Real estate investing might seem like something only wealthy people can do.
It’s expensive, down payments can be high, and you may feel you don’t have enough income to afford it.
Maybe you think: “I can’t even afford a house to LIVE in…how would I afford a house to invest in?”
But the plain truth is: there are lots of average Joes who do it…and who build a lot of wealth from it!
Today’s podcast guest is one such (inspiring) example.
John and Rosalina Steiner reached out to me (after following the podcast!) to share their real estate investing story. I found it compelling and wanted to share their insights and wisdom with you, too. Hope you enjoy listening to their story as much as I did!
We chat about:
- How and why the Steiners started investing in real estate in the first place
- Their 25-door real estate portfolio breakdown – what type of units, where they’re located, how many have mortgages
- How they financed the down payments and loans for each property
- Why they chose the neighborhoods they invest in
- Why they self-manage, and their best tips for managing tenants effectively
- Their views on Section 8 and how they manage Section 8 tenants
- Why they never plan to stop investing…even though they’re 65!
Do you wish to invest in real estate but feel like you don’t know how to get started? What’s the biggest factor you think holding you back? Let me know by leaving a comment.
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Links mentioned in this episode:
- John & Rosalina Steiner
- Multifamily real estate investing: how to build a $175M portfolio in 7 years with Andrew Campbell (HYW029)
- Schedule a private 1:1 consultation with me
- HYW private Facebook community
Read this episode as a post:
Andrew Chen 01:23
My guests today are John and Rosalina Steiner.
John and Rosalina are multi-family apartment investors who own and operate 25 doors in Southern California, primarily in Ventura County.
They spent the bulk of their careers working corporate finance jobs, and they started investing in real estate on the side about 15 years ago. Then a few years ago, they transitioned to managing their real estate investments full-time.
They’re currently also real estate agents, and they also coach others on how to invest in and operate rental properties.
John, Rosalina – thanks so much for joining us today to share your story and your real estate journey and insights about how to successfully invest in buy and hold real estate!
John Steiner 01:58
We’re glad to be here, Andrew. Thanks for having us.
Andrew Chen 02:01
We connected first by email because you reached out to me after listening to an earlier podcast episode. And as we were chatting and I learned more about your story, I thought it would be great to share it on the podcast with our listeners.
I was reading your profile bio a little bit, and I actually didn’t know you spent time in Houston. How long were you there? Where were you, actually?
John Steiner 02:18
We were in Houston in Corpus. Rosalina and I met in a geology class at the University of Houston. She was with Exxon, and I was with Conoco.
Then oil was going crazy in the early ‘80s, and then it tanked, and so we moved back to Southern California.
Andrew Chen 02:40
I grew up in Houston myself. I spent almost all of my childhood there, so it’s near and dear to my heart. I grew up in the southeast, Clear Lake City, near where NASA is.
John Steiner 02:52
We know that well, and we spent time in Corpus. We really like the south a lot. I would say that what we learned, Andrew, at a relatively young age for us, was a couple of things.
We were in the oil business, and it was extremely volatile, and we had a young family. But we, at the same time, learned about passive income, which was oil and gas royalties, which was huge for us and very impactful on our approach to how we were going to try to strategically put our financial lives together.
Andrew Chen 03:30
That makes sense. It dovetails, I think, with, probably later, how you got into real estate investing. Tell us a little bit first about your career backgrounds before real estate investing.
I just know you were working in corporate finance. But what were you doing and all that?
John Steiner 03:48
I grew up in Southern California, I got a law degree, I was trained to go get a job. I got a job. I was a landman with a couple of major oil companies.
Rosalina worked in the technical side as a downhole wireline processor at Exxon. And then at Schlumberger, she did seismic data mapping.
And I was raised where you go to school. Rosalina came from the interior of Mexico. It was a little different story.
We met in a college class. Long story short, oil tanked in the late ‘80s, we moved to Southern California, I got a job with the FDIC. I was doing loan workout.
Rosalina finished her college degree, got an MBA. She worked at UCLA and UC Irvine for 25 years, and ended her career in corporate America as a senior budget analyst for one of the 14 vice-chancellors at UCLA.
I ended up being a CFO and a Chief Credit Officer at a private lender for a Korean company in Downtown L.A., and I spent about half of my career doing loan workouts. So I saw a lot of things you shouldn’t do in business.
Andrew Chen 05:02
I imagine that probably helped later when you started taking out mortgages of your own for real estate investing. Tell us a little bit about what got you started in real estate investing in the first place.
John Steiner 05:13
I would say (and I’m not being funny) it was out of desperation. We had to figure out, “How are we not going to eat dog food in retirement? How are we going to provide for a lifestyle that would have consistent returns?”
Rosalina has some brothers that were investing in homes and shopping centers. These guys didn’t have our education, and they were hitting it out of the park. And we scratched our heads, like “What were we doing wrong?”
So, we bought a little townhouse in a nice area in Ventura County. It had the best school district.
We got lucky. It did well. In two years, our investment quadrupled.
And we’re smart enough to know we’re not smarter than the large macroeconomic swing, so we took the money. We did our first 1031 exchange into a 6-unit apartment building.
Andrew Chen 06:12
As I understand, you currently own and operate 25 doors. First of all, what’s the mix in terms of singles, doubles, fourplex, five and above, etc.?
John Steiner 06:21
We have two fourplexes, we have a sixplex and an eightplex, and then a statistical outlier, which is a house in Calabasas, which is a nice subdivision in Southern California.
Andrew Chen 06:33
So mostly multifamily. How many are free and clear at this point?
John Steiner 06:38
We’re like most major corporations. None of them are free and clear. We have debt on all of them.
We’ll get into it a little bit later, but one of our methods for buying properties, because we started as pretty middle-class people: buy a house, fix it up, sell it, use proceeds towards the down payment on an apartment, and then use some of the proceeds for the next house.
We’ve got a house now which is far bigger than what we need. We may end up selling it. And we’ve contemplated, to your point, Andrew, paying off a couple of the properties, but that wouldn’t allow us to continue to invest, and we’re going to continue to invest until our last breath.
Andrew Chen 07:26
Rosalina Steiner 07:27
Good plan, right?
