I Almost Forgot This Important Truth About Buying Land

Last week, after years of pondering the issue and several weeks of negotiation, we bought the ten-acre lot that is just south of Paradise Palms (my botanical garden in West Delray Beach).

You could say it was a foolish move. The ten acres we already have for Paradise Palms is quite expensive to maintain. Doubling the size of the place will increase that cost — and for what?

You could answer that ten acres is really too small for a botanical garden that might be open to the public one day. Twenty acres, though — that’s a nice size. It would take visitors two full hours to walk all the paths, and that’s assuming they didn’t linger at the koi pond or the Asian teahouse or any of the other features.

But the new piece of land wasn’t cheap. At $175,000 an acre, it was way too expensive to be commercially viable. I had paid about $140,000 an acre for the original ten acres. And that’s why I felt, during those weeks of negotiating, that the price was too high. Until I remembered one of the most basic rules about buying land: The cost of the raw land is not what matters. It’s the final cost of the developed land… that’s the number that counts.

The first ten acres was essentially a swamp. Landscaping it with thousands of plants and hundreds of palm trees about tripled the cost per acre. But the ten acres I just bought is already a jungle of palm trees. Our work there will be a simple matter of pruning and cutting paths and planting perhaps 100 shade palms. And the cost of that will be de minimus compared to what it cost to develop the first ten.

So although the initial cost of the first piece of land was $35,000 an acre less than the piece we just bought, the developed cost of the new acreage will be much less.

That’s something to think about whenever you buy raw land.

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My No Brainer “System” for Knowing When to Buy a Stock

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- Most of the stocks in my core investment portfolio – my Legacy Portfolio – are dividend-paying stocks. And since I don’t rely on cash from those dividends for current income, my practice is to reinvest it.

The common way this is done is automatically through a dividend reinvestment program (DRIP). That is an order you give to your broker to use the dividends of a stock to buy more of that same stock.

When I designed the Legacy Portfolio (with the help of Tom Dyson and Greg Wilson), I wanted very much to reinvest the dividends, but I was doubtful about DRIPs. My question to them was a simple one:

“In every other investment I’ve ever made, the price I pay for the asset matters. I assume this applies to stocks. If that’s true, why would I use DRIPs, which are designed to buy more of the same stock regardless of the price?

“What if, instead of automatically investing each dividend in the selfsame stock, we accumulated the dividends as they arrived, kept them in cash for a while, and then invested them in just one or maybe two stocks that were currently underpriced?”

Tom and Greg did a fairly extensive analysis of my proposition and came back with the encouraging conclusion that such a practice would increase overall yield. (I don’t remember the differential, but it was significant.)

I mentioned this in a recent videotaped interview that Legacy Publishing group did with Bill Bonner, Doug Casey, and me. And it prompted a viewer to write this to me:

“I’ve read your strategy for buying income-producing real estate. You determine whether the asking price is fair or not with a simple formula: 8 times gross rent. What I want to know is if you have such a simple formula for determining the value of a particular stock, both for making the initial purchase and for re-investing the dividends.”

This is what I told him…

Determining a “fair” price for a dividend stock is a bit more complicated than it is when you are valuing income-producing real estate.

For one thing, stocks are shares in businesses, and businesses are more dynamic than houses and apartment buildings.

They are dynamic and they are organic. How they change is not up to you. Rental properties, on the other hand, are fixed and tangible. Except for an event like a hurricane or fire (which can be insured against), they change only when you do something to them (add a bathroom, paint the walls, etc.).

Which is to say it’s easier to get a reliable estimate of the market value of a rental property. You compare it to similar properties in that location at that time.

That said, there are numerous ways to determine whether a particular stock, a stock sector, or the market is  “well” or “fairly” priced.

As Bill Bonner pointed out in his December 7 Diary, Warren Buffett’s favorite yardstick was to measure the relationship of total market capitalization (the value of all stocks added together) to GDP. Logic dictates that a good ratio would be below 100%, because a stock cannot be worth much more than the GDP of the country that supports it.

Another, more indirect, way to look at it, Bill said, is to compare U.S. household net worth(which includes real estate, bonds, and stocks) to national output.

