Why Apartments Are the Single Best Way to Escape the Rat Race Within 3-5 Years

by | BiggerPockets.com

Are you wholesaling, flipping, or landlording? Have you thought about how long will it take for you to quit the rat race? Most investors never ask that question and waste years pursuing a real estate strategy that will never let them achieve their financial goals.

I never asked the question and delayed my retirement by YEARS with the wrong strategy.

It was 2005, a year after I read Rich Dad Poor Dad, and I decided that I needed to start with real estate investing to generate enough passive income to NOT have to work.

I educated myself. I hired a mentor. And I began to flip houses. Over the next several years, I ended up flipping 34 houses and made great money. But then I then realized that flipping houses was:

  • Not generating passive income,
  • Was a TON of work, and
  • Was NEVER going to let me quit the rat race.

I didn’t realize these things because I never asked myself this one question:

Can I Quit the Rat Race With My Current Strategy?

In my case, I hadn’t asked this question — my goal was just to get started with real estate investing. But I now realize by NOT asking this question, I wasted several years pursuing a strategy that would NEVER help me retire.

That stops today because we’re all going to ask (and answer) that question right now.

To answer this question, you really need to be clear about your goals. And the best way to do that is by asking these next four questions:

  • What’s your rat race number?
  • How passive do you want your income to be?
  • How many rentals would I need to own to retire?
  • What’s the best strategy to achieve your goals?

Related: How to Achieve Financial Freedom By Calculating Your “Rat Race Number”

Let’s start with the first question.

side-stream-income

What’s YOUR Rat Race Number?

The rat race number is the amount of money you would need each month to cover to quit your job. Specifically, it’s the amount of passive income you need to cover your most basic living expenses.

If you could have your real estate investments produce THAT much passive income each month, you could quit your job, retire, or do whatever you wanted.

That’s your rat race number, and THAT’S what you’re seeking with real estate investing. Am I right?

For the purposes of our discussion, let’s say that you’ve sharpened your pencil and decided that you needed $5,000 after taxes to cover your living expenses and quit your job.

Then ask yourself the next question:

How Passive Do I Want My Income to Be?

Flipping houses is still a “time-leveraged” activity, meaning it can produce more income than many day jobs that have you strapped to a desk for 40+ hours.

But it’s still work. If you’re not buying, fixing, or selling houses, you ain’t making money.

Same thing for wholesaling: If you’re not marketing, talking to sellers, and doing deals, you’re not getting paid.

And the worst with either of these strategies is that they don’t give you any kind of residual income. When you sell the renovated house, you (hopefully) make a profit, but then that house stops paying you. It’s over — the money stops flowing.

At this point you might throw up your hands and say, “OK, Michael, but if it’s not wholesaling or rehabbing, then it must be rentals, right?”

And so we get to our next question:

buyers-market

How Many Rentals Would I Need to Own to Retire?

Rentals don’t produce the kinds of cash flips can, but they do produce passive income so you can retire some day.

But have you thought about how long it would take to retire?

Let’s do some quick math.

If you buy and manage your rentals right (and we’re a bit generous with our projections), let’s assume you can expect an average monthly cash flow of $200 per month from each single family rental (after all expenses, including vacancies, repairs, and mortgage payments).

We determined earlier that our rat race number is $5,000 per month. That means you would need to own a portfolio of 25 houses to generate that much income. Now let me ask you these two questions:

  • How long will it take you to buy 25 houses?
  • Do you realize how much work it will be to find, buy, and manage 25 houses?

Most investors haven’t asked either of these questions. And yet they pursue SOME kind of single family house strategy, even though it won’t help them get to where they want to go.

Then why do we do it?

I think it’s for three reasons:

  • We do what is easy.
  • We do what everyone else does.
  • We aren’t intentional about what we do.

Fortunately, we’ve now asked the question and hopefully we’ve answered it. This leaves only one more question to ask.

What’s the Best Strategy to Achieve My Goals?

According to a Forbes article, unless you’re an investment tycoon or technology whiz kid, the most common way billionaires made their fortunes was with commercial real estate. That’s why I believe that…

Apartment building investing is the SINGLE BEST real estate strategy to get you out of the rat race in the next 3-5 years.

