Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income.
Mark Ferguson has been a Realtor since 2001 after graduating from the University of Colorado with a business finance degree. He runs a real estate team of 10 that sells over 200 homes a year, fix and flips 10 to 15 homes a year and owns 11 rental properties. Mark also runs www.investfourmore.com, a blog that discusses Mark's fix and flips, rental properties, becoming a real estate agent and everything real estate related.
Many television shows portray fix and flipping as a very profitable business that can easily be done in your spare time. Sure there are usually a few contractor problems, but in the end the house sells for a lot of money and the owners make a killing. In reality, you can make money fix and flipping homes, but it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of flipping to make a lot of money. It is also very easy to lose a lot of money if you do not account for all the costs or overestimate the value of your flip.
I have been a Realtor since 2001, and I have fix and flipped close to 100 homes over the last 10 years. I have 10 fix and flips going right now, and I can tell you it is not easy managing one fix and flip let alone 10! It takes a lot of money to fund fix and flips, more time than you think to sell a flip, a lot of experience to deal with repairs and contractors, and expenses are almost always more than you figure.
If you buy houses cheap enough with enough of a margin for error, you can make good money fix and flipping homes — but don't expect to be a millionaire after a year or two in the business.
Are the television shows accurate in their portrayal of the flipping business?
Most fix and flip television shows love to show the before and after pictures of a flip with the initial purchase price and the selling price at the end. There are a couple of shows that portray the expenses accurately, but most leave out many of the costs that flippers encounter. In the fix and flip business, many investors use the 70 percent rule to determine if they can make a good profit when they flip a home.
The 70 percent rule states the purchase price should be 70 percent of the after-repaired-value (ARV) minus the cost of any repairs. For example, if a house will be worth $150,000 after it is repaired and it needs $30,000 in repairs, the 70 percent rule states an investor should pay $75,000 for that house. Buying a house that will be worth $150,000 for $75,000 seems like a home run, but it is really just an average deal because there are so many costs associated with flipping.
What costs are involved in fix and flipping homes?
The obvious costs involved in flipping are the purchase price of a home and the repair costs. In our example, there appears to be $45,000 in profit once you include the selling price and the repairs but there are many more expenses that many beginners do not consider.
- Financing costs: Most people do not have $75,000 plus the costs of repairs and carrying costs to buy a flip. It is more expensive to finance a flip because banks make their money off interest paid on loans. The shorter time you hold a loan, the less money a bank will make. Most large banks will not finance flips, but some local lenders will. Hard-money lenders will fund flips, but they are very expensive, charging 12 to 16 percent interest rates plus 2 to 4 percent of the loan amount for origination fees. A hard-money lender is a not a bank but a company that takes money from investors at a given interest rate. The hard-money lender then lends that money to fix and flippers at a much higher interest rate.
- Carrying costs: When you own a house, you have to pay for the lawn care, heating, insurance, taxes, HOA and more while you own the home.
- Purchasing costs: Besides the loan origination costs, there are some other costs to consider when buying a flip. A home inspection will run $300 to $800. Some lenders will require an appraisal, which is $400 to $600. There will be a closing fee, recording fees, tax certificates and much more.
- Selling costs: When you sell your house, you will most likely have to pay a real estate agent to sell the flip and possibly cover closing costs for a buyer. The real estate commission and closing costs can add up to be 10 percent of the sale price.
- Miscellaneous costs: Depending on where and how you buy your property, it may have a tenant or the previous owner may still be living in it. You could have eviction costs or costs to pay the occupants to leave.
Here is an example of what the total costs would look like on a typical fix and flip I buy and sell. I have a great lender who charges me 5.25 percent interest rate and 1.5 percent origination, but they only lend on 75 percent of the purchase price. My loan costs are much lower than most flippers'.
Purchase price: $75,000
Loan amount: $56,250
Loan costs: $2,500
Carrying costs: $1,600
- a. Insurance: $400
- b. Lawn maintenance: $300
- c. Taxes : $400
- d. Utilities: $500
Buying costs: $1,000 (I usually do not do an inspection or have an appraisal)
Selling costs: $7,000 (Since I am a Realtor, I only pay the buyer's agent commission. I list the house myself and do not have to pay a listing agent.)
