How I Bought a Fixer-Upper Fourplex for $1 Down: A BRRRR Case Study
I’d like to say I did this deal with “no money down” but technically that would be a lie. Because I spent exactly $1 on this property to both acquire AND rehab it.
That’s right. I purchased the property and am in the process of rehabbing it all using no money of my own. And ultimately, this property is going to provide hundreds of dollars a month in cash flow and entirely pay for my daughter’s college education. The goal of this post is to explain, in detail, how I did it.
But first, two-disclaimers.
There are two dangers present every time I tell a detailed story of how I bought a property.
First, some people invariably think that I’m giving out some “formula” that must be followed. They’ll ask me questions like, “But what if I can’t find a fourplex?”
Or they’ll say, “I don’t have a private lender like that.”
Then, they shut off their brain because they don’t believe that they can follow this exact formula.
But here’s the deal: I’m not telling you a formula, a recipe, or a step-by-step list of tasks for you to complete. Every single deal is different! So don’t get hung up on trying to copy my steps exactly. The goal of this post is not to invite you to copy me—but to spark your own inspiration to go out and put together your own deal.
Second, people look at the price range that I buy in and say, “Prices are so much higher (or lower) in my area—so that doesn’t work for me.”
I believe this is just an excuse for people to be lazy. Because it does work in your area, but again, the formula might be different. I don’t care if the average cost of a house is $30,000 or $300,000 in your area. There are investors making money in your market. So don’t let the low cost of this property fool you into thinking this can’t be done in other price ranges.
Furthermore, as I’ll discuss, I found an INCREDIBLE deal on this property. I work my tail off to find leads (as I’ll explain), and this property is not worth what I paid for it. I got it on sale!
OK, now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to dive into the story of how I acquired a fourplex for just $1. But before I can even tell you about the deal, I need to start at the beginning.
Finding the Property
For years, I used nothing but the MLS to find potential deals. In other words, I simply relied on my real estate agent to bring properties (usually bank repos) to my attentionâand I would make an official offer to buy them.
However, over the past year on the MLS, it has become increasingly difficult to find good deals—or maybe I’m just getting more picky! Therefore, I needed to find a better way to bring in leads.
Enter: direct mail marketing.
For those unfamiliar with direct mail, it’s simply the practice of sending out large volumes of mail to property owners asking to buy their properties. Of course, most of that mail is simply ignored, but a small percentage do actually call because they need to sell—which is the case with this fourplex. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Direct mail marketing begins with the list of names and addresses you are going to mail to. While you could simply mail to every person in your target market, I wouldn’t advise it! Instead, you want to focus on people who might be most intent on selling their property to you.
For this particular deal, I purchased my list from ListSource.com, probably the most popular list broker on the web. I chose the following criteria:
- My Whole County
- Total Assessed Value: $50,000-$200,000
- Equity: 30% to 100%
- Length of Residence: Greater Than Four Years
- Absentee Owner In-State & Out-of-State
- Exclude Trust and Corporate-Owned
For me, the list came to 1,864 unique names, which I paid $326.20 to download—or roughly $.18 per name.
Quick Tip Lesson Learned: Once I opened up the list in Microsoft Excel, I realized I had wasted some money because well over half the properties were located in the city of Ocean Shores, Washington, or Westport, Washington, and I don’t buy there. So, I should have excluded the zip codes for the cities that I do not buy in, which would have saved me some cash on the purchase.
So, in the end, I actually ended up with just over 600 names on my list.
I call these leads my “raw leads.” It means leads that I’ve put into my system but are not yet “activated.” The owner has not yet showed any interest in selling them. Raw leads are important, but next it’s time to get the owners to talk with me, turning the raw leads into hot leads.
To do that, it was time to mail the letters to the names on the list. I decided to send to 300 to start with, and the other 300 I would mail to a few weeks later—so to break up the number of phone calls I would receive.
So, it was time to write 300 letters. While I could have done this by hand, that just didn’t sound fun. So instead, I created my own handwritten font online and used that to print out “handwritten” letters and envelopes. For a step-by-step guide on how I did that, be sure to read “How to Create Your Own Handwritten Font For Free (For Direct Mail Marketing).”
My letter was simple, stating:
Hi [owner’s first name],
My name is Brandon.
I am an investor in Grays Harbor, and I’m highly interested in buying your property at [address]in [city].
If you are interested in selling, please call me at [Google Voice phone number]. You’ll either reach me or Tracey.
I look forward to chatting!