And yet another calculation looks at the number of hours the typical person would have to work to buy the S&P 500 Index.

What are all these measurements telling us about the U.S. stock market today?

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The Rental Market Today vs. 2007

On April 16, 2007, I wrote this in my journal:  Rents are expected to go up in 2007. This would be the third year in a row. The rise is projected to be 5% this year for a 14% total rise since 2004, a report by Marcus & Millichap said. That compares to a 4% increase in pay. Over the same period, adjusted for inflation. Marcus & Millichap says this situation will make housing more difficult to find, especially in the coastal cities.  They predict the trend will continue for another three years. From 2000 to 2004 landlords couldn’t raise rents, USA Today said, because tenants were leaving to buy houses or condos. To feed that buying frenzy, about 300,000 apartments were converted to condos for sale in the past 3 years. Now, even with 92,000 new rental units this year, the stock is still too little to meet the rising demand. New York City is one of the worst. There rents have increased 7% in the last year. The national median rent will be $943 a month, which is 60% of the median mortgage payment of $1,566. Renters will get a break in Miami, Las Vegas and San Diego, where investors bought up thousands of condos hoping to flip them. Since the market faltered, many of those investors will need to drop rents to help them pay expenses or will be forced to sell them at steep discounts.

That was then.

This is now…

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What I’m Doing With My Money Now and for the Rest of 2018

Consult an expert, if you like experts. Talk to your broker. Read your broker’s “research” recommendations.

But don’t ask me what you should be doing with your money right now.

I have no qualifications as a financial advisor. No certificates. No degrees. I’ve never taken a single class in economics or accounting…

I’ve read a few books – ones that came highly recommended.

And yes, I was an advisor to and publisher of investment advice for nearly 40 years….

Which gave me an inside view on how the business works and a contact list of several dozen of the best-known stock analysts in the world. I know how they work and I’ve seen the results of their work, good and bad.

I keep tabs on the best of them. And incorporate the recommendations of a few. But when it comes to making decisions about what do with my (now my family’s) money, I follow my own rules.

My rules are not for everyone. So you may decide that they are not for you.

But if, like me, you are a timid investor…

If, like me, your fear of losing money is greater than your greed…

And if you are willing to work hard to make sure your active income is always increasing… every week and every month and every year…

Then you may be interested in knowing some of these rules that I follow and what, in particular, I plan to do with my money this year.

I have several dozen rules. Here are 10 of them:

  1. I don’t Invest in anything I don’t fully understand.
  2. If I am determined to break rule number one, I admit to myself that what I’m doing is gambling, not investing. And I proceed fully expecting to lose every penny I put on the line.
  3. I would never put all my savings into stocks or even into a portfolio of stocks and bonds. I have my money allocated in at least a half-dozen asset classes at all times.
  4. I don’t try to get from any asset class (stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities) or subclass (blue chip stocks, growth stocks, etc.) more than 10% to 20% of its natural (historic) rate of return. When someone recommends an investment “sure to” do much better than that, I steer clear.
  5. Before investing in anything, I have a Plan B in place. A proper Plan B is a pre-set (and if possible automatic) protocol that cashes me out of the deal as quickly as possible and with the least amount of damage.
  6. As a rule, I don’t invest in growth stocks. I prefer buying shares of world-class, income producing, Warren Buffett type companies that I feel confident will still be strong in 20+ years. And I do not sell these stocks in market downturns. I often buy more of them in order to “average down” my buy-in price.
  7. I devote the largest portion of my portfolio to income-producing real estate properties and use a trusted partner to manage them.
  8. The next largest slice of my investment pie goes to private businesses – either in stock or debt or convertible debt. When considering such investments, I ask myself how well I understand it and whether I have some control or at least influence on management should they take actions that seem wrong to me. (And I have my Plan B.)
  9. I don’t “invest” in hard assets or currencies because I don’t consider them investments. (They have little or no intrinsic value, do not produce value, and do not earn income.)
  10. I never invest more than a very small portion of my net investible wealth (net worth minus my house and other things I don’t intend to sell) in any single investment. (Long ago, my limit was 5%. Now it’s 1%.)

Now it’s time to tell you what I’m doing with my money this year.

