Tycoon in the making
Mary Buenavenura didn't start out to make a million on real estate -- it just worked out that way.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Call her "The Accidental Tycoon." When Philippine-born Mary Buenaventura first started buying second homes, she didn't intend to become a real estate millionaire -- it just worked out that way.
"My prime goal in the beginning was simply to have a nice vacation home," she says. Maybe so, but now she owns three single-family homes and two condos, and has equity is the seven-figure range.
When Buenaventura came to the United States in August, 1984, she brought excellent English skills and quickly got work as a clerk. That lasted a couple of months until she found a job as a legal secretary. She's worked in that field ever since.
She bought her first home in 1987, a town-house condo in Norwalk, Calif. But that was the year she had her first child, son Charles, and as a single mother, Buenaventura says she wanted a real house.
"I sold the condo after less than a year," she says.
This was during the late 1980s housing frenzy, and the condo had appreciated 50 percent, to $120,000, during the short period she owned it.
She applied the sale profits to a three-bedroom, two-bath nearby, where her family -- daughter Andrea arrived a few years later -- lived for 12 years. When she sold it in 2000, the price had appreciated much more modestly than the condo had, just $45,000 more than she paid.
Catching the wave
By 2000, when Buenaventura moved her family into their current home in La Habra, in Orange County, real estate was flying again. She got in under the high-wire, paying just $237,000. The home value has increased to $750,000.
Her first non-primary home purchase was a one-bedroom cabin near Big Bear, in the mountains out past San Bernardino. She bought it for family vacations in June 2001 and she paid $63,000.
The family only used it for a year or so before her children rebelled.
"You know how kids are," she says. "When they're younger, you can just tell them to pack up. But when they got older they wanted to stay home, close to their computers and their friends." Before that happened she had bought another cabin, intending to rent it out, not far away, for $75,000.
In 2002 she refinanced the La Habra house and her bank offered her enough extra cash to pay off the Big Bear property. She then took out another mortgage on the cabin and used the money to buy a condo in Palm Springs. She has since sold both cabins, but still owns the condo, which she rents.
Meanwhile, on the work front, Buenaventura flourished. She's now a paralegal and trustee administrator specializing in bankruptcies earning about $70,000 annually.
The spark that really got her into serious real estate investing came with a pair of condo purchases in 2003, one on a golf course in Long Beach. It cost $219,000. That one, at least at first, did not work out well.
"It was a one bedroom and I found I could only get about $1,000 to $1,100 in monthly rent. Condos that size on the golf course were not much in demand as rentals," she says.
Fortunately, they were in demand to buy. She sold it for $280,000 and used a 1031 exchange to purchase another Long Beach condo, one closer to the commuter train line. She paid just $145,000 and rents it for $800 amonth.
"Those condos were a good lesson for me," she says. "The one near the train line was in an area where everybody walks, takes the metro or the buses; it was much more rentable compared with the golf course. There, only people in the higher end lived and they wanted to buy, not rent."
That experience caused her to really start thinking about real estate in bigger terms.
"The Long Beach deals really stirred the pot," she says. "I began to think, 'If I can do this all the time, that'd be great.'"
So she plowed back the surplus cash from the sale into another investment property in North Las Vegas. The $190,000 house has since gone up in value to about $270,000.
Home study course
Buenaventura intends to hold onto to most of her homes long-term, which makes positive cash flow from rentals an important aspect of her investment equation. She recognizes that she can't just count on real estate prices going up.
"One of my prime concerns when I investigate a property is, 'How much can I rent it for.' Then I look at maintenance costs and taxes."
If the numbers don't fall into the plus column after expenses, she looks elsewhere.
She has added another single family home to her portfolio, in Utah. And she also bought a condo in Renton Washington, but she quickly sold out after experiencing trouble renting it. She still made $27,000 on that deal.
Overall, Buenaventura has cleared more than $220,000 in gross profits on the properties she has bought and sold. And she figures current equity in her retained homes at more than a million.
Meanwhile she has returned to her original interest -- vacation properties, only now she's buying time shares on the secondary market. She bought a week at a condo in San Diego for $2,300 recently and another in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for just $350.
"I'm planning a trip down to Cabo in a few weeks," she says.
Don't think she won't take a look at some properties while she's there.