So you are thinking about buying a duplex?

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Why buy a duplex?

2001 Gordon Reeder

I've been asked the question "Who should consider buying a duplex?" The answer to that question is: Everyone. More to the point, we should ask the question: Why should you buy a duplex? There are a number of situations where you would want to consider this.

Let's look at each of these situations.

A first time home buyer
Many couples buy too much house for their first home. Many of them remember their parent's house and think that they need to buy a similar sized house. In fact, they can get by with something much smaller. The smaller payments that go with a smaller house will free up much needed cash for furnishings, a car, etc. But, does a duplex make sense as a first home? Yes it does.

A single parent
As a single parent with one or two children, you will find that a duplex is just the right size for you and your children. Make sure that you buy one with a large yard. All the reasons I gave for a first time home buyer also apply. Furthermore, by properly choosing your tenant, you can have the peace of mind of knowing that someone is watching your children after school.

A professional contractor or temp worker
By professional contractor I'm talking about someone who works in the high tech industry or other skilled profession as a temporary worker. Most contractors move from city to city as they go from one job to the next. Since they don't live in one place for very long they can't justify buying a house as a private residence. The sales commission from selling their house every year would be too expensive. So they tend to be renters. Furthermore, while their income can be quite good while working, they can endure months of zero income while between contracts. This was my situation. Buying a duplex provides several distinct advantages:

The lifestyle of a professional contractor is perfect for building a portfolio of duplexes.
  1. When you move to a new town rent a small apartment on a six month lease.
  2. Immediatly begin sizing up the duplex market.
  3. By the third month you should be able to find a duplex you want to buy. Find a nice one, but don't be too picky. You won't be living in it too long.
  4. Because you will live in your duplex you can apply for financing at the homeowners terms. This means that you will pay no more than 10% down. You can even find zero down programs that can be applied to duplexes.
  5. Close the sale in the 5th month and move in.
  6. Now cool your heels in your new investment while your job works it'self out.
  7. Start interviewing property managers as your job winds down. You don't want to wait until you are packing up for your next assignment before you start looking for a property manager. (See NARPM web sit. or Home Management Net )
  8. Start your new job in a new city and begin the process all over.

Now the down side of all this is that you will have rental property scattered about in several locations around the country. This is a problem for some people. One alternative is to buy in a select few cities that you seem to visit often.

On the other hand, I knew a golfer who owned deplexes in cities with world class golf courses. He would make a yearly inspection visit to his properties. Spend maybe an hour inspecting the property. Then spend the rest of the day playing golf. All tax deductable of course.

A retired couple
As a retired couple with an empty nest you don't need a big house anymore. Furthermore, you have a lot of equity tied up in that big house. By selling it you can free up a lot of cash that can be put into more liquid investments. So why should you consider a duplex as your retirement home? Mostly for the rent income. You will have no trouble qualifying to buy, but all the other reasons I gave for a first time homeowner apply. Since you probably have more money than a typical first time home buyer you can buy a larger property, perhaps a 4-plex or small apartment, creating a larger monthly income.

If you are planning to travel a lot, you will have a tenant living in the unit right next door who can keep an eye on your property while you are gone.

A grown child with an elderly parent
If you have elderly parents who are independent but may need living assistance, you will find that an asymmetrical duplex provides a unique solution. An asymmetrical duplex is one where one unit is larger than the other. While you live in the larger unit, your elderly parents live in the smaller unit. There, they can maintain their privacy and have their own life. You are close enough to check in on them. Since you are the landlord, the maintenance responsibilities are yours, freeing them of the need and expense of maintaining a house.

Student living away
Got a kid going away to college? Got two kids going away? Then you should compare the price of a duplex to the price of on campus housing. I know one person who bought a duplex near campus and put his kids in one half. He rented the other half out as student housing. The rent income helped make the mortgage payments, and he was building equity. At the end of six years, when the last kid graduated, he sold the duplex. His out of pocket cost over the six years was much less than paying for on campus housing.

The downside
Now I need to tell you that owning a duplex is not a carefree investment. There will be some hassles.

If you think that you can't handle this, look into hiring a property manager. Typically a manager will want to keep 6% to 10% of the collected rents as payment. In return, he gets to deal with the broken plumbing, malfunctioning air conditioner, and screening tenants.