BiggerPockets Money Podcast 231: ‘On the Road’ to FIRE: The Massive Financial Benefits of Van Living

BiggerPockets Money Podcast 231: ‘On the Road’ to FIRE: The Massive Financial Benefits of Van Living

40 min read
The BiggerPockets Money Podcast Read More

As a Guest you have free article(s) left

Join BiggerPockets (for free!) and get access to real estate investing tips, market updates, and exclusive email content.

Sign in Already a member?

Not everyone has the vagabond spirit of those who choose to optionally live out of their cars, trucks, or vans. While this isn’t up Scott and Mindy’s alley, it’s been perfectly fine for today’s guests Tien and Brandon. After deciding to end their lease before a road trip, Tien and Brandon found living in their specialty-built van wasn’t just habitable, but preferable for their lifestyle. This was especially true after paying pricey southern California rent.

All this happened after making some impressive financial moves; paying off $50k of loans in eight months, flipping their first house, and buying a small portfolio of duplexes. Tien and Brandon have made a spree of financially intelligent moves, pushing themselves into a high net worth category, all while living in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

As of March 2021, Tien and Brandon dismantled their truly remote lifestyle to settle into their first short-term rental house hack. They’ve been pulling in $8,000 a month (yes, a month) from their San Diego Airbnb property, which is not only covering their entire mortgage but paying them some profits to boot!

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts.

Listen to the Podcast Here

Read the Transcript Here

Mindy:
Welcome to the Bigger Pockets Money Podcast show number 231, where we interview Tien and Brandon Rooney and talk about van life and rental properties.

Tien:
So, they put all their money into real estate and they just learned along the way. So, they ended up working for five extra years, but still retiring at 45, and they told us that story and we were like, “We can do that.”

Mindy:
Hello, hello, hello. My name is Mindy Jensen, and with me as always is my always quick with a joke cohost, Scott Trench.

Scott:
Thanks, Mindy. We’ll showcase that later with some Gouda cheese jokes at the end.

Mindy:
That was terrible.

Scott:
Oh, come on.

Mindy:
That was horrible. Scott and I are here to make financial independence less scary, less just for somebody else, to make really bad jokes, and to introduce you to every money story because we truly do believe that financial freedom is attainable for everyone no matter when or where you’re starting.

Scott:
That’s right. Whether you want to retire early and travel the world in a van, go on to make big time investments and assets like real estate or start your own business, we’ll help you reach your financial goals and get money out of the way, so you can watch yourself [inaudible 00:01:10]

Mindy:
Scott, I really, really am excited about this episode today. Tien and Brandon are a young couple from Southern California who have traveled the world, traveled the US in their van and now have a series of rental properties, including one that they use as Airbnb from their home base of Southern California.

Scott:
Yeah. I think what I observed about this couple … By the way, shout out to my mom, Mrs. Trench, that’s Mrs. Trench to all of you, for introducing us to Tien and Brandon today. So, thank you, mom. We appreciate more references there.
Anyway, what I think I observed about this couple is that they’re flexible, right? Because they’re flexible and creative and willing to experiment, they’ve never put themselves in a position where I think the demands of their job or their lifestyle require them to lockdown for a long period of time, and they’ve exploited that advantage I think multiple times over the years with this, whether that’s spending six weeks in Indiana to do a flip or whether it’s house hacking, whether it’s living in a van, whether it’s living with family in the basement or whatever it is.
They’re willing to do it and that, I think, has created optionality for them, not only wealth, but optionality to try a bunch of different things, become wealthy in interesting and creative ways, and I think experience probably a lifestyle that I would envious of in some ways, and not so envious of in other ways. I guess you’ll see it. I think you’ll see that it’s interesting and unique, and I think there’s a lot of power behind the flexible and creative way that they’ve designed their lives and the opportunities that’s afforded them.

Mindy:
Yeah. What’s that phrase? Live like nobody else now so that you could live like nobody else later. They embody that. That’s so … Just their creativity, their flexibility, their just willingness to do whatever it takes, whatever they’re comfortable with to further themselves down the path to financial independence. I just think that there’s a lot of lessons to be learned here for everybody listening.

Scott:
I think that’s right. I also have one other point. When they were in debt, there was no comfort. There was comfort because they were living in Southern California, but they were willing to humble themselves and live with family and do what it took to pay off that debt before doing all this other creative stuff that I think really drove their wealth from zero to hundreds of thousands of dollars and close to financial freedom at this point. So, I think that that’s right. I think there’s a tremendous amount of discipline and hustle living like no one else in order to get into that strong financial position where all the other opportunities we discuss in the show trickled down from.

Mindy:
Tien and Brandon Rooney, welcome to the Bigger Pockets Money Podcast. I’m so excited to talk to you guys today.

Brandon:
Thank you.

Tien:
Yeah. Thank you for having us.

Mindy:
So, let’s jump right into it. Where does your journey with money began?

Tien:
So, our journey with money basically after we got out of college, I was lucky enough to not have any financial student debt, but Brandon had financial debt and we just started our W-2 jobs working regular 40-hour week type jobs, and then we got the bug to travel a little bit. So, through roundabout ways, we ended up moving abroad, traveling for nine months. Then when we came back, we realized, “Oh, we have all this debt we still need to pay off and we don’t have jobs, and we really need to get our finances in order.”
So, we went really hard on the debt payoff. So, we went, we rented a room instead of getting our own place. We started looking for jobs, and then basically, we just went really hard into budgeting and being super frugal and then every month, we would take to the very penny how much money we have left over in our budget, and then we started by building up our three-month emergency fund, and then after that, we just took off the end of every month every penny that we have left over we just put on the student loans, and then we were able to get those paid off really quickly. So, we did all his student loans, about 50,000. It was student and car loan in about eight months.

Scott:
It sounds like your journey really begins after you get back from the nine months of travel. That’s when your financial journey really hits the turbo charger, I guess, here. What were both of your jobs? What was your income? What was the total debt? What was the snapshot of the picture at that moment in time?

