(NYTIMES) – While location is important when it comes to property investment, what you buy matters a lot too.

For instance, if you had bought low-cost properties earlier, you stand to reap good profits now, even during a pandemic.

This is what happened to Ms Audrey Smith, whose parents used to be farmers. As she did not want to farm for a living, she attended college to become a dietitian.

For 41 years, she worked her way up the ladder at Watts Healthcare until she retired nearly three years ago as the director of preventive health services.

Along the way, she raised a family, became a real estate agent and started planning for retirement in her 30s by investing primarily in real estate, taking a route to building her savings that is somewhat off the beaten path.

Instead of relying on financial advisers or Wall Street’s standard fare, some retirement investors like Ms Smith build their nest egg by creating their own investment portfolio. Their main revenue source may be residential or commercial real estate, businesses or even precious metals. It is also not unusual for these investors to hold some mutual funds, equities or bonds, but those are secondary.

Even during the best of times, investing in alternative holdings often requires grit, stamina and some elbow grease.

Still, anything can lose value.

Leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, home owners and investors thought prices would never fall, but the market imploded.

During the coronavirus pandemic, with a volatile stock market and the United States economy in a deep recession, people remain concerned about whether their longstanding investment strategies and assumptions will see them through.

Ms Smith, 72, has built a retirement portfolio that includes seven apartment blocks with 15 units that she owns and manages.

About half of these are for low-income tenants who receive federal housing assistance.

This guarantees her some rental income and could help mitigate any loss of rent from other tenants affected by the pandemic.

The strength of the housing market in Los Angeles has helped protect her nest egg.

Over 30 years to March, residential housing prices in Los Angeles increased 194 per cent, compared with 180 per cent nationwide.

For some savers, retirement investing relates to their pastimes.

Mr Gary Glein, a competitive bowler for much of his life, combined his passion for the sport with the opportunity to turn around failing businesses: He and his wife, Linda, became the largest owners of two bowling centres near their home in Washington.

But since the couple had to shut them down because of the pandemic, Tower Lanes and Paradise Lanes have each been losing up to US$60,000 (S$82,000) a month.

“Business investments are much more volatile” than certificates of deposit or bonds, said Mr Glein, 76, who retired from running his own manufacturing company in 1998 after selling it to finance future acquisitions.

“It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Mr Gary Glein and his wife, Linda, own two bowling centres in Washington. Real estate and business investments make up nearly 42 per cent of their nest egg. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The couple started investing in income properties in the 1970s, and over the last two decades have diversified their holdings with investments in the Tacoma area, including a restaurant, an office building and a small marina.

Real estate and business investments like these make up nearly 42 per cent of the couple’s nest egg.

To balance their strategy, they also hold individual stocks and index funds, which account for about 25 per cent, and a sizeable cash position in certificates of deposits and bonds. Still, the cumulative losses are taking a toll.

They secured three small-business loans to support the bowling centres and the restaurant. Although most of their commercial tenants have paid their rent, some have requested rent reductions, and one has gone out of business.

Economists and investment experts said real estate investment plays an important role in any diversified portfolio.

It “generates higher cash flow than the stock market, behaves differently than other asset classes of stocks and bonds, and is one of the few areas of investing that are highly tax efficient for the individual investor”, said Mr Douglas Abbey, a lecturer on real estate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

His first rule was to buy property with a “forever time horizon” that will endure because of its location.

“Like a good bottle of cabernet, you want real estate to get better in 20 years rather than turn to vinegar,” he added.

The Gleins said they felt confident that their diverse investments and cash holdings would see them through the downturn even though some of their commercial tenants might not survive.

The couple are still betting that their bowling centres will do well.

But first, they must ensure their staff and customers feel safe enough to go back.

Despite the risks, Mrs Glein said, her engagement with their businesses and the community surrounding these enterprises is like a “chess game” that makes her feel “much more alive and involved than many of my other retired friends”.