Matin Haghkar, Owner of RE/MAX Plus (Bridgeport and Philadelphia), PHL Abstract, Wize Mortgage, and Team Leader of The Haghkar Group, spoke to VISTA Today about growing up in Montgomery and Chester County and how hardship growing up pushed him to become an entrepreneur.
Haghkar describes being a senior in high school, working 40 hours a week and purchasing his first investment property. Twenty years later his team is ranked in the Top 5% in all of MLS, he was featured as one of the top 40 Professionals Under 40 by Drexel University, featured as the cover story of Real Producers Philadelphia, and with over $110 Million in production within the last year.
Matin also discussed how he pursued both real estate and engineering in college and beyond. He weathered the recession and worked full-time while building his real estate business before opening a RE/MAX office in 2015. He also shared why he feels real estate is undervalued in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Matin?
My parents came to this country as immigrants with impoverished conditions where we had to bounce around living with different friends until we got our footing. I was born in Norristown, PA and grew up in the Marchwood Apartments in Exton.
My father was a blue collar construction inspector, my mother had various jobs in child care. I also have two other brothers, one who is five years older (successful IT professional) and the other is 14 years younger (going to Pre-Med).
My family tried their best at trying to achieve the American Dream, but it was extremely challenging just to get by considering all the challenges of relocating from overseas and across the country.
What memories have stayed with you from growing up in Chester County?
Although we struggled culturally and financially, I was growing rich in friendships and relationships early in my youth. Who knew that these friends and relationships from my childhood would end up becoming clients and partners in business?
I also remember developing a great appreciation for the American Dream. I realized that no matter where you start in life, you can really become anything you want as long as you work hard in America. Unfortunately this is not true in most other places and we definitely take it for granted. I have seen seven year old children sell bubble gum barefoot at street corners to survive overseas and these images will stick with you for life.
Experiencing and seeing these hardships really motivated me to make the pursuit of the American Dream my sole focus and top priority. The fire of knowing that I never wanted to go through what I was experiencing in my youth combined with the realization of the opportunities America had to offer inspired me to never give up.
Did you have jobs while you were growing up?
I started working the day I could legally work. Before that, I would do odd jobs for neighbors and developed an undying work ethic from an incredibly young age. My first real job was at McDonald’s in Lionville. I worked there for a year or two, then moved on to a job at Goodwill on Route 100 in Exton. During my senior year of high school, I was the manager of Goodwill and worked almost 40 hours a week. I was willing to work anywhere and any number of hours to turn my life around.
Did you play any sports in high school?
Throughout high school I was involved in rugby and martial arts: jiu-jitsu, taekwondo. I was no star athlete, but I always enjoyed being active and working out as a productive outlet.
When it came to balancing practice and work, my priority was making as much money as possible and my hobbies always took a back seat (going to practice with an extreme work schedule wasn’t easy). I started reading entrepreneurial books like, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” and “The Millionaire Next Door.” This newfound knowledge and my hardworking attitude are what aided me in buying my first house when I turned 18.
Where does your innate drive to succeed come from?
When you’re used to living in other people’s houses and seeing your parents struggle, I decided I never want to be poor again. It became my top priority at a very early age.
A lot of people grow up and say, “I don’t know what I want to do.” All I wanted was to have freedom and not have to rely on anyone else. It wasn’t about money or buying things; for me, it was just having the ability to live the way I wanted. I knew that the only person that could provide this for me would be myself, and it inspired me to be a self starter and to understand that hard work pays off.
Was music important to you at all?
I love music. I was in the chorus in high school, but unfortunately, I never picked up an instrument. But I listen to music all the time. I like many artists, but if I had to pick one, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Tupac and others are some of my favorite artists.
Why did you decide to go to Drexel?
I barely graduated high school with a 3.0 but I decided that as long as I got into college, I was happy. My brother went to Drexel for engineering, so I decided to go there too. I got a dual degree in Civil and Architectural Engineering. I wanted to get as much for my money as possible, so I took it upon myself to take advantage of one of their many Cooperative Education programs. With this enrollment, I went to school for five-year years and got three co-ops and a dual degree.
Towards the end of my freshman year, I got my realtor license. Towards the end of that summer, I bought my second property near Drexel. I moved myself and a bunch of my buddies in there- a whole “Animal House” situation going on. Once I started seeing a cash flow from these investments, my hunger to own properties grew further.
I bought another property at Drexel up the street, then more and more. I kept moving my friends into them and making rental income, all at the age of 19. Though I was participating in high-risk deals, back then you could get the entire purchase plus closing costs financed. This meant I was getting enough money to buy the house and cover the closing costs. As a poor kid with nothing, I was like, “Wait, I can buy the house with nothing? Sign me up!”
I just kept buying and buying and buying. I did a good job picking good properties that were mostly student rentals. In the first house, I lived in an unfinished basement on a dirt floor, and I rented all the bedrooms out to my friends. It had four bedrooms, and the only way I could get $2,000 a month was to rent out all the bedrooms. Even my friends were like, “Why are you living in an unfinished basement and buying the house up the street and another house?” The answer was simple: short term sacrifices would lead to long term payoffs.
I kept investing-when I was 21, I had 21 houses in West Philly, near Drexel and Temple, West Chester, and Coatesville.
As a 21-year-old kid with that many houses, coming from nothing, I started to think that everything I touch turns to gold. My ego became a bit too large and I started taking more risks, getting cocky and complacent, and not always being as clever.
Then the recession happened in ’06, ’07, and ’08. I lost a couple of properties and it was a huge hit for both my portfolio and confidence. I probably lost about 30% of the properties, but managed to keep the rest. It was a challenging time for all homeowners, and for the first time in a long time I wish I had less. I had banks calling me and threatening to close the loans and it was a very challenging time.
