DE 36: From Real Estate Agent to Independent Investor- with Brie Schmidt

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Joining us today is Brie Schmidt, a Chicago based real estate investor. She began her career in corporate sales while always holding her real estate license current. In 2011, she decided to leave the corporate world to become a full-time real estate investor. Since then, she has bought several properties in the Windy City and Milwaukee. In 2014, she started a brokerage company and in 2017 she started a conference business. Brie makes use of her extensive knowledge of constructing and managing a portfolio to teach clients about all aspects of buying and holding investments.

In this episode, she talks about her career as an investor, how she started and how she got to where she is today. Brie discusses how and why she decided to focus on the Chicago & Milwaukee markets, criteria she looks for when deciding on a property and her plans for the future. 

Episode Highlights:

  • Brie’s Start as a Real Estate Investor
  • Cap Rate Criteria for Properties
  • Work-Life Balance
  • Her Future Plans

Connect with Brie:

Website: Second City Real Estate

 Social Media: BiggerPockets or LinkedIn

Join Brie @ the Midwest Real Estate Networking Summit

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Intro: Hey guys, today Don with interview Brie Schmidt. Brie is the first female investor on our show, so we are very excited to have her here. We really hope this episode will inspire other female investors to jump right in the arena of real estate investing. After listening to the interview, I have learned from Brie that this type of profession actually enables a future mom to enjoy both worlds have a very successful career and the ability to take as much time needed for recovery and raising your newly born child. Don and Brie will also discuss the best strategy of choosing a market which is going there and seeing it firsthand. I hope you guys will enjoy this show.

Lady: Welcome to the commercial real estate investing podcast with Don and Eden where we cover all aspects of real estate investing with special attention to off-market strategies.

Don: Hey Brie, welcome to the show.

Brie: Thank you for having me.

Don: Yes, of course. I’m very excited to have you as you know, you are the first female investor on the show. I’ve been trying to get a female investor for quite a while. And I know we’ve wanted to do this interview for a long time.

Brie: Yeah, I just had a baby. So, scheduling has been a little bit difficult for me.

Don: I could only imagine how difficult it would be to be a real estate investor and also being pregnant and taking care of babies. That must be requiring a lot of toll from you, right?

Brie: You learn to prioritize your time, right, and what’s important and it’s been something that I’ve been considering a personal mission of mine for a few years. When I started this business, I quit my corporate job back in 2014. So, I started real estate investing in 2011. I bought another property in 2012. I bought another property in 2013. And then I decided to quit my job and do this full time. 2014, I bought another 10 properties, and then in 2015, I bought another 12 and then bought a couple more in 2016. So, at the time when I quit my job, I used to work in corporate advertising sales. I’m like this is going to be great like I’m going from 50 hours a week and traveling all over the country. Now I’m going to be chill and I work from home and I’m self-employed. And for the first few years, I was working more hours than I was when I had a W2 job. 

It wasn’t until about 2017 that I was really like, wow, like I have started a couple of other businesses, I’m the Managing Broker of Second City real estate, which is an investment, boutique investment firm for agents. I also started a website business and it was like, well, what was the point of me leaving my solid W2 jobs to get ‘financial freedom’ if I’m working from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed and weekends. So, when I knew that we were going to start planning for a family I made it a really big objective of mine to kind of reevaluate my position in the business and reevaluate what I was doing and spending my time on and work to shift it. So, I’m very happy to report that even before we got pregnant, I was down to about 30 hours a week, and I’m able to take a nine-month maternity leave, where I’m pretty much only working 10 to 15 hours a week currently.

Don: Nice, yeah. So, you get a lot of flexibility. And that’s the advantage of being self-employed. And especially in the type of business that we are in, which during the years generates passive income for us. So, it enables us to really take a break when we need to take a break with anything that we go through in life. So yeah, I’m sure that that’s been terrific for you and your family. And speaking of which, I want to ask you about the dynamics. So, you’re doing your own thing as a real estate investor and your husband, what does he do? Does he spend more time with the kids or does he have a W2? Or how does it look like?

