Real Estate Investing Basics

I Left an Executive Role With the Fed for Real Estate (& Built a 7-Figure Net Worth in No Time)

Expertise:
5 Articles Written

In the recent past, I was sitting poolside while on a six-week stay at a Cape May, New Jersey campground. It was 3 in the afternoon and I was taking a mental break from working from the family RV. The last several months have us all looking to adapt to this new world we’re living in, so I was trying out the work-from-anywhere model.

(Real estate aside, a quick plug to being a full-time real estate investor is that you can create your own schedule and do what you want and where you want.)

Anyway, I overheard a conversation between two men. One mentioned that he has been retired for 20 years, while the other was talking about the countdown to maximize his pension: eight years to go.

The retiree chimes in, “That’s the way to do it! Stay as long as you can.” He was suggesting to work as long as possible to get the highest pension.

Having had a similar mentality as recently as 10 years ago, I thought to myself, “I am so thankful that I now look at the pension that I have waiting for me in 15-20 years and know that if I need it to live by then, I will have done something very, very wrong.”

I want to experience life to the fullest on my terms—and not when I’m 65. I came to this realization at age 35, accelerated my wealth-building strategy with the goal of leaving the rat race by 50, and met that goal by 41.

If you read my last article, “From 3 to 50+ Units and What I’ve Learned Along the Way,” you know the hustle that went into building and scaling my real estate portfolio and business. That’s more about the technical aspect of my real estate life.

This article, however, goes into the mindset, personal, and life changes that accompanied it. It is as much a reflection on my journey as it is about sharing how to get your mindset where it needs to be to take action, grow as an investor, and truly change your life.

investment-thinking

Growing Up With Immigrant Parents

I come from an Italian immigrant family. My dad was a tailor and my mom a seamstress. They both separated from their parents and came to the U.S. in their 20s to pursue a life with more opportunity. Their path was from a boat, to Ellis Island, and then to Philadelphia.

They literally met in a sweatshop—a factory where they were paid per article of clothing they processed. They worked grueling hours to make as much money as possible.

Work ethic was not an option; it was a way of life.

We lived very lean, and they saved a lot of money. There were no credit cards, and the house was paid off fast. I give thanks every single day that I lived this firsthand and inherited the good and bad traits.

  • The good: Living lean and working my tail off to “make it.”
  • The bad: Struggling to “dial down” and shut off the need to work so hard in order to feel accomplished. (I’m working on recalibrating myself to feel accomplished with working smarter, not harder.)

My family, city, and neighborhood were very blue-collar. Growing up in Philadelphia, the goals were: finish high school, hopefully go to college, and then land a “dream job” at XYZ company and work my way up the ladder.

Yes, it was the “poor dad’s” plan from Rich Dad Poor Dad!

Related: Have “Rich Dad Poor Dad” Lessons Stood the Test of Time? Here’s What the Book Misses…

My parents wanted me to have a better life than they did. But not knowing exactly what that looked like, I had to figure it out on my own. I didn’t have dreams of being anything but hard-working at whatever I would do.

My parents didn’t speak great English, so my support with homework was pretty limited. I was a curious kid and tinkerer, but sitting still and listening to a lecture wasn’t my thing. Math and technical classes kept me engaged, though. In hindsight, this was the real estate investor in development.

Ultimately, I did enough in high school to graduate but didn’t have the grades for college.

My First ‘Real’ Job

I was influenced to enroll in a business program going into high school. The program gave students a business-focused curriculum to prepare and ultimately help us land a corporate internship. Through this program, my career with the Federal Reserve System began at the age of 18. I started as an intern my senior year in high school and left as an executive 22 years later.

It was the environment there that ignited the ambition in me. As a young kid surrounded by folks much older and wiser, I was being mentored from every angle. I bounced around doing gofer work for 18 months or so, before finding my calling in IT.

The year was 1996 and computers were becoming mainstream. I got the itch to buy my own, even though I had no idea what I needed it for. It ended up being the best education I could get.