But at the end of it, after the recession, banks dropped the rates to almost zero –1-3%. That was when I hit my stride because, at that point, I had properties generating enough income to cover 10%. So when that rate went from 10% to 2%, I was able to propel to the next level: buying more properties and working with other investors.
Why did you choose a career in real estate after graduation?
This was a near-impossible choice. So much so that I tried to do both for a while. My first real estate internship was with Century 21. My second and third internships were at Urban Engineers, a well-known engineering firm in Philadelphia. Upon completion of the program, they hired me full-time as an engineer and I went on to work for them for eight subsequent years.
For those eight years I felt like I had a double life. The entire time I was overworking myself – 40 hours a week as an engineer and 40 hours a week as a realtor, building my brand and managing my properties. I was young, so I was willing to make the sacrifices, but I would never be able to do that now. Plus, having a W-2 income and a stable job helped me continue my dream of expanding my real estate portfolio.
In 2014, I was rocking and rolling in real estate. As a single agent, I had millions of dollars in annual sales but I also was doing well at Urban Engineers. I was the Project Manager for the Terminal F expansion and the Project Engineer for the runway extension at the airport.
It was at this time that RE/MAX approached me and said, “Hey, we’ve looked at your sales, resume, and background. We think you’d be a great fit for opening a RE/MAX franchise.” I had a couple of interviews with them, and from there, I decided to open up a RE/MAX franchise. I’d been living in the city for 15 years. Though I loved it, I was getting older, settling down, and I wanted to move to a good school district for my future children.
The franchise was up and running by mid-to-late 2015, at which point I had to part ways with Urban Engineers. They always knew that I had other grandiose dreams and plans, and though they wanted me to stay they understood that this was my passion.
What did RE/MAX like about you?
I have always prided myself on my strength in reliability, and RE/MAX recognized that; I’m always early or on time, always have notes, always have a plan, and am always organized. When running my business I abide by several ideas and mantras: work is your signature and the Golden Rule – treating others as you want to be treated.
One of my key strengths is that I score highly in both types of intelligence. My training from Drexel taught me the hard skills of math and science, and my years of real estate experience and sales taught me the soft skills of communication.
In 2015, my wife and I opened our first RE/MAX office. Seven years later, we have 35+ agents and 10 administrative staff. This past year, we had $110 million in sales, which is the most we’ve ever had.
We have two locations now – Bridgeport and Center City. Our property management business provides for over 1,000 properties and we have recently opened a title business and a mortgage business. We are so excited about these new endeavors and cannot wait to see what else is to come!
As we near the end of 2022, what are the challenges and opportunities you are focused on?
2022 was one of the best years yet. The experience I gained through the 2008 recession taught me valuable skills that helped me to survive and manage my business even in times of uncertainty. With the uncertainty of COVID-19 everybody was worried at first, but it ended up being one of our highest performing years.
In general, real estate is a very local business, but when you watch the news they usually talk about the national averages of real estate related numbers. These metrics fluctuate based on a multitude of local market factors, which is why it’s so important to deal with a local expert who knows what’s happening on the streets.
I’ve always felt like the Greater Philadelphia Area has been undervalued – before and still. The prime location in itself is invaluable; we’re within an hour of the beach, have an international airport close by, can get to New York in an hour, and D.C. within two hours. Compared to real estate prices in those metropolitan areas, Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs are still undervalued.
What do you do with your free time, Matin?
I really enjoy the development side of what I do, so I carry out about 20 projects a year between ground-up construction, flips, remodels, etc. This side of work allows me to pull from my prior experiences and utilize my Architectural Engineering skills again.
I don’t see development as work– it’s just something I am passionate about. From a young kid always playing with legos to now seeing my blueprints come to life is truly a dream come true.
When I am not working, I am spending time with my beautiful family. We just had a daughter—she’s about to be one – so I am spending as much time with her as I can and it’s amazing.
Do you still read?
I do not get to read as much as I would like to, but I enjoy books such as Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Art of War, Sapiens, and among others. I also enjoy listening to podcasts while transporting between clients throughout my day. Not to be cliche for a guy my age, but I do listen to Joe Rogan and Patrick Bet-David’s “Valuetainment” podcast among others.
In this crazy world, what keeps you hopeful and optimistic, Matin?
Seeing the hard side of life, having a rougher background, and then witnessing periods of American history that were troublesome but ended in resilience, gives me hope.
I think the younger generation has been robbed of this experience with everything that’s been happening these last couple of years, but what gives me hope is seeing how staying strong in times of doubt creates stronger and more optimistic individuals.
Humans usually make issues out in our minds to be worse than they actually are, which can cause panic or for individuals to talk themselves down before they even start.
From my life experiences, I can confidently say that hard work is rewarded. I don’t know anybody who has really, truly, worked hard and hasn’t been successful. When you have seen so much struggle in your life, you begin to put your daily, minute problems into perspective and realize they really aren’t that bad.
Finally, Matin, what’s the best piece of advice anybody ever gave you?
There are a couple:
As a result of growing up with adversity, the Golden Rule (treat others the way you want to be treated) got instilled within me at a young age and again reinforced in ethics training at Drexel.
“Your work is your signature” are words that I live by. I always wanted to be the most valuable person I could to my friends, family, partners, clients, and associates. The quality of your work is your resume and how you display your value to the team, village, etc. Do your best at everything you do otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time.
Always think long term and things are never as bad as they may seem; maintaining an unemotional even-head (especially in times of stress) will always lead to the best results when making emergency/high-stakes decisions. As long as you don’t give up and keep working hard, anyone can become whatever they want to become.