Smartly MBA: The Final Say

As some of you may know, I’ve been in the Smartly MBA program for the past 9 months and just graduated at the end of January! I’ve taken numerous online classes over the years, and the Smartly MBA was one of the few that I was able to finish, partly due to the fact that the lessons are bite-sized and I could do them during my lunch break or on the train to the office.

So where do I stand on the Smartly MBA as a whole? I’ve read a range of reviews from people calling Smartly the best thing since sliced bread, to others calling it absolutely useless. Personally, I found it fulfilled everything I hoped it would, with the caveat being that my expectations really weren’t set that high. 

I come from a finance background, so I really wanted to expand upon my limited knowledge in areas like marketing, management, and entrepreneurship, and I honestly wasn’t disappointed. The Smartly MBA starts out at a fairly basic level, requiring that candidates complete a “business foundations” class to get everyone up to speed.  Once you complete the business foundations class you move on to accounting, marketing, finance, and a number of others shown in the graphic below.

The subject matter does increase in difficulty, but there is some variability in the difficulty of each course.  I found the finance and economics classes a little too basic for my taste at least compared to some of the classes I had taken in college, but for the standard student it would give them a good taste of the material.  Some of the other classes went into a fair amount of detail and were actually harder than I anticipated.  In particular, the data module covering statistical techniques ramped up fairly quickly and really forced me to learn the material well.

Even after graduating from the program we are still able to access the classes, which I’ve gone back to reference periodically. I’ve even gone back to look at supply chain management a few times because it was so applicable to everyday life (waiting in lines, optimizing crowd control, etc.)  A recent trip to the DMV gave me more than enough hours to think about putting some of those lessons to work.

As with all things, you’ll get out of the Smartly MBA program what you’re willing to put into it. I went into the program expecting to learn about subjects I wasn’t overly familiar with, and came out of it fairly content with my newfound knowledge. I typically dedicated 3-5 hours a week to studying and completing the modules, and could’ve easily added to that by being more involved in the social component on Slack. Overall, my feeling is similar to where I was halfway through the program. If you’re looking to learn more about general business concepts and become a more well-rounded candidate, then get out there and apply.

Given the program is still relatively new, I figured that I would end with a quick FAQ answering some of the questions that I’ve seen people posting online.  If you’re interested in my earlier reviews check out my first post on the Smartly MBA and my post at the halfway mark!  Good luck out there and happy studying!

Is Smartly legit?
Yes, at least in the sense of providing free classes.  At the time of writing, Smartly still appears to be providing a completely free online learning experience which goes into many of the topics a typical MBA program would cover. They keep the program free by offering a recruiting service where employers pay a fee to hire students and they do charge for an executive MBA program.

Is Smartly a real MBA?
The program is not accredited yet, but according to the online FAQ, they are a licensed, degree-granting institution of higher education. I did receive a diploma in the mail upon completion of the program which was a nice touch, but I’m also unlikely to hang it in my office any time soon. Ultimately Smartly offers a great learning experience which is enough to keep students engaged throughout the 6 months, but it still lacks the prestige of a “real” MBA.

What about networking?
Unlike a typical MBA program, Smartly is completely online, and offers very limited networking opportunities. Smartly does its best to get around this by providing weekly assignments through Slack, where we were able to ask each other questions on the material and work together on basic assignments. I personally found that I slacked pretty hard (sorry) on this part of the program and rarely contributed much, but it was still enough to receive the certificate at the end. Smartly claims that the social learning component makes up 10% of your overall grade, but overall engagement on Slack was average.

Will the Smartly MBA help my resume?
After working in banking for 8 years and reading through tons of resumes during recruiting season, it’s unlikely that I would pick a candidate simply based on their participation in Smartly (or any other online program for that matter.) With that said, it does help candidates stand out by demonstrating a desire to engage in learning beyond their day job, and I can’t imagine any employer would take points off for that. If you can show that in addition to Smartly you’ve also completed programs on Coursera, EDX, etc, then that will certainly help you stand out.

What are my chances of getting in?
Smartly has most classes rated at around a 7% acceptance rate, which seems to go along with marketing the program as exclusive. I would guess that having a big name company on your resume or top university would be enough to get you in. There’s no cost to apply so you really have nothing to lose.


This review is not solicited by Smartly, but feel free to check out their website regardless!


Smartly – Halfway There!

As some of you know, I’ve been pursuing an online “MBA” from an educational startup called Smartly, which provides students with the tools to succeed in business over the course of 6 months or so.  It’s been a great change from my usual day job, and given I’m about halfway through the course it’s definitely time for some feedback.

The Smartly MBA is structured in a way which makes it really easy to learn, and hits the majority of concepts which an actual MBA program would go into as well.  Broader lessons are separated out into 5 minute bite-sized concepts which makes it easy to get through a couple on a coffee break or on your commute to the office.  They’ve made a real effort to keep the learning interactive and fun, so while online classes typically have lectures which you’re required to watch, Smartly has eliminated lectures completely.