Related: Want to Retire Early? Sorry, But Much of Your Net Worth May Not Help

Don’t believe me? Then check out this story about Drew Kniffin from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Drew bought a small 4-plex with a friend, and then they bought a 5-plex together with their property manager. That gave them the confidence to look for larger deals, and they pooled their resources, refinanced one of their previous properties, and closed on a 32-unit building in the Twin Cities.

Two weeks later, Drew quit his job.

An anomaly?

Nope, I don’t think so.

I’ve interviewed successful investors on my podcast, and nearly 100 percent of the time, they follow this pattern:

  • They decide to get started with apartment building investing.
  • They take action.
  • They do their first deal, and surprisingly, it doesn’t really matter what size that first deal is. Of all the deals they do, it’s the hardest one.
  • The second and third follow in rapid succession.
  • They quit their jobs and become full time investors.
  • And they do this in 3-5 years.

single-multi-apartment

Conclusion

As you’re evaluating real estate strategies, ask yourself this one question:

“Will it generate the PASSIVE income I need to QUIT THE RATE RACE in a REASONABLE amount of time?”

If so, then press on. But if not, make a change.

I’ve observed that MOST real estate investors have been able to quit their jobs (and generate REAL wealth) with apartment buildings.

If you think it might also be right for you, then read everything you can about apartment building investing. Start by reading all of my articles here on the BiggerPockets.

I hope this article has helped you reflect on your current path, clarify your goals, and map out a path for the future.

To what degree is your current real estate strategy helping you to achieve your financial goals? What (if any) changes do you need to make?

Leave all your questions and comments below!

About Author

Michael Blank

Michael Blank’s passion is being an entrepreneur and helping others become (better) entrepreneurs. His focus is buying apartment buildings by raising money from private individuals. He’s been investing in residential and multifamily real estate since 2005. He is the creator of the Syndicated Deal Analyzer and the eBook "The Secret to Raising Money to Buy Your First Apartment Building".

43 Comments

  1. David Thompson

    Nice article Michael. Believe you are correct, many folks start w/SFRs because that seems easier and less complicated. They get a handful and then it hits them like it did me, I need to buy a lot of houses and I don’t have the time or patience to continue working at my day job that I am not passionate about any longer. That impatience leads to more reading and then like you uncover, MF gets you there quicker. If we can educate folks that starting w/MF we can save you 5-7 years of SFR accumulations only for them to realize it will take another 10 years to buy that many SFR properties, we can save some folks a lot of time.

  2. Charles Worth

    Good article as always. I am always kind of surprised though when I hear this on your podcast or see it written here by you and a few others. I get why it looks this way in hindsight and why the numbers work assuming you have a good property but there are so many people who start out buying bad deals, make big mistakes, do the wrong things once they own it etc. This is normally manageable because it’s a house or two but in an apartment deal its game over if you mess up. Even worse, the investor almost certainly leveraged the deal and raised money from equity investors too thereby compounding the problem. Now there will certainly be people who succeed (call it talent, preparation, tenacity, luck, etc.) but even if 55 out of 100 succeed (more than half) that is still 45 that don’t and probably are in trouble. From most of the podcasts I listened to that could include a lot of investors who today are good investors. Also, just listening to your recent podcast (for instance the great one on DD) there are tons of things that can bite you in larger multis that are not as hard to find in SFRs or small multis. Again, can it be avoided (and should be) sure but will most people? I think its optimistic to think they will even if they are trying hard.

    At least before the market kind of could bail you out through cap rate compression but today (you know better than I) that seems a lot less likely and even worse the people I see who really want to quit their job are mostly buying what look like bad deals (at least to me).

    Also, in SFR the inventory is much higher and in many states there is still hangover from the crisis due to laws and banks that don’t want to dump things on market because of write-down possibilities. As such, it can be easier to get a cheap house than a cheap building.

    • Michael Blank

      Hi Charles … the downside with MF can certainly be bigger. In fact, I found two things when I interview (now) successful MF investors: (1) their first deal many times was no good at first (like mine) but (2) it worked out in the end. Despite the fact that because of their size, the downside with MF could POTENTIALLY be worse, they rarely are. This is evidenced by the fact that banks are keen to lend on MF property and that’s because they view it as one of the safest investments on the planet.

