Hear more from Mrs. ODA

Back in May, I was a guest on Maggie Germano’s Podcast, “The Money Circle.” I shared some of our background and how we started investing in real estate. We brushed on topics like establishing an LLC, tax advantages, and how you don’t need to start big to just get started. It was a brand new experience for me, but I’m passionate about our real estate experiences, and I loved being able to share. I hope you’ll check it out!

The 4% rule – How does Real Estate Play In?

The common goal in the FI/RE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) community is to reach a point where your net worth is 25x your annual spending, meaning your expenses are 4% of your net worth. This is an extreme oversimplification of things because of the number of variables associated with where your net worth might be, and how to access it. For example, retirement accounts have requirements to be met before drawing funds; while you may have hit the 4% expense to net worth ratio, it may not mean that you have that money liquid to cover your spending.

When the ODAs started down the path of FI/RE, we did it with a real estate rental portfolio. This path of net worth growth really doesn’t fit the traditional mold. It provides regular cash flow, rather than an account with a balance that’s drawn down. 

As mentioned in previous posts, there are numerous ways to make money in real estate. The path we have taken is probably one of the simplest and most repeatable for anyone. We own a portfolio of single family rental houses, most of which were bought straight from the MLS. These basic properties are in basic neighborhoods with regular tenants. Nothing special. We acquired these properties by focusing on the 1% rule in real estate – try to secure 1% of the property’s purchase price in monthly rent. Another oversimplification of how things really go, but if we were able to find a $100k property that rents for $1,000 a month, we know we’re going to make money long term. 

For these properties, we typically put 20%-25% down and finance the rest through a conventional mortgage. We find a tenant, and then the 4 ways to make money in real estate go to work for us: appreciation, tenant mortgage pay-down, tax advantages, and most importantly for our situation and FI/RE – cash flow. 

I want to talk about how we can reach a FI/RE number through real estate cash flow differently and more quickly than using traditional stock market investing. 

The $100k house had a 20% down payment and mortgage rate at 5% interest, which brings the monthly principal and interest payment to $429. Add another $121 for taxes and insurance (using round numbers here!), $100 for maintenance and capital expenditures savings, and $100 for a property manager; this comes to $750 worth of monthly expenses. At $1,000 per month of income, you have $250 per month of cash flow in your pocket. $250 per month equates to $3,000 per year of cash flow. With the $20,000 down payment and about $5K in closing costs, it means that our $25k investment nets us $3k per year in cash flow. 

Circling back to the 4% rule for stock market investments, $3k in cash flow requires a savings of $75k. But we only had to invest $25k! We’re banking on the monthly cash flow, rather than a “stagnant” savings.

We took that math and ran with it. Our rental portfolio has 12 houses in it. While we’ve shown in prior posts that each house’s numbers aren’t as clean and simple as this example (some better, some worse), if we take that $3k annually and multiply by the 12 properties, we have $36k in annual cashflow for only $300k invested. 

What would you rather need to produce $36k income – $300k or $900k?

Can you scale a rental portfolio to reach enough annual cashflow such that you can live off the cash flow? 

Rental property investing is not completely passive. We have tenants to manage, properties to maintain, property managers to manage, income and expenses to track for taxes, lending efficiencies to explore, and the list goes on. But if you’re willing to put in a little work to reach financial independence (the FI part), you can do it substantially faster by finding strong properties to provide significant cash flow than if you were to take the totally passive route of simple stock market (index fund) investing. 

Note, there’s nothing wrong with that – we have a substantial position in the stock market due to the tax free growth benefits of retirement accounts. The power of real estate investing saw our net worth grow faster than we’d have ever dreamed since we bought our first rental in 2016. The proof is in the pudding and we advocate to anyone to just get started!

Contrarian View on an Emergency Fund

There are many teachings out there that talk about a safe, sustainable, and efficient way to wealth being many streams of income. This diversifies and provides multiple avenues for growth, but also mitigates risk and protects your larger portfolio against any one stream failing.

Our financial portfolio meets those goals. Instead of having an emergency fund sitting in a savings account earning 0.03% interest (that’s literally our savings account interest rate, and that’s the ‘special’ relationship rate), our money is put to “work,” earning more money for us.