P.S. I can buy it even if it’s in BAD condition or if it has tenants in the house. I’ve dealt with it all! 🙂 And I can pay cash and close quickly! Call me at [Google Voice phone number].
Here’s a photo of how the final product looked:
Within three days, the phone began ringing.
I set up a voicemail on my Google Voice line, but we tried to answer all phone calls live.
Over the following two weeks, we received around 40 phone calls—a whopping 13 percent response rate!
A 13 percent response rate is really good. How did this happen? I would guess a combination of the following factors:
- Not a lot of people do direct mail in my area. In fact, this letter might be the first of its kind most people had ever seen.
- The handwritten font helps encourage people to open the letters.
- The “P.S.” on the letter—usually the most-read section of any letter!
- I carefully chose my list.
So, over those several weeks, I had roughly 40 phone calls. Each of these are now “hot leads” because I was in communication with those owners. Of course, not all the calls were people looking to sell. Included in those 40 were:
- A real estate agent pissed that I was trying to poach her listings (she thought we were targeting MLS deals, but it was just coincidence)
- An old landlord who screamed and swore at us to never contact him again
- Several nice old ladies who didn’t want to sell but just wanted to say thanks for the letter
- Several people who said, “That is just a vacant lot now—the house is gone”
But there were also people genuinely interested in selling, some more motivated than others. Of those 40, about 30 of them were interested.
For each interested caller, we recorded all the information we could about the property. To do this, we followed a simple script that I had prepared that allowed me to get all the basic information about the property so I could make a decision on whether or not it was worth pursuing.
If you want to download my entire script for free, click here. (You’ll need a free BiggerPockets account to download. Don’t worry—we don’t bite.)
Essentially, I was looking for the following information:
Name of caller: ______________
General Condition: Poor Fair Good Great (circle one)
Why are they looking to sell? __________________________
Vacant? Yes No
Is the house listed with a real estate agent?
SqFt Estimate: ___________________
Actual Square Feet (county): ___________________
Their estimate on cost of repairs needed: ___________________
Asking Price: ___________________
Lower Asking Price: ___________________
Many Offers? ______________________________________
When Looking to sell?
Is there a Mortgage? Yes No
If yes, balance: _________________
2nd Mortgage or Liens? Yes No
If yes, balance: _________________
Taxes Current? Yes No
If no, balance: _________________ (always confirm this with county)
Foreclosure? Yes No If yes, status? ______________________________________________
Appointment Set? Yes No If yes: Date/Time of Appointment: ______________________
Talking with Bob and the Property Description
Bob called on a Tuesday afternoon, and my assistant Tracey answered the call and took down all the pertinent information.
The property was a fourplex, but in a unique setup. Each unit was a completely separate two-bedroom, one-bath house. All four houses were located on the same lot, and according to the owner, Bob, the houses all needed significant work. Three of the units were vacant (and in such condition as they could not be rented), and the fourth was currently rented to some tenants who confused “their yard” for “junkyard.”
As soon as I heard the details of the house, I was instantly both excited and nervous.
I was excited because I LOVE small multifamily properties. When purchased for the right price, they can provide some fantastic cash flow. Furthermore, because these houses were all independent, I discovered that the utilities were all separately metered. This was HUGE and something I always look for. When the utilities (such as water, sewer, garbage, electricity, and gas) are all separately metered, I know that I can bill the tenant for those expenses and I will not need to pay them as the landlord. This can lead to an incredible increase in cash flow.
I was also nervous for two reasons:
- This property was not located in a great neighborhood. I wouldn’t call it a “war zone,” but I also wouldn’t want my wife walking around by herself there.
- The property would need a HUGE rehab, and good contractors are tough to find in my area—especially when I don’t have a lot of time to manage them.
So, we took the information down from Bob and hung up the phone—but not before asking him the all-important question:
So, how much are you looking to get for this property?
Bob replied, “Well, as much as I can! But realistically, I’d like to get somewhere around $80,000.”
With that, I went to work on the preliminary research.
Preliminary Research on the Fourplex
So, $80,000 seems like an incredible deal for a fourplex, right?
However, we can’t possibly know that until we do more research! We need to have a better idea of how much the repairs will cost, how much the units will rent for, etc.
No, I didn’t drive by the property—at least not in person. I knew the area well, and I instead jumped online and looked at Google StreetView to get a better idea of the particular houses in question. I took note of the exact street it was on, as well as what the neighboring houses looked like.
I liked what I saw.
Although the neighborhood was not great, the street looked better than some of the others in the neighborhood. Lawns were mowed, buildings were painted, and the sidewalks looked freshly poured.