Brandon:
At that time, we came back from … We were in Southeast Asia teaching English, making basically enough to travel. So, when we came back, we didn’t have jobs. We actually started working part-time for a startup, which was awesome because it actually got us moving forward in our entrepreneurial spirit, but it paid very little outfront. I want to say I was working 20 hours out of that job. Tien started a month later and at that time, they bumped us both up to about 40 hours a week, and we were making, prior to any bonuses, we were making about 50 each, 50,000 each.

Scott:
Okay. Where are you living during this period?

Brandon:
So, that was where we really made our move. I was living with my sister. So, when we came back, she loves hosting people and luckily, she was down to host us. So, basically, we made an agreement. We would pay for all their HOAs. They live in San Clemente and so they had pretty high HOA. So, we paid for their HOAs, which was $400 a month, and then we just cooked for them every once in a while, watched her daughter and did prepay in that method as well. So, we kept down our costs massively because in Seattle, we were renting a place, which was a good deal at the time for $1,600, but going from 1,600 down to 400.

Mindy:
You paid out $50,000 in eight months making $100,000 a year and living in a very high cost of living area. Is that what I’m hearing you say?

Brandon:
Oh, no, not quite. Well, we were in a very high area, but we moved from Seattle after traveling to San Clemente and lived with my sister, and we just paid her HOA fees and took care of her daughter and stuff like that.

Mindy:
Right, but it’s still an expensive place to live.

Tien:
Everything else you say is right.

Brandon:
Yeah.

Tien:
Yeah. Everything else you said, Mindy, was right. Yeah. We were still able to pay them off in eight months.

Mindy:
That’s awesome.

Scott:
Was this right after college? You guys just graduated and that’s the age range you guys were in at this point?

Tien:
So, we had worked for two years and then traveled for nine months. So, we were about 25 at the time.

Scott:
Okay. Awesome. What was the total debt? Was it 50K? Did you get back to zero during this period?

Brandon:
Yeah. So, I had, when I graduated, about 30,000 in debt from Iowa State, and then I bought a car once I got out to Seattle for my first job because I had a 1986 Bronco 2 that didn’t make it from Iowa to Seattle. So, I ended up buying a new car, which, obviously, those come with a high price tag. So, I think at that time it was about my loan was 20,000. So, it came out to basically 50,000 almost on the dot in total debt, and it was all mine. Don’t let Tien, Tien, she was always good.

Scott:
Well, I think it’s awesome. I mean, you had an opportunity here. San Clemente is, I think, one of the most beautiful places to live in the entire world. It’s right between LA and San Diego, right? I went there for a wedding a few years back and fell in love. One day I’ll spend a year in San Clemente with that, but I think that’s awesome.

Mindy:
Go stay with Brandon’s sister. She loves hosting people.

Scott:
Yeah. She does.

Tien:
Yeah, she does.

Brandon:
That’s right. Yeah, so let us know.

Scott:
That’s awesome. So, you’re living there, you’re working at these startup jobs, you’re acquiring some skills, you’re using all of your advantages to, I think, great effect here, and you pay off all your debt in eight, nine months. What happens after that?

Tien:
So, at that point, his sister really got us into Dave Ramsey, which has pros and cons, but we were really excited about paying off the debt, but then after that, Dave Ramsey doesn’t have anything left. So, we were just lost financially. We weren’t really sure what to do. So, we decided to try a few side hustles.
So, I decided to get my tax license. So, I started doing personal income taxes, and then Brandon actually was pursuing firefighting at the time, which is really competitive here in Southern California. So, it can take years to get on. So, he was taking an academy at the time and then I was working a second job as a tax preparer, which didn’t necessarily pay as much as I was expecting, but we learned so much knowledge and information that we’ve been able to use in our business that it’s really just been invaluable in that respect.
Then we tried a few other things. I opened an etsy shop and do some more passive income for photography sales, and that also wasn’t as lucrative as we thought. So, we just tried a few different things to make some passive income and then eventually landed in real estate.

Scott:
What year did you pay off the debt? When is that?

Brandon:
We paid it off in, we came back, 2015, February 2015.

Scott:
That was the end of your debt paid out journey.

Brandon:
We started basically in the summer of 2014 and then paid off in February of 2015.

Scott:
Okay. Awesome. So, in 2015, you’re debt-free and now you’re figuring stuff out with the firefighting. We have the tax preparer. It sounds like you’re trying a number of different things. How long does that go on for and how does your financial position evolved as you’re trying and experiencing these things?

Brandon:
So, probably after. So, at that time, we were still actually working for the startup, which was a very small company. I mean, as far as the office goes, there was about five of us and then we had a call center and stuff. So, we got pretty heavy into that, and so we were more money through that. I think we were up to 70,000 each. Then as the time went on, we basically were able to get into the real estate in 2017 and I’ll let Tien take that because that was driven by her family.

Scott:
Okay. Great. So, 2017 sounds like another inflection point here. What is your financial? Two years go by. Are you investing? Do you build up a cash cushion? What does that look like during that period?

Tien:
So, at that time, we were just putting money in our Roth IRAs every year and then we were essentially just stockpiling cash. We were looking … I reached out to a couple of different financial gurus and we had talked to a bunch of other people that we knew who were in the finance world. Everyone was just like, “Oh, we don’t know what’s happening with the housing market or with the economy. So, maybe cash is just the right way to do it right now.”
We did put a little bit of money in the stock market and were actively trading, which we had continue to do for a few years and has been somewhat lucrative, but it’s a lot more stress. So, we’ve leaned over the years more towards ETFs, but in the meantime, that was basically we were just stockpiling as much cash as we could.

Scott:
How much cash are you entering 2017 in your real estate investing strategy with?

Tien:
So, let me pull up. I have all our numbers here.

Mindy:
Do you have a spreadsheet?

Brandon:
Yeah.

Tien:
Oh, we have so many spreadsheets.

Brandon:
So many spreadsheets. Yeah.

