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An Immigrant’s Impressions on Opportunity and Real Estate Investing in America

by Erion Shehaj on April 4, 2014 · 26 comments

  
Real Estate Opportunities

When I was just ten years old, I witnessed the fall of communism in Albania.

I vividly remember a detail that has stuck with me through the years.

One afternoon during those tumultuous days, pamphlets were distributed throughout the city that cryptically read: “At nine o’clock tomorrow, kiss someone you love.” It was a foreshadowing of the mother of all protests that ultimately overthrew one of the most brutal dictatorships in Eastern Europe. A crowd like a swollen angry river overcame police forces, their guns, water canons, teargas and police dogs to tumble down the bronze bust of the dictator that ironically waved at a God he denied and tried to extinguish.

Fast Forward Thirteen Years.

I was in my last year of college and I found myself in a small real estate office in Houston interviewing for a job.

The broker proceeded to tell me that they had a real estate and a mortgage department in their company and asked me which position I was interested in pursuing. I apologized and asked him to describe them for me in greater detail. I had no idea what he meant by “real estate” or “mortgage”. In communism, the state owns everything and everyone is employed, housed and “provided” for by the “benevolent” state. Therefore, there was no private property, no transfer of ownership and as a consequence no real estate market.

I shared those snippets of my life because they have shaped my worldview in general and how I view real estate investing specifically. From my observations I’ve found that most of us appreciate perks, opportunities and lifestyle through contrast. For instance, if you didn’t have an abundance of food growing up, you’re more likely to appreciate that abundance and not take it for granted when it is present in your life.

The same happens with opportunities.

When “what’s possible” has always been so, it’s hard to truly appreciate the magnitude of that opportunity. That’s where my perspective as an immigrant who grew up in an isolated communist country can provide some much needed contrast to identify the often underutilized opportunities that are available in the United States.

All the Opportunity You Can Muster

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but throughout most of the rest of the world your circumstances typically dictate your economic level for the rest of your life.

For instance, if you’re a house painter in Eastern Europe your income is capped at “what a painter makes.”

As a result, many wealth building tools, such as owning income producing property are simply out of your reach throughout your life. Contrast that with my first hand experience in the States where house painters with little education, capital and experience have been able to build amazing businesses grossing over seven figures a year. Through no favor other than hard work, discipline and hustle. That snowballs into wealth moves they can make by acquiring property, investing in securities and building a legacy they can pass on to the next generation.

The fact that this scenario is possible for everyone that is willing to do what it takes to achieve it, blows my mind every day. Especially when on the same breath, I hear people (who were born in this environment) complain about the economy, the government, high taxes, the recession, job availability and all the rest.

The Head Start of Starting Young

Last summer I went back home on vacation and met with a friend of the family that just put a contract on an apartment. He was in the process of securing a mortgage and proceeded to tell me that in order to issue the loan, the bank was requiring him to collaterize every property and automobile he owned. That was on top of a 40% down payment and the proposed interest rate on the loan was 7.25%. When I returned, I helped a young gentleman fresh out of college purchase their first home even though all he had to support his income was an employer letter stating he’d been hired.

There are very few things in real estate investing (and life) that are more valuable than time.(Tweet This!)

If you have the maturity to start early enough there’s no limit to what you can achieve. Imagine a young woman in her twenties purchasing a 3-4 bedroom home with a low down payment, living in one bedroom and renting out the rest to roommates. Or purchasing a live in duplex and renting out one of the units to tenants and any remaining bedrooms to roommates. That one move alone can create six figures of wealth and five figures of income in just over a decade. Guess what? What she was able to do is basically impossible in most of the rest of the world. And what percentage of young people in this country take advantage of it? If I say 1% I’m probably half wrong.

Related: How to Start Investing In Real Estate at a Young Age (or a “Young at Heart” Age)

Easy Does It For Everyone

The real estate investing space is inundated with folks looking for a magic formula to get rich by next Friday with no money or credit.

They buy endless foolproof “systems” and seminars to flip themselves into Babylonian riches.