I bought the computer from Computer City in Delaware—to save on taxes of course—which was too far to go every time I had a problem that needed troubleshooting. I would tinker all hours of the night, buying books and picking the brains of the IT guys at work to fix each problem. Little did I know, in the spirit of Mr. Miagi, I was becoming a technologist!

tech-tools-investors

Climbing the Corporate Ladder

Being the IT kid in my unit, I landed a tech support job—which lit a rocket under me. I was promoted every two to three years and saw my salary leap by 10% or more each time.

I went moved from department to department: from Tech Support to Help Desk to IT Security to Project Management to Enterprise Architecture and eventually, officer over IT Strategy for Treasury Services.

These years climbing the corporate ladder, I was living a dream. It was nothing for me to spend every night and weekend reading, experimenting, and learning every aspect of technology that I could. But with each step up the ladder, I lost a bit more of the genuine contribution that comes with being a workerbee. I was instead exposed to more and more corporate bureaucracy.

I hit a roadblock in 2007. My unit’s director position became open, and many—myself included—felt that I was the logical choice. But that was not the case. There was mention at the end of my interview that the position came with broad company exposure and a college degree was missing from my resume.

Within two weeks, I was enrolled in college.

For seven years, nights and weekends were spent earning my degree. In 2013, I graduated summa cum laude from Drexel University with a B.S. in Computing and Security Technology. I also built up a strong list of IT certifications along the way and ended up with a new job in Enterprise Architecture before officially graduating.

Related: How to Get Started in Real Estate Investing as a College Student (or Recent Grad)

My First Side Hustle

The real estate crash in 2007-2009 hit me upside the head—I realized I needed to reorganize my approach to life. ‘Til then, I had rolled into a trap that catches many: adjusting my lifestyle and developing more and more expensive habits with each promotion and raise. I accumulated $40K in credit card debt outfitting my bachelor pad!

Then, I read Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover and within 18 months was debt-free. With that, I realized how much money I could invest by living a leaner lifestyle. I developed a two-pronged approach to widening the gap between my income and expenses:

  1. I cut expenses with each increase in income. If I got a 10% raise from a promotion, then I would target reducing expenses 10%. Side note: if you are not increasing your net income by at least 10% a year, then you are going in the wrong direction in terms of income and wealth growth. Real inflation is at least 10% in many parts of the country.
  2. I hid money from myself. I opened up as many investment accounts and vehicles as possible and continually funded them. At the time, it was eTrade, bank accounts, and other investment apps like Loyal 3, which is now FolioFirst. The theory was to make investments in various vehicles for experience, to build a diverse portfolio, and to make it less likely to access the cash (unless it is for a different investment).

house-hacking

Fast forward to 2012 and 2013. My now-wife Corinn and I acquired two triplexes. This side hustle snowballed into a legitimate business and a big life change. It also reinvigorated my IT passions, as I was now implementing technology with a purpose.

My skills in developing systems and efficiencies—which had been the foundation of my corporate work life—were now being used to design my own family's wealth legacy. We spent our first two years deep in BiggerPockets, books, and all things real estate, while continuing to work our full-time day jobs.

Bridging the Gap

As we built our real estate portfolio, it came time to leverage a financial planner to help better define our wealth and life goals. (It's never too early for this, by the way.) Having the right support team is critical for growth. I targeted "retirement" from my day job by 50.

Our plans were to continue growing our company in this "retirement." Our planner helped us structure insurance and map out our growth in net worth and income needed to sustain our lifestyle.

Our real estate investing philosophy at the time was to acquire small multifamily properties and leverage our skills to maximize their value. This meant having high-quality properties in desirable areas and providing top-notch service to tenants. It was clear to us early on that this was a good formula for growing cash flow and equity.

This strategy has been working for us for almost 10 years now. It also got us to a seven-figure net worth much faster than we could have with another approach—such as lower-quality properties with good cash flow but also slow growth in value.

Related: Hate Your Job? How To Transition to Full Time Real Estate Investing

As we built our real estate team and network, we ran into a period where we had access to more deals than we had capital to deploy. This is where we started our syndication business. Our first syndication was a $340K duplex, where we brought in three investors. We served as general partners (GP), and they were limited partners (LP). Yes, we went through the expensive legal process of doing it right, and it was worth it.

