Sri Latha is a data scientist and researcher who transitioned into multifamily investing. Combining her skills with serious, out-of-the-box strategies, she’s succeeded in one of the most expensive, daunting markets in the country, San Francisco. She also runs a multifamily coaching program.
After a health scare in 2010, Sri and her husband shifted their focus to real estate, starting with a 12-unit in Dallas before transitioning to California. After many successful multifamily deals, Sri is now looking to reposition hotels into multifamily communities.
What You’ll Learn In Today’s Episode:
- Sri was able to jump right into apartment investing by putting a plan in place. She was motivated by the health concerns of her husband, who in 2010 was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and was told he would be unable to walk within 5 years. Instead of buckling to this pressure, Sri moved forward and purchased a 12 unit in Dallas. This set them down a path of financial freedom, and after her husband’s recovery, her mindset shifted towards thinking big, using leverage, and creating multiple streams of income.
- Starting out, Sri bought into the myth that you “can’t make money in California real estate.” After her first successful exit of a 12 unit in Dallas, Sri shifted her focus to the East Bay and realized that was not true. Higher barriers to entry, a chronic lack of supply, and global demand all pointed to a very lucrative market. After figuring out their plan of action, buying older buildings, performing heavy renovations, adding additional units, and buying-out below market rent residents, Sri was able to quickly scale in a highly competitive market.
- Sri believes that in order to get exponential growth early on in your investment career, you need to exit buildings and roll the proceeds into larger properties. The BRRRR method works well but doesn’t get you the exponential growth that a full-exit would. You get scale by not holding onto properties longer than necessary early on.
Ideas Worth Sharing:
“The only time you lose in real estate is when you have to sell.” – Sri Latha
“If you’re doing real estate, you might as well go all in.” – Sri Latha
Resources In Today’s Episode:
Books Mentioned In Today’s Podcast
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
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Mark: Today’s guest is a Data Scientist and Researcher who transitioned into multifamily investing, combining her skills with serious outside the box strategies to succeed in one of the most expensive daunting markets in the country, San Francisco. She also runs a multifamily coaching program. I’d like to welcome Sri Latha.
Sri: Hi Mark. Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.
Mark: Thanks for joining. I’m excited to get into your story. Talk about your investing in San Francisco. It’ll be fun to compare notes with someone who’s investing in one of those expensive coastal markets with old brick buildings, rent control, earthquakes, and all that fun stuff.
Sri: Exactly. Right now, I’m looking forward to it.
Mark: Well, let’s jump in. So where did you start?
Sri: I grew up in India and then I moved here for graduate studies and I studied Economics and Statistics. And I went on to work as a Data Scientist for FICO, the credit scoring company. So, we built all these sophisticated predictive models for banks. So, I did that for many, many years. And during that time, I was saving money on the side. I didn’t have kids at that point. So that triggered the wanting to start investing in real estate.
And also, in 2010, my husband got really sick and he found himself not being able to walk just one morning. He went to work by noon, he couldn’t walk and he was diagnosed with a disease called rheumatoid arthritis. It’s an auto immune disease. And basically, the doctor sitting in front of us said, he might be disabled in five years.
And so, that really supercharged our ability to take risks and take chances. And we knew we wanted to get into real estate, as soon as possible once he made a recovery and he did over the next year. So, this is the good part. He did recover almost 90, 95% of his health back.
Sri: And after he got rehabilitated, he was totally fine. Then we started to really actively look at real estate in the event something was to get worse again.
Mark: So early on you knew that real estate was going to be a goal that you wanted to either partner with your W2 job or maybe transition out of your W2 job.
Sri: Yes, I think originally it started off as we wanted to do this on the side and then as it grew, it became more realistic that we could actually quit our jobs. I think he was always very intuitive that real estate could be a good vehicle because we always lived in apartments. Once we moved to a new country, we always lived in apartments and it just makes intuitive sense. It seems very simplistic.
Mark: Yes. Providing housing.
Sri: Providing housing and getting some return and nobody’s going to do this for free. So clearly, they’re making money. And I remember having calculated how much my landlord would have made on one of my properties that I actually was renting at. And I knew that there was a margin to be made, but that was about it. So, it was just an intuitive gravitation towards real estate because it was so simple. You were buying an asset that had value and it just made sense to get started with that on the side.