Total costs: $47,100
If I sold the house for $150,000, my profit would be $27,900. That is a decent profit, but I want to make at least $25,000 on each flip because of the risk involved and the money I put into them. On this flip, I would need at least $50,000 of my own cash for the down payment, carrying costs and repairs. Beginning flippers could easily spend three times as much for financing costs and another $4,500 to pay a listing agent. That cuts the profit to under $20,000 for a house that sells for twice as much as it was purchased for. The next time you watch a fix and flip show, see how many of these costs they actually tell you about!
Will you make more money fix and flipping more expensive homes?
It is true that the profit potential goes up when you flip more expensive homes. However, there are many more risks involved when flipping expensive houses.
- The repairs will be much more expensive because buyers will demand higher quality.
- It takes longer to sell more expensive houses and your carrying costs will be higher.
- The carrying costs will be higher due to HOAs, more maintenance needed, higher taxes, etc.
- You will need more cash because down payments, carrying costs and repairs will be higher.
- All your money is in one house instead of multiple homes, increasing the risk if something goes wrong.
The biggest problem with flipping more expensive homes is that the difference between the buy price and sell price is massive. Using the 70 percent rule, a house with a $500,000 ARV would have to be bought for $300,000, if it needed $50,000 in work ($500,000*.7-$50,000=$300,000). It is very hard to find a deal that has such a large difference between the ARV and the purchase price because an owner-occupant buyer would be willing to pay much more for the house. The owner-occupant can pay $400,000, put $50,000 into the house and still have a great deal. In the more expensive market, it is much more likely owner-occupants will have the cash to put into homes.
How long does it take to fix and flip a house?
From start to finish, my goal is to have a flip for four months from the time I buy it to the time I sell it. I almost never hit that number because there are so many unknowns. The biggest delay I have is finding good contractors, especially when I have 10 properties at once. It takes me a couple of weeks to get a contractor started on the work, about a month for the work to be done, about three weeks for the home to be on the market before a contract is accepted and yet another month for the escrow/closing process — if everything goes perfectly.
Unfortunately, it often takes longer for the contractor to make repairs. We inevitably see a few things the contractor missed and they have to go back to the home to take care of those items. Then we have to line up cleaners and get the home listed. Sometimes it takes three weeks to get a good offer; sometimes it's just one week, but it could just as easily be two months. In addition, the escrow process can vary from one month to sometimes two months. Now that I have so many houses and not enough contractors, I am looking at almost nine-month turn times on some of my properties.
Is all the hassle worth it when fix and flipping homes?
After looking at all the costs and everything that has to be accounted for, it may seem a bit intimidating to flip a home. Especially when you consider we have not even talked about how to find a fix and flip that can be bought cheap enough to make money. Just like anything in life, it takes time to learn what you are doing and feel comfortable. I still am learning new techniques to find properties and finding better ways to fix and flip homes.
After you learn the business, it can be a lot of fun. I still get excited whenever I get a new deal under contract, almost as excited as when I sell one for a nice profit. Over the last two years, I have averaged about a $35,000 profit on each of my fix and flips. I completed 10 flips last year and should complete (buy, fix, sell) over 10 this year. On most flips, I make around $30,000 in profit; but once in a while, I will make more, like this property that I made over $50,000. In the last 13 years of fix and flipping homes, I have made over $100,000 twice on a single flip. My success has not come from making a huge profit on one or two flips a year, but on consistently making modest profits on multiple homes. There is much less risk flipping many lower priced homes than flipping one expensive home.
The best part about this business is that I do not flip full time. I run a real estate team of 10 and my primary job is running that team and selling houses. Once you set yourself up correctly with the right contractors, the right financing, enough of your own money and experience, the business does most of the work itself. It is not easy to get to that point and it takes a lot of time and reinvesting money back into the business.
How do you find a great deal to fix and flip?
Finding a great deal is the key to making money in the fix and flip business. I used to buy 90 percent of my fix and flips at the public trustee foreclosure sale. These houses were sold in as-is condition for cash, and many times the inside of the house could not be viewed or homes were occupied. When I bought a home at the trustee sale, I had no inspection period and no way to back out once the property was purchased. In the last two years, the competition at the trustee sale has increased and I have not purchased any homes from that sale in over a year. In fact, I do not even go to the sale anymore because people are paying close to the amount you could buy a house for on the MLS. When I buy on the MLS, I get to have an inspection done, I can use a loan to buy the property, and I don't have to deal with any occupants.
Almost all of my deals are bought on the MLS now. There are a few tricks to getting a great deal, but it is not easy with rising prices and competition.
- Act fast: I make offers within hours of homes being listed.
- Become an agent: One of the reasons I can act so fast is that I write the offer, set up a showing and I do not have to wait on an agent.
- Look for properties that need work: The more problems a property has, the more potential profit there is. Make sure you know how to fix the problems and how much it will cost!
- Look for properties that have been on the market over 90 days. The sellers are more likely to accept low offers on these homes. If they are grossly overpriced, I do not even bother.
- Make offers on homes that come back on the market quickly. I can set up MLS alerts to tell me when a house in a certain price point comes on the market or comes back on the market after a contract falls apart. Many times the great deals that need work have contracts that fall apart because buyers don't realize how much work is needed until their inspection.
There are other ways to get great deals such as direct marketing to sellers who do not have their properties for sale or finding wholesalers who sell cheap properties to investors.
What should you avoid if you decide to start flipping homes?
If you have decided you want to give flipping a try, here are some tips to keep you from losing too much money on your first try.
- Only do the repairs yourself if you know what you are doing and have time to complete them. Many flippers try to save money by doing the work themselves. They don't realize how long it takes to make repairs, especially in their spare time. It ends up taking months to fix the property and the extra time will eats up the money you thought you saved by doing the work yourself. To make the situation even worse, the work won't be as good as if a professional did it.
- Do not overestimate the value of a home or rely on values to increase to make money. Many markets have increasing prices, but that doesn't mean they will keep increasing. A lot of flippers went bankrupt during the housing crisis because they assumed the market would keep going up. When prices stopped increasing and then decreased, they lost everything. I kept flipping right on through the housing crisis because I based values on the current market and left myself room for adjustment.
- Do not overprice a home when you list it. To make money flipping, you have to sell quickly and keep your money moving from property to property. If you have a house sitting on the market that won't sell, it is most likely overpriced. I have found that the sweet spot for a house to be on the market is three weeks and then I usually get an offer. If I don't get an acceptable offer after 30 days, I lower the price 5 to 10 percent, depending on the activity.
- Don't try to sell a house yourself unless you are an agent. If you sell a house for sale by owner, you lose market exposure by not being in MLS. Ninety percent of buyers use a real estate agent to represent them and those agents look on MLS to find properties for their buyers. If you use a limited service company that puts the home on MLS, you still have to pay for the buyer's agent. You are saving very little money and the buyer has representation while you do not. Who will get the better deal?
- Always assume your repairs will be more expensive than you think and the flip will take longer than you think. Even if you get a bid for all the work before hand, things always pop up that you didn't see or you couldn't have known about.
My worst flipping experience
There is a lot of information in this article and I didn't even come close to covering every topic involving flipping houses. I hope it gives you an overview of what it is like and what it takes to flip houses. It is not about hitting a homerun on every flip, but hitting a lot of singles over and over again. I have lost money on flips before, sometimes because of things I have no control over. Since I had many flips going at once, losing money on one flip did not destroy my business — but this was the worst experience.
A couple of years ago, I bought a flip at the trustee sale. I saw the interior of the home through the windows but never got inside the house before I bought it. It was a good deal on a newer house, with little work needed and I thought I would make some easy money. After I bought the house and got the locks changed, we found a brand new BMW in the garage. I knew something very odd was going on, so we tracked down the previous owners in California (I am in Northern Colorado). They claimed the bank had foreclosed wrongly and they were going to get the house for free. They ended up filing a lawsuit against the bank a week later and we had a house we could not sell because it was involved in litigation.
The previous owners had been convinced they would get the house for free by a legal aid. We offered them $5,000 to drop the case and they would not even think of it, because they knew they would get the house for free. Long story short, the lawsuit was frivolous and thrown out by a judge as soon as he saw the case. The problem was that it took the court almost a year to look at the case even after we had hired lawyers and paid them almost $10,000 to speed up the process. After carrying costs and lawyers fees, I lost about $15,000 on that house. There was no way to know that would happen, but sometimes that's how it works when buying houses at the foreclosure sale. That is why I prefer to have multiple low-value houses at the same time, instead of one expensive house. I was still making money and turning other properties while that house was tied up. If all my money was tied up in one house that I could not sell for a year, I could have been in serious trouble.
I have been in the fix and flipping business for a long time and it has been very good to me. It is not easy to get started, to find great deals, find great contractors or to get all the money needed to flip. It is not impossible either, but it does take a lot of planning and education to get started. If you want to ask any questions in the comments, I'll try to respond as quickly as possible.