Fast forward five more years. We had a sizable portfolio under management and the cash flow to carry major expenses. We put every nickel of cash flow back into the businesses and new deals and also started keeping more and more cash on hand.

When the time came to leave the day job (seven years earlier than planned), we had enough cash to cover all of our expenses for six months and plenty of equity to tap should we need it to live.

Exiting the Workforce

My wife quit in August 2016, not long after we found out we were having a baby. It was already getting difficult to run our property management and investing businesses while delivering on our full-time day-job commitments. And we knew this would become impossible once the baby arrived in March 2017.

Although Corinn was doing great work as a project manager on huge fed application development projects, we had to make this decision to prepare for the next step. At the same time, I finally landed the executive position that I had worked toward for so many years. We knew that my workload and travel was about to jump, and I was committed to thriving in the role.

The rest of 2016 was a whirlwind, with Corinn taking on the business full-time and me trying to learn a new organization and make an impact in my new role as fast as possible. Our world changed when our beautiful baby girl was born. This little miracle quickly put everything into perspective and flipped our world in ways I’m sure fellow parents can relate to.

I knew that I was working hard and wanting to achieve in life for a reason, but it wasn’t obvious as to why until the very moment I saw our baby. Over the next five months, my desire to travel and spend 30 hours a week in meetings and on conference calls dwindled. Work became a job, and my energy and expectations for myself there began a slow death.

In those hazy days of no sleep, I kept asking myself: “Do I really want to keep doing all this?”

happy businessman with cardboard box with office supplies in hands standing outside office building, quitting job concept

Paying attention to what I was reading, listening to, and enjoying kept me coming back to our real estate business and family. I began to notice that I was finally running out of gas to keep up the pace of delivering in so many different ways.

Not being one to make hasty decisions, the conversation of me leaving the day job began to take shape. I talked about it, of course, with Corinn and also my CPA, financial advisors, and close friends. A few told me that I was nuts for even thinking of leaving such a high-paying job for a prestigious organization, but my life was no longer about money. I was craving freedom.

It was then that I realized freedom was the unconscious desire that I was building through real estate investing.

By July 2017, I realized I was done with the corporate world. I took a step back, reflected, and knew that I could thrive being in complete control of where I directed my efforts.

When the calendar hit August 15, 2017, I turned in my laptop, phone, and badge. I was free!

Life as a Full-time Real Estate Investor

The 18 months after quitting were a blur. On one hand, we were learning how to keep a tiny human alive. On the other, I was working our side hustle as a full-time business. Waking up every morning knowing that I was responsible for deciding what I should or wanted to work on was a big shift—especially considering the other option was to just stay in bed. Aside from having a human alarm clock with no snooze or off button, the need to sustain this new, young life would not allow me to fail.

The prospect of failing ended the day I submitted my resignation letter!

It took a long time to start—and we continually develop and refine—the habits and business processes that are truly important to grow a company. Gone are the days of bringing in outside consultants and doing team assessments and reorgs to try to be more effective. I will never have to do an RFP or RFQ to implement a piece of software. The only performance reviews will be the ones I decide to adopt.

We’ve learned that growing our own business also involves “unlearning” much of the ingrained corporate world operations. While there is plenty that I learned in my previous career and apply every day, losing the time-hogging corporate fluff is great.

Related: Financial Freedom: 14 Steps to Stop Relying on Your 9-5 Job’s Income

Now our days are about studying the economy, real estate markets, and assets and reading balance sheets and profit and loss statements (P&L). It’s about finding the right deals, underwriting, having great relationships with our team and investors, implementing sound business plans, and letting capital and equity be the focus of growth.

We're also more committed than ever to sharing what we've learned, teaching, and helping anyone interested in the wonders that real estate investing has to offer.

It’s true that we work just as much—if not more than—ever. The work now, though, is building something that allows us the freedom to do anything and live a life we want. Our bucket list includes spending months in other countries, exploring, and seeking out the best adventures the world has to offer, all while being with the ones who matter most: our family.

