NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Some invest in the stock market. Others like the security of bonds. These days, though, it's real estate investors who are having the last laugh.
Among them are Rick and Lisa Chetram, a New York City couple whose real estate savvy has been the key to their financial success.
The saga began before they met: Rick, 30, first became a property owner in 1992, when he bought a three-apartment foreclosure home (a house that the bank reclaimed when the borrower couldn't pay the mortgage) for $150,000. He put down $5,000 for a down payment, and let the rent he collected pay for the mortgage.
Rick, a systems engineer at a financial institution, met Lisa, a teacher in the New York City public schools, at a company function -- she had been hired to teach a dance class. The rest is history. Nowadays, they have a combined annual income of $100,000.
When they tied the knot in 1996, Rick completed a $100,000 cash-out refinancing, which had appreciated considerably in value. With the money, they put a $50,000 down payment on their first home together, worth $250,000 at the time, and a $20,000 down payment on a second investment property.
Don't think they're all real estate and no play, however -- the other $30,000 went to their wedding.
After that, they were hooked. They decided to upgrade both their home and their investment properties. The $250,000 house sold for $350,000, and they put a down payment on their first single-family home in Queens where they now live. Profit from the two investment properties went to a down payment on a 23-unit rental building in Brooklyn, bought for $800,000.
They're selling that same building for $1.2 million next month, along with another investment property they picked up as well. All told, they'll reap about $500,000 in profit. They plan to split the earnings between small-cap mutual funds and more investment properties.
"We want to accumulate over $2 million in real estate, and retire by 40 or so," Rick said.
The Chetrams plan to use their money in retirement to live well and -- you guessed it -- invest in more income producing properties.
"We like to travel and we use our money," he said. "We've vacationed in Hawaii and Mexico -- we live like regular people and don't watch every penny. If we need or want something, we buy it."
Although real estate is their staple investment, the Chetrams also have a savings account valued at $20,000 and contribute regularly to their 401(k) plans. Rick currently has about $20,000 in his 401(k), with 90 percent in aggressive growth funds. Lisa just started contributing to her account, now valued at $3,000, and keeps it in more conservative funds.
Their money personalities differ in other ways, too. When they first married, Rick was a saver and an investor, and Lisa was a spender.
"I did -- and do -- like to spend money," she admits. "He's more of a saving type than I am."
But Lisa said her perspective changed when son Derrick, age 4, was born. Now she contributes 6 percent of her paycheck to her 401(k), and Rick, who used to contribute 10 percent of his, now contributes 3 percent -- enough to get the company match, he said.
As for little Derrick, his financial habits look good already.
"Definitely a saver," Lisa said. "Whenever Grandma and Grandpa give him money, he puts it in his piggy bank. He says it's for college."