Building a real estate portfolio requires more than just hard work. It’s also needs persistence and having the right people with you. In this episode, Lisa Hylton interviews Ann Belter about scaling a business in real estate. Ann is the owner and manager of Belter and Associates where she leads and works with a team of skilled and committed individuals which includes her husband. She highlights the importance of having key team members on her team to build a portfolio of units and ultimately grow their business. She also notes that when starting out, it is crucial to find an agent who will understand what you want for real estate in order to bring properties that would make solid investments. Tune in to this episode to level up our game in real estate.
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Working Full-Time, Grad Students, And Building A Real Estate Portfolio To 100 Plus Units With Ann Belter
I have with me another amazing guest. Her name is Ann Belter. I met Ann at the Wealth Through Real Estate Conference that took place in Los Angeles that one of my amazing friends, mentor and coach, Monick Halm put on. She is an investor in the Milwaukee Metro area. She left her engineering management role in May of 2018 to focus on her businesses that she started while working full-time. Belter & Associates LLC is her primary business, which owns and manages multifamily properties primarily in the Waukesha County and Smart REI LLC, which manages her private lending business. I am super excited to have you on. Thank you for coming on the show, Ann.
Thank you so much for having me, Lisa. This is great.
It took a while for our schedules to sync up, but it did and I’m excited. Let’s get started. Can you share with my audience your story about how you and your husband got started investing in real estate?
My husband and I met while we were at an engineering school in Milwaukee. Upon graduating, we started working full-time. He had a co-worker recommend that he read the book, Rich Dad Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki. I swear that’s where a lot of real estate investors’ start is with that book. For us, that is where it started. We were leaving to go on vacation and I told my husband, “Go ahead borrow the book. I’ll read it and give you the cliff notes.” I started reading it on vacation. There’s some little graphs and charts in there. Occasionally, he’d be looking over my shoulder looking at it. He eventually ended up reading it while we were on vacation. We were right out of college. We went to an all-inclusive. What do you think we’re doing? We’re on the beach, having some margarita, enjoying the sun because we’re not in Wisconsin. We got to talking like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if in ten years we didn’t have to work for someone else?”
We never thought about it before. We both grew up, get good grades, go to college, get a good job, earn your retirement and all those sorts of things. It got us thinking a little differently. We finished reading the book and had lots of conversations while we’re gone and we came back from that vacation and said, “Is this something we want to do?” We sat down and we had a serious conversation about should we invest in real estate? We know nothing about it. We’re engineers by trade and said, “That’d be cool if we could retire in ten years. What’s the worst thing that could happen if we end up investing in real estate?” We sit down and my husband says, “We could lose money.” I’m like, “No, it’s going to get worse than that.” We’re engineers. We got to think, “What’s the worst that could happen to us?”
It came down to we lost our shirts. We wouldn’t be able to afford the building. We’d have to foreclose on the building, file bankruptcy and we’d lose everything. What’s the worst that’s going to happen if we lost everything? We’d end up renting. We were renting at the moment and driving two pieces of shit cars. I’m like, “We’re right out of college. We’re renting. We’re driving two POS cars and we’re having the time of our lives. I’m like, “That’s not so bad.” We said, “Let’s try it.” From there, we did as much research. Back then, we didn’t know where to start. We didn’t have the BiggerPockets that’s out there nowadays or all the podcasts like you’re hosting. We went to the library. We did research. We bought a ton of books. We kept reading and analyzing properties as they came on the market and went from there.
What was your first acquisition?