Brie: Luckily, we’re both off work still. So, we did not get an easy child. She turned four months yesterday. I’m back to work maybe 10-15 hours a week, and I don’t plan on going back for another probably four or five months. He’s self-employed as well. So, he’s taking off work as well. And I don’t see him going back in the near future. When people tell you that raising a child is hard like I don’t think I fully grasp that concept. But I mean, it takes both of us all day long, tag-teaming things to have your own sanity. Because we both need our own personal time. So that’s how we work at currently. But we’ll see when she gets older, hopefully, fingers out of this fussy phase.

Don: Yeah. Beautiful. So that’s very exciting to hear that you guys are doing it right. So, tell us about your first deal. You said 2011. So how did you basically come up with the idea of quitting your job and start investing in real estate? And also, what were the difficulties back in a day for you when you were just trying to get into that market?

Brie: Well, in the beginning, I really had no intention of being a real estate investor. So, I’ve been licensed as a real estate agent for 15 years. I spent the first six months in the business absolutely hated it, quit and went into the corporate world. So, I always maintained my license, though, as a backup. That was kind of my plan. I always had a passion for real estate, but I started when I was 21, was really difficult to get people to trust your opinion and rely on you for advice when you’re a 21 year old. Like, why would they listen to you when buying a house. So, it wasn’t until let’s see, I was 28 when I bought my first property. 

We bought a three-flat in Chicago. And really the intentions weren’t to be real estate investors, it was mainly purely out of convenience that the Chicago market is quite unique to understand that. So, Chicago is what we, I would consider to be a dense urban environment. There’s almost 300,000 2-4 unit properties and just the city of Chicago. So, in a lot of the Northside neighborhoods where I was living, and where I’ve worked, some of them are between 30% and 60% of the housing stock is two to four units. So, it’s very common, if you look at any block of neighborhoods, over half the house is pretty much our two to four-unit properties. But at the time, we had a really low housing stock of single-family houses. So, while my husband and I wanted to buy a single-family house because the housing stock was so low, they only represent about at the time, 15% to 20% of the housing stock. 

The prices were very high, and it was very, very competitive. So, we thought to ourselves, yes, we would want a single-family house. They’re about 3000 square feet here, but we’re not even married yet, we don’t have planning kids for a few years, we don’t need a 3000 square foot house. So, let’s buy this three-unit and then eventually, when we need more space, we can just deconvert the staircase and then make two units and the one and then keep renting out the other unit. And then eventually when we need more space, we can just deconvert the staircase again and now we’ve got a single-family house that we’ve grown into as time needed. So that was the original plan. There was really no plan to keep buying any more units either. 

So, we did, because we were owner-occupied, we did our three and a half percent down FHA property. I had no idea what I was doing. Like I just looked at it as okay, my mortgage is 2200 and it rents for 2250. like boom, I’m profitable, right? Like, that was all I really how looked at it. I didn’t know anything about vacancy repairs, cap-like nothing. We bought it vacant, we got it rented out right away and things were fine and dandy. And this was like great, we live for free now we can start saving for we were planning our wedding so, we were saving for this grand wedding. A few months after we bought the property, my father got sick. He was 60 years old, he was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer, which is a very aggressive form of cancer and went through 10 rounds of radiation, 13 rounds of chemo and in nine months and passed away. 

Don: I’m sorry to hear that.

Brie: It was lightning quick, right? And that was with treatment. But the real kicker was he died one day before he was both to retire. So, he died before his 61st birthday. That one part really stuck with me. Like, I’ve watched my dad worked his ass off to provide for his family and he had been offered early retirement before and he always like, oh, well, after your brother graduates college or after you get married or after this, then I’ll then I’m going to go do all these things, I’m going to go here and I’m going to go do that. And for him to get so sick so quickly, and I’ll happen so fast. So, it really messed with me. It took me a while, maybe like six months of really thinking about it. But I sat down with my husband at the time it was like okay, we need to figure it out something out because I’m not doing 30 more years of the corporate, 50 hours/week stuff to just die and not be able to do anything with my life. So, we looked at a couple of different options. 