Related: No Money Down Strategies: How We’ve Purchased 80 Units in 5 Years
I decided that, at least for now, the neighborhood WAS something I would consider. Yes, it might be a bit more work, but since I would be buying four houses in a row, if I did an amazing job fixing them up, I could define the neighborhood myself.
Once I determined that the location was good enough, I moved onto the financials. The first thing I considered was how much this property would rent for.
Luckily, I know my area pretty well. I know that a two-bedroom house will rent between $600 and $700 in this area, so I used $650 as my estimate. I do believe I will be able to get closer to $700, but I want to remain conservative.
(If I had not known my area, I likely would have used Craigslist to determine what similar properties are renting for right now. I could also have looked at RentOMeter.com, Zillow.com, or called a local property manager and asked them.)
As you may have read in “How (and Why) I Offer on Properties BEFORE I Ever Step Foot in the House,” I typically don’t waste too much time looking at a property in person before getting through the first round of price negotiations. I simply don’t have the time to look at hundreds of properties—I need to focus on the ones that are truly within ballpark range. And I didn’t yet know if $80,000 was in the ballpark. To know this, I needed to do an analysis, and for that I would need to estimate the rehab costs.
Estimating Rehab Costs
Yes, of course, I had not yet seen the insides of the houses, so I didn’t know the full extent of how much work they would need. But after talking with the seller, I had a basic idea of what the conditions were like inside each and the size of each. With that, I started a very rough estimate of the repair costs.
I’m not going to lie, this can be tough, especially when I had not yet been inside. But I guessed conservatively on everything. For example:
- I assumed I’d need new cabinets and counters in all four.
- I assumed I’d need all new paint/carpet in all four.
- I assumed I’d need new drywall in two of them.
- I assumed I’d need about five new windows in each house.
To estimate the repairs, I simply worked through the methodology taught by J Scott in The Book on Estimating Rehab Costs—the single best book ever written on the topic. I broke up all the repairs into categories and then ball-parked a guess on each. I knew that I didn’t need to get it perfect now—I could adjust later.
I was simply trying to get a good enough guess so I could determine if I was wasting my time. I would do a much more thorough repair estimate later, bringing in contractors to give me some estimates on things I didn’t know. But for now, my quick and dirty estimate was enough:
I estimated $100,000 for the rehab.
Analyzing the Deal
Now that I had the seller’s asking price, I knew how much the income might be, and I had a good idea of the repairs needed, I could jump in and do a full analysis.
Side Note: What Is BRRRR Investing?
I want to take a quick break here to talk about what BRRRR is and why it’s important. We’ll get back to the analysis in a moment, but the analysis will make more sense once you understand the strategy behind it.
“BRRRR” is an acronym for “buy, rehab, rent, refinance, repeat.”
Essentially, it means that you find a fixer-upper property you want to hold as a rental, fix it up, rent it out, and then refinance the loan into something more "long-term." The reason BRRRR is important is because typically a bank is not going to lend on the rehab costs for a property nor are they going to lend on a property that needs significant work. Instead, to BRRRR a property means to use an alternate form of financing for the initial purchase and possibly repair costs, and then later refinance the property into a long-term mortgage. If done correctly, a deal can be purchased for almost no money out-of-pocket.
This particular fourplex is a perfect example of something I would want to BRRRR. I would love to hold onto this property for the long-term, but a bank would not likely finance this deal, and even if they did, they would not want to finance the repairs needed.
OK, let’s get back to the analysis. The basic goal was to discover:
- How much cash flow I could expect
- How much money I would need to put into the deal
- What my cash-on-cash return on investment might be
- What my total return on investment might be over time
Of course, I’ll ultimately want to know more than those four items, but those four are the big ones I truly care about.
Although I could spend an hour or two trying to calculate this by hand (and risk doing something wrong), I instead used the BiggerPockets BRRRR Calculator. The BRRRR Calculator allows you to calculate the profitability of an investment property using an initial short-term loan (or cash) followed by a refinance into a longer term loan. Since that's the strategy I wanted to use on this property, it just makes sense to use this calculator.
The calculator is broken up into four sections:
- Property Details
- Purchase Info
- Rental Info
To watch me do the full analysis on this property using the BRRRR Calculator, check out the following video:
In under five minutes, I was able to determine that this property, at an $80,000 purchase price and $100,000 in repairs, would likely provide a 15 percent return on investment. While this isn’t bad, it would require me to come up with almost $60,000 at the end of the day. Plus, I’d have no equity at all!
Not my cup of tea. So, I decided to counter-offer over the phone.
