Joining us in today’s Property Investory podcast is founder of the D.G. Institute, Dominique Grubisa. Working not only as a practicing lawyer with an asset credit licence and migration licence under her belt, Grubisa also works as a property investor and developer.
In this episode we’ll be taking it right back to the beginning as we discuss Grubisa’s journey as a Law Student, her dedication to becoming a barrister and how a spontaneous apartment purchase kick started her property investing career. Following this, Grubisa will share more into the investing ups and downs she experienced, specifically during the global financial crisis. She’ll also go into detail on how she moved forward from her rock bottom moment and how she’s utilising the D.G. Institute to prevent others from making the same property investing
and developing mistakes on their property journey.
02:58 | Lawyering Up
08:01 | Here’s Some Credit, Go Nuts
11:01 | The FOCUS Method
13:15 | I’ll Take It, Now Get Them Out
16:43 | Rebel Yell
20:10 | Big Opportunities Aren’t Always the Best
23:08 | Hitting Rock Bottom
25:44 | When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going
30:47 | Breaking Free
00:20 | Mirvac or Madonna? It’s Hard to Tell…
03:20 | A Peasant’s Moor
08:00 | Opening Her Options
11:49 | Aha! A Solution
14:52 | Hedging Bets
18:25 | She Goes Where the Opportunities Take Her
20:26 | Want to Make $7 Million? Utilise Gossip
26:54 | Mindset Over Matter
31:22 | Don’t Let Others Steal Your Time
Resources and Links:
[00:27:37] And so I then thought, 'Well, I'm going to share my knowledge on debt law. Because of the GFC going on, there's a whole lot of people in debt.’ So I just focused on adding value that way, in a new paradigm. So I wrote books for people about levelling the playing field. And from there, I then had this vision that ultimately was realised of building the DG Institute.
This is Property Investory where we talk to successful property investors to find out more about their stories, mindset and strategies.
I’m Tyrone Shum and in this episode we’re speaking with Dominique Grubisa, practising lawyer, property investor, developer, and founder of The DG Institute. All full of twists and turns and ups and downs, she shares many vibrant stories from her inspiring law journey, to debt and despair, to making $1M from one single deal by signing some papers.
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Grubisa is a woman of many talents, with property development being just one of them. From an early age she had big dreams, and while some of them didn’t quite pan out, others launched her to become the 'go-to legal expert' when it comes to buying distressed properties. Featured in print and television media across the country, she still finds time to develop property, write educational books, and help others to grow and protect their wealth.
[00:00:44] Most of the things that I do relate to educating and empowering others around property. I formed the DG Institute, which is a vision that I had to be a one stop shop for property people. So that they could get all the professional services that they needed, as well as the knowledge and education to do things better and keep raising the bar.
[00:01:09] So that involves me flying around the country, educating at live events as well as online, and running a team of professionals to meet everybody's property needs.
[00:01:25] The DG Institute was only founded two years ago, but I have personally been educating and in the property space since 2009. It's just that I finally got all my ducks in a row with the vision that I wanted to go it alone. And that happened two years ago.
[00:02:01] Before I was just more a one man band, just teaching my methods. But I did that through other platforms. So promoters, and other marketing channels, and multi speaker events, and that sort of thing. But it didn't give me much scope to do what I wanted to do. I was just almost a gun for hire who turned up and delivered. Whereas I've been able to now grow into a bigger vision.
Born and bred on the North Shore of Sydney, she attended schools close to home throughout her childhood. She then studied law at Sydney Uni as an undergraduate, until…
[00:02:58] Went back, did a Masters of Law. I became a solicitor in 1994, and 1996 I went to the bar. Not to get drunk. So I've always lived and worked in Sydney.
[00:03:34] I actually didn't ever have any passion to be a lawyer. I naturally did quite well at school and the HSC. But straight out of school, I auditioned for NIDA, National Institute of Dramatic Arts, because I really, really wanted to be an actress. But they knocked me back. And so I was bitter and twisted that I couldn't have my A dream.
[00:03:57] So then I just went and studied law, because there's a show on telly at the time called LA Law. And they swanned around in little suits. And I thought, 'Well, it's not acting, but it's kind of like acting. You do a performance, there's a judge, there's a jury, they listen.' And I just thought that that was something that I would like. And I didn't actually like it so much, the studying part of law. But when I got through it at the end, I liked the practising of law and the reality of it. Never been a big one for formal education.
Throughout her three year Arts Law degree she enrolled in additional subjects that piqued her interest, including acting and archaeology. Unfortunately, her dreams of becoming the first female Indiana Jones came crashing down before they could even begin.
[00:05:04] I thought it would be like Raiders of the Lost Ark but it wasn't. It was just looking at old Greek pots and trying to date them and things like that. So I just really hated all of that.
[00:05:14] I still liked acting and drama and that sort of thing. So I did an honours year in English literature, but you just had to do a thesis. And you could do that remotely. So I travelled, I went to Europe and backpacked for a year between the arts degree and the law degree because then you went and did another two years in a different campus. And that was pure law. My law degree actually took six years when it should have taken five.
[00:05:44] Still, one extra year. I mean, it's not uncommon. Because even for people in medical field, becoming a doctor takes a lot longer than six or seven years to even get to where they are. So law isn't too bad compared to that. So after you completed your degree, what did you do after that?
[00:06:06] I got a job as a solicitor. The LA law thing didn't pan out. I thought that I could get a litigation job, but none of the big firms that did litigation wanted to hire me. So I just ended up taking a job with a suburban solicitor, like in a back room at Chatswood, doing soul destroying work— debt collection on repossessed motor vehicles. So all I did day in and day out was just bankrupt people.
[00:06:35] So at the end of two years, I just had to slap myself about the face and say, 'What are you doing?' And I also wanted to pay back everyone who I thought had been mean to me by not letting me be the litigator I wanted to be. So I just thought, 'Well, bugger you all, I'm just gonna do it anyway.'
