How to Really Get Started Investing in Real Estate (Hint: You Might Get a Little Dirty…)

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Here I go cheating again.

It seems that once I receive a question enough times I decide that it is a good idea to post it here. Not only does this give me a place to reference but I also assume that if I am getting a question consistently from a group of 60 individuals that it must be surfacing elsewhere.

It is the end of the year, and I am just finishing up my semester. One of the classes on my roster was real estate investing and analysis. After months of having students run numbers and deals, both actual and hypothetical, they come to me and ask what the next step is to break into the market. They often already have offer letters for a job but they want to know how to start a real estate portfolio. They ask if they should intern at a particular place their last summer or read a particular book. They ask if they should get a real estate license or just go out and find a group of investors to work with.

The First Thing to Learn When Getting Started with Real Estate Investing

So what would you guess my answer most frequently is . . . learn how to swing a hammer.

In other words I want them to get their hands dirty and know what to expect in the field.

I don’t care if they work at Habitat for Humanity to get started or if they find a contractor that is willing to mentor them. The fact of the matter is that I try to express the value associated with an investor not only knowing the numbers but to also know their investment from the inside out.

I try to express to them that even if they decide they absolutely hate getting their hands dirty, they will be better for the time spent in this endeavor. It will make them better prepared when organizing budgets, schedules, proposals, securing contractors and ultimately not get taken advantage of whether they decide to proceed or just invest in their primary residence.

Related: The ONLY Step You Need to Get Moving in Your Real Estate Investing

Why Does It Matter?

Why do I tell young ambitious and educated individuals to go swing a hammer? The fast answer is because this is what worked best in my past.

My first investment was a complete gut rehab 12 years ago. After four years of college I had a few months before starting my first job and night school for graduate school. My father thought that this “free time” would be best spent learning how to actually work.

So what did I do?

I took all of the money I had saved from student loans that I didn’t use over the years and my father and I went forward. I learned more in that four months that has helped me in real estate than any of my degrees or licenses. We took the property out to the exterior brick walls and literally re-built everything. (To be entirely honest the only thing we did not handle was the electric and this was more so a result of not wanting to deal with bending pipe at the time). We moved slow . . . . very slow. I learned how to do nearly every facet of a rehab, from rough framing to trim work. I learned that I absolutely hate taping and that I will forever outsource that task. Most importantly I learned how to estimate costs, timelines and ultimately budgets.

So why do I possibly tell bright college students that are moments from graduating that I suggest they get their hands dirty? Simply put I realize the value it adds. While I can’t find the time to handle all of my projects now I do know what I am looking at, the approximate time it takes and most interestingly I find that it has really helped me to vet contractors for the future.

If by chance the person asking has some general experience in this area and has decided they absolutely hated the hands on approach I have a common recommendation for them too.

The next thing I often recommend is that as they expand it is beneficial to take a few construction management classes. These were paramount to me while working for property developers and paying my way through graduate school. These are often taught by local project managers or contractors. The individuals in the class are often those looking for a career in construction which is a great learning experience in itself. It cost a few hundred dollars a class but the technical information that I learned was very valuable and the material I learned from peers over the few classes I took was valuable.


Is this the right answer for everyone?

Of course it is not. However, the majority of those that ask me the question have career paths that they are interested in, but they also often have a goal of wanting to actively and regularly invest in real estate while enjoying the salary from a firm. In these instances I do think that these are the next steps.

What are your thoughts? Am I steering my students and future investors in a wrong direction? What would you recommend?

About Author

David Rodriguez is a professor of finance and a managing real estate broker/owner. As a real estate investor himself, David has been able to leverage the academic and practitioner experience. This shows through the development of his own residential real estate portfolio across three states and his goals to help investors to do the same. David has published courses, chapters and articles in the realm of finance and real estate and is always looking for ways to get information to those that are interested.


  1. I think it is very important to learn the business and how to rehab. Not so you can save money doing work, but so you know what contractors are talking about like you said. Unspent 6 months on a rehab doing the work myself. I leaned a lot about rehabbing and I leaned never to do it again!

  2. Kelly Marc Alsto. on

    Thank you for this fantastic advice. I’m a novice and I will be getting started investing this year. I will identify my contractor through referral and shadow him on my first flip/rehab.

  3. James Pratt on

    Right on! I love “wanna bees” that can’t even work a caulking gun. Their education is watching some house flipping shows and poof, their experts. For me, on-the-job training was the smartest thing, I can build a house from the ground up.

    When I look at an investment property, I know exactly what I’m looking at, inside and out!

  4. Sharon Tzib on

    I’ve never performed a rehab myself, but I got a ton of education from being a realtor and learning from home/pest inspections and reports. Then I went on to remodel my own homes several times, as well my property management clients’ homes too. Lastly, I owned a pool & spa company for eight years, so I know a lot about plumbing and electrical.

    Bottom line, your advice is great, but you don’t necessarily have to get your hands dirty to learn this stuff – although it is probably the most direct route. Whenever I meet with contractors, right away they know who they are dealing with by our conversation. Helps tremendously.

  5. I cannot agree with you more! Real estate investing is a lot about insight, you can walk through a hundred different properties and glaze over potential issues that you would have never known existed without getting your hands dirty once or twice. Doing at least one project yourself gives you a lot of insight that would take years to gather otherwise. Although not the only way, I feel this is best route for a new investor trying to start that has never owned a primary residence or has not worked on houses before.

  6. David,

    I agree 100% great way to get started, my first job as a kid or shall I say one of my first jobs was dong demo on 2 of my families properties. One was a burned unit and the other was a rat hole literally a rat hole. I believe I was 14 when my parents purchased these, one we still have as a rental and the other they sold 4 years after renting, and made 36k, this was my first experience in real estate. I hate that I didn’t stick with it in my earlier years. I went to college and got in debt, but I lived and learned.

    Thanks for the article, keep up pushing along.

    “Enjoying the Journey”

  7. John Ohendalski on

    Fantastic article. Really hit the nail on the head. If you are willing to put in the time and effort to do a rehab you will learn not only the work you perform but also time and cost estimating and just interacting with other workers or contractors will benefit you in the long run.

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