Mindy:
While you’re pulling that up, Brandon, I want to point out that this was what? 2015-2016 and you were saying, “Ooh, we’re uncertain where the market is going to go,” and here we are, and I’m not poking fun at you. I’m pointing out that we’re uncertain where the market is going to go has been the mantra since what? 2014, Scott, when the market started picking up in a lot of places? Ooh, it’s starting to get hot, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018. Oh, should I wait for a crash? 2019, 2020. 2020 has a worldwide pandemic and the real estate market didn’t crash.

Brandon:
Yeah. That’s pretty crazy.

Scott:
Well, I think it’s been uncertain since 1850.

Brandon:
It didn’t crash.

Mindy:
When did mortgages start?

Scott:
While you’re pulling that up also, when is the hook of financial independence sinking in? Is that from Dave Ramsey? Immediately back in 2014-2015 or are you discovering that in this period as well?

Tien:
So, actually, that came from traveling. So, when we were living in Seattle before that, we were working a ton. So, I was working 65-70 hours a week and then Brandon was working at a job that had a little bit more flexibility, but he was still working really hard for what he was getting paid. So, we were just like, “Maybe the corporate world is not as fun as we expected it to be.” So, that’s when we just both left our jobs, decided to travel, and then we traveled for nine months and got hooked and we were like, “We love this. We love this freedom. We’re not working that many hours. We’re able to travel and climb and do all the things that we love.” So, we were like, “We need to figure out a way to be able to do this more often.”

Scott:
Love it. So, that became the goal instantaneously is to figure out how to sustain that indefinitely in that travel?

Brandon:
Yeah. I like to play a lot. So, as long as we can get more time playing, that’s a great thing for me.

Tien:
I think it was also 2016 that we also met another couple and they had through just frugality and investments decided that they were going to retire at 40. They’re older than us. So, then when their retirement date came around, it was right around 2005-2006. So, right at the right time of the housing market, they had never invested in real estate but they obviously had a ton of cash because they were trying to retire early. So, they put all their money into real estate and they just learned along the way.
So, they ended up working for five extra years, but still retiring at 45. They told us that story and we were like, “We can do that, and we can start earlier than 40, and so then we can reach financial independence earlier than 40.”

Scott:
All right. So, let’s go through your actions that you took in 2017 in your position that you were in at that point.

Brandon:
Yeah. So, basically at the end of 2016, we had about $90,000 in cash. So, basically, just a year and a half or a little over a year and a half, we had built up 90,000 in cash. So, in 2017, we were back in Indiana where Tien’s family lives. We were visiting and they had done flips for one or two a year, just basically went to the sheriff’s sale, found a house, would flip it really quickly, and they’re successful with it. However, the sheriff’s sale is at that point not really a source of deals anymore even though we still went to one. We tried to bid on a couple and nothing panned out, but then we went on a drive with a real estate agent. In that same day, we ended up putting an offer on a house to fix and flip in Indianapolis.
Then because the purchase price was going to be $90,000, that was all our cash. We approached Tien’s grandparents and asked them to be partners because they had been doing the flips for years, and we want to learn from them. So, we ended up doing a 50/50 deal with them on cash and labor. So, we bought the house basically the same day that we showed up in Indiana, and then I think we closed a month later and then at that point, we went into the full fix and flip and we were working full-time as well.

Scott:
So, you relocated to Indiana for real estate investing at this point.

Brandon:
We relocated during the flip and then came back.

Tien:
Yeah. We still had our apartment here, but we just went and stayed there and we did work all day for six weeks to get it ready to go.

Scott:
You’re still living with your family in San Clemente during this period?

Brandon:
At that point, so our jobs were in San Diego. So, we moved down to San Diego and we’re renting on an apartment at that point.

Scott:
Okay. Great. All right. So, you relocated to Indiana. What does that look like? Do you live in the flip? Do you live with family? Do you rent a place? What’s that look like while you’re doing this project?

Tien:
Yeah. So, we just actually lived with my family.

Brandon:
Felt like we lived in the flip.

Tien:
Yeah. We would just wake really early and we’d work for our W-2 jobs for about four hours and then we’d go and work on the flip for about eight hours and then come back and work for our W-2 jobs again for another four hours at night. Then it was still the startup, so it was relatively flexible, and we were still able to get all our work done and do everything we needed to do for that.

Scott:
So, how long did this 16-hour day situation continued for?

Tien:
Six weeks.

Scott:
Six weeks. How much-

Brandon:
Four weeks for 16 hours, then at the end it was a little bit more just tick-tacky.

Scott:
Okay. Great. So, you were there for a month and a half. Walk us through the numbers. How did that propel your situation forward?

Brandon:
Yeah. So, as far as that first flip that we did, we were in initially for the purchase of 90,000 and then it needed everything. Before we even got out there, we had them pave the driveway. We had them tear out some stuff. They have connections with different people to come clean out stuff. So, before we even got out there, they started. Then once we got out there, we repainted the whole thing, did all new flooring, put in a deck, new window, bathroom, kitchen, the whole thing, and we’re 30,000 in upgrades. So, basically, 120 into the deal.
Then at that point, I think our realtor is like, “Oh, I think you guys could get 150 for it.”
I go, “That was a lot of work for 15,000 a person.”
So, we ended up being like, “Well, we did a little comp work and we found that we could probably get 190, 180.”
So, we ended up convincing the realtor to go up to 180, and then at the end of it, we ended up finding a couple of people that are interested and we got a buyer to offer at the asking. Then at that point, we still had all the appraisal and stuff like that. The one thing we didn’t do on the flip was the roof, and then they wanted the roof done. So, actually, that was included in the $30,000 upgrade. So, at the end of the day, we came out with 50,000 before you take out all the fees and everything, and that was split two ways.

Scott:
Okay. So, what happens next? You’ve completed this flip. You’ve made some money. You’ve proven the concept at the very least. What did you do next?