[00:06:54] So I just went straight to the bar. Which is probably a no no in the system, you kind of have to do your time as a solicitor for at least 10 [to] 15 years, get contacts get experience. And the journey to the bar should be something that you graduate to when you're older and you're financially sound, because you don't make money in your first year. And you need to have a whole network of contacts of people to give you the work. So you should have a stable solicitors that you've built up along the way with all your experience behind you but I just went and did it anyway with nothing.
[00:07:30] Could you, firstly, for listeners who don't know what bar is, explain— is that an acronym for something in the legal industry?
[00:07:39] When you are a barrister, they call it the bar. The New South Wales Bar Association is the body that controls or that regulates barristers.
[00:07:53] Okay, that's great to know. So you went straight for that? And how did that progress? How did you go for that?
Here’s Some Credit, Go Nuts
[00:08:01] I did really well at that in a relatively short period of time. I think I liked better doing something I loved and being able to be my own boss and do it alone. I probably didn't work well as a square peg in a round hole in employment for those two years as a solicitor. But as a barrister, I could just start with a blank canvas. And I was just very, very focused on being the best I could be.
[00:08:32] And because I had no work, because no one would brief me, I used to wear my robes every day. Because they actually cost $10,000. It was all that I had in the world. To become a barrister, when I graduated law, the law society gave us a gold MasterCard, and it had a $10,000 credit limit on it. MasterCard just said, 'You'll be rich one day as a lawyer, so here's some credit, knock yourself out.'
[00:09:00] So I went and whacked all the robes and the gear on that card. The wigs are horsehair and the robes are silk. I looked the part so I used to put on my drag every day and I'd go out to the Supreme Court and I'd just swan around the corridors. I had this theory that people would give me work if I looked the part. Because I thought that they'd just think, 'Well, I see her every day, suited and booted, everyone else is briefing her, she must be good.' And it never happened.
[00:09:28] So when the time I had my hands every day in the early years, I just sat at the back of the courtrooms and watched the really good guys at their craft. Like, the top Senior Counsel. And I just learnt by osmosis. I just soaked it all up. I was working 18 hour days, I'd work for free if they'd throw me a bone, just to prove myself to be able to get the round on the ball. And so just through sheer tenacity and blood, sweat and tears, I was able to claw my way to the top of my game at the bar.
She stayed there at the top until the late ‘90s or early 2000s, where the catalyst for change was suddenly thrust upon her.
[00:10:32] They changed the area of law that I had developed into, they changed the rules and the laws in New South Wales. So that it became a statutory regime. So basically, what they said is, 'We don't need barristers to fight these sort of cases, let's just codify it all in a set of laws. And that can be the written law, there'll be no litigation around this. Lawyers can just make reference to the statutes and that can be the end of it.'
The FOCUS Method
[00:11:01] So it meant that a whole lot of barristers were out of work. And they all immediately went to other areas and tried to specialise because you're much better if you specialise. I always say FOCUS— it stands for Follow One Course Until Successful. So I just focused and focused on one area of law so I could be the specialist and get to the top of my game there.
[00:11:25] It's like a magnifying glass. If you hold it really still over one thing you want, the rays of the sun will converge and start a fire. Most people wander willy nilly around looking for the next shiny thing. And they don't succeed. So what had happened was where all my focus had come to nothing, and I could either go back and grow my expertise in another area of law, or I could reinvent myself. And I chose the latter. I just couldn't have the whole journey all over again, in law.
[00:11:59] From what you're explaining to me before, you really stayed on course with using the FOCUS method, which is fantastic. That's a great acronym. And you pretty much got to the best of the best. What happened from there onwards?
[00:12:17] On the side, I'd been doing property as well as law, just as a property investor. So once you focus, things happen. I started to make money and my accountant said, 'You need to negatively gear.'
[00:12:30] So I just went and bought a little studio apartment. And I bought it as an investment and I just fluked it. It was near where my chambers were, as a barrister, in the CBD of Sydney. And I bought this studio, first person in the door, the first open for inspection. I'm a very fire ready aim type person.
[00:12:51] And the agent had done that usual thing of getting a whole lot of people together and showing us all in one inspection and it was so small. It was like, about, 10 square metres or something ridiculous and we were all squashed in. But all I saw was views. I could see, like, a little spot of blue right in the distance. And I thought 'Oh, my God, it's got water views. I have to have it.' So I just got immediately emotional.
I’ll Take It, Now Get Them Out
[00:13:15] So I ran over to the agent because I panicked. I thought, 'Everyone is going to make an offer!' And so I said, 'How much?' And he said, 'Well, they're looking for about $160,000.' I said, 'Done. Here’s a cheque, $16,000, 10% deposit, I'll sign an unconditional contract, get everyone out of my apartment.'
[00:13:33] I then went to my conveyancing solicitor and when he looked at it, he said, 'Right.' And I changed my mind, getting emotional. I just thought, 'I'm gonna leave here. This is my home now. I'm going to live in my little studio right near work. I'm moving out from Mum and Dad.' I'd been to Ikea on the way to the solicitor's and picked out my bookcase and my bed and everything.
Things were going well… maybe even too well. The next thing her solicitor said to her brought it crashing down— but it wasn’t all bad.
[00:13:55] And then the solicitor said, 'Right, so you're a barrister, are you?' I said, 'Yeah, that's right.' 'Did you actually read this contract before you signed it?' I said, 'No.' And he said, 'Right. Well, you wanting to live here— I don't think that'll happen. If you read the contract it comes with a lease in it, and there's a tenant in there. And they're there for two years.' I said, 'Oh, that's okay. Look, it was really meant to be an investment. And it's negatively geared.' And he said, 'Well, there's a second problem, you paid $160,000. And it's rented out on a two year lease for $295 a week.'