We looked at real estate investing, obviously, because we’ve owned the property for about a year at that point, it was pretty easy. Like this could be something that we can do. We looked at learning to code so we could code from across the world and decided that real estate was the avenue we’re going to take. So about three months later, I bought a second property. And then two months later, I bought a third. And then I really started getting into like reading books and listening to podcasts. I got involved with the bigger pockets community, and that’s when I started researching other markets, and we ended up in the Milwaukee market.

Don: Yeah, so how many units do you own currently and how much time did it take to get to that portfolio?

Brie: So, we’ve got 97 units, 31 properties. The Chicago market is more of an expensive market. The average unit is about to let’s say $150,000. So, while I love Chicago and think it’s a great investment opportunity, you can’t scale very quickly when it’s $150,000 a unit like I’m not made of that kind of money versus the Milwaukee market when I was buying there was more like $30,000 a unit. So, to get there when I decided that we wanted to look at other markets, I looked at Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Milwaukee, only because those three markets are within driving distance. So, I’m a total control freak. If something went down, I wanted to be able to be there within a day. 

So that’s why I kind of chose those markets. And I, researched agents, I didn’t know anything about any of these markets. And I found three ‘investor agents’ at each market and called them up and said, “Hey, I’m looking to invest half a million dollars. I’m coming into town, and I would go out with one agent Friday, one agent Saturday, one agent Sunday.” And said, “I want to spend the day looking at properties. I’m not going to give you any criteria. I just want to see like if you were to spend $500,000, where would you spend it and why.” So, it was a very interesting experience. I did that in every market to see where they were taking me, what neighborhoods what property conditions, and I sell them the Milwaukee market, really because of that market housing stock wise very similar to Chicago. It’s a very dense urban environment. So, I understood that aspect of things versus Kansas City and Indianapolis for more like suburban, sprawling, single-family markets. 

Once I got focused on Milwaukee, that was probably I started going up there every other weekend to get to learn the neighborhoods, because a lot of the areas where they took me, because that’s where the investors go, I didn’t like. They were what I would consider the D class. I wasn’t comfortable walking into the apartments, I wouldn’t have been comfortable going there by myself at night. So, I didn’t want to choose that market. So I started exploring other neighborhoods myself. I probably looked until I found a neighborhood that I really liked. It was on the outskirts of some really cool hip areas, those only have maybe half a mile from like the cool scene. That numbers worked well, while they weren’t as high as the ‘investor areas,’ they were still good returns, and I just felt comfortable. I saw a lot of promising things going on in the neighborhoods, a lot of gentrification, a lot of development that was going on, I felt comfortable walking around at night. So, once we focused on that area, that was probably May, we bought our first set of properties in July, we bought five properties. Then I bought another five properties in December of 2014. Then I bought another five properties in February of 2015. And I bought another three properties in May of 2015. 

Don: So, when you’re buying these properties, you’re buying them with mortgages, or you’re using other people’s money?

Brie: Mortgages. So, we were doing just a standard commercial loan, but because the price points were so low at $30,000 a unit, if I’m going to a commercial bank or buying a duplex like what’s he going to do with 60 grand, that’s not worth their time. So, when I had met my commercial lender, one of the things he had told me was, if you could bundle them together, and then buy every couple of months, that makes it a lot easier for us from an underwriting perspective. You’re planning on doing a property a month and they’re all two-three units. We’re really not going to be very excited about doing that. 

So that’s why I worked to bulk them up, I would find one or two anchor properties, and set the closing 60 days out. Once I got my one or two anchor properties, then I was able to look around for like, secondary properties. So, if only I bought the one or two, I was cool with that, because I really liked those ones and that’s what I did. So, then it gave me another 30 days to find more properties to buy. I did direct mail campaigns, a lot of the properties I actually bought from the same sellers. So, every time I bought a property, I would send a letter to the seller, saying, “Hey, I’m glad we closed this. This is what I’m looking to do. Do you know of anyone or do you have other properties that you’re willing to sell?” So, of the 18 properties I bought myself, I think four where maybe on the MLS, the rest I all got through networking, direct mail or buying from one guy bought like five properties from them.