INDEX FUNDS

Probably the simplest and most common example of multiple streams is index fund investing. A quick read of JL Collins’ “The Simple Path To Wealth” will teach you that through index fund investing, you have an ownership share of every company the index fund covers. Some are matched to S&P 500 companies, some to International, some to the DJIA, and most to the “Total Market.” Mr. and Mrs. ODA invest in the “Total Market Index Fund,” through Fidelity, in our IRAs and taxable investment portfolio. By owning a small part of every publicly traded company, we own that many streams of income. Any one company going belly up will only be a blip on the radar of that index fund, and, over enough time, it will go up, and up a lot. This is as risk free of a true investment as you can get. 

Being Federal Employees (Mrs. ODA no more, though), we both have access to the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for our 401k’s. The TSP provides a group of 5 index funds to choose from: Government Securities, Fixed Income Index, Common Stock Index, Small Cap Stock Index, and International Stock Index. 

In times of market upheaval, we can ‘escape’ to the Government Securities fund, and pending a nuclear winter or alien attack, is guaranteed to be paid (TSP.gov). However, with this little risk also comes little reward, so it won’t grow fast. With index funds and a safety spot, our TSPs are about as low risk a retirement investment as you can have. Note that Index Funds through Fidelity or Vanguard (for example) and the TSP have the industry’s lowest fees on their funds, so we won’t lose our nest egg to management costs either. 

REAL ESTATE

Outside of anything related to the stock market, we have 12 single family rental properties. Each of these houses operate as their own small business, with long term tenants in most of them (that have thankfully all been able to maintain rent payments through the pandemic). If one or two houses did lose their tenant, or have an AC break, or a roof needing replaced all at the same time, the other houses (businesses) can pick up the financial slack. A few of the properties are owned outright, so the lack of a mortgage certainly helps the whole portfolio’s cash flow. And actually, we did have to replace/repair multiple roofs and HVAC units at the same time in the summer of 2020! On top of the individual homeowners insurance we have on each house, we have a Commercial Liability Umbrella Policy covering anything above and beyond the individual policies.

DIVERSITY

We also have some money tied up in more actively managed mutual funds – investments we owned before we discovered index fund investing – and individual stocks. However, I can’t bare the capital gains taxes required if I were to sell them and shift that money over to an index fund. But – they’re there in case of an emergency.

That Federal job I mentioned – I’m lucky to have about as much job security as any W2 employee can have in this great nation. Through the shutdown a couple years ago, I had 2 paychecks delayed, but my rental properties made it so that I didn’t have to worry about our finances. Otherwise, a safe, consistent paycheck is something I can count on – with health insurance for our whole family that comes with an annual out of pocket maximum of only $10,000.

So we have a W2 income, 12 rental property small businesses providing monthly cash flow, and a slew of stock investments diversified across all markets. We have diversity that mitigates risk and shields us from small “emergencies” manifesting themselves as such.

We view “medium” emergencies as something that can be solved with a new credit card deferring needing to truly “pay” for our expenses until life gets back to normal. You’ve seen a past post discussing our perspective on strategic credit card usage (and the Chase cards specifically). Twelve to fifteen months of no interest on a credit card can get anyone out of a financial bind when emergencies hit. We haven’t found a reason to NEED this option, but know that it’s always out there if the perfect storm of bad luck were to ever hit.

For these “small” and “medium” emergencies, stocks could be sold before we would need to be faced with something like not being able to pay utilities, buy food, or get foreclosed on. We simply don’t view a “large” EMERGENCY cropping up with any higher than a near non-zero probability given the shielding and structure we have built out of our total financial portfolio.

I can’t fathom what that perfect storm would look like. Six months of expenses can easily be found in selling our stocks if all of our tenants suddenly stopped paying rent, for example. But if a pandemic isn’t going to make that happen, what would?

All this to say – Mrs. ODA and I keep very little cash liquid to cover our “emergency” fund. Outside of a couple thousand in our checking account to cover regular monthly/cyclical financial obligation fluctuations, we don’t have any dollars NOT “working for us.” Whether it be investing in index funds, contributing to IRA/401k, or paying down mortgages to eventually achieve more cash flow, we put all our money to work. We see the rewards of this strategy far outweighing the risk of encountering a debilitating financial emergency, and therefore don’t follow the traditional personal finance advice of keeping X months’ living expenses in cash handy at a moment’s notice.