MF 389 : Inspiring individuals : Debby Le
Updated: Jul 28, 2022
Debby Le is an attorney based in Atlanta, GA, and the founder of Debby Le Renovates, a company that specializes in renovating homes and investing in residential real estate. Today, you'll learn how Debby turned a side project into a full-time endeavor, and how she balances that with an equally busy law practice. More at www.bemovingforward.com.
Moving Forward is also available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher Radio, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Amazon Music.
Debby Le is an attorney based out of the Atlanta, GA area. While her day job keeps her plenty busy, she also runs a successful real estate investing and renovation business, Debby Le Renovates.
Real estate roots
Debby's first exposure to real estate came from her father. While a physician by trade, he also invested in residential real estate, including duplexes and triplexes, in Orange County, CA, where Debby grew up. Through osmosis, Debby learned about the landlord-tenant aspects of the business.
After graduating from law school, Debby had an epiphany and a rude awakening. She realized she couldn't afford a down payment on a starter home in Southern California, an area notorious for sky high real estate prices. She made the decision to move to the southeast, to Atlanta, to start her legal career. Atlanta was a logical choice as immigration law is an in-demand specialty. In addition, the area had more affordable housing, and was a prime area for any future endeavors in real estate development or investing.
Scratching an itch
Initially, when Debby settled in Atlanta, her ambition was to own her own home. She and her husband rented for two years while they built their careers and established roots. Around five years ago, Debby found her dream starter home, one that had a large backyard and would comfortably house her, her husband, their dogs, and any future kids. The owners, a married couple, were in a hurry to leave as the wife was pregnant and the husband had recently received a job promotion. However, the house was not officially on the market yet. Debby had discreetly found out about it through the owners' neighbors. Debby offered an "off market" price, which would bypass the red tape and avoid realtor fees. Moreover, Debby could close quickly since she was preapproved via her W2 through her day job.
Incidentally, or coincidentally (or by fate), the wife-owner was in the process of renovating the house in preparation to list it. Instead, Debby convinced her to sell it to her in its partially renovated state. The deal closed in two weeks and during this process, Debby remembered a contractor who had previously done renovation work for her husband. Debby contacted him to begin work on the house immediately after closing.
Debby had very specific changes she wanted to implement for the kitchen. Additionally, she wanted to replace all of the toilets. This ended up being Debby's first reno project but unbeknownst to her at time, would not be her last. She recruited several other contractors, and together as a team, they transformed this partially renovated house into a finished dream home.
From itch to successful side hustle
While Debby's goal was to update the kitchen and toilets in her new home, the process awakened a much larger ambition. She discovered a newfound confidence as she learned about plumbing, tiling, duct and electrical work. Moreover, the team she assembled gelled extremely well.
"We just found this ebb and flow, trial and error process that worked really well for us." -Debby Le
Debby got more than her dream house, she unknowingly beta tested a new business model. Like a superhero team-up origin story, she took them out to a celebratory dinner and suggested they work together on another home, or "maybe two or three more." They would combine their respective skills and assets to start a business. Debby would scout promising properties, while the contractors would renovate them, and together they would flip them for a profit.
Debby's business model can be summarized as follows:
"As long as two walls could stay up on a home, that means that house could be a renovated house." -Debby Le
A side hustle blossoms into a successful business
Debby put in a lot of time and hard work, slowly but steadily acquiring and renovating one housing project, and then another. She experienced major successes, scaling quickly, all while continuing to practice law full-time.
"The chemistry between all of us, and the dynamic between all three of us just worked out really well." -Debby Le
In speaking with Debby, she exhibits the confidence of a leader who knows how to delegate, manage her time, and troubleshoot problems as they arise. It also helps that she has the legal background and training to apply to her business. Debby approaches her renovation and real estate business with contracts and agreements that spell out in detail the relationships, obligations, and rewards. Because of this, she is able to provide a level of transparency and clarity to her clients that most of her competitors lack. This meticulous, detail oriented approach also minimizes misunderstandings and mistakes in assumptions within her team.
"Because I wrote down everything, when we were miscommunicating somewhere in the middle, I was like 'just refer back to the contact, all you have to do is go there because you signed off on it, I signed off on it. This is what we agreed on.'" -Debby Le
Facing a major test
As Debby reveals, starting her own business in real estate wasn't all sunshine and roses. While early success gave her and her team lots of motivation and drive, it had its downsides. As mentioned, they scaled quickly, taking on a third reno project while working on their second. However, her contractors couldn't keep up with the demands of two projects simultaneously. To compensate, Debby took on an additional crew to work on the third project, while her main contractor team completed the second one. Unfortunately, the second team didn't live up to expectations. Things took a turn for the worse when an inspector came by, discovered a gigantic hole, and declared that the house had to be torn down. Debby was informed of this while at work, which put her into crisis mode. All along, she had been told by the second team that there were no issues, and now an inspector had effectively put a halt to the entire project. This meant that the endeavor would incur, at a minimum, an additional $15-30k for a demolition permit and tear down costs.
"I knew something was off and my guys [second team] were not telling me." -Debby Le
While many would have hit the panic button and thrown in the towel, Debby took a step back and two days to assess the situation. The second team had dropped the ball on this project, which meant cost overruns that would potentially jeopardize the other project that the first team was still working on. Thankfully, Debby had established a full level of trust and a well oiled machine with her OG crew. She collected her thoughts, and called a meeting with her first team to apprise them of the situation. Moreover she asked a very important question.
"Is there something WE can do ..."
Debby's team stepped up and pulled out all the stops to manage both projects. Meanwhile, Debby went back to her investors and asked for more time by pitching a pivot: instead of a renovation, she proposed a complete tear-down and rebuild from the ground up. As Debby explains, the hole and the second team's lackluster performance prevented a renovation towards a "mediocre house." Debby flipped the script, offering her investors for something better: a beautiful "resume house," built from scratch. She doubled down on this vision by bringing in two more investors and padding some of her own money. As a result, her team was able to finish the second house, while backburnering the third. Afterwards, they turned their full attention, armed with more time and resources, into the third one.
"It was university 101 for building a new home." -Debby Le
Debby's head for business, her poise, resolve, and her ability to see the potential out of a disaster turned a batch of lemons into an enormous pitcher of lemonade.
Secret to success (not what you think)
With a full-time law practice and a side business that acts like, and enjoys the successes of a full-time entrepreneurial venture, you might assume that Debby doesn't have any free time or runs on two hours of sleep. Debby clears up any mistaken assumptions by sharing that she gets a full eight hours of sleep every night. It's not simply a nice to have, but a must for her to function properly and give the time and attention her business needs.
Debby learned early on that overdoing the "hustle and grind," which many of us hear and see praised on social media, would burned her out. While building the business in the early days required a lot of hours, as she established a rhythm and workflow with her team, she discovered how to segment her time to do her day job while managing renovation projects. The pandemic also played a part as Debby found the stay-at-home requirements lessening her law work, which meant she could invest more time into her side business.
"I make sure I get my downtime and rest time." -Debby Le
Today, Debby’s business continues to flourish and has expanded into new home construction. She’s still practicing law too, balancing two rigorous and demanding careers and loving every minute of it. For more on Debby, listen to today’s episode.
Resources for getting started and learning more about real estate / renovations
Debby's top three episodes:
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