Tien:
So, after that flip, even though it was lucrative, we pretty much decided that we didn’t want to do that again because of the super long hours and then also, we paid to be in Southern California. So, it was silly to be paying rent for six weeks not living here. So, we decided that rentals is how we wanted to go.
So, we basically just gone on the rental train and then like we were saying, Mindy, we didn’t know what was going to happen with the housing market. So, we just sat back and waited for a little bit. Got a little bit more into stocks, and then we actually took a break. So, Brandon, correct me if I’m wrong. Was that a three-year break before we bought our next deal?

Brandon:
Two years.

Tien:
Yeah. So, we just saved up a lot and didn’t act as quickly as we should have.

Brandon:
I was getting hired by the fire department. So, it took me out of commission for a good basically year.

Scott:
Okay. So, in 2017, how do we peg your net worth? Is it probably in the 100-150 range in that ballpark?

Brandon:
In 2015?

Scott:
2017.

Brandon:
Sorry, 2017. Yeah. So, in 2017, our net worth, we’re sitting around 220 in 2017.

Scott:
Okay. That’s some stocks, the $90,000 in cash, the flip, all the puts and takes there. You’re coming out of that year at 220. Then what happens after your break? So, two years go by. I assume you’re still saving and investing to some degree passively. Where are you after that break?

Brandon:
300, about 300,000. Yeah.

Scott:
Okay. Now, you’re saying life circumstances are right again for real estate investing. What did you do? What are the investments you make there?

Tien:
Yeah. So, our realtor brought us another off market deal. So, basically, there was one person who was in a lot of tax issues, and so he was trying to sell off all his properties. So, he had 30 something units to sell off, I think, that he was looking for. So, we-

Scott:
This is in Indiana?

Tien:
This is in Indiana, yes. So, we went in with a couple different people. So, we had a few family members that were looking to do some flips, and our realtor actually brought in some other people that we never even knew or met. So, as a group, we collectively agreed to buy, I think, 24 of the units for … We individually priced them when we made the offer. The offer was as a bulk deal.
So, we were purchasing four of those. Ended up because of the IRS situation, it took about six months to close and they’re only closing one deal at a time or one unit at a time. So, I mean, we didn’t have, I don’t want to say we didn’t have anything else going on, but we didn’t have any other deals on the pipeline. So, we were fine to wait and everyone else backed out. So, they ended up honoring our deal still, which has been great, but we acquired four units, so two duplexes out of that deal.

Scott:
Okay. What did that look like and how did that accelerate your financial position there?

Brandon:
Yeah. So, that one we basically did a conventional financing, 25% on $190,000. So, that was per duplex. So, total in, we were at the 380,000. So, a couple of them were rented. One was vacant, and then one had a tenant that was about to move out. So, we basically were setting aside money so that when people moved out we could update them all. So, we started the updating process on the one that was vacant and then was getting those rented. Those will rent for, at the time when we first got it, we’re looking at about $950-$1,000 per rent, and then now it’s closer to 1,200. Those basically, yeah.

Scott:
How long does it take between an offer, close, and stabilizing the units with the newer higher rents?

Brandon:
It was what? About five months from offer to close because of the whole tax lien, and then as far as the flipping, we had two basically pretty solid tenants for a year that we didn’t have to do anything for stabilizing, and then the one unit we basically did in about a month. Tien went back out and flipped that and then as the other unit became vacant, that one was less work and only took about two weeks, and we had renters in it within probably two weeks for both of those being finished.

Scott:
That’s awesome.

Brandon:
So, six weeks, probably, to stabilize.

Scott:
Okay. Great. So, where are we now and what comes after this?

Tien:
So, after this-

Brandon:
2019.

Tien:
2019. So, yup, this is 2019. In the meantime, we have been building out a van. So, we needed a second car because when we lived in San Diego, we worked together. We worked about a block away from our house. So, we ended up going down to one car because we didn’t need the second one. Then when he got on the fire department, we obviously needed a second car. He’s gone for 24 hours sometimes. We had thought about getting a van and just in the past and so we’re like, “Let’s just get that as our second car.”
So, we got a van. It’s basically like the Amazon delivery vans. Then we spent about a year building that ourselves into basically a camper. So, by the end of our lease at this point, we had moved up to Orange County again for a year. We’re renting an apartment and then just to be a little bit closer to his work, and then we decided that we should try to live in it.
So, we were going on a road trip anyway, so we’re like, “Our lease is ending. We’re going on a two-month road trip. Let’s go ahead and just not rent and then we’ll just live in it as long as we can.”
So, we ended up living in that for a year and a half, and then in the meantime while we’re living in it, we also bought another rental.

Mindy:
Okay. I want to talk about this van for a while because I have seen these vans and they look super cool, but where do you shower? Where do you do all of your bathroom business because they don’t have a bathroom.

Brandon:
So, we do actually have a composting toilet in our van, which sounds pretty gross, but surprisingly it’s not. So, basically, it’s a toilet that will compost the solid wastes and then the liquid waste is separated and so you’re disposing them total.

Tien:
You don’t have to go too much into that detail.

Scott:
When did you move in to the van?

Brandon:
So, we moved into the van in 2000-

Tien:
August 31st 2019.

Brandon:
2019, yeah. So, basically at the same time as buying.

Scott:
Are you still maintaining your jobs during that period living in the van?

Tien:
We are, yes. So, we actually still have the second car. So, we would park his car because he would need to take it to work. So, we would just part it around the area and then we would pretty much just be in the van unless he was working. Then I work from home already. So, I would just work from home in the van.

Scott:
Why make the move? What was the rationale behind it?

Tien:
So, we like to camp and rock climb. So, I think the van trend has been growing the last few years. So, we’re like, “Oh, it would be really fun to just have a fun so if we want to go on trips and we want to go, we don’t have to pack up anything. It’s just always ready to go.”
So, we wanted to build it anyways, and then once we built it, it has a bed and a fridge and a pantry and a closet, and it holds our surfboards and all our climbing gear. It holds everything we need. We put solar on it. So, we have that. So, it was pretty self-sustaining, anyways. So, we figured if we were going to do a two-month road trip and not have an apartment anyways, we could just extend it as long as we could.

