“No Money Down!” Too Good to be True?

Can a clever entrepreneur realistically expect to make money in today’s market with no money down? Each year, thousands of people sign up for real estate seminars to learn about wholesaling and similar techniques that promise to make them wealthy with limited demands for time or cash. These programs are sold at seminars and workshops, along with books, CDs, and tapes, along with the opportunity to sign up for “coaching” and “mentoring” programs.

Many people ask me if these programs are legitimate, or if they are “too good to be true.” Sometimes promoted as “wholesaling,” they have been around for years. For the new investor with little or no money to invest, these concepts offer an opportunity to get started, learn a lot, and if you land the right deal, make some money. Here’s how one approach works: you search for a property owner who is highly motivated to sell for substantially less than the market value, make an offer to purchase, and get the seller to sign a legally binding contract. You then sell the contract to an investor – most likely a “rehabber” – and take the profit on the sale. Basically, you make up for your lack of cash with hard work – searching lists, making phone calls, and knocking on doors – to get the deal: a binding contract to purchase the property for substantially less than the market value. In theory, you could earn a fair income in real estate without having to pay a dime of your own money, replace a roof, or install a toilet. Slick marketing brochures and flashy web sites promise to teach you all the tricks, provide all the forms, and for only a few dollars more, be your Coach or Mentor.

Does it work? Like most programs that promise you the chance to make money in real estate, it depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is the integrity and reputation of the program and the people behind it. Other factors include the state of the real estate market, and changes to laws and regulations affecting the investors. Things have changed since the housing collapse in 2008, and wholesaling was being promoted by individuals like Robert Allen and Carelton Sheets. In a rising housing market, bad decisions and sloppy management will often be forgiven or ignored if there is still sufficient profit in the deal. But in a declining market, with tight credit and an overabundant supply of properties with little or negative equity, qualified buyers are scarce – and cautious. This is not to say that you can’t make money wholesaling, but you’ll have to work twice as hard for half the profit. You should be very skeptical of any claims or testimonials made before 2008!

Making the task even more challenging are many laws recently enacted by the California Legislature, mostly in response to reports of fraudulent schemes which were designed to take advantage of homeowners facing foreclosure. Many real estate programs from out-of-state failed to address the new California laws into account, while others merely provided lip service to the new California regulations. Unfortunately for the investor, the consequences for making a mistake could mean heavy fines or even going to jail! It is very common for these programs to recommend that you “get a lawyer on your team” as part of setting up your wholesaling business. Of course, the cost of legal advice is not included in the price charged for the seminar or “coaching” program! Also not included: the cost of legal representation if you decided to guess and guessed wrong!

So, what has changed? For one, the entire housing market. In the typical wholesaling transaction before 2008, a “no money down” deal would involve finding a homeowner with a large amount of equity willing to take less profit in exchange for the convenience of a quick, “as-is” sale. In a rising market, the property value continues to rise, and there is a good probability that the investor or rehabber will recover their purchase price and repair costs and still make a profit. Since the housing crisis struck in 2008, the percentage of sellers being forced to sell because they are underwater, facing foreclosure, unemployed, and unable to refinance or modify their mortgage, has steadily increased. Today, almost half of all home sales on the market are short sales, which not only means a much longer and contentious escrow, but the profit margins no longer exist. As housing prices drop, investors can afford to stand back and wait. For the wholesaler, it most likely means losing the deal altogether! To make it work, the wholesaler must cast a wider net, and inevitably will find themself facing compliance issues under the new regulations.

As a result of many fraudulent scams, California enacted new laws and toughened others intended to protect homeowners facing foreclosure from unscrupulous individuals trying to take advantage of homeowners. For example, a homeowner who had been issued a Notice of Default has a 5-day right of cancellation of a sale, and must be provided a special Notice of this right (CC §1695). The Attorney General requires individuals who offer “foreclosure assistance” to register as a “Foreclosure Consultant” and post a special bond (CC §2495). Violations could result in steep fines and even jail. In addition, the California Department of Real Estate started issuing Cease and Desist orders against unlicensed individuals for activities that were deemed by the DRE to require a real estate license. New and tougher laws, tougher penalties, and stricter enforcement definitely increases the risks and challenges for the wholesaler operating in California.

In addition, to protect homebuyers against unscrupulous “fly by night” rehabbers, the Legislature enacted AB2335, which requires local municipalities to enforce provisions requiring that all work be done by licensed contractors. An exception was allowed for an owner/rehabber, but only if they certified that they were an owner-occupant for 12 months. Further complicating matters, all States were required to enact provisions to implement provisions of the SAFE Act, which seeks to strictly regulate private lending practices by requiring those who originate or arrange loans to take courses, register and report all lending activities. Making the challenge even tougher, new reporting and disclosure requirements effectively make it difficult, if not impossible, for the wholesaler to claim a fee, let alone complete a double-escrow.

In short, these challenges, coupled with the evolving nature of real estate transactions, makes wholesaling a considerably more difficult way to get started in the real estate business. However, this has not appreciably reduced the number of individuals and companies from promoting seminars and sell books and CDs, and offer attractive discounts for “coaching” and “mentoring” programs. Before you write a check or given them your credit card, do your due diligence. Read the reviews. Make sure they are based where you want to invest your time, especially if it’s in California. And check the date – make certain the materials are current and relevant for today’s real estate market! There are a few legitimate and honest programs out there that do a good job of teaching new investors how to get started and survive in this turbulent market, and those who take the time to adjust and adapt to the new regulations will stay ahead of the curve.

The bottom line. Many factors have changed real estate investing. “No money down” deals – if they ever really worked – are complicated and scarce, and probably not the best choice for the new investor just getting started. At the same time, changes in the real estate market have created new opportunities not previously available, so keep your eyes and ears open. Join a reputable REI association; get to know other members, and listen with a critical ear. If a particular investment strikes you as interesting, apply the following tips.

Tips. Rule No. 1 is to do your due diligence. If the claims and promises sound too good to be true, they probably are. Rule No. 2 is to plan ahead, and be patient. In a turbulent market, everything takes longer. Delays can end up costing you money, if not the whole deal. Rule No. 3 is to be realistic. Get the facts from professionals – don’t rely on something your weekend buddy said, or something you got in an e-mail. Double-check and verify the facts. Ask yourself – do you have all of the relevant facts to make an informed decision?