[00:14:25] So it was actually a bit positive. And it was a happy mistake to make on my first ever property deal. And it just hooked me on property. And so I went back to that agent and I just said, 'Hi, I don't know if you remember me, I bought that one.' He said, 'How could I forget you? I've never ever had anyone first open, first person in the door and offer within five minutes for the full asking price, unconditional contract. And you're a barrister, like, I thought you guys were smart. You know with property, you can actually offer less.' And I was like, 'Well, I would have paid more.' And he said, 'No, good on you, you jumped on the spot, it was a divorce situation. It was priced to sell and they had met the market to move it, and you put your money where your mouth is. And I love that.'
[00:15:12] So from there, I had a little epiphany about buying under market distressed properties. And because of my knowledge of law and the legal system, I knew when people had to meet the market like that. And I know it's the holy grail of property, and it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. But that's what I did. I applied my focus to just looking for those under market deals. And that was my little formula. And I did that on the side all through my 20s, just doing property deals.
[00:15:17] And when I reached just pushing 30, I moved to the next level, and I bought a Mirvac one off the plan. And when I had to segue out of law, I on sold the Mirvac property and did really, really well. Like, just made a million dollars from buying well off the plan. And I did it with a deposit bond. So that's part of the reason I didn't go back to specialising in a different area of law. I thought, 'Wow, I did that on the side, without any focus. What if I really focused on property?' So then I just turned to full time property.
For all the parents out there, especially parents of teenagers, you’ll be well aware that kids know everything. Young Grubisa was no exception.
[00:16:43] I think they say when their student is ready, the teacher appears. My parents were always big in property. But I was never interested. So every Christmas my father would give me Think and Grow Rich or Robert Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. And he'd write things, little inscriptions in the start of the book. And I would just think, 'Why are you wasting your money, man, I'm just not interested in any of this.' And I remember they tried to get me in off the plans when I was earning money. And they'd say, 'Come and look at this, we know the agent, you can buy one bedder in here, the market's going up.' And I was just like, 'Why would I spend $300,000?! That's so much money.'
[00:17:25] So I definitely wasn't interested from my parents' persuasion, I almost worked the opposite way where I resisted. And it was just having that initial success on that divorce property. And that was without my parents' help. It was almost in defiance of them. 'No, I'm not buying off the plan, I'm gonna do it myself. And I'm going to buy it in the city.' Because they always said, 'Never buy the CBD.' And so then, when that worked, I think I caught the bug myself. And then I just sought out other mentors and my own books to read. So, probably not because of my parents, probably to spite my parents I did it.
[00:18:07] I love it. The rebel in all of us who are young. And what kind of professions were your parents in? And just out of curiosity.
[00:18:18] Would you believe, Tyrone, I'm embarrassed— they're both lawyers.
Sometimes we need to make our own mistakes to be able to learn and grow. Despite lawyer blood running through Grubisa’s veins, she learnt this the hard way.
[00:18:58] I probably have made every mistake in the book and made it in a big way. And I think it's because I'm a fire, ready, aim person. But one thing that happened was I had a client who was doing well in property development. So he was buying out in Kellyville, which was sort of a greenfield area in Sydney at the time. So it was all farmland and they'd rezoned it and people were subdividing.
[00:19:23] And I did the legal work for him on that site. And then I was interested in how he did it because I saw the profits he made. So I asked him to connect me with the agent who sold him the land. And so I just said to the agent, 'If anything comes up like that again, or you can get me in on anything like you did with this guy, can you let me know?' And he was like, 'Yeah.'
[00:19:44] And then a few days later, he rang me and he said, 'Look, I might have an opportunity for you. I'll get this guy to ring you.' So this guy rang me. And anyway, when we talked it turned out he was selling, like, an off the plan at Ballina and I said, 'Oh, sorry, there must be some confusion, I was wanting to develop and I was looking for land.' And he said, 'Oh, well, I'm a friend of Danny's. And I just thought he said, you were up for any opportunity. This is a big opportunity.'
Big Opportunities Aren’t Always the Best
[00:20:10] And I tried to push him away. But he was like, 'I booked my flight to Sydney, and I've hired a car. So I'm going to come out and see you.' And I just said, 'No, I really don't want it.' He said, 'No, no, no, it's fine, the least you could do is give me a cup of tea. It's already settled now.'
[00:20:23] Anyway, I just thought, 'I'll give this guy a cup of tea and get rid of him.' Anyway, long story short, I bought an off the plan dual key apartment for $850,000 at Ballina. I don't know what I was thinking, I just fell for all of the sales talk. And the 'It had fallen through, but the prices had gone up, and it was worth a million and the developer didn't know it, they put it back on for a million but because I was a friend of a friend, he'd try and get it for me at the old price of $850,000. And then you can come up and see it and we'll babysit your kids, and we'll take you out on a boat and you can eat prawns.' And I just felt so incredibly obliged that I signed on the dotted line. So that was a big mistake.
[00:21:07] Oh, ouch. And what happened after that?
[00:21:11] Well, the market fell in the interim, it wasn't going to be what it had planned to be. Banks weren't lending on those holiday, sort of rental scenarios. And it just fortunately for me and my legal background, I was able to find a loophole and a technicality and get out of it and get my deposit back. Yeah, I was lucky with my knowledge.
[00:21:34] Wow, that would have been a disaster if that happened. Because obviously something like that is hard to get rid of or sell down the track.
[00:21:42] Absolutely. Yeah, that would have ruined us. It was something else that ruined us a bit later on, so we dodged that bullet at least.
Because she had done so well and dodged so many bullets along the way, she had gained a false sense of security. Even her worst deals were turning profits, leading her to feel invincible.
[00:22:15] The more successful I became the more bulletproof I thought I was.
[00:22:20] And so we just, at a time when banks were just lending so easily, and there were low doc and no doc loans and anyone with a pulse could get credit, banks were just throwing money at us. So we were just buying and buying and buying and buying. And I had entered the property game in an up market. And I probably never in my adult life seen a recession or the bad times or anything like that. So I thought that property markets only ever went up. And I thought property was a licence to print money. I thought all you need to do is get the bank to convince you to get a loan, and then you grow a portfolio. And because banks would let us refinance, we'd renovate, we create extra equity, and then we'd pull out that equity, and we roll it into another deal.