Mark: And had you always been in the US on the West Coast? In San Francisco?
Sri: No. When I first moved to the US, I was in Washington DC for two years, then I moved to California and I’ve been here since 2008.
Mark: Okay. And so, you got to San Francisco, right when the recession was beginning.
Sri: That’s right.
Mark: San Francisco, prior to that had been, one of the most dynamic investment markets in the country.
Sri: Correct? I think it continues to be, it’s just that the recessions are always a little bit of correction, no matter where you are.
Mark: And maybe a little bit more severe on the Coasts. It’s a little more boom and bust just because in most markets its local investors, at least back then most markets were the pool of investors, was people who lived there. And when you’re in a market like LA, San Francisco, New York, when the market gets hot, which it was prior to 2008, you not only have the locals investing there, you have people all around the country investing there and then internationally.
Sri: That’s right.
Mark: Those markets get flooded with investment dollars, which drive up prices.
Sri: Correct. That is very true. And so possibly the swings are much more severe, at least in some parts of the country, but there’s also people with more equity in their property. So, there are some areas that just don’t move like Palo Alto, for example. They’re really expensive zip code, some of them just don’t fluctuate very much at all.
Mark: They don’t fluctuate at all.
Sri: Yes. Some of them.
Mark: Because they stay sustained?
Sri: Correct. Yeah. There weren’t corrections back then too, but I didn’t have any money back then. By the time I got into the market, it was 2013
Mark: And it’s a great time to get in. We were coming out of a recession. The worst was behind us. You had the wind at your back. And I think that’s so lucky if you can start out your investing career at that phase, rather than starting it in 2019, when you’ve had like seven years of really strong growth, then things become a little concerning as to where the prices are.
Sri: Correct. Correct. For sure. The market growth is important, but I still recommend value-add regardless of the market growth though. Because it’s very discouraging to think that I have money in 2019 but I don’t have the market tailwind behind me, but that’s okay. You can still try to find the deals that can give you that forced appreciation from the renovation of the rehab in a strong market where, you know you’re going to get good rents. And if you can buy sufficiently under and push up those rents then you can still work with the market that you have.
Mark: Right. You could have the discipline to be picky. And you’re saying, yes, add renovations and maybe you just factor in that the market is cyclical and you may see some price slide while you own it, but you’re just going to have to ride it out.
Mark: It’s great that you could be continuing to add value during that time so that when the pricing improves, you hold off until then before you sell.
Sri: Correct. Yes.
Mark: So, you jumped in 2013. What did that look like?
Sri: I bought a 12 unit actually out of State in Dallas.
Mark: Dallas? Okay.
Sri: Yes. I bought it at about 720 something thousand dollars. In a year and a half, I rehab all the units. It turned over all the tenants and we rehab the units in a year and a half, put it back on the market for 1.35 and it’s sold.
Mark: Nice. And what drew you to Dallas?
Sri: I knew I wanted to buy a large number of units and I had bought into the narrative that you cannot make money in California when I first started. So, I did. I have to admit, I did buy into that narrative. So, my first investment was out of state and I was able to test out the framework of renovating and bumping up the rent. That was really solidified in my mind actually the first deal that does work. And once I sold that property, I basically doubled my money in a year and a half and brought it back to California. And then I begin investing in the East Bay part of San Francisco.
Mark: Oh, cool. I, wasn’t smart enough to know that you can’t invest in a coastal market. So, I just jumped in straight into LA, but question, did the property dictate you going to Dallas or did you decide on that market and then find the property?
Sri: I did find the market first. And it was really as simple as, so a lot of people from California moved to Texas, so we already knew that. And the second thing was, I just looked at the top model family markets in the US it was very simplistic and I saw the Dallas market come up often and I pretty much just narrowed it down to about two cities and then started to look at properties that came up in those cities called brokers, started to underwrite deals, and then this one came up we closed on it.
Mark: Great. And this was you and your husband.
Sri: Buying it together.
Mark: You bought it together. Okay. So, your next project was in the East Bay of San Francisco. What did that look like?
