Many women seeking independence after a breakup or divorce have discovered emotional empowerment and even healing in real estate investment.
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Richelle DeVoe was two weeks shy of closing on a house with her partner of 10 years, when their relationship imploded. Her future suddenly snapped into focus: She was 30 and had a successful career as a marketing strategist, but she’d never feel truly secure without a permanent roof over her head.
She took a leap in 2019 and bought an investment property, a duplex in Missoula, Mont., intending to live in one unit and rent the other. “It was the crappiest house on the block,” she said.
But it was what she could afford. “I made the decision entirely from a financial standpoint,” she said. “What I didn’t realize was how much confidence and pride and empowerment I’d feel.”
She added, “It had so many tangential benefits, that emotional feeling of ‘I did this,’ and I did this for me’.”
Investing in real estate or becoming a landlord has inherent stress, especially in a volatile market. But many women seeking independence, especially after a breakup or divorce, have discovered emotional empowerment and even healing. They’ve conquered a steep learning curve, often in the face of skepticism. And they’ve found a unique support system, where excising relationship ghosts is as important as learning to negotiate interest rates.
“You have a group of women who are really looking to develop themselves personally,” said Becky Nova, 38, a cancer researcher in New York City who started an organization called Lady Landlords in March 2020. “We’re not crocheting. We’re building generational wealth.”
Women comprise nearly one third of the membership of the National Real Estate Investors Association. But a decade ago, the women were often part of wife-husband investor teams, said Charles Tassell, the chief operating officer of the association. Today, “the 30 percent holds, but they’re not spouses,” he said. “There are more single, individual women coming in. Not remnants of a couple.”
Communities designed to support female real estate investors have also seen steady growth. Lady Landlords and Real Estate InvestHER have engaged Facebook followings and loyal podcast audiences. They also host local meet-ups and annual conferences and offer paid mentoring services. Ms. Nova charges $2,400 for a three-month coaching package. An annual mentorship program with Real Estate InvestHER costs $7,500.
In their language and mission, both groups say that taking care of yourself mentally and emotionally is critical to building a successful business.
Elizabeth Faircloth, 44, a co-founder of Real Estate InvestHER, lives with her husband in New Hope, Pa. In 2004, they began investing in real estate together, but over the next decades, the financial strain of the recession and later becoming a mother left her reeling.
“I started to lose myself. I’m working with my husband and building a business, but trying to figure out my identity as a new mom and married woman,” she said.
In 2015, she connected with Andresa Guidelli, a Brazilian immigrant who lived in Chestnut Hill, Pa. The women soon joined forces, flipping dozens of properties and building new construction. By 2017, over chats at Panera Bread, they began talking about creating their own women-led group for female peers.
But Ms. Faircloth cautioned Ms. Guidelli, who was in the middle of ending her marriage.
“I remember Liz telling me, ‘I don’t think this is a good time for you. You’re going through a divorce,’” Ms. Guidelli recalled. “And I said, ‘this is exactly what I need.’”
It turned out that Ms. Faircloth, though happily married, needed it too. “I have my own identity. My own place in my life that is mine. It wasn’t in the shadows of my husband,” she said.
Ms. Faircloth and Ms. Guidelli began InvestHER in 2018. “We need to do this for other women. How do they balance their life and create financial freedom on their own terms?” Ms. Faircloth recalled thinking.
Today they have a podcast, a meet-up group with 56 chapters and a 12,000-member Facebook page that caters to budding investors. Strive, their application-only membership program, mentors seasoned investors who are looking to scale up and need systems to manage large teams.
“We leverage the knowledge and experience of other women in everything from syndication, self storage, small multis, midterm rentals, you name it,” said Ms. Guidelli. “When investors rely on their own experiences, they limit their growth.”
Ms. Faircloth said the organization helps women “balance their life and create financial freedom on their own terms.” She added, “We talk about being on a journey, not the destination. You could be financially free. You could have all the money in the bank. But it’s not, ‘I got the duplex, I got the six-plex.’ Because there will be another thing. It’s meaningless if you’re not enjoying it.”
Stacey Conte, 34, discovered the Real Estate InvestHER community shortly after ending her marriage in 2018. Court records show a history of domestic abuse. “I really had no support system at the time of my divorce,” she said. The group filled that gap, especially the other women she met who started investing “when they made the transition to being a single mom.”
