Jack Chen says he’s investing in property to give himself the financial freedom to make decisions on his own terms. Here, the Sydney-based investor reveals the investment strategy that could allow him to retire today, as well as the drivers behind his wealth-creation success.
In this episode of The Smart Property Investment Show, Jack joins host Phil Tarrant and guest co-host Eric Brown to explain how he overcame his debt-adverse mindset to build a nine-strong property portfolio, the sacrifices he’s made to further his wealth creation efforts, and why he believes working with a team of professionals has been critical to achieving his goals.
Tune in now to hear all of this and much, much more in this episode of The Smart Property Investment Show!
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Phil: G’day everyone it's Phil Tarrant here. I'm the host of The Smart Property Investment Show, thanks for joining us today. Going to mix things up a bit. I've got a new idea, I'm going to see if it works. Probably doomed to failure because the guy I've brought on he's not very accomplished, he's not very savvy, he's boring, monotone, but you may know him he's been on the show before, a guy called Eric Brown. Eric how are going?
Eric: Good thanks Phil. I thought you were talking about Jack there. Don't take it personally Jack, the more he sledges you the more he likes you.
Phil: It's the way it works. So I've asked Eric to come on as a very impromptu and chance, but I've asked Eric to come on he's going to be my guest co-host today. So the reason I've done this is I always like having three on the podcast it makes for good dynamics, but Eric is a property investor who's gone down a journey of heartache sometimes, but also very successful and I can't remember exactly which episode of the show that you were on Eric but you were very open to sharing your story and some of those mistakes that you've made, and you have made many, but also some of the great gains that you've had through property investing.
So what I want from you today Eric is that I want you to help me interview our guest Jack Chen. Jack is new to investing so I'm hoping Eric you can think back to when you were a young investor and making all those bad mistakes and hopefully we can get some good information out of Jack. So Jack welcome to the show.
Jack: Happy to be here.
Phil: And it is good to see you again.
Jack: Thanks mate.
Eric: I'm just going to point one thing out Phil there's no such thing as mistake, it's an opportunity to learn.
Phil: Okay, there we go it's a bit of a gem of brilliance. So you know what I'm going to do I'm going to hand it over to you first, you can ask the first question to Jack.
Eric: So Jack you mentioned a bit earlier when we were chatting off-air that you just only just started talking about your property investment journey what made you come to that conclusion that you wanted to share your story and talk to like-minded individuals about that?
Jack: Yeah I guess I've been pretty much following the same strategy from day one and I wanted to expand my horizons, I wanted to see what other property investors were doing with their property journey, what strategies they were employing. So I've been investing for 10 years now. I'm pretty much a passive buy and hold investor but starting to come to property meetups, starting to connect with people on forums like Property Chat, listening to this kind of podcast. It's really opened my mind as to new possibilities. So one thing that I've not done is property development, subdivision, manufacturing equity. I've done some basic cosmetic renovations but I haven't really done anything to actively manufacture equity so by coming out, speaking to others, they can learn from me, I can learn from them.
Phil: So let's have a quick chat about your portfolio Jack. Give us a bit of insight how many properties in it, what's the value, what's the debt position?
Jack: Yeah sure. So currently if I include the value of my PPOR my portfolio is roughly worth $5.2 million today.
Phil: $5.2, that's a reasonable portfolio.
Jack: It's okay, it's okay. I got lucky in some respects because I pretty much rode the Sydney property boom, but I've been investing since 2007 about second year out of uni. I purchased my first investment property, it was a two bedroom flat in Marrickville, I purchased that for $307k, moved in, claimed the $7 grand first time owner's grant, renovated it, moved out, and then just kept going. So every year, every second year once I saved up enough of a deposit I would then purchase the next property so I just kept accumulating, accumulating. Eventually Sydney from about 2012-2013 onwards, prices started to escalate so that's when I started pulling out equity and I started to invest in other regions such as Brisbane.
Phil: Okay so $5.2 million total valuation in your portfolio now, what's the debt position on that?
Jack: I've got about $2.7 mill in debt against that.
Phil: $2.7, okay, so you've got a fair bit of equity in there.