The module on Stocks above shows how the syllabus typically progresses through the lessons.  Smartly has made it easy enough for anyone to go from no knowledge of the product material whatsoever to feeling fairly confident in only a few lessons.  As someone with a background in finance, many of the core concepts were relatively easy for me, but regardless it was a great refresher.

The lessons are separated out into the basics (Business Foundations), Accounting, Markets/Economies, Data & Decisions, Leading Organizations, Marketing, Finance, Supply Chain & Operations, and finally Strategy & Innovation.  Everything is online, and Smartly has created a great mobile app as well for iPhone users to get a couple lessons in on the go.  I’ve personally completed the majority of the courses on my phone, and have gotten into the habit of knocking out a few lessons during my commute and at lunch.

The Pros

You really can’t top how it easy it is to get through the Smartly lessons.  I’ve taken a number of Coursera and EDX courses in the past, and my rate of completion is easily in the 10% range.  Smartly does a great job keeping things interesting and fun, and the fact that it’s structured as an “MBA” gives it a sticky factor which other online courses lack. The course creators are definitely marketing this to the millennial generation, and have made a real effort to keep lessons fun and engaging. The app experience is very fluid, and the fact that it’s available on the iPhone really doesn’t give you too many excuses to slack at any point in time.

The Cons

As much as I’ve enjoyed the course so far, there are definitely a few issues.  Firstly, and perhaps this will change at some point, the value of an MBA seems to come mainly from the perception of the school’s brand and the connections you make along the way.  Smartly has a long way to go to receive a similar level of recognition to accredited MBA programs. Secondly, the depth of learning in the material is lacking at times, which may be balanced out by the fact that it does keep students engaged throughout the course.  Finally, the Smartly team provide us with “case studies,” but given many of us are spread out across the globe, coordinating with teams of people you’ve never met (and rarely engaged with) typically ends up falling flat.

The Sum-Up

Overall, if you’re looking for the opportunity to learn more about business concepts and become a more well-rounded candidate, then there’s very little downside to pursuing a Smartly MBA.  Regardless of the fact that it still lacks the recognition of accredited MBA programs, I am quite positive that prospective employers will still value the fact that students are putting the effort into something beyond their day jobs.  Smartly appears to be running the MBA program every 3-6 months, so get out there, apply, and see what happens.  What do you have to lose?

This review is not solicited by Smartly, but feel free to check out their website regardless!

July/August Passive Income Update: Lakes, Birthdays, and Putting Around

Welcome to my monthly passive income update! For those new to the blog – I own 3 properties, an apartment, a townhome, and an apartment building with five 3-bedroom units.  The apartment is now owned completely in cash, while the townhome and 5-plex have mortgages which I’m trying to knock down as quickly as possible!  Now let’s get to the good stuff!


A big apology for the extended hiatus – between traveling back to the US to see family for a couple weeks, applying to business school, and some stressful times at the office, the blog definitely took a back seat.  We are back with another passive income update!

I got to head back to Minnesota to see family for a couple weeks – which meant long days on the lake, heated games of cornhole, and a few off tune sing-alongs around the fire at night.  If only the weather there would stay like that all year round….

Awesome nights on the lake

I flew back to Tokyo just in time for my birthday, which we celebrated at a great steakhouse downtown.  Once in awhile it’s definitely worth the splurge!

Happy Birthday “Jhon”

My birthday present to myself this year was a new Odyssey putter – after the head nearly fell off of the putter I’d been using for the last 10+ years I decided it was time for an upgrade.  I took it out for the first time this past weekend and drained two 20 footers.  I think “The Claw” will be in my bag for many years to come.


Now onto the passive income!

Net Income for July 2017: $878

Including Principal: $3,193

The specifics: 

Apartment: $1,200

Townhome: $1,995

5-Plex: $5,760

Total Revenue: $8,955

Expenses by Property:

Apartment: $518

$30 maintenance, $434 association fees, $54 management fees

Townhome: $871

$387 maintenance, $70 rental license renewal, $335 association fees, $79 management fees

5-Plex: $2,145

$270 repairs for inspection, $347 rental license renewal, $105 electric, $57 gas, $971 water/gas, $395 management

Mortgages (including tax):

Townhome: $1,750

5-Plex: $2,833

Total Expenses: $8,117


After another high water bill in July we decided to give one of our problem renters notice (they’d cost me over $1000 the previous month as well), and unfortunately they were putting quite a strain on the overall building.  Despite being on a month-to-month contract, we gave them 2 months to find new lodgings, and they have since left amicably.  The tenants were renters from when I originally bought the building, and while you can never fully vet prospective tenants on your own, generally issues like this are accompanied by other warning signs.

Now that the tenants have left, I’ve repainted the unit completely and done a fairly decent amount of repairs considering the family was only in the unit for about a year.  Onwards and upwards!

