Q&A: Toronto real estate agent Wins Lai shares her secrets on investing and building wealth in Toronto’s real estate market
Wins Lai is a local real estate agent in downtown Toronto who bought her first condo at 19 years old, and she now owns three properties in Toronto. We caught up with her to ask her if that’s still possible today and to hear her advice for millennial house shoppers.
Tell me a bit about your background. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Markham, raised by a single parent. My mom always complained about paying the mortgage. The more she stressed, the more it made me want to work harder to save money for myself. I worked as a lifeguard during the summers and saved nearly all of what I made in high school. I then continued my studies at University of Toronto, and I lived at home with my mom throughout school in order to stay out of debt.
How much did you manage to save by the end of high school?
I had saved about $15,000 by the time I was 19.
What sparked your interest in the real estate industry?
When I was 19, I worked part-time with a developer during my second year of university. They were selling condos preconstruction at the time, and I started learning more about the real estate industry. I was wondering why all these adults were coming in and investing in these condos—it must be really important! But I always assumed it would be out of reach for me. Then I discovered that condo prices in Liberty Village were only about $250,000 for a one-bedroom unit, and that instead of putting 20 per cent down right away, there were other financing options available. I was like, oh, I could afford this. It’ll be tight but I can do it. I ended up putting down five per cent initially on a preconstruction one-bedroom in Liberty Village. This was my first lesson in leverage, a concept of utmost importance especially when starting out investing in real estate.
Did you want the place as an investment or to eventually live in one day?
At that point, I was a stay-at-home millennial, and I didn’t know if I’d ever move out. However, time flies by and three years later, when the condo was ready, I still wasn’t ready to move out. So I sold it and ended up making $75,000 profit, a lot of money for a 22-year-old!
What made you want to reinvest, instead of blowing it on a fancy car?
I read a lot of finance books when I was younger, and I think they really taught me how to save and properly invest my money. I looked at the real estate market as a bank. Today, the five-year returns are still better than what you’d get at a bank. When buying real estate, I always consider it as moving my money from one account to another. Yes, one could argue that real estate doesn’t provide the same security as a bank account; however, as long as you take a long-term approach, chances are your returns will be far higher over the long run. This is especially true when considering that most buyers will use leverage. Leverage is a powerful tool if used correctly.
The media loves to harp on the state of the real estate market, but at the end of the day, it’s an asset that’s relatively passive, easily disposable and has great utility. This is especially true in urban centres.
What are some other options of investing when you don’t have the deposit?
I always encourage young people who do not have the funds to bring on a partner or perhaps obtain a loan from family members. It goes without saying: if one does choose to bring on a partner, a formal co-ownership agreement is an absolute must.
What has real estate investment given you?
Freedom and peace of mind! Investing in real estate, especially when you’re young, gives you options and flexibility. That’s what everyone strives for. No one really wants to get stuck in their job, whatever they do, and at the end of the day, my job is to show people places to buy or to help people market their properties. I love what I do, but I also know that my real estate portfolio will provide me with a cushion in my retirement planning. You can never start planning too young!
Prices have definitely skyrocketed in the decade since you bought your first property, and many millennials would have to save up to $100,000 right now to afford a place. What’s your advice to young people looking to break into the market?
It’s tough for millennials, there is no doubt. I think people who are looking to buy really need to evaluate their current living situations. Maybe that second trip to Starbucks every day could be cut back—you know who you are. The buying game is still the same as 10 years ago. Yes, it’s harder to qualify, but salaries have gone up and so has minimum wage. The housing prices are always going to be high. The major issue these days is people spending more than they make. Realistically, if you live at home and have a part-time job, it’s still possible to buy a property by age 23. It’s not unheard of. But a lot of people don’t want to save $20,000 a year. My mom taught me how to save. It’s about living as cheaply as possible and being conscious of where your money is going. For me, my move was to live at home, because I had the luxury to do that.
On the professional side, I want to help people afford real estate. Throughout my 10 years in the real estate business, I have helped many builders, investors and first-time home buyers manage their assets. I’ve always focused on downtown Toronto because of the stability and growth in returns. Currently, I focus on helping developers and international investors from around the globe (for example, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, California and New York) manage their real estate portfolios in Toronto. We want to hand down the knowledge we’ve accumulated. I always ask myself how I can make my hard-earned dollars work for me.