Investing in Real Estate

I have been in the finance business for 20 years, and I personally own rental properties.  I understand the concept of using real estate to help save for retirement, but I would caution anyone before using leverage to accumulate wealth, whatever the investment may be.

Real-Estate-Investment-Principles-KeyI know several people near retirement age who own investment properties with mortgages that are “underwater,” meaning the owner owes more on the mortgage than the property is worth.  As a result, their prospects for retirement look grim.  In the early 2000’s, many people bought real estate with borrowed money, either as their primary residence or as an investment property.  Even though home prices have bounced back since the real estate market crash of the late 2000’s, many mortgages, and not just those on investment properties, are now “underwater,”

That leaves many people who own investment properties in an unenviable situation: sell the property at a loss and pay the difference in cash if they can afford it, or rent it out at monthly rates that in many cases are lower than the mortgage payment.  Both options lead to a financial loss.

One third ruleWhen asked about rental property as an investment, I tell clients to consider the “1/3 Rule”: no more than 1/3 of your net worth in your residence(s), no more than 1/3 of your net worth in rental real estate or illiquid businesses, and at least 1/3 of your net worth in liquid assets like cash, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc.  Like stocks and other investments, real estate can experience dramatic price declines. It is nearly impossible to buy only a small amount of real estate (i.e., $10,000 or so), and selling property isn’t as quick and easy as calling your financial advisor and placing a stock trade.  If you decide to buy investment real estate be careful not to become “real estate rich” and “cash poor.”  When the economy goes sour, cash is king, so always keep a little hay in the barn for emergencies. With proper diversification, an investor has options and won’t be forced to sell real estate and other investments at a time not of their own choosing.

I discourage investors from using borrowed money to buy real estate unless they are sure they can make the necessary payments or pay off the mortgage. Could your spouse go back to work if you lose your job? Did you make a large enough down payment (20% for a home, 30% for investment property) that you could sell the property without being underwater on the mortgage? Leveraged real estate deals have a way of being perfect storm magnets. I know folks who not only made their living in real estate, they also speculated on real estate deals, losing both their jobs and future retirement funds in the 2008 real estate crisis. Inevitably, the same time real estate values are dropping, both you and your tenant are bound to lose your jobs.
If you are interested in buying investment real estate, then I urge you to follow the 1/3 Rule  as well as the WealthMasters Milestones.  Be mindful of not owning too much of any one type of investment, or using excessive leverage to reach your retirement goals.  Buying rental properties with borrowed money can easily become a nightmare if you find yourself pinched. If your properties lose value, the lenders are going to expect you, not the renter, to make good on your mortgage payments.

There Is No Such Thing As Free Tuition: Who Then Must Pay For It?

Many politicians view the world through a  “normative” lens. Normative statements often include the words “ought” or “should.” This is in contrast to viewing the world through a “descriptive” lens, which explains how things actually are. Case in point is higher education.  Several candidates are hitting the campaign trail stumping for “free” college education. While it would be nice to offer “free” college, the reality is there are no free educations in the natural world. Someone must pay, and the challenge is determining who will ultimately be handed the bill.

History has demonstrated that whenever the federal government provides citizens something for “free,” the actual cost of that good or service rises faster than the rate of inflation. Additionally, the quality of that good or service tends to go down commensurate with the level of government subsidy received. Public education, health care, and even the food we buy at the grocery store are all heavily subsidized, and their costs have risen much faster than the rate of overall inflation.

Young people who support the idea of universal college should also ask themselves whom should be saddled with the responsibility to pay for it. Historically, the most productive people have been those between the ages of 25 and 55, so it isn’t a stretch to assume they are the ones who will be saddled with tax burdens to pay for other people’s “free” educations.

It doesn’t make sense to support programs that unnecessarily raise the cost of education, which must then be paid primarily by 25-55 year olds. It stands to reason that when governments offer 18-22 year olds “free” college, they will eventually pay for their artificially raised tuition via a lifetime of increased taxes. It is economically wiser for young people to support policies that will keep their current college expenses AND future taxes lower, as they will eventually leave the ranks of the subsidized and enter the ranks of tax payer.