Hitting Rock Bottom
[00:23:08] So we just spread ourselves so thin that we just weren't ready when the GFC hit. And what happened to us was we had a development site and we had finance, we had everything ready to go. And then the bank pulled the loan from us. And we were so dependent on lines of credits and banks and everything. And we had a situation where a few things collided at once.
[00:23:34] But at the end of the day, we just had no wiggle room at all. Expect the unexpected, they say. When a couple of unexpected things happened together, it just caused a knock on effect that just put us in a total tailspin and we lost everything. We were millions and millions of dollars in debt. I mean, leverage is great in property when it magnifies your profits, but it can also have a backfire effect and magnify your losses.
[00:24:05] Wow, gosh. So how did you feel at that point in time?
[00:24:10] That was rock bottom for me. At the time when it hit, we were just reactionary. So it was just fight or flight adrenaline. We just had to take three kids out of private schools, we had to just do whatever had to be done, sell things really quickly. But rock bottom for me it was a moment of realisation when the dust had settled. We were literally homeless. And what had taken me 20 years of blood, sweat, and tears to build up slowly, I'd just lost in the blink of an eye. And we were living with my parents in law. I mean, we were very lucky that they would have us in, but it was also... we were in a fold out lounge in the living room and watching Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on a Saturday night with my father in law. It was just very, very dark days and I just beat myself up. I felt like such a failure and I felt so incredibly guilty that I'd failed. I felt disgraced. So that was the lowest point.
When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going
Although she was at rock bottom, she knew this wasn’t the end of her journey. Through sheer necessity, she shifted her perspective and picked herself up.
[00:25:44] There's just only so long you can sit around in your mother in law's lounge room in your pyjamas crying all day. I think I adopted a glass half full approach. And that paradigm shift made me realise that, 'Okay, it is what it is, I've lost everything. But what can I do now?' So I was solution focused, rather than problem oriented.
[00:26:07] And I couldn't go back to law, I couldn't go back to property. It was the GFC by then. So no one was lending, no one was buying. I still had faith in property because it had done so well for me. So I identified the problem as my reckless behaviour and my disregard for markets and my lack of knowledge in that sense. But what I did have in my favour was my legal knowledge and my knowledge of debt, because I was actually dealing with my own debt at the coalface and I was trading my way through it, just treading water, dealing with creditors.
[00:26:42] And so I put my focus on debt law, which is an area of law that few specialists with my level of knowledge ever look at, just because there's no money in helping people in debt. So now whenever focuses on that area of law. But for me it was self interest, obviously. And then I was looking for a way to make money without having to go back to law and without being able to do property anymore.
[00:26:42] So I started looking at internet marketing. Probably out of desperation, if I'm honest. I started going to seminars for that. And what I was focused on was, 'Okay, there's a new way of communication, there's a new way of sharing knowledge, like the old way of paying for solicitors and an hourly rate with billable hours and everything, that's a way of the past. And the internet is about sharing knowledge.' And so I then thought, 'Well, I'm going to share my knowledge on debt law. Because of the GFC going on, there's a whole lot of people in debt.’ So I just focused on adding value that way, in a new paradigm. So I wrote books for people about levelling the playing field. And from there, I then had this vision that ultimately was realised of building the DG Institute.
She put her strengths to work, using both her knowledge and kindness to help others in debt for free.
[00:28:23] They were in debt themselves, so they couldn't really pay for it. But I then saw opportunity just by working and being there, I saw opportunities of how banks were repossessing properties, how the whole industry worked. And I realised that the system was ineffective. They'd never had the repossessions and the market that they had after the global financial crisis. And I got to be up close and personal with that.
[00:28:51] I realised that there were other ways of transacting property apart from just going to an agent and buying at auction. Because I saw the aftermath of the property market with the global financial crisis. And I also put my legal knowledge into play then in property in a different way. Because I didn't have the money to actually go to the bank and— well, I had bad credit after things went wrong for me. So my credit score, man, I couldn't get a loan.
[00:29:22] So I started to channel my knowledge into things like property development, where I could get properties on using options without needing bank finance. And I could add value through my knowledge of zoning and getting development approvals and that sort of thing. And that helped me build wealth back faster, looking at distressed properties and property developments and transacting properties without needing bank finance.
[00:29:47] And what took me 20 years to build up and then lose, I needed to be able to make back a lot quicker but without having to have loans to do it. And without having the luxury of another 20 years to do it slowly, brick by brick.
The learning and growing never stops, through the good times and bad. Turning our focus to the good times, a real tipping point for her was when she went from law into property full time.
[00:30:47] I reached a glass ceiling in law, not from being a woman, but just... I couldn't work any harder. And I couldn't do any more to increase my earning capacity. Because as barristers, you're self employed, and the law reads that you can't have a company, you can't have employees, you're just a gun for hire. So you're selling yourself, your skill, as a litigator. It's a bit like a specialist. So just as with GPs, and specialists in medicine. And if the GP can help you, then he will, but if it's serious, he'll refer you on to a specialist. That's what solicitors are to barristers. So I was a specialist. But the heart surgeon can't say, 'Oh, here's the work experience boy, because I want to go out and look at properties today.' It's your skill. And that was the same with me.
[00:31:36] So I'd shackled myself to that one finite resource that everyone shares, and that's time. So I had the same 24 hours in the day as everyone else. I was working about 18 of them, because I really was working so hard. And no matter how good I got, I could keep raising my hourly rate and I could raise my daily brief fee of how much people would pay to engage me, but it would always be finite because I was selling my time. And then I realised that I'd made seven figures in an off the plan property that wasn't my money, wasn't my time, wasn't bound to anything. And that's when I realised that the possibility of exponential and unlimited potential in property as opposed to working.
