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Sweet Success

High school sweethearts without a plan have made some seriously successful moves in the Christchurch property market, writes Joanna Jefferies. Photography by Neil Williams

By: Joanna Jefferies

31 March 2022

When high school sweethearts Renee (31) and Vaughan (29) Tither from Southland moved to Christchurch together to pursue study in 2011, they couldn’t have predicted that less than a decade later they would own eight properties in the residential and commercial sectors.

Neither of them had family involved in property investment, yet while they were flatting in Sockburn, “a real shi##er” came up two doors down and it seemed like a logical move to purchase it.

Especially considering its price tag of just $247,500 – for a three-bedroom house with a two-bedroom sleepout. It was not only their first foray into property, but also into renovation. Vaughan was completing an electrical apprenticeship at the time, and the pair got stuck into renovating before moving in – installing a new kitchen, a new bathroom, curtains and painting throughout.

The entire renovation cost just $12,000 and afterward the pair rented out the other rooms and sleepout to four friends for $100 board per week each.

The income more than covered the mortgage payments and Vaughan was hooked. “I was fixated on property and I was really keen to get into more.”

Less than two years later, in February 2013, Vaughan got his wish. The Christchurch earthquake had provided an opportunity to buy a property with earthquake damage for just $239,750 in Addington with a 9.7% gross yield.

They tenanted it for 18 months before doing some cosmetic earthquake repairs, spending the $30,000 insurance payout and an additional $30,000 on gutting and completely renovating the interior.

The couple got stuck into painting, and Vaughan did all the building and electrical work, while their plumber brother-in-law took care of the plumbing. The project took eight months to complete.

“That was a learning curve for us, because in hindsight we should have paid a builder to do some of the building work to speed things up – but we were young and we thought we could do it all.”

Despite the hard-won lessons, the project really lit a fire for Vaughan, who started reading up seriously on investing, devouring all of Graeme Fowler’s and Matthew Gilligan’s titles on property investment.

Growing The Portfolio

Following the renovation, Vaughan and Renee moved into the Addington house, and rented out their Sockburn property for $680 per week to university students, giving them a whopping 13.6% yield.

But with Vaughan gunning to expand the portfolio, their time at the Addington house was short-lived. Within two months they had purchased a very tidy two-bedroom townhouse in Islington, which was rented out for $380, with a yield of 8%.

Since then, the market has softened and that yield has dropped to 5.5%, despite a cosmetic renovation. But the Tithers’ do-up-and-hold strategy has another purpose: “When you renovate, it doesn’t always get the rent up, but you tend to get nicer tenants,” says Vaughan.

‘When you renovate it doesn’t always get the rent up, but you tend to get nicer tenants’ VAUGHAN TITHER

Meanwhile, they bought again in February 2016 in Burnside. This time it was a standalone three-bedroom 1950s dwelling for just $384,000. They moved in and rented out the Addington house, with the idea that they would renovate it while living there.

However, the market was moving so quickly that only a few months later the property was worth $450,000 and the couple’s focus moved to using the equity to purchase again.

This time, it was a building type they hadn’t yet considered: a two-bedroom unit in Sydenham – one of seven on the property.

“We purchased that for $167,750 and it was really run down in a pretty bad way, so straight away we ripped out the kitchen. We did all the work ourselves, electrical, plumbing and we had a builder help out to do a bathroom and kitchen.”

It cost only $13,000 to do and took around five weeks. It was rented for $285, giving a healthy yield of 8.2%. Since then the market rent for the property has risen to $335, and once the current fixed term tenancy is up, the couple will take advantage of the increase.

Time For A Reward

Once that renovation was completed, they rented out the Burnside property and moved in with friends in Rolleston, who’d just built a brand-new home. It was 2017 and they’d started an electrical business and both felt they needed a break from their intense work and renovation schedule. They put their properties on interest-only, and used the passive income to take a trip to Europe for six weeks, where they saw 14 countries.

Arriving home after their whirlwind tour, they took stock, and decided to move back into the first property they’d purchased in Sockburn. The loan-to-value ratios (LVRs) were tight and their purchasing power was limited, particularly with so many startup costs for the electrical business.

“The LVRs had changed and that made things really tough – we didn’t do anything for a couple of years,”
says Vaughan. But the slow period in their portfolio gave them space for other life goals.

They renovated the Sockburn house and doubled the original footprint. They also welcomed their daughter Briar into the family last year. Another change they made was a move to using property managers – something which they hadn’t done previously. This too, was a learning curve, and there were some teething issues while they adjusted to being more “hands-off”.

Lateral Thinking

Despite not having many significant issues with tenants over the years, they were experiencing an issue with the Sydenham unit. But it wasn’t their own tenant who was causing problems, it was a disruptive tenant next door.

However, rather than hitting the problem head on, the couple used some lateral thinking. Vaughan approached the owner of the property of the offending tenant and offered to purchase it. They agreed to a price of $178,000 – making them owners of units five and six.

A $20,000 renovation was needed to update their latest purchase, but they hadn’t even settled on the property when the owner of unit seven approached them about buying his unit, too.

The pair were thrilled at the proposition, however it meant the renovation would need to be completed in record time, so that it could be revalued to secure finance before completion of the unit seven purchase agreement.

For once, they employed tradies to complete most of the work – and it paid off. “It all fell into place really well! That’s when we first used a mortgage broker, as opposed to dealing with the banks direct. We used James Dean of James Dean Mortgage Solutions, and it was so much easier, we were blown away!”

‘Get stuck in, find something that needs renovating that you can
add potential to and get used to hard work if you really want to do it yourself and make some money!’ RENEE TITHER

Unit six rented out for $350, yielding 9.1% and the purchase of unit seven was completed once unit five was revalued. Unit seven was in a tidier condition than the other two, and rents for $310 – yielding 8.2%.

Units have been a very successful niche strategy for the Tithers and they hope to expand their portfolio to include more of them in the future, says Vaughan.

“They’re really easy to do a renovation on. You can turn them around in five or six weeks for around $20,000 and you can make them look really nice.”

Looking Ahead

They’ve also made a foray into another property sector: commercial. They will complete a purchase of a 115m2 industrial unit in September, which will be rented to the electrical business. They’re not particularly interested in expanding further into the commercial sector, however it made sense to own their own business premises.

So, do the young couple have any other audacious goals for the future? “When we were younger, I had some pretty ambitious goals – 30 properties before I was 30 – but that hasn’t happened!” Vaughan laughs.

Despite not hitting that goal, the couple do aim to own around 10 mortgage-free properties in their mid-forties. They already enjoy a passive income of $30,000 and their current portfolio, worth $2.6 million, has around $900,000 in equity.

But property is really a passion, rather than just a business for Vaughan, and he says he’ll continue with the buy, renovate and hold strategy.

“I really enjoy pulling houses apart and doing renos – that’s kind of the fun side of it for us, too.”
Renee agrees, but says investors looking to start a portfolio should be ready for some hard graft: “Get stuck in, find something that needs renovating that you can add potential to and get used to hard work if you really want to do it yourself and make some money!”


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