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On Persistance and Serendipidy…

Bear with me, this is probably going to be a long entry…

Back when I first decided to get into real estate investing, I read a book by Robert Allen called “The Challenge”. Basically it’s about him taking a group of ordinary people and teaching them how to buy investment property in the period of one month (kind of a “Buy a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” sort of thing)…

Anyhow, in the book, he mentioned the story of “The Blue Vase”. It is about a young man who is given a seemingly simple task, purchase a specific blue vase at a certain store, but in fact, he faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles at every turn; yet he persisted. (You can view a movie of the story here; it’s a little campy and runs about 20-30 minutes, but it gets the point across). The thing is, for me the story “stuck”. It was the one major thing I really got from the book, and I always remembered it.

Flash forward to April of this year.

A friend of a friend had twelve houses going into foreclosure. He bought them in a package from another investor (there were nineteen houses altogether, he managed to get rid of seven). Three of the houses were just too far away for me to be interested, which left nine houses. So I plotted the locations on my map book (yeah, I know there’s a thing called GPS; what can I say, I’m an Analog guy in a Digital world…but I digress…)

Starting from the house furthest away, worked my way back home, looking at each of the houses.

Here is where the serendipity part comes in…

In trying to find the last house I got lost; I turned up the wrong road. I followed it a bit and realized I made a mistake and decided to turn around and head back the way I came. So I found a spot where I could turn my car around – right in front of an abandoned house.

For a real estate investor, an ugly, abandoned house can be a potential goldmine. Something else pretty cool, next to the house was a very large undeveloped lot. I got out and took a look at the house from the street. I could not find a house number so I went to the house next to it and wrote that number down.

I finally found my way to the last house, but all the while, I was thinking about the abandoned house. The other houses I looked at did not fit my investment criteria, but the abandoned house showed promise. So I went home and began my search for the owner.

The really cool thing about the county in which I live is that pretty much all of the records are online, and free to access. I went to the county property tax database and looked up what I thought was the house address. I got a name, Fran (names and addresses changed to protect the innocent). I looked up her name online, found her, and called her. I asked her if she owned the house at 123 Oak Street. She said there is no house at 123 Oak Street, just a vacant undeveloped lot which she owned.

Turns out I was one lot off on the address; the abandoned house was at 124 Oak Street. Something else she admitted to me, even though the property at 124 Oak Street was not in her name, she owned it as well. I asked her if she was interested in selling either the house or the lot and she flatly said no. I gave her my number and told her to please call me if she changed her mind, and she told me she doubted that would happen, that she’s trying to acquire the property around the house…click…

This really got me interested. I looked at the plats (the county maps that show the lots in a particular section of a county) and saw that what I thought was two lots, was really three lots. And in fact, there were three vacant lots behind these three lots! So, looking at the land from street level where I had parked, I saw a vacant lot to the far left (122 Oak), another vacant lot in the middle (123 Oak), and a lot with an abandoned house on the far right (124 Oak). And then, behind these three lots were the three other undeveloped lots.

After digging a little deeper, I saw that not only did she own 123 & 124 Oak, she also owned the lot behind 122 Oak. I then went to look for the owner of 122 Oak, and here is where things got a little strange. The address of the owner was care of the County Tax Assessor…hmmm… The owner was a guy named Hank. I called the county tax assessor and they were a little perplexed about this as well. They put me on to someone else who told me that the taxes on the property were unpaid since 2000. Most likely, Hank was dead. Why the property didn’t go through probate, I don’t know, but there it was. I asked how much was owed in back taxes, she told me: $580! Now I was REALLY interested. I looked up the Social Security Death Index and saw there were two Hanks with the same last name that lived in the same town. Both died a while ago. So I was back to square one.

I decided to look up the deed for the property using Hank’s name and something funny happened. I didn’t see the deed for 122 Oak, but there was a deed for 121 Oak (which had a nice house on it). There were three people on the deed, a woman named Mary (same last name as Hank) a woman named Eve (different last name) and a guy named Hank Jr. (with the same last name). It turns out, Hank’s family owned two plots of land, one that his wife and kids owned, that was later sold, and the vacant lot that Hank Sr. owned. The two Hanks in the Social Security Death Index were Hank Sr. and Hank Jr. So that left Mary and Eve. I assumed that Mary was Hank’s wife, and that Eve was his married daughter (explaining the different last name).

At this point I did another search on the Social Security Death Index for Mary and Eve. I got a hit on Mary – she died in 2005, but no hit on Eve. I tried both her maiden and married names – nothing. This meant she could be alive. So I went through every resource I could to find Eve. I was able to find old addresses and phone numbers, but nothing current. Back to square one again.

I was beginning to lose hope, when I stopped and re-thought the problem.

Mary died pretty recently, maybe the local paper had her obituary. I went online to the AJC (Atlanta Journal Constitution – our newspaper) and looked in their “Stacks” section (this is their Archives). I knew the exact date of death, so I looked a few days after and sure enough I saw a brief entry with just the mention of her name. To get the full entry cost me $3.

I paid, got the full obituary, and saw the words that even today bring tears of joy to my eyes…“survived by daughter Eve” followed by a new last name…(turns out her husband died and she re-married).

I did a lookup of the new name and sure enough, there was an Eve of that name living relatively near to the vacant lot. I called her, introduced myself verified that Hank and Mary were her parents, and asked her if she knew that her father owned a vacant lot. She said no, she didn’t. I then explained to her about the lot and how I found her. I asked her if she would be interested in selling the lot, she said yes.

We closed in late June.

I then called Fran (remember her?) I told her I was the new owner of the vacant lot next to her property, and if she was interested, I would be willing to sell her my land (at a nice profit of course). She told me she was not ready to do anything yet. I gave her my contact info (again) and told her to call me if she’s interested.

I haven’t heard from Fran; I will probably call her this month and see if her situation has changed. I may even offer to buy her lots if she’s wiling to let them go. In any case, I am the proud owner of a .25 acre lot in a nice area of town that I can either develop, or sell, and I got it at a really good price.

The point of this particular tale is this, never give up. Never.

A lot of times, we run into an obstacle – real or imagined – that causes us to quit. I am convinced that there is always at least one solution to every problem we encounter in life. It may not be pretty, it usually is not easy, but it’s there if you are willing to look for it. If you are stuck, stop for a bit, sleep on it. Our minds are amazing at solving problems, if we just take the time to use them.

End of Sermon… :o)


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