Andrew Chen 07:28
Yeah. Can you talk about, at least starting out, at the beginning, how did you come up with the first down payments to purchase those first properties? I’m assuming you didn’t start out as a multimillionaire, so what was your process for hand-cranking your investing journey into motion?
John Steiner 07:55
I left the company about 25 years ago. There was a 401(k). Every wealth manager would tell you not to do this.
We took it. We paid the tax on it. We borrowed about a third of the down payment from one of Rosalina’s brothers.
Back then, you could get into an investment property with 10% down. We got in, and thanks to Rosalina’s brother, we got this first property. And through no luck of our own, it went up fourfold in two years.
Andrew Chen 08:30
So then what happens? Do you refinance at some point so you can then use those proceeds to purchase another property? How does it work?
John Steiner 08:41
One of our other techniques is we buy the worst house in the best neighborhood we can. Rosalina and I spend a year or two fixing it up to a high degree.
We get the biggest home equity line of credit we can possibly get. We go to three or four lenders. We get the one that would give us a huge HELOC, because we know we’ll never come up with enough of a down payment for the next apartment.
We’re going to need probably about a third from some other source, so we’ll borrow it off the HELOC. We’ll put it down on the property, we’ll sell the house, pay off the HELOC, pay off the first mortgage, and go do it again.
We’ve done this three or four times, Andrew, and it has worked for us.
Andrew Chen 09:27
Can you say more about what you mean when you say you sell the house? Because, as I understand, your primary business is buy-and-hold real estate for rental income. Is that correct?
John Steiner 09:39
Andrew Chen 09:40
So, what do you mean by sell the house?
John Steiner 09:43
The home we live in, we’re going to buy, we’re going to fix up.
Rosalina Steiner 09:49
We’re going to fix it up. We’re waiting.
Once it’s fixed up, we’ll put it in the market. We’ll have a huge equity there.
John Steiner 09:59
We usually have pretty good equity in these homes we buy. And then, after we’ve taken some of the money from the home equity line of credit towards down payment on that apartment and bought the apartment, then we’ll list the home on the market.
And that’s one of the reasons we got a real estate license: not only to train others, but to mitigate our transaction costs. So, we’ll sell the house.
We may rent for a year. We may not. We may move into one of our apartments.
We’ve done that. And then look around for another good deal in a nice neighborhood. Does that make sense?
Andrew Chen 10:34
The homes you’re buying, are they meant to be owner-occupied, where you’re rehabbing them while you’re owner-occupying them? You obviously create a lot of additional value from the remodeling. You take out a HELOC from that, and then you sell it.
Maybe you can even capture the capital gains exclusion from that. That way, you’re creating capital to invest in rental real estate. Have I got that right?
John Steiner 11:01
That’s exactly right. And when we first started, like we described, we had to borrow a little money. We had to sacrifice some of our 401(k)’s.
As we built up our portfolio, we started to do cash out refinances on some of our properties. And as you know, it takes several years to season these properties. We’ve done that two or three times, where we’ve pulled out tax-free cash off of these properties to use as down payments for another property.
Andrew Chen 11:34
I know you focus primarily in Ventura County. Are all your properties located there? If not, how many of your 25 doors are in Ventura County?
John Steiner 11:44
All of our apartments are in Ventura County. And like I mentioned earlier, we have a statistical outlier, which is a home in Calabasas, which is L.A. County.
Andrew Chen 11:53
Why did you choose Ventura County as your investing focus area?
John Steiner 12:00
Our oldest son lives in Ventura County, and he has this attraction called grandchildren, so that was one of the reasons. But from a financial standpoint, I think Rosalina would agree that the rate of return has been much higher in Ventura County. The cost per unit is lower here.
Rosalina Steiner 12:25
John Steiner 12:26
Rosalina Steiner 12:27
It’s changing a lot.
John Steiner 12:29
Santa Barbara, we could never afford to buy, and we wouldn’t, even if we could, because the cash on cash return, which we’ll talk about in a minute, isn’t good. The city of L.A. and good parts of L.A. County have huge restrictions on rent control, which we’re personally averse to. Orange County has some areas that we would buy in, but it’s too far away for us now.
And I was greatly influenced by a real estate lawyer who used to write in the L.A. Times about 40 years ago. His name was Robert J. Bruss, and his mantra was “Don’t buy more than an hour from where you live.” We probably would never achieve the level of wealth that some might by viewing this more as a paper investment.
But Rosalina and I not only love each other; we like each other. And we like spending time together, so we work on the units together. We don’t do a lot of the physical work ourselves, but because of Rosalina’s finance background and mine, she does the Excel spreadsheets every month for the profit and loss, and then at the end of the year, we can give it to the accountant.
Andrew Chen 13:46
What would you say are the kind of neighborhoods that you’re focusing on investing in Ventura County? Are these B class assets and working class neighborhoods? Can you describe a little bit where you’re investing?
John Steiner 13:59
That’s exactly right. They probably start out candidly as C class properties when we buy them. We like close to the beach because we think there’s an inherent value there.
Maybe some of your viewers have never heard of these places: Port Hueneme, right next to Oxnard, the most reasonably priced place in Ventura County. The next one is Oxnard. We like that a lot.
One of the byproducts is there’s a heavy Hispanic population in some of these areas. Rosalina is a native of Mexico. She speaks Spanish.
I develop a trust with folks, but it takes a little longer because Rosalina speaks Spanish and there’s an immediate clicking there.
Rosalina Steiner 14:45
It’s not always a Hispanic thing.
John Steiner 14:47
No, not at all. And then we just bought a building in January in Camarillo, which is probably, along with the City of Ventura, the nicest parts of Ventura County.
Andrew Chen 15:00
Why did you choose the B or starting C class asset profile as your focus? What was most attractive about that profile?
John Steiner 15:11
That’s a great question. It’s the rate of return. We think we’re compassionate capitalists, but at the end of the day, cash flow is king at our house.
And we think we give a much better product to a tenant than what they’re paying for. At the same time, in Southern California, we could go to some really bad neighborhoods, put zero down, and make a rate of return, or we could to Santa Monica and put 50% down and pray to break even. So, we’re looking for something in between.
In the first lender we ever went to, met us and looked at Rosalina and said (because she’s a petite person), “If Rosalina can walk into the complex during the day without fear for her life, it’s a place to consider.”
