Most of the time, I feel that the advice I write in this space comes in the telling of my personal story. I could have titled this article, “What You Need to Have a Cash Positive Home”, but decided to take a more narrative approach, since what worked for me may not work for others. Since starting my road to financial independence in 2017, we have acquired a property that has potential to be a source of income. While I hesitate to insinuate that real estate is a good “investment”, I do have to say that this particular one worked out for us, despite living in the Golden State (Orange County, no less). If you want to know how we got here, read on to hear about the process.
Our story begins in 2017, when I decided to pay off $575k+ in student debt, and suddenly realized that the beautiful live-work loft that we were renting was absolutely and horrific-ly expensive. Even though it fell within the average cost of an OC rental ($2,800 a month for a two bedroom, two bathroom, 1,500 sq. ft. live-work loft with a 2-car tandem parking garage), it became apparent that it could not support my goals. So I went down a rabbit-hole of considering my options.
First, we looked for cheaper rentals. We almost pulled the trigger on renting out a 500-square foot apartment in Huntington Beach for $1,900, but voted against it because it had no garage, was farther from work, and would have likely caused marital issues due to cramped quarters. As much as I loved Mike, we were still growing accustomed to being around each other 24/7. Little did we know a pandemic was written in our futures. Either way, we nixed the idea of moving into a tiny box, although now, I think I could handle it.
Next, I wrote to our current landlord to ask her to reduce the rent. We had a great relationship with our landlord and she was so grateful to our on-time rent payments and our care for her home, that she did reduce the rent from $2,800 a month to $2,600 a month (a savings of $2,400 per year). Okay, so now we were getting somewhere.
Then, I thought of renting out the bottom floor (which had its own entrance, bathroom, and floor). The living space was on the second floor and the bedroom was on the third floor. I told people around me that I was thinking of renting it out and luckily, my brother’s newly graduated girlfriend happened to find a job in Orange County. At the time, my brother was living in my parent’s two bedroom home and she was living with her sister in San Diego, where her internship was located. Her new job in OC meant that she needed a new home, and apartments, like I said, would have likely cost her anywhere from $1,800-$2,400 monthly.
So, we offered her a place to live, for a mere $700 per month. Liiiiiiiiiike, a really nice place to live for any new college grad. Lucky for us, she said YES! That cut down our living expenses to $1,900 per month, the same number we would have had to pay for that tiny room by the beach. By house-hacking, we saved $900 per month, which saved us $10,800 per year. This brought down our yearly cost of rent from $33,600 to $22,800 – quite an amazing feat.
It killed me to know that $22,800 of our hard-earned, post-tax dollars was going into someone else’s pocket, without increasing our wealth. So I became obsessed with buying a live-work loft of our own. I must have searched Zillow for an entire year straight. I was so in love with our current one and our location, but when one was listed on the market, I couldn’t stomach the $650,000 price tag. It was for 1,500 sq. ft., one bedroom, one bath, and a downstairs office. It was street facing which brought up it’s property value, but after stalking Zillow for a year, I felt that the right price for that loft was about $100,000 cheaper.
The most important thing about the home searching process is this:
We knew what we wanted. A turn-key live-work loft that allowed us to keep Kirsten and that is fairly new for a fair price that will not wipe out our bank accounts. We wanted one in between Los Angeles and South OC, and we wanted a property that can become a rental, a business storefront, or our home. Essentially, I wanted options. Our lives were open-ended at the time, so we wanted our housing situation to be, too. We decided to put the smallest down payment we can (about 5% of the asking price) so that we can get in on the market sooner.
(PS: The loan we did was a traditional loan which included a PMI for only putting 5% down. We also looked into a physicians loan which allowed 5% down without PMI. However, the physician’s loan increased the interest rate, and when we ran the numbers, one ends up paying more for the physician loan over the course of 30 years than a traditional loan. As far as putting more than 5%, we just did not have the cash at hand especially since we were making $6,500/mo payments to my loans. So we decided to put in the least we could, and this kept us from being house broke. We had extra cash to cover the fees and still keep a nice chunk for an emergency fund!)