Jack: It's decent, but definitely not enough to retire today. I don't know if you guys are interested but I do have a strategy in place that could allow me to, in theory, retire today if I wanted to.
Phil: Well let's have a chat about it. So you professional work in IT did you say?
Phil: So by IT would do you do magical things on computers and stuff, is that pretty much how it works?
Jack: I'm a software product manager. So funnily enough the product that I manage is actually a piece of software that mortgage brokers use on a day to day basis. So I've got some insights into the mortgage broking and property industry in my day job and that's kind of, sort of, reinvigorated my drive to invest more in property and...
Phil: So you're dealing with numbers all day which is pretty cool.
Phil: So you see what's going on, what mortgage rates are doing, the process of how a broker gets loaned to a market and all the tricks and nuances is part of it.
Jack: Absolutely, yes.
Phil: That's good. So what's the future then? So you're talking about retirement and a $5.2 million portfolio today. If you stopped and didn't do anything with that you would expect that hopefully if you listen to what the experts say they're to double in value every 10-ish years so you hold that through two property cycles you're going to have a $20 million portfolio, that's saying that your debt position just remains the same, you're not doing anything.
So talk me through your retirement strategy if you wanted to do it right now.
Jack: Yeah correct. So if I wanted to execute a purely live off of rent strategy, like you said, I would have to wait for another one or two property cycles to have enough equity there to sell down and to basically hold $2, $3, $4 million in unencumbered property to allow a passive income stream. But, if I wanted to I could take the equity position that I have today, convert that into dividend income, so fully-franked dividend paying shares, if I converted that equity I could generate roughly $75k in dividend income today, that far exceeds my living expenses. So I could, in theory, declare myself retired today but I choose not to.
Phil: So this strategy around sort of dividend income from the current equity position on the portfolio, where did you start shaping that idea from? What was the genesis of it?
Jack: Yeah so I guess I had built ... So it started about 2012, around that time I had about $3 million in property and then I started to get a little bit impatient I think. So I actually wanted the option to retire early if I wanted to. So I started actually looking at shares but not trading shares because I actually got burnt before by trading shares...
Phil: That sounds familiar Eric?
Eric: Yeah. Yep.
Jack: So I was looking at shares for the dividend income that it provides, so if you just ignore the price volatility of shares for a moment and just focus on the dividend income which historically grows way in excess of inflation, if you just focus on that, it can be a very dependable source of income in retirement. So...
Eric: So can I ask a question, do you have an end point? If you say you're not going to, have you set that out and said this is where I want to get to before I hit that magic retirement button so to speak?
Jack: Well I don't have a particular target in mind I just know ... I actually took some time off work about two years ago. I actually quit my job and went travelling for about seven months, and in that time I wanted to explore what early retirement might look like. It was great for the first few months but towards the end of it I was like man, I kind of miss being productive. I miss making a difference in the world. So funnily enough, I can't actually see myself retired I'm just going to keep pushing myself. I want to keep growing as a person and keep contributing more.
Eric: Phil and I have been talking about … We've spoken about this haven't we?
Phil: Yeah, it's interesting, I think ... And I speak to a lot of people in property investment and the people how have really large portfolios and everyone's driven towards a goal but goals change obviously over time, but the idea of being independently, financially free appeals to a lot of people in knowing that at a point in time if they choose to be retired that they're going to have a comfortable lifestyle which is going to emulate what they're able to do during their working life. You don't want to have a good working life and then retire and end up eating two minute noodles all day. But it's funny that the people who are in that position are just naturally hungry people so when they can retire they never want to retire. Retirement is a choice. I have a choice to be able to do that and I might be able to slow down or pursue other things but most people who are able to retire don't want to retire. It's funny how it works.
Eric: It's the financial freedom to make that decision on your own terms. I think that's the goal, the choice to say I can retire if I choose to.
Phil: For me personally, I like the like game too much to retire. I like being able to get up in the morning and make a difference and that difference might be whatever but it's good fun to be able to shape things and that's what I get out of using property for business.
Jack: Absolutely. When I study successful people, what it takes to be successful, these people they're not looking for an early retirement, they don't want to lie on the beach all day, they actually want to make a difference for themselves, for their family, for the community, and the world at large, so I want to learn from them. I want to emulate their success and I just want to keep pushing myself.
