Wannabe millionaires are flocking to gurus who promise that anyone can get rich in real estate today. It's not a lie, exactly, but it sure isn't the whole truth.
(MONEY Magazine) – An afternoon session of the Ron LeGrand Massive Income Strategies Boot Camp is about to begin. LeGrand himself, a tall, well-tanned 58-year-old, sits onstage in the ballroom of a Florida golf resort. His 400 students are settling into their seats when, from the back of the room, a thirtysomething man in a T-shirt strides up the aisle waving a piece of paper. Is he part of the show? If so, LeGrand doesn't let on. Introducing himself as Todd, the man presents LeGrand with the document, a copy of a $92,821 check, and announces, "This is from my latest deal." Todd explains that he'd been a truck driver before turning full time to real estate two years ago. Since then, he says, he's made $1 million. The crowd goes wild. Boot Camp is in session again.
Get-rich gurus like LeGrand have been preaching the no-money-down gospel for decades, of course. But in today's housing boom, people have been listening like never before. In April an estimated 40,000 people flocked to the Learning Annex Real Estate Wealth Expo in Los Angeles. In New York, the same event attracted 25,000, up from 1,000 the year before. And real estate advice rarely comes cheap. LeGrand's students pay $2,995 for a weekend course. The Enlightened Millionaire Institute (EMI) charges well into five figures for premium packages that can include the opportunity to do deals with the gurus themselves.
It's tempting to dismiss seminar mania as just another hustle. But that's not entirely fair. Whether or not Todd was a plant (LeGrand's spokesman says no), the techniques LeGrand and others teach have indeed created millionaires. "There really is the opportunity to do extraordinarily well," says Dartmouth business professor John Vogel. But what this inspiration industry downplays is that most students don't have the talent or timing or temperament to strike it rich. With real estate seminars turning out thousands of would-be moguls every month, all pursuing the same no-money-down schemes on the same fringes of a market bound to slow sooner or later, the odds of making a quick fortune in real estate are becoming vanishingly small.
WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU LEARN?
Considering how much seminars vary in style and tone (see the table below), their substance is strikingly uniform. Nearly all start with a single premise--that you don't need money to make money in real estate--and then walk their audiences through get-rich plays that require little or no capital.
"Bird-dogging," for example, is an entry-level technique that consists of scouting for other investors on a per-property basis. Find a fixer-upper, pass along the lead, and get a few hundred dollars if a deal results. A more advanced method is "wholesaling," where you contract to buy a home and then--before laying out cash--sell your contractual rights to a rehabber for a few thousand dollars' profit. More complex is a "subject to" contract, where the buyer gets the title to a property in return for making payments on the seller's mortgage. Or a "short sale," in which you offer a bank less than what's owed on a soon-to-be-foreclosed property.
To make any of these gambits profitable, you must buy the property for far less than its market value. The standard formula: Your "maximum allowable offer" (or MAO, as in "ham on rye, hold the") is 70% of a property's projected "after-repair value" (ARV) minus the repair costs. So lots of seminar time is spent on tips for finding what speakers euphemistically call motivated sellers--owners who, for whatever reason, are desperate to unload their homes. Every seminar recommends monitoring public death, divorce, bankruptcy and foreclosure notices, as well as cultivating relationships with realtors, brokers, lawyers and bankers who can tip you off to fresh cases of homeowners in distress. Some have gimmicks for drumming up prospects. Dwan Bent-Twyford sells a line of "certified investor gear"--T-shirts, tracksuits and tote bags emblazoned with I BUY HOUSES CA$H. LeGrand prefers "yellow letter" mailings--hand-written notes on lined, yellow paper saying "I buy houses. Call me."
Salesmanship is key in no-money-down strategies. LeGrand asks investors with deals in the works to come onstage and demonstrate how they plan to sell their deal to the homeowner; LeGrand plays the role of the owner. When a student stumbles over his words, LeGrand attacks. "You're reminding me that I'm three months behind on my mortgage payments?" he asks, incredulous. He brushes the student aside and switches into the investor's role. "'I'm just calling to confirm'--and then you repeat all the numbers you talked about before," he says. "Then you ask whether they're just looking for a few bucks to move. 'How much?' you ask. 'I can't read [my notes].' They'll probably say a few bucks less." As the other students nod their heads, the man slinks back to his seat.
WHAT YOU FEEL
Marketing and dealmaking advice alone isn't what draws people back to the seminar circuit time after time. Nor is it why people sit at the feet of not one but two or three or four gurus, since so much of the material is identical--and can be found in books and on DVDs at a fraction of the cost of a single seminar.
As with any self-help movement, the leader's charisma is crucial. The most successful real estate gurus have their share, though in the case of LeGrand and Rich Dad, Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki, it's a self-deprecating sort of anticharisma. Both come across as regular guys with failure in their pasts, the better for acolytes to feel there's hope for them as well. The seminars also provide networking opportunities that you can't get with a book or DVD. Between sessions, deals get made and strategies get swapped among potted palms in the hotel lobbies.
