I Was a Really Young Real Estate Mogul

Can't afford rent? Buy instead—but carefully

At 22, Cindy Umanzor is already tired of New York City rents. She came from San Francisco four years ago to attend the New School, where she graduated this May. Although her rent in the Bronx and Brooklyn has been relatively skinny, ranging from $550 to the current low of $375, she says, "I'm planning to buy an apartment because I don't like paying rent and it's a waste of money. I want to be paying toward something that's mine."

Young people like Umanzor are jumping into this white-hot housing market with both feet. Between 1995 and 2004, according to the U.S. Census, the percentage of people under age 25 who owned homes leaped 59 percent, while the percentage among those 25 to 29 rose 17 percent. Meanwhile, the overall percentage of home buyers grew just 6 percent. Of course, twentysomethings are still far less likely to own than the general population. In 2004, the national home ownership rate was at an all-time high of 69 percent; for those 25 to 29, it was 40 percent. And New York City is a renter's city: Two-thirds of its residences are rentals.

Still, with interest rates dropping and prices soaring, more young people are saying now's the time to own. That was Al Golzari's thinking. The 30-year-old corporate product manager saved up for a year and a half to make a $19,000 down payment last December on a $140,000 condo in Hackensack, New Jersey. He rents it out, making him a landlord and investor. "I just happen to like real estate, it's a tangible thing. With stocks you're just buying stuff on paper." Now Golzari is looking for a second property to live in; he's trying to stay under $300,000 in the Village, which will probably mean a studio.

Nick Sklavounakis saved up for 15 years to make a $140,000 down payment
photo: Tamara Rosenblum
Nick Sklavounakis saved up for 15 years to make a $140,000 down payment

At 31, Nick Sklavounakis is already a mini-mogul. The Queens native, the son of immigrants who once owned a Greek diner, was a computer prodigy; he started earning money for programming at the age of 13. He saved up for 15 years to make a $140,000 down payment two and a half years ago on a three-story building in Williamsburg. He has four tenants and is almost ready to rent the first floor as commercial space after $75,000 in renovations—which he also saved up for rather than borrowed. "I don't spend money on anything. I don't drink, I don't drive a car, I don't buy clothes—sometimes I look homeless," he says.

Sklavounakis, Golzari, and Umanzor prove that the security of home owning isn't just for heirs. Umanzor's currently interning at MTV and looking for an entry-level job in marketing or promotions. Her mother, a registered nurse, will help her out with the down payment and quite possibly the mortgage until she gets on her feet. She's looking for something under $200,000, probably "far out in Brooklyn or Queens." Golzari has quite a debt portfolio. "I've got student loan payments for my undergrad and MBA, car payments, and credit card debt." He bought the condo without help from family by paring down his lifestyle.

Sklavounakis has a 10-year plan for financial independence; for now, he works a full-time tech job nights and acts as super by day. It's been a steep learning curve. "I've had to deal with just about every city agency. I've had to evict a nonpaying tenant, [handle] a tenant death, change the use of the building, get a new water main, new electric lines."

These young people earn gold stars for saving and buying within their means. Yet "there's plenty of dangers for young people and for low-income people" in this market, says Elaine Toribio, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit Citizens Housing and Planning Council. In the past few years, traditional 10 percent down payments have given way to deals with 5 percent, 3 percent, or even zero down. Some buyers are even turning to "interest-only loans," in which you don't begin to pay off the principal for five to seven years. Get into a deal like that and you're basically renting from the bank.

Meanwhile, with interest rates so low, lending guidelines have been relaxed. Traditionally, buyers could qualify for mortgages if they devoted 28 percent of their income to a monthly payment. Now buyers can spend up to 40 percent, a proportion that qualifies under federal guidelines as a "high" burden for housing. And values can't keep rising forever, meaning investors could get stuck with a bad deal.

Toribio says that while buying early can be a great way for young people to build wealth and put down roots, it's important to keep a reserve on hand for maintenance and emergencies and to estimate future income realistically. In other words, owning is as safe a move as you play it.

 
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