Sri: That’s right. So, when we brought our money back, we had to put in about 300, 350 into that property and we got out double that, so 700 something in a year and a half. And so, we brought that back to East Bay and we bought 14 units at about 2.9 million in San Leandro, which is a city South of Oakland. And at that point, San Leandro was not rent controlled, I have to say. And so, we were able to turn all the units within a year and half. And those were renovated when we bought them. They were at about $800 a month in rent. And then when we turned it around that they were at 1300 a month in rent.
Mark: Oh nice. Great.
Sri: So that was a pretty big bump up. And then we’ve also been buying properties that are rent controlled in Oakland. And we basically plowed our entire savings over the next five years into buying more property in Oakland and surrounding areas.
Mark: And were you still working your W2 job at the time?
Mark: Are you still working now?
Sri: I am not. My husband still is.
Sri: But yes, we were still working our W2 jobs until 2018 is when I quit.
Mark: Okay. Sounds like you had a bit of a similar trajectory to me is, you got in and then you got excited. You got the bug because you saw, how powerful this was as an investment strategy. And I was doing the same thing. I was pumping every dollar I could set aside into multifamily.
Sri: Almost to the point where we were so not diversified. And we were just like, okay, it doesn’t matter. We’re just going to put everything into real estate.
Mark: Maybe there’s some drawback to that, but I’ve been doing the same thing and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to stay focused on one strategy. If it’s something like multifamily, I know it’s a sector that could be cyclical, but I just think it’s so strong long-term.
Sri: Oh yeah. If you’re doing real estate, you might as well go all in. There’s a certain type of person who likes real estate, because it’s tangible, it’s kind of illiquid. You can’t just sell it on a whim and lose your money. You really have to think it through. And so, in that sense, it keeps you a good investor by keeping you illiquidity in some ways. So, you try to make it work for as much as you can. The only time you lose in real estate is when you have to sell. So as long as you try not to sell, you’re okay.
Mark: Yeah. Have to sell at the wrong time.
Sri: At the wrong time.
Mark: Now that’s a good question. So, you obviously sold the Dallas property and you were moving into the East Bay. And did you say Palo Alto that you moved into?
Sri: No. San Leandro and Oakland.
Mark: Okay. In Oakland as well.
Sri: On the other side of the Bay.
Mark: What drew you to those markets? Were they more affordable than the overpriced segments?
Sri: We bought in Oakland and San Leandro, which is on the other side of San Francisco, the city itself. And what we found was San Francisco as a city was getting really overpriced and people were moving across the Bay. There’s a bridge that connects the two and there’s also public transportation that connects the two.
The people were moving over to Oakland to Berkeley to live in and commute to the city for work. And that started to happen more and more. And we saw that there was the potential to buy near these BART stations. So, our strategy was very simple, find a property near a BART station and buy it. And so, we bought a $600,000 property that had actually shared a wall with the BART station. So it was that close.
Mark: Wow. Okay.
Sri: And it was a six unit and nobody wanted to buy it. Cause it had some serious foundation work. It had a brick foundation and you could not get conventional financing on it.
Mark: Really. Okay.
Sri: So, it was in such a bad state. And then you’d be also wanted to finance the foundation, which is over a hundred thousand dollars just in fixing the foundation. So, we accidentally found out about private money lending or hard money lending as they call it. Where a hard money lender would lend us the purchase price, the cost of the renovating the units, as well as the cost of fixing up that foundation. And so, we started work on that and we did layout changes on those. So, some of the units were one bedroom that we could then convert to two bedrooms because that’s one of my strategies. So, I do three main strategies. One is the cash for keys.
Mark: Cash for keys. Okay. You want to explain what that is.
Sri: I can explain it. So, it’s essentially a mutually agreed upon agreement between you, the owner and the tenant for a pre-disclose sum of money, essentially where the tenant agrees to take money in return for giving you the keys of the vacant apartment and leaving the apartment. So, what that leaves you as the owner with is an empty apartment where you can do the renovations and bring the rents from where it is today to where the markets were at.