But perhaps the seminars' most powerful pull is the sense they confer of membership in a favored group. Real estate entrepreneurs, it's implied, understand the world more clearly than others do. They see that the system is stacked against the little guy, but they've risen above conventional thinking and know how to succeed. Who wouldn't want to be part of that club? At the end of a recent Real Estate 101 weekend, Vena Jones-Cox shouts to her audience, "What do you do?!" Three dozen folks respond as one: "I buy and sell real estate!" (Never mind that few have ever attempted a deal.)
A pillar of the no-money-down belief system is that nine-to-five work is contemptible drudgery. "How many of you don't want a job anymore?" asks speaker Glenn Purdy at an Orlando EMI seminar. Hear the whoosh of a thousand hands being raised at once. (Never mind, again, that most seminar participants earn their living behind desks.)
The financial establishment comes in for special scorn as the natural enemy of contrarian, entrepreneurial thinking. Purdy asks for another show of hands: "Who thinks the country is in a recession?" he calls. About a third do. Who thinks it's not? Again, a third respond. "Congratulations," he says with a sarcastic grin. "You're all economists."
Little wonder, then, that seminar junkies rarely have trouble justifying their spending--not just on meetings, but also on the relentlessly hawked additional courses and materials. Attendees and speakers alike say that the high expense itself helps motivate people to pound the pavement for deals, and that psychological investment naturally follows the financial kind. "It's a ridiculous amount of money if you're not going to do anything," concedes Craig Cherry, a former engineer from Lusby, Md. who says he's spent about $20,000 on real estate courses and materials. "But all I need is one idea and that $5,000 seminar is paid for."
WHAT GOES UNSAID
Inspired with a sense of empowerment and armed with manuals full of no-money-down notions, seminar participants emerge into the sunlight all ready to do deals. What they generally do not realize, however, is how hard it is to put what they've learned into action.
"These seminar leaders never talk about how much of your personal time it takes. They don't talk about the sweat equity," says James Webb, director of real estate studies at Cleveland State University. There's the commonsense fact that homeowners who will part with their property for less than market value are hard to find. And the competition to find them first can be brutal. Roshell Goodkin, a 30-year-old former chiropractic student who lives in Lighthouse Point, Fla., followed her seminar leader's advice for attracting sellers by including peppermint LifeSavers in each of her "I Buy Houses" letters. She later learned that some homeowners were getting five or six mints a day from other investors. And when the targets did respond, she says, they often played investors against one another.
What's more, new competitors are constantly being launched into business. Stephen Damiani is a 19-year veteran of the Brooklyn county clerk's office. "Every time a big wave of people comes in looking for foreclosure lists," he reports with a roll of his eyes, "I say to myself, 'Oh, there must have just been a seminar.'"
Newbies can make expensive mistakes. Mickey Higgins, who represents lenders at New York City foreclosure auctions, saw one newly minted investor bid $210,000 on a property thinking it was a condo. "You should have seen her face when she realized it was just a parking space" in a condo's garage, he says. When an inspection of their first investment home showed only minor termite damage, Helen and Robert Condry of Indialantic, Fla. went ahead and bought it for $75,000. Fixing the problem turned out to cost $24,000, wiping out their profits and then some.
Even if you find the right place at the right price, motivated sellers aren't always ideal partners. According to Cleveland State's Webb, many don't understand the terms or mechanics of the no-money-down-style deals that seminar graduates propose, and they get scared off. When they do sign, they are more likely than other sellers to back out later.
Most gurus make light of setbacks as mere bumps on an inevitable road to success. At the EMI Wealth Retreat, co-founder Mark Victor Hansen announces with a smile that both he and co-leader Robert Allen had been bankrupt. Then he turns to Allen and asks, "How did you sleep when you were bankrupt?"
"Like a baby," Allen answers on cue. "I woke up every two hours and cried."
The message that's conspicuously absent from most real estate seminars is that some people just aren't cut out for this stuff. Maybe they can't master the complexity of the transactions or don't have the stomach to push cutthroat deals on vulnerable homeowners, or simply lack the ability to persuade people to do what may not be in their best interest.
Larisa Belliveau of Rochester, N.Y. was an MBA-trained technology-marketing manager at Xerox who lost her job to downsizing. In 2003, after hearing Glenn Purdy at an EMI seminar, she turned to real estate to make a living. "He has a brilliant way of converting people, getting them excited," Belliveau recalls. "He had good stories that many of us could relate to--a lot of pain and struggle."
Her first deal went smoothly: She bought a fire-damaged house for $1 in February 2004 and "wholesaled" it to a rehabber the next weekend for $2,500. She then tried buying soon-to-be-foreclosed properties after $15,000 worth of courses and coaching with one popular guru. She pursued more than 60 deals over the next six months; none went through.
Belliveau blames herself for at least part of her failure. "If you want to make it work, it costs a lot," she explains. "And it's not for the faint of heart. I think I was too soft. You need to know how to sell houses quickly, how to talk to lenders, and the cost of repairs. It's a complex system."
All told, she studied under five gurus and three coaches, spending $75,000 on classes, materials and marketing--nearly all of it in credit-card debt that she hasn't paid off. "I have no problem paying for what works," she says. "But I spent so much money with them. I did everything they said, and it didn't work."
A Gallery of Gurus
The nuts and bolts of most real estate seminars are similar. How they deliver their message (and for what price) is another story.
NOTE:  Some prices include use of advice hotlines and access to additional seminars.