But this isn’t strictly an American phenomenon – people have been trying to find shortcuts to wealth throughout human history all over the world. What makes these attempts exceptionally foolish in these country are two facts:

  1. There’s a far simpler way to do it and
  2. It’s available to everyone.

Let’s say that instead of following in the path of an A&E reality show, a 45 year old couple opts for something much simpler: Buy a home every other year over the next decade. They work hard and have the discipline to pay themselves first and get to keep a portion of his earnings. After a year or so he has enough money saved for a down payment so he buys a home (instead of a Beamer that plummets in value faster than it does 0-60), move in and live there for another year. At which point they purchase another property and rent out the first. They rinse and repeat the process 5 times getting wiser each time. By the time they’re 55, they owns their primary residence plus 4 rental properties outperforming 90% of the Joneses in their age group.

This isn’t some sophisticated strategy – it’s as boring and plain vanilla as it gets. It doesn’t require much money – probably 20-50k in total over the five purchases.

It does, however, require someone who pays attention, knows his priorities and who has the mental fortitude to install and follow some simple disciplines.

Is that you?

Leave me a comment below and let’s talk. 

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa DuFaux April 4, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Erion, thank you so much for providing this perspective. I try not to take for granted the wealth of opportunities and gifts I have just by virtue of being born in the U.S. (although I certainly fail at times.) This is a much needed reminder for all of us to live with gratitude and make the most of what we have. Very well said!

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James April 4, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Erion,

Your article is not only eye-opening, but awe-inspiring! You are an example of what immigrants, from the early beginnings of the U.S.A., have done to make this country great! Many native-born Americans don’t know just how good they have it and what kind of opportunities exist here!!! Many squander those opportunities and for someone like yourself the point out what the possibilities are through the eyes of an immigrant is most appreciated!

I really liked your comment about the Beamer! I was tempted to do that in my twenties, but I invested in real estate instead. The U.S.A. is still the land of opportunity if you look for it! People with very little education can make a nice living here. Those who don’t take advantage of the vast opportunities here have much bigger issues that have nothing to do with available opportunities, but rather their fortitude to seek them out!

Thank you for writing this article! I’m going to follow (not stalk) you on Twitter now :-)

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Brandon Turner Brandon Turner April 4, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Erion, this post was incredible – definitely one of my favorites. Thank you for the reminder that we live in an incredible land of opportunity, and for sharing your story with us.

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Joe H April 4, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Erion, this post is brilliant and really sums up nicely the real estate niche, specifically the tiny population that actually is in the game versus the thousands that spend money on books and seminars.

I decided to start buying rentals when I turned 40. I’m up to ten properties now at 43 and thought I was doing what every other investor does. To say “I have ten rentals” usually blows people away and they look at me differently.

I saw early on the “prepare to be mocked” meme, and it does happen. Like the crabs in a bucket. Investors aren’t necessarily financially elite, but I think we are all intellectually elite. Except for the wholesalers /humor

My wife is from Greece so I see the cultural paradigms that can hold people back. It’s the same in this country too, we are not taught personal financial statements in school. We are not taught to get inside the numbers. I think the powers that be like an ignorant and debt slave electorate, much like the environment from which you came.

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Aaron G April 4, 2014 at 2:00 pm

“I think the powers that be like an ignorant and debt slave electorate, much like the environment from which you came.” >Ditto<

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Dawn Anastasi April 4, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Erion, this is a great article!!! You would think that anyone from another country who doesn’t have such opportunity would be absolutely disgusted by how much whining and complaining the average American does over their circumstances instead of just taking the diligence and hard work to change them.

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Tim Davids April 5, 2014 at 2:57 pm

You got that right. My wife, from Ukraine, has been in the U.S. For 11 years. She learned English, to drive a car, got a department store job, graduated college, has dental hygienist licenses in two states, just got approved to build a new house and we are about to start RE investing. No excuses. She kicked my butt too as far as putting your head down and work instead of “goofing around”. :)

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Giovanni April 4, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Great post @Erion! Especially the part about everyone looking to get rich overnight with no money down- It’s no wonder that ‘gurus’ pitch the kind of @#&% they do.

Thanks and good investing!