Short answer: B class properties that start out as C, we fix them up to a high level. We do things like white shaker style cabinets, quartz countertops, white plank flooring. You attract a really good quality of tenant.
People weren’t meant to live that close together, Andrew, in apartments, so you need people that are understanding of that, and respectful, and friendly. So, when we fix these places up, we get a good quality of tenant. I know we’ll talk a little later about the type of tenant profile and everything, so that during COVID, we’ve maintained a pretty good cash flow.
Andrew Chen 16:46
I definitely want to dive into those things here in a moment. I wanted to first dwell a little bit on the remodeling and rehab process because it sounds like that’s a really critical aspect of creating value: buying a C class property in a good neighborhood, upgrading it to a B.
First of all, at this point, do you have a core team of rehab folks you know who to call for specific things? If so, how did you first build that team?
John Steiner 17:25
If we’re really being blunt about this, really block and tackle about this, we went to our gardener and we said, “Ignacio, we just bought a foreclosure, and when you put a marble on one end of the front room in the front house, it rolls to the opposite end of the house. What do we do?” “I’ve got the person for you, Mr. John.”
All kidding aside, we have developed, over the last 15 years, a core group. Most of your problems, you need a handyman and you need a plumber.
Both have lived in units of ours in the past, which we take as a big success. So, we have the core team.
When a unit becomes vacant, in the State of California, you’re not limited by what you can raise the rent to. And I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. Our rents are at market or slightly below.
But when we buy these places, invariably, a lot of the landlords run a different business model. Their business model is “I’m not going to fix it up. Don’t ask me to fix anything, and I’m not going to raise the rent on you.”
Our model is slightly different. It costs us $25,000-$30,000 to redo a unit.
That includes we put new sewers in, new water lines. We put high line cabinets in the kitchen. We redo the bathrooms, scrape the ceilings, recessed lights.
Rosalina Steiner 19:10
Ceiling fans. Really create a home for our tenants.
Andrew Chen 19:17
You install ceiling fans, or you take them out?
John Steiner 19:20
No, we install them. So, when we get done, these places look pretty nice. And like Rosalina said, she’s the one that does the decorating, and she wants to create an environment where someone feels like they’re in a home, not just some shack that some landlord is getting rents on every month.
Andrew Chen 19:44
If you’re replacing water lines and things like sewer lines, does that mean you’re digging stuff up and taking the home down to the studs? Is that correct?
John Steiner 19:53
The first part, absolutely. Our six-unit building by the beach in Oxnard, we went there one day because our plumber was replacing the sewer lines, and we walk in, and there’s a pile of sand eight feet tall in the front room, which concerned us a bit because that told us what the foundation was on.
But at the same time, you have to do that. Necessarily, you have to have some units that are vacant before you can do this.
Andrew Chen 20:23
You’re able to do that for just $20,000-$30,000 a unit?
Rosalina Steiner 20:25
John Steiner 20:27
Yeah. We act as the general. We pull permits on the significant things.
But I learned this when I was an underwriting manager at a lender, and the owner of the company, the president, said, “John, if you use the same lawyer every time, or the same group of lawyers, you can get them to negotiate their prices down because they’re going to get repeat business from you.”
So we took that lesson, and for $25,000-$30,000, we do a unit, and that includes the sewer lines, the water lines. They look nice and they last.
Andrew Chen 21:10
You must have a checklist, at this point, of things that you can almost just rinse and repeat. What are the major items? I think you alluded to some of them, but more comprehensively, what are they?
John Steiner 21:21
The first thing we do is curb appeal. A lot of places, you pull up to them, and they just don’t look very nice. They don’t look appealing, and we’re trying to appeal to the best set of tenants, clients, or customers that we can.
A lot of our tenants have kids, so the first thing we do, for safety purposes, is put a nice black rod iron fence in that’s 4-5 feet tall, has gates that open up and everything. And then we repaint the unit, the exterior.
Typically, they don’t have sprinklers. We put sprinklers in and landscape.
Like Rosalina said a moment ago, they start to look like a home. They look like an attractive place that someone would want to live in. And that’s our first step.
The next step is slowly raising rents. And then, as tenants tend to move out, because there is an inevitable turnover, we’ll take the unit, and on the checklist: flooring, scraping ceilings, new lighting.
Andrew Chen 22:25
When you’re scraping ceilings, popcorn ceiling, you mean?
John Steiner 22:28
Yeah, take the popcorn ceilings out. We started using, if you want to get real detailed, a shade of white that didn’t look real bright.
And these are older buildings we buy because that’s all we can afford, typically. And these are older neighborhoods. And most of the housing stock for apartments is not brand new that’s owned by mom-and-pops like us.
We’ll paint with a bright white. We’ll put it chrome ceiling fans. We’ll put in stainless steel appliances in the kitchen.
Quartz countertops is what appeals to tenants currently. We’ll put in real nice (you’ve probably seen them, Andrew) backsplashes now that has a Hispanic look to it, like the old floors they used to do. We’ll go do the ceiling with those.
People go wild. They can’t believe these places. Our competition doesn’t do that.
Andrew Chen 23:28
What kind of flooring product do you use?
John Steiner 23:30
We use a white plank vinyl flooring. The product now has gotten to such a quality that it looks like wood, and when you do this on a floor, it feels like wood.
Rosalina Steiner 23:43
It’s also easy to maintain for the tenants, right?
John Steiner 23:46
That’s a good point.
Rosalina Steiner 23:48
But where we really put a lot of emphasis is the kitchen because that’s where they spend most of their time. We give them a lot of space. Even if the kitchen is small to start with, we remodel it, so it looks homey and family, and they can work with the kids.
So, we put a lot of emphasis on the bathroom and kitchen.
Andrew Chen 24:08
Yeah, that’s very important. What do you do to the bathroom, typically?
John Steiner 24:12
We’ve changed. We used to have our handyman come in and put a tile shower in with a tub. What we found now is the best thing that lasts the longest, and tenants seem to appreciate more, is a fiberglass insert that has a tub, it looks nice…
Rosalina Steiner 24:29
Easy to clean.
John Steiner 24:31
Easy to clean, doesn’t get mildew problems.
By the way, we never call it mold. There’s no such thing as mold. It’s called mildew.
But that’s what we do. And we put a nice vanity in. And Rosalina’s point a minute ago: if you use the vinyl flooring, if you’re downstairs, you can do it everywhere.