Net Income for August 2017: $2,305

Including Principal: $4,596

The specifics: 

Apartment: $1,200

Townhome: $1,995

5-Plex: $5,760

Total Revenue: $8,955

Expenses by Property:

Apartment: $488

$0 maintenance, $434 association fees, $54 management fees

Townhome: $436

$22 maintenance, $335 association fees, $79 management fees

5-Plex: $1,143

$26 maintenance, $113 electric, $48 gas, $561 water, $395 management

Mortgages (including tax):

Townhome: $1,750

5-Plex: $2,833

Total Expenses: $6,650

Finally back to a low expense month – and once we get a new tenant in the 5-plex we should be back to chugging along just fine.  What I am quickly figuring out owning an entire building is that there is considerable volatility in expenses which I just didn’t encounter when owning the townhome and the apartment.  The 5-plex continues to be a good investment, but it’s certainly taken some time to get used to the cash-flows.

Even with a few tougher months, I’m still hoping to end the year at around $36-40k including principal paydown.  My personal goal is closer to $100k per year, but even at $50k a year I am fairly comfortable covering my current expenses.


To read more about my story and more about the properties, check out my original passive income post or read more about me here!



Buying your first investment property (part three)

For those of you that missed the first installments   – start here and read up on the importance of picking your real estate team and some key rules to follow.  In part two we look into picking the right location and doing all of your due diligence ahead of time. Today we’re going to look at some concrete examples to wrap everything up.

I’ve covered a lot of ground fairly quickly in this series on buying your first investment property, but today we’re going to dig into some actual examples and apply some of the things we’ve learned so far.

Let’s say you’re in the beginning of our home search – you’ve met with your local bank and they’ve told you that with your income and asset level we can afford to buy a home of $300,000.  You’ve done a little bit of research and found a realtor who seems to have a pretty good idea about the rental property market, and he’s offered to take us around town to view a number of different areas.

The first area we go to is in the center of the city, with stylish 1-bedroom loft style apartments selling for just over $300k.  The realtor explains that this is the “prime” area of the city and these apartments will typically rent for anywhere from $2000-2500.  However, he explains that the HOA fees can be anywhere from $500-800 per month, which could bring the net rent down to below $1500 depending on the building.

The second area we decide to check out is slightly outside of the central area of the city, with fewer apartments but more townhomes and even some standalone homes sprinkled in the mix.  Here we go see a duplex selling for $300k, but given the extra space and bedrooms compared to the apartments in the center of the city, the realtor believes that each unit would still rent for around $1600 per month.

The final area we go to looks very different from the first two areas.  It’s in a part of town you generally don’t go to, and is noticeably more run-down than the rest of the city.  The realtor says that the area is considered to be “up-and-coming,” but you’re definitely skeptical.  Here we go to see an older home listed for $300k which has been converted into a triplex with three, 2-bedroom units.  Each unit would likely rent for around $1300 per month, leaving you with about $3900 in total rent per month, but the realtor warns that you will be responsible for all utilities.

You head home and think about which area makes the most sense for you.  The first area was definitely the nicest, but the apartments are a little bit outside of your price range, and you’re a little worried about covering all of your expenses with the high HOA fees.  The second area wasn’t as nice as the first, but you still like the feel of the neighborhood, there’s a nice lake nearby with walking trails, and there’s a relatively new mall with a grocery store and a coffee shop.  The final area was definitely more run-down, but the property you saw would also rent for more than the first two.  You decide to run the numbers and figure out which property looks the best on paper.

Property 1:

-Potential Gross Rent: $2250/month, or $27,000/year (we’ll take the average of the realtor’s estimate)

    -Subtracting Potential Vacancies: ($1,350)/year assuming a 5% vacancy rate

-Operating Income: $25,650/year

From here we’ll have to take out any regular expenses – HOA fees, utilities, insurance, taxes etc.  In this case an apartment typically will have basic cable and water paid for, which will leave the renter with the electricity bill.

-Monthly Overhead: $650 (avg HOA fees) + $300 (taxes**) + $50 (insurance): $1000/month

-Yearly Overhead: $12,000/year

We subtract this value from our Operating Income to leave us with our Net Operating Income (whatever you’re left with after paying all your bills):

-Operating Income: $25,650/year

  –Minus Overhead: $12,000/year

-Net Operating Income: $13,650/year

Here’s where we calculate the “cap rate” we talked so much about in the previous posts.  For those that remember, the cap rate is calculated by dividing net operating income by the purchase price.  So for this example:

-Cap Rate = NOI/Purchase Price = $13,650/$300,000 (we’re assuming we get it slightly under asking) = 4.55%

**Quick note on taxes: For those looking at homes in the US, if the previous owner was living in the home, they were likely qualifying for a homestead tax exemption.  What that means for you as a buyer purchasing the home as an investment property is that your tax bill will be higher than the previous year’s value provided to you in the prospectus.  How much it will go up will vary by market, but it’s definitely worth speaking to your realtor about roughly how much to expect to factor it into your cap rate calculations. 

