When Gianni Latange decided to move in with her friend back in May 2018, she not only got a roommate but a wake-up call about her finances. Despite earning significantly less than Latange’s teaching income, which was a little over $70,000, her friend had saved up a sizable nest egg of $20,000.
“I’m like, we graduated college at the same time. How is this even possible?” Latange recalls. “How is it that I make about $30,000 more but saved less?”
Latange wasn’t saddled by credit card debt or loans. She did have some student loans, but they were all federal and deferred while she was pursuing her master’s degree. Additionally, the school she taught at paid for the degree.
“I just wasn’t saving enough money,” Latange says, putting it simply.
The then-24-year-old decided to take a different approach in December 2018. Latange aimed to save 50% of her income.
Rather than treating saving as an afterthought, she adopted a “pay yourself first” mentality where she met her monthly savings goal before taking care of expenses. That same year she became eligible to open a 403(b), the 401(k) equivalent for nonprofit employees. By the end of 2019, she had socked away more than $20,000, invested $15,000 in her 403(b), and put some money in her Roth IRA.
During her aggressive financial glow-up process, she realized that owning property was a possibility—something she had never even considered.
“I made another commitment to myself,” says Latange. “I was going to be a real estate investor, and I would buy my first place.”
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Do your research
Latange started her real estate journey by seeking experts and educational content creators in the space, especially Black women like herself who had successfully navigated the home purchasing process. One of them was Kendra Barnes of The Key Resource, a platform geared toward first-time real estate investors. Through her, Latange discovered some valuable resources.
The Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) is a program that provides mortgages for primary residence homeownership with no down payment, closing costs, fees or private mortgage insurance required.
Another was the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan that allows successful applicants to put as little as 3.5% of the purchase price down on a property.
Latange also learned that multi-family housing (a property containing several residential units) or mixed-use developments (a property with a blend of uses, like residential, commercial, entertainment, etc.) were the most viable options for her long-term investment plans. Because the monthly mortgage would include rent from her tenants, it would significantly reduce her payments.
“When you lower your housing expense, which is typically the biggest expense for most people, that opens up doors as far as wealth-building goes,” she says.
Find out where you can get the most value for your money
Latange was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and taught in her Crown Heights neighborhood. But she quickly realized she could not afford the expensive New York housing market. However, it was important to her to stay close to home. Latange took her search a couple of hours away to Philadelphia. She connected with a local real estate agent in November 2019 and started earnestly looking at properties in January 2020. One property, in particular, caught her eye.
“It’s a commercial unit downstairs, and it has two residential units with one bath on the second floor,” says Latange. “It’s a corner lot, so it’s a big property, and it has air rights if I wanted to build up. It’s located in a neighborhood that I would liken to Williamsburg or DUMBO in Brooklyn. It’s close to the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art and near the huge park and river in Philadelphia.”
With such prime positioning, Latange thought someone would snap up the place before she could put a bid in, but surprisingly, it was available for $365,000.
Do your due diligence
Latange wanted to apply for an FHA loan to purchase the property, but her realtor didn’t think that was the best option. For one, the last person who had tried to buy the unit had attempted to go that route unsuccessfully. There were also questions about whether potential buyers could use an FHA loan to purchase a commercial unit. But Latange would not budge.
“I researched legal precedents, and there’s an abundance of it,” she says. “Actually, many people use FHA loans for mixed-use properties. The commercial percentage just has to be smaller than the residential portion to qualify.”
Her loan application was successful, and the sellers accepted the subsequent offer for the property. She put down $11,000 as a deposit on the unit and closed in March 2020.
Be aware of the responsibilities that come with homeownership
Right now, the market rate for renting a unit in Latange’s property is $2,600, and she’s not interested in raising it—“I want to be accessible for the community”—plus it covers the mortgage. She initially moved into one of the residential units but now rents out the whole building.
But there are challenges in property management. In her first year of ownership, she had a leak that cost almost $20,000 to fix. Even with insurance, she incurred $5,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. Updates to the roof and fire alarm system cost $4,000 and $3,000, respectively. Fortunately, her diligent saving provided a cushion as these expenses popped up.
“So there are all of these different things that come up in homeownership that you can save for, but it’s still expensive,” she explains. “And yes, I can write off some of it on my taxes, but in the moment, you have to have a nest egg to cover these things and make sure that you’re keeping the place up and running it in a way that is safe for everyone who either works or lives there.”
Don’t be afraid to start over
Another byproduct of Latange’s wealth-building was the freedom to try something new. She graduated from university with degrees in urban studies and political science and a sociology concentration. She was also a women’s and business leadership scholar and wanted to continue her activism through education and teaching. But she was deeply unhappy with her teaching job and the bureaucracy of public charter education.
“Part of my motivation for saving that much money is because I absolutely hated my job, and I was very depressed,” she admits. “Having at least one year’s worth of savings was what allowed me to take a break and really have the time to figure out what I was going to do next. I had felt very low self-worth in the education field by that point.”
Despite having no background or experience in the tech industry, she applied for and received a scholarship to an engineering boot camp. She left teaching in June 2020 and started studying software engineering in August. But rather than a purely technical position, Latange wanted an opportunity that would allow her to integrate the skills from her previous employment experiences.
“I was able to really brand myself very well and get competitive offers from well-known companies in the tech industry for what’s called developer advocacy,” she says. “[That] is essentially a developer or an engineer who creates educational developer-related content that encourages other software engineers to use a company’s technology.”
She landed a position with videoconferencing software program Zoom as a developer advocate, a job where she has more creative freedom and a $100,000 increase in compensation. She is now sharing her bounty of knowledge on First Gen Money Musings, a platform for first-generation wealth-builders like herself. She offers both personal finance strategies and career development tips.
At 26—and just four years removed from committing to her financial health—Latange is now a homeowner, property manager and educator with a lucrative tech career.