I enjoy debating ideas on social media, and a topic of particular interest is economic inequality. A surprising number of people are convinced the economy is rigged in favor of the wealthy class.  I believe this is an inaccurate depiction of reality. Having professionally helped hundreds of people over the last two decades move from the lowest wealth quintile to the highest quintiles, I have observed the game IS rigged: in favor of those who don’t think poor. In this article, I’ll explain exactly what it means to “think poor” and how to stop.


The majority of the people I encounter who struggle financially are perfectly capable of being prosperous, but they have the wrong mindset about money and their personal finances.  They “think poor.” And, to paraphrase René Descartes, they think, therefore they are. In fact, for the person of average intelligence and ability, I believe prosperity is 80% mental attitude and only 20% mental aptitude.

EXCUSE TENNISA crippling effect of thinking poor is fixating on obstacles rather than opportunities. When I counsel poor-thinking people, they often prefer playing the game I call “excuse tennis.” Excuse tennis is played whenever someone shares with me their goals, but every time I offer a suggestion to increase their odds of achieving them, they knock down the suggestion with an excuse. For example, let’s say someone wants to increase their income, so I recommend they seek different employment that offers higher income opportunities. Once I send my recommendation “over the net,” they volley it back with an excuse such as: “I really like my current job,” “I don’t want to move,”  or “I would need to go back to school first, and I don’t have the money.”  When I return their excuse with a recommendation to sell some toys, get a temporary part-time job, or start a small business to come up with extra money, they declare their toys too important to be sold, they don’t want to be a slave to work, or their health or pride won’t allow them to engage in physical labor. People must stop playing excuse tennis if they want to escape poverty.   Focusing exclusively on problems prevents us from dedicating our full attention on solutions resulting in lost opportunities. .

Another trap of poor-thinking is trying to achieve immediate prosperity with borrowed money. Benjamin Franklin once said: “The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.”  Debt is not now, nor will it ever be, your friend.  When you are in debt, the money you earn does not belong to you. You simply work for two masters rather than one, and you keep less of your earnings for doing so.

A third trap of poor-thinking is comparing one’s circumstances to others instead of  contending with one’s own circumstances. The person who fixates on the man who has more is wasting valuable time and energy that could be better spent on activities capable of creating and obtaining financial security. I have a friend I see regularly who is frustrated by how much others have, and his envy makes it virtually impossible for him to see his own opportunities for improving his economic situation. When one man makes $20,000 per month and another only one-tenth as much, it does the lower paid man no good to concern himself with the higher paid man’s income, how he spends it, and thWealthMasters Milestonese level of the higher paid man’s compassion and generosity. By following the WealthMasters Milestones of avoiding debt, and staying gainfully employed, even the modestly paid person can achieve financial security over time.

Insanity is often defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. To improve one’s situation it is important to adopt a lifestyle of self-improvement. It’s easy to see what’s wrong with others, but self-improvement is much more difficult. The first step in shedding poor-thinking is committing to make tomorrow better than today. Once this commitment is made, goals can be established for improving one’s spirituality, physical health and nutrition, relationships, intellectual growth, and personal finances, and an action plan can be developed to ensure activities are completed in pursuit of these established goals.

Self-improvement requires courage, especially if one’s most intimate social circles are also caught in the traps of poor-thinking. Successful people tend to enjoy assisting others who are pursuing success, and most communities have more mentors than there are people seeking their help. Good mentors can be found in most churches, local chambers of commerce, or even within one’s family, but it takes courage to ask for help.   I have mentored dozens of young people over the years, and I am often frustrated that more haven’t been interested in being mentored.

Anytime someone embarks on a path of self-improvement and personal growth, there will be hardships and challenges. Poor thinkers succumb to these hardships, even though most obstacles can be overcome with perseverance.  By enduring difficult times, we become stronger and more experienced, and over time the obstacles seem smaller and less obstructive. When times get tough, seek out mentors who have endured similar challenges on their own paths to success.

poor thinkingMost success takes place between the ears. For those who are tired of the trappings of poor-thinking: 1) stop playing “excuse tennis; 2) avoid debt; 3) stop fixating on what others have; 4) commit to a plan of self-improvement; 5) seek out mentors; and 6) practice endurance when things get difficult. When we stop “thinking poor” and start actively working towards positively change in our lives, we position ourselves to obtain financial security and human flourishing.