Now let’s move on to the duplex!

Property 2:

-Potential Gross Rent: $1600/month x 2 = $3,200/month, or $38,400/year

    -Subtracting Potential Vacancies: ($1,920)/year assuming a 5% vacancy rate

-Operating Income: $36,480/year

-Monthly Overhead: $400 (taxes**) + $300 (insurance) + $600 (utilities) + $200 (maintenance) = $1500

-Yearly Overhead: $18,000/year

We subtract this value from our Operating Income to leave us with our Net Operating Income:

-Operating Income: $36,480/year

  –Minus Overhead: $18,000/year

-Net Operating Income: $18,480/year

-Cap Rate = NOI/Purchase Price = $18,480/$300,000 = 6.2%

Property 3:

-Potential Gross Rent: $1300/month x 3 = $3,900/month, or $46.800/year

    -Subtracting Potential Vacancies: ($3,276)/year assuming a 7% vacancy rate (slightly higher given the higher risk neighborhood)

-Operating Income: $43,525/year

-Monthly Overhead: $400 (taxes**) + $400 (insurance) + $800 (utilities) + $400 (maintenance) = $2200

-Yearly Overhead: $26,400/year

We subtract this value from our Operating Income to leave us with our Net Operating Income:

-Operating Income: $43,525year

  –Minus Overhead: $26,400/year

-Net Operating Income: $17,125/year

-Cap Rate = NOI/Purchase Price = $17,125/$300,000 = 5.7%

When we look back at the three properties, doing a quick 1% rule check would suggest that the first property wasn’t an investment candidate even from the beginning.  Property 2 and 3 certainly fell well within the 1% rule, with Property 2 at $3200/$300,000 = 1.1% and Property 3 at $3900/$300,000 = 1.3%.  Typically every city will have properties spread out in this way based on neighborhood, with the “highest quality” neighborhoods generally too overpriced to fulfill the 1% rule, and the worst neighborhoods fulfilling the 1% rule and some.  This is why it’s so important to break down all of the expenses and calculate the cap rate for each property.  As you can see above, Property 1 had a cap rate of roughly 4.5%, Property 2 had a cap rate of 6.2%, and Property 3 had a cap rate of 5.7%.  Had we bought purely based on the 1% rule, we would’ve likely ended up with Property 3, and as some of the eagle-eyed readers may have figured out, if the estimated maintenance and vacancy rates of Property 3 had been equal to that of Property 2, Property 3 would have actually had a cap rate of 6.8%, beating out Property 2 by almost $2,000 per year from a NOI standpoint.

Why then was I so harsh on Property 3? Low-income neighborhoods will typically have higher vacancies, as well as higher maintenance costs, so it’s definitely worth factoring that in from the get-go.  Even if Property 3 had come in at a cap rate of 6.8%, it still comes down to where you are most comfortable buying a home.  Would you be willing to live there someday? If the answer is no, then the home is probably outside of your risk tolerance and you should stick to more established neighborhoods.

Property 2 has a decent cap rate, the neighborhood is comfortable, and given it is a duplex, you could even live on one side while renting out the other to qualify for the tax homestead exclusion.  As “nice” as it would be to buy a great loft apartment in the center of the city, it’s definitely worth going through the numbers and taking the emotion out of the process.

Now that you’ve got the math down – it’s time to get out there and find a home! As long as you follow the basic rules, do your due diligence, and take your time, you’ll be signing the papers for your new investment property before you know it.

If you missed the first two parts in this series on buying your first investment property check out part one and part two here!

June Passive Income Update: Rainy Season, Hiking, and Inspections

Welcome to my monthly passive income update! For those new to the blog – I own 3 properties, an apartment, a townhome, and an apartment building with five 3-bedroom units.  The apartment is now owned completely in cash, while the townhome and 5-plex have mortgages which I’m trying to knock down as quickly as possible!  Now let’s get to the good stuff!


June was another busy month (is it just me or is this year really flying by??) although I definitely made sure to fit some fun activities into the mix.  June is typically rainy season here in Tokyo but we were actually lucky enough to have somewhat decent weather throughout the month. 

Despite the hot weather, I spent my weekends getting some great hikes in and even got to the beach for a quick day trip.  For the most part we had blue skies the entire time and definitely made the best of the “rainy season” this year.

Beautiful little entryway on a hike in Kamakura, about 1.5 hours southwest of Tokyo

The beach was absolutely deserted, and when we asked some of our Japanese friends about it, they claimed that most locals prefer to wait until after “Ocean Day” in mid July before going to the beach.  I guess being a foreigner does have its perks!

Private beach anyone?

My expenses were fairly low for the month, although I did spend $50 on a golf lesson to sharpen up my game before hitting the course with some friends in early July.  My car and rent are typically the brunt of my expenses, but I do a pretty good job at keeping my discretionary spending on the lower end (of course always leaving some room to treat myself!)

Spent a great afternoon out of the office soaking in the sunshine and reading

Now onto the passive income!