Brandon:
Yeah. So, the goal-

Tien:
Mindy, to answer your earlier question, we have gym memberships. So, we worked out quite a bit because whenever we need to shower, we felt guilty just going in there to shower. So, we go in and work out.

Scott:
Was there a bent on the financial independence thing? Was that a part of the rationale or was it really just more that’s the lifestyle that you were looking for?

Brandon:
It was I would say a twofold a little bit. Basically, we were building it and then the timing just worked out perfect. It was like, “There’s no reason to pay rent.” So, from a financial perspective, we’re like, “We’re going to be done for two months. We might as well not pay rent. That makes no sense.”
So, then we’re like, “Well, I guess we might as well not pay rent for six months and just try it out.” So, basically, we just set a date and go, “We’ll go and see how it goes,” and then it ended up being that way just like, “All right. We’ll just stay in it until we buy a house. We’re not paying rent anymore.” So, that was how that came about.

Tien:
We knew if we stayed in it for six months it would pay for the renovations in the van. So, it’s like if we can last six months, then the renovations will have essentially been free. Then we were able to, just with all of our calculations, we saved about $30,000 in rent, utilities, internet, all that stuff over the year and a half. So, that also set us forward quite a bit.

Scott:
Do you have pictures of the van that we could share in the show notes?

Tien:
I do, yes. I can send you some pictures.

Scott:
I think that would be great. Yeah. I would love to see the inside out, the whole deal with this thing.

Tien:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Scott:
Go ahead, Mindy.

Mindy:
I can hear people saying, “Oh, I could never live in a van,” and I would also say that. So, what was the hardest part about living in the van because, clearly, the easiest part of living in a van is not paying rent. That sounds super awesome, but where are you parking it? Does it come with electric hookups or do you need a solar thing? I have a friend who has a sprinter van with the whole top is covered with solar, I don’t know, mats or something.

Brandon:
I’ll let Tien answer that.

Tien:
Okay. So, we did have solar as well. So, we never had to hook up or anything. We’re pretty much self-sustaining. So, we had all our own water. We have a kitchen sink. We have everything in it. So, as far as where we park, we’re really lucky to be in a great weather area. So, we don’t have a heater or an AC in it. So, we just would open the windows. We had a fan that would circulate some air, but all day in California you can buy a beach pass. So, I would park at the beach every day, and it will be from 6:00 to 10:00. So, I would essentially live at the beach from 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM every day. I’d work from there. We both surf, and we would just basically hang out there.
Then at night, you can just park in the neighborhoods, essentially, or there’s areas close to the beach that you can just park and we would just come in late and have already gotten ready for bed, brush our teeth, everything. Park there for the night, and then leave again at 6:00 AM the next morning.

Brandon:
Yeah. We always tried to be respectful of the neighborhoods we’re in. So, we wouldn’t ever park in front of somebody’s house. It would always be across the street from a parking lot or something in the neighborhoods. Yeah. I mean, as far as just the difficulty of it, say if it did rain in California, which is rare, you’re stuck in this 200 square foot space with another person trying to do stuff. When the doors are open, it’s great. Then, basically, every time you’re going to bed, you have to be super quiet. We’re just always worried about somebody calling the cops on us, which that never happened. I think there was only one time the cops knocked on our door and we were luckily already awake and already ready to leave and we’re not in California even.

Mindy:
You were respectful of the neighborhoods you were in. You didn’t park in front of somebody’s house. Let’s see. How do I say this? The van life can be looked down upon by municipalities. I mean, if you’re out in somebody’s parking lot, and if you’re not putting all your garbage around, there’s some RVs in my town where they park and literally everything comes out and it’s just all over the ground. That doesn’t look nice.

Tien:
Yeah. We basically try to make it look like we were-

Brandon:
Not there.

Tien:
I don’t know, like commercial van or that no one was in it. We try to be as quiet as possible, and we never really went and … We would basically just park somewhere to go to sleep and then wake up and drive away.

Mindy:
Tien’s plumbing on the van.

Tien:
Yeah, exactly.

Mindy:
So, let’s talk about all your stuff. What did you do with all your stuff while you moved out of your apartment and into a van?

Tien:
Yeah. So, we kept everything in a storage unit, and then we kept it pretty organized, and we had a couple of dressers in there so that way when it, not that the weather changes all that much in Southern California, but when it got cooler, we could switch out some of our summer clothes for winter and stuff like that, but we just kept it at a close by storage unit. So, if we ever need anything, we could grab it pretty easily.

Mindy:
You said this got you $30,000 ahead of the game by living in a van for how long did you live in there? 18 months?

Tien:
A year and a half.

Mindy:
Okay. That’s-

Scott:
You must have liked it to stay there for longer than the first six months. Is that right?

Tien:
Yeah. We actually ended up really liking it, and for us, it was a great way to travel. So, we took a couple of one to two-month road trips and then Brandon would just fly back and work for basically a week straight and then fly back to me. So, we got to see a lot of stuff. We spent a ton of time at the beach. We played a bunch. We also, obviously, worked hard and still kept our investing net, but we were able to play a lot and we realized now we just bought a house, which I’m sure we’ll get into, but I feel like in the last two months we’ve seen two sunsets. In the van, you see every beach sunset and you see all these cool places. So, it’s a cool lifestyle, but a year and a half is a good amount.

Scott:
So, what’s your financial position after you end the van stint here for 18 months, and what year are we in with the end of living in the van?

Tien:
So, 2021. We actually just ended it in February, well, I guess March of this year.

Scott:
Yeah. Where are you guys at in the financial journey?

Brandon:
So, at that point, actually, we had acquired a third duplex in Indiana as well. So, we’re sitting about, our net worth in February was about 480. So, we had made a pretty good jump from our investments as well as money saving from over that year and a half. We’re basically ready to buy a house because Tien was working out of a tiny van.

