This story is from Karl Boericke. He is the author of The Frugal Berry, money-saving tips of all kinds for home, office, and small business.
In 1990, I was honorably discharged from the Navy and quickly found a job in an electronics manufacturing company as a technician in their test department. While renting an apartment at the time, I wondered how I would ever be able to afford to buy a house with my meager salary. I had heard that buying a duplex was an inexpensive way to live and build equity in a home.
After looking at a few mobile homes and quickly realizing the long-term downside to such an “investment,” it became clear that buying a duplex was my best realistic ticket to home ownership. I lucked out in finding a great real estate agent who gave me some sage advice. Even though I could buy a duplex with a VA loan with almost NO cash up-front, she advised me to use an FHA first-time buyer mortgage. This would cost me some money at purchase, but it would give me the possibility of using my VA loan in the future for my “next duplex.” This thought stimulated my imagination, and seemed like an impossibility at the moment, but I followed her advice and kept this long-term idea in storage for another time.
Before I bought my first duplex, I was spending $525 per month to rent a studio apartment that consisted of a kitchen, bathroom with stand-up shower, and an all-purpose room that held my bed, dresser, couch, and a small TV placed on top of my file cabinet. After buying, I was now living in luxury. I had two bedrooms, a living room, a spacious kitchen with laundry hookup, and a full bathroom. I was now renting out a one-bedroom apartment below me for $425 per month, and my mortgage payment was $653 per month, which included real estate taxes, mortgage interest and insurance. This meant that my effective cost of housing per month went from $525 while renting to $228 for more space and home ownership.
Twenty-five months later, I bought my second duplex. This time I used my VA loan, and had very few out-of-pocket costs at closing. I moved into this new duplex to satisfy the loan requirements, and lived there for five years before getting married and buying a single home.
At this point my duplexes were paying for themselves, generating some additional income, and building equity that didn't suffer even in the most recent housing tumble. Anyone who has watched the movie “Pacific Heights” knows the possible downside to being a landlord. Luckily I did not watch this movie until I was a year into my second duplex.
I had a huge learning curve as a landlord, but never had to evict anyone through the legal system. Twice the tenant and I came to a “mutual understanding,” and they were out by the end of the month.
Maintenance came easy for me, but even if I had to pay contractors to take care of any issues, I still would have been saving money like crazy. The dollar figures have changed over the past 20 years or so and mortgage requirements are changing, but the investment opportunities are just the same, or even better in the current housing market.
If you are renting an apartment, living paycheck to paycheck, I highly recommend that you consider buying a duplex. It doesn't cost anything to look, and if nothing else you will be more educated on your possible options for the future.
Author: Ellen Cannon
Ellen Cannon was the editorial director of the financial services sites at QuinStreet from 2010-2015. She has covered personal finance for magazines and websites for more than 20 years, including five years as managing editor of Bankrate.com. She lives in South Florida with her kitty and sunshine.