Net Income for June 2017: $-90

Including Principal: $2,248

The specifics: 

Apartment: $1,200

Townhome: $1,995

5-Plex: $5,760 (caretaker is getting a $100 rent reduction)

Total Revenue: $8,955

Expenses by Property:

Apartment: $488

$0 maintenance, $434 association fees, $54 management fees

Townhome: $414

$0 maintenance, $335 association fees, $79 management fees

5-Plex: $3,538

$1,474 inspection repairs, $160 electric, $170 gas, $1339 water/gas, $395 management

Mortgages (including tax):

Townhome: $1,750

5-Plex: $2,833

Total Expenses: $6,793

Another fairly frustrating month from a cash flow perspective, but luckily I am diversified enough that my townhome and apartment were able to cover some of the issues in the 5-plex.  I was hit with a tough building inspector who left us with about $1.5k of repairs, but the real issue was a tenant who had failed to inform us of a leaky toilet valve and had broken off a piece in the shower, both of which left me with a water/trash bill of nearly $1400 which is easily $800-1000 too high for the building.  The electric and gas bills were adequately budgeted for prior to purchase of the building, but it’s really been the water bills which have been killing me lately.  We think we’ve solved the problem so hopefully next month will be a different story and we’ll be back in the $600 range.

Given my other two property utility bills are paid for by the renters, I’m realizing how much easier it is to let them deal with these sort of usage issues on their own.  I’m fairly certain that this particular renter would have brought this issue up much quicker had they been paying their own water bill…

Despite it being a rough month – I’m still chugging along as expected, and will likely end the year at around $36-40k including principal paydown.  My personal goal is closer to $100k per year, but even at $50k a year I am fairly comfortable covering my current expenses.  I will be raising the current rent on the 5-plex by about $65 in July which will help as well, but I’m definitely looking forward to having a smoother July (fingers crossed)!


To read more about my story and more about the properties, check out my original passive income post or read more about me here!



Buying your first investment property (part two)

For those of you that missed the first one – start here and read up on the importance of picking your real estate team and some key rules to follow.  Today we’re going to dig into some of the details and get you one step closer towards owning your first investment property!

Location, location, location

Start close to home

This will likely be the biggest chunk of money you’ve ever seen leave your bank account up until now, so it definitely helps to make things as easy as possible.  This won’t necessarily work for everyone, but for many of us it’s easiest to start in an area we know better than anywhere else.  Even before starting your search you should have a pretty good sense of which neighborhoods are “better” than others, and as you apply some of the rules we discussed last week, you’ll start to have a pretty good idea of where you’d like to be.

Know your market

You talk to just about any home owner and they’ll give you a generic “it’s all about location.”  Sure, if you’re looking at buying a place in Manhattan, anywhere on Central Park would be a great area to be in.  Does that mean that you should buy there? No – there are tons of great areas to invest in, but with each area the parameters will change.  I’d separate these into mature, stable, and up-and-coming regions of the city.  We can call these A, B, and C level properties, and with each category you’ll need to have different expectations for how the property will perform.  A-level properties will naturally be the most expensive, and typically will actually have lower rental yields than the other categories.  B-level properties are somewhere in between, with a combination of appreciation potential and better rental yields.  C-level properties tend to have a lot of risk, but they also can have relatively high rental yields which can mean higher cash flow for you.

As you build up your portfolio, you’ll likely own a variety of properties which will provide some diversification across the different classes of properties.  When you’re starting off, however, I tend to think somewhere in the middle is generally a good place to be.  These will be areas with low crime (look through Trulia for crime maps of your city), relatively good schools (Zillow is good for school ratings), but usually they still won’t be considered “prime” real estate (yet).   

Find a catalyst (if possible)

You can also look for regions that may have some sort of catalyst to make the area more attractive going forward.  This can be anything from a new shopping center nearby, improved transit options (new train line), or some sort of investment from the city to beautify the region.  A catalyst isn’t always necessary as primarily we are looking at properties for cash-flow potential as opposed to appreciation potential, but it’s a nice bonus if you can factor it in as well.   Once you have an idea of where this neighborhood might be, it’s time to start narrowing down your options. 

Due diligence time

Last week we talked briefly about the “1% rule,” which as some of you may remember, states that monthly rent is greater than 1% of the purchase price of the home.  It’s an easy way to filter through the huge number of properties available in any neighborhood, and it will generally protect you from making a poor investment.  To even get started on using the 1% rule, you’ll need to have a pretty good idea of what average rents are for the city.  This is where it can really help to have a property manager that knows the area extremely well, as listed rents are not always accurate (although it is still a good idea to do some research on your own.)  As you begin researching average rents, you’ll find that there is often a big jump from 1 to 2 bedroom apartments and a slightly smaller jump from 2 to 3 bedroom apartments.  The takeaway? For similar houses, having more bedrooms is usually better, all else being equal.

