Real estate for the wise woman. Self-taught expert shares her buying and renovating tips

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Suzanne Brangham started her real estate career in 1972 with $9,600, enough to cover the cost of renovating a dilapidated San Francisco condominium. She sold it within a year with a $23,000 profit. This sale not only buoyed her confidence and enabled her to buy more property, but also started her on the road to financial independence. She has over the past 15 years bought, renovated, and sold 71 residential properties, all of which were richly satisfying and rewarding projects.

``Although I had worked at teaching, advertising, and interior design, I was looking for a career change that was both creative and moneymaking,'' Ms. Brangham said in New York recently.

She was here to help launch her book, ``Housewise, The Smart Woman's Guide to Buying and Renovating Real Estate for Profit'' (Clarkson N. Potter, $18.95), in which she shares what she has learned in the 15 years she has been doing just that.

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``So many women have told me they'd like to do something similar - or at least the renovation of their own home - but have felt they had neither the talent nor the creativity to do so. I wanted to give them courage and know-how and show them the possibilities.

``Renovating real estate for profit is actually an ideal profession for a woman. We love making a home. We shop. We bargain. We supervise other people. We pay the bills. But few women realize the marketability of their decorating and management skills, acquired in taking care of their own homes.

``Yes,'' she admits, she fumbled along at first, ``but by my third house I had gained 80 percent of my education and knew the basics of how to deal with real estate agents, bankers, accountants, lawyers, contractors, and architects, and what to do to a house to make it sell.

``I went through several contractors before I found the ones who would deliver the quality of work that I demanded. I learned to show them how much I really cared, and that helped them to care more, too. And I learned never to skimp on any aspect of the renovation. And never to put good money into bad products nor into houses that were not well located.''

Her theory has been to buy properties in the best neighborhoods she could afford (``I like to buy the worst house on the best block'') and to hire the people who could do the work as quickly and as perfectly as possible.

``I am a perfectionist,'' she explains, ``but I think people are willing to pay for the quality that perfectionism produces. After all, the place is going to be their home, and they want the best. They also want pizazz, not potential. I'm the one who looks for potential - the shabby Cinderella-of-a-place that my renovation job will make beautiful for the ball.''

What brings success?

``Before you start, you do a lot of homework and footwork. You search out the best real estate agents - those who can take you to the best neighborhoods and who know the best houses and can show you comparable values.

``You use such other `tools of the trade' as newspapers, real estate magazines, classified ad sections, and open houses. You do a lot of research in the savings-and-loan and banking industry to find out what you can afford and how much you can borrow, and how you get appraisals.''

All this helpful information comes absolutely free, although anyone serious about entering the field has to dig it out for herself. ``Once I acquire a property, I get superb consulting advice for between $50 and $100 an hour from experts such as architects and interior designers. An architect can stand in front of a house for a couple of hours and come up with a sketch pad full of helpful ideas.''

What features sell a house?

``Really good kitchens, closets, and bathrooms,'' says Brangham without pausing for breath.

And who decides which house to buy?

``Invariably the wife, although she expects her husband to figure out the financing. It is the wife, though, who spots shortcomings and knows what will work for the family and what will not. A good house without sufficient closets will send her bolting out the door.''

Brangham also emphasizes ``curb appeal.''

``You have to make sure that when the prospective buyer drives up, he wants to go inside. He wants the house to look good from the street. That's why I often paint the front door a wonderful color and invest in good landscaping and exterior lighting, as well as window boxes overflowing with flowers.''

She believes in manicuring houses right up to the most handsome doorknobs she can find. It is these things, she says, that often produce the biggest return for the least amount of money.

Brangham has completely gutted some houses in the renovation process, but has also found houses in good neighborhoods that needed only an inside/outside paint job, new floor covering, and new appliances. If she has a choice, she prefers wood floors over tile and carpeting.

As for paint colors, when selling a house unfurnished, she says, you have to be neutral in color choices in order to create a flow through the house.

``I just try to make the interior as attractive, elegant, simple, and tasteful as possible. I also believe in wonderful and top-quality chandeliers, polished brass hardware, and great-looking faucets. These are important because people look at and `feel' them every day.''

Brangham presently has a five-bedroom, five-bath home in San Francisco plus several fully furnished condos that she leases out. ``This is the first time I've been dressed up in 12 weeks,'' she declared at our interview. ``Usually I'm in overalls and work clothes because I get in there and work as well as supervise.''

In her book, she details her own experiences and gives step-by-step instructions on how to proceed, including how to find a professional inspector and a smart tax accountant, how to establish credit and secure a loan, and how to plan a new kitchen and an additional bathroom.

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