Scott:
Awesome. So, what’s that transition look like? Where do you buy? What happened in the last couple of months here?

Tien:
Yeah. So, we started looking. We were more looking in Orange County just because he works up in LA and pricing. I mean, not that San Diego is cheap by any means, but Orange County is pretty hefty price tags. So, we started looking. We’re trying to decide do we want a town home, do we want our own house. Our dream was to have a house with a mother-in-law so that we could house hack. We ended up finding something. Well, we weren’t even looking in San Diego. We love San Diego. We lived here for about four years. So, we have a community here and we eventually wanted to live here, but we just came down and we’re having dinner with friends and something popped up on Redfin like, “Oh, this house just came for sale in your area.” It was less than 10 minutes away.
So, I scheduled a time with our realtor, went and looked at it, and it was a house with a mother-in-law. So, we decided to make an offer on it and, obviously, went through all the normal negotiations and stuff, but they rented back for two weeks and then we moved into it in March and then basically started renovations on that, and yeah. We can get into that, I guess, if we’re ready.

Scott:
Yeah. That’s awesome. Let’s do it.

Tien:
Yeah. So, the backhouse is connected to a garage. So, it’s a garage and basically they walled off half the garage. They used it as a man cave. So, it had a bathroom in it and a La-Z-Boy and a TV, and that was it that was back there, but it’s a pretty big space. So, we figured we could do more with it.
So, when we first moved in here, the day we moved in, we started ripping off the floors in the main house because they had old carpet in the bedrooms. So, that first week we moved in, we basically moved our stuff into the garage, and then we’re still sleeping in the van in the driveway. Then we renovated the floors in the bedrooms, and then started furnishing it, and we decided that we’re going to do a short-term rental Airbnb in it.
So, worked on furnishing it a bunch, and then started moving into the backhouse but not doing any renovations. Then once the front house was ready to go, then we started renovating the backhouse. We painted it, redid the floors, and then had a contractor come out and help us switch out because it already had water and electric back there. It just didn’t have a kitchen. So, we built a full kitchen in there and just got that all ready and livable. So, we live in the back and Airbnb the front.

Scott:
How does that look? How is that working out financially for you guys?

Brandon:
Yeah. So, with the front house, we basically, the reason we went with short-term rentals was just the travel bugger now is insane. Everything is crazy high prices. So, we decided we try to at least capitalize during the summer on San Diego visitation because during the summer, it’s really busy, but it actually slows down a lot the rest of the year. So, that was our thought for the summer.
So, yeah, during the summer, it was really good. Basically, we would get about 80% to 90% occupancy in the front house and we were making about 8,000 a month. Then we’ve already seen it slowed on August. It was really busy first couple of weeks. It’s already slowing down. So, we’re basically looking to pivot to more of a 30-day Furnished Finder traveling nurses, but now that the summer is coming in, but we wanted to capitalize just on that opportunity of the summer. Next year, they’re changing the laws with Airbnb in San Diego. So, we’re like, “Oh, we might as well take it while we can and then if we can apply and get the permit for next year, we will probably try to do it again next summer.

Scott:
Is it legally two units or is it one house?

Brandon:
So, basically, they made it into an ADU, but it’s not addressed as two units.

Scott:
Yeah. I want to point out something here that is I think really smart about what you guys are doing is many jurisdictions probably where you live have rules around Airbnb that say it can only rent out your primary residence and that at a certain percentage of the time. That’s annoying to a lot of folks in your situation, but it’s also an enormous competitive advantage because nobody else can do that either, right? So, the only way you can actually get an Airbnb listing in that is if you’re doing something like what you’re doing where it’s one address and you’re in that situation. So, that’s an incredibly powerful tool to get started with a lot of these.
I met another couple recently that’s doing that in Denver. They’re very annoyed that they can’t scale. I’m thinking about the whole reason that you’re able to get these incredible rents, $8,000 a month, and that kind of stuff on, I would assume it would rent for less than 3,000 or around that as a traditional rental or something in that ballpark is because of these laws. So, I think that’s really cool and smart of you guys.

Mindy:
I want to throw out there another suggestion since you all … Do you still have the van?

Brandon:
Yes.

Mindy:
Okay. So, you still have the van and now you have a legal front house. You have a legal backhouse. Maybe you rent out the backhouse during the summer as well and just sleep in the van.

Tien:
We have also talked about that.

Mindy:
I mean, what percentage of your mortgage is being paid over the summer with the rentals in the front house?

Tien:
100%.

Mindy:
100%?

Brandon:
Well, not for the whole year. Is that what you’re asking or is it-

Mindy:
Well, no. For the month that it’s renting it’s 100%. Is it 100 plus percent because then, I mean, if you could get your entire mortgage-

Tien:
It’s about 200%.

Mindy:
If you can get your entire mortgage paid by living in the van for the summer, that seems like a really sweet tactic.

Brandon:
We’ve talked about it, too, because we’re hoping to go somewhere for a month later this year like, “Oh, we’ll just rent out the back while we’re gone for a month,” but, yeah, I guess, yeah. We’ll see when that comes up if we go for it or not. We have to move all our personal stuff and stuff like that. So, we’ll-

Mindy:
Into the garage-

Brandon:
Exactly.

Mindy:
… or into a storage unit. Get a pod.

Brandon:
Exactly. Yeah. We actually also talked about just renting the van out since it’s just sitting there.

Mindy:
People will do that, too.

Scott:
Well, I think that’s a great question. What is next for you guys now? It seems like you guys are really open to creative awesome experiments with this kind of stuff. You’re clearly able to get a really good lifestyle as a result of that in the interim and build a lot of wealth. What is your end goal?