Our first acquisition was in 2007 before the market started completely falling apart. We had been looking at properties for a while. For one reason or another, they either didn’t work out or didn’t make sense. We went to look at these two four families that had been on the market for quite some time and weren’t exactly in an area we were interested in, but said, “Let’s go and take a look.” The day we went and toured the properties, the Sheriff’s Office was there dropping off eviction notices for the tenants.A bank's appetite for what it wants in their portfolio and what they want to finance is going to change. Click To Tweet
The property was in foreclosure and it was going to auction in 30 days. We said, “We might be able to make something work here.” We put an offer in and had to get the offer approved with the bank. The owner was okay with our deal. For us to get financing, we couldn’t have vacant units. I hand-delivered notices to the tenants, “Please don’t move out. I don’t want an empty building. We want to work with you. If we can’t come to an agreement, we’ll help you move out the day of the auction.” I don’t know if that was smart or stupid, but it ended up working out. I spent every day for 30 days working with realtors and the bank that owned the property trying to get it approved.
We were working directly with the bank in 2007, this is before they streamlined the foreclosure process and all of that stuff. Every previous offer that was in on the building was still sitting in someone’s inbox. They hadn’t even reviewed them. That’s like the stack high, but they weren’t processing it so I had to get them to agree to it. We ended up going to closing not knowing if we were going to close on the building or not. We were going to find out at the closing table. That’s how close we were down to the wire. The day before it’s going to auction, “Are we going to close on this or not?” We were at the closing table. It was maybe 30 seconds or a minute before we were supposed to close, we got the final call saying everything is approved and was going through.
That was all for your first property?
Yes. I got so wrapped up in, “I want this to go through. This is going to happen. These are the right places.” Once I started the process, I didn’t even think it was like, “What do I get to do to get it to go through?” Sitting at the closing table, my husband is sitting next to me and we weren’t married at the time. We were engaged. He looks at me and he goes, “Are we doing this?” I look over at him and I said, “I spend 30 days making this thing go through for you to say we aren’t doing this.”
Do you still hold this property now?
We do. It’s a funny story because it’s two four-families right next door to each other and they share a driveway. He bought one building and I bought the other building that the owner-occupied because we weren’t married.
Looking from there, what lessons do you feel like you’ve taken from that experience as you’ve continued to grow your portfolio since then?
I’ve taken a lot from that experience. We didn’t know a whole lot getting into real estate so we learned a lot on our first deal. When you’re trying to get financing, there’s going to be banks that say no and there’s going to be banks that say yes. I learned early on that a bank that might say no initially will end up saying yes if they look at the deal a little differently or if you talk to someone else. Continue to push, try and look at other alternatives. That’s a huge thing especially from one deal to the next, bank’s appetite for what they want in their portfolio and what they want to finance is going to change. Don’t rule out a bank or even contractors. Make sure that you keep your doors open and continue to try and push. If you think something makes sense and you want a deal to go through, find a way to make it happen. That was the first deal that we had to push on, but it was not the last.
It sounds like persistence is key in terms of like making sure that you are able to achieve what it is that you want. You’re super clear on what it is that you want and you’re persistent to get it. With the contractors, the persistence and finding good contractors, is that where you’re coming from with that particular point?
Yeah. It’s finding good contractors and keeping good contractors. There’s always going to be little hiccups here and there. It’s how you handle those situations if you’re able to keep a good contractor or not. Working around other people’s schedules and trying to make it happen. It’s taken a while, but we have found some very good contractors now and because we worked with them while we were a smaller company and continue to grow, we’ve been able to give them a lot of business. We work with them and agreed on terms to where I trust their decision. It took a lot of work to get there and find those contractors. I found some that weren’t the best, but over the years, I was able to find some and keep some very good contractors on our list.
Diving into that, I feel like the contractors, the bank and to some extent your real estate agents and that stuff. You do your property management in-house or is it outside? Do you hire property managers to manage your properties?
We do our property management. That’s one of the questions I get asked a lot because I was working full-time and my husband was working full-time. We were in engineering and ended up in engineering management. We are working 40 to 60 hours a week, plus going to school for our Master’s degree and then starting a business. People are like, “Why are you doing this? You want to manage it yourselves, what are you thinking?” We did it for a few reasons. One, we wanted to understand the business starting in real estate. We wanted to make sure that we understood it. We made sense of the numbers and that we were as profitable as possible so that we could continue to grow the business.
