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Rocking The Property Market

Billy Belton has lived a colourful rock-guitarist’s life and invested through many property cycles – which have in turn been kind and cruel – as Sally Lindsay discovers.

By: Sally Lindsay

1 May 2021

Billy Belton is a musician with a long-term interest in property investment, in the Auckland and Taranaki markets.

Retirement hasn’t stopped Billy Belton from pursuing his passion for property. Now in his 70s, the former guitarist in some of Auckland’s top rock bands (circa late 1950s to early 70s) bought his first house for $10,000 in Herne Bay at the age of just 20.

The Auckland musical luminary left the City of Sails in 2017 – his plan toretire on a lifestyle block in Taranaki.
Selling all the commercial properties he had at the time, he was looking forward to the quiet life.

“I wanted to live quietly and only have one house.” But when bank interest rates dropped to historic lows everything changed, he purchased two rentals, which are now managed by a short-termstay rental company.

A Rare Breed

Back in his musical heyday, Belton was a rare breed of rock star: instead of partying his money away, he understood the power of investment. His 1964 house purchase in Herne Bay was followed by investments in Mt Eden and Ellerslie, which he renovated and sold, while chasing the rock star dream.

He always looked after his own financial security through property investment from a young age. At a time when the country was just starting to get to grips with massive generational change that culminated in the “turn on, tune in, drop out” hippie, love-in era that pervaded the world, he was buying houses.

He was a considerate landlord: his mantra from the beginning was to fix the same day, if possible, anything the tenant said was broken.

“I always wanted to keep my tenants and it is something I lived by during my property investment journey.”

Throughout his 20s, Belton worked a day job, and did the rock star thing at night. He played bass with Ray Woolf’s band The Avengers, backed up Howard Morrison, and Ray Columbus.

But by 30 he gave it away.

“I’d made a good living, better than anything else and earned about the same money as musicians do now,” says Belton.

His motivation for working a day job while the other musos would be “lazy” and “lie about” was financial certainty.

“Even though I made more from the band than the day job, I always considered my security.”

Belton made a living working in music stores, then opening Stereo World, which he grew into a modest empire of four stores and taking ownership of each property. His most famous store was the garish blue two-storey building on the corner of Mt Eden and Valley roads, with huge brand signage atop the roof. After years of being there the signage was torn down by Auckland City Council staff in the dead of night. He owned the business for 30 years.

Early Reno Adventures

During his music and business ventures, Belton had kept his property investing alive. He renovated and sold the $10,000 Herne Bay house for $25,000 two years after he bought it, doing the same for the house in Mt Eden (which he bought for $25,000 and sold a year later for $30,000).

He lived in the houses while renovating them, not worrying how long it took him.

“A lot of what was done then as renovations would now be illegal.”

He says that it was hard to find bargains even back then.

“You had to be in the know to get residential bargains. Agents would drive around Herne Bay, where there were few houses for sale, with clients’ signed contracts in the car. The clients would be buying houses sight unseen.”

In the mid-80s he decided to venture into new builds. He bought an old bungalow, pulled it down to build a 1,000m2 house on the site, stopping and starting again when he could afford it. It was a complicated disaster, taking over five years to complete.

“A few of my investor friends and I followed Bob Jones and he said never to build new. He was right. I built that one house and two commercial buildings and lost money on all of them. Always buy existing properties.”.

He eventually sold the new build (at a loss) to Colin Manson, the father of Ted Manson. Ted owns, with his three sons, the family company Mansons TCLM: one of Auckland’s biggest commercial property development companies.

Commercial Success

After years as a residential investor, Belton grew tired of the sector and moved into commercial investing. He felt that there were not the same problems owning commercial property, and targeted retail units in shopping strips all over Auckland.

The best deal Belton ever did was on the second commercial property he bought in partnership with a friend – a small $150,000 building in St Lukes.

“A chap in the CBD’s Shortland Street had a four-storey building he could not get rid of it. We swapped buildings and obtained a $150,000 mortgage on the city building. A few years later we were offered $2 million for the site which was aggregated with others to build a seven- storey property for the Auckland Club, which was sold in 2012 to Barfoot & Thompson for $3.5 million. As luck would have it we were in the right place at the right time.”

One of the worst deals Belton has been involved in was eight properties bought by himself and two partners who each put in $1 million. The properties were in Sydney, College Hill, Ponsonby, High Street, and Newton Road plus apartments under construction in Brisbane.

The tenants’ rents covered the mortgages and outgoings until the 1987 share market crash wiped out their equity overnight. The banks revalued all of the properties and the partners were left with negative equity.

“We were told to repay the mortgages or stump up with more equity, which we couldn’t do,”

so the properties were forfeited and sold at mortgagee auction. Belton lost everything and had to start again. It was about this time his business also floundered.

Depression set it, but after a couple of years and encouraged by his wife, he went to a mortgagee auction and bought a house for $100,000. Two years later it had grown enough in value to allow him to start his property journey again.

During a varied 50 years of buying and selling property, Belton says the one memo he never got was to become a long-term owner.

“There was a period in the 1990s when a friend and I decided we would do up houses. We bought and sold about 10 in Ponsonby and Herne Bay. Most sold for about $300,000. Now they would be worth $2 million plus. The moral of the story is to buy and keep property, even if you have to borrow a substantial amount of money.”

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