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Rewarding Yourself

When I was first getting into the business of selling educational programs, a famous zero-down real estate guru asked me, “Do you know the thing people who take my courses want most?”

I had a sneaking suspicion I was about to get it wrong, but I gamely answered: “To be successful real estate investors?”

He laughed. “You’ve got a lot to learn, my friend.”

I took the bait. “So what do your customers want?”

“They want to avoid taking action.”

I told him I wasn’t sure I understood. He was kind enough to clarify. “Most of the people who take my courses and who will be buying your programs want to feel like they are on the road to success. But they don’t want that road to end. They like the journey. They fear the destination.”

“And why would that be?” I asked.

“To tell you the truth,” he said. “I don’t know. But I can tell you this. After our real estate students have gotten the knowledge they need to succeed, few of them get out there and get to work. Most of them just buy more programs. If they don’t buy them from us, they will buy them from someone else. So we sell them extra programs.”

“That’s sort of depressing,” I said.

“If you give one of my customers – someone who has completed his real estate education and is fully prepared to start investing profitably – a choice between actually getting to work and buying another course to learn more, he will buy the course.”

“Are they afraid of failing?”

“Could be that,” he said. “Could be they’re afraid of success. As I said, I don’t know.”

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How a $10 Bill Made Me Richer Than All My Friends

Of the hundreds of wealth-building strategies I have tried over the years, the very best one was also the simplest. It is this: make sure you get a little bit richer every day.This thought occurred to me almost thirty years ago. I had recently decided to become rich, and that decision had me reading and thinking about wealth building day and night.

I was bathing my brain in the elixir of clever ideas. It was very stimulating. I had daily fantasies of getting rich in all sorts of fancy ways. But deep down inside, I knew that these complicated strategies were not for me. When it came to making money, I was extremely risk averse. In the race to a multimillion-dollar retirement, I was a tortoise not a hare.

At the time, I had a net worth of zero and an annual salary of $35,000 a year. With three small children and my wife in college, our expenses were gobbling up every nickel of my after-tax income. And so my first wealth-building goal was small: I would get richer by just $10 a day.

I knew that I would eventually raise the ante, but I wondered, “How much money would I acquire in, say, forty years by just putting an extra $10 aside every day in a bank account earning 5% a year?”

I did the numbers and was happy with the answer: almost half-a-million dollars.

My total capital invested would be $149,650. The simple interest would total $156,950, and the compounded interest would amount to $182,061, for a total of $488,661.

Then I wondered, “What would happen if I put away $15 a day?” That came to $719,604.

And then I asked, “What would my retirement fund grow to at 8%?” That came to $1,620,592!

You can imagine my excitement. And so I made this wealth-building commandment number one: get a little bit richer every day.

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Dealing With Debt

A dream:

You are on a beach of golden sand. You have a large bucket, large enough to carry a million dollars’ worth of golden sand. You put a scoop of sand in the bucket. Then another. With each scoop, you feel richer. But then you notice something. The bucket isn’t getting fuller. There is a hole in the bottom, out of which sand is escaping.

You work faster, hoping to fill the bucket by adding more sand quickly. Yet, as fast as you fill it, the sand escapes. Still you move faster, and still the bucket will not fill. In fact, the level of sand in the bucket is getting lower!

This is the problem with trying to get richer through debt. Debt allows you to have things that you can’t afford. But there is a cost to it. And sometimes the cost is very high—so high that, no matter how hard you work, the wealth you hoped to acquire disappears.

At some rudimentary level, we all understand that debt is dangerous. But in our daily lives, many of us view it as a necessity. We buy homes with it. And cars. And boats, and toys, and vacations. Some use debt to buy the basics: clothes, food, and furniture.

Debt is not necessary. It is a luxury. Sometimes debt is useful. Sometimes it is wasteful. But debt is always dangerous.

I had my first serious run-in with debt when I was thirty years old. My wife K and I were renting a condominium in Washington, D.C. Our landlady came to us with an exciting opportunity: We could buy the condo for $60,000 with no money down. For just a hundred dollars a month more than what we were already paying for rent, we would be paying a mortgage. It sounded like a great deal, so we took it.

What we bought was a negatively amortizing mortgage with a three-year term and an 11% interest rate. What that meant was, every three years we were paying $19,800 in debt service and another $3,000 in closing costs.

We didn’t realize what was going on because our monthly payments were only $550. I was too foolish then to ever ask myself, “What is the cost of this debt?”

I tried to find another bank to take me out of this scam but none would. The mortgage we had signed was not backed by the government (Freddie Mac/Fannie May), which meant that no other bank would touch it.

It was like the dream with the leaking sand. Our golden condominium was nothing but fool’s gold.

And we were the fools. I wasn’t able to get us out of that deal until years later when I was wealthy enough to pay off the mortgage. Even after calculating the rental value of living in that condo, the deal cost me more than $30,000, and I had nothing to show for it.

I learned that when banks make it easy to borrow money, it’s not because you are a nice, deserving person. I learned that if you can get a loan despite poor credit (as ours was at the time), there is usually a scam involved. It also taught me to always ask the two critical questions about debt, “How much will it cost?” And, “Can I afford it?”

It was an expensive lesson. But the lesson seemed cheap thirty years later when, in 2005, the real estate market bubbled out of the pot. I sold my speculative properties and got out of the market. I made and saved millions, while my friends who ignored my warnings got killed.

Debt is unnecessary and it is dangerous.

It is unnecessary because there are always less expensive ways of getting what you want. And it is dangerous because it can sometimes be very expensive.

Let me give you two examples.

Let’s say that, like most Americans, you are in the habit of buying things with credit cards. After a while, you notice that you have accumulated $30,000 in total debt. You decide to cut up your cards and repay your debt. You can devote $400 a month to paying it back. How long will it take, and how much will it cost you?

The answer may surprise you. It will take you ten years to pay off the credit card debt. And your total payments will be $47,428. Of that, $13,278 will have been in interest payments.

Or let’s take a $150,000 home on which you take a $120,000 loan with a 6.5% interest rate. The mortgage payments are $914 a month, which you can afford. But how much will that house really cost you? Including interest payments? You will end up paying $329,303 for that house. Almost half of that—$153,050—will have been to interest payments.

The commercial community (bankers and manufacturers) doesn’t want you to be afraid of debt. And neither does the government, as I explain in the box. These institutions want you to like debt. They want you to use it. They want you to go into debt because it is good for them.

When you take out a mortgage to buy a home, or sign a lease on a car, or use credit cards to pay for your lifestyle expenses, the commercial community profits. The manufacturers make money on products you may or may not need. And the banks make money on your debt.

The mainstream financial media rarely talks about the dangers of debt. That’s because they make their profits from the financial institutions and manufacturers whose advertisements support their publications.

And the government actually encourages its citizens to take on debt. This was the recommended strategy for getting us out of the Great Recession that the (second) Bush administration (and the Federal Reserve) advocated and it’s the same scheme that Obama’s people are advocating today.

Debt is like a cancer. It lurks within. It guts your wealth, while you are paying attention to other, seemingly more important things. Then one day, it breaks through and gives you a fever. You call in the doctors and they cut you open, only to have them find the mess that is your financial body. The doctors then sew you up and walk away.

Here’s what you should know about debt:

As a general rule, you should live without it. You should find other, less expensive ways to acquire the things you need.

There are some cases where debt makes sense. I’ll talk about that at the end of this essay. But let’s look at what you should not do.

Unless you are wealthy, don’t lease your car. Buy it. Buy the car you can afford, not the car you believe will make you happy. Any non-appreciating asset (such as a car) will never make you happy if you have to pay its debt service. I didn’t buy my first luxury car until I was a multimillionaire.

Don’t buy anything with a credit card. Keep only one credit card for renting cars. Use a debit card to buy clothes and groceries. If you don’t have enough money in your bank account to use your debit card on a purchase, don’t buy it. If you don’t have enough money in the bank to buy something, it means you can’t afford it.

If you can’t afford the debt on your house, sell it (if you can) and buy something cheaper. In any case, start paying off the principle balance of your house (the amount you owe, not the interest you will owe) as fast as you can. Make it a goal to own your house free and clear as soon as possible.