We also saw properties that were mismanaged by professional management companies. Over the last several years, I purchased quite a few properties that were mismanaged and saw some of the downsides to being a completely passive investor. I’m not saying there aren’t good property management companies. There aren’t ways that you can do it, but you need to screen a property management company. You still need to be involved enough to understand what they are and aren’t doing on your property. For us, it made sense to manage internally and to this day, we still do that.
Where I was going with that question is the importance of building out a team. Granted there are some aspects that you keep in-house such as the property management, but there are other aspects that you are looking for other team members. You’ve built the process of having other team members such as in the area of contractors and perhaps even agents and the people that you work with to help finance your deals. Where I was going with that is to ask you about the importance of having those kinds of team members in place.
There’s a lot that you can do on your own, but by involving other people who specialize in areas or are experts, you can do things either quicker, more efficiently or you find different deals. The team that we’ve put in place are our real estate agents. We work with a few different bankers, as well as contractors have been critical for us to expand if we continue to do everything. When we started, we did all the painting ourselves. We did all the cleaning, a lot more than what we do now. If we continued to be that involved on a day-to-day basis and do all of it, we wouldn’t be able to have the portfolio and the number of units that we do right now, especially while we were working full-time.Keep in mind that the reason you're doing what you're doing is so that you’ll have the ability to have the freedom to do what you want. Click To Tweet
There is a point where even if you want to be very involved, you do need to outsource and find a team and find contractors, bankers, and people you can rely on. One of the biggest things, when we started out, was finding an agent that was able to understand what we were looking for in real estate and not bring us any multifamily that hit the market or any multifamily that you heard of. He was bringing us properties that if we did the numbers right and we were able to negotiate a bit, we could make the property work versus breaking even. The team is very critical for success especially for people who are working full-time and want to be able to trust and be able to walk away, sleep at night and not work every evening after work. Although I’m not working full-time anymore, I travel a lot right now. I want to be able to trust the people who are here to take care of things when I’m not.
For now, even though the property management is in-house, do you hire people to work in-house with you to execute the property management work?
I hired myself. We don’t have anyone from that aspect. We’ve put a lot of processes and systems in place throughout the years that allowed us to streamline what I do from a property management side to minimize the amount of time I spend.
What would you say are maybe two key processes or systems that you have put in place that have helped your business?
The first is having processes in how you’re going to run your business. If you’re running your applications, if you’re doing your lease signings, how you’re going to handle management and who you’re going to outsource things to have it outlined. Being an engineer by trade, everything’s methodical for me. I think through things in a step-by-step fashion. It was very easy for me and my husband to sit down and say, “Here’s our criteria. Here’s how we’re going to handle these different situations?” We documented it and we don’t vary from it. That takes a lot of the guesswork out of how are we going to handle rent when it’s the third of the month and someone didn’t pay? I don’t question it. I have a system and that’s what I follow.
Putting processes in place has taken a lot of the guesswork out, streamlined how we handle situations. Over the years, we ended up putting all of our stuff in the cloud. My husband and I were both traveling for work. He would travel internationally about a week a month and I would travel within Wisconsin on and off throughout the month. When we were both traveling, we still had to manage our business, not only the property management side, but the maintenance side. It was very hard for us to do if we didn’t have access to all of our documents and who paid rent and when they paid rent. We ended up, putting everything out into the Cloud and finding software that would work with us to allow tenants to pay rent online, maintenance requests to be made online. We would get email notifications and updates.
Over the years, we’ve updated our system to do all electronic applications, electronic lease signings, so it’s all in one location. I can access it anywhere. It allows us the freedom to be wherever we are and still manage our business, which when we started in 2007, we didn’t have the ability to do that. There are a lot more systems and software that allow you to. My best example of this is my husband was traveling for work full-time in India and then Germany. He wasn’t able to fly home to fly with me and the kids to Denmark. I flew with the kids to Denmark and met him at the airport. We were going to be there for about a week and then doing a fourteen-day Transatlantic Cruise. My husband was gone, not at home for an entire month and I was gone for about three weeks. How do you manage your business? How do you make sure your rent is collected? We were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean over the first of the month. I had Wi-Fi on the cruise. I loved the indoor system. Everyone has paid rent except for this person. I shot them an email and got a response back. The next day, we verified. All rents are paid. We’re good to go.
