Kimberly and Edward Rushing's fledgling real estate investment venture got off to a rocky start.
Seven years ago, at the height of the housing market, the young couple bought a home they intended to fix up and flip in San Bernardino County, Calif.
"As soon as we bought it," Kimberly Rushing said, "the market crashed."
They realized, however, that there was an upside to a down market. They began attending events at real estate investment clubs. Listening to speakers and meeting mentors and potential partners, they learned the nuts and bolts of property investing and formed long-lasting connections.
"It was everything," said Kimberly Rushing, 29, who runs the couple's real estate investments while her husband is deployed as a Marine captain in Afghanistan. "Neither of us could have done it without the clubs."
With the housing market improving and the prevalence of social media, real estate investment clubs are proliferating. Events, typically held once a month, attract a variety of professionals, including accountants, tax lawyers, real estate agents and a mix of old-time and newbie property investors, flippers and landlords alike.
For a small fee at the door that costs less than a couple of cocktails, the evening includes a social hour, an economics and housing market update, a quick plug from a sponsor or two, the featured speakers, then more networking later.
Many clubs, like those the Rushings have attended, focus on education and networking, rather than pooling members' money for the club to invest.
Other clubs, however, are set up to promote a particular investment program or product. There, prices can run into thousands of dollars, and attendees might be pressured to sign up for other, more expensive courses.
"Is the interest of the club to educate, or is the interest of the club to sell you?" said Joshua Dorkin, who founded the popular investment site BiggerPockets.com and is an outspoken critic of expensive seminars.
"My advice to somebody who's looking to go to a club: Be aware that any event you go to, there's very likely going to be somebody there who might be pitching you," he said. "No. 1 is always leave your wallet at home. There's no easy way to make money in real estate. There's no 'get rich quick.' "
Investors attending recent meetings of such clubs said the events have offered them a chance to learn from experienced speakers, meet lenders or eventual partners and pick up everything from tax tips to referrals for roofers.
"Old-time landlords and newbies need to talk to each other," said Steve Dexter of Laguna Beach, Calif., as he waited for an Orange County investors association meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., to begin one evening in March.
Although experienced investors have money to spend, Dexter said, "Old-timers don't want to go out there and tear up the landscape looking for deals."
Dexter, who buys and rents properties, says the so-called get-rich real estate gurus don't adequately explain how difficult being a landlord can be. He's written books instructing property owners on how to do it better.
Dorkin encourages new investors to seek out local mentors.
"Do what you can to connect with them and befriend them. Volunteer your time and energy to work with them," he said. "I liken it to the old blacksmithing days. You want to be an apprentice to a guy in your neighborhood who you know knows his business."
Some clubs have colorful names or gimmicks. One new club, Lady Landlords of Orange County, also welcomes men. But founder Jasmine Willois said that after a former stint as a stockbroker for a Wall Street "boys club," she wanted to create an organization that would be particularly appealing to women.
Her club is an outgrowth of her Real Lady Landlords of San Diego, a concept she's hoping to take across the country.
"We don't push programs; we push education and networking," Willois said. "We'll show you how to get involved without spending $30,000."
Willois, who said she couldn't afford to start out buying homes in San Diego, invests in properties in Indianapolis, and teaches others how to find investment markets outside their backyards.
"You don't have to fight over deals with these big millionaires to get into this game," she said.
When the real estate market collapsed seven years ago, the Rushings were stuck with a house in Twentynine Palms, Calif., that had cost them $180,000 and was quickly worth less than half that amount.
That bout of bad luck helped them find their investment niche.
"When the market crashed, we realized our house was worth $70,000," Kimberly Rushing said. "But so were all the other ones."
Military rent allowances, however, had remained steady.
The couple saw that if they put 20 percent down on a $70,000 house, their mortgage would be $400 a month. But they could rent the home for $950 a month.
"We thought, 'Hey, instead of having a wedding, why don't we buy an investment house?' " Kimberly Rushing said.
They found one that barely needed work.
"We bought it for $70,000, we wiped it down with Windex and vacuumed it, and we had a tenant in there within a week," she said.
The couple liked doing their own rehabbing, to a point. They still had to find contractors and to learn more about the financial ins and outs of investing.
She accompanied her husband to Real Estate Investors Association meetings and eventually quit her job as a Jenny Craig consultant to run their investment venture full time. When Edward Rushing was deployed to Afghanistan, Kimberly Rushing said, "I just took the reins and learned everything I could.
"The (clubs) aren't just about education. It's about the networking. Not just, 'Here's information; good luck,' " she said.
Rushing credited the clubs with teaching her how to use her IRA to finance real estate investments. Kaaren Hall, founder of the Orange County Real Estate Investors Association, also is president of uDirect IRA Services, a separate business that helps people finance real estate ventures with retirement funds.
Rushing recently gave a presentation to an audience of nearly 80 people attending an investors association meeting in Costa Mesa, detailing how the housing crash sparked her career.
"I look like I'm 12," the petite blonde said later. "People don't tend to take me seriously, which is tough for me. When I'm dealing with contractors, Realtors or agents or a seller even, they're like 'Who's this kid?' "
"I'm showing them that I do know what I'm doing."
Rushing wasn't compensated for speaking that night. But after her appearance, a man approached her for advice on selling properties in Yucca Valley, Calif.
"Maybe he wants to sell them to me, who knows?" she told a reporter. "Those are things you work out down the road."
Some clubs are set up by investors promoting their programs or strategies. That doesn't necessarily mean they lack value, but longtime investors say be aware of the organizer's purpose and ask a lot of questions.
"Every club has its own M.O.," said Bruce Norris, a veteran hard-money lender and real estate investor who speaks at real estate investment clubs and offers seminars of his own. "You'll have clubs known for education and clubs just for pitching."
If it's just the latter, he said, "You should be suspicious and probably head for the hills."
Real estate investment training has been controversial for years.
One of the most high-profile cases involves Donald Trump. In 2013, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit accusing the mogul of misleading thousands of people who paid up to $35,000 each to learn his real investment techniques. The state is seeking more than $40 million in restitution.
Trump said the allegations were cooked up for political reasons. The case is ongoing.
Those looking to learn about investing should watch out for "upsells," said Sean O'Toole, who runs Property Radar, an online company that helps investors find deals.
"One key question potential attendees should ask is whether or not any of the class time will be used to upsell them on other classes," he said. "I was recently told of a three-day class that was less than $1,000, and the content was good, but half the time was used to upsell them to a $10,000-plus class."
The motivations of those forming clubs or teaching at real estate investment seminars aren't always apparent right away, he said.
"Some clubs are for profit. Some clubs are run by people looking for investors. Some are run by people who have money and are looking for people to help them find deals. Most have some sort of agenda – and I'm not saying that is bad, just that people should understand what the agenda is.''
HOW TO VET REAL ESTATE INVESTMENT CLUBS
Before you attend a real estate investment club or seminar, and especially if there's a chance that you could wind up spending a significant amount of money, know what to expect. Some questions to ask:
–Does the meeting draw speakers with a variety of backgrounds, or is it devoted to pitching a particular program?
–What are the credentials of the recent/upcoming speakers?
–How much time is allotted for networking?
–Are there opportunities to ask questions?
–What does it all cost? If there's a tiered system, what do I get at each level?
–Be wary of promotions that claim you can make big money fast; there's no risk; the deal is a sure thing; you can earn a lot by working part time at home; you'll be coached to success every step of the way; or if you don't buy right now, you'll lose out.
SOURCES: BiggerPockets.com; Federal Trade Commission
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