The Initial Offer—and Rejection
Now that we had our numbers, I determined that I didn’t like this property at $80,0000. Instead, we called up Bob, the seller, and told him we were probably more in the $40,000 range for this property due to the repairs, and we asked if that was something he could work with.
He said, “No, that’s a lot lower than I’d like, so I better pass.”
We thanked him and told him to keep in touch if anything changed. We ended the call pleasantly with hopes that someday we could work something out.
Three weeks later, Bob called back and said, “Can you do any better than $40,000? Even a little?”
“Maybe, but we’ll need to come see the property in person to do a little more research.”
And that’s what we did. The next day, we walked through the houses with Bob and got a better idea of what needed to get done. Not surprisingly, our estimates were fairly accurate. The one thing that made a big difference, though, was what we found inside unit #3: materials.
Although unit #3 was completely gutted down to the studs, we found that Bob had collected materials for years in preparation for fixing the property up. Insulation, drywall, heaters, cabinets, and even carpet—it was all there. Although a lot of the things we would not be using, a lot of it we could. In fact, I’d estimate at least $20,000 in materials were found inside that house.
We left the property and went back to my office, determined to run some more numbers. We spent a lot more time digging into the repair estimates and dropped our initial guess of $100,000 down to $80,000, thanks to the materials found. We also dug in deeper on the actual costs of the monthly expenses we’d pay as property owners, including getting quotes on insurance. Soon, we felt confident in our numbers, and it was time to make a move.
We called Bob up and told him,”We can do $45,000, but you’ll have to pay all the back taxes. Plus, we’ll close in three weeks, and you’ll be out forever.”
After thinking for a few minutes, Bob replied with one simple word: “Deal.”
We brought Bob the filled-out purchase and sale contract (I use one that I got for free from my local title company) and signed the contract all around. Now it was time to pay the earnest money.
Now, if you’ve ever made an offer on real estate before, you’ll recognize that earnest money is usually given to the seller as a way of ensuring that the buyer actually follows through and buys the property. Typically, earnest money is 1 to 2 percent of the purchase price, but there is no law that says it has to be.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if earnest money is even required by law to make the contract binding. I’ve read opinions on both sides of the matter, and I think it must be a state-specific thing. But rather than risk it, I decided to give earnest money with the contract.
So, we gave Bob $1 in cash.
Now, I know what you are thinking: That’s ridiculous. But here’s my logic.
The earnest money is to prevent the buyer from backing out for no reason. However, when I signed the purchase and sale contract, we included an “inspection contingency” anyway that would give us the ability to back out of the deal if we wanted, and we’d get our earnest money back.
So, if we could get our earnest money back anyway, what's the point of giving a large amount of earnest money other than to make the seller feel better? Sure, if we were offering on a deal on the MLS, the seller's real estate agent would balk at such little earnest money. But a private seller? They generally don't care at all.
In fact, I’ve found that handing over a crisp $1 bill to the seller actually makes everyone smile and laugh, and it’s a great way to end the negotiations on a positive note. Even the title company that I use laughs at the $1 earnest money—and is sure to include that in my final HUD-1 document.
Now we had the fourplex under contract for $45,000, and our rehab estimate was dropped down to $80,000. But now I had three weeks to come up with the $45,000, plus the closing costs and the rehab costs.
It was time to get busy.
Funding the Purchase and the Rehab
Entire books have been written on creative finance. In fact, I wrote one!
So, keep in mind, the way that I financed this deal is just one strategy of many I could have chosen. As I mentioned in the beginning, don’t think of this as a formula but rather a series of lessons you can apply.
I pondered the idea for a few hours. How was I going to finance this deal?
I knew that the deal was incredible and that the financing would not be impossible. However, I didn’t know how simple it was actually going to be.
You know, BiggerPockets is great for a lot of things. Learning, analyzing deals, listening to me and Josh banter on a podcast, etc. But one of the greatest features on BiggerPockets is the relationships built through the platform.
And it’s one of these relationships that helped get me this deal.
While pondering the idea of how to finance this property, I received an email from a friend I met through BiggerPockets. The email was in regard to something completely different from real estate, but when I replied, I asked the simple question, almost as a joke: “Hey, have any interest in funding another deal?”
You see, this BiggerPockets member had financed another deal for me in the past, and we had been friends for several years. He knew my real estate story, knew my character, and trusted me. He replied back within 10 minutes, “Sure, no problem. How much do you need?”
Side Note: Private Lending
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I want to take a moment to break out and talk about private lending. Why? Because I know there are people reading this right now saying, “Oh, sure! Brandon has rich friends so he can do this. I don’t have that, so I couldn’t get private lending.”
