Barbara Corcoran is renowned for her heart-over-head investment decisions—and for bucking conventional finance wisdom, including proudly not saving a “dime” of her substantial wealth. But she must be doing something right, considering she’s worth about $100 million, and she recently revealed some keys to her success in real estate.
In November, Corcoran appeared on the BiggerPockets Real Estate Podcast with her son Tom Higgins to describe two methods she says make up her “golden rule” of real estate investing: putting down 20% on an investment property and having tenants of that property paying for the mortgage.
This is the method Corcoran herself used when she borrowed $1,000 from her then-boyfriend to launch her real estate career. After failing at 22 jobs, she said bye to her waitressing gig and started a “tiny” real estate office in New York. She ended up selling the Corcoran Group to real estate company NRT for $66 million in 2001, launching her into real estate and business investment stardom. She’s been on the main cast of investors on Shark Tank since its 2009 inception, making deals with more than 100 businesses.
The golden rule
Corcoran’s method to real estate investing is tried and true.
“That has always been my golden rule,” she said during the podcast. “Buy a property with 20% down. [That] has always been my formula because they used to do with 10%, but it’s not possible anymore. I repeated that formula again and again and again, and then making sure the tenant has paid my mortgage. It’s pretty easy that way.”
Putting down 10% instead of 20% can leave a buyer with too high of a monthly payment, a risky move since housing prices and mortgage rates have continued to rise. A 20% down payment betters the chances that she’ll break even more quickly on a property—and make gains sooner.
While that golden rule has worked for Corcoran, other real estate investors warn that a one-size-fits-all rule doesn’t always match market conditions.
“Each investment protocol is entirely unique and different,” Alex Blackwood, CEO and cofounder of real estate investment platform Mogul Club, tells Fortune. “For instance, maybe an investor’s credit score is better so they can take out more with less monthly costs, or maybe interest rates are lower so an investor can increase leverage and still break even.”
Then, break even
Even with a strong track record in real estate investing, Corcoran still never expects to make money on her purchases during the first year or two of ownership, she said on the podcast. But breaking even early on—having a tenant cover the mortgage and other monthly costs the owner has—is a good indicator that the investment property will do well.
“If I break even, I’m smiling all the way to the bank,” she said. “And then by the second year, third year, New York is a magical place. The value always goes up, and then I start getting a lot of cash. Then I refinance, pull a lot of cash out, refinance, pull cash out. Real estate is magical if done right.”
Breaking even in year one helps investors begin profiting in year two, Blackwood agrees. Even though investors may take a short-term hit on a longer-term investment, profitability comes when they can raise the rent, he adds.
The “breaking even” golden rule also ties directly to one of real estate’s “underlying principles,” the first of which is leverage, Ian Formigle, chief investment officer at commercial real estate investing platform CrowdStreet, tells Fortune.
“Borrowing money to acquire real estate can dramatically amplify the returns to investors, but it can also amplify the risk,” he says. By adhering to Corcoran’s golden rule and getting tenants to cover costs, “you mitigate the leverage risk by generating monthly income through the property. You can also create an opportunity to generate wealth through asset appreciation because well-located real estate can attract more attention and investment over time.”
Still, successful real estate investing takes time. During the podcast, Corcoran described a property she bought using her 20% down method, but waited 20 years to sell. She paid $1 million for the property, and sold it for $3.2 million two decades later.
Even though this process takes time, Corcoran warns against taking money out of investment properties too soon.
“You cripple your business if you start taking money out,” she said. “You want to see how long you can go without touching a dime. That’s what I did.” To make money when she was first getting her start in real estate investing, Corcoran ran her brokerage firm.
“I made good money from that,” she added. “But [as for] my buildings, I never looked to it for money until they matured a little bit, and then I started getting a lot of cash out.”
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com