Mark: And it’s a strategy in rent control markets where you don’t have the ability as a landlord to just do what you want. You can’t just evict somebody. So sometimes there’s a long-time tenant, who’s hundreds and hundreds of dollars below market. And nowadays they’re very savvy. And so, it’s a negotiation, you negotiate with them and you say, I’ll pay you 20 grand. I’ve seen them as low as eight grand or five grand. And then I’ve seen them as high as 50 grand to pay somebody, to vacate the unit. And it pencils out. It’s a math equation. You got to figure it out.
Sri: Yes. It is a math equation. And essentially what it comes down to is the bump in rent divided by your Cap rate. It should give you a bigger margin than what you’re paying your tenants. That’s really the math that we need to be doing to figure out how much and how worth it is to pay a tenant.
Mark: It’s interesting. I’ve never compared it with San Francisco.
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Mark: You used hard money and you used cash for keys and made layout changes to this six unit building in East Bay that had a foundation problem. Was it a brick building?
Mark: Not just brink foundation. What year was that?
Sri: Built in the 1930s.
Mark: Okay. I think it’s maybe a lot of listeners and a lot of investors across the country. They think it’s impossible to invest in any product that’s pre 1980s. But when you’re in markets, I think like San Francisco, definitely Los Angeles where I am and then New York city as well. And you’ve got tons of this 1920s, 1930s inventory. And I think they’re workable. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in those.
Sri: And that’s really where the opportunity really is. I don’t think I’ve bought any building and its built after19 80. Never, not even, probably after 1960. Everything that I bought was older. And the way they’re built is that you can do work on them and revamped them. And they’re almost like new because when you’re doing your plumbing, new electrical and new foundation, your roof, it’s pretty much a new building.
Mark: I find that they’ve got a lot of character, a lot of young professionals love to live in those buildings that have great architecture. And then the additional thing is I think in a lot of the country, investors don’t want to see pre-1980, but I think that’s a function. It may not work for them, but I think it’s a function of the cost per unit.
So, if you’re, for example, in, maybe in the Southeast, you know, you could spend $5 million and get conceivably 500 units and you could be paying $10,000 a unit. I used to see that in Ohio. And if you get a major plumbing issue with galvanized plumbing, you could do a repair that’s more expensive than what you paid for the unit.
But when you’re in San Francisco, LA these more major cities, you’re probably paying, you paid what, 120,000 a unit or something like that. And nowadays you’re paying 300 a unit, correct. And there’s million dollar per unit apartment complexes throughout LA. And I’m sure San Francisco as well. So, when you get that $10,000 plumbing repair, it’s a drop in the bucket.
Sri: And that’s exactly, right. You’re paying way more for the land than you are the structure. So, any improvements you make, you should definitely try to make improvements that actually increase your rent. But sometimes you do have to do foundation work that nobody’s going to see a no tenant’s going to want to pay for that. But if that’s the price you paid to buy into that property, like how I bought that property for $600,000, nobody wanted it. And you know, somewhere between six and 700, but nobody wanted it. It had a hundred thousand worth of foundation work. You’re basically buying into the ability to acquire that property, not really the value itself of the building.
Mark: And I like paying more for unit and having more of your money go towards the land because the land doesn’t break down.
Mark: It only increases in value without the maintenance that the property itself requires. Well, cool. Where did you go from there from those six units?
Sri: From that six unit we bought a portfolio of smaller multi-families. So, if you’ve noticed there’s a pattern I’ve been buying, five and over which it puts me in the commercial real estate space, but the last deal we did, we had the opportunity to buy a portfolio of smaller triplexes fourplexes from an older gentleman. And one of the things we started to do with that acquisition is to add ADU’s in the backyard to each of those units, or even better is to try to convert a basement into an ADU.
Mark: Sure. And you want to explain? I think a lot of people know what an ADU is, but I think an equally may not know what that is.
Sri: Yeah. So ADU actually stands for Accessory Dwelling Unit. It’s essentially kind of an in-law unit in the back of your house, a little cottage granny unit.
Mark: Granny unit is what they used to call it.
Sri: That’s what they used to be called. Now they’re all fancy with ADU’s. So that’s essentially what it is, but the implication for an investor like me is that I can now do that on multi-units. So not just in a house, but I can do that for multifamily apartments. And San Francisco also gives you incentive. If your building is not earthquake retro-fitted, if you do the requirements to bring it up to code for earthquakes, they will give you an extra ADU. So, on my 12 unit I have the ability to add four ADU’s. And on my triplets, I have the ability to add two ADU’s.
