Monica Harris spent her early childhood digging around in the trash can, looking for food for herself and her twin sister. Her mother, addicted to heroin, didn't provide for the girls and eventually lost custody of them.
From the time they were 4 until they were 7, the girls bounced around from family members to a foster home in Lansing, Mich.; then they went to live with a couple in Kalamazoo, Mich., who became their adoptive parents.
As Harris's life improved, she toiled through high school and took some classes at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. She describes her three-year stint of higher education as "play time," a period when she drove a fast car and shopped with friends.
Harris moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1994 and worked two jobs as a job recruiter and an office manager before being laid off.
"That's the first time I found myself thinking, 'What am I going to do?' " she said.
She began collecting unemployment and dodging bill collectors. But neither was enough -- her Mitsubishi Eclipse was repossessed. Harris moved in with her sister after repeated eviction notices and finally filed for bankruptcy protection in 1995.
"I panicked. I didn't know what I was going to do. I didn't have a college degree because I played in college too much. I had no formal education. No trades. No skills," she said. "I lost everything."
That's when she saw an ad in the newspaper that would change her life.
A local real estate agent was looking for young people to train as real estate buyer agents -- workers who represent people who are purchasing homes, as opposed to sellers. Harris snapped up the job and used her last $199 to take real estate classes.
"Then I prayed," said Harris, now 33.
Those prayers were answered. She broke into the real estate business working for various companies. She began buying homes she acquired with cash, redoing them and selling them for a profit, a strategy known as flipping.
Harris is worth at least $4 million. She has written and self-published five books and has a Web site, www.successfulkeys.com. She is chief executive of Keys Realty and Keys Financial, with offices in Southfield, Mich.; Pontiac, Mich.; and Grand Rapids, Mich. Within the year, she hopes to establish franchises outside Michigan.
In an interview, she talked about her life, her goals and her views on real estate:
QWhat does the "Keys" in your business name stand for?
AKeep Empowering Yourself Successfully. Real estate is something that is constantly changing. A real estate buyer is an investor, possibly making the most important investment of their lives. Empowering people to do that and become successful is what I'm all about.
Why did you become a writer?
Education. Even though I didn't like it, I now thrive on it. I wrote the books because I saw the need for education out there in the community -- for the minorities, for the Hispanics, for the blacks, I just see such a need for positive, true information.
How did flipping homes work for you?
The homes that I do usually range under $80,000 because there is such a need for good real estate, good viable property in that market. I'm really all about making sure the community thrives and that those who don't make as much money can afford housing.
That's why I've opened an office in Pontiac. It's a community that's coming back and needs decent housing for its residents.
How many homes have you owned?
Over 30; most of them are in west Michigan.
Where do you make most of your money?
I still do real estate sales. I don't care if the house is $5,000 or $500,000.
I treat every client the way that I would want to be treated. I treat every client as if their home is worth a million bucks to them. You know why? Because it is -- it's their biggest investment.
Do you have investments outside of real estate?
I give a lot to charities, different organizations and churches. Basically I give a lot away. I believe in that, in giving back. I consider that an investment.
What trends do you anticipate during the spring-summer home selling season?
I don't believe that the market is going to slow down anytime soon. Even with rising interest rates, people who are first-time home buyers are still purchasing. They still need homes.
I believe the market is going to keep going and going and going. Eventually there probably will be some type of ceiling because of a lack of land, but that's years to come. I don't even think my children will see that.
Do you sometimes step back and think, "Wow, I had to get food out of a garbage can and now I'm worth $4 million"? Do you amaze
No. I don't look at it as something I've done. I look at it as the grace of God that's carried me this far. People say, "Oh, you've achieved a lot," and yes, maybe I have. But there are so many people who need help out there that I can't stop and think about me.
What mistakes have you made in real estate?
My first mistake was not getting into real estate sooner. And I've made a few bad decisions in purchasing, maybe thinking that I didn't need an inspection when I really needed one. All the costly mistakes that I've made I put them in my books so that others don't have to suffer the consequences.
How do you advise people about financial security and investing? How do you get them in that mind-set?
I ask them why they're giving their [rent] money away every single month to somebody else when you could be pocketing that money and making sure that you have a secure future for yourself. Just owning a house is not total security, but 95 percent of the people that have the wealth in the world own real estate.
How do you guide people through shaky credit issues or lack of money for a down payment?
There are no obstacles these days. I don't care if your credit score is 500, I can get you financed. It takes work. You have to have an agent who is willing to work with you. . . . A lot of people these days have filed bankruptcy, it's not uncommon. . . .
Down payments are not an issue. There are so many programs these days, down payment assistance programs. There are all kinds of ways to purchase real estate. You have to have the will to want to do it and a person behind you who has the knowledge to do it, and you'll be fine.
How many of your books have you sold?
A couple thousand. I give a lot of them away.
How do you relate to your clients?
I don't exclude anybody. I feel that because I've been there. I've been in bankruptcy; I've had hard times before. I feel that I can relate to them. I'm just an ordinary person doing a couple of extraordinary things, and everybody has it in them to do it.