Early in life I was told to find what you love to do and the money will follow.
Back then, I loved to play basketball and I was good at it…by London, Ontario standards anyways. Nonetheless, not being male nor being blessed with the ability to dunk, the advice wasn’t readily useful.
Then I went to university and studied law, met and married my husband, and together we opened a law practice. Along the way I met many wonderful clients and made steady money practicing law but I never loved it. I understood by practicing why lawyers have one of the highest rates of alcoholism and are one of the most miserable of all professionals.
Third time lucky…I enrolled in business school and all of a sudden things became a little clearer. With the financial skills I learned there my husband and I were able to determine that fixing problem properties was something I would enjoy and that may make us some real money.
The first problem property we were looking at was owned by a fellow who was having challenges. He had tried to sever the properties but hadn’t completed the severance. He wasn’t paying his mortgagee/partner. His wife and he had separated and she was suing him for child and spousal support and was about to seize his assets. In the face of all that, he was still difficult to deal with as a vendor despite his desperation. He ultimately ended up fleeing to Florida where he had another property and where he would ultimately be charged with arson because he allegedly tried to torch that property for the insurance money.
The properties we were looking at were completely vacant…of humans anyway although there were definitely creatures living inside. They were 13,700 square feet in size over two buildings. They were connected by a Soviet era bunker/tunnel whereby you could move from the front building to the back without going outside or being seen. It rained indoors. The carpets were mouldy; the walls were peeling off; everything was stained and dirty. They were both in a glaring state of neglect and disrepair. Long before, they had been owned by Peter Monk’s company and had bullet proof glass in parts of them.
Our realtor asked us a number of times if we actually wanted to purchase the properties they were such a mess. He wondered why two lawyers who had a law practice making a bit of money, very limited experience in real estate, and seemingly not a lot of resources would want this money pit.
In hindsight, the answer was simple:
- LOCATION: The properties were on Hazelton Avenue in the heart of Yorkville in Toronto, a top drawer location – you couldn’t get much better
- SCOPE: The properties comprised enough square footage that if successful, they could really create a ton of equity upon completion of renovation;
- FINANCING TERMS: The financial terms we negotiated permitted us to purchase with a minimal down payment and put the remaining money we had towards renovation; and
- CHALLENGE: The properties presented just enough of a challenge that I thought we could successfully renovate them…assuming we were frugal and got a bit lucky…and refinance them in the planned amount of time.
That was the why. We were also younger and childless and more willing to roll the dice.
Hence we bought the properties for $2.3 million with $200,000 down, a first mortgage from Community Trust of $1.3 million at 8% and a second vendor take back mortgage of $800,000 at 11%. The plan was to renovate as quickly and cost effectively as possible.
We hired a crew of guys and a contractor who became and still is a great friend. We directly supervised them in ripping out everything that was damaged and replacing it with anything we could find on sale.
The front building was to be renovated first. Once partially done, we moved our tiny little law firm into this huge front building. We then created two residential units, one above and one below the law firm, that occupied quickly. The residential tenant downstairs was a smoker – although she claimed to be a non-smoker when we rented to her – and the smoke infiltrated the entire building, making working difficult. We had to kick her out and replace her, which we did in time.
When we tackled the back building, we went high end residential rental with whatever nice products we could find on kijiji, craigslist, the side of the road, carpet ends, end run tiles, paint on sale, kitchen items on sale, and surplus bathroom items. Money was tight and it was a necessity that we were frugal and smart with our money. We had more time than money, so we spent time finding bargain renovation items.
We completed and filled one suite at a time in the back building and we had some very interesting tenants over the years. One was a professional baseball player who changed his home number every three weeks to avoid his wife meeting the parade of call girls and women for hire that frequented the place when she and the kids weren’t there. We had a Buffalo Bill who refused to live in Buffalo and took a limo every day from our place to Buffalo and back. We had a fellow who made a fortune in the high tech industry in Europe, became a pilot, and brought his former stripper partner back to Toronto with him. He had babies with her while continuing to frequent strip clubs here. Those were just three of the very interesting clientele we met and got to know.
Within a year of purchase, we had renovated, severed, and rented out enough of the buildings to justify an increase in value to $3.5 million collectively. When we were done, the Russian Embassy came knocking because they loved the location, the underground tunnel and the bulletproof glass, but no offer was forthcoming. We thus refinanced each of the properties with traditional lenders at much lower rates. Due to the increase in value, we were able to withdraw our initial down payment of $200,000 along with most of our $300,000 in renovation costs, giving us the money to do it again.
That was our start in the world of fixing problem real estate. We bought in June 2001 and finished in June 2002. For that project, it was definitely accurate that when I found what I loved, the money followed.