Ms. Conte said she wanted to create the same security for others, so she started rehabbing properties for Section 8, the federal program that subsidizes rent for low-income households. “A lot of applicants on Section 8 are single moms,” she said.
In early 2022, Ms. Conte and her business partner, Betsy Tinervin, who is also a single mother, bought three boarded up cottages on a busy road in Lakeland, Fla. They gutted them, repainted them in cheerful colors and installed a wooden fence and security system “to give moms and kids a sense that they have their own space,” Ms. Conte said.
In each renovation, the women are trying to send the future occupants a message: “You will figure it out, you have options, you’re not stuck, you’re not the negative words projected on you.”
Ms. Conte has found a balance in her business between making money and nourishing her soul.
Alexia Ealey, a travel nurse who lives in Dothan, Ala., also began investing after a failed relationship. She said she helped her ex-boyfriend with a transportation business, but she said it was more his dream than hers. “I felt like I put everything on hold to push someone else’s wagon when I should have been pushing my own,” said Ms. Ealey, 32.
She sold her own home and used the money to buy four single-family houses in need of renovations. She lived with her parents while rehabbing them. Today, she primarily rents them to other travel nurses.
“I felt like I owned myself, like that was a form of self-love to go back and redeem my dream, my path,” Ms. Ealey said. “I went from being heartbroken, lost, confused, and in just one year, I was able to turn that into having about half a million in assets.”
During the process, she became active in both the Lady Landlords and Real Estate InvestHER Facebook communities, heartened to meet others like herself. “So many went from being married and in relationships and ended up losing everything, but took the little money they had and put it into real estate,” she said.
Their stories alleviated her fears that she’d taken too big a risk.
But there are pitfalls, often related to gender bias. One 2020 paper from the Yale School of Management found that single women see much lower returns from buying and selling real estate than single men.
The Lady Landlords and Real Estate InvestHER message boards are full of questions and complaints about how to address unequal treatment. “I’ll get one post that’s ‘Hey, what type of flooring should I buy,’” said Ms. Nova. “And one post that’s ‘Hey, contractors showed up and asked where my husband was or I have a male tenant and he’s not paying rent, what’s the best way to ask for it safely?”
Ms. DeVoe said she felt a hefty dose of impostor syndrome during the renovation process. “Working with contractors was a nightmare being a woman,” she said. On the job site, if her father was around, the men would always address him. “And my dad being this wonderful human would be like ‘I’m not the boss, you have to talk to her.’ And they’d look confused.”
Even the paperwork smacked of sexism, she said. On Ms. DeVoe’s property deed, right beside her signature, are three words in all-caps: AN UNMARRIED WOMAN. “I was like, you guys are rubbing it in my face,” she said. (The state of Montana does not require deeds to list marital status.)
Gender bias can hit all layers of real estate investing, said Mr. Tassell of the real estate investors association. It’s important for investors, especially women, to keep their guard up when visiting job sites or meeting tenants at off hours: “With self-care also comes self-defense,” he said.
Because women face discrimination in the industry, “they have to be a little more careful and conscientious about whether someone is preying on them or not,” he said.
Real estate investing isn’t simple. It requires strategic thinking, negotiating chops and a specific knowledge base. “You get ripped off quite a bit, but you learn,” said Cathy Dilger, a 58-year-old designer who has been investing since 1994. “It’s truly a field of hard knocks learning.”
Being a landlord can be highly stressful, but she found that her passive income from her 21-unit portfolio allowed her to “take a breath and sit back” instead of scrambling for work, after she divorced last year. “I get to discover what I am passionate about,” she said. “I forgot.”
In June, she joined about 400 women in Charlotte, N.C., for InvestHER Con, a two-day conference, that Real Estate InvestHER billed as a “full circle transformational experience.”
There was a nursing and relaxation room. Attendees were encouraged to take “mindful breaks,” where they could network or recharge. Ms. Guidelli said she was so overcome by the sight of women lining up at the microphone that she broke down crying.
On the first day, participants were asked to close their eyes and envision themselves five years in the future: Where were they? How did they feel?
Despite the dissolution of her marriage, which Ms. Dilger called “devastating,” she said she realized, “I’ve got this. I’m healthy. I’m comfortable. I feel good.”
It’s a feeling that women in the industry describe as accomplishing something significant on their own.
Ms. DeVoe is now engaged and she’s given the potential division of her assets some thought: “I’ve made this home, this beautiful, nurturing place to be,” she said. “I’ve told my partner that I’ll share our income moving forward, but the duplex is mine.”