  3. Andre M.

    I’d like to quit the rat race in 15 yrs. I’d like to be making 250k/yr by then. At this point I’m trying to start out w our first primary residence. Everyone is climbing all over duplexes around here, so an sfr looks more likely within the next few months. I’d like to add an accessory dwelling unit. Then sell and move to a 4 unit in 2 yrs. Then sell and get a 10 unit in 2 more yrs. Then keep moving up.

    • Michael Blank

      Andre – sounds like a great plan. Start with that first duplex. Find one that has problems so that you can buy it below ARV, fix it up, and then refinance. Then do your second deal, a 4-unit. Try not to sell anything but I do like the cash-out refi strategy. Either way, focus only on your first deal, that duplex. Forget about anything else right now. Let me know when you close on that duplex!

      • Raeshelle Cooke

        I personally dont want to go down the buy a run down house, rehab it, plan. I cant even fix houses so where do you find people that can and where do you get that money from? The way I plan to do it is invest in turnkey properties. I only want to have passive income. I do not want the hassle of fixing houses, managing properties etc. Turnkey properties sounds like the perfect path for me.

  4. Danny Hubbard

    Great article. I have made it a goal to buy an apartment complex in 5 years. I enjoy being a landlord and my strategy pays off rentals quickly. I have about 10 years left in the Navy and with retirement I will be comfortable with rentals., but realized that commercial real estate will be the way to go if I want to really expand past comfort to amass true wealth.

  5. Peter Mckernan

    Hey Michael,

    When it comes to apartment buildings there is nothing else that beats the return and economies of scale. This type of investing is something that can as you explained, cause the investor to have the ability to quit their job. These is a great way to make the passive income to drop the job that you hate. I have redirected my goals to multifamily investing, and believe this article and all other information about multifamily are great investing opportunities.

  6. Andrew E.

    Michael,

    I have read almost all of your articles here on BP and this one is another great one. Hoping to start in multifamily as well, just like you have said the potential is so much greater than multiple SFR. It’s just the issue of achieving the larger amount of capital to acquire multifamily with middle class income and and expensive area. But I’m sure there is a way around this problem. Thanks for the great information.

    • Brian Garlington

      GREAT article Michael.

      I’ve been on BP since the beginning of this year and a couple months ago bought a duplex using my VA Loan. I already had a Condominium., that I now rent out for good passive cashflow, and now I have a tenant in the other side of the duplex that “helps pay the mortgage”.

      The plan is after 10 more months of living here (To satisfy the 12 month owner occupancy rule for the VA) I will refi and take some cash out (I already have equity in the duplex because of the price I bought it at) apply for an FHA203K Loan to find an undervalued 4plex. I will have someone else move into the part the duplex I’m in now……I in turn will move into one unit of the fourplex, rent out/fix up the other three units of the fourplex, and then a year later repeat the process.

      • Daniel Hobin

        Brian:

        To qualify for the owner-occupied loans after moving from property to property, for your 2nd relocation, don’t you have to have a legitimate reason for relocation that is related to a job relocation or being close to family? Otherwise, any person could continually move from property to property taking advantage of these VA loans? I ask because I plan to invest in an owner-occupied property soon, and I’m reading up on the govt rules & regulations.

        Thanks!

        • Julia Wheeler

          I think in order to use the loan again you have to have the first one paid off. Also, a surprisingly small number of vets even take advantage of it period, so I imagine the number that does so with a keen investment mind is even less.

    • Nathan Richmond

      I would like to know the path around this as well. I’m a single school teacher who recently bought my fourth property (2 SFR and 2 duplexes). The first 3 I used FHA financing. With this fourth one, I put down 20%, roughly 40k. While I still have some savings left, I don’t see how I can afford to put 30% down on an apartment complex.

      Any suggestions? Maybe some suggested reading? Always open to learning!

  7. Laura Tokgozoglu

    Thank you for the great article. We are in the process of buying our first investment property…a 2 br 2ba condo in a college town….we will rent out each bedroom in this one and we are looking to buy more in the future.

    Where do you think is the best place to find apartment buildings for sale?