Tien:
So, our end goal is buy and hold. So, we want to be able, I guess for our long-term goal is to be able to generate 250,000 a year and then just through our investments and then we could essentially just live off that, but our next moves are I actually through Bigger Pockets met a couple of women and so we started a mastermind. We’ve gone really close over the last year and just over a year. One of them we’re actually going to be partnering with and doing our first BRRRR. So, we’re going to hopefully be doing our first BRRRR, get that completed before the end of the year.
We’re selling the one property that we bought during the pandemic. We’re actually going to be selling that one and using those funds to do the first BRRRR, and then hopefully that’s just a partnership that we can continue to leverage. So, it’s back in the Midwest as well. So, she’s in Louisville. So, we’re going to be essentially funding the deal and doing all the remote admin type work and then she has crews because she’s an investor as well. So, she has crews that are going to be doing the renovation and she’s got lenders and all that stuff.
So, we’re basically bringing our talents together and then we’re going to do a deal, and then hopefully we can find a couple more single family BRRRRs over the next couple of years, and then we’d also like to get into at least one larger multifamily like apartment building or something like that.

Scott:
Awesome. What are you guys doing for work right now?

Brandon:
I work for Los Angeles County Fire Department and just been doing that a little over three years. So, that comes with a lot of side benefits but the biggest I would say benefit is flexibility in schedule, just being able to trade days and make my own schedule kind of.

Tien:
Yeah, and I work for the same startup that we started working for. It’s gone through different ownerships now. So, we’re definitely not in startup mode anymore, but I work for the same company. So, I still am 100% remote and do everything online.

Mindy:
I just want to chime in here with regards to the partnership. I don’t know you. I don’t know who is doing the partnership with you. This is just general advice, not casting aspersions on anyone’s character, but get everything in writing. This is for anybody listening as well. If you are considering a real estate partnership, think of the worst case scenario because, of course, oh, what’s the best case scenario? We make a lot of money. Hmm, how are we going to handle that, but exactly how are you going to handle that? Are you going to get 40% or 50% or is it a six-way partnership and each person gets whatever 100 divided by six is? Is the person getting more money because they coordinated the deal? Who is going to put more money in if you open up the walls and there’s a huge problem?
What happens if you decide that you want to keep the property and somebody else wants to sell it? Do you have first right of refusal to purchase it from them, just all these weird things because circumstances change over the course of a flip and I’m in the Bigger Pockets forums every single day and I see people talking about how their flip turned into a huge disaster or their partner. I’m sorry. Their partnership turned into a huge disaster, and it almost always stems from, “Oh, we were friends before and I trust him,” and they didn’t get everything in writing. So, I think it’s really important to just brainstorm.
Right now, you’re all still friends, and that’s great. The goals is to not only make money in the real estate adventure, but also to be friends at the end of it. So, setting expectations upfront is so, so, so important. So, thank you for coming to my TED Talk and rant.

Tien:
That’s a great point.

Brandon:
I agree.

Scott:
Awesome. Well, what else should we be asking you about or covering for your story before we move on to the famous four?

Brandon:
Honestly, yeah, we talked about all, I think, our financial stuff pretty much in pretty good detail. So, yeah, unless you have any other questions.

Scott:
Well, I don’t think I have anymore questions. I love the fact that you’re able to do this all in Southern California while not making huge salaries with a lot of that. I think that that’s really cool. You used a couple of advantages and got really creative, but I think it sounds like you’re able to amass a lot of wealth and freedom and do so while really enjoying I think one of the most beautiful places in the planet, maybe more so than most.

Tien:
Yeah. It’s been a wild ride, for sure. I got my first gray hair on the first week of our Airbnb. So, this is a good-

Scott:
Foreshadowing.

Tien:
… cool instant into the short-term around the world.

Mindy:
Okay. Well, we’re not done yet. It is now time for the famous four. Tien, and this is both of you can answer each question. So, Tien, what is your favorite finance book?

Tien:
Okay. So, to be honest, I read a ton of finances books, but I read an insane amount of real estate books. So, I guess the real estate books is probably what’s taken over, but I will say finance-related cashflow quadrant I did that one. It was just a good perspective as to the mindset that we really need to be in and switching from … because right now, we’re employees, so we need to switch out of that box and really get into the other quadrants. Yeah, I guess finance. That would be my favorite.

Scott:
Awesome. I’ve read a number of those books and that ones are always a good one. What was your biggest money mistake?

Mindy:
No. No, no, no. What is Brandon’s favorite finance book, Scott?

Scott:
I’m sorry, Brandon.

Brandon:
No worries.

Scott:
My bad. Go ahead, Brandon.

Brandon:
I don’t read so well, so it’s okay. Probably Profit First by Mike Michalowicz. Basically, I think for me I like to try to keep a more logical and higher view on projects and stuff. I feel like the Profit First, it’s a good, “Hey, why are you doing this?” and make sure you’re actually setting my side to do what you really want to do versus just if you invest all your money then you’re basically just doing nothing.

Scott:
All right. What was your biggest money mistake?

Tien:
Well, mine is probably marrying Brandon, taking in on all that debt.

Mindy:
Ooh, tagging on to that.

Brandon:
Yeah. My greatest one is marrying Tien.

Mindy:
Tagging on to that. Did you guys talk about money before you got married?

Brandon:
Yeah, we did actually talked about money.

Tien:
Yeah, we did. Yeah. We’ve always been pretty open to that.

Brandon:
She knew what she was getting into. Don’t let it fool you.

Tien:
No. So, I think for me our biggest money mistake is just not starting sooner. So, it’s twofold because I feel like the travel really got us the financial independence bug and really made us want to be financially independent, but it was also a year where we lived in Seattle at the time, we could have bought a house in Seattle. We could have bought a house when we lived there and rented it out when we traveled. So, just not starting sooner.

Mindy:
Brandon?

Brandon:
Oh, I mean, I think she nailed it as far as I think not leveraging the ability for all those first time home buyer opportunities early on. We basically went straight to conventional thinking that was really the only option. So, maybe the education and just the ability to just get after it earlier was our biggest mistake I would say.

Tien:
Brandon always says he wishes we had bought our personal home earlier because we owned six rental units before our home now.