Don: That’s nice. So yeah, I mean, what I like is the fact that you actually did so much work in pursuit of a new market and that’s something that not a lot of people do because a lot of people ask me, “How do I find the right market? How do I know where to invest?” And nobody’s going to tell you that because markets change constantly. And you can hear that Orlando is a great market, but you hear it in a podcast, and that’s two years old. So maybe now things have changed. So, the best way to pick a market is doing the legwork, which is exactly what you did. You just went there and you grind it. You just met people and you saw properties and you saw yourself and that’s the best way to do things. And I think that’s what led you to that success, isn’t it?

Brie: Yeah, I agree. 100% People always ask me, “Where do you invest, because I want to invest there.” And my response is always, “Are you going to buy the same car that I have? That’s just stupid? Are you just going to follow what I’m doing?” Because that’s what you think about how you get this…

Don: A lot of people don’t understand that when you’re a real estate investor, then you are the investor. So, it’s basically your decision to make the decision. 

Brie: Everyone’s got different goals. One deal might, I might think it’s awful, you might think it’s great for completely different reasons. Neither of us is right or wrong. So really, it comes down to I always tell people, you got to sleep at night. That’s how I judge pretty much everything I’ve done in my life is, if it keeps me up at night worried about it, then I know it’s not the right decision. So, I would have been fine investing in Kansas City or Indianapolis as well. But for some reason, Milwaukee clicked with me and that wasn’t based on anyone else’s information. And I know a lot of investors to look at the stats, right? You look at population growth, you look at economic growth. 

Chicago, which is an obviously major city, Milwaukee is a secondary city, but it’s still 170,000 residents. If you look at a stat like oh, population growth is x, that’s not true for the whole market. And so you can’t just take these stats about income job and employment, whatever economic growth, and then assume that the whole city is like that, because I can tell you at least with both Chicago and Milwaukee, there are some areas that have 20% declining population and there are some areas that have 40% year over year increasing population. Some areas where the average income is $20,000 a year, some areas of the average income is $500,000 a year. So, it’s so much more involved than just looking at a stat and each city and saying, “Oh, well, that applies the whole city, I can invest there.” It doesn’t work like that.

Don: Sometimes he does. Like, I’ll give you an example. I was looking at this county, this property in Florida. And then it was very interesting. So, the population of the county was increasing, which is Florida. I mean, everything’s increasing a property that I was looking at, in this specific city, that city was declining in population, and that’s very unusual for Florida like you wouldn’t see it. So, I started to research the county. And then I noticed that all the cities are declining in population besides this one city. And what I noticed was that the villages so that city, this entire area, back in the 2000 census, there were 8000 people there. And 2010 there were 54,000 people there and that’s an enormous growth, right, and then 2018 there’s 80,000 people in this city. So, what I figured out was that small cities in the county everybody was leaving for that big city that just emerged, right? So, every case is different, you can’t really look at stats and think that, well, if the population is not growing, then I’m not investing. That’s too easy, right? I mean, you can just go to Best Basis or City Data, and you can find that data over there and you would know what’s going on with the city. But every market has submarkets…

Brie: And giving your scenario, if you were just to take that information and say, “Okay, I’m investing this county, right, because it’s got an increasing population,” but you invested outside of the villages, which has a rapidly declining population.

Don: Then I will be investing in a declining market. Yeah. Exactly.

Brie: Yeah. Well, you’re not paying attention and actually getting down to the nitty-gritty of it and looking at the ‘why’, then you just made a bad investment. 

