Kyara Gray has always been fascinated by transformations. Growing up in small town Pennsylvania, she watched farmland routinely sold and turned into housing developments. “As we drove around town, I’d point out the window telling my parents to buy this land or that house,” says Gray, who now runs a multi-seven-figure real estate company, Charm City Buyers, with her husband, Khalil Uqdah.
After graduating from college in 2011, the plan was to climb the corporate ladder, get a dog, and invest in real estate as a side hustle. In just one year she had a well-paying job in insurance, a Lhasa Apso named Duchess, and her first rental property. Less than a decade later, she stepped out on her own. She and Khalil have grown their real estate empire to include developing several blocks of residential housing in Baltimore in addition to over 20 rental units and a construction company.
“Our projects are knock-down, tear out, total renovation houses. We turn them from vacant eyesores to beautiful homes that create community,” says Gray. What’s more, she and Khalil not only create generational wealth for their family—they have a seven-year-old daughter—but they have also transformed their community and shown others how to amass wealth for themselves.
I caught up with Kyara after she and Khalil won a bid for a $15 million dollar new construction community in Baltimore that will include 20% affordable housing. Here are some of Gray’s best tips if you’d like to follow in her footsteps.
Stephanie Burns: How did you save up to buy your first property so soon after graduating from college?
Kyara Gray: Working hard, saving on rent, and not stressing about student loans that had low interest rates. I had a job that paid well and a roommate to split the costs. Khalil had graduated a year before me and was living at home so he could do the same. Once we decided we were going to be together for the long haul, we thought about how our financial future would look.
From vending machines to DVD rental units, we considered a lot of different investment options. But we settled on real estate because of the impact it can have and the revenue it can generate. We looked into deals, found a 3-unit shell of a property, and knew the numbers worked. Because the neighborhood had a tough reputation, most people weren’t interested. We purchased the property for $26k cash but it needed a six-figure renovation. So we found a local organization focused on developing communities in that neighborhood. They provided the funding for the renovation which we finished in seven months.
Burns: How did you get up-to-speed educating yourself on real estate so fast?
Gray: Once we made the decision to leap, we took consistent action every single day to get closer to our goals. We googled properties, went to real estate investing networking events, researched terms and strategies, and started meeting with people in the industry. Every day we were taking small steps towards our dream.
One of the reasons we’re so passionate about mentoring other people is because, when we started, we didn’t have mentors answer our investment questions. We made plenty of mistakes and lost money in different situations. But we persevered. The difference between us and others who don’t make it is we persevere and they quit. We took the challenges as valuable lessons and turned them into fuel to make better decisions.
Burns: What’s one of the toughest lessons you learned as entrepreneurs?
Gray: If you cut corners financially, you’ll lose time, quality, price—or all three. One project we did with a friend who was just starting a construction company ended as a disaster. We thought we were saving money but the job cost us $30,000 more than we budgeted and required additional time. We had walls up that had to come down so we could redo the framing and more. Now we know—and tell our mentees—to spend the time making your money go further. That means spending more time screening and choosing tenants, interviewing workers, and researching properties.
Right now in Baltimore, everyone wants to talk about getting houses for as little as a dollar —yes, literally a house for $1. But like anything in business, you have to think beyond the financial cost to purchase and focus on the total cost and the value. We encourage people to stay rational. Don’t get so excited about getting into a deal that you lose sight of ensuring its success. Focus on the development strategy and the total benefit including community impact.
Burns: How were you able to scale your business to six figures in just two years?
Gray: One of the things we teach our mentees is how to leverage OPM or Other People’s Money, like we did with the neighborhood organization that funded the renovation on our first property. That property brought in almost $3k per month, so we were able to snowball a lot of those funds into our next property and so on. In just three years, we had more than six figures in rental income from purchases. Neither of us quit our jobs until five years ago, so we were able to use extra income for our real estate endeavors. We sacrificed vacations and didn’t even buy our personal home until owning multiple properties.
We also didn’t tell people about the projects we were purchasing until we had accumulated about ten rentals in our portfolio, which was hard. It’s tempting to want to post on social media or tell your friends and family what you’re doing, but we focused on the work so we wouldn’t have to deal with naysayers. Khalil would go to Home Depot before work to pick up supplies, I’d tile floors in the evening, he’d paint. We were scrappy until we grew and could outsource those tasks.
Burns: What made you go from flipping and investing in properties on your own to teaching others how to do it and transforming communities?
Gray: A few years back, we could have managed the portfolio and lived off rental income. But I wanted us to push the envelope and breathe life back into communities in Baltimore that had been forgotten and overlooked. We started that by buying multiple properties on one block in the city and transforming it. We wanted to make an impact, but knew we couldn’t buy every house and do every block. We also knew that one of the biggest barriers to entry is information. So we started a mentorship group called The NEXTGen Accelerator to teach others how to invest in real estate. It’s development without displacement. And it’s the legacy I want to leave behind.
Burns: How does someone know if investing in real estate is right for them?
Gray: It comes down to figuring out if your goals are long term or short term. If they’re short term, yes, you can get rich flipping houses. Yes, you can build wealth by investing in rental properties. Cash means flexibility and freedom. Long term goals mean building generational wealth and legacy. So honestly define your goals. For us, making an impact for our family and the community is important. There are very basic human needs and, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, shelter is a basic physiological need that provides safety and so much more. We want to help people with one of their basic needs.
Burns: What advice do you have for female entrepreneurs who want to try their hand at real estate?
Gray: Build an effective team. One of my team members is my husband and we split the duties so we have 48 hours in a day instead of 24. But, the majority of people in our programs are single women doing this on their own. Fortunately, they have a great team: reliable lenders, solid contractors, and a network of experienced people to help them get things done.
Post-pandemic, we’re living through a renaissance. I’d encourage women to think about this moment in time and the future. In Baltimore, people often look around and see disinvestment. For a child, that can have extremely negative effects. It teaches you how to feel about yourself. If no one cares about your neighborhood, maybe no one cares about you. It’s tempting to hope that someone else will revitalize a community but, if you wait for someone else to create change, it can be hard to have a say in how that change looks. Instead of sitting back, lead the way. This isn’t about numbers, it’s about neighborhoods. This isn’t just about income, it’s about impact.