Mirvac Or Madonna? It’s Hard to Tell…
Coming back, we turn to the million dollar Mirvac deal. What started out as a business transaction for Grubisa ended up being so much more— both professionally and personally.
[00:00:20] I actually had clients who wanted me as a lawyer to go to an open for inspection. So Mirvac had a site at Walsh Bay, so down near The Rocks in Sydney, and it was an old industrial pier and they were turning into luxury apartments. And they knew they had something special because there were marina berths that the council had given them permission to have boat moorings for the more expensive apartments. And that was really, really rare in Sydney.
[00:00:48] So my clients came to me and said, 'We are VIP Mirvac clients, we've been invited to the pre launch.' And it was like lining up in the streets for tickets to a Madonna concert or something. People were camping overnight to be the first in the door to buy these apartments. And Mirvac's deal was that they opened the doors, you had to be there with your lawyer on the day to sign away.
[00:01:12] So in New South Wales, if you're buying property unconditionally, you'd normally get a cooling off period. And if you're going to waive that cooling off, your lawyer has to sign for you. So they asked me to come on a Sunday to sign for them because they said, 'We want to buy about five of these properties, because they're just so finite and special, and we just need you there.'
[00:01:30] So when I got through the door, it was just like a feeding frenzy. And there were all the agents there. And they were just red 'Sold' stickers on everything. And I just thought, 'I've got to have one of these.' I got caught up in the excitement. But I didn't have the money to do it. So I'd done property before, it's just that I was playing at the $200,000 level, these things started at $1.2 million dollars. So it's just a million short.
[00:01:52] 'How can I make this happen?' And there was a guy that... I wasn't even dating him, I'd been on a first date with him the night before. But I really liked him and we got on well over dinner, and he just really liked property. And I like property. And I just thought, 'Well, I'll just see if he's interested.'
[00:02:07] So I rang him up and said, 'I had really good time last night. Do you want to buy an apartment?' So he could have thought that I was psycho and a stalker and got scared away. But he did say, 'I'll come and have a look.' And he got out and he had a chequebook in his hand and I just thought, 'Oh my god, it's happening so fast.'
Everything was falling together so well— very similarly to the CBD studio apartment. What could possibly go wrong?
[00:02:38] And anyway, long story short, he had a different thing in mind. I thought we'd be buying one together and that's how we'd get the money. But he just said, 'Bugger you, I'm buying my own.' So he bought one. And then I, not to be beaten, I went to a guy selling deposit bonds so that Mirvac could organise that on the day. Because as a developer, they were prepared to accept a deposit bond, which is like a bank guarantee or an insurer that will put up the surety for your 10% deposit. Because I didn't have the $120,000. But I had $7,000 which it costs for them to issue this bond.
A Peasant’s Moor
[00:03:20] So when I got my foot on one apartment, I asked if I could have a mooring and they said they were only for the top floor penthouses. And then they just said, 'Look, all right.' The Mirvac agent said, 'Look, don't tell anyone, I'm not meant to offer them to the little peasant apartments.'
Despite her apartment, she was able to buy a mooring with another deposit bond, setting her back $120,000. However, she soon found herself gaining something invaluable.
[00:03:46] The guy who I'd been dating kind of had to marry me after that because we had neighbouring apartments. And when it was built in four years time we just felt it would be awkward if things weren't amicable. So that kind of united us.
[00:03:59] And then we ended up [having] three children under two. So within a couple of years our lives had changed. And these off the plans were going to take four years to build. So ultimately we on sold his apartment but we kept mine, thinking, 'What if we settle on this one and move in and it's our home? We won't pay capital gains tax and also it will be far more attractive.' Because the market was just going up and up and we thought when people can actually see something tangible and the views and it's not just a hole in the ground, they'll pay more.
[00:04:33] So before we even got to put it on the market, the Mirvac agent came to us and he said, 'I've got this investor and he's very very wealthy. He's just jetted in from Hong Kong. He wants one of the moorings in this block and he said the thing is the strata rules say you have to own an apartment to have the right to buy a mooring. He doesn't want an apartment, he just wants the mooring, but he gets that he has to own an apartment. So he selected you because you literally have the worst apartment in the block to come with a morning.'
[00:05:03] And he said, 'But this is how he rolls. He just is a numbers man.' He said, 'I've been doing business with him for 20 years. When he wants something, he refines his numbers, and he only makes one offer.' So he said, 'I'm about to make you an offer. If you don't accept it, this guy will be on an eight o'clock flight back to Hong Kong.' And he offered us $2.166 million, so we just jumped on it.
[00:05:26] And between Kevin— my husband's— apartment, we'd sold that for $250,000 more than he secured it for off the plan. And with this other one, we made over $1.2 million on that whole development. With hindsight, that was beginner's luck. But at the time, we just thought we had the Midas touch, and we could do no wrong.
[00:05:52] That would have been 1999.
[00:06:29] He on sold at a few years later. So I thought that guy had made a big mistake, but he actually made a profit on it. So he would have bought it from us, I think, [in] 2002 [or] 2003. And then he on sold it before the global financial crisis for a small profit. But I think now it would have to be $3 million or $4 million.
[00:06:57] It was, like, a two bedroom, higher end development, but nothing magnificent. But it's just the Sydney market. Maybe not $4 million. Maybe I'm exaggerating.
Opening Her Options
From there, she got into options and property development. While she had done it as a lawyer for others, drafting up agreements, she had the know-how but had never done it herself.
[00:08:00] Our first development wasn't actually an option. It was just a splitter block, where we just got AV Jennings, just a project builder, to take it through Council and put another property on the back. So it was an infill situation, in a baby boomers downsize area where people just built for that market.
[00:08:25] And we renovated the front block and sold it off. But even that little deal yielded us about $400,000 profit. So we realised that, 'Okay, the answer is the bigger rewards are in property development, if we can just manage the risk around it.' And especially right now in a cooling market, it's more of a buyer's market and sellers are more open to being negotiable.
A yield of $400,000 is more than just a little deal— she lets us in on how she came across it, and how she put it together to be so successful.