We were sitting at Bruxie’s waiting for our chicken and waffles, disappointed at deciding to let go our “dream” loft, but also proud of not allowing emotion to make our home purchase decision for us. It was then that I saw it for the first time listed on Zillow. A loft in the heart of downtown Santa Ana, maybe about 2.5 miles from where we currently lived. It was listed at $499,900 and had the same number of bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage, and parking spaces as the loft we lived in. Also, it was street-facing. The seller was under contract previously, but for some reason, the contract fell through and he decreased the asking price by about $15k. This gave us a clue: He was motivated to sell. He listed it only a few hours before our seeing it, and the next day, we had done a walk-through and placed an offer.
Some might call this an emotional decision but that it was not. We just happened to know what we wanted and did not want. We happened to know the current market. We also happened to know a stellar agent who was a friend of a friend’s, and we happened to know the person who lived next door to the loft we bought. We have done the research, the thinking, and the networking – and everything just kind of fell into place, which is great if you’re a believer in fate.
So we bought the house with a 5% down at 4.6% interest rate (which happened to be more than 2% less than my loan interest rate!) and our monthly mortgage, (plus PMI, plus HOA, plus property tax) was about $3,300 a month. We kept our roomie on for $700 a month and gave her a garage spot for the inconvenience of moving her butt to downtown, so this made our portion of the payment $2,600 – the price we were at before we started house hacking. This was at the end of 2018.
During the pandemic in 2020, we refinanced in the summer, reducing our interest rate from 4.6% to $3.5%, and our monthly payment from $3,300 to $3,000. We even gave our roommate a $100 discount, reducing her rent to $600 a month, for being such a stellar, long-term roommate. Unfortunately, our living situation with her is coming to an end this year, so we decided in January of 2021 to refinance a second time.
This second refinance (5 months after our first) reduced our rate even further from 3.5% to 2.85%! It also reduced our monthly payment down to $2,700 (HOA, property tax, and mortgage insurance included). With our roommate still on board until July/August, we are paying $2,100 for a roof over our heads. Unfortunately, she will leave at the end of summer, and we will have to face a few rental options. However, since we treat her (and charge her) like family, the rental price of that downstairs room will likely increase to a going rate of $1k/month. At that price, our housing cost will go down to $1,700 a month – not bad for OC and more than $1k cheaper than where we originally started.
The refinance put us at a fantastic place to be since our unit has a rental value of about $2,800 – $3,000 per month back when we originally bought it. However, just recently, lofts that were built over the pandemic down the street are now being leased. These 500-800 square foot lofts go for $2,800-$3,000 / month. The proximity to our place will, we hope, drive the value of our unit above $3,000/month as a rental. Either way, it is safe to say that our place is now cash flow positive shall we decide to move on from here after “things return back to normal.”
Both our jobs are taking us south, so if remote work doesn’t remain a thing, we may rent this space out and get a second property. Shall we choose to stay, we can continue to house-hack and rent the bottom floor as either an office space for a WFH parent that needs their “work away from home”, or as a bedroom for someone we know. This will lower our living expense to under $2k/month.
In the meantime, the value of the property is estimated to be at $550k according to our appraisal, and $565k according to Redfin. We are earning equity and when we move on, will also earn rental income on top of that.
The following are the tips that worked for us when buying a property:
- Know your market. I stalked Zillow for a year for a very particular type of home in a small area.
- Know your numbers. Don’t accept loans at face value – actually map out the dollar amount over time.
- Know your must-haves and cant-live-without. For Mike, that was a garage. For me, it was natural light.
- Know an emotional decision when you feel one. This is why we did not buy the loft “of our dreams”.
- Know your financial limits. I knew I had my student debt to worry about. I also knew I wanted an emergency fund and to not be house-broke.
- Know your future goals. I knew this wasn’t going to be our forever home. Our lives are so open-ended, there was no pressure to buy a home that we would live in forever.
- Don’t ascribe to the “dream home” and all that HGTV stuff.
- Take Renovations Slowly or not at all.
- Don’t just buy a home and forget. Continually re-evaluate and find ways to save. That’s why we thought of refinancing.
- Be open to non-traditional ways of living. House hacking and living with a roommate is the best decision we ever made.
- Be creative in your solutions. Not only did we house hack, but I also built a bakery out of my kitchen. I operated my own bakery for a year. My house also acts as my WFH blog space, my ROVER dog-sitting space, and now, it is my husband and roommate’s work-office. It is more than a home or a rental property – it is where we work and earn a living, too.
I know this narrative is extremely personal and number heavy, but I also hope it’s been of help.
Thanks for reading along.