Sorry, that was harsh. But it’s the truth. That negativity is not going to get you anywhere. In fact, it’s that mindset that will keep you in your mom’s basement forever.
First, understand that everyone has unfair advantages. Find yours.
Second, understand that I have wealthy friends because I make an effort to surround myself with them. I have thousands of posts on the BiggerPockets Forums. I have hundreds of blog posts on the BiggerPockets Blog. I go to local real estate meetups. I talk about real estate on my Facebook. I talk about my successes. I write 5,000+ word case-study articles on BiggerPockets about my deals—not because I want to brag but because I want to build my credibility. Everyone knows that I’m the “real estate guy” because I made an effort to let everyone know.
Private lending is possible for anyone. There is more money out there than people know what to do with. The stock market is shaky. People are nervous. And real estate is the most secure high-yield investment out there. It’s your job to convince them!
I don’t care if you are a newbie. Make up for your lack of experience with knowledge and hustle.
OK, now that you are hopefully out of your “that’s unfair!” mood, let’s get back to it.
With that, I had the first leg of my financing ready. I told him about the deal, sent him over a PDF report generated from The BiggerPockets BRRRR Calculator, and asked for $130,000—which would get me through the project.
He replied back with, “How about $100,000 at 12 percent interest, and you get the rest elsewhere?”
I said, “No problem. I can make that work.”
With that, I had the purchase price and most of the repair costs covered. But if I spent the whole $80,000 on the rehab, I’d likely be $30,000 short. Sure, I could spend $30,000 of my own money on this—but that’s not fun. Instead, I decided to do what I do best: creative combinations.
The idea is to put together multiple creative strategies to finance a deal with no money down.
To fund the remaining, I turned to my local bank. I have a business revolving line of credit for $40,000 from my local U.S. Bank at 6 percent interest-only payments. Using that line for the remainder would cover the rest of the rehab, and I’d actually be saving money. With that, I had my full purchase price and rehab costs covered.
Now it was time to finish my due diligence period and close.
Due diligence is the period of time between signing the purchase and sale agreement and actual closing on the property.
The first thing we did after getting the contract signed was to drive over to our local title and escrow company and “open up escrow.” This essentially means we hired the title company to do the title research (making sure there are no hidden liens on the property) and organizing the closing process.
After this, we continued with the due diligence period. Overall, this three-week timeframe went pretty smoothly, though there was some drama the last few days due to a city employee (who needed to sign off on something) being on vacation. (It wouldn’t be real estate if it didn’t have a few hiccups along the way!)
During this period, I received several bids from local contractors to work on the properties. I also scheduled to get insurance ordered and transferred utilities over to my name.
Several days before closing, the title company requested the funds from my private lender, who funded the deal out of his self-directed IRA.
Finally, my wife and I signed paperwork, and the next day we received word that the sale had closed and we were the official owners of a brand new (to us) fourplex.
Of course, because the private lender lent $100,000 on the deal and we only purchased it for $45,000, we received a large check back of nearly $50,000. (The $5,000 difference, in case you are wondering, is from closing costs and prepaid insurance.) This money we immediately stuck into a new bank account we created during the due diligence period, and now we’re ready to start the rehab.
After the rehab is finished, we'll need to obtain a long-term mortgage. I believe this property should appraise for at least $180,000, which means if the bank will provide a 70 percent loan-to-value mortgage on this property, I should be able to get a loan for $126,000âpaying off my private lender entirely and allowing me to pay the bank loan back, as well. At the end of the day, I expect to leave less than $5,000 in the property as an investment, freeing up my money (and my private lender's money) to do it again. And again. And again.
That’s the beauty of BRRRR investing.
Why This Property Matters
This already gigantic post would be missing something important if I failed to discuss why this property means so much to me.
Yes, it’s going to provide hundreds of dollars per month in cash flow and a ridiculous return on investment. But more than that, it’s going to provide for my kid’s future, too.
My wife and I gave birth to our first child, a little girl named Rosie, just a few days before buying this property. (Well, my wife did more of the “giving birth,” and I did more of the celebration!)
Our plan was fairly simple: fix the property up, refinance it into an 18-year mortgage, and pay it off in time for our daughter’s entrance to college. At this time, I expect the property to be worth well over $200,000. We can then refinance the property and pull out all the cash needed to fund her schooling, help her buy her first investment property, or help her start a business.
And we were able to do that for just $1 down.
Would you consider the same strategy?
Let me know in the comment section below!