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How to Get Started & Do Over $50 Million in Real Estate Deals in 14 Years

The following is my interview with Justin Lee CEO of JL Investing. During our interview he covered a lot of great tools for someone looking for their first deal. 
He Covers:
1. Direct Mail Marketing
2. Bandit Signs
3. The Financial Challenges
4. How to know if Real Estate is right for You 
If you are interested in taking action, this interview walks you though what specifically to do! 
“How did you get started in Real Estate?”            
I worked in Corporate America for six years in Telecom in the late ‘90s and then after the Dotcom bubble burst, and 9/11 happened, I was working for an optical networking company.  
That was selling equipment to people like Verizon and Comcast and I had went on to a meeting with, I had a meeting with Verizon, and I’m driving back with my boss, to the Train Station to New York, New Jersey, exactly a week before Thanksgiving in 2001, so right after 9/11. And I get to the Train Station,

I pull up, my boss says: “Justin, we made some changes”,
I said: “What’s that?”
And she says: “We are no longer going to need you”,
and I say: “What do you mean?”
And she says: “You’re being laid off.”
And so I said, “Do you want me to go to Verizon appointment tomorrow?”
And she says: “You can go right past Philadelphia, stay on the train, go straight to Washington D.C. and FedEx us to your laptop tomorrow.”

And, at that time, on that train ride, I got on the phone, I was speaking with my wife Dreama.
I said: “You’d never guess what I got today!”
And she said: “You got the Verizon account!”
I said: “Nope!”
She said: “You got the Comcast account!”  
I said: “Nope!”
She said: “What’d you get?”
I said: “I got laid off.”

And we sort of chuckled about it and I made a decision at that point that, I shouldn’t say: “made a decision at that point”, at that point, I strongly started wondering whether I wanted to stay in Corporate America.
And about a month later, right before Christmas we were hanging out, and at the time Dreama was my girlfriend, and said to me “you know, what would you be doing if you weren’t dating me right now?”
And I said: “honestly, I’d probably just go bag packing round South-East Asia and at the time, she was a lobbyist, working in D.C.”

She said “I hate my job, I’m going to quit, let’s do it.”

And we backpacked around South-East Asia for four months, came back.

I said: “well, I got to get a job now and try to get a job in Telecom.”
And the downturn at Telecom at that time was even worse and I realized very quickly that I was competing for jobs with guys who had 10 or 15 years more experience than me.

I said: “you know what? To hell with this. I want to start my own business anyway.” And I went and talked to a few buddies and a buddy of mine and they said: “You know, my older brother owns a Mortgage Brokerage, and if you went to work for him as a Loan officer, it’d be the closest thing that you’d get to running your own business in the short-term here.”