[00:09:20] That was blood, sweat and tears, that one. So it was before the Internet was as advanced as it was and that the sharing of knowledge, there weren't as many tools available. So I just got very specific about it. So I think I was talking about the property developer who was my client who did really well out at Kellyville. I modelled myself off him and I was looking at what he was doing. And he was just an area expert. So I reverse engineered his process and I just chose an area.
[00:09:55] And we were Northern Beaches of Sydney at the time, so we chose Wheeler Heights, which was a kind of less salubrious area, more working class, sort of near Collaroy but not as nice. So I just really, really got to know that area, physically went into Council— of course you can do this all online these days— but physically went in and pulled out the massive maps of colour coding, looked at zonings and looked at what was zoned what were.
[00:10:26] So I knew that the council had identified this suburb in this region in their planning as what they call infill. So greenfields is like Kellyville, like I said, it's all just farmland. And they've said, 'Okay, the growth corridors are moving out that way, with our urban planning, we're going to build infrastructure out there. And we'll allow smaller blocks.' So farms can be subdivided off. Infill means, where they say, 'Well, okay, not everybody is gonna want to live that far out. There is still a need for dwellings closer in already built up urban areas.' But demographics have changed so much so that people who, 50 years ago when it wasn't common to have divorce, when people got married at 21 and started their own homes and their own families. Now, there's a lot more demand for a lot smaller homes, people are staying single for longer. There's split families, and it's just very normal.
Aha! A Solution
They had identified this area was mainly inhabited by baby boomers who no longer needed their large homes, but didn’t want to leave the suburb. Luckily, there was a solution.
[00:11:49] So they'd zoned certain parts. So they'd said, 'From number 35, to number 85 Smith Street, we'll allow subdivision.' And it had to have certain frontage and certain land size and setbacks.
[00:12:04] And so I got myself really, really familiar with the rules and the requirements. And I looked at also colour coding, I physically walked the streets and drove around, I went to open for inspections every Saturday and listened to who was turning up, what the market was wanting. And I went around to the agents and said, 'If anything comes up, if any of these numbers in the streets come up for sale, or anyone wants to sell, let me know.'
[00:12:29] No one did. But I was driving around one Sunday— because I was very, very focused— and there was a 'For Sale' sign outside one of the houses that I wanted. So I rang the agent— because I'd only just spoken to one of the agents— and he said, 'Yeah, sure, I'll let you know.'
[00:12:46] So I rang him up and said that. He said, 'Oh, has the sign gone up on that already? I didn't know.' And he said, 'That's an old lady, she needs to go into a home, they're wanting a quick sale, so I didn't realise that it had gone up so quickly.' So we were able to move really quickly. Unconditional contracts, short settlement. And so we negotiated that one well.
[00:13:09] And then we kept the house that was there and we did a little renovation ourselves. And we sold off the front block, because we had no money and we were so risk averse, we needed to cut down the loss so we sold off the front block. And that basically paid us back so we were debt free on the back block. And we just went out to Home World because we'd never done it before, and AV Jennings knew the Council, knew the zoning, knew the area. So they got it all approved. And they built it up to lock up point.
[00:13:44] So I think we bought these... these numbers are vague, but it had a two in front of it that we paid for it back in those days. We sold the front block for $290,000. So there wasn't much of a premium for a bigger block in that area. Just a weird market, you didn't get much more from having an 800 square metre block than a 500 square metre block. So it didn't matter so much that we cut off the back yard. And then the rest was profit. And we sold the back house for $400,000 odd, which meant at the end of the day when everything was put through, the stamp duty and everything else, it was $400,000 odd profit.
[00:14:29] That's fantastic. So to clarify, when you say splitter block, is that the equivalent word of subdivision as well?
[00:14:35] Yes, sorry. So I split one block into two.
[00:14:40] And that seems to be a good starting point, right, for, say, a person who wants to get into property development to make some profit from that rather than jumping in and building like a four or five or 10 pack townhouse or apartments.
[00:14:52] Yeah, that's exactly right. Because they're hedging their bets and they can... if something goes wrong, which it inevitably does, you've still got a property that you can rent out. Or for me, we still sold off the first book so we weren't carrying a lot of debt. And if you can delegate, I find property developing actually easier and safer.
[00:15:14] Because even though it sounds counterintuitive, not many people do it because it's perceived risky and unique. It's perceived that you need expertise, which just isn't the case. And everyone piles into residential lending and flipping properties like they've seen The Block. And there's a lot of competition, so it's harder to buy well when you're competing with everybody else, but there's not much competition in the development space.
[00:15:45] You're also not bound by APRA. So the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority controls lending and credit in our markets and how banks can lend. And right now they're really targeting residential lending. So this idea of responsible lending, and banks have to be really careful who they lend to and how they lend.
[00:16:05] And what that has meant is that it's getting harder and harder to get a loan. They're cutting back interest only loans, so it's like a game of musical chairs. Everyone's on interest only loans because they've all been speculating in a hot market, but they only last for five years. So as those loans fall due, banks aren't going to offer interest only again. So people will be having to pay down principal and interest, but they can't afford to on the current lending criteria.
[00:16:32] So that's what we're seeing, a lot more distress as people who bought and borrowed when times were good, in a tougher market now can't refinance and can't pay principal and interest. And in the development space, it's a different area of lending. So it's not bound by APRA. It's not residential lending. It's actually what they call commercial lending. Now, that's not commercial as in business, they call it commercial because they look at a property development venture as they would a business venture. So they're not approving you as a borrower. They're approving your deal and the profit in it.
[00:17:12] And that's so true. And I think there's also other options as well, which I've heard about. You could also do joint ventures with say for example, other money partners or even with the vendor, and so forth. So you're not risky by APRA, for example, in that space, which is really powerful.
