NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Like generations of immigrants before her, Tamara Garber arrived in the United States with little more than intelligence, courage, and desire to succeed
Garber grew up in the ancient silk-road city of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, the former Soviet republic. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the central Asian country became increasingly inhospitable to non-Uzbeks. As someone of Russian-Jewish ethnicity, educational and career advancement there seemed unlikely for Garber.
So in 1994, she, her mother, and her brother came to New York, where her older brother was studying medicine.
Immigration was wrenching. "It was most difficult to know and realize that there's no life here yet and there's nothing to go back to," she says.
At first, her version of the American Dream seemed more like a nightmare: Up every weekday at 4:30 so she could open a coffee/bagel shop, pre-med classes in the afternoon at NYU, home rarely before 10:00, and weekends filled with baby-sitting jobs. She had to earn a living and help support her mother and brother.
"When you're an immigrant you have no one to rely on," she says. "You have to make your own way."
After she realized that a career in traditional medicine was not for her, she switched to acupuncture, which she still practices.
Garber was working in a computer store and going to school full time when, in 1999, she bought a co-op apartment in the Bronx for her mother. Her first venture into real estate was not an altogether happy experience.
She was 22, with no credit history, and little money. Mortgage loan officers gave her the runaround. Four co-op boards turned her down. Finally, she found a sponsor's unit in a building in Riverdale that didn't need board approval.
Garber paid down $8,000 and took on a $32,000 mortgage, which "seemed huge," she says. Her mother stayed for a couple of years. Tamara then sold the apartment for a profit of about $25,000.
She began to study motivation -- the desire to succeed and taking action to make it on your own. She also got into her next real estate venture, buying a three-story, single-family house in Englewood, New Jersey at a foreclosure sale for $125,000, a week after the World Trade Center catastrophe.
"I had no idea what I was doing," she says. "I didn't see the house prior to bidding, I didn't know basic things such as needing to check the title history for liens." She found that she had bought a wreck -- with the previous owner still on premises.
She had neither the time nor the money for legal bills to force the old owner out. Tamara weighed her options and made her an offer. "I paid her to move out," she says. "At $3,000, it was cheaper."
The house was structurally sound, but filthy. ("It had cans of food from the 1950s in the kitchen," says Garber.) After six months of work -- a new roof, siding, drywall, floor, kitchen and baths, and fresh paint -- the house sold for $259,000, a profit of about $70,000.
Knowledge is power
Her next purchase was a single-family unit in Englewood Cliffs that she wanted to tear down and rebuild. Over the next year she experienced the pain of navigating a maze of variance approvals, public hearings, and publishing notices in local newspapers. She bailed out more than a year later without starting the project, but she received $80,000 more for the property than what she paid.
She began to make it her business to learn more about the business. She read books and magazines, listened to motivational CDs, and talked with others in the business. Eventually, she even took a job with a mortgage lender.
"I learned everything I needed to know about financing," she says. "Now, when talking with bankers, I know exactly what they're saying."
Garber started to think about getting into home construction. She bought an old house in Edgewater, razed it, and built a duplex, the biggest house in town. She needed to bring in a partner to accomplish this, and the deal yielded more than $400,000 in profits.
Since then she has begun constructing three more two-family houses in Edgewater. Her latest step is buying a five-lot property, where she will build three duplexes and two single-family homes.
Garber has certainly benefitted from the rapid expansion of real estate prices. She insulates herself from short-term downturns by selling quickly.
Determination and an ability to act characterize her temperament. "My banker told me that other people say why this deal or that deal won't work," Garber notes. "She said, 'But you, you just go out and make it work.'"
Garber still feels like a rookie. She wants to learn more and recently enrolled in her first real estate course, a seminar at NYU conducted by leading developer. She's looking for her next project.
"I love the challenge of real estate," says Garber. "I take so much pride when I pass a house I built, knowing that families are living there."