Real Estate to the Rescue
(Published on 3/23/2008, Calgary Herald Newspaper, Recreation and Investment Properties Special Sections, pp. 85-86)
In 1997, as Bre-X shares began their death spiral, hundreds of investors received
called from brokers urging them to buy, buy, buy at “discount” prices.
Bre-X would rebound and go on to glory, Gougeon‟s broker insisted. Having
already made some money on the Bre-X run-up, Gougeon was inclined to believe.
He and his wife, Susan, bought again as the price declined.
When Bre-X‟s storied Borneo gold discovery was finally revealed to be a $6-
billion fraud --- the largest ever in the checkered history of the mining industry ---
the two University of Calgary associate professors lost a substantial portion of
their retirement savings.
Today, a decade of thrift and hard work later, the pair recon they‟ve more than
recouped their losses by shifting nearly all their investments into vacation rental
properties in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Tucson, Arizona. And, yes, they are
diversified. They also own a well-performing rental property in not-so-balmy
“I felt a huge sense of violation after the Bre-X fraud,” Gougeon recalls, “To
discover that there were absolutely no assets to secure any part of our
investment was the kicker. Rental properties come with risk, but at least I feel that
we‟ll always have some asset backing our investment.”
Their epiphany as investors came a few weeks after the Bre-X collapse. Living in
Amsterdam Netherlands on a four-month sabbatical from the university, they
decided to sell all their remaining stock market assets with some idea of re-
investing in Calgary real estate, but with no concrete plans. Still nursing their
financial wounds, they left Amsterdam to visit Susan‟s father at his ocean-front
apartment condo in San Juan.
“His place was 30 feet from the beach and we‟d never been there,” Gougeon says,
“We said, „People live like this, why can‟t we?‟” Before they returned to
Amsterdam, they had identified an under-used unit, contacted the owner and
bought the place.
Apartment 2C became the first step on the road to recovery --- but success was
far from assured.
After cashing out their RRSPs, paying the withholding tax and income tax and
converting everything to U.S. dollars to facilitate foreign property purchases, they
received about 35 cents on every dollar of their remaining savings. Consequently
their San Juan purchase came with a mortgage.
Together with their Calgary home and a Winnipeg rental house that Gougeon had
owned since 1986, the pair was now carrying three mortgages. Hutton says they
also wanted to buy a villa rental property in Tucson, where she had once lived ---
but the prospect of adding a fourth mortgage to their portfolio gave them serious
“I couldn‟t sleep at night,” Gougeon says. “So we decided to downsize.”
Hutton says they were determined in their new strategy but always mindful of the
dangers of over-extending themselves. “People over-invest and lose everything --- we knew better than to do that.”
They sold their Calgary home in Scenic Acres and used the equity to buy a town-
house free-and-clear in the Signal Hill area. Only then did they buy the Tucson
Eliminating the Calgary mortgage reduced monthly costs by $1,100. This amount
plus everything else they could save each monthly went into a single cheque
used to pay down the mortgage on one or another of their properties.
“We lived simply and we put up pictures of each of our properties in our kitchen
to remind us of our goals,” he says. “The two of us were in total agreement about moving into properties. We‟re really quite a team.”
Hutton says theirs is a second marriage for both, which they both entered with no
debts but few assets. After Bre-X they were determined to rebuild and motivated
to put in long nights on outside consulting contracts and property management.
They went on to buy a 50-per-cent share of another apartment in San Juan in 2000,
and in 2003 they bought 51-per-cent of a farmhouse in the Puerto Rican rainforest
with her father, another villa in Tucson and 32 acres in the high desert nearby.
Hard lessons were learned along the way. Their first property manager in San
Juan didn‟t work out and the first tenant, on a one year‟s lease, “basically trashed
the place.” They repaired the San Juan apartment, and over time, they‟ve found
reliable property managers in each location.
Most importantly, they‟ve moved from longer-term rentals to vacation rentals through their own website (www.dugrene.com). “We‟ve found that short term renters tend to own property and treat ours with more respect.”
“The bookings started coming in and everything stabilized.” Gougeon reports
that the San Juan properties have an 85-percent occupancy rate, while Tucson is
around 70-percent because they live in one unit during yearly visits to do
maintenance. They visit San Juan every winter to do upkeep, but they usually stay at the farmhouse property, so condo rental is unaffected.
They also included family in the enterprise, with a son who handles bookkeeping and a daughter-in-law who covers property bookings, record keeping and invoicing, especially when the two professors are out of the country on consulting assignments.
And the aggressive mortgage pay-downs began to work for them.
“Sometimes we were making triple and quadruple payments each month,”
Gougeon says. “I think we burned three mortgages in one year.” By 2006, all mortgages were paid and rentals on any three properties now pay all the expenses associated with the entire portfolio. Those include property taxes, insurance, maintenance, property management fees, cleaning fees and
The two have left the university‟s education faculty and are now consulting primarily to the private sector in leadership and management theory. This gives them greater flexibility to look after far-flung properties and to travel the world through investment in a time share.
“The time share is just a sanity clause,” he says. “That, we found, is important because otherwise you‟d be working yourselves to death in the same few
locations.” Different highlight vacations have been Amsterdam Netherlands,
Canary Islands Spain, Malaga Spain, Prague Czech Republic, Cairo and Luxor Egypt, Vienna Austria, Rome Italy, Athens Greece, London England, Inverness Scotland, Perpignan France, Quepos Costa Rica, Puerto Plata Dominican Republic, New York City, Lake Havasu Arizona, Kelowna BC, Montreal Quebec, and Halliburton Ontario.
Hutton says all-family holidays in Puerto Rico in 2004 and 2007 have been great ways to celebrate shared success and they plan to hold the next family event in Tucson in 2009.
For the future, they plan to subdivide the 32-acres parcel into five lots and at that point, they say their retirement will be both comfortable and secure.
“If we need to, we can sell one property every five years,” he says. “I‟d be 100-
and-some years old when we sell the last one.”