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Marcus April 4, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Great article, I love to hear the prospective from a foreigner. My father is from Panama and that is all he talks about is the opportunity in America. When I was younger I did not listen but it finally click. Great to get your point of view.

“Enjoying the Journey”

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Atul Mohlajee April 4, 2014 at 4:52 pm

I found it the same way. I came from India in 1986. Evictions in 3-6 months are inconvenient but I have seen evictions in India (Try 30-40 years or never. Try huge cash for keys.) I am se=afe and secure in buying property here with clear titles, records. In India somebody’s land or vacant house may be captured by someone influential and crook who can forge papers for property. I bought one property in India in 2008 and it is not ready yet according to builder who delays projects 5 or 10 years. I am elated and happy to buy properties in America despite of a free inconveniences which do not seem like problems to me. I started doing REI very late after age 40 but still managed to do OK, and am still expanding at 53. I beleive investment in America is safe and secure if you do research about the area, price, tenants etc.

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Gene April 4, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Very nice perspective. I agree that we have true opportunity here is one is willing to put in the time, effort and a risk a small amount of capital. I bought a small house in collage (my folks helped me with the down payment) and rented the rooms. I sold that house when I moved to a new city and it gave me some start up money for investing and a retail business. It is a really good plan and a plan I hope to be able to help my children with some day.

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Karen Margrave April 4, 2014 at 8:40 pm

Thank you for sharing your story, and reminding us of what a great opportunity we have every day that we wake up in America! Most of us have come from immigrants, or have relatives that came through the depression. Unfortunately for many the stories of sacrifice have been forgotten over the years, and too many have a sense of entitlement, and quit when times get tough.

Your post reminds all of us that if we take the initiative and want financial freedom badly enough, it’s here. Great blog. I hope to read more from you.

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Sharon Tzib April 5, 2014 at 8:31 am

Erion, I have lived in the small third world Central American country of Belize for the last four years, and I am now married to a Belizean. Because we socialize occasionally with expats, we hear an awful lot of whining on the part of Americans, as they lounge in the pool on a Tuesday afternoon while they’re collecting their social security or pension checks. It seems to have totally escaped them that they are able to retire early and go live in another country because of the opportunities America gave them. And to bitch to someone who makes $2/usd an hour takes a certain kind of insensitivity.

My husband and I are very much looking forward to returning to Houston soon, and we plan on grabbing all the golden rings we can :) Not only have I learned to appreciate the opportunities in America more, but I have also learned to live a much simpler and non-consumer lifestyle, which should accelerate our real estate investing career nicely. Take care.

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Ben Leybovich April 5, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Erion – your best work yet!

America, with all of her shortcomings, is the beacon that all peoples everywhere aim at (perhaps may be Americans themselves who have no real point of reference).

Thank you for sharing!

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Susan Hagemann April 6, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Thank you Erion – my parents are also immigrants and through them I’ve learned that anything is possible, you just have to give it your all.

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Trevor April 6, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Optimism is the only realism. Extremely well done!

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kathy April 6, 2014 at 4:48 pm

I have always been grateful to live in the US. We have access to free elementary, jr. high and high school where you can start the learning process. We have access to free libraries which provide books, newspapers, magazines, computer access and sometimes free classes/lectures. If you pick the right area to live in you have access to jobs no matter what your skill level. I have always read a lot by browsing the new non-fiction shelves at the local library. About 6 years ago in our late 40s we realized the social security and medicare net will probably not be in good shape by the time we retire in our late 60s. So we slowly started investing in real estate by buying every other year one rental property, rehabbing, then renting it. We keep putting the money back into our rental business. We figure once we own 4 rental properties free and clear we will average about $400-500/week which will be more than enough for us to live on with our current lifestyle. The only thing I worry about is healthcare costs wiping us out if we have a major illness as our health insurance has doubled since Obamacare, we still have a $5000 deductible, and hospitals want us to pay off our bills in one year. Our share of the costs for my husband’s last surgery was about 1/3 of one year’s wages.