Eric: Do you have a plan to value add, you mentioned you haven't done much of that before, is that the progression of your strategy from here is to actually manufacture equity in your property portfolio?
Jack: Yeah absolutely. But first I'll probably need to educate myself a bit more. So like I mentioned earlier, I'm pretty passive to date, so I need to actually start listening to this podcast more and more. So I think the most recent podcast that you were mentioning Phil about your plans to manufacture equity and sub-divide and things like this, so I'm mainly just starting to open up to that possibility. So I want to definitely educate myself a bit more and then put a plan in place that will allow me to start.
Phil: I think it's a really important point and I had a chat with a couple of guys earlier this week just around future-proofing your property portfolio. It was a really good dialogue and contextually it was around how the federal government is making these sweeping changes to tax concessions for investors from the federal budget which was an out start in May and it was about concentrating on things that you can't control and don't sweat the stuff too much that you can control and investing in properties a lot of stuff you can't control. But the government says we're changing the depreciation rules on existing properties and I don't even know what's going on with new property yet it's all a bit grey. You can't control that stuff but you got to play the game. So concentrating on stuff you can control and to future proof your portfolio and that means that you're buying assets which give you an option in the future to potentially knock down, rebuild, or something in that regards, or to generate great income through an addition, or a split, or granny flat in the back, so you got to that stuff right from the get go.
You're already at a portfolio of $5.2 million, how many properties does that entail? You've got a spreadsheet there which numbers look really small, I can't see it.
Jack: So currently nine. I did sell one of those which is probably one of my biggest regrets. So that was first property that I purchased in Marrickville, but I sold that in 2012. Basically I let...
Phil: Probably for about $750k it's probably about $1.2 now?
Jack: Yeah. Basically I let fear take over.
Phil: But is that about right?
Jack: No, no, no. It was a two bedroom unit.
Phil: Two bedroom unit, okay.
Jack: So I bought it for $307k and then I sold if for $456k in 2012.
Phil: What would that be I reckon?
Jack: I reckon it would be easily worth $800k today so that's why I regret selling it because if I had held onto it I could have borrowed against that equity and further pushed my portfolio forward. I did let fear get the best of me so that's why I sold that property. At that time I wanted to pay down the debt against my PPOR so that was kind of the drive, but in hindsight I probably shouldn't have sold it. I wish I had held onto it.
Phil: So in terms of the properties in your portfolio now how many of them have that bit of an 'x' factor, so something that will allow you to either generate more income or that can allow you to manufacture some equity in there for increase your yield as well?
Jack: So I've got one in Zillmere which is a high set that doesn't have the bottom built out yet, so that is something that I am considering on doing in the future. My most recent purchase, which is about to settle next week in Logan, Logan in Brisbane, it has a self-contained studio so that was already there on purchase it will just probably perspective buyers didn't really see the value of that. So I'm glad I was able to work with a buyer's agent that had a keen eye for this sort of thing. So I was able to purchase that for $320k and the market, the rental amount of huge. We reckon we can rent that out for $390 a week. So that obviously, the value has already been added, it was just a matter of identifying that possibility and then taking advantage of it.
Phil: What do you think Ez?
Eric: Yeah it sounds pretty good, I'm impressed with your numbers in nine for someone who hasn't really, you said you sort of hadn't really taken it seriously, you haven't really pushed it a little bit. To have nine properties and that much equity is amazing. You're in a really, really good position and I think congratulations.
Jack: Well it's a partnership really. It's me and my wife, so she was sold on the whole dream of financial freedom so she's been part of the journey from day one. So the Marrickville unit that we purchased, she helped me paint that unit. Then in 2009 she bought her own property, in her name, claimed the $14 grand first time owner's grant, we got married, moved in, painted it, renovated it, moved out, we rentvested for about three years before we moved into our PPOR. So we made a lot of sacrifices along the way. In terms of pure investment strategy and manufacturing equity and that sort of thing, I'm a bit late to the party for that aspect, but in terms of taking action, I'm quite proud of what I've managed to achieve over the last 10 years.
Phil: I've got a question for you. So have you tried to borrow recently?
Phil: Have you found there's been a change in the last six or 12 months, or maybe six months with how difficult that was, and have you come up against a ceiling yet or you're still in the same entity?
Jack: So I am starting to hit a serviceability wall, but I have been working with my mortgage broker to figure out strategies to allow me to continue to accumulate. Right now I think with my most recent purchases I'm no longer serviceable for the four majors. So I'm going to have to look for non-conforming lenders if I want to continue to grow my portfolio.
Phil: There's plenty of options out there and using a mortgage broker is a really good way to do it. I'm really interested in, before you came on air you spoke about how you've been quite a closed shop in terms of your finances and not really sharing them with other people in the past. I'm quite intrigued, if you don't mind, on the relationship you have with money with your wife and this journey that you're down to create wealth and give you choice in the future. If you don't mind, do you guys talk about money a lot as a husband and wife, is that a pretty central thing that is a common topic of conversation or how do you separate that with not talking about money? What's the balance like?
Jack: So in terms of daily household expenses, yeah we talk about that a lot, almost on a daily basis. So even purchasing groceries we'll make sure we're buying the things that are on special during that week. So things like that we discuss on an almost daily basis.
Phil: So you keep a really tight household budget.
Jack: We do. So I've been tracking our spends. We spend roughly $40k a year in just pure living expenses. So from that perspective I think we're doing quite well. In terms of the investing side, that's more my domain. So I'm quite lucky that she's supportive and she will allow me to use her serviceability in my property investing journey. So she's been supportive from day one.
Phil: So she's the confidence for you to go away and makes these financial decisions in terms of purchasing, or adding value, or selling, et cetera so...
Jack: Yeah, that's right.
Phil: That's sort of the role that you play.
Jack: Correct. So she's not interested in all that property. She doesn't care all that much about property but she does care about financial freedom, financial independence, that sort of thing. So she's happy to, she has the confidence in me to make those decisions.
Phil: So she knows what the goal is and she's investing in the goal, but she's quite happy for you to go and take your guys as a unit there.
Jack: Yep, absolutely.
Phil: Which is cool. Every relationship's different. Some people are really invested combined or one over another.
Eric: I'm also interested to know who else is part of your investment advisory team. Do you have a strategic accountant or mortgage broker, and/or financial planner? How do you form that plan?
Jack: Yeah sure. So I've been working with a buyer's agent for my Queensland purchases. So he knows about my portfolio and where I want to take it, so he's been helping me source properties that fit that strategy. I've got a property savvy accountant and I've got an investment savvy mortgage broker as well. So this mortgage broker took me under his wing. He actually took time out of his weekends to actually show me around Logan. So I flew up, hopped into his car, he just showed me a whole bunch of properties in Logan, he told me what to look out for, which streets to avoid, this sort of thing. So I learned a whole great deal from him and together with a finance strategy in place it allowed me to keep growing.
Eric: You're a big fan of pro-advice aren't you Phil and I sort of made a few mistakes early on because I didn't actually seek out that advice and I learned from those mistakes, some of them were very financially costly but now the more I talk to people that's the first thing I say to them is get some advice and build yourself a team underneath you. Phil says it all the time, trusted investment savvy advisers to help you, to give you the confidence to grow that strategy.
Phil: We're with paying people to do stuff better than you can do it yourself, that's the way I see the world. But when you reflect back on your journey as a property investor what's the fundamental thing you think you could have done differently that if you had your time again you would look to rectify.
Jack: Probably I was very debt averse when I started out so it took me about six years to realise I could actually equity out of my existing portfolio to fund future purchases. So I was...
Eric: It took you six years?
Jack: Six years.
Phil: Was that like a lightbulb moment for you or did...
Jack: It was.
Phil: So tell me about when and how that happened, what was it that cracked you or got you out of line?
Jack: It was when I sat down with a mortgage broker and then he laid out the options and I'm like why didn't I think of that all along? I kind of knew from reading books that that was a possibility, but I was always debt adverse I didn't want to borrow to...
Phil: And why do you think you were debt adverse, is there anything that sort of cry to that?
Jack: Not sure to be honest. I guess just an element of fear and not wanting to take on too much debt. So the first four property purchases I basically saved up a 20 per cent deposit just out of pure, hard earned savings.
Phil: Good budgeting obviously.
Jack: Yeah. So that's debt adverse I was. I didn't want to incur LMI, I didn't want debt on top of debt. But then around the six year mark of my property investing journey the Sydney markets done pretty well, there was a lot of spare equity there, a lot of lazy equity. So I'm like I should really do something with this and I don't want to keep saving to invest because at that point in time I had a PPOR I wanted to actually save to pay down the non-deductible debt, so that was my focus, paying down the non-deductible debt, and if I had equity why not use it.
Phil: Your PPOR now is it principal and interest?
Jack: It is still interest only but within the next three months I plan to pay off the entire debt against the PPOR.
Phil: The entire debt, how are you going to manage that?
Jack: Just savings. So savings along with the Marrickville sale. So I managed to clear about $150k from that sale and then just from savings, hard earned savings over the last seven years, I've just been piling down that debt together with a debt recycling strategy so this was where I actually pay down the PPOR debt, pulled the equity out as a new equity loan, used that to purchase dividend paying shares. So shares were paying about 7 per cent yields at that time which was way in excess of the mortgage interest rates. So I was using the dividend income to actually help pay down my PPOR debt which then I could pull out again as new debt and just continue that cycle. So I've managed to use that, debt recycling, hard earned savings, property sale to help pay down the debt.
Phil: And once you pay down your principal place of residence, PPOR, are you never going to touch that again, you're never going to use it as a cash cow and draw down on equity or you just don't know, once you've got it done you're going to leave it?
Jack: I'm not adverse to pulling out equity for investment but for now I'm sort of in a wait and see period. So I'm in a bit of a state of flux right now. I'm going through a career change at the moment so for now it's just wait and see.
Phil: That's good. How much what you're talking about is really sophisticated and I would say time consuming? How much time would you spend a week, would you say, on your property portfolio or your investment strategies is it something which is really consuming of yours? I know you listen to every single Smart Property Investment Show podcast which is a great half hour spent that's a ... But how much time would you spend a week on it?
Jack: I would say on average about an hour a day just maybe half of that would be on education, so listening to podcasts or doing some reading, the other half would be responding to emails, chasing our property managers, that sort of thing. At the end of the month maybe another few hours to just reconcile all the monthly statements. So I actually...
Phil: Do you actually enjoy doing that administrative bit or is it...
Jack: No I hate it, so as I'm continuing to grow my portfolio every property that I add I'm finding there's more administrative costs and mental energy that I need to spend to maintain that portfolio. So that's kind of why I'm starting to look at more active strategies to manufacture equity so I look at shares which is pretty much 100 per cent passive. So I'm starting to look at other avenues rather than just buy and holds.
Phil: Eric how much fun would you spend a week on your portfolio? Probably quite a lot right, you're pretty active at the moment?
Eric: It's a fair bit, yeah.
Phil: Fair bit, yeah.
Eric: So I use your podcast anytime I'm driving to a job I listen to maybe two or three podcasts on a trip out to a job, it's at least a couple of hours every day. The management side for me is not that great because I've got some pretty good property managers and it sort of looks after itself, but the self-education part is probably where I spend most of my time.
Phil: Yeah, so one more question for Jack before we wind up. Eric?
Eric: Yeah, what is it?
Phil: What would you want to know? You've got to go ... You guys are both hustling pretty hard and both of advancing I guess towards a common goal in terms of financial independence and well having the choice to be able to sort of do what you want to do, what would be the one thing that you'd want to learn from Jack?
Eric: I like the way you are very diligent with your savings. I think for myself in my life I could be a lot more stringent in cost control so that all app... When you said that what was it you talked about measuring how much you actually spend on consumables?
Jack: For me it was just spreadsheets so just pulling all the bank accounts together, all the credit card statements together, and then just measuring your spend over the year.
Eric: Because I have no idea how much I spend every ... Probably a lot. I live a pretty good lifestyle but I would like to actually research that, work out how much it is and I'm sure I could tweak the buttons a little more.
