Starting out: "My first job was putting gas in cars at a Chevron station. I was married at 17. I was not mechanically inclined; I learned very quickly that that's not what I wanted to do. I couldn't even find the gas caps on half the cars because they were hidden in unique places back in the early 1970s."
Early Lessons: "I learned pretty early on that I wanted control of my own finances, that I did not want to work for somebody. That was an important goal of mine — to have the flexibility of having worked hard enough to have income without working [coming from investments], and also working a business that I could run how I wanted to, not how somebody else wanted to."
Selling his first house: "It was the first time in my life that there was a check made out for 10 grand that had my name on it. And I just went, 'Wow ... what would happen if we owned three of these?'"
"I went to work for a company in Orange County that bought houses, and I became their best buyer very quickly, and I began making more money per month than I was making per year.... It was quite an eye-opener, to understand that you could make literally 10 times as much money as you used to."
Going solo: "We owned a home basically free and clear. I refinanced the house at 17.5% to become a full-time investor and that is how I started. The early years, I went through growing pains. I didn't know construction, I didn't know sales. I was still able to buy properties and make a living."
The lure of real estate: "I can get presented a deal, and I can tell you in a flash whether that's going to make money or not. And I was always interested in the fact that I could do something, and $20,000 would fall out from the effort, instead of $25 an hour. There were lots of other things that were attractive. I was free, I worked out of my house, I liked what I did, it was always different."
Harrowing lesson: "I went to see a guy who owned a home in Garden Grove. It was '81. I offered him a price and I told him that I needed a certain length of escrow, and everything I said was OK with this guy. It was odd, it wasn't like a negotiation. It was just a lay down, so to speak, but it made me uncomfortable. So in the middle of this negotiation, I literally just said, 'You know what, I don't want to talk to you about your house anymore.' I said, 'Are you OK?' And he paused and he looked at me and he said, 'No, I am not.'" Norris gave the man a copy of the motivational book "The Greatest Miracle in the World." "The next day I came back, knocked on the door and he said, 'I want you to know the book you gave me saved my life. My intention was to sell you my house and kill myself.' And I never forget that. When I sit across from somebody, they are not just a pile of equity, they are a person."
Foreclosure focus: "I am almost glad to be there. Because I realize I am going to do as good a job as any in trying to make them understand that this isn't a permanent state, that you will get a chance to own a house [again]."
Worst mistake: "In 1989, I decided to build seven custom homes in Palm Springs and didn't get done with them until 1990. And at that time the real estate market did a shift, just like it did in 2008, and I couldn't sell any of them. I had seven $3,000-a-month payments. My partners that were supposed to come up with their share of the money couldn't. My partner who was a builder left the country. So I literally woke up one morning realizing I had to make $21,000 extra a month, and did so, and solved that problem."
Real estate research: Norris spent the mid-1990s trying to make sense of real estate cycles. "I studied statistics and put together 25 years of data so I could try and figure out what was next. That was our first report, 'The California Comeback: Why Prices Will Double in the Next Eight Years.' And that happened, it more than happened. And we wrote a report in late 2005, 'The California Crash.' ... And so that is what put us on the map, those two correct assessments of major turns in time to do somebody some good."
Advice for newcomers: "Build a brand of complete honesty, and that is, to me, the best thing you could do. It just has so many benefits. You love what you do, you don't have to look over your shoulder. When good things happen, or good opportunities come up, your name goes to the top of the list."
From grief, a goal: Norris' wife, Marsha, died in 2011 after a lengthy battle with cancer. The couple were married for 38 years and had four children. Marsha Norris' illness gave the couple the determination to raise money for charity, particularly for cancer research. "It has affected my family, and when you have something like that affect you, and you talk about it, it has affected almost everybody in some way."