This brings me to my next item. Can you talk a little bit about working full-time, the time when you were working full-time and building a real estate business while also having a family because at that time you also had young children as well?
We started the business before we were married before we had kids. We made a conscious decision when we did get married that we were going to wait until our business was a little bit more stable. We were a little further along in our careers to have children. We did that for a few reasons. While working full-time, I was able to figure out different pockets of time throughout the day where I could handle my real estate business. Over the lunch hour, some people go to the lunchroom and they play cards. Over the lunch hour, I would walk around the building outside if it was nice out or go to a conference room and pace back and forth. That’s when I would screen my applicants or I would return voicemails. Anytime I was in my car driving to a meeting or driving to or from work, I use my Bluetooth in my car and I would catch up on phone calls.
I would try to maximize any free time that I had to run the business instead of what a lot of people do and just enjoy lunch. I would be eating lunch on the go or the phone call while I’m eating my lunch. My husband and I both don’t watch a lot of TV. We never have and focus our free time on our business, dedicated our weekends to family and fun time. A few years ago, when we found out that we were having twins, I have twin six-year-old boys, the first year, I look back and I don’t remember a whole lot of it. I remember all the good times, but I don’t remember how I got through everything.
I didn’t sleep a whole lot. Fortunately, I can function with very little sleep. I will be honest, it was chaos. My husband working full-time, juggling newborn twins at home and running a business. Our business wasn’t as large as it is now. At the time maybe we had like 30, 40 units, but it was easy enough to keep me running back and forth. You keep in mind that the reason you’re doing what you’re doing so that you have the ability down the road to have the freedom and to be able to do what you want. I remember focusing on why we were doing this and what our ultimate goal was. That’s what got me through the tough times. That’s what got me through the sleepless nights, the chaos, how where we are and able to enjoy all that hard work.
What does your portfolio look like these days?
We purchased another building. We’ve got twenty buildings. They’re predominantly 4 and 8 family buildings, a total of 112 units.
All are in the Milwaukee market?
Yeah. We focus in Waukesha County, which is a West of Milwaukee. The reason for that is it’s a nice area. It’s within 40, 45 minutes driving distance from our house. We wanted to be able to drive it to work very easily. Some are closer than others. There’s good appreciation. There’s a lot of longer-term tenants if you get qualified tenants in. Our average tendency is about 7 to 8 years amongst all of our properties. We don’t have high turnover, which also helped us when we were working full-time. I wasn’t turning units every single month on a regular basis. We had a lot of long-term tenants that if there was a bad storm or something happened. Some of our tenants, we’re out there helping cut trees down with us if they fell in the yard. It’s a nice market for us to be in and a lot of our units are condo or townhouse style so we attract the nicer, long-term tenants.The market is always changing. Continuing to educate yourself and understanding the market is important in business. Click To Tweet
Another question on transitioning from working full-time to coming into your business full-time. When did you and your husband know it was time to make the transition?
I say that it’s a tough one because I retired twice and I know that sounds weird. When our kids were younger, they were a little over a year old, I was financially able to leave my full-time job. I left my job saying, “I’m going to run the business, take care of the kids and make the transition.” It felt like it was the right time at the time. I realized very quickly that I was used to a schedule of chaos. It didn’t take that long, but over time I found that I didn’t have enough work to do with just our business and the units that we had. I ended up having serious conversations with my husband that I needed to go back to work. He was very supportive. He wasn’t going to say I had to or I didn’t. He was all for, “You’ve got to do what’s right for you. We’ll figure it out if that’s what you want to do.”