Don: Exactly. And the best way to get to the nitty-gritty is just going there physically, which is what you did and I admire that because you spent three, four months in research, and people don’t understand that, that when you’re investing in real estate is when preparation meets opportunity. That’s not me, that’s Tony Robbins right there. And that’s really true. Because you have to do your research, you have to do your homework and then investing becomes really easy because the opportunity just pops up. And I believe that’s what happened to you with the Milwaukee market. Another thing that I wanted to ask you about these deals, so, you said you had an aggressive growth strategy which I always like to hear about that. So, what I want to know, is basically, when you started investing in these properties, what were the cap rates that you were looking for? Were you just buying off at market value, or you were trying to get a discount?

Brie: So, I was buying off of cap rate, but I wanted a minimum of 11% cap rate. I would rather pay retail and get a property that has stabilized with long term tenant versus doing what people call the BRR strategy, the buy-rent-rehab-resell or rent out strategy. I don’t like doing rehabs. And I’ll tell you this is a story. So, there was a duplex I was looking at. It was super cheap. It was like $35,000 and the rents were $1300. So, if you think about it, my God, I started $1,000 duplex that runs for $1300 and it was fully rented at the time and I passed on it. And it sounds crazy, those numbers are astronomical, but the basement foundation had been caving in. 

So, it needed about $20,000 of basement foundation work. So even at $55,000 at $1300 dollars rent, but the way I look at it is that it is $20,000 of capital that if I deployed as a downpayment only, I could buy $100,000 of house. I could buy two duplexes essentially for the same price I deploy that capital differently. So, instead of putting 20% down on the 35 and then putting 20k into it, I said turned around and bought two duplexes for $50,000 each that were already rent ready. And instead of getting $1300 a month in rent, I got $2500 a month in rent. So, I use my capital, to me like the repairs on like doing major repairs on properties, A) it’s time-consuming, B) it completely stresses me out, that keeps me up at night worried, like is this going to come in on budget, whatever. I’ve done a few times, every single time it stresses me out and I just almost doubled my investment by doing it the easy way. That’s how I see it. So, I don’t care if market value was $50,000 those duplexes or not, I still at the end of the day got a better return.

Don: Yeah, but I also think you were a little bit lucky when it came to the timing. You are investing in 2014 you said right? You started like buying these duplexes and you started really investing seriously, I would say in 2013, right? That’s what you said.

Brie: Yeah, my Chicago properties, I bought 2011 – 2013 and then Milwaukee was like 2014 to early 2016.

Don: Yeah. So, if you look at Milwaukee and your investments there, I think it’s safe to say that you invested at the best timing for multi-family because there were just picking up.

Brie: Absolutely. 

Don: And that’s why for you, you didn’t even have to buy it at a discount because you had a natural appreciation. Of course, we never buy for appreciation, but it just happens to be the case in these specific investments. And so sometimes, it’s just best to buy. People always ask when to buy, is this a good time? It’s always a good time to buy. You should just buy because it’s going to be fine. Whatever it is you’re going to do, you’re going to have a natural appreciation, you’re going to have cash flow, and you’re going to make money in equity. So, I think you realize that and you had the nerves and the guts to do it, to just go ahead and pull the trigger. And that’s the difference between people that make it in real estate and people that don’t, because, at the end of the day, there’s just so much you can learn on theory. You got to learn by taking action and that’s what you did. And I love that I think the way that you do things with just going there yourself and seeing it yourself and talking to people yourself and pulling the trigger is really the best way that you can get ahead in life. So yeah, I absolutely love that.

Brie: Well, I touch on a few points there. So first, I mean yeah, obviously taking action, right. So, the good part of it is, on my story at least, I spent about six months before I bought my first property. We started looking at Milwaukee in January and closing my first property right around the Fourth of July. So, I spent a lot of time up there. I probably saw 100 properties while I was up there and then continue to go up there from we did July was our first buy round, our second buy round, we closed early December. So as soon as we closed, I started going up there, again, looking at more properties. So, by about October, it was at the point where I could walk into a property and in five minutes tell you what I paid for it. But it was getting like that intuition was really important, right? So, you don’t want to just go, like, “Hey, I’m going to buy 20 properties this year” and just go do that. You definitely want to get to a point where you’re trusting your intuition, you’re able to, estimate runs off the top of your head, you’re able to go into a property and say, “Hey, if I, do new cabinets and new countertops and change out the flooring, it’s going to cost me x and it’s going to increase my rents to x.” You won’t be able to do all that off the top of your head so that you’re sure that you’re making an investment decision now. 

