Long before Bob Greene became the health and fitness guru to Oprah Winfrey, he was moonlighting at reclamation of a different sort: fixing up houses.

The New Jersey native started young, collecting real estate magazines. In graduate school at the University of Arizona, he caught the fixer bug but lacked the capital to make a go of it. But Miami in the early 1980s was ripe for renovation and Greene jumped in with both feet.

At a glance
Name: Bob Greene

Hometown: Cherry Hill, N.J.

Education: University of Delaware, B.S., health and physical education University of Arizona, Master’s degree, exercise physiology

Career highlights:
  • Began as physiologist and trainer for professional athletes at his Health and Fitness Institute in Coral Gables, Fla.
  • Opened the Doral Telluride Resort & Spa in Colorado — one of his first customers was Oprah Winfrey in 1992.
  • First book, “Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body and a Better Life,” co-written with Oprah Winfrey, hit No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller List, 1996.
  • Author of “Get with the Program! Getting Real About Your Weight, Health and Emotional Well-Being,” (2002); “Bob Greene’s Total Body Makeover: An Accelerated Program of Exercise and Nutrition for Maximum Results in Minimum Time,” (2004); “Best Life Diet and Daily Journal” (2006).
  • Health and fitness correspondent for ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
  • Regular contributor to O Magazine.

Bankrate had a chat with the creator of “The Best Life Diet” about his passion for properties.

We generally picture you shaping up such celebrity clients as Oprah. But shaping up real estate for resale is another one of your passions, right?

It is. When I finished graduate school, I moved to the Miami area and I had a great job at a hospital; I ran a sports medicine institute, physical therapy and weight loss programs. Then I started buying properties in the Coconut Grove area and fixing them up. I’d come home after a full day of work and start fixing up these properties. I started with my own house and then rental property. It became like this second passion and love of mine.

How were you able to afford to become involved in real estate initially?

Right out of graduate school, I wasn’t. But a little-known fact, right out of grad school, in the early ’80s, I went to Miami and the Latin dollar fell and you could buy things because a lot of things were under foreclosure in Coconut Grove. This was before Coconut Grove got really popular. So I basically sold my car to afford the down payment on my first house; I didn’t need it because I worked within biking distance of the hospital. So I went without a car for a little while and was lucky enough to get a loan, and just started buying up a couple of rental properties as I got more equity. Then I started selling a couple of them quickly after, because they fixed up very nicely and the timing was good. To be honest with you, it became a very good living. My passion was health and fitness, but unless you reach a certain level, which I hadn’t at the time, I made a much better living in the real estate.

Was financing several properties at once tricky?

No, because in the ’80s, there were a lot of foreclosures and the banks weren’t regulated in the same way as they are today. So you would go to a bank that owned a property that was being foreclosed on, and you could deal directly with the bank. Instead of just writing off the loss, it was, “Hey, we have a buyer, let’s try him out; he has enough for a modest down payment, let’s go with it.”

You were able to get into these foreclosures with minimal down payments?

They were near to foreclosure. In a couple instances, yeah, the first one or two rental properties I did were a breath away from foreclosure.

When did you “get the bug”?

I remember, I was in grad school in Tucson, Ariz., my parents certainly helped me go through my undergraduate school, but in grad school I had a scholarship, but I was working to pay the bills. I found a house that had a guest house and it had a lot that could be separated and sold. This was 20 years ago, and it was $52,000, which I didn’t have, but I knew in my gut it was such a great deal: Oh my God, I could fix it up and I would have a rental and I could have income and a house and I could have a lot I could even sell out. It was my first experience, I tried to beg, borrow and steal and just didn’t have enough for the down payment and wasn’t able to get it. A year later, when I was finishing grad school, I visited the house and it was for sale for over three times that price. And from that day on, I said, the next time I know it in my gut that it’s a good deal, I won’t hesitate, I’ll do whatever it takes to buy the property.

Is there a knack to flipping houses?

There’s a lot of risk. You need to be a little bit of a risk taker because you’re dealing with large sums and no matter what level you’re dealing on, you’re always kind of pushing to be in the best area because common sense tells you location, you’re always trying to push to get the best possible location you can. So no matter where you are on that spectrum, you’re always trying to push the envelope. So it involves a little bit of risk, and it certainly involves a lot of hard work and being able to read people and not be taken advantage of.

Are there similarities between fixing up houses and fixing up people?

The irony about this is, the two things I love most — a career in health and fitness and real estate — most people say jeez, that’s such a disconnect, those are such different worlds. But quite the contrary: It’s about maximizing the potential, whether it’s a property or a human being. If you start with a sound foundation, whether you’re talking about a human or a house, and you build from there, you can never go wrong. Most people don’t get that and think it’s a stretch, but it really is the same mechanics.

Now that you have comfortable homes in Florida and Hawaii, do you still get the urge to buy a fixer?

Always. I am always looking for this little gem that is in need of repair but sits on the most perfect lot in the neighborhood. That never goes away; it only gets stronger.

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