Scott:
I think that’s really powerful reflection there because, yeah, I think that the greatest amount of leverage and the best terms you can get are on those first home purchases. Everyone is fleeing California to buy in Indiana, but at the same time, if you guys had bought and you guys are obviously very successful, so don’t take this weirdly, but maybe if you guys had bought in Orange County or San Diego with that, there could be a lot more wealth going on right now in addition to what the great stuff that you’ve done with that side. I think it’s really powerful advice to sit back and be like, “Yeah, wherever I’m at using my home at least at first as the first couple of years of the journey, the huge accelerator on the journey to financial independence.” I think that’s a really good reflection there.

Mindy:
What is your best piece of advice for people who are just starting out?

Tien:
Yeah. So, I think for me, I have a love affair with budgeting. So, I think you have to be tracking all of your income and your expenses. Every dollar that comes in should be tracked and every dollar that goes out should be tracked. Then I really love, we would get so excited for the end of the month because we’d see how much we had saved in the budget, and it’s like, “Oh, it was $491.75,” and we would literally go in to the student loan portal and put in $491 and whatever is it, 27 cents, and just being able to see that pay down, for me and I’m not super grand, but for me that was so exciting. That was where we really like once we paid off loans, we were like, “Now what? Now what do we do?” So, I think it’s just you really need to be tracking everything that comes in and everything that goes out.

Brandon:
Yeah, and they’ve made a lot of tools now to make it super simple for anybody. Originally, back in 2013, I created an Excel sheet and was doing it all manually, which was I think very valuable in the sense that we were actually tracking it and feeling that pain of every expense, but just even if that’s too much work, using Mint, we use Mint now is just so much easier for people to get an actual idea of what they’re spending their money on and where they can save money.

Scott:
All right. What is your favorite joke to tell at parties?

Tien:
So, the joke I always tell when I’m trying to make someone laugh or cheer somebody up is, “What kind of cheese isn’t yours?”

Scott:
I don’t know. What?

Tien:
Nacho cheese.

Scott:
All right. I love it. I have a cheesy pizza joke, but I won’t tell it right now. Brandon, how about you?

Brandon:
So, this is for our friends, their little boy. He’s pretty awesome. Me and my buddy going through the fire tower together and so he’s a little weird trying to open a pressure cooker once and his little boy says, “How many firefighters does it take to open a pressure cooker?” There’s no really answer, but he’s taking a stab at us.

Tien:
It took an hour to get the pressure cooker open.

Brandon:
Hey. Oh, my gosh!

Tien:
So, more than two is the answer.

Mindy:
Okay. Where could people find out more about you?

Tien:
Yeah. So, honestly, I think email is the best way. So, our company’s name is Five Twelve Real Estate, which is a climbing grade or a type of climbing route. So, it’s spelled out, [email protected] Then I also on Instagram I’m TrooFreedom. So, T-R-O-O Freedom. I just put a lot of our renovation type stuff, a lot of DIY, before and afters. Lately, I’ve been showcasing all the stuff that we’ve been doing in the backhouse. So, I just put a lot of real estate and renovation types up on there.

Mindy:
Awesome.

Scott:
Awesome.

Mindy:
We will include links to all of that in our show notes, which could be found at biggerpockets.com/moneyshow231. Tien and Brandon-

Scott:
Can we get pictures of the van there to post them on the show notes as well?

Mindy:
Oh, yeah.

Tien:
Yeah, I’ll send those over right now.

Scott:
I am very interested to see all of those, and those will be at the show notes like Mindy said at biggerpockets.com/moneyshow231.

Brandon:
Awesome.

Mindy:
Okay. I can’t wait to see those pictures. Tien and Brandon, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate you coming on and sharing your story.

Brandon:
Awesome. Thank you so much guys.

Tien:
Thank you so much for having us.

Mindy:
Okay. We’ll talk to you soon.

Tien:
All right. Have a good day.

Brandon:
Thank you.

Tien:
Bye.

Mindy:
All right. That was Tien and Brandon. Scott, I know you like their story. What did you think?

Scott:
I love that. I think I’m jealous. I think how many sunsets over the Pacific Ocean have they seen as a result of that, right?

Mindy:
18 months’ worth.

Scott:
Yeah. Are you willing to do that? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d be willing to do that. I don’t know, but I am envious of the glorious days they must have had for years and years and years or for at least 18 months in that journey, and the fact that it’s got them so far ahead on their financial journey with that. So, I think it’s really cool and I think it’s a perspective worth sharing.

Mindy:
Yeah. I am not willing to do that, but I’m excited for the fact that they were able to. I know that you’re not willing to do it, Scott, because you haven’t.

Scott:
Nope.

Mindy:
Jump in a van, Scott. I just don’t want to live in a van. I don’t like road trips mostly because I have two kids.

Scott:
I did house hack for seven years, and I think I would have been willing to house hack in a creative situation there. I think the van, yeah, I think if you’re listening to this and you’re in your early 20s or coming out of college, this is a potentially great way to spend a year in your early 20s doing something like this if you want to save up that extra money with that. Yeah. I think it’s awesome.

Mindy:
Yeah. I do, too. Okay. Scott. Should we get out of here?

Scott:
Let’s do it.

Mindy:
From episode 231 of the Bigger Pockets Money Podcast, he is Scott Trench and I am Mindy Jensen saying enjoy the shower, flower.

 

Watch the Podcast Here

Help us out!

Help us reach new listeners on iTunes by leaving us a rating and review! It takes just 30 seconds. Thanks! We really appreciate it!

In This Episode We Cover

  • Paying off a large amount of student debt in a short period of time
  • Finding side hustles that can support your saving and investing goals
  • Making a plan to retire early and investing in income streams that will make it a reality
  • Flipping a house without construction or real estate experience
  • Investing out of state where you already have family/friends/relationships
  • The hardest part of living in a van full-time (and its MAJOR benefits)
  • House hacking with a short-term rental
  • And So Much More!

Links from the Show

Books Mentioned from the Show

Connect with Tien & Brandon: