Have you ever heard the saying, “You make your own luck”? My wife set out to prove it true, and at the end of that maxim’s rainbow we found ourselves the happy owners of our dream rental property that was never even on the market.
There are a lot of ins and outs to how this happened, but I think there are lessons for many of my readers all along the way, which is why this seemed like the perfect post to bring me out of my long blog hibernation.
Once upon a time …
The story begins many years ago, when my wife and I took our first trip together to Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, a charming little town about two-and-a-half hours from our Utah home.
Lava (pronounced by locals like the lava in lavaliere microphone rather than the lava that erupts from volcanoes) quickly became our go-to weekend getaway. It was far enough away to feel like vacation, but close enough we didn’t have to get crazy with preparations. Over the years, we started bringing other friends and family along, as well, introducing them to the glory of Lava.
Lava Hot Springs, as you can guess from the name, is home to a wonderful natural hot spring-fed pool complex. Several of the hotels throughout town boast private pools fed by the same source, but we’re partial to the state-run facility at one end of town. Speaking of town, it’s really not very large. You can walk from the Riverwalk Thai restaurant to Mike’s Market and see everything Lava has to offer in about 10 minutes. That’s part of its appeal for us — you show up, park your car, enjoy yourself with some libations and never get back in your car until you’re ready to go home.
We tend to go in the winter, when it’s snowing and you’re sitting in a warm hot spring pool watching the flurries melt before they touch the water and steam wafting high into the air. But the busy season is actually summer, when families rent tubes and spend all day tubing the Portneuf River that runs through town. We had only gone once in the summer, and since the place meant so much to us it was there that I proposed to her. We really, really like Lava.
We half joked/half dreamed over the years of owning a place in town that we could use when we visited. But it was serious enough that my wife had an alert for when new properties in town were listed.
The one that got away
Then one day something popped up that seemed more promising than the others before. A four-plex outside the downtown area had come up for sale, and based on our back-of-the-envelope numbers it seemed like a viable rental property.
Now you have to understand something about Lava. There’s a commercial district stretching a block east and west of Main Street in which hotels and nightly rental vacation homes are allowed. Anything outside that boundary the city would like to maintain as standard long-term residential.
I understand where they’re coming from. It’s a tourist resort town, and many of the nightly rentals are already owned by people who don’t live in Lava. They don’t want the whole town to become a giant hotel where you can only rent the places nightly and no one actually stays there.
This four-plex was just on the other side of the street from the commercial district, so it was not eligible to be a nightly rental, and we ran our numbers accordingly. Things got serious. We got in touch with a Realtor, toured the property, took lots of pictures, got pre-qualified for a mortgage, and put in an offer.
But we were second in line behind a cash buyer. Even though there were glimpses of that deal falling apart, in the end it went through.
Along the way, I kept saying that whatever is supposed to happen is what will happen. If we were meant to have that four-plex, the universe would see fit to make sure it worked out that way. If it didn’t, then that wasn’t what was supposed to happen.
I know, it sounds all new-agey woo-woo stuff, The Secret and Law of Attraction and all that. But you know what, I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful to take that point of view than to get all downtrodden when something you wanted doesn’t work out, because something else is going to happen that will make it all make sense if you’re open to it.
And sure enough …
When my wife wants something bad enough
My wife has two qualities that she occasionally puts to use in profound ways: stubbornness and brazenness.
I say this affectionately. She’s not annoying about it. There are just times when she recognizes that she wants something to happen, and dammit it’s going to happen because that’s the way it’s going to be. I can think of far more times that’s worked out in everyone’s favor than not.
Fresh off the disappointment of not getting the four-plex after going through all the hoops and deliberations and all that, she couldn’t let go this idea of owning something in Lava. One night shortly thereafter she was inspired. If we could own any place in town, a place that we would like to stay at ourselves, where would it be?
The next evening, I’m in our basement practicing my drums, when she comes down with a smile on her face.
“You know how we really want to own a place in Lava? Well, I sent an email to the guy who owns Top of the Town and asked if he’d ever consider selling it. And he responded that yes, he’d consider it!”
Holy crap. This is the house we stay at when we go with the whole family and big groups of friends. It’s an existing nightly rental in the commercial district. It has more bedrooms than any other rental in town. And it’s not even on the market.
So began a two-month whirlwind of negotiations. We did it without real estate agents. It was just us and him going back and forth on details, numbers, timelines, etc. In the end, I think everyone got a fair deal, which is how I would want it. We bought the place turnkey, with all the furnishings, linens, kitchen stuff, household goods and everything needed to continue to run it.
So now we’re in the hospitality business
I remember listening to Paula Pant on Afford Anything talk about the difference between investing in a traditional investment property and investing in an AirBNB. With one, you’re in the real estate business; with the other, you’re in the hospitality business.
We knew going in what we were signing up for. This is the furthest thing from passive income. I’ve basically taken on a second job to manage this.
We last stayed at the house in February with a bunch of friends. When we went back at the beginning of November for the first time as owners, it was with fresh eyes. There was a lot we wanted to fix and update.
I spent two solid days working on electrical, plumbing, smart technology, and general maintenance. My wife cleaned, updated the kitchen, took note of all the things we were still going to need to do. We sprung for new bedding and lighting, a whole new living room furniture set and decor, and many touches big and small to modernize it a bit.
I took all new pictures; created a new website with an online booking and payment portal; listed with Booking.com, AirBNB, VRBO, and Google Business; contacted all the past customers; and started advertising for new ones. The past month has been all-consuming with all the paperwork, business and tax licensing, site signups, banking, maintenance, travel, phone calls and everything. But we’ve already been booked for three weekends with more reservations all the way up to July.
The listing was live on AirBNB for all of 8 hours before the first booking came through.
Lessons learned along the way
I still have so much to learn as this business matures under our ownership. I’m sure I’ll make stupid mistakes that will cost me in money, angst and anxiety. But here’s what I’ve picked up so far.
- Go with what you know. While I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to live in Lava Hot Springs, I definitely know what it’s like to be a frequent visitor there. That long-time knowledge helped us immensely in weighing the pros and cons of the deals we were considering. I would not have been so confident if we were just purchasing a rental home (and especially a nightly rental) somewhere we hadn’t been so much in the past.
- If you don’t ask, the answer is always ‘no.’ This deal happened because my wife took a chance and reached out to someone about a house that wasn’t on the market and that we had no indication was even possibly for sale. You make your own luck. That one random email changed everything.
- Good financial management for the win. We have made good financial decisions for many years now, including paying off all debt aside from our mortgage, keeping lifestyle inflation in check, investing in our future, and keeping our options open to opportunity. There’s no way we would have qualified for this investment mortgage otherwise. My income isn’t even eligible to be considered because I’m less than two years into a self-employment scenario. If we had other debts, the debt-to-income ratio for our household on paper would have been too high to get a mortgage for this property. By making smart moves along the way, we were able to seize an opportunity.
- What will happen is what is supposed to happen. I’m glad we didn’t get that four-plex. I’m also glad we tried to get that four-plex. That deal put us in the headspace to run all the scenarios for our life and bank accounts. It led us to get pre-qualified for a higher mortgage than the one we got, so we had no fears about financing. If we hadn’t made that offer, I don’t think my wife would have thought to send the random email that became the starting point for the purchase that did happen.
- Imperfect action is better than perfect inaction. I had only the vaguest notion of what I needed to do to get this business heading in the direction I want it going. The previous owner didn’t advertise, didn’t have online availability, and didn’t take credit card. You had to call or text to rent the house, and you had to send a check or Venmo your payment. That was great for him, but we need more out of it to cover our fixed expenses. My initial reaction was to take baby steps getting everything up and running. Instead, I’ve just plugged away and gotten us listed all over the place and started looking for things to do to increase visibility. Overall I think that’s paying off far better than waiting until I felt like I knew what I was doing to do anything new. It’s often better to do something good enough and then make it better later.
I don’t plan to turn IDoF into a rental real estate blog, but I’m sure you’ll get updates as I get more comfortable with our new investment. Who knows, maybe some of you will even stay with us sometime!