Mark: Wow. that’s amazing.
Sri: Yeah. So, my triplex becomes a five-plex and my 12 unit becomes a 16 unit. And as long as you have space for it, and if you have a basement, you can convert that, that makes it cheaper because you already have the structure in place. So, you put in a hundred grand, maybe do up that ADU basement, and now the city gives you a certificate of occupancy. And that makes your triplets now a five-plex and you can now qualify for a commercial loan. And each unit is now valued at $300,000. So, it makes that a hundred thousand, you put into building that ADU worth it.
Mark: And do you know how they calculate, how many ADU’s you can add to, is it the based on the square footage of the lot
Sri: Yes. It does have to do with that and the zoning. So, it’s a combination of a couple of different things, and you do have to read through your vocal city’s ADU ordinances to figure out what you qualify for. And for example, on my 12-unit building, they let me get rid of four parking spots and return to put ADU’s in there. That’s almost unheard of.
Mark: That’s completely unheard of.
Sri: Yes. But they did do allow that. So, here’s a lot of potential to doing ADU.s.
Mark: In your market, I would guess. And you can correct me and tell me more specifically, but four units. You’re in at least a $200,000 a unit market, so you’re adding $800,000 by adding those four units, at least.
Sri: Almost $300,000.
Mark: Probably 300. That’s on the very low side in coastal market.
Sri: These are new units. They’ll be coming into market add market. So, low expenses. So, they’re pretty much all straight going to your NOI and we’re adding almost a million dollar in value just by adding ADU’s
Mark: Wow. That’s huge. So, you’ve got some great value add strategies. So, what are you doing now that we’re in COVID has your strategy shifted?
Sri: So, I sold a bunch of properties last year. I think we touched on this before. Once you add all the value in a property, you have a bunch of equity stuck in it, and there’s not much higher to go or no more value to add. So, we had a few of those properties sitting around and we wanted to deploy that capital elsewhere.
So, we sold a bunch of properties last year and with the intention of buying again this year and COVID hit and we were underwriting multifamily deals out of state. Because one of my next goals over the next year, year and a half is to get a really good cash flowing property. Maybe cash flowing going six figures. And then really taking a step back if you made a bit. Because I now have young kids and it is a lot of work to be doing heavy renovation.
Mark: To take a step back, did you 10/31?
Sri: No, I don’t.
Mark: So, you sold and paid capital gains and just cashed out?
Sri: We had so much passive losses from properties that we were doing heavy renovations on that they write off against the gains.
Mark: Okay. That’s great. Similarly, once I’ve done the value-add. I do value-add on everything, but I find that if you sell, pull the money out and then go into larger get scale.
Sri: I think it’s a common misconception from maybe bigger pockets, that BRRRR is the best strategy. But what people fail to understand is that you really need that exponential growth in the early stages of your real estate investing in order to grow. With the BRRRR, what happens is you put in 1X, you get out 2X. If you pull 1X out, you put it so very linear growth. Whereas when you do unlock the value and you sell, you’re 1X becomes 2X and 2X becomes 4X in two deals. Whereas if you wanted to get 4x, you have to do four deals in the BRRRR.
So that’s the very simple, kind of exponential growth. If you’re looking for early on in your real estate investing journey that will pay off dividends. So, I actually recommend something called the flip flipper. So, you flip a couple of times, and then once you hit a good amount of cash flow, say a hundred grand or close to a hundred grand, then you can just hold.
Mark: And I think part of that is that in the early stages of investing your biggest limitation is your funds. And so, when you sell and pull out all the cash and put it towards double or triple, or sometimes I scaled by like 5X in the size of a property.
Sri: Wow! I love the size.
Mark: I think I went from a four unit to a 36 unit in LA. So that was nine times the unit size in one, 10/31 exchange. And so that’s what I like to get scale by not holding.
Sri: Correct. Yes, for sure.
Mark: And so, what are you doing now in today’s crazy world?