[00:17:35] And the profits are so much larger, that there's just more of the pie to go around. So that like he said, you can afford to pay more, pay money partners out, get investors on board. Because you're creating something that wasn't there before. It was a vacant block of land, now it's five townhouses. Whereas if it's just a house that you're putting a new kitchen and bathroom in, the profits are so minimal that you end up having to do a lot of the work yourself. Because if you're paying trades, there's nothing left over. So just bigger pie, bigger rewards means more for everyone. It's a win win.
She Goes Where the Opportunities Take Her
Not one to be tied down to any particular area, she goes where the opportunities are, no matter how far they are from her backyard.
[00:18:25] I'll get in whatever's going! So at the moment, we're involved in one in Fitzroy, in Melbourne. And we've got one at Newport in Sydney that we're involved in, and another one in Cairns, in Queensland.
[00:18:52] You're not bound by your local market. We've got project managers on the ground, obviously watching the day to day.
To get from subdivisions to developments and options, she started small.
[00:19:19] The first one, we actually got project builders to do it. And what I decided we would do— and that's the beauty of development— is that every step of the way, you're adding value and someone will pay you more for that.
[00:19:33] So even if you secure an option on a property, you can then go and get a DA and you can onsell it to someone else who pay you more for it because it's got a DA and it's the time value of money. A developer will come in and it's like, 'Okay, great. All I have to do is start building now.' So even that small step will add value. You don't have to go out and build 100 apartments straight up.
Want to Make $7 Million? Utilise Gossip
Now that the world’s a lot more savvy and the Internet is much more sophisticated than in its early days, she recommends and makes use of the abundance of tools available online to help with developments.
[00:20:26] CoreLogic, you've probably heard of and your listeners have heard of RP Data. So CoreLogic are an American company, but they've come to Australia and they've bought up all of the data sources in Australia when it comes to property. So they pretty much own that space.
[00:20:43] And they recently bought a business called Coredell that developers used. So it was quite niche. But with Cordell, it's not just for builders. Once you know what's available and what's possible, what that will tell you is— I look at it like a gossip, like a gossipy neighbour— they have been around for 100 years. And they tap into Council and they also look at what's happening, who's applied or inquired about development, what developments are going through, what stage they're up to, like, they'll physically look and they'll update their database.
[00:21:20] For example, recently, from our community, there was one at Lidcombe. And that was the growth corridor in Sydney. And what they did was there was an old service station, and so they got it on an option. And they paid 1% option fee. So they agreed on $10 million, and they paid 1% of that. So they paid $100,000. But they then went to Council, and they had to do— don't get me wrong, they still had to do stuff. And it did cost some money on the way through. Hundreds of thousands in soil contamination reports and all sorts of things to do with the service station.
[00:22:01] But at the end of the day, for $350,000 they turned an abandoned service station into something completely different. It was a DA for 94 apartments and retail space on the bottom. And they'd been working with Council. It was an infill area, Council wanted to see that in the area. So they wanted that sort of infrastructure there. And all these guys were doing was delivering to the Council and market what it wanted.
[00:22:33] And they were then able to use Cordell's to say, 'Okay, who are the developers in Lidcombe?' And they'll show you, 'This guy's just finished building 100 apartments and it's completed,' or, 'This one's halfway through.' And it's almost like a Rolodex that you'd have if you've been in the industry for 20 years. They were able to approach them and say, 'We've got this and this is the approval.' And they could buy that option off them. And they made many millions of dollars just in that. So the option was for $10 million, but they on sold it to the developer. So they were buying it as a service station. But the developer was buying it as a DA approved site for 94 apartments and retail and he paid $17 million.
[00:23:39] How long did that process from finding that site to, say, getting a DA approval take for that particular person who actually did all that legwork?
[00:23:48] So the option period was for 12 months, but we also had a clause in there that said that we could extend it for another six months just in case things went wrong in Council. So they didn't pay their $100,000 option fee without knowing. So they were kind of massaging both sides. So they were talking to town planners at Council about what was possible. In the meantime, they were talking to the owner. And so when they bought the option from the owner, they knew that Council was on board with their idea. And then they ended up doing it in 12 months, but if we needed to, we could have had an extension on the option for another six months, just in case.
[00:24:49] The zoning fit though, so it was compliant. It wasn't like they were having to ask for some special exception and some discretionary thing on the part of Council. But yeah, they did no upfront, like, 'Is this possible? And with this zoning? All things being equal could you do this?' And Council was like, 'Yep, we'd be really happy to see that as long as there's some green areas and this and that.' So they knew in principle, it was possible.
Turning to mindset, there have been a couple of books that helped her in her darkest days— and they may not be the ones you’d expect.
[00:25:54] For me, a mentor may not be a physical person, it may be just a book that I'm reading. I'm a big reader. And I would read anything and everything. I'm embarrassed to tell you, Tyrone, but I'll tell you the truth. Like, back in the early days, I actually from rock bottom, I read Donald Trump's The Art of The Comeback. So that was about him because he's in the Guinness Book of Records for the greatest ever financial turnaround.
[00:26:25] And so I read The Art of The Comeback, and then I read The Art of The Deal, like his first book. That's why I'm a bit embarrassed to say Donald Trump! But I would think in any situation, like the Ballina apartment, I'd go, 'Okay, so what would Donald Trump do now? What would he do in this situation?' Just so like... not that I could ring him up as a mentor and say 'What can I do?!' but I could at least leverage his knowledge and try and model myself off things like that.
Mindset Over Matter
[00:26:54] But I have had physical coaches and mindset coaches. So as an educator, I just had a lot of blockages. It's kind of a male world, the property education space, and speaking from the stage, and I wasn't good at it. So I actually had to go and get help with that. And I first went to a— I don't know, the lawyer in me, I'm just black and white— and it's like, okay, I just need to learn to do public speaking. It's different from talking to judges and juries, I just had to get someone to tell me how to do stage speaking.