If you have debt, pay it off as fast as you can, but not before you have filled up your bucket for emergency savings. By emergency savings, I mean money you will need to pay your bills if you lose your job. Six months’ income is what some financial advisors recommend. I’d recommend a year. It may take you that long to replace your lost income.

Pay off your debt even if the interest rate is low. In theory, you should put your extra money elsewhere if you can earn more on it than you are paying in interest. If, for example, you can get 4% in municipal bonds and you have a student loan at 2%, it makes more sense to buy municipals bonds and pay your student loan off slowly. But in reality, the extra 2% you are earning on the spread is not worth the risk in carrying the debt.

When I started earning money, the first thing I did was get rid of that terrible loan on the condominium I told you about earlier. The next thing I did was pay off the mortgage I took on a home. I paid it off in two or three years, even though it was a thirty-year mortgage. I loved the idea of owning my home free and clear. So I put every extra dollar I had toward paying down that mortgage. The bank didn’t like it, but the day I tore up that montage…I felt like I had been emancipated from financial slavery.

If you are troubled by debt, know this: you can get out of it just as I did.

When you are debt free, you can begin to use debt strategically. But to do so, you must always ask two critical questions: How much will it cost? Can I afford it?

Buying cash-flow real estate properties is one such example. Real estate values in many markets today are as low as they’ve been in ten or twenty years. And mortgage rates, at 3%-5% for people with good credit, are very low. This makes sense.

It may also make sense to take on debt to finance a business. But again, you have to be very careful. You must be sure that the return you are getting on your debt is guaranteed to be considerably higher than the cost of the debt.

But I don’t want to leave you with a happy feeling about debt. Debt is unnecessary. And it is dangerous. So get rid of it as fast as you can.

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Obama Versus Romney Who Will Win? And Does It Matter?

Over the past several weeks, readers have expressed their interest in the upcoming presidential election and its impact on America’s future. More particularly, many readers see this election as a contest between freedom and capitalism and some newfangled version of socialism… and they are worried that if Obama wins, they will become a lot poorer.

Well, here’s what I think. As far as your financial future is concerned, it doesn’t matter who is elected. Despite differences in ideology and rhetoric, our next president will take essentially the same path in terms of “saving” the economy.

I’m not saying that there is no difference between the candidates’ economic views. Obama wants to redistribute wealth. Romney wants to diminish social spending. But neither of them will make much long-term headway at realizing their ambitions. What they will succeed at is what both Republicans and Democrats have been doing nonstop since World War II: expanding the federal government by increasing its debt.

I’m not an economist. In analyzing our country’s economic policies, I take a businessman’s perspective. Businesses have many goals, some altruistic and some selfish, but they are all ruled by the logic of the balance sheet. Without a positive balance sheet, no business can last.

The Economy Is Out of Control

Our economy, I’m sure we can agree, is in ruins, and our federal government has unprecedented levels of debt. On top of our outstanding debts, we keep spending more money than we’re taking in. But only a partisan fool would suggest that this is due to Obama. The national balance sheet was already $9.9 trillion in the red when he took office. He has done a good job of pumping that up to $15.9 trillion. But had McCain been elected in 2008 we would be in roughly the same place.

The reason for that is simple. Every modern-day president knows that his only chance of being elected or re-elected depends on the economy. If the electorate believes that the president is “doing a good job” with the economy, it will re-elect him. If it believes he has made things worse, it will elect his opponent, who will be arguing that he can fix it.

But today there is no way to fix the economy.

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A Successful Developer’s Words of Wisdom

The following essay by Steve Sjuggerud illustrates an important truth about entrepreneurship. Contrary to popular belief, successful entrepreneurs (as opposed to those who make money and then go broke) are not usually risk takers. Quite the opposite, they weigh risks and rewards and don’t move forward unless they can comfortably live with the downsides.

By Dr. Steve Sjuggerud

The life story of Bob Mayer is titled Without Risk, There’s No Reward: Tales, trials and truisms from the amazing life of a pioneering southern California developer.

I met Bob last week, while staying at a hotel he built… the fantastic Hyatt at the Huntington Beach Waterfront. It turns out Bob is a subscriber of mine. He’s also a gifted storyteller and a successful entrepreneur.

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