We made the mistake of learning you can’t put a hard flooring upstairs because if you have a tenant that’s a night owl and is up late at night, like you are, Andrew, they can’t sleep because there’s this pounding upstairs on the floor. So we put carpet upstairs, vinyl flooring downstairs.
Andrew Chen 25:15
So much good stuff there. The fiberglass bathtub insert, does that go all the way to the ceiling? Do you use the ones that go all the way to the ceiling?
John Steiner 25:25
No, because typically we’re going to make sure there’s a window in there. One of the problems we’ve had in bathrooms is a moisture accumulation, so we make sure that there’s usually a window. If there isn’t, we might add it to the bathroom.
And one thing that we didn’t mention is we always eventually end up putting new vinyl windows in a complex.
Andrew Chen 25:51
How far up does it go, then?
Rosalina Steiner 25:55
Level to the window.
John Steiner 25:56
Right. If the ceiling is eight feet, we probably go six feet.
Andrew Chen 26:04
Interesting. So, that’s kitchen, bath, you scrape the ceilings, put in the vinyl plank flooring, repaint.
What else do you do? Anything in the bedrooms?
John Steiner 26:17
Yeah. We put sconces on the walls, lighting. Rosalina has come up with, in high-end homes, you see baseboards that are really tall, so we put tall baseboards in the rooms.
The bedrooms, all we end up doing is putting a ceiling fan with a light fixture, maybe a sconce. If they have those sliding doors, we put new sliding doors in. Again, we want it to be bright and light, and give the tenant a feel of it looks bigger, it looks quality.
Andrew Chen 26:57
And you mentioned that you’ll put carpet upstairs to soften the noise. How often are you changing out carpet?
John Steiner 27:05
That’s the problem. It depends.
Andrew Chen 27:10
It depends on the tenant, for sure.
John Steiner 27:11
That’s exactly right. And it depends how long you hold a tenant.
We have one tenant that (we bought the building five years ago) he’s been there almost 10. He’s got carpet that we inherited.
But he’s vacuuming it every week. He’s very fastidious.
And we have other tenants that if it lasts three or four years, we’re lucky. Because of the cost of having to do that, if we get five years out of it, we’re lucky.
Rosalina Steiner 27:39
And there also is a direct correlation at how they maintain the apartment based on their deposit. If we have a good deposit, the place stays in good shape.
We used to be horrible at it, and we had to spend a lot of money. Now with a good deposit, they really want to maintain the place.
Andrew Chen 28:00
It’s funny how those things correlate. How much do you typically request for deposit? A month’s worth?
John Steiner 28:07
No. You’ve got to get more than a month because if things start to go sideways…because some of our tenant base, they need that deposit, they think, for the deposit in the next place. A lot of these folks are paycheck to paycheck, which we were for many years, so believe me, we’re not criticizing it.
Andrew Chen 28:28
How do you get a paycheck to paycheck tenant to pay more than a month’s deposit?
John Steiner 28:34
In 15 plus years, we could count on one hand the number of times we’ve had a tenant object to the deposit. So we usually get a month and a half.
Andrew Chen 28:45
Rosalina Steiner 28:46
If they had an excellent credit, we allow them to pay the deposit in two payments or three payments. So, if they have excellent credit, and we want the tenant, we allow them to pay the deposit in two or three payments.
Andrew Chen 29:03
That’s amazing that you haven’t gotten that much pushback over the years.
Rosalina Steiner 29:07
Andrew Chen 29:09
What is excellent credit in your eyes?
Rosalina Steiner 29:13
700, 740, 720. Anything above 700.
Andrew Chen 29:18
How often do you get a paycheck to paycheck tenant who has above 700?
Rosalina Steiner 29:22
We’ve been very lucky. If you search, we probably have most of our tenants. We were surprised, we had one that was 800.
John Steiner 29:32
We have one that’s Section 8 with an 800 credit score.
Rosalina Steiner 29:37
Yeah. Those are the people that we want in our places.
John Steiner 29:40
We will take people in high 600’s if we have to. But I agree with Rosalina: we try to get as close to 700 as we can.
Rosalina Steiner 29:48
Andrew Chen 29:50
It’s just amazing that you’re able to find even 25 tenants who fit that profile because it’s certainly tough. I’m also very impressed that you’re able to do all that remodeling for $25,000-$30,000.
I’ve done my fair share of remodeling, and I tend to remodel very similarly as you guys, actually. A lot of the things that you were saying were exactly the same things I do on my checklist. I don’t even quite do all the stuff you do, and I have not been able to get it to that number.
John Steiner 30:19
Rosalina Steiner 30:20
We do a lot of the search on everything, from the granite or whatever we’re going to use. We search a lot.
We use the 20% coupon. We save those, and we buy the equipment when it’s available, also whatever we’re going to buy, a really nice stove, we get it when it’s on sale.
We save that because we know the sizes that we’re going to use. That helps a lot on our total number at the end.
John Steiner 30:53
You’re so nice about it. We have an inventory in our garage.
Andrew Chen 31:00
Your own private showroom.
Rosalina Steiner 31:01
John Steiner 31:02
We do. We’ll closet things away. Rosalina will be at Costco, she sees a sink on sale, she’ll buy three of them.
We saw garbage disposals about a month and a half ago for $80, 1 1/3 horsepower, bought four or five, put them away.
Andrew Chen 31:20
I guess with 25 doors, you know you’ll need it for one or the other sooner or later.
John Steiner 31:26
Andrew Chen 31:29
I would love to talk a little bit about tenant management and some of the best tips that you’ve learned from managing tenants. First of all, it sounds like you guys have really fantastic tenants. But I don’t know if that’s always been the truth throughout your investing history.
If not, what are the most common causes of headaches or troubles that you have experienced with prior tenants, and how do you address?
John Steiner 31:54
We’ve had our share of bad tenants. Everybody does. It’s a cross-section of society.
What we have found is there’s just an inextricable link between credit and respectful tenants, so we really focus on employment and credit quality. We’ve had bad tenants, so the mistakes we have made are when we get…
Look, we’ve all been there. When we started out this whole concept of FIRE, we probably lived FIRE unwillingly for 10 years when we were first married.
But we get stories about people that had their credit stolen. That’s a popular one.