  8. Jerome Kaidor

    Yes, MF is definitely the way to go. I personally don’t understand why anybody bothers with SFR’s. I have 73 units. If they were SFRs, I would have 73 mortgages, 73 insurance policies, and 146 property tax installments. As it is, I have 3 mortgages, 3 insurance policies and 6 property tax payments, much easier!

    Not only that, I get to hire a staff to take care of them. I personally work maybe 10 hours a week.

    It took 7 years from that first fourplex in 1996 to leaving the rat race in 2003.

      • Jerome Kaidor

        OK, here’s a blow-by-blow:
        I worked in software development for 20 years, and saved a LOT of money. When the new Mercedes and BMWs started to appear in the parking lot, I soldiered on in my old pickup truck. When my stock options matured, I paid off my house.

        In 1996, my wife dragged me kicking & screaming into this business. She felt we were paying too much income tax, and she wanted a write-off. I whined that you could earn 15% in a high-tech mutual fund, and your fund would never call you with upchucking toilets. Whatever, we bought a fourplex in San Mateo, and swung hammers and wielded paintbrushes.

        By 2001, high tech was in the toilet, and that fourplex was standing tall. I searched around and found an 8 unit building in Hayward. We refi’d the fourplex and bought it. After operating our now 12 units for a few years, I thought I knew a bit about the business and started looking for something serious. Now, California RE is expensive. The Bay Area especially so. With stocks in the toilet, smart money was pouring into RE. The Bay Area was out of reach, so was LA. So I went just about halfway between those, and found properties in Fresno selling for a GRM of
        less than 6.

        We refinanced the fourplex yet again, put a loan on our house, and bought a 52-unit complex in Fresno. I still remember the day I went into our bank, and asked for a check for six hundred thousand dollars. To give me such a thing, they needed signatures from half the employees!

        Those 52 units were a circus. I closed on Tuesday, and the maintenance requests started on Thursday. My seller hadn’t been fixing much. The manager’s boyfriend was dealing drugs. There were tenants farming the front of the complex – corn, cabbages. that sort of thing.

        I remember one evening my wife and I had a good cry in our cheap motel room in Fresno. That place was going to bankrupt us!

        We kicked out the farmers, had the front of the complex landscaped, installed power gates, did $60K of termite work, had the complex repainted. Meanwhile,
        the slide in high tech finally got to me, and they laid me off. They gave me 6 months of pay for doing nothing. I lived on it while we completed all the initial capex projects on the complex.

        Fast forward a bit…. Today, it’s a cash cow. We have good staff in place. We fixed everything. We have the best AC contractor in Fresno. Good AC is a big deal out there. We installed power gates and resolutely keep them working. We do NOT tolerate drug dealing, gang activity or violence. At this time we have 1 ( one ) vacancy.

        Last year, we picked up a 13-unit building in Tracy, CA. There were some hiccups to start with, but it has turned into a strong performer. This morning I was informed that I have a vacancy there…. ….by a prospective tenant calling in trying to rent it. Apparently it went vacant on Friday, and so far, 12 people have stopped by to look at it, strictly by word of mouth. Haven’t even run a Craigslist ad.

        We have a toll-free number for the business. People call me to rent apartments, and just to tell me what’s going on. The toll-free number has business hours, so we can have a life.

  9. James Chung

    Game-changing article Michael, thank you for this. It certainly seems ‘common sense’ to shoot for multi-unit (especially commercial @ 20+ doors) as a means for a quicker rat-race exit. In an ideal world, I see myself doing what Brandon Turner suggests in his ‘7 yrs to 7 figures’ roadmap. Would you say that’s a realistic approach to the commercial/retirement endgame? Where are you in terms of commercial property ownership? I’m curious since you’ve been in the game over a decade now – wonder if you’ve successfully applied what you preach several times over already (fishing for some more inspiration here 🙂 ). Thanks again!

  10. So basically multi family still makes more money than SFR even though the former requires a 30% downpayment and buying SFRs requires 20% down? How many units do you suggest at a minimum? Thank you – Rachel

  11. Fred Herbst

    My question is where do I start I have 17 units now a mix of SF and duplex’s they cash flow great but I would like to get into a bigger multi but when I run the numbers and after paying a mortgage on then the cash flow is minimal for the amount of money that is at risk

  12. As a counter-arugument, I would say take the best deals you can take now. Don’t assume an apartment building is going to have a good rate of return. Always, crunch the numbers. A great return is a great return. If you can get it in an apartment building deal, great. If not, get a great return with what resources you have available to you.