Sri: Like I mentioned, I sold a bunch of properties. I was looking at deals that were out of state and what I’m doing now is a hotel to multifamily conversion. And essentially what that is, this is out of state, not in California.
Mark: Where is it?
Sri: Florida and New Mexico and North Carolina. Those are the three markets I’m looking at.
Mark: And you’re looking to acquire a hotel and convert it to multifamily. Yeah. I mean, hotels are distressed.
Sri: Yes. So, we’re looking for an older hotel. That’s not running at its peak capacity that is being affected by COVID. And they’re looking to sell that falls under a certain zoning. That’s the most important part of this strategy is to not have to go to the city to get it rezoned. And once that is the case, then we can convert it to a multifamily property. And that’s my next move. And that gives me both cash flow and some forced depreciation from doing that conversion.
Mark: Interesting. That sounds like a great opportunity. So, you’ll have to be adding kitchens and stuff to these hotel bedrooms, long distance. Do you have a crew or what’s your, what are your thoughts on how you’re going to pull that off?
Sri: It’s going to be a lot of work for sure, but we’ve done this before and we know how to put the right people in place. And when I go to any new city, that’s my first job is to make sure I can find all the right people to execute on a strategy like this. The big ones are yes, kitchen putting kitchens in, put in sprinkler systems in because sometimes the city requires that.
And then the last thing is sometimes we consider separately metering depending on where the property is. Sometimes these are all bills paid type of apartments for markets where you don’t need to separate the meter because none of the neighboring apartments are charging for utilities. They expect everyone to be paying just rent. So those are the three large expenses that we found. So, we’re looking at at least a million, million and a half to maybe even more in getting this ready to convert to a multifamily.
Mark: That’s exciting.
Sri: Yes. It is.
Mark: Like a very cool strategy. So, is there a failure or a mistake that you made early on that you found in retrospect was key to your success?
Sri: Key to my success. Yes. I think investing out of state on my first deal made me learn a lot about what it looks like to be truly passive in your investments. Because when I brought my money back to California, I again started to get very hands on with these properties and making sure that they were rehabbed the way I wanted them to. But I always think back on that first deal when it was truly hands-off and passive. So even though it was a learning from that first deal, it continued to make me believe that at some point I can go back to being fully passive.
Mark: It’s possible. If you trust your management company to operate it. How important is mindset for your success?
Sri: Very important. A lot of people ask me like, how did you jump straight into apartments? And I didn’t even buy my primary home at that point. I didn’t have a house. I was living in a rented apartment when I bought my first deal. So, it really, for us, and we can’t really compare notes, but for us, it really came down to putting that plan in place in the event that life was to happen. And the health issues were to come back. So, mindset was really important.
And then once I cross, that first deal and my husband got better, then the mindset really became about thinking big and using leverage and using the right resources to start off multiple channels of these and that ability to think big and not listen to all the voices that were telling you, no, you can’t do apartments, no financing is really difficult.
And all these other things that people constantly say about buying apartments, we really had to go one step deeper and really ask, is this really a problem? Or is this a problem that people want to just talk about, but is that something you can overcome? And most of the time, these are problems you can overcome,
Mark: You must’ve had a powerful mindset when your husband was sick and you took this bold step into multifamily investing and employed a strategy and you didn’t just sit back, you got active.
Mark: What’s a trait you possess that has served you best both in real estate and in life?
Sri: I would say the ability to ask questions and not take what I hear at face value.
Mark: Yes. That’s really important. I think in all phases of real estate investing, starting from the first conversation with a broker.
Sri: Correct. Brokers will tell you, no, you can’t find a six-cap deal in this market. And then you’re like, really, I just saw one or you just saw one that sold at six cap, whatever it might be. You really can’t believe, take people’s word for it. You really have to do your own due diligence with everything, including every line item.
Mark: Is there a trait that still holds you back that you feel like you need to work on?
Sri: The only thing I can think of and which I’m working on right now, as I talk to you is the ability to go out there and spread the word about this stuff. Because I think so far, I’ve operated in respects of securing my own financial freedom. But at this point I think the time has come for me to scale the business to a point where I can bring on some investors in and get people to understand the value of multifamily investing and how really it can change lives.
Mark: And now our question round.
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