And so I met with this guy, we hit it off and I started working with him and he said: “listen, if you’re going to be a loans officer, you got to figure out- like friends and family are great, but you got to figure out- a niche to get leads.”
I had no clue and he said: “one of the most lucrative niches at the time, and this would have been in 2002. He says: “well, you should get into bad credit, refinances.” And back in 2002, you could still refinance your way out of a foreclosure.
So I went down to the Courthouse, and I sort of came to understand the ‘foreclosure process’ in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia and the Tri-State area and started doing this. Well as I learned more about the foreclosure process, I realized that refinancing your way out of foreclosure, you have to have a boat load of equity, you can’t even do that anymore but back then, you could. But it wasn’t the only option for the Homeowner and there were other options for them right? Do a short sale, list it with a Realtor or sell it to an Investor.
So at the time, I started the website ‘’ which I’ve since sold. But we started offering foreclosure solutions. This was even before “the boom” even happened. And obviously before “the bust” even happened, but I started marketing for deals and in 2003, I flipped my first house, I’ll never forget her name. Her name is Regina R******* and her present wages were being garnished by the IRS and I made twenty seven grand and the rest is history.
That’s incredible. That’s a great story. I mean you have a really inspiring story for a lot of people Justin...
Yeah, well, yeah, I don’t know how inspiring it is but, I was also the guy that before I flipped my first house, I had gone through six months’ worth of seminars and boot camps and all that stuff. And I had all this knowledge in my head. I would say that the biggest thing was that I never really took any action when it came to marketing and or looking for sellers and that was sort of the magic that turned the tide for me.
So, you can read about Real Estate, you can study about Real Estate, until you get out there and start talking to sellers and making offers, you’re never going to do a deal.
What roadblocks did you have then when you were first getting started and you were trying to gain clients?
I would just say the roadblocks were just knowing where to find the deals. The best place to find the deals, were to actually do some marketing. So it wasn’t until I actually spent some money, and invested some money and marketed my business to start looking for deals, that I bought any property. So I don’t necessarily, as an Investor, I don’t necessarily consider myself finding clients but, I would consider myself always looking for sellers and you have got to put marketing out there to be able to have sellers find you as an investor.
What was one of the initial techniques that you used to start marketing your accounts?
So, you are going to laugh. I have evolved!  Well the very first technique which is how I got that very first deal, you are going to laugh. It was putting up those really crewed bandit signs. The signs said, “Like we buy houses and stuff?”
And that’s how I actually got my very first deal. Then once I got that deal, and I made that twenty-seven grand and I was fortunate. I said, you know what I have got to do something a little bit more, you know professional let’s say. And I built a website, and I started a direct mail campaign and I drove traffic to the website through direct mail and through search engine optimization.
But even today, direct mail is our bread and butter for marketing and finding deals and finding sellers.
Was there a specific tool that you used though? Was there a specific direct mail tool that you used?
when I started, I didn’t have a lot of money and I used to do it all on my own. So there was a guy in D.C. who sold the data. So I would buy the data in an excel spreadsheet, I would literally print my own postcards at home, because I couldn’t afford to use a Printing service. I would print my own labels. I would like, send them, “post card #1” and I would have a reminder in the calendar, like 30 days later to send them “post card #2”, and it was pretty crafts and pretty awful, but I didn’t have this huge marketing budget so I printed a lot of postcards.  I hand wrote a lot of letters, and it was very painful but it was the necessary evil to, you know, put in the time to get to where I knew that I wanted to be. So it was not glamorous at all at the beginning.
You literally started with some “bandit signs” and then some direct mail that you basically finagled yourself! You did not have it professionally designed! I would imagine, you probably did everything yourself from beginning “A to Z” That was all?
It was an ugly postcard, printed at home, no professional copywriting or anything like that.
You can be completely novice and terrible at copywriting or design and still do a deal?
Absolutely! I think the biggest thing is most people think is; “Man, I got to have this beautiful website”, or “I got to have this”, you know, “…hire this marketing company to build these beautiful campaigns.”
You just gotta get some mail out! In fact, if there is anything we have learnt over time, is that specifically when looking for sellers, we find: “uglier, is better”.
Was there a greater struggle that you feel that you had when you first got started, when you first started outside of locating sellers? Was there something that happened along the way that became a huge challenge for you?
I just think that the greatest challenge was, nobody has written me a paycheck, like a regular salary W2 paycheck, for the last sixteen years of my life. Or actually,  it will be sixteen years this Thanksgiving.  
So there are times where you are wondering, you know, I don’t think mine ever got as dramatic as “how am I going to keep the lights on?” But there were times when the company had debt, there were times where I wasn’t taking a salary, where I wasn’t paying myself.
I would say that the biggest struggle or challenge was taking that leap of faith and saying: “I know I can do this and there might be some short-term financial pain, you know, but at the end of the day, now, for the last fifteen years, I am in control of my life. I don’t have to worry about somebody laying me off outside of a Train Station in Newark, New Jersey and you know, I mean, I just took basically, you know, the month of August, for lack of a better word I will say, I took it off. I mean sure, I “worked”, but you know, I was driving from Vancouver to San Diego. I went to Panama for 2 ½ weeks, so in the end it was all worth it but what people see in entrepreneurs is they might see, like the lifestyle of the success.  They definitely don’t see the struggles, the stress, the anxiety that you know, you talk to anybody who owns their own business and I would say, except for that 1% that “catch lightning in a bottle” and has had a homerun success from day one, almost anybody has been through that.”
What did you do to overcome those personal financial struggles when the business was making some money and you weren’t taking a paycheck. What specifically did you do?
Well, I was fortunate, in that, when I started the business Dreama still had a full time employment. But then she quit her job in 2005, in year two of the business and so from that point on, we were on our own with no outside support.
It was just, having the conviction and the fortitude to know that “you know what, there might not be any revenue coming in this week or this month, but you know, we are going to keep at this thing and we have confidence in ourselves and we are going to press forward and we are not going to quit. But, there were definitely times when we looked at each other and said, ”One of us are going to have to go get a job. This is not working’”.
What are you most excited about with your business moving forward?
I am really working on, right now, a lot of systems and growing my team. I have just finished, I shouldn’t say “just”.  A few months ago, I finished a book that talks about the Entrepreneurial Organizational System (EOS) by Geno Wickham. Traction!
We are implementing Traction in our business right now or I guess the Entrepreneurial Organization System and really concentrating on building a team and making our business more efficient and more streamlined.
I have an interview today, actually. Well, I am interviewing somebody today who we have chatted a few times over the phone and I am excited about the possibility of bringing her on board to our team and that is the big thing! It is big thing that we are working on right now, that is what we are most excited about.
If there is somebody who is considering giving up a Real Estate career, what advice would you give that person?
I mean you know I guess it would depend on what section of Real Estate they were in. But some general things that I would say: you know what?

First off, look yourself in the mirror and say: “Are you quitting because you don’t like Real Estate or are you quitting because you are not making enough money?” And if the answer is, “you are quitting because you don’t love Real Estate”, or “you are not passionate about it”, you know well that is an evaluation that you have.

But if you are quitting because “you are not making enough money”, I would encourage that person to say: “Are you doing everything that you can do? How bad do you want it? And the bottom line is: What are you doing?”

