Born to be wise
Good money sense has underpinned Ben Connor’s success as an investor – at 33 he has seven houses and he’s looking to create more value. Joanna Mathers tries to keep up. Photography by Stephanie Creagh
1 May 2023
Redundancy presented Connor with the opportunity to open his boutique architecture business 4C Studio.
Some people are born to save. By the age of 18, Ben Connor had saved $10,000 by serving drinks at tennis tournaments and working in an ice-cream shop.
And it’s this sense of money that underpins Connor’s success as an investor – aged 33 he has seven houses over five properties and he’s looking at ways to create more value in the property he already owns.
Although his family weren’t property investors, from a young age he knew this was the direction he wanted to go in. “I had a friend whose dad was a real estate agent,” he says. “I remember thinking at the time that property seemed like a good idea.”
SAVING AND STUDYING
Connor grew up in Auckland (with a sojourn in Samoa with family) and studied architecture at Unitec. It was here he met his wife, Sekai. Even at university he and his (then) girlfriend saved: “Sekai and I saved $45,000 while we were studying.”
After university he started working at architecture firms; by 2014 he had enough money to buy his first property, a 1000m2 section with a single dwelling in Pukekohe. He knew it had potential.
“It was owner occupied when we bought it, so we had a property manager that found a tenant for it.”
With four bedrooms, the house also had several large living spaces.
“I think we probably should have looked at what we could have done to the property to increase the rent,” he says. “I could see there was potential to maybe convert the house into two dwellings.”
It’s currently renting for $590 a week; a similar property nearby recently sold for $1.35 million.
After waiting a year to build up more equity in their existing property (and appear more appealing to banks) the Connors made their second purchase – a three-bedroom house on a large section in the Whangarei suburb of Onerahi. It was an ideal size for adding an extra dwelling; and at only $316,000 it was a great price.
Then, in 2018, with baby number one due, they discovered a property on a large section that looked ideal for a family home. “My parents had actually sold their place the year before, so we were able to subdivide the section and they bought the back garden and have a house on there,” says Connor.
Connor’s knowledge of the entire design and build process gives him a head start when it comes to his own projects.
Purchased for $857,000, the front house is now valued at around $1 million and the back house recently sold for $1.35 million.
Things were ticking along nicely for the family. Connor had work in architecture firms and was honing his craft and gaining the professional experience needed to be registered as an architect. But, as with so many of us, 2020 and Covid-19 changed the direction of his life.
“The architecture firm that I had been working for made me redundant,” he says. At this stage, no-one anticipated the surge in demand for property that would begin after the 2020 lockdowns, but Connor, with his experience of every aspect of the design and build process, would find himself ideally positioned to make the most of it.
He opened his own business, 4C Studio, in 2020. A boutique architecture studio, Connor works with homeowners and property investors to create new builds and spearhead renovations.
They work from consent to finish which also informs Connor’s own property investments. And he’s used this insider knowledge to add value to the property in Whangarei.
He project-managed and consented the addition of a relocatable home to the back of the section, which took four months. The home was purchased for $95,000 (including transportation) and the full cost of the project (including consent, re-piling and ground work) was in the region of $230,000.
There was another change to the property. By splitting the second lounge in the existing front house, they have been able to create a place with five bedrooms. This has amped up the rent from $485 a week to $650, and the relocatable home now brings in $530 a week. “It’s worked out really well and the property is cash flow positive.”
And they’ve recently added another Whangarei property to the portfolio; also in Onerahi, this has two dwellings, and was purchased this year for $750,000. The properties were already tenanted, and they use a local property manager to oversee the day-to-day running of the two homes.
Connor’s investment philosophy has always been to add value and hold.
Connor’s strategy has always been to purchase places in which he could add value and hold. He says at this point they are looking at ways in which to pump up the value of their existing properties: serviceability is quite tricky right now.
“The property that we just purchased could be subdivided,” he says. “It is going through a surveying process and is with the council.”
The thinking that has underpinned his decisions is whether the property has potential. In his professional capacity he does the same thing; he’s worked with investors and property coaches to pump up the value of their properties.
“I’m always trying to get people better cash flow, even if it’s just adding a vanity or a shower,” he says. “I found that in October last year people stopped doing developments, because of serviceability, so I have been focusing on smaller jobs for people.”
Connor says that unlike (most) other investors he doesn’t focus on the market. “I don’t really think about it too much. When the interest rates get higher, we will be ready.”
And he believes that now is the ideal time to add value. “It’s a good time to renovate while others wait.”