Find Your Bliss in Real Estate

With a multimillion dollar real estate business under her command, Moneeka Sawyer knows a thing or two about making it in the business of real estate.

Sawyer went from being a graduate of Haas Business School at UC Berkeley struggling to find a job during a recession to an accomplished real estate expert. To see this transformation unfold, you have to rewind to when she was just 3 years old. That’s when her immigrant parents bought a rental property with the goal of paying for her higher education (which it eventually did). Plus, she saw her parents manage that property and other rentals bought with her sisters’ education in mind.

Moneeka’s story

“Really my whole life, I got to see what was possible with real estate,” Sawyer said. She admits she saw not just the good, but the bad and ugly too, hearing the late-night phone calls about broken toilets and watching her parents deal with difficult tenants.

Seeing the stressful parts of being a landlord had Sawyer saying “no thank-you” to real estate as a path to wealth and success after graduation. But a conversation she had with her dad over the dinner table changed her mind. “He said, ‘You know, Moneeka, everybody has stress. Everybody has fear. Everybody has money problems. Do you want poor people money problems or rich people money problems?'”

After that, she refocused on real estate. She got a job, started saving, and eventually met and became engaged to her now husband. Instead of wedding gifts, the couple asked for down payment money. They put 5 percent down and became homeowners. Even then, they had to “house hack” or have someone live with them and help pay the mortgage for a while.

Once the house appreciated, she took money out, bought another primary residence and rented the first. Eventually she bought five more properties, all in the San Jose/ San Francisco Bay Area, using the money for down payments and financing the rest. It was sometimes bumpy and sometimes blissful, but she’s perfected her strategy after buying and holding real estate for 20-plus years now.

In that time she has written two books, “Choose Bliss: The Power and Practice of Joy and Contentment” and “Your Amazing Itty Bitty Blissful Real Estate Investing Book: 15 Steps to Building Massive Wealth on Your Terms.” She hosts the podcast Real Estate Investing for Women on which she covers topics ranging from real estate investment strategies to money smarts with a focus on educating women on real estate prowess. And she’s making plenty of money off real estate, while staying blissful, which for her means her real estate holdings create “very little stress and take very little time.”

Here are a few of her tips for living a blissful life and investing in real estate.

Buy and hold

Sawyer is a buy and hold investor with patience. She was able to use the 2008 market crash to her advantage. After moving from her first house and buying a second, she took out an equity line of credit and used that money as a down payment on multiple REO properties in 2009.

She took out loans for the remainder of the property value on each, and then did about $10,000 to $15,000 in refurbishment. These weren’t full remodels, merely fixing and updating to attract tenants and forced appreciation. She then refinanced the houses to pay off the equity line. This allowed her to stay liquid and repeat the process. She’s refinanced the houses several times since then when interest rates have dropped.

She was also able to benefit from appreciation over time, which was then used as the nest egg for future investments. On one of those first properties, she estimates she put $20,000 down and put $7,000 into rehab. Over 14 years she’s made about $462,000 on that one property. Using one home to finance the next is a strategy that most successful real estate investors harness to great effect.

Think of your tenants as business partners

Buy and hold real estate investors all have different strategies. For Sawyer, one main goal for her properties and tenants is for them to be low maintenance. Sawyer wants people renting from her who would view the house as their home and be willing to take the lead on maintenance and upkeep. When she started this strategy, she was working as an executive and decided to buy and rent properties that would appeal to her peers, other executives.

“My renters are going to be the biggest determining factor if the whole thing is blissful or not,” she highlighted. “I made a decision that anybody that I rent to is going to have to be someone who wants to be really autonomous, has the pride of where they live, and is really motivated to pay rent.”

Instead of having a landlord vs. tenant mentality, she started looking for a more peer-to-peer relationship. “Eventually you can build this strategy where you get to pick who you do business with,” she noted.

Buy the worst houses in the best neighborhoods

As part of this strategy around attracting responsible, executive-level rental tenants, she focused her property attention on neighborhoods that would attract these higher-end tenants.

This meant snapping up the “least beautiful houses” in “really good neighborhoods,” she mentioned. “You’re buying in a location that’s going to attract the kind of tenant that you get to do business with.”

Sawyer acknowledges that she didn’t start her real estate business that way. And, it might not be the approach for every real estate investor, but this emphasis on location is her go-to strategy for a blissful real estate investing experience. “Location is really about what kind of business partners that you want,” she emphasized.

Use a blissful mindset to help manage stress

Sawyer defines bliss as a “deep sense of joy and contentment and the confidence that you can handle anything that comes your way. It’s an awesome way to live.” She’s the first to admit that being a landlord isn’t always stress-free, and that’s not what a blissful mindset is all about.

It simply means that you have the tools and the wherewithal internally to come back to what I call the bliss equilibrium.” Being in control of your emotions allows you to make smart decisions when it comes to all aspects of real estate investment, from which properties to buy to which tenants to rent to, and so on.

This idea of prioritizing bliss moved her away from a more traditional real estate investment mindset focused solely on dollars. Instead, she said she now prioritizes “my freedom and my joy.” Her decisions are still business decisions so she can pay the mortgages, but she doesn’t want the properties to interfere with aspects of her life that she enjoys, like traveling. “So I was looking at it a little bit differently, it wasn’t all about the money. There was a bigger picture in my life that I was now plugging those properties into,” she explained.

Make your tenants work for you

Being a landlord hasn’t always been pure bliss for Sawyer. When she was both working in the corporate world and juggling rentals in a more traditional way, she found herself working weekends and evenings to solve small tenant problems that they really could have fixed themselves.

“I started to train my tenants,” she explains, giving them the authority to call the plumber. Instead of using the landlord as a middle person, Sawyer’s tenants still alert her to problems but now take care of fixing things themselves, send her the receipt, and take that money out of their rent. While Sawyer still oversees big problems, small ones are handled by her tenants, allowing her to be more hands-off.

Work backwards from your goal

“Always start with the end in mind,” Sawyer said of real estate investing. You might have a goal of quickly making a lot of money or of managing stress-free properties, and each will necessitate a different strategy.

Hand-in-hand with your end goal, is defining and understanding your core values. “When I think about what I want in my life, what I want is really really good relationships, freedom of time to nurture those relationships, the ability to travel … learning is a big deal for me.”

When she’s ready to jump into a new venture, whether that’s a speaking engagement or a new property or another business project, she checks in with her core values to make sure it supports those goals and that she’s focusing on what really matters to her.

Take action on your dreams

Once you’ve defined your bliss and core values, it’s important to take action. “Always remember that goals without action are just dreams, so get out there, take some action and create the life your heart deeply desires.”

How Sundae can help you reach your goals

Sawyer’s advice is great for a real estate investor at any part of their business journey. From the newbie looking for inspiration to the experienced investor looking to refocus, everyone can learn something. There’s a lot to be learned from her buy and hold strategy, especially her focus on prioritizing low-maintenance properties and tenants. If you’re looking for real estate investment opportunities, let Sundae’s Marketplace take you to the investment properties that’ll get your business booming.

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Erin B

Erin Behan is a writer and editor covering real estate investor strategy for Sundae. She's lived in L.A., New York, and Atlanta and currently resides in Portland, Oregon, where she writes and edits for a number of outlets, including WebMD, Farmers Insurance, and Vox Creative. She spends her free time hiking with her two boys, snuggling with her cat, and enjoying the best of the Pacific Northwest.