NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Few real estate tycoons start as young as Chris Sontaie Ferrell; the 33-year-old aviation safety consultant built her first house at the age of 17.
She wasn't a precocious kid with a bloated trust fund. Her hardworking grandparents raised Ferrell in a trailer home in Okeechobee, Fla. Her grandmother cleaned houses and her granddad mowed grass for the state department of highways.
They encouraged Ferrell's natural ambition. "I was in a work/study program at 16, taking classes and working for an attorney 40 hours a week," she says. "I earned double what the other kids made."
The month she graduated, Ferrell contracted to build a two-bedroom home costing $42,000. That bold step, "just seemed natural for me," she says.
It would be almost 15 years before she returned to real estate.
She believed she could fly
In the meantime, she pursued twin interests: paralegal work and flying. The latter began during her teens when a friend took her up in his family's plane. She took lessons and got her license at 21.
She also rented out the home in Okeechobee and moved around the state, first to Ft. Lauderdale, then to Melbourne, where flying was more convenient. By the time she was 23, she hoped to make a living as a pilot. To pursue that goal, she left Florida and went to California.
The move didn't quite pan out and Ferrell soon found herself stranded with $400, no job, and no place to live. Too proud to go home, she found paralegal work and settled in Redondo Beach, then Sacramento.
By 1998, she had moved to Lake Tahoe and was taking classes from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. She graduated in 2001, with a degree in professional aeronautics and minors in business and aviation safety and took a job in public relations, working as a noise/environmental coordinator for Truckee Tahoe Airport.
Back to her roots
By 2002, she started thinking about real estate again, and had her eye on a lot in a little town near Tahoe called Sierraville. She eventually bought a house in Nevada that is her current residence.
Meanwhile, a friend's brother, who had been reading "Rich Dad, Poor Dad,"-- a guide to financial literacy written by Robert Kiyosaki -- asked her, "Why put all your eggs in one basket?" He advised her to leverage the equity in her Florida property and buy three places at once.
"I read like crazy, all the books about real estate investing and how to identify the best markets," she says. Eight months later, shunning expensive California, she picked Port St. Lucie, Florida as an area that was appreciating rapidly, yet still affordable.
She took out a HELOC on the Okeechobee house and bought four lots. In September 2003, she contracted for three homes, all the same four-bedroom, two-bath model. The first one sold last August for $237,500. Ferrell's expenses came to $201,315.
The second house will be finished in December and she hopes to sell it for $265,000. The third one will carry a price tag of $275,000. (She'll have $197,000 invested in each.)
Originally, Ferrell planned to go slowly, stretching out her investing over five years. But she accelerated the process to take advantage of a hot market. She has initiated a total of 11 deals in the last 15 months.
Reducing her risk
Ferrell says she makes profits on the front end. "I always pay wholesale, not retail," she claims. But finding underpriced properties takes a lot of searching, a little luck, and the ability to move fast.
Last March, she bought a rental, paying $85,000 for a two-bedroom, one bath that she has had appraised for $140,000. She grabbed it before it went on the multiple-listing service; her broker said the owner wanted a quick sale. "I recognized a good deal," she says. "The price was right and I wrote my offer within 20 minutes."
She also limits her liability by making sure that she has positive cash flow on properties. She only buys a house if she calculates she would have profits even if the place is fully mortgaged.
She concentrates on new or well-maintained properties. Early on she knew that renovating old houses lay beyond her expertise and would expose her to contractor costs that could wipe out profits. With new homes, the builder guarantees repairs for a year and warrants against defects for 10 years. There should be no expensive surprises.
Ferrell says she steers clear of making emotional decisions, except when her emotions tell her not to proceed. Last spring she almost bought a waterfront lot on the Intercoastal at Jensen Beach for $800,000.
"The deal made sense on paper," she says, but something in her gut told her no. A few months later, a hurricane destroyed the buildings.
Her other properties survived with some damage, but insurance will leave her finances intact. As a matter of fact, she says, "I was going to replace the roof on the Okeechobee house soon anyway." Too, the hurricane damage should increase demand for new homes, enabling Ferrell to command higher prices the ones she's building.
In addition to real estate, Ferrell also invests in mutual funds, an IRA, stocks, and a 401(k).
Meanwhile a job with the state aeronautics board job came through years after she first applied. She now flies around the state in a Beechcraft Bonanza, a $500,000 plane that she calls her Corvette, preaching aviation safety.