Don’t believe everything you see on the credit report. It’s not true.
If there’s a medical problem, we see that that’s a problem in society, so we’ll overlook those kinds of credit dings.
But in terms of tenants, we do have a list of what we go through and look for. And it has to be very objective.
Andrew Chen 33:11
What are those things on the checklist?
John Steiner 33:15
Not to be too simplistic, but I think it starts and ends with credit and employment.
Rosalina Steiner 33:19
Right. And also, this is a perfect example. Probably you can talk about the new building, the A units, tenants that we did not pick.
They really were having issues with how they live. They gossip, right?
John Steiner 33:39
Rosalina Steiner 33:40
Hoarders. Not maintaining the building the way we want it.
This is the process that we’re going on right now to clean up their act and let them know what we want on that building, how we want the place to look. We always tell them, “It is for your benefit.”
One of the issues we have is people complaining about each other, and we never get involved with that.
John Steiner 34:10
I’m just looking down the list, Andrew, of things that we do, because this is important to us. We talked about employment. We talked about credit.
Andrew Chen 34:18
What do you look for in employment, by the way?
John Steiner 34:26
A lot of our tenant base are essential workers. What we have found is that during COVID, for instance, all but one tenant has paid consistently. And we think that’s due to the fact that we have essential workers.
We have electricians, we have plumbers, we have handymen. We have a guy that runs a gentlemen’s club. We have all sorts of tenants.
The one tenant that hasn’t paid didn’t have a consistent job. And that was the mistake we made.
Andrew Chen 35:06
So then, what are the markers you’re looking for? Are you looking for how long they’ve been with the same employer, or are you looking for consistent deposits into a bank account that you can actually see every two weeks? What are you looking for?
John Steiner 35:20
If I was to confess, it’s probably not that analytical for us. It’s more Rosalina runs an ad in Craigslist and Zillow, which fans out to a bunch of sites. She gets 30-40 phone calls in 10 days because there’s a lack of affordable housing in Southern California.
We hold an open house on a Saturday or Sunday morning. We hand out applications. We charge $30-$40 to run credit because we belong to a local apartment owners’ association and they charge us to run it.
Rosalina will run credit online. And it gives us a chance to meet the tenants. And we have to be very careful the way we structure this and say it because you have to go on objective criteria, but part of it inevitably is the people you meet.
Do we really look at the length of employment? Sure, we don’t want someone that’s been working at a place for six months. But when we were employed, if they were in that industry for a number of years and they were at a new place for six months, it probably wouldn’t bother us.
Andrew Chen 36:33
Are there any other things on your screening checklist?
John Steiner 36:38
No. I think it’s pretty straightforward: meeting the people, the quality of the tenants, the quality of their credit score, and their employment.
Andrew Chen 36:46
Do you run criminal and eviction checks?
John Steiner 36:49
Andrew Chen 36:49
How do you use those?
John Steiner 36:51
We belong to the Apartment Owners Association of Southern California, and one of the criteria that you can pay to have run is criminal and eviction background.
We got a call one day from a guy that owns the building a couple of doors down from us in Ventura, in Port Hueneme, and he said, “I’m having troubles with getting quality tenants.” I said, “What do you look for?” He says, “All I care about is whether they’ve been evicted.”
I said, “Well, that’s a problem right there. You’ve got to be looking at more than that. You’ve got to be looking at what their credit scores are.”
Andrew Chen 37:33
If you see an eviction, is that an automatic no?
Rosalina Steiner 37:37
Pretty much, yes.
John Steiner 37:38
I think it would be for us.
Rosalina Steiner 37:39
It’s a red flag for us.
Andrew Chen 37:41
Have you had to evict before?
John Steiner 37:43
Andrew Chen 37:47
Why? And what was your biggest lesson from it?
John Steiner 37:50
At first, before we really learned what we think is our business model, we weren’t running credit, so shame on us. We were to blame.
It wasn’t the tenant’s fault. They were that way before we ever met them.
Historically, the problems were not paying the rent. And when we have taken tenants that didn’t have decent credit, and we listen to a story, no good deed goes unpunished. So, that was our problem.
Now, Rosalina touched on the new building we’ve bought, and I want to make sure and get this point across because it tells the power of apartment investing. We bought this building in January. Four of the eight tenants are Section 8.
I went to one of the managers at the Section 8 office, and I said, “Does the statewide rent control apply to Section 8 tenants?” No, it does not. You can raise to market.
The last owners, husband and wife, long-term owners, hadn’t raised the rents in years. So we’ve raised the rents on three tenants, in the first 90 days, $1000. Now, if you take that $1000 and multiply it annually, and then take the gross rent multiplier that we purchased the building on, you can’t spend equity, but we’ve raised the value of the property by over $165,000.
Andrew Chen 39:19
The raise in those cases, are they covered by the Section 8 or also partially borne by the tenant directly?
John Steiner 39:27
It’s probably, in this case, 80%-90% covered by Section 8.
Andrew Chen 39:32
So that almost gets price-insensitive because it’s paid out by the government.
Rosalina Steiner 39:35
John Steiner 39:36
It’s paid off by the government. And I don’t want to give anybody the wrong idea.
We’re not here to gouge. We’re not here to raise rents above market because the market is pretty efficient, and it will tell us when we’re charging too much. That’s not our goal.
Our goal is to get rents up to market because we had a big mortgage. We just bought the property.
Andrew Chen 39:58
Yeah, it makes total sense. I just mean from the tenant’s perspective, they just see it as “It’s $100 increase. Seems reasonable,” because that’s all they pay, right?
John Steiner 40:05
Yeah. We didn’t get any pushback.
Andrew Chen 40:07
Yeah, makes sense. Is it fair to say, then, that based on your past eviction experience, if you’ll leave listeners with only one takeaway, it is that credit is the most important screening factor for maximizing the chance of a quality tenant?
Rosalina Steiner 40:33
Yeah, it is really the most important for us: the credit.
Andrew Chen 40:39
We were also chatting earlier about the rehabbing work that you do, and it sounded like you actually self-manage a lot of your units. You have a plumber, you have a handyman, etc.
With 25 doors, can you talk about why you choose to self-manage? Isn’t it a lot of work?
Rosalina Steiner 40:57
Yeah. Not anymore
John Steiner 41:00
Well, like I said earlier, not to sound corny, Rosalina and I have been married over 35 years. We not only love each other; we like each other.