I ended up going back to work full-time. I decided that I would focus on working as long as I could full-time, building our business as much as I could while I was working. Saving up enough or building up enough of a rental income that both my husband and I could retire because instead of me being at home and him working, we could both be at home and we could start traveling more, which was the ultimate goal. I worked for a few more years, continued to grow the business. It was in early 2018, it became very clear that it was the right time to officially retire. The kids were in school and my husband had to leave for India. I was five hours away holding a conference for a multimillion-dollar project I was running.
He left for India before I was home and I needed to make sure that I left and didn’t hit traffic so that I can pick up the kids from school. I was within 5 or 10 minutes of being late. If you’re late, they charge you per minute that you’re late. I was freaking out like the whole drive home, “What if I’m not there for the kids? My husband is on his way to India. What’s going to happen?” That was the defining moment. Now’s a good time to focus on the business and continue to expand the business from there. My husband left his job in March of 2019. We are both focused on our business, our family and making the best of life and enjoying traveling.
Any tips you would give to people as they think about going into business with their spouse? How do you make it work?
That’s a fun one. The first thing is whether it’s a spouse, significant other, serious boyfriend or girlfriend is making sure that you’re on the same page, that you’re in agreement that this is what you want to do. Especially starting out, there’s a lot of time dedicated to educating yourself, looking for properties, analyzing properties. Even after the first purchase, whether you hire a management company or not, there’s still some involvement from the owner’s aspect in regard to understanding in financials and either managing the property manager or managing the building.
If the couple or two individuals, however you want to say it, can’t agree to the time that’s going to be dedicated to that. There’s going to be a power struggle of, “I want to spend time. I want to go on a date night and you want to spend time on this business.” It’s going to be very hard to make it work. Having that conversation and making sure that both individuals are in agreement that “This is something we want to an understanding the reasoning of why,” that’s the first big step. If you can’t get past that, there’s no point in going any further. If you can get past that and you’re in agreement, this is what we want to do. Our next step was defining our roles in our business where we both going to run the business.
Was he going to run it? Was I going to run it? What worked out for us may or may not work out for other people. It depends on people’s strengths and weaknesses although I’m an engineer, I’m more of a people person. My husband is an engineer and he’s not so much a people person. I do the tenant communications, the day-to-day phone calls, the meeting with tenants, showings. He handles the maintenance side. He’s also very handy, which allows him to do a lot of little things around the apartments. Not everyone is in that situation or maybe the female is handier than the guy and the guy is more social. Understanding what your strengths and weaknesses are and if there are areas that neither of you is strong yet, understanding that it’s better to hire that out than fight about it or argue. Having that honest conversation and realization is critical.
I’m going to ask you my last three questions that I asked everyone, which is my level-up questions. The first one is what are you grateful for in your life right now?
I’m grateful for my family. I have an amazing husband who has been so supportive through everything and in-laws and parents. We have some friends who are like family to us that have all been super supportive and understanding. I definitely would not be where I am without all of them.
To what do you attribute your success and continuous growth to?
It’s continued education, whether you’re investing now or in five years, the market is always changing. Not only the rental market from a day-to-day aspect, the processes, and systems, but there are a lot of legal changes and tax changes that impact any business as the economy changes. Continuing to educate me, read books, listen to podcasts, and understand where the market is and where it is heading has been important in our business.
Lastly, what do you wish you had known at the beginning of your real estate journey that you now know?
It’s to take things with a grain of salt and understand that it can always get worse and that’s okay. There’s good and bad in all businesses. You have to understand that if you don’t have the bad, you aren’t trying hard enough. When you have bad things happen, it’s not what’s going to keep you down. It’s what’s going to help motivate you, push you to be persistent, try harder and continue to grow your business. Initially, it was very hard to understand that the bad came with the good because we were pushing so hard. I took it personally. Having to step back and realize that you can’t have one without the other.The bad things are not what's going to keep you down. They’re what's going to help you try harder to continue to grow your business. Click To Tweet
Thank you so much, Ann, for coming on. I appreciate it. If my audience would like to learn more about you, where can they go to find more information?
