Passion For Property
Monica Chen’s working life has been property in its many facets, as Sally Lindsay finds out.
1 April 2021
It was a desire to find an income and financial freedom outside her nine to five accounting job that led Monica Chen to sign on for a privately-run property course. It was one of the earliest seminars encouraging and teaching the technical side of buying property to build a portfolio for passive income.
Since those early first steps andbuying her first house a year later, Chen’s career path has been all things property. She is steeped in the residential sector as a buyer, investor and property manager. “It is all I know,” she says.
She arrived in Auckland in 2004 after studying accounting and commercial law at Wellington’s Victoria University for the previous four years as an overseas student from Shanghai, China. After obtaining a job she gained residency and was determined a day job would not be her only way to wealth.
When her parents visited a year later, and she told them she was looking at property as a way to earn extra money they lent her $100,000 to buy a fourbedroom Mt Albert house for $325,000. She promptly rented three of the bedrooms to help pay the mortgage.
“I was able to get a property as it is the Asian way for parents to help their children wherever they can.”
While not in the best part of Mt Albert, Chen sold the house in 2009/2010 in the mid-$400,000 range to the Government for the Waterview Tunnel project.
Before selling, she refinanced the property and bought a cheap onebedroom apartment in the Ponsonby/ Grey Lynn area for $168,000.
“The bank was happy to lend on it.”
Despite this, the apartment in a 64- unit block, came up against the leaky buildings debacle. Chen had to find $110,000 as her share of the property’s recladding and renovation, some of it financed through the bank and the rest from her savings.
“It was a stressful time and although the block had an ‘amazing’ committee, which attempted to sue Auckland Council for signing off the Code of Compliance when it should have known of the problems, it had outsourced the job to a third party which had since been bankrupted.”
Eventually the committee managed to get $20,000 per unit in compensation – little consolation to Chen and the other apartment owners after eight years of wrangling. During the recladding, Chen
says the entire aesthetic of the building and apartments was upgraded.
“By the time it was finished I had a brand new apartment – apart from the kitchen and bathroom – and a sales appraisal of $550,000. “It was fantastic.”
Chen’s life then took a twist in 2007 off the back of a six month stint flipping houses with a girlfriend. They both quit their jobs without a plan.
“We wereyoung and stupid, and I would never advise anybody to do this,”
she says. The pair bought and sold Avondale houses and got access to more capital before settlement to buy further properties.
“We upset some sellers doing this. We did renovate the properties, though. They weren’t bought and sold without any investment.”
They targeted houses on full sites in the $300,000 range. On average $10,000 was spent on renovations and the houses were sold for between $370,000-390,000. Five properties were flipped in six months.
When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, they felt its full force. While properties were not dropping in value there was no activity in the market and people were not selling.
“A lot of good deals were to be had, but finance was a problem, and I didn’t have an income. Banks closed the door. Mortgage rates were 9% and it was a terrible time not to have a job.”
Adversity did not stop Chen buying an Avondale house and income on a 1,000m2 section for $680,000 in a
partnership in 2009. When the property was subdivided into two titles with three tenancies, it was returning a cashflow positive $1,600-$1,700 in rent a week.
It wasn’t without its issues. Chen was managing the property. Describing herself as a terrible and inexperienced manager then, she didn’t vet the tenants, didn’t check rents, and didn’t get landlord insurance. The property was “trashed”, and the rubbish removal alone cost $2,000. She recently sold her share in the property to her business partner and transacted on a $2 million value.
A year later she bought a New Lynn property for $325,000 and rented it for $500 a week. “I sold it a year later in the high $300,000 range as it was not a good investment.”
After the GFC shock sunk in and she wasn’t earning, Chen turned to her commerce nous and set up an e-commerce business. It turned out to be a failure. Her next avenue to turn a dollar was property management as a 50% equity partner in a new business.
“It also failed miserably.”
Picking herself up, Chen then took on a six-month role managing a portfolio of 40 properties, covering letting, collecting rents, dealing with rent arrears, reconciliations and maintenance.
Although property management wasnot an established career then, she was approached after her six month contract, to set up a rentals’ department for a real estate sales business. She became a part owner of the business.
“I count this part of my life as unusual and essentially I hibernated from property investment from 2008 until 2012.”
Once she took a dive back in, Chen bought a family house in Blockhouse Bay for $690,000. She married in 2012, had her first child a year later and decided she needed a “huge” family home.
From that point on Chen became a passive investor acquiring and keeping properties she had lived in.
Two years later she bought another four-bedroom, two level, family home in West Harbour for $895,000 and tenanted the Blockhouse Bay property.
“Until three months ago West Harbour was totally under-valued, much of that due to the proliferation of plaster clad houses.”
Chen says a conservative value on her West Harbour house would be $1.35 million, but in recent weeks a number of homes in the area have been valued at $1.6 million.
Still bent on creating her own income and passive investments, Chen started her own property business, Uno Property Management, in 2016 after settling her share of the business with the previous company.
Still keeping her eye out for suitable investment properties, Chen bought a home and income in Beach Haven on Auckland’s North Shore for $970,000 and it is rented at $1,100 a week. Sticking to her strategy of investing and holding property, the 300m2 property is now valued at $1.35 million.
As her new business manages properties in the Mt Eden and Newmarket areas, Chen moved from her “flash” house in West Harbour to a Remuera townhouse she bought for $1.75 million during the second and third coronavirus lockdowns.
The timing was right. Since then, prices have gone “ballistic”. In the past three months the price of Chen’s townhouse has accelerated to $2.25-2.3 million and maybe even closer to $2.5 million.
Chen keeps a keen eye on property prices across Auckland and the country as part of her property management job.
“Once suburbs, such as Massey in West Auckland, would be looked at with scepticism as a place to invest. It now has $1 million-plus homes. I don’t know how anybody can justify those prices.”
However, to diversify her portfolio, Chen’s latest investment has been a three-bedroom Massey property bought for $1.1 million in February. It will eventually be subdivided to create three lots.
When she first started investing, Chen bought purely for cashflow as she didn’t have an income. She admits she still doesn’t have a set strategy. What she invests in depends on her stage of life and from 2012 her plan has been retaining the houses she has lived in.
“What I need now is to master the art of financing deals quickly and looking for properties I can add value to, by either renovation or creating another title. I am hungry for information and learn from whoever I can.”
She continues to invest in property as it is one of the strongest ways to create wealth.
“Property is one of the most stable, low risk asset classes to invest in. My [philosophy] is seeing it as a
business, whereas many people see it as just shelter.”
Chen's 7 Tips For Property Investment
1 Have a plan and work backwards.
2 Have a strategy to support the plan.
3 Add value that adds equity.
4 Focus on one area and become an expert.
5 Assemble a professional team.
6 Learn and educate yourself.
7 Be patient but act fast when you find an opportunity.
Chen believes property is one of the most stable, low-risk asset classes.