Once you’ve found a couple of properties that fulfill the 1% rule, this is the time to really figure out your expenses.  The property sellers will often have a cash flow statement if the property has been used as an investment property in the past, otherwise you may have to default to the expertise of your property manager to figuring out what a ballpark range for utility bills, maintenance, etc will be for the properties that you’ve found.  This is where the “cap rate” comes into play, which is essentially a measure of the cash flow of the property divided by the purchase price.

What that means in practice is – you can compare properties on a more “apples to apples” basis.  One property renting for $1200 a month and costing $100k isn’t necessarily better than a property renting for $1000 a month and costing $100k, especially if the expenses for the first property come in at  $250 more than the second one.  The cap rate enables you to figure out what the actual return will be,  which will make deciding which property to purchase that much easier.   Ultimately the more you find out, the better off you’ll be to make an educated offer later on.

To sum up:

  • Pick a location that’s familiar to you, and find a stable neighborhood with homes that fulfill the 1% rule
  • Try and find a neighborhood with a potential catalyst to improve the value of the home over time
  • More bedrooms come at a premium for rent – but not always at a premium purchase price (homes often sell based on square footage, renters are more concerned about bedrooms)
  • Use a property manager to figure out average rents and expense levels throughout the city
  • The 1% rule is just the starting point – comparing properties by cap rate will give you a more realistic idea of how each property will perform

Join us next week for the third installment of buying your first investment property – if you haven’t read the first one yet give it a read here!



Buying your first investment property (part one)

So you want to get into the real estate game.  Chances are you’ve heard a bit of the good and the bad.  A friend of a friend may have made a fortune flipping houses, or your uncle may have lost thousands of dollars on tenants trashing the property.  Most likely your experience will end up somewhere in between.  That’s not to say you won’t get rich, but like all good things it probably won’t happen overnight.  Now let’s say you’ve taken the first steps – you’ve saved up enough for a down payment, you’re prequalified on a loan from the bank, and you’re about to sit down with a realtor to try and find your dream (investment) home.  Here is where the real fun begins.

Picking your real estate team

You’re about to part with a huge chunk of your savings, so you really want to make sure you’ve got the best team of people backing you up.  Just like Jordan would have had no chance at winning any championships without a great Bulls lineup behind him, you too will have very little chance of succeeding without the right team supporting you through every step of the way.  While most people will find a realtor through family and friends, investment properties are in a completely different ballgame from your standard homes.  Take some time to speak to a couple different realtors and ask them questions regarding their experience in the investment arena, and as you go into more detail on things like average rental yield, cap rate, vacancies, etc (don’t worry we’ll go into more detail on these terms in a future post), you’ll get a sense of how qualified they really are to help you.

Once you’ve found someone qualified who you get along with (that’s important too!), you’ll want to find a property manager to help price up all of the extra expenses you’ll be faced with upon buying the property.  Depending on the terms of the rental, you (the landlord) will likely end up paying for electricity, gas, water, insurance, maintenance, and taxes, all of which can add up.  The property manager will also give you a general idea of rental rates in the area, and I often find they have a better sense of the market than the realtors.  My one rule: make sure they are available to you 24/7 – it’s not worth having a property manager who responds to emails in 2-3 days and isn’t on their cell.

Get a good property manager so you can hang here instead of worrying about issues yourself!

Rules to follow

Now that you’ve got your dream team lined up, you’ll want to make sure you follow some rules of the trade.  This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but following just a few of these rules will likely keep you from getting in too deep on a bad investment.  Not every market in the US will have deals which fit all of these criteria, but if you’re looking for steady cash flow over the long term, this is a good place to start.

  • The “1% Rule” – monthly rent should be greater than or equal to 1% of the purchase price
    • This is the quickest way to “eyeball” properties in terms of “investability” – especially for single family homes.  It’s worth keeping in mind that apartments and townhomes will often have association fees, which can make that 1% rule disintegrate quite quickly.  Regardless – have an idea of the average rent for 1, 2, 3 bedroom properties, and you’ll be able to much more quickly screen through homes.
  • Shoot for a cap rate (net operating income divided by purchase price) of 5-6% or greater
    • Assuming home prices keep up with average inflation of 3%, that would imply an 8-9% increase in your home value per year, right on par with the stock market (before leverage).  Focusing on long term cash flow will likely keep you out of the hype of certain areas, and ultimately should limit any potential downside.
  • Stick with higher quality areas first, especially areas with some sort of catalyst
    • Your realtor/property management team can help with this, but anything else you can find out on your own in terms of potential catalysts will help you get ahead of the pack
  • Do your due diligence ahead of time
    • The absolute worst thing that can happen to a new homeowner is getting hit with an issue that they didn’t anticipate.  This can come in the form of lower than expected rent, higher utility bills, taxes, etc.  While you’ll never be able to know completely ahead of time, making a reasonable estimate of every possible expense will significantly protect you for the long haul.
  • Take your time – there will be other deals
    • Once you’ve committed a good amount of time and effort to the process it’s hard to walk away from THE deal once you’ve found it.  Make sure you give yourself an upper limit on price and stick to it.  If you get outbid then having the ability to walk away is a show of strength, and it will keep you in the game for other deals to come.