And we wanted to find something that we could do together for the rest of our lives. And we find this is a great way because I have faults that she makes up for, and vice-versa, so we think we make a good team.
The reason we manage ourselves is we bought our first building, we inherited the manager from the seller, and it was a horrible experience. And we had just a turnover of tenants that would choke a horse.
And my father, who was a real hard charger, type A personality, looked at me one day and said, “John, you and Rosalina know how to flip properties. You need to learn how to manage properties. So we fired him immediately and we took our youngest son that’s very handy, and he and we learned how to manage.
Now, that’s not the way you want to learn: on your own. So we went to some people that were experienced.
We went to one of Rosalina’s cousins who has 20 some odd units in East L.A. We went to the guy who sold us the building.
Rosalina Steiner 42:32
John Steiner 42:33
And your brothers. And we talked to all three of them about what were the best practices that they used.
The other thing is when you buy a building, Andrew, you know this: you run on fairly thin margins, so paying 5% or 10% right off the top to a property manager was not going to achieve what we wanted to financially.
Also, we have found (and I don’t want to paint with a broad brush), property managers don’t have the skin in the game that we do.
Andrew Chen 43:04
Yeah, they certainly don’t because they’re not ultimately, at the end of the day, owners. But that cost is being paid one way or the other. You’re paying it through your time.
At 25 units, it may still be manageable, but as you scale more, you’re going to be stretched thinner and thinner. One question is: at what point would it make sense to transition to using property management, or how have you started to think about this? Because I think that’s one of the main things that can prevent investors from breaking through to the next level.
John Steiner 43:36
I’d say Rosalina and I have talked about this. We think 50 units is probably the cap for us.
Andrew Chen 43:45
And at that point, you probably get some help, it sounds like?
John Steiner 43:39
We think yeah, at that point.
Andrew Chen 43:50
That’s still amazing that mom-and-pop, you guys can self-manage 50 units.
John Steiner 43:57
Andrew, we did this while we working full time at high-pressure, high-demand corporate jobs. Your weekends are spent not going to Disneyland, but they’re spent cleaning up bathrooms and vacant units.
Andrew Chen 44:13
I get it. I get the “love and like each other” part. You want to spend time together.
But it’s work at the end of the day. And after working a long day in a corporate job, you can definitely be motivated to do real estate work after hours and on the weekends. But the more units, the more work, and then the less time you have for just rest.
How do you not lose your sanity from this?
Rosalina Steiner 44:46
I think one of the keys is experience doing this thing over and over and over. What do we do when we get a job done in one of the apartments? We make sure that even if it costs us a little bit more, that it’s done right.
And that avoids calling at midnight. We never had a phone call at midnight really.
John Steiner 45:08
Rosalina Steiner 45:09
Because we spend money getting the whole unit set up, so we don’t get all these phone calls. And yes, we do: “The sink is clogged” or whatever. Sometimes we can even do it ourselves.
But we fix it so well now that we don’t spend a lot of time doing that kind of work. We have a gardener that takes care of all the places. And we don’t spend that much time really.
John Steiner 45:36
So, maybe that’s a good point, Andrew. Once we get the property up and running, what we found, because we didn’t really get a chance to touch on our complete business model, once we’ve rehabbed these units and we get quality tenants in, the time involved becomes very little.
Now, that doesn’t mean we armchair manage. We go by our properties at least once a week, we walk them, we make sure everything is looking the way it should.
And we talk to tenants. We don’t solicit issues, but if they have problems, they’re going to tell us, and we’ll address them immediately. But like this property that we just bought, it’s going to take a year or two to get tenants to understand our expectations.
It doesn’t mean that we’re right, and it doesn’t mean they have to live there. But if we’re going to coexist together in our business relationship, we expect the place to be clean and neat on the outside. We expect them to be respectful.
And once we’ve set that in place, we’re not spending a lot of time. It’s not like we’re spending evenings and weekends on these places. They don’t run themselves.
But it’s a very small amount of time. Fifty units could be scalable. Understanding that first year or two on any new property is going to take time.
Rosalina Steiner 46:51
Then we have our washing machines that we go and collect the quarters.
John Steiner 46:56
That’s fun. We learned from the first guy we bought a building from: try to put in washers and dryers. It’s an accommodation for the tenants.
You really don’t make any money. What you do is you provide them a convenience so they don’t have to go to a Laundromat.
Andrew Chen 47:12
You’re talking about coin-operated or inside the unit?
John Steiner 47:16
We really don’t encourage inside the unit because then you have all sorts of sewer issues and everything. So we do coin op machines, and it pays for part of the water bill, and then tenants don’t have to…
And what we do is we try not to have one machine, because think about it: in an eight-unit building (we just bought this building), there’s one washer and one dryer. No one in their right minds can do all their laundry by that.
We unfortunately, in this building, inherited a long-term lease. And when it expires, we’ll put our own machines in, we’re going to push out a wall that’s in the laundry room, and put two washers and two dryers and a table in. And then that way, you will get usage.
On a six-unit building, we probably make in excess of $200 a month. On an eight-unit building, we should be making $250 a month once we have proper setup.
Andrew Chen 48:17
You talked earlier about how, in the first building you purchased, you were trying to learn quickly how to self-manage. It sounded like you actually went back to the seller for tips. Rosalina, you went to your brothers.
What are some of the best practices you learned over the years for how to self-manage efficiently and effectively? You actually wrote something down. Nice.
John Steiner 48:45
I’m at an age where, if I don’t, I might not remember it. I would say some of the lessons and best practices.
Obviously, the key to running a successful business is having a property in a decent location, having a property that is in good condition, so you attract quality tenants, and then picking quality tenants.
And I don’t want to oversimplify, but if you do those three things, you’re well on your way to having a property that, like Rosalina said, we’re not getting calls at midnight. We haven’t gotten one of those.
We have happy tenants. They pay on time. We look for working class neighborhoods where we have essential workers.
And we have a long-range goal. Wealth has become a dirty word in our society, so I use it in a limited manner. But we’re trying to build generational wealth, and there has to be one family member in the generational line that’s willing to take the hit and not go to Europe all the time.
Sacrifice some weekends. Sacrifice some money. Cobble together.
