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Meet The Rev-Head Who Runs On Compassion

A self-confessed motorbike fan is leading the way for other investors by helping create a new dialogue around what it is to be a landlord, writes Joanna Mathers. Photography Charlotte Curd.

By: Joanna Mathers

2 December 2023

Tenants are at the heart of Nicki Smith’s property investment journey. In fact, she was awarded the RentSkills Supreme Award at the New Zealand Property Investors’ Federation Conference in Queenstown in October for her great work with tenants.

It goes past making sure maintenance is up to date and Healthy Homes standards are adhered to. Smith is dedicated to creating communities for the vulnerable of New Plymouth and she’s making a tangible difference in the lives of her tenants, many of whom are isolated and living with ill health.

The Bike Bug

West Auckland born, now living in New Plymouth, Smith is a rev-head through and through. Her dad was a racing car driver, and she was brought up beside the tracks, although her own passion for vehicles is confined to two wheels.

She was 25 when her boyfriend at the time took her to Pukekohe to watch motorbike racing. She was learning on a 150cc bike, and he had a 1000cc superbike he let her ride. She was instantly hooked.

“I just loved it,” she says. “I knew I wanted to ride bikes.”

Tragically, her boyfriend died a few weeks later in a motorbike crash. But rather than putting her off, she was determined to start racing as a tribute to him.

“I bought a 400cc bike and started racing in the Formula 3 division,” she says. “I ended up racing at national level and getting sponsors.”

Smith is dedicated to making a difference in the life of her New Plymouth tenants – many of whom live in isolation or experience ill health.

It was this love of bikes that led her to become an “accidental investor” in 2015. She and her partner, Franz, were searching for a space in which to store their vehicles (“we love adventure sports, I had six motorbikes at the time”) when they discovered a large garage on Carrington Road.

A former Sanitarium transfer station, it had been used for grain storage. There was 150m2 of storage space, with a 50m2 flat attached, plus an additional three-bedroom home.

Property investment hadn’t figured in their equation (at the time Smith was working as a supply chain coordinator for Fonterra) but it was within their budget, so they bought the home, with tenants included.

The tenants in the three-bedroom property would later leave (after skipping rent and leaving the house in a mess), but the tenant in the 50m2 stayed and became a friend.

Smith adds Franz is “very handy” and repainted the larger house. “It had purple, yellow, and green walls, so we painted everything Resene Quarter Tea and put in new tenants.”

The property proved to be a tidy earner for the couple. In fact, it convinced them to purchase again. Within three months they settled on a block of 50m2 units, with small lounges and galley kitchens.

Smith provides housing for tenants who might otherwise struggle: single parents, pet owners and older people. She sees it as a socially responsible way to help her own family.

Learning The Craft

The units were tenanted when they bought them, but the couple renovated and replaced them. This process offered Smith the opportunity to hone what would become her strategy: providing homes for those in need.

She enjoyed self-managing and found the new tenants herself. Smith says that joining the Taranaki Property Investors’ Association helped her “learn the craft” of property investing. There were more experienced investors to talk to and speakers that had insights she would otherwise not have gained.

Advertising through Trade Me, Smith found two solo mothers, who were looking for a clean and safe place to live, and offered them tenancies. The final property was tenanted by an elderly lady with health concerns.

“We built a little micro-community,” says Smith. “We put in a new garden at the back of the property; the elderly lady played with the little kids and did baking for everyone. She was having some issues with bad health, and the other tenants kept an eye on her. The place had an amazing feeling.”

Her confidence and skill as an investor developed and, in 2019, she decided it was time to grow the portfolio.

Smith and her partner had been eyeing up the property next door to their Carrington Road homes for a while.

Their section was 807m2 and the section next door was the same size. Next door’s garage was a metre on their property, unconsented, and the combined land parcel presented an opportunity for future development.

They had told the owners to let them know if they were planning to sell and by February 2019 they had a land parcel of over 1600m2.

The new property featured an 80m2, three-bedroom dwelling, built in the 1940s from weatherboard. It was a good, solid home, and Smith realised it would be ideal for a family with a dog. “There is a reserve at the back of the property, with lots of native birds, so we didn’t want cats in there. But it was fenced and great for dogs.”

Smith says there are many wonderful families with dogs who find it hard to get rentals, so when advertising on Trade Me she invited people to write about their pets in the application. It was a lovely way to get to know the families.

The house is now tenanted by a family (with a dog). It’s not cashflow positive, and has not been the best yield wise, but they are happy to be giving a New Plymouth family a home.

While Smith loves self-managing, and the connection she has with her tenants, there have been hard times, including when the tenant who lived in the 50m2 dwelling next to the first home on Carrington Road passed away.

“He was a man who had separated from his wife, with adult kids. He used to do baking for me when we were doing maintenance. You make connections and build relationships with people, and it was a real shock when he died two years ago. He was a mate.”

Tenants with dogs are welcomed by Smith. She invites them to share about their pets in the rental application and says it’s a lovely way to get to know families.

Family Time

Smith and her partner now have an almost four-year-old daughter, and she has spent the past five years raising her, hosting a converted pole barn on Airbnb and studying.

Before starting a family, she considered becoming an accountant and started studying at Massey, but realised this wasn’t for her, so credited her papers to a Bachelor of Business, with a major in property, keeping an accounting minor. “This has taught me a lot about valuation, property management, market principles and finance, it’s really great.”

High interest rates and removal of interest deductibility has changed their portfolio’s cashflow, and Smith decided it was time to increase their portfolio and join the part-time workforce (for more servicibility).

After realising the jobs she applied for didn’t provide the flexibility she needed for her daughter, she decided to start her own property management company, aptly named RPM.

There are also short to medium-term plans to develop the large block of land on Carrington Road, turning it into units suitable for elderly in the area.

She plans to create accessible units with wet rooms for tenants who may have trouble with mobility. “The local council have retiree flats but it’s not easy to get them. There are a lot of retirees who are renters and I have real empathy for them.”

Smith’s “single parents, elderly people, and pet friendly” strategy is an exercise in compassion. She’s leading the way for other investors and helping create a new dialogue around what it is to be a landlord.

“Providing housing for those in need feels like a socially responsible way to help my own family,” she says.

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