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics – look out for part two of buying your first investment property next week!

The Smartly MBA

I’ve worked in the banking industry for the past 7 years, and while I still believe it’s one of the quickest way to make decent money in your 20’s, I also don’t think it’s a very sustainable career for most people.  The long hours, the stress, and unfortunately the greed tend to take a toll on workers after awhile.  I’ve been considering transitioning out of the industry for quite some time into something more fulfilling, but for the time being I wanted to have the benefit of a stable job while still expanding on my skill set.

I must have been looking up MBA programs online, because I came across an ad (on Instagram of all places) for a free MBA program called Smartly.  Obviously I was a little skeptical at first, but I did some research and discovered that the program is legitimate and completely free, with the company funding the program by placing applicants upon graduation and collecting a recruitment fee.  All of the learning is done online, and while I’ve done courses on Coursera and EDX before, I liked the learning style of the courses in Smartly and ultimately it seemed like something I would be able to stick with longer.

I applied to the program and was lucky enough to be accepted a couple of weeks ago! Considering they claim to only accept 7% of applicants, I’m definitely excited to be a part of the class and think it’ll be a great way to expand beyond what I’ve learned in banking.

Given the company is still extremely new to the education scene (I believe I’m in the 2nd or 3rd class of MBA students) it still doesn’t come anywhere close to getting an MBA from a top school.  However – as more and more people pursue alternative learning options, it’s not crazy to think that someday online degrees will be the norm and will no longer be considered inferior.  Smartly claims that their students performed better than students from HBS, Stanford, and Wharton in an independent academic study testing accounting skills, so the online vs traditional battle already appears to have begun.

I’ll be writing updates on the course semi-regularly to provide as unbiased of a review of the program as possible, but ultimately I’m just excited to be doing something separate from my usual day job.  Who knows – it may even guide me towards my next adventure!

This review is not solicited by Smartly, but feel free to check out their website regardless!


April/May Update: Concerts, Beaches and Graffiti

Welcome to my monthly passive income update! For those new to the blog – I own 3 properties, an apartment, a townhome, and an apartment building with five 3-bedroom units.  The apartment is now owned completely in cash, while the townhome and 5-plex have mortgages which I’m trying to knock down as quickly as possible!  Now let’s get to the good stuff!


It’s been a whirlwind couple of months which is why I’m including my passive income for both April and May together in one post.  While it was definitely busy with work – I had some pretty awesome times as well.

April finally saw the cold weather break, which meant some beautiful days outside exploring the city.  While Tokyo is usually pretty temperate throughout the year, the cold weather definitely gets old and I always welcome the warm spring days.

We also got the opportunity to see Coldplay live! This was one of my bigger expenses for the month at nearly $150 for a ticket, but considering I’d never been to a big concert and have been a huge fan of their music since high school, I decided to splurge a little and go for it.  The concert was amazing and was well worth the money in the end.

May ended up being an even more amazing month, because I was able to book a last minute trip to Hawaii at a great price.  My old colleague had offered up his house in Hawaii to me if I ever wanted a break from the real world, and finally decided to take him up on it.  His house was attached to a great resort on the Big Island, and thanks to his generosity the whole trip ended up being an absolute steal (even after buying him a great bottle of wine as a thank you!)

Our days were basically spent hanging out by the pool, walking along the beach, hiking, and hitting the gym most days.  It was a pretty big adjustment coming back to the real world to say the least…

I definitely could’ve gotten used to these sunsets every night

Pololu Valley hike – absolutely breathtaking views

After all of that it’s time to dig into the good stuff!

April was a relatively easy month with not a whole lot to write about…with May being about as big of a headache as any homeowner ever would like to deal with.

Net Income for April 2017: $2,262

Including Principal: $4,380

The specifics: 

Apartment: $1,200

Townhome: $1,995

5-Plex: $5,860

Total Revenue: $9,055

Expenses by Property:

Apartment: $488

$0 maintenance, $434 association fees, $54 management fees

Townhome: $414

$0 maintenance, $335 association fees, $79 management fees

5-Plex: $1,308

$0 maintenance, $239 electric, $674 water, $395 management

Mortgages (including tax):

Townhome: $1,750

5-Plex: $2,833

Total Expenses: $6,793

Now onto May….

My 5-Plex got hit with two or three pretty painful issues in May – first off we got a letter from the city stating that we were being fined for graffiti on our fence.  Obviously living in Tokyo I’m nowhere near being able to check on these things, and my property manager is generally at the property at least once a week.  He hadn’t noticed the graffiti, but it turned out it was on the side of the fence facing another property, and given the fence is mine, I got hit with a $275 fee to scrape it off of the fence.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the gas bills has been sent to the old owners for the past 5 months, and luckily the gas company was able to track us down, unluckily that was a $2200 expense.  And finally the nail in the coffin was a city inspection which left us with a few small issues to fix.  All in all I’m hoping there aren’t many more months like this, but as any real estate investor will tell you, if you can’t take the bad months then you’re not cut out for it at all.

Net Income for May 2017: $60

Including Principal: $2,200

The specifics: 

Apartment: $1,200

Townhome: $1,995

5-Plex: $5,860 + $291 (laundry room)

Total Revenue: $9,346

Expenses by Property:

Apartment: $488

$0 maintenance, $434 association fees, $54 management fees

Townhome: $414

$0 maintenance, $335 association fees, $79 management fees

5-Plex: $3,801

$275 graffiti wall repair, $200 general maintenance, $208 electric, $886 water, $2,232 gas

Mortgages (including tax):

Townhome: $1,750

5-Plex: $2,833

Total Expenses: $9,286

To read more about my story and more about the properties, check out my original passive income post or read more about me here!





Becoming a better man

Many of us in the personal finance community like to focus on money. Our goals revolve around saving more, spending less, and investing better so that we can build up our nest egg over time.  While financial independence is certainly a laudable goal (and a goal of my own), it is equally important to pursue improvement in all areas of our lives.

If I had any advice to give my 18 year old self, it would be to always strive to be the best man I could be.  That can mean different things to different people, but in my mind it requires us to focus on four different facets of ourselves: mind, body, soul, and money.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.’  — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love[


As Robert Heinlein tells us in his sci-fi work, Time Enough for Love, humans have the ability to do all sorts of things.  And yet, so few of us actually take advantage of our abilities, and as a result we’re forced to rely on others for tasks we could quite easily do on our own.

The internet has provided us with numerous resources to help us improve our lives, from learning basic accounting to reflooring our home.  With so much useful information at our fingertips, I like to spend some time every week learning something new.  Whether I’m taking a course online (Coursera and EDX are great) or just reading a good book, there’s something really fulfilling about continuing the learning process beyond school.  I personally like to mix things up, and lately I’ve been reading everything from books on meditation, psychology, and even good old spy novels every once in awhile. And don’t worry, I guarantee you’ll still have plenty of time to watch your favorite shows on Netflix.

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park.  Enjoy the ride.’ – Anthony Bourdain


There was a guy on my trading desk who ate nothing but chicken breast, salad, and oatmeal every day for the 3.5 years we worked together.  He spent hours in the gym, and was easily at 6% body fat.  Whenever anyone would ask how he could eat such a bland diet, his response was always the same – “my body is a temple.”

I’ve included the quote from Anthony Bourdain above because people are generally in one of the extremes.  There’s always one person in the dining hall in college with a plate full of fried food, pizza, and finishes it all off with ice cream. And then you get the person who eats nothing but salad who is always on a diet.

I’d like to think we can be somewhere in between.  We only get one shot at this life, and unless you’ve got some sort of time machine, you’re likely stuck with the body you’ve got.  Just being cognisant of what you’re eating and generally sticking to healthy meals means that you can still eat burgers and pizza and all sorts of fried goodies from time to time.

Once you’re eating relatively well, spending a few hours a week being active doing something you love will be the difference between going up a pants size every year and staying lean and mean.  The way I see it – age is just a number, and we can easily stay fit well into our later years.  I have a feeling your significant other will appreciate it as well!

“Don’t gain the world and lose your soul, wisdom is better than silver or gold.’ – Bob Marley


A few years back, I was working fairly long hours, tired of my job, and overall just feeling burnt out.  My days consisted of waking up at 5am, taking an hour train ride to the office, working until 630pm, an hour train ride back, and basically leaving me just enough time to eat and head to bed.  Work was such a huge part of my life that I forgot to really take care of myself.  After a few months I was feeling so burnt out that I knew I had to make a change.  I needed the job to pay off my student loans, but I made sure to include time for myself every day.

Call it what you will – reflection, meditation, whatever – but giving myself a time every day away from the distractions of “real life” was just what I needed to cope with the tough work schedule.  For me my soul food came in the form of playing acoustic guitar.  I realized that while I was playing guitar the problems of the day seemed to disappear (probably helped by the fact that I wasn’t very good initially and really had to concentrate).

Your soul food may be something different.  Spending time with friends and family, music, watching the sunset, yoga/meditation – all great ways to get yourself out of the monotony of “real life” and back to feeling like there’s more out there.


Finally that leaves us with the one we’ve all been waiting for – money! We all know money is important – we need it to survive, we want more of it to live better, and yet many of us feel like we’re on a human-sized hamster wheel just trying to keep up.  We like to write a lot about money here, but it really isn’t that hard, and it just comes down to a few key principles.

Spend less.  Work hard.  Make your money work for you.

And that’s it! The more balanced you can be across all facets of your life, the easier it’ll be overall.  This is The Millennial Plan, so focus on whatever works for you, come up with a plan, and I guarantee you’ll be happier, healthier, and richer before you know it!