[00:27:29] And that didn't really work or translate to me. And then I saw a guy, like I was waiting to go on stage at an event. And there was this guy speaking. And he was a mindset speaker. And I was listening to him thinking, 'God you're good. And I love everything you say.' So I actually said to him, 'Can you teach me how to speak?' And he said, 'It's not about speaking, it's about what's in your head and your blockages and you're making that a self fulfilling prophecy.' So he still coaches me to this day on my mindset.
[00:28:01] Wow, that's phenomenal. Now, I'd love to know who this guy is.
[00:28:05] You've probably seen him, he's been around a long time, Paul Blackburn.
[00:28:18] That's what we came to realise, I had a whole lot of baggage and Catholic guilt and everything. I had massive dialogues going on in my head, like, while I was on stage, and the lawyer in me. And I've softened up a little bit now. But you can imagine, Tyrone, like questions that you're asking me now, like, you'd be saying, 'Well, tell us a bit about that deal.' And I'd be like, 'Oh, I've got to get a nondisclosure. And I can't talk about that. And if I say $400,000, and it was actually $405,000 is that misleading and deceptive?' And I had all of that baggage following me around.
She did a lot of work with Blackburn to overcome her blockages, reading his books and answering his questions. As with anything else she does, it’s an endless learning journey.
[00:29:28] Like obviously, the bigger you get, the more success you get, there's also an element of downside with that. So even more recently, we're getting more into an online space and I'm starting to want to share a lot more knowledge and doing content marketing and the greater your reach you do get some detractors.
[00:29:52] I had such a soft underbelly that my husband actually forbade me to read emails after nine o'clock because one night, I read a bad email, like someone wrote something, just in a service business, a customer complaint. And I just took it so to heart that I'd be waking him up in the middle of the night at 2am going, 'Hey, hey, are you awake? You know how that person said that, did you think this? Did you think that?'
[00:30:16] So Paul did a lot of work with me and I have this weakness where I need to be liked. And so if I need to be liked, then that means that I'm giving away some power, because I can't control what people think of me. But if I'm wanting that approval, or some sort of verification from others, then that's a weakness because it's outside of my control.
[00:30:40] So it's been a big journey for me to even have a Facebook page and be online and embrace the digital age, which you have to do in business, or you're going to die. But for me, that also means that people can write negative comments. And if I don't toughen up and get a thicker skin and learn that it's okay that not everyone has to like you, and you can't please all the people all the time, then I'll never get ahead in business.
Don’t Let Others Steal Your Time
[00:31:22] What do you think's been the best advice you've ever received?
[00:31:27] Oh, wow, that's a big one. Lots and lots of gems along the way. If I had to pick one, it would be to— and this is something that someone told me very early on— it was to just guard your time with your life. It was actually a barrister who said to me, 'We worry so much about losing money. But when you lose money, you can get money back again. We would be just outraged if someone stole some of our property or possessions. And yet we let people steal our time every day.' And he said, 'You've only got 24 hours in a day, it's yours to make the most with, whatever way you can.' And it comes back to being liked. He said, 'The number of people who just don't say no to things.' And I read a quote Warren Buffett said, a measure of success, successful people often say no to things more than ordinary people. So just learning to be that focus that you can have the guts to say 'No, I'm sorry, that doesn't suit,' so that your day's not reactionary.
As for personal habits, Grubisa credits Blackburn for what she calls her personal success routine which has helped her take back control of her own time.
[00:32:58] I would often let the day invade my time. And I'd kind of start my day on the backfoot. Because the first thing I do— I'd always have good intentions to do something like I'm going to exercise, I'm going to set the alarm, like at night, after you've eaten a meal and had a glass of wine, you're feeling good, but you're feeling a bit guilty. I'd think, 'Right, this is it, tomorrow I'm up at five and I'm going to the gym or I'm doing whatever.'
[00:33:23] And I'd set my alarm for five and then five would come and I'd just hit snooze. And it was just so easy to go, 'Do I feel like it? I just really don't feel like it.' And then when I did wake up later on, the first thing I'd do is reach on my phone and then I'd look at emails and then I'd start answering emails. And then the tail was wagging the dog. Because I was jumping to other people's requests and demands and my day would just sort of fall through the day without any real plan.
[00:33:51] So I've got this thing now where my alarm goes off at five every morning. And I don't know if you've read Mel Robbins, so before my brain can even say, 'Do I feel like going for a swim?' Like, of course I don't feel like going for a swim at five o'clock. But before that dialogue even kicks off in my head, I just go, '5, 4, 3, 2, 1, my feet are on the ground, I'm in the car, I'm driving to the pool.'
[00:34:15] And then swimming for me is like meditation. So every stroke, I'm just counting and my brain can just make plans. I can organise my day and then I'm in charge of the day from there because I've just set out with that intention. And that's sort of my catalyst, my comfort zone of how I launch my day.
[00:35:21] So say for example, if you met yourself 10 years ago, what would you say to her?
[00:35:27] I'd say, 'Hang in there. It gets better.' Because 10 years ago was a low point for us. 10 years ago was the GFC. You kind of don't realise it though, when you're in the eye of the storm. 10 years ago, I may have even given up. Just the little things just seem so overwhelming. But yeah, you don't need to see the whole staircase, only the first step. So I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other to climb out of the hole. And then new opportunities present themselves if you just keep in motion. As I say, a body in motion stays in motion.
As a person who loves to inspire and work with other people, her five year plan involves a lot of that in addition to her development journey— which she plans to extend beyond just property.
[00:36:27] We've created— and as I was saying, getting into the digital space— a community of like minded people all doing the same thing nationally. So partnering with each other on deals, money partners. One of our values here at DG Institute is challenge the status quo. So I think we're living in really, really exciting times.
[00:36:50] So one of the things we're doing, for example, is setting up a peer to peer lending platform. So it's kind of like crowdfunding for property within our community. And that's a new area of financial technology that ASIC is behind at the moment. They want Australia to be blazing a trail. And it's like Uber was for taxis and Airbnb for hotels, it's disruptive change in the banking space.
Thank you to Dominique Grubisa, our guest on this episode of Property Investory.