  13. Ken p.

    Michael,

    Great article (as usual!) which parallels my experience as an investor. Not having a plan but still believing that some profitable real estate is better than none, and seeing low prices and good cash flow returns coming out of the recession, my wife and I bought 2 SFRs, in 2011 & 2013. My wife observed how much time it was taking me searching for each house, making offers, receiving rejections, finally getting a property under contract, closing, and renting. She basically told me I wasn’t getting any younger and needed to pick up the pace by buying multi-family so we could get on track to retire by our mid-50s, the goal we’d subsequently set for ourselves.

    As a result of the wifely prodding I changed my focus to MF, seeking out and buying 18 apartments in 2013, and then 5 more. As rehabbing nears completion and short-term loans are paid off, we’ll have the cash flow to replace one of our incomes as planned. We need to add another building to replace the other. Thanks for helping with the motivation to continue with the plan!

  14. Alan Shechter

    My experience is quite the opposite. I owned a 42 unit apartment building. I found the risk to be greater because of pests. Specifically cockroaches and bed bugs. It was mind boggling how many people would get these critters and not say anything, probably for fear of eviction. So, the problem spread. Extermination of bedbugs is difficult. It depends a lot on tenants and their assistance in prep. Not just the source unit but those around it. And on multiple occasions since it takes multiple sprays. After trying for over a year to get rid of them with multiple vendors, I sold the building. Six months have passed and there are even more vacancies because the new owner has not been able to get rid of them. And even if they do, they could be back next year because people visit and bring them in.

    I would only buy another apartment building if it were in a well-to-do suburb. Never in a city or poorer part of town.

    • Michael Blank

      Hi Alan … that is quite the story, thanks for the perspective. Nothing is ever a slam-dunk, and the same goes for apt buildings. I’m curious, was the pest problem there when you bought the building or did it develop over time? I know that bed bugs in particular are very challenging. Aside from never buying a building in a city or poorer part of town, is there any other lesson learned you could share?

  15. Anthony Gayden

    I started out with a 4-plex. Within four months I had bought a second 4-plex. My original plan of course to move up to large apartment buildings. Well I spent close to two years saving money for my next investment and I lost focus of my original goals. I ended up buying a single family house as my third investment.

    Anyway I was struck by the reality that I would have to buy a lot of single family homes to get the income I desire. I had lost focus. Well now I want to get that focus back and make my next purchase a commercial multi-family property.

  16. Nathan Gesner

    Thanks for the article. This is exactly where I’m headed. My problem is that I’m in a small Wyoming community with few commercial complexes. The largest have 16 units, never come on the market, and are worth $1million at the lowest.

    So I will have to find a deal outside of my area. My difficulty is going to be finding a deal. If anyone has a suggestion on which markets to pursue, I am all ears!

  17. Great article Michael, thank you. Always good to be reminded to keep our eyes on the prize. We went from renting an apartment in Brooklyn to purchasing our 1st property – a 3 family in New Jersey with an FHA loan. Planning on buying a bigger multi family unit this year. What are your thoughts on mixed-use commercial properties? When you add a store or restaurant into the equation your passive income increases. But are there any drawbacks? Thanks again

  18. Hello Michael,
    I\’m wondering how different the market is where you are (the U.S.?) compared to where I am investing (Montreal, Canada). I have been an active real-estate investor for 5 years and currently own a 5 unit and an 8-unit building, both of which I bought at ~15% under market value (the sellers were being foreclosed). At the time, everyone was flabbergasted at how \”cheap\” I was able to get these buildings. But even still, after expenses there is almost NO cashflow at all…. the profit comes ONLY from the increase in value and mortgage capitalization, neither of which can be used to live off of. I can only see being able to actually pocket any of the rental income cash after a decade or so, once the rents have increased significantly and the mortgage has been mostly paid off. I am looking to buy a 10 to 16 unit building this year, but again, in the real-estate market in Canada there is no way it will generate enough monthly cash flow to live off of in the first 10 or so years. Is there somewhere else I can buy that will achieve this? If so, let me know!!

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