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Sara Cunningham April 7, 2014 at 1:39 am

Erion fantastic article. I am married to an American and I am British. We lived in Germany before the Iron Curtain came down and we have traveled throughout Eastern Europe too. Right now we live in Italy and I get so upset hearing friends complain on social media back in the United States how tough it is. Yes it’s tough but most don’t have a clue, me included. When you look at unemployment in Italy, Spain and Greece for example then have to listen to people moaning about such small things it’s frustrating. I know it’s hard to relate to other peoples life’s when you have never walked in their shoes but a little effort and determination and thanks for what you have and what is available to you goes a long way.

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Kent April 7, 2014 at 12:18 pm

Erion,

I could not have stated your points better myself. I especially like the paragraph about “All the opportunity you can muster”.
Opportunity is always equal, if you apply yourself.

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Chad Carson April 7, 2014 at 8:58 pm

Erion,
Excellent article!

It’s refreshing to see the contrasting perspectives you’ve outlined. It makes me appreciate the US system even more. I also get tired of all the whining we Americans (our news in particular) throws out every single day.

I also love your points about simplicity. I used to play college football, and it was the same … focus on the fundamentals. Stop all this fancy, flashy b.s. and just work your tail off. Works the same in REI.

Look forward to reading more of your work.

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Neil Hauger April 8, 2014 at 7:51 pm

I have met others like you in my travels and I am so often amazed at the attitude they hold vs the attitude of americans born here. Opportunity is everywhere. I see it every day and it all begins inside you. I started investing in RE late in my 30’s and cranked it up after my Brother in Law introduced me to another podcast by Jason Hartman. I had read rich dad poor dad and a few other books but never took action. Now, I own 4 rentals, and a vacation cabin I rent, 120 acres of land I have doubled my investment on and I just made an offer on a 4 plex yesterday!!

I absolutely glow with optimism and I never give anyone slack when I hear this attitude of “I just can’t catch a break”. Even my own parents have said I am living in another world with the way I view life. I shake my head. Each day you can wake up and start the day with optimism or pessimism. It really is a choice. I truly believe you become what you think. Surround yourself with other similar minded people and take action. Simple as that.

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Shaun April 8, 2014 at 10:53 pm

The issue with so many American’s is that few have ever had to really suffer or even know anyone that has. It has been like 80 years since the Great Depression which was the last time a sizable portion of the population here really had tough times.

Since then there has mostly just been several generations of prosperity and abundance for almost everyone. And most of it just foist upon us with out us having to do anything to deserve it.

It is wonderful the society that has been attained on the backs of so many hard working industrious American’s in the past. It is sad that it also has made the general populous lazy and entitled, thereby killing the spirit that made the place great in the first place.

To many people there days think suffering is still having an IPhone 3 because they still have 8 months left on their contract and it would be really expensive to change. :)

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kathy April 9, 2014 at 7:03 am

There are people who are suffering because of mistakes they made when they were young. Some people suffer because they are afraid to leave their area of discomfort. It can be very difficult when you are living a poor area with few job opportunities, with other poor people, are receiving government assistance, and are not allowed to leave the area because of mistakes you made. When you go off assistance and get a minimum wage job there is an immediate drop in your standard of living. You no longer are eligible for medical care, food stamps, and other government assistance. We have a pockets of areas where the culture has a poor, defeated, beaten down attitude, and steal from each other to get by. They do not have telephones. They live in trailers and shacks, heat and cook with wood.They do not have basic work skills like the ability to show up for work everyday. They are not computer literate. Transportation can be an issue. They can not imagine a better life. I visited one of those areas recently.

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Noreleen April 19, 2014 at 12:25 am

Well done Erion, you have posted a Great article!!! We come know that America is still the land of opportunity in real estate. Thanks for sharing.

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JerryW. September 15, 2014 at 11:49 pm

Erion, Thank you for sharing your history. It is difficult to have perspective sometimes because we have no other mindset to compare with. When the mind is opened to a new perspective true education can begin.

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kathy September 17, 2014 at 8:20 am

Everyday I wake up I am grateful. I live in a house with heat and running water. I have enough food to eat. My husband and I work together to better ourselves. America is truly a land of opportunity.

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