It’s not easy for a single woman living in Greater Boston to earn enough money to retire comfortably, so Jackie Falla saw an opportunity and jumped in with both feet — and a hammer.
“I make a lovely salary, but it’s hard for a single girl to build wealth,” said Falla, client services director for Newton-based Elaine Construction. After much contemplation and calculating, Falla decided the best way to secure her future was to get into the real estate market herself.
She bought her first home in 2008, a one-bedroom condominium in Charlestown. “It was very much a time when banks were allowing people to have mortgages who shouldn’t have them,” Falla recalled. “I really shouldn’t have been able to get one.”
Yet she did. She scraped together a $15,000 down payment for the $300,000 unit — money that came from her scant savings and holiday bonus. Falla, who is in her 40s, lived in the home for four years and through three major renovations, including a gut overhaul of the kitchen. “When I bought the place, none of the appliances worked,” she recalled. She created a gray-and-white palette, with Carrara marble on the floor, counters, and backsplash, among other high-end finishes. Her father crafted all of the home’s millwork. She spent $60,000 on the renovations, which included adding built-in closets, completing a down-to-the-studs redo of the bathroom, and installing French doors between the bedroom and living room. In 2012, Falla hired a broker and sold the home for $419,000, pocketing $24,000, a tidy profit that she used to secure another property.
She’s made higher profits on each flip since then. Embarking on the renovation of her fourth home, Falla’s goal is to buy, transform, and flip a total of 10 properties and end up with a profit of $1 million. She’s chronicling her journey on a blog — www.questforthenest.com — and plans to write a book about her experiences.
About 5 percent of US single-family and condo sales in the third quarter of 2016 were flips — 45,718 properties, according to a report by ATTOM Data Solutions, a housing research firm, and the average gross profit was $62,424.
Falla is certainly financially motivated in her real estate projects, but she’s long loved home design. Growing up on Cape Cod, her father, the town attorney in Harwich, would drive her to construction sites. Her father was somewhat of a serial renovator. “Every home I grew up in was constantly in some sort of chaos because a renovation project was going on,” Falla recalled. “I’m habitually accustomed to it.”
Falla lives in the homes she purchases through all facets of the renovations. “It’s not a euphemism to say I’m covered in sawdust most of the time,” she said. In her second project, a home in the South End, she replaced the floors, added new lighting, and overhauled the kitchen and bathrooms, hiring subcontractors to do most of the work.
She has no professional experience as a designer, builder, or architect, but she has been in the construction industry for more than 20 years. “I have loads of architect friends, and I meet lots of subcontractors through work. I find resources for my projects through them,” Falla said.
In each renovation project, Falla said, there were always unforeseen conditions and scheduling delays. “You need to have a lot of patience and creativity,” she said. “I’ve lived in half-finished spaces during hurricanes with walls open to the elements and plastic flapping in the breeze. I’ve had homes with no working toilet or shower and table saws in the living room with everything I own covered in construction dust. This is my life.”
She prefers small spaces, not only for the price, but for their aesthetics. “Growing up on the Cape, we were sailors, and I respect the cleverness of boat design. Every centimeter of space needs to be multipurpose. City apartments require that sort of cleverness,” she said.
Falla seeks aggressively priced one-bedroom units in 19th- and early 20th-century buildings in Boston’s booming neighborhoods. “I buy properties in the areas of the city where people want to be,” she said. The last property she sold was on Waltham Street in the South End. She had been outbid seven times before her final offer of $807,000 — $70,000 over the asking price — was accepted.
The gracious turn-of-the-last-century home has gorgeous moldings and intricately carved ceiling medallions. “I just repainted and staged the place,” Falla said. She also traveled to Paris to buy an impressive mid-century modern chandelier for the living room. “The chandelier has 765 pieces. It was rewired and cut down twice. The ceiling had to be reinforced to accommodate it, [and] it took seven months to get it to fit right,” Falla said. The experience was worth it: The chandelier suited the space perfectly, adding modern flair and intrigue to the room. The home sold eight months after Falla purchased it — for $951,000. The new owner didn’t want to spend $10,000 on the chandelier, however, so she removed it. “I’ll sell it eventually,” Falla said.
It’s uncomfortable, to say the least, to live in a home that is under renovation, and moving every year or so can be draining, Falla said. Yet she doesn’t mind it as much as she thought she would, partly because she enjoys designing the homes so much.
“I love interior design,” she said. “I love that I can design these places exactly how I envision them to be.” And she always steers toward high-end finishes: The kitchen counters, for example, are always Carrara marble. “I feel a stewardship to these old buildings; they’ve stood a long time and demand top-notch construction. I try to leave the homes better than I got them. I’m happy that I’ve been able to find buyers who appreciate what I’ve done.”
Falla is moving into the fourth project she is working on, a large one-bedroom on Hanson Street in the South End. She plans to be there for two years before selling, which is the length of time she’ll need to own the property to avoid capital gains taxes. She’s given herself five more years to meet her goal of transforming and selling 10 properties. I hope she succeeds.
TOTAL PROFIT THUS FAR: $160,000.
MILFORD STREET, SOUTH END