but that is generally the best way to add a lot more value and grow your wealth lot more quickly by doing that.
It’s got the tax breaks part too. It’s having both. You write off the rehab, you increase the value of the property, so now you’ve done both things. It’s incredible.
Trump’s tax deal in 2017 added bonus depreciation. When you’re fixing things up, you can do something called cost segregation. We talked about this previously with Marie Grasmeier. She’s a CPA and we have a long discussion about it. Look into that because you’re not only making money, but you’re saving a lot from taxes by doing this. Check out that past episode to find out all about cost variation and bonus depreciation. Before we get into our famed-end of show trinity, which is a brag, gratitude and this desire, what is the best way for people to connect with you?
I blog over at Semi-Retired MD, and we mostly teach physicians how to invest in direct ownership real estate. We also have a lot of high-income professionals like vets, dentists and pharmacists. Once you get above $150,000 in income every year, the tax breaks go away. You can start harvesting tax benefits using real estate professional tax status. We do a lot of teaching about that over in our blog.
Check it out, Semi-Retired MD. For your trinity, what’s one thing you’re celebrating right now? What’s your brag?Real estate is one of the best ways to build your wealth over generations. Click To Tweet
I am celebrating this 32-unit hopefully getting across the line. It was supposed to close but there was a whole lot of drama that led it not to. I’m hoping in the next few weeks we get this deal and it’s a beautiful deal with 15% cash-on-cash. A laundry room that we can convert into a unit. That would be a lot of forced appreciation there. I’m hoping that’s going to happen and starting to celebrate it, but not quite yet.
What’s one thing you’re grateful for?
I’m grateful for my husband and how awesome he is as a partner. I am more of the get excited and gloss over the details and the big vision person. He is the person who does the spreadsheets and does a lot of the phone calls. He’s our real estate professional. He’s the one who’s allowing us to harvest all these tax breaks. I’m very grateful to him.
Last but not least, what’s one thing you desire?
We’ve already talked about women, more women getting into real estate. That’s one thing I desire. Once we have that tipping point of women involved, it’s going to open so many doors for so many other women. Real estate is one of the best ways to build your wealth over generations. If women aren’t tapping into it, it’s unfortunate because we’re missing out on that. We’re relying on our spouses if we have a spouse to do it. I have a lot of single physician moms who are in our course who are now doing this for themselves and their families. They don’t necessarily have men in their lives, but they’re changing the trajectory of their kids’ lives by creating a legacy by having a real estate. That’s pretty phenomenal.
Your desire is to have more women in real estate? Me too. So shall your desires be or so much better. Thank you for the awesome interview. You can connect with Letizia at SemiRetiredMD.com and connect with me at REIGoddesses.com. Do you want to hang out with amazing women? Come to our event on April 17th and 19th 2020 in Los Angeles. Subscribe there for that and join our Facebook community of amazing women from all over the world who are investing in real estate together in sisterhood. Also, join our Investor Club where you can find out about passive investing opportunities. We have a whole bunch of goodies for you at REIGoddesses.com. Check it out, subscribe and join us next time for another amazing episode.
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About Letizia Alto
Letizia Alto is a physician, real estate investor and blogger at Semi-Retired MD. She and her husband started investing in small multi-family real estate in 2105 and have grown their portfolio to 61 units. On her blog, Letizia helps physicians learn to invest in real estate to achieve financial freedom and live their lives on their terms.