DOW JONES AND MARKET WATCH PRESENT: How this bartender built a multimillion-dollar real-estate portfolioOct 14, 2023
https://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-this-bartender-built-a-multimillion-dollar-real-estate-portfolio-7c186c8cHow This Bartender Built A Multi-Million Dollar Real- Estate Portfolio!
Since Melanie Bajrovic left the bar industry and became a millionaire real-estate investor, she’s usually in bed by 10 p.m.
It’s a change after almost two decades working in bars, first in the kitchen; later as a hostess, server and bartender; then as a manager; and, finally, a bar owner. In her bar days, her nights could end closer to dawn.
Now, rather than pour drinks or manage a staff, Bajrovic oversees a property portfolio in and around her hometown of Niagara Falls, Canada, valued at more than $3 million U.S., and collects passive income from rent and a construction business. She doesn’t employ a property manager, but works with contractors to fix problems as they arise. One of her houses is a waterfront short-term rental that she recently put on the market, and she said she makes the 50-minute drive herself if a tenant needs something.
“I always say to people, if you treat this like a hobby, it’s going to pay you like a hobby,” said Bajrovic, also known as “The Wealthy Barmaid,” the title of her 2017 book. “It has to be treated as a business, and that’s how it pays you as a business.”
Bajrovic wound up in Niagara Falls via her maternal grandparents, who fled communist Yugoslavia for Canada with minimal money and possessions in 1970. Her grandma, grandpa, mom and uncle arrived first to the home of Bajrovic’s great-uncle in Orillia, Ontario, and within months the family settled in Niagara Falls, which was home to a community of fellow Serbians.
‘I always say to people, if you treat this like a hobby, it’s going to pay you like a hobby.’
Her grandparents worked odd jobs before opening their first restaurant, becoming successful business and property owners in the Niagara region.
“Not only did they survive here, but they thrived, and they are really where I got my work ethic from,” Bajrovic said. Her grandfather also advised her that she needed two things in life: a business and real estate.
Her parents opened their own bar and restaurant, Harry’s New York Bar, just outside Niagara Falls not long after Bajrovic was born. Several years later, they launched a larger one, Moe’s. Bajrovic said she started working at Harry’s at 12, in the kitchen, and her parents didn’t pay her in the early years — children were expected to pitch in. At Moe’s, she became a server, then a bartender, and later, when she was still a teenager, a manager.
Once her parents began to pay her Canada’s minimum wage for servers, her mom set aside her wages rather than give them to her. At the time, Bajrovic didn’t need them; she was living at home with minimal expenses while going to school, and saving a large portion of her tips.
She organized lucrative shows inspired by the film “Coyote Ugly,” where she and other young female employees would dance on the bar for tips. At 22, she decided she wanted to buy her first house, and realized she had enough money from tips and wages to make it happen.
“Because my mother had been saving all my wages, I just asked her to hand over all the money that she saved for me,” she recalled.
With her grandfather’s advice in mind, she bought a single-family house 10 minutes from downtown Niagara Falls, close to restaurants, nightlife and tourist attractions. It was an estate sale, and she recalled getting it for “a super great deal” at C$147,000, or about $106,900 U.S.
She got a conventional mortgage without a co-signer and put down 15%, a move she later thought of as a mistake: She could have avoided paying mortgage insurance if she’d made a full 20% down payment.
“I have never repeated that again,” she said.
Bajrovic was self-taught but got advice from her real-estate agent, who was himself an investor. After working at the bar to pay for renovations to her first property, she went on to buy four more single-family homes as rental properties. She worked three part-time jobs spread out during the week while going to school, and lived with her parents to keep expenses down. For a year, she lived in Toronto, working a day job in marketing and a night job at a bar in a trendy neighborhood, while driving back to Niagara Falls for occasional shifts at Moe’s. Ultimately, she earned a bachelor’s degree and an MBA, which she said were self-funded.
While she was collecting rental income, she needed a co-signer for the last two houses because her income wasn’t high enough, and her parents obliged.
At 27, she said, she decided to get into commercial real estate and open her own bar. So she bought a building in St. Catharines, outside Niagara Falls, using her residential properties as collateral. She opened a bar, Monty’s Gastropub, and said agents have told her the building’s value has soared over the last decade.
When she sold the bar in 2020, she kept the building. By then, she had positioned herself to not need to work at a bar or a traditional 9-to-5 job.
Bajrovic has had her share of struggles as a landlord. She’s had problem tenants who cost her thousands in unpaid rent and damages, and serious maintenance setbacks. In the early days of Monty’s, “I was always renovating,” she recalled. She has learned to not skimp on checking tenants’ references and credit scores, though her more careful vetting hasn’t always guaranteed success.
She considers herself retired from the bar world. But as a self-described entrepreneur, Bajrovic has a construction business and produced a burlesque show called “The Champagne Showgirls.”
She loves glitz and sparkle, which shows through the “Showgirls” performers’ racy outfits and the glittery decor in her home (she owns it and, ever money-minded, rents out a basement apartment). She’s also well traveled, and plans to take advantage of her flexible schedule to do more of that.
While jobs in bars largely funded her ascent to financial freedom, Bajrovic said she doesn’t miss any of their downsides, like late nights, bar fights and drama.
“Life has changed in a wonderful way,” she said, “especially without the bar industry.”
- Dow Jones, Market Watch
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