I’m all over. If you want to hear about my career, I’m on LinkedIn or BiggerPockets under my name, Ann Belter. You want to follow my travels or see even like what apartments we have. I’m on Facebook under Ann Belter or you can find my business on Facebook at Belter Associates. I also have our webpage. If people are interested in seeing our properties, looking at selling a property, I also do some mentorship. You can find me on our website as well at BelterAssociates.com.
Thank you again, Ann, for coming on. I appreciate it. Until next time, thank you.
Thank you so much, Lisa. I enjoyed it.
I hope that everyone was able to get some good nuggets from this particular interview. Some of my insights personally were, she’s talked about very much in the beginning about persistence. That started even from looking at alternatives, looking with banks for financing, continuing to be persistent to even talk to different people at the same bank or other lenders. It’s the same thing for contractors. Being clear about what it is that you want and constantly build good relationships with good contractors. The property management, she spoke about the importance of understanding the business. In their case, they have decided to vertically integrate property management as a part of their business.
For them, they’ve seen that it’s been a way in which they can make it extremely profitable as well as avoiding the pitfalls of mismanagement that a lot of properties fall into. Ultimately, that’s how they have been able to capitalize on getting some of their deals. She also spoke about putting processes and systems in place and how key it is to be able to have those kinds of things in place. That’s what enables them to have such a lean organization and to be able to fulfill and continue to grow their business while staying very lean, which is pretty awesome.
Two engineers, you can’t expect any better. They’re all about the mythology and putting down the systems in place. Her recommendations or comments on working with your partner I thought was so very clear and spot on. To me, this was one of the key insights, which was getting on the same page with your partner, be it your life partner or your business partner, whoever you’re planning on working with. Making sure that you’re on the same page, you understand why you’re going to do this. It’s going to take you learning, reading books, going to courses, getting out there, looking for properties, taking action and that’s going to mean that sometimes you’re not going to have time to do some of the other kinds of stuff that you might want to do in life right now.
You want to make sure that you’re on the same page about why it is that you’re doing this and what it is that you all are trying to achieve. Defining their roles in their business, understanding the strengths and the weaknesses and being able to say, “This is not something that can be done in-house, but this is something that we are going to need to hire for.” It’s super important to utilize all her different time. She spoke about when she was working full-time using her lunch hour to make calls, screen applicants, catch up on voicemails and that they didn’t indulge in a whole lot of TV because they were busy building their businesses and trying to make it work. There are lots of good nuggets here. As you are thinking about leveling up your way into real estate, this is a perfect example of someone who has worked full-time and built a business on the side and given some real actionable points about things that you can put into place to get started to the extent that this is what you want to do. Until next time, keep leveling up.
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About Ann Belter
Ann Belter is an investor in the Milwaukee metro area. She left her Engineering Management role in May of 2018 to focus on her businesses that she started while working full time. Belter and Associates LLC (belterassociates.com) is her primary business that owns and manages multi-family properties primarily in Waukesha County and SMART REI LLC which manages her private lending business.
She initially found interest in starting a real estate business in college when she had trouble getting calls from landlords while she was looking for an apartment. Upon graduating from Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) she read the book Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and got hooked. Since 2007, Belter and Associates LLC has expanded significantly and currently manages 19 properties (a combination of 4 and 8 families) totaling 108 units. In the process of purchasing these properties she has done short sales, bank owned, off market, and MLS purchases using various types of lending. In addition she has created templates to streamline analyzing properties as well as put processes in place to efficiently manage multiple buildings while working full time.
I currently manage my businesses and enjoy time with my family (my husband Steve, and twin 6 year old boys Mason and Carbon). We are very active and love wakeboarding, snow skiing, playing hockey, and my husband and I also golf and scuba dive for fun. We enjoy our freedom and have started to travel lots more and look forward to the years ahead.
I also have a website for our business: http://www.belterassociates.com/
My professional background is on linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/annbelter/
I also have a personal and business facebook page: