How I bought 3 homes on my own before turning 31

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Courtesy of Meghan Lawler

  • Meghan Lawler purchased three homes before the age of 31. 
  • She works as a consultant, and constantly travels — and she lived frugally to save large portions of her income for investing. 
  • She covers the cost of three mortgages by renting out the properties she doesn’t live in. 

My family jokes that I’m a real estate mogul. I assure you: Barbara Corcoran, I am not. But, earlier this summer, a month before my 31st birthday, I purchased my third property. Did I set out to be a part-time landlord with three mortgages? Not exactly.

My real job is as a consultant within the health care industry. The position (plus a healthy dose of hard work and late nights) has afforded me a comfortable salary and a lifestyle that builds up my bank account. I’m on the road a lot for work — such is the life of a consultant — and while that can take a toll on my personal and social life, it’s helped me save. A lot.

The upside to traveling all the time

Most people spend a significant amount of money during the week: transportation, happy hours, meals out, groceries. Not me. For years, I never stocked my fridge, making do with the bare minimum needed to get me through weekends. Traveling so much also helped me rack up points with airlines and hotels, which means when I travel for fun, I do it on the cheap.

I know what you’re thinking: Of course it’s easy to save money when you don’t have to pay for things people with regular 9-to-5s do. You’ve got a point. But I’m also pretty thrifty. Over the years, my take-home pay has risen, but I’ve tried not to let the higher paychecks get the best of my spending and have kept my expenses consistent. If there’s one thing I splurge on, it’s convenience (taking an Uber to the airport instead of the train, for example), but I don’t go out to lavish dinners or reward myself with fancy designer clothes.

Instead, I’ve focused on investing, and real estate seemed like a good place to start.

How each property purchase went down

I spent my early- to mid-20s cringing every time I paid rent; I felt like I was just throwing money away. So once I built up a decent amount of savings, at the ripe old age of 26, I decided to buy my own place: a two-bedroom condo in Chicago, which I purchased for $390,000. I recruited my sister to move in as a roommate, which made my monthly mortgage payments much more doable.

Two years later, I moved to Denver (the mountains were calling!) and decided to keep my Chicago condo as a rental property. With the renters’ money, minus mortgage, taxes, insurance and homeowners association fees, I pocketed about $500 a month.

Meanwhile, I settled into my rental apartment in Denver. One year into my stint out West, I decided to buy. The Denver real estate market was really picking up. The median sale price jumped from $265,000 in July 2013 to $370,000 three years later, according to Redfin, and I wanted to get in before it got too crazy.

Courtesy of Meghan Lawler

Among the requirements for my new place: a location and building that would make a great rental, should I want the option. I bought a two-bedroom duplex in Lower Highlands, a young, hip Denver neighborhood, for $355,000 right before I turned 30.

Tip: If you can bring in a roommate, do it. While I was living in my Denver condo, a friend of a friend moved in for a few months. I was single and didn’t mind sharing the place (and having half of my mortgage paid for didn’t hurt either).

Fast-forward a year to this past summer, when I got the house-hunting bug again. This time, I had my eyes set on a cute bungalow in an area where I can see myself long-term. Oh, and it has a big backyard that my new puppy loves.

I knew I could cover the mortgage of my Denver condo by renting it out. I closed on the house in July, for a grand total of three mortgages. It sounds like a lot, but two are covered by renters, plus I have an extra few hundred dollars a month of rental income that I use to pay the mortgage on my house. Win-win.

How real estate investing has worked for me

I prefer its stability to other investment strategies, but you may have to be patient (remember 2008?). It has also worked to my advantage that I purchased when interest rates were historically low — all of mine were 4% or less.

As much success as I’ve had buying and renting properties with only my salary (and I’m not making millions by any means), location has played a big role in making it happen. Chicago and Denver are relatively affordable places to live, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to do this in more expensive cities like San Francisco or New York.

So would I advise investing in real estate if you can swing it? Absolutely, but don’t make it your only thing. When I bought my third place, I realized most of my money was tangled up in real estate, so in the name of diversifying, I put my Chicago condo on the market this summer.

Being a part-time landlord isn’t always easy — you have to put in the work to find quality tenants and deal with maintenance issues that come up, like the time my tenant broke the mailbox for the entire building and it took USPS a month to fix. But the income and assurance that the properties are appreciating in value has made it worth it to me.

And plenty of other people agree. Just last week, I went to a work dinner with someone who owns 20 (!) rental properties in the Atlanta area. He says they’re his ticket to retirement. And I think he’s onto something.

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