Phil: Well you're probably scared though if you actually worked out how much money you spend on stuff. I wouldn't want to do it. I'm pretty good, but I know a lot of people when actually do do a proper budget they just go, "Oh dear. I'm just wasting so much money."
Eric: It's kind of fundamental though isn't it really, and hard work, and consistency I guess is the key to progressing it faster than you would normally.
Jack: Yeah and I guess the reason why I wanted to start tracking that spend is I actually spend a lot of time reading about early retirement so there's this really famous blog called Mr. Money Mustache - huge fan of his blog. He retired in his early 30s to raise his family, both mom and dad could stay at home to fully dedicate their time and energy to raising their children, that's something I want for my family. So he suggested that in order to retire you need to track and keep control of your spending and only then will you know how much capital you need to fund that lifestyle.
Phil: Absolutely. My problem with that word retirement is serviceability so that was my goal was to develop a passive income from my property portfolio and use that to live off but when I got to that point I'm thinking if I want to do anything else there's no way I can do it without having a legitimate income coming in because ... And particularly the way I think banks are going to move, and legislation's going to go it's going to be harder and harder to borrow money as an investor trying to tackle that affordability crisis that we've got which I think really exists. It's an affordability crisis if you want to buy in inner city, but if you're willing to move out to the outer side suburbs it's not really an affordability crisis. But that's my opinion. And I think it's going to get harder as an investor because they'll lift the investment rates, they'll lift it to principal and interest instead of interest only loans, and it will just get harder and harder. So my thing about retirement has changed a lot now knowing that I need that income to continue the growth in my portfolio.
Jack: So if I read that correctly you're saying that your rent right now already can afford a retirement, is that right?
Eric: No I'm in debt to the yin-yang to be honest with you. We just bought another warehouse, my debt levels are massive. So no, if I was to stop work, I need that income just to fund the debt at the moment because I'm still in a growth stride and I don't know when that will stop, but I'm still trying to grow and manufacture equity through developments which was the next. It's complex.
Jack: You've got so...
Eric: That's a whole another podcast.
Phil: Yeah, just for our listeners, Eric has, I say in quotation marks, “a traditional portfolio” – he's got some just good, safe base assets which are sort of three-bedders, and you've got a couple units in the sellers, but you're sort of at the next point in your portfolio now where you're looking for these 'x' factor type properties where you can ... It's a little bit more risky, but the upside's a lot more considerable.
Eric: Unit blocks and things like that is my next step.
Phil: Which you can do with the confidence of you've done the other stuff, now you can go into those. You’re also a builder so that helps. But we're going to run out of time. Jack thanks for coming in man, it's a good chat.
Jack: Yeah, happy to be here.
Phil: What do you think about Eric as a cohost, would you get him back on do you reckon?
Jack: Yeah, for sure.
Phil: Yeah adequate, yeah?
Phil: He seems indifferent. I think you did a good job Eric, it's good.
Eric: Thanks Phil.
Phil: Jack the one thing I would take from this chat mate is just knowing your numbers, the fact that you need to understand what you're spending if you want to realise you've got all of independence in terms of your financial position you need to know how much money you spend. So if I was one of our listeners I'd be thinking hey if I don't have a household budget, if I don't know what I'm spending on coffees a week, if I don't know how much I'm spending on beer, or takeaways, or electricity or whatever, you got get back to basics. So I think that should resonate with everyone.
So thanks for coming in mate. We'll get you back on when you're a little bit further down your path, $5.2 million, $2.7 million in debt you've sort of got a nice, big, fat amount of equity there so it will be interesting to see what you do with it. Eric, thanks mate. I thought that worked well...
Eric: Thanks Phil, thanks for having me. Nice to meet you Jack.
Phil: A guest co-host. Basically if anyone wants to come on and be a guest on the show like Jack today or want to join me on maybe quizzing some of the guests that we have on the show please do get in touch with the team. You can contact them at [email protected] Remember to check us out smartpropertyinvestment.com.au where there's news, intelligence, marketing information, everything that you need around property investment. You can follow us on all the social channels, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. If you want to follow me you can @philliptarrant on Twitter, you can see what I'm up to. Until next week, we'll see you then. Thanks for joining us. Bye bye.
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