My Rental Properties Allowed Me A Sabbatical: An Interview with David Harris
The following conversation was conducted over email and edited for flow and clarity.
David Harris is an ex-software engineer, landlord, real estate agent and bartender. Yes, you heard that right. In this interview, we are going to talk about how David quit his full-time job, renovated his own multi-unit building, and created the life he wanted from passive income.
Acquania Escarne of Wealth Noir (WN): David, it’s great to speak to you today. I look forward to sharing your real estate investing story with Wealth Noir Readers. But before we dive into that, please tell us a little about yourself. Before you were a real estate investor, what did you do for a living?
David Harris of LCGN Properties: I was a software engineering consultant in the public sector, which is a fancy way of saying I was a computer programmer for the government. I went to the University of Maryland, College Park, and majored in computer science and economics. After undergrad, I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as a software engineer; after I left Booz, I worked at various small-sized government consulting firms. I did that from 2006 up until I decided to take a break in 2018.
WN: Wow. You worked a long time as an engineer. When you decided to invest in real estate, what inspired you to buy a multi-unit instead of a single-family home?
David Harris of LCGN Properties: So for me, this is a really tough question because there were a lot of different things that influenced my decision, but I would say the biggest thing was that I absolutely hated my job. Even though it paid very well and was very “prestigious,” I was absolutely miserable. So I started diving into books like Rich Dad Poor Dad, Hackers and Painters and the 4-hour workweek. So that was part of what influenced me to know that there was more than working a job you hated.
A person that really really influenced me was my Great Uncle Uzikee Nelson. My uncle was a black guy who grew up in Mississippi, and he could pretty much fix anything. He got that from his dad. Anyway, my uncle owned his house, the house next door to him, and an apartment building all on one street in Washington, D.C.
He was able to acquire all of this on a teacher’s salary and he was able to retire early, make art and manage his rentals. As a kid, he always had me helping him fix stuff because he did all his repairs. So seeing that growing up, even though I hated all the work when I was a kid, showed me something like that was possible, and I thought I could do all the work myself like him.
So, some time in college I realized that I wanted an apartment building. I was also always interested in interior design and architecture, and I thought I could fix stuff. Therefore, I also knew I wanted a fixer-upper, and I knew my uncle would help me. I read Mortgages For Dummies, and in this book there was a chapter that explained how you could buy a four-unit with a residential loan, and how FHA had a program that would let you get in for 3.5% down, and do renovations. After college, I moved to my dad’s house and just started saving all my money for a down payment. During that time, my dad bought a house, so I did some of the renovations in the basement of his house as practice for when I found my apartment building project.
WN: That’s a great story. After finishing the book, what steps did you take to make the purchase of a multi-unit, that needed repairs no less, affordable?
David Harris of LCGN Properties: It all started with Mortgages For Dummies. After I read that, I knew I needed to get a FHA 203k loan. This is a loan that allows you to pay for home improvements and a home purchase. To get qualified for this loan, I needed a HUD 203K Consultant and a licensed contractor.
Before finding a property, I determined how much I wanted to pay a month based on my current salary, and I also knew I wanted a mortgage that I could afford even if I had no tenants. I worked backwards from the monthly payment and figured out how much house I could afford, and that, along with other criteria, dictated what neighborhoods I would consider.
Once I found the apartment building I wanted, which, coincidentally, was next door to one of my best friends, I told my uncle and my 203K consultant. The consultant came back with a scope of work that was realistic, but too high for what I thought I could afford. So, I talked to my uncle, and we basically came up with a list of things I could do on my own, in my “spare” time.
Then, we found a licensed contractor to do the minimal amount of work in order for the bank to approve the loan. After he finished up the “official” scope of work, the bank approved the mortgage, and we closed on the building.
Another thing that was a big deal for me was that I am extremely competitive about some things. My uncle bought his first property (which, coincidentally, was a four-unit that he turned into a duplex) when he was like 35. When I decided I wanted an apartment building, I told him I was going to get mine younger than he was. I was 26. I beat him by nine years.
WN: I can’t believe you took on the challenge of doing so many of the renovations and repairs on your own. How long did it take you to fix up all four units? Were there any challenges along the way?
David Harris of LCGN Properties: So, basically, I bought the property in 2010 and all four units were finished in 2018. I moved in maybe four months after closing in 2010. Another thing my uncle did was live in his first property while he did the complete gut renovation. I figured if he could do it, I could do it.
There were a lot of challenges. I would say the biggest challenge was me overestimating my abilities to fix things and how long they would take me to fix given that I was working a full-time job. Also, with me doing the work, and working as a software engineer full-time, I was stretched too thin, so I was not really doing either job with 100% of my abilities.