I mentor a lot of people in Real Estate investing and what I tell them is: “Everyday your mind-set needs to be ‘what are you doing – and this is from an investor’s perspective.  But it can be applied to an agent as well, from an investor’s perspective it’s- what are you doing today that is going to make your phone ring with a seller who wants to sell their house?’”
The same can be said of a Real Estate agent saying “What are you going to do today that is going to make your phone ring with somebody who wants to sell a house or buy a house?” “What are you doing for marketing?” I always say: Real Estate investing, or Real Estate in general is based on the number of contacts. The more contacts you make, the better you will do.
What is one thing that somebody could do, that if they were struggling, could get their phone to ring right now today with little money.
Send out some direct mail.

If you don’t have any, if you don’t have a budget for direct mail, go out and drive neighborhoods. Look for vacant houses.  If you find a house that is vacant, go knock on the door. Go chat up the neighbor and go see what is going on with it.

Can’t do that? Go down to the foreclosure auction. Right? You go to the foreclosure auction, they are guys with cash there looking for deals. Ask them what they are buying. Ask them where they are buying. Ask them, “You know, how many do you want to buy?” “Where do you want to buy?” Right? There is a million different things. Go into Craigslist, call some FSBO’s, ask them if they will sell you the house “on terms!” There is a million different things that you can do.
How can you get them to sell you the house on terms?
Ask them if they will take a discount on some house. Ask them why they are selling the home. Yeah you go on Craigslist and search ‘FSBO’ is it ‘a needle in a haystack’? I would say: “sure, maybe it is, but how badly do you want it?”
I actually, we actually spent the money on a hundred signs to get them printed, when we got started. But you know what? A lot of people say the handwritten ones worked the best.
I will give you a super-secret tip if you are desperate, and you will love this one.
Alright? You have no money okay, for marketing. Go to Home Depot , buy a piece of corrugated cardboard, ok? Write on that thing: “We buy houses”. Put your phone number on it. Go drive around your neighborhood or take a different route, to and from work or take a different route to or from to getting the kids from school or soccer practice or whatever it is that you do, alright? You come across a vacant house, right? Obviously I would go research whoever owns that vacant house.
Do you know what else I would do with that vacant house?  I would stick one of my signs in the yard.   Because if you put up those Bandit signs, you are technically alright? And I should say, I am ashamed to say it, but the reality is you can’t hammer a sign into a telephone poll, by lay of the law, you are violating some sort of civic, like, ordinance code. But if you stick it in the yard of a vacant property, number one: the sign police aren’t going to take it down and number two: the owner of the house is probably going to, at some point call you and say: “why the heck did you stick this sign in my yard?”
Now you can have a conversation: “Hey! Are selling your house?” And even better if that house happens to be in a high traffic location!
What motivates you to get up every day?
Number one is that I would say, probably six out of seven days of the week, I wake up and I got a pretty basic morning routine: I chug a glass of hot water with lemon, it’s an actual diuretic and then I go out and I get some exercise.  
I have participated in CrossFit for seven years. I recently quit that just because I thought I was beating the heck out of my body.
I just finished an August-long challenge where I needed to do over the course of months, between me and my partner, three thousand push ups, three thousand sit ups, three thousand burpees, three thousand chair dips, three thousand broad jumps and run or walk a hundred and sixty miles.
The partner I picked was my 10 year old daughter and we did this together, every day! Some days, it was short, it was fifteen minutes. Other days, by the time, we walked and, did the workouts it was a good forty five minutes or an hour but it was a really cool bonding experience with her.
I would say, number one: get up, do some physical movement, everyday sets me in a tone where, boom, “I have already accomplished something today”.
Even if you want to do not want to do some absurdly crazy workout: get up and go for a walk in the morning. Get up and do twenty push ups every day. Anything where you can just say: “I have accomplished something.”
Then ultimately, at the end of the day what motivates me, what motivates me to get up and work every day really is my wife, my children and being able to make enough money, not only to be able to support them, but to be able to have options in life.
I tell my kids; “You need to do well in school, not so you can go to college, so you can have the option to go to college if you so choose” and to me, life is all about options.
The more money I make, the more options I have at my disposal and that is what motivates me primarily. Options are what motivates me because in Real Estate, that is really how you are successful, if I understand things correctly, you’re putting yourself in position to have options.
One of the biggest things that we do is that when we sit down with a seller, we don’t try and hammer over their heads one option, we go in and we go, we could structure the deal: “A, B, C,…which one do you like best?”
We want to give them options, right?
That’s what we do. For me it is about getting my life to the point where Real Estate investing becomes something that I am doing only because I want to!  I am not there yet, but I would like to get to the point where I never have to do another deal in my life because I need to do it for revenue but the only reason why I do a deal because I choose to, not because I have to!
I am not there yet, but I am working towards it!

Justin Lee,
JL Investing, LLC (which runs is a boutique real estate investing company founded by the dedicated husband & wife team of Justin & Dreama Lee in 2003. We’re a family owned business and focus on helping homeowners like you find solutions for your problem whether you’re going through a foreclosure, can’t sell your property, or just need to sell their house for all kinds of reasons. Since our founding we have gone on to do well over $50 Million in real estate transactions!

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