On the flip side of that, my first year in Milwaukee, I probably lost $20,000 in just mistakes because I went so fast. So, I was really cocky, which I’m just a cocky, arrogant person. Like the first properties that we bought five properties on one of the properties that we bought, they were actually all owned by a family. So, the one guy owned one property, and then his mother in law owns the other four. And he’d been helping manage the whole portfolio they had like 20 properties total as a family. So, I brought him on as a property manager, because he was familiar with the properties had been for years knew all the tenants. So that was a really easy transition. So, I just went right ahead and started buying more. And then I went ahead and started buying more.

 Well, what I didn’t do and what I should have done was I wasn’t really paying attention to his performance, right. And he was great at certain things. He was phenomenal with tenants, knew all their names, their kids, soccer games, whatever. But it got to the point like he had no experience with any sort of accounting, the business side of things. So, it wasn’t until about a year later, after I’d already bought all my properties that I heard a horror story from another investor friend of mine with their property manager, and I decided to go in and do an audit because I was going up there once a month. He’d go deposit like 10 grand in my checking account, I’m like, well, who’s this for? He’s like, I’ve got the receipts in my pocket. 

So, I’d go up there like once a month, and he’d hand me handfuls of crumpled up receipts of who paid rent. I’d go to my hotel room with a wine bottle and sit through them all and be like, Okay, well, so and so wasn’t paying rent for two months, and he’s like, Oh, really? No, there was no one tracking this stuff. Secondly, we had like 20 people that weren’t even unleashed it. No, he was like, Well, like I know them from school or they know them from my church, they’re fine. I’m like we have to have leases, something has to be in writing. So, I end up having to fire him after a little over a year because of these things. Because again, he was really great at half the business but not great the other half and I needed someone that was great at all of it. So got through the stakes, vacancies again, tenants that didn’t pay for like two months and no one was paying attention. So, we probably lost 20 grand our first year and just those sorts of mistakes because I went so fast.

Don: Yeah, but you’ve learned that a bad manager is probably one of the things that would drown your property. Basically, I mean, I would say a bad manager and utilities would be the things to really affect your NOI at the end of the day. But these are things that you learn by taking action and sometimes it’s okay to lose some money to learn these lessons. What would be your plans for the future now that you’re already a serious investor and you have a very decent sized portfolio? So, what would be the plans for the future now?

Brie: By the way, if I would say, I have not bought a property since 2016. Just because again, I was really working 60 hours a week, I knew that we were going to be starting a family. I also mentioned I started a couple of other businesses. So, I started a brokerage company in 2014 in the Chicago land market. We’re a boutique brokerage company that works with investors. And then I also started a conference business in 2017. It’s a two-day conference in the Chicago market. Because I found good management A that I can trust with my properties, I’m really not involved with the day to day management of them anymore. I get looped in on the big stuff, strategy stuff. But that really took off 20 hours a week from my plate once I hired out reputable management, and let me focus on my other businesses. So that’s really been my focus is doing that and that now that I’m taking nine-month maternity leave, making it easy for the next few years, essentially.

Don: That’s great. So, what would be the best ways to connect with you in case anybody wants to get in touch or maybe get some tips from you on a real estate career?

Brie: Absolutely. I’m always on BiggerPockets. And you can probably find me on LinkedIn. And then if you’re interested in attending our event in spring, it’s

Don: Nice. Okay, that’s great. So, thank you very much, Brie, for coming on the show today. As I mentioned, I’m really excited to have a female investor on the show. And as I thought your story is just phenomenal. So, I want to wish you good luck in the future as well.

Brie: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Don: Okay, you have a great day.

Brie: You too.

Lady: Thanks for listening to the real estate investing podcast with Don and Eden. Stay tuned for more episodes. Till next time.

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