Mark Frew: Single, but by no means going it alone

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“I was financially back to zero, living in a unit with pretty much no furniture.” Mark Frew remembers 2003 with a slight sting even now nearly a decade later. His long-time partner left him just as he was in the midst of a pretty risky career change, not too long after returning from a four year stint teaching English in Africa.

But he says the pain of that year may have indirectly led to some good gains down the road. “Although the split didn’t play the deciding factor to begin investing in property, the split and being back to zero made me determined to get back on my feet and make a better go of my life.”

Mark has certainly found his footing since then, building what has now become a solid teaching career and turning his hard-earned nest-egg into a high-yielding 5-property portfolio valued at more than $1.1m.

Making the most of change

Mark was pushed into studying chemistry at university, but he says his real love had always been linguistics. After 13 years as a research chemist and a short stint in industrial sales, he decided to go after his certification to teach English as a second language. That decision changed his life, and led to a 4-year long adventure in Africa.

After completing his studies, he took off for what was supposed to be a 6-month stint at an international school in the African island nation of Mauritius. It turned into a tough, but thrilling, 4-year journey, but Mark says the real challenge came when he decided to move back home to Sydney in 2003. That is when things fell apart with his long-term partner.

Mark slowly started rebuilding his life and threw himself into his new work teaching English to non-English speakers at TAFE in the western Sydney suburb of Padstow.

He says he took on as many relief teaching shifts as he could and became religious about saving, something he had never been able to do when he was splitting finances with his ex.

He says it is a bit ironic that saving became much easier when he was on his own. “The problem with him was we had a joint account and at the end of the month there’d be no money in the account and I’d be thinking what did we spend the money on?

“So from that I learned to budget.”

Mark’s perseverance slowly would pay off as he saved a $100,000 nest egg and started looking for alternative investments that could bring him the security he needed to follow through on another passion – writing.

As it turns out, it was a couple of books that helped set him on that path.

A friend at work had started talking to Mark about property investing, and finally in 2009 he gave Mark the books Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and Steve McKnight’s From 0 to 130 properties in 3.5 Years to read over the holidays.  Mark says those books helped him see that property investing was something he could indeed master.

“So I went through Kiyosaki’s book and I went through McKnight’s book, and McKnight’s book was good from a numbers perspective,” Mark remembered. “He explained the numbers and what you look for and how you work it out whereas Kiyosaki’s book was more philosophical. It was like a mind-shift in how you view money. It was like taking a veil off my eyes and seeing things completely differently.

“I remember coming back from the holiday, and the next morning I went and started looking and I spent time looking around on my own, trying to find my first investment property.”

Highs and lows

Mark eventually found his way to The Right Property Group, a buyer’s agent that had come recommended by several friends. Then in late 2010, Mark found himself signing the paperwork for his first property, a 3–bedroom townhouse in Campbelltown 50 kilometres south-west of Sydney that he nervously bought for $185,000.

But as a former research scientist, Mark says he is very comfortable with numbers and that it was clear early on that the math added up.

“I had a look at the property and it wasn’t exactly the Taj Mahal, but I knew that I wasn’t going to live in the place,” he says. “So it wasn’t the best property but it wasn’t bad, and I met the tenants, had a look at the property and all the numbers figured out. I was going to be paying a little every week but I didn’t mind that for my first property because I knew that the rent would eventually go up.”

He says just a little over a year later he is more or less cash-flow neutral on that little place in Campbelltown, but it didn’t take him nearly that long to take the leap again. A few months later he got a call about a property in the more rural area of Orange. The price was right at $130,000, but he soon learned that the rural setting also came with its drawbacks as he struggled for nearly six months to find a good tenant for the home.

That may have been enough to train his sights closer to his Sydney home, because the three properties he snapped up over the rest of 2011 were all on the outskirts of the much more landlord-friendly capital city. He bought another in Granville near Parramatta, and a little later in the year he bought another house near Campbelltown along with a 2-bedroom unit in Mt Druitt.

He closed on those last two properties in the dizzying span of a week.

He sees his 2011 buying spree as a key to realising his goal of financial independence through property investing. “The plan is to try and get to 10 properties, of which I will sell five and pay off the other five and use the rental income as a source for my income, he says. “It’s not necessarily because I want to quit my job, but my difficulty is that my job with TAFE is that there is a lot of movement so I don’t know what’s happening with it or where it will be, I don’t want to have to rely on my job.”

Mark has stuck with his main bank in order to secure financing for all of his purchases, but he says the last two became tougher to get approved. It is pretty clear now, he says, that he is probably maxed out with them at this point. 

“I feel as though I’ve gone and hit a brick wall,” he says. “But then I’ve gone and seen a broker, because from my experience with the buying group and my own research, I’ve found that you really need professional help.”

He says his broker liked the fact that Mark’s portfolio was more or less cash flow neutral, and that he believes Mark can take advantage of the accumulated equity in several of his properties to move on another property within the next six months or so.

Novel dreams

Mark jokes that his new quest to develop a solid income stream through property investing is also part of a quest to fund his writing habit. You see, his love of language extends beyond the work he does in the classroom and has led Mark to produced several books, including two semi-autobiographical novels so far.

He says that beyond the financial benefits, property investing has taught him to be more entrepreneurial and bold in how he creates and markets his writing. “Property investing,” he says, “has had an effect on me as a novelist because I've started to view writing not simply as something academic but that I am also creating a product which can be potentially sold.”

He says he has an added incentive to promote his writing because much of it involves his efforts to promote better understanding and unity between native Australians like himself and refugees like many of the students he meets at his TAFE classes. One novel, Farewell My Pashtun, is loosely based on his own experience with one of the first refugees he became close to through his work.

In fact, he has developed strong relationships with a number of his students and other new-comers to Australia, including two young refugees from the Central African country of Burundi. He met Jean d’Amour and his nephew Emmanuel, now 28 and 14 years old, five years ago and still refers to them as his sons. In addition to helping them learn English and integrate into Australian society, Mark says the three have remained very close and formed a makeshift family. Jean d’Amour recently finished his studies to become a nurse, and Mark’s voice grows light and joyful as he describes Jean’s wedding earlier this year and his extended family is, well, extending.

“So now I’ve got a daughter in law and I’m waiting for a grandchild.”

“I knew quite a few people who work with their spouses and there is a bit of jealousy there because it would be nice to have a partner who is likeminded and wants to go ahead and do it with them, but I’ve had to do it on my own.”

“Those are just the cards that have been dealt to me, and that’s ok.”

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