Do things wealth managers would tell you not to do to buy that first building. That’s the hardest. You buy that first building, it’s the toughest.
It took us five years before we could ever get the second building. But once you get your first and second building, it becomes much easier.
Andrew Chen 50:32
What are the best practices you’ve learned about self-managing?
John Steiner 50:38
I think we’ve outlined them.
Andrew Chen 50:41
Sorry. I meant in terms of almost like property management. I imagine you probably have some systems or processes that you now have for making sure that the time that you spend managing a unit/tenant, and that might include everything from rent collection to addressing maintenance issues to remodeling, as efficient as possible, so that with the time that you do invest, you’re getting the maximum impact.
What are some of those best practices, if you have any?
John Steiner 51:27
You have to set the expectations with folks. Again, it’s not about getting a late fee. But I will tell you that when you don’t impose a late fee right off the bat, it’s human nature: people will start to pay later and later and later.
Rosalina Steiner 51:44
It takes a lot of our time.
John Steiner 51:45
It takes a lot of our time. So, what we want to do is, honestly, by the 8th of the month or the 10th of the month, we need to know we’ve got all the rents in.
We’ve got to make the mortgage payment. We’ve got to pay the utility bills.
So, one of the key things is getting tenants to pay within the first five days of the month. We usually put a grace period in. Sometimes we don’t.
And to minimize the time we spend getting the rents in, and then if we have the proper tenant base and the places are in decent shape, and like you said earlier, Rosalina, fixing the place up and not going with the cheapest fix. You’re going to really hurt yourself.
Rosalina Steiner 52:28
That’s really our key model. We fix them right, pretty much everything works.
It starts with the credit, who we select in the place. Like the new building, we have a lot of problems, sending us texts, just trying to complain.
And we get out of that. That is not our issue. You need to figure out how to deal with that.
So, we eliminate a lot of the time-consuming issues. Our concern is that they’re safe in their environment, that everything is working right in their apartment, and that they pay on time.
Andrew Chen 53:12
What’s an example of a complaint that is not the landlord’s issue?
John Steiner 53:20
We don’t feed into drama. One of the things that attracted me to Rosalina was her personality is like this: she’s fantastically interesting, but there’s no drama. And I hope she feels the same about me.
We don’t want that with tenants. We got a text from a tenant the other day: “Could you please tell the tenant in Unit X, Y, and Z to make sure and curb their dog property?”
A new building, and we’ve already had some issues with this tenant that she’s referring to. I think poking the bear is not always the best idea.
These things where there’s a bit of an internecine warfare between some of the tenants, that will eventually subside, especially if we don’t feed into it. We can’t take sides, and you don’t want to take sides.
You ask the question: what are these things that are relatively petty? We’ll phrase it that way without trying to insult someone because we try to treat our tenants, who are our customers, with the level of respect that we would treat the head of Tesla or the head of Exxon.
Treat them the same way because they deserve it, and frankly, a lot of them don’t get treated that way. And people will respond to that level of respect, in most cases.
Andrew Chen 54:42
Do you ever worry about litigation? If you get a complaint from a tenant that says, “Hey, can you tell the neighbor to curb their dog or leash their dog,” and you’re like, “I can’t get involved,” and then the dog bites the neighbor, they may come after you.
It happened on your property. You knew about it. You had reason to know about it, etc.
Do you worry about these kinds of things?
John Steiner 55:05
Sure. Now, if it rose to the level of a dog that was aggressive or there was a chance it might bite, absolutely we would get involved. And we have gotten involved.
We had a fellow who moved in and then gave us a letter about a comfort animal. And we said, “Okay, we understand that you can have a comfort animal, but what kind of an animal is it? What kind of a dog is it?”
“If it’s an aggressive breed, we are going to have a problem.” So, we are sensitive.
And we don’t want to get sued. I have a law degree. The last thing I want to do is see us get sued.
Andrew Chen 55:44
I wanted to ask briefly about Section 8. I know in our offline discussion, you mentioned about a third of your rentals are Section 8.
There’s some obvious benefits because Section 8 pays on time every single month. There’s no pushback.
It’s very mechanical. It’s paid out by the government. Are there any downsides to Section 8?
Rosalina Steiner 56:05
Selecting the wrong tenant.
John Steiner 56:09
Rosalina has figured out the secret sauce for Section 8. It doesn’t have the greatest reputation in some cities. We are great supporters of Section 8.
We’re in Port Hueneme. We’re in Oxnard. We’re now in the County of Ventura that handles Camarillo.
Rosalina has forged very strong relationships with individuals at each of those cities, Section 8 offices. And they appreciate her to the extent that they now refer prospective tenants to Rosalina, because they know what she’s about. They know what we’re about: that we’re going to be respectful landlords.
And Section 8 pays on time, like you said, Andrew. But the other thing is tenants are grateful because a lot of landlords won’t take Section 8, even though, by law, they can’t discriminate.
What happens is we hold an open house, and a Section 8 prospect, the first question they always ask (not sometimes—always), “Do you accept Section 8?” That’s because a lot don’t.
Like Rosalina said, we treat their application the way we would any other application. They have to have decent credit. They have to have a job.
The profile that Rosalina and I have seen, not all the time but generally: single mom, couple of kids, the dad is not in the picture. She’s not looking for a handout. She just wants a helping hand.
Andrew Chen 57:41
When you say secret sauce to Section 8, are you referring to the relationships that Rosalina has built with Section 8 offices, or something different?
John Steiner 57:50
No. I think Rosalina mentioned it right off the top: it’s the tenant that you pick. You’re not forced to take any one tenant.
We have found, the most recent Section 8 tenant that we’ve put into a unit, 800 credit score. They lived in their last apartment 20 years. The only reason they moved was the landlord was selling the building.
Andrew Chen 58:20
As you look to the future, it sounds like you’re still actively acquiring. It sounds like you just purchased a building back in January.
At what point do you say to yourself, “We have enough units. It’s a good time for us to relax, enjoy life, travel”? When is enough for you guys?
John Steiner 58:40
Our oldest son, who we’re seeing here in his offices, would say, “You’ve done enough. Sit back and relax.”
Her oldest brother, “You’ve done enough. Sit back and relax.” Neither of them have sat back and relaxed.
Andrew Chen 58:57
I don’t know about the brother. The brother may be similarly aged, but your son is still young.
Rosalina Steiner 59:01
John Steiner 59:05
We talk about this a lot. That was really an intriguing question.
We have found in our lives, personally and professionally, that when we tread water, we fail big time. So, for us, there is no end.
We bought a building in Port Hueneme from a woman who was 90. Her husband, they were married 70 years.
He had just passed away, and she said, “I’m done.” She sold the building, took her three daughters to Europe for five weeks.
Well, the problem there, from a tax standpoint, is now you’ve got to recoup all the depreciation and the profit on the building. Our attitude, like my dad would say, is we’re going to leave that problem to our heirs.
Andrew Chen 59:56
They may not have that problem. They get a step up in basis.
John Steiner 59:58
Yeah, they get a step up. We would much rather have that happen.
Andrew Chen 1:00:05
But I guess because you’re still actively requiring. But it sounds like because mostly you enjoy it.
John Steiner 1:00:13
We’re not going to stop.
Rosalina Steiner 1:00:14
It is our passion. We really enjoy it. And when we have the opportunity to help families get started, we feel this great reward that we are able to do that.
And we don’t have the pressure of the money, but we want to help them get started, buy their first property, think about how they’re going to invest in the future. That is where we get great satisfaction.
So, we don’t think about ending right now. That’s not in our plan yet.
John Steiner 1:00:51
I think we have 15 years of running. We’re in our late 60’s. We’ll do it until our early 80’s.
Rosalina Steiner 1:00:58
John Steiner 1:00:59
Well, you’ll be here. You can do it.
Andrew Chen 1:00:07
I forgot to ask earlier, but I was curious: how are you sourcing your deals? Are you buying them from brokers? Are you using brokers for prospecting leads?
Are you driving around and knocking on doors? Are you doing cold calls? How are you sourcing your deals?
John Steiner 1:01:30
I would say that every property we’ve purchased, we don’t go to foreclosure sales. We haven’t found the need to. We have called some brokers.
But typically, now that we’re on the MLS because we’re Asians, we look on the MLS. But these are properties available to anyone.
And that’s why we think our story for what we did is not about us. But what we are doing is so compelling because we don’t have some secret avenue to find properties.
We look on Redfin. We look on the MLS. We look on realtor.com.
Andrew Chen 1:02:09
But those don’t often advertise eight-unit buildings. They’ll advertise four or five, but they don’t tend to advertise the higher number unit buildings.
John Steiner 1:02:19
You can go to LoopNet. We were surprised we saw this eight-unit as well. Rosalina is one of these people that will swing for the fences, so she sees this eight-unit and we’re in a three-unit building, and how in the heck are we going to get to eight units?
The three-unit building, if you’ll humor me, I pull up one day and a couple of the tenants come on up to me and go, “Hey, you know, there’s bullet holes around here.”
Andrew Chen 1:02:45
John Steiner 1:02:46
Well, that’s not good.
Andrew Chen 1:02:47
Yeah, you think?
John Steiner 1:02:51
We immediately decided that wasn’t for us. That property, not apartment ownership. It was in a sketchy part of Oxnard.
So we put it on the market and got a half a dozen offers in 48 hours. And we took the offer that was not the highest offer because he was willing to work with us on a 1031 exchange.
It was all cash. No contingencies at all. He didn’t even go inside the units.
So he said, “I’ll sign off, removing all contingencies. You can take as long as you want to find a building.”
Rosalina finds an eight-unit building. We had half the money coming out of the 1031 downleg. How are we going to buy this thing?
Rosalina has a famous line. She says to me, “John, you always figure out a way to do it with your background. When I want it, you seem to find a way to not do it.”
So we went to a broker that we knew, and we got a couple of hard money loans. We did a hard money loan on the property in Port Hueneme, and we took a second on another property. So, we had half the money from coming out of the downleg, we had about another 15% in cash we had, and then we had to borrow a couple of $100,000 off of these hard money loans.
So this year is a little tougher for us that way because we’ve got to pay off the hard money loans and refinance, which we’re happy to do.
Beginning of next year, we’re out of those, and the hard money lender understands it and is fully supportive of us. Anyhow, I strayed off, but that’s how.
Andrew Chen 1:04:42
Do you plan to sell your holdings eventually? If not, what’s the endgame?
John Steiner 1:04:51
We would never compare ourselves to these people, but these fabulously wealthy people that don’t believe in leaving much to their kids because their kids need to work hard and make their own way. If we had a hundred billion dollars, we might think that way, too.
We’re not at a point to open a family office, for gosh’s sakes. We hope that our grandchildren have enough wealth based on what we started to open a family office.
But no, we’re not going to sell, Andrew. If we can hold on to these, our goal is to get to 50 units before we die, pass these on to our kids.
We have three sons and three grandsons so far. We think we’ve raised them with a work ethic, a sense of loyalty, compassion.
Rosalina Steiner 1:05:39
John Steiner 1:05:40
Yeah, hard work, and honesty. And we hope that they leverage the living daylights out of these things when we die to no more than 50% loan to value, take a couple million bucks, and go buy more, but don’t sell what we’ve started with.
It’s a very simple process, this whole concept of BRRRR: buy, remodel, raise rents, refinance, repeat. We didn’t know what it was, but we saw it online, and now we know that’s what we’ve been doing. But we’re not selling.
Andrew Chen 1:06:24
All right. John, Rosalina, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. This has been awesome.
It’s such a pleasure to learn a little bit about your real estate journey. Where can listeners find out more about you and what you’re up to?
John Steiner 1:06:40
If you look right behind us, there’s our webpage. Go on the first page of the webpage, it’s got a picture of our house. It’s got our names on it, looks just like this.
And it’s got a little bit of our story. It shows some of the properties we’ve sold. We only became real estate agents not too long ago because of a couple of reasons.
I don’t want to sound like we’re proselytizing, but we do believe that what we have happened upon our business model was something that works. It’s not rocket science, and it can be done with discipline and consistency.
Our phone number is up there if somebody wants to call us. And we also mitigate our transaction costs.
Andrew Chen 1:07:30
All right. We’ll definitely link to your realty website in the show notes, and look forward to sharing this with our audience. Thanks so much again for taking the time to chat with me.
John Steiner 1:07:40
Andrew Chen 1:07:41
Cheers. Take care.