For example, I did all of the plumbing myself, with my uncle (who was in his mid 70’s), his friends and youtube videos. So everything was taking longer and was harder than it needed to be. The plumbing was originally supposed to take about a week, but it took significantly longer. If the building was vacant, or if I hired qualified people, it probably would have taken a week. It ended up taking me two months. I was miserable the entire time. That’s why it took me almost ten years.
But looking back, I am not sure I would change anything about it, because all those experiences really led to me being able to quit my job, and I learned a lot during the process. Now I just tell people that I look at it as my version of grad school.
WN: Now, if I recall correctly, you were still working at your 9 to 5 job most of the initial years of the renovations. At what point did you realize you could afford to quit? What steps did you take to make an informed decision?
David Harris of LCGN Properties: Basically, around 2016, I started realizing that I could not keep working full time and renovating the building on my own simultaneously. So I switched my focus to maximizing my income from my job and using that money to pay people to work on my units. At this point, I’d had the place for about six years. I had learned a lot about construction, so I was able to work with contractors a little better. I used all my savings to finish one unit.
Once that unit was finished, I used that rent, combined with my income, to convince a bank to give me a private loan at 10% to finish another unit, which was in the worst condition. I finished that unit and got it rented. Then, on paper, I had my income, rental income from three units, and my equity in the building. I then got a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) which was at 3%. I used that HELOC to pay off the 10% personal loan. Now my rental income covered the mortgage, the HELOC loan repayments, and expenses for the building such as utilities and capital improvements.
Then, I was left with a small profit after the above expenses.
Even though with all that, plus my 9 to 5 income, I was still depressed and miserable. Looking back, I can say maybe I was a little ungrateful because I was definitely in a very blessed position.
Damien (my roommate from college, and founder of Wealth Noir) basically suggested that I just see if I can live off the profit from the building and not live off my paycheck. He also suggested I take the paycheck and just directly deposit the money into an account that was hard for me to access. So that’s what I did. It was tough but doable. The plan was for me to do that for six months and then take some time off.
I was following the plan fine, but then I got a job offer from a friend making about 10% more than my current salary, but it was 100% remote. Plus, it was a contract-based position, so I was only obligated to work until the end of the year. Damien actually told me he didn’t think it would be a good idea. I took the contract and extra money. Even though the job was 100% remote, I was even more miserable. Once the contract was over, I told my boss I did not want to extend the contract, and I quit.
About a month after that, I sold my first two houses as a Realtor (more on this in a bit) and went to Bolivia for a month.
WN: Besides being a full-time real estate investor, what do you do now? Are you financially independent and retired early?
David Harris of LCGN Properties: I was always interested in real estate in DC, so I just knew a lot about the residential real estate landscape. When a lot of my friends started purchasing, they would always ask me questions and I would always have answers and different referrals for them. A few people started suggesting that I get my real estate license. So I just took the class and took the test.
I don’t know that I would say I am “retired.” I always look at going back to work as an option if it makes sense. It just hasn’t made sense yet.
I really don’t even consider myself a real estate investor yet, because I have met people that I would really consider investors who have done way more than me. Right now, I just manage my three rental units, which allows me to live rent and mortgage-free. Also, given all that I have learned over the years and having my real estate license, I am able to help some of my other friends and other people with their various construction projects and real estate purchases.
This also gives me the flexibility to just try other things. For example, I am putting more energy towards utilizing my real estate sales license because right now, all of my current business is word of mouth. However, I was also interested in trying out bartending, so I did that part-time for a bit and still maintain my bartender’s license. I am really just trying to figure stuff out, and appreciating having the flexibility to do so.
WN: What’s next for you? Do you have a new venture or goal in mind?
David Harris of LCGN Properties: Right now, I’m really just trying to figure out what is next. If it makes sense, I may go back to software design, but after the last ten years, I really needed a break. Now I have a little more flexibility and control over my time to focus on things I am interested in, and I am very grateful for that.
I still have my real estate license and I do work with friends and other clients wherever I can be helpful. Now that I have time, I will probably start pushing those services more. I’m also exploring more facets of construction management and design, because even though my first major project took ten years, I learned a lot and met a lot of amazing people. Hopefully, I can use that to further my endeavors and help other people. In short, right now I’m just trying to figure “it” out, and I’m just super fortunate to be able to do that without worrying about my finances.
WN: What a great story. Thanks for sharing it with our readers. I hope it inspires more people to consider multi-family units and investing in real estate.