We take no less than two weeks for our vacations and are always looking for new and deeper adventures. I tell people that my 3-year-old daughter has had more experiences in her short life than I did before I was 35!

millennial-travelers

I know there are jobs out there that allow for great flexibility, but unless you share in the growth of the company, it’s not the same.

Our personal networks are also vastly different and filled with influence of bigger and bigger things. I’ve gone from conferences and happy hours commiserating to entrepreneurial and real estate mastermind groups. I’m in private networks of brilliant and wealthy individuals, like GoBundance. I get to listen to and contribute to bigger and much more impactful conversations and causes.

These are doors that you can go through at any time, but we’re programmed to only go into the rooms labeled “job security.”

Yes, being a full-time real estate investor is that epic!

Something else worth noting is that while we may lose sleep over work here and there, we also experience some pretty extraordinary highs when we hit goals and milestones—far greater than we did previously.

Our ultimate goal is to flip the workday on its head and put in a few hours here and there, while our wealth does the working.

Want more articles like this?

Create an account today to get BiggerPocket's best blog articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up for free

This is what real estate can offer over most other wealth-building strategies.

Yes, You CAN Do This, Too!

If you are still reading and can relate to what my life was like, then you are on the right path. The escape plan has to be built from the ground up with sound philosophies in money, investing, and time management. From there, it’s having a strategy that you can time box. Once all that is in place, then it is about execution.

Read, listen, learn. Know that the highest performers in any field take only well-calculated shortcuts. Accelerating your start and growth can and should include online and in-person communities; audio, digital, and hard copy books; podcasts; mentors; etc. And know that you can learn far more for free on BiggerPockets than you can from any multi-thousand-dollar guru.

Be prepared for the work that’s necessary to achieve your goals. Be disciplined in identifying your investment strategy. Practice analyzing deals. Refine your strategy and ability to execute to the point where you’re confident that you have reduced any downside risk. Then your action will be easy and the results quickly apparent.

What’s Next For Me and You

Our growth from a business and personal level has also had the effect of introducing us to networks of like-minded individuals with similar—and greater—goals and aspirations. This is a powerful force! These connections encourage and inspire us to continue striving toward our goals instead of relaxing into complacency.

Many investors who have been through market downturns share our belief that there is another leg down in this recession. When and how it will all pan out is still a guess, but unless the Fed and government provide a never-ending stimulus, the number of shuttered companies and struggling industries suggests that the road back up isn’t going to be overnight.

For these reasons, there is a lot of cash sitting on the sideline waiting.

We have been preparing for a market downturn for some time and are about to launch our first pooled fund in order to be well-capitalized for acquisitions. Speed and leverage is the rationale behind us starting this fund. It will provide the capital and ability to close quickly on the "golden goose" deals we predict will be coming to the market in the near future. Our plan is that the next five to seven years will lead us to a net worth that can generate income that is completely passive—even though we won't be when it comes to life!

Prosper on, folks!

Blog ad for Wealth magazine

What’s your real estate investing strategy? Where will you be in five years?

Comment below!

Sergio is a real estate investor specializing in syndication investing for beginner to advanced investors. Although he has primarily invested in the greater Philadelphia market, he is expanding int...
Read more
    Flavia Brown from Redondo Beach, California
    Replied 2 months ago
    I just don't get it. If I were to reach a seven-figure net worth, or sell a thousand properties, why would I want to tell the world?
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied 2 months ago
    Interesting perspective. Why would anyone share their experience and successes, why read any help on BP? It's simply to encourage and influence others to achieve more.
    Mark F. Rental Property Investor from Bergen County, NJ
    Replied 2 months ago
    Thanks for an amazing article Sergio! My path seems somewhat similiar to yours, I am starting my fed career here soon and just started my RE path earlier this year as well. I want to retire at age 55 from the fed (LEO gig) or have the option to leave at any moment to focus my RE career. I have the same mindset and have been passing along the nuggets you mentioned to my spouse. Like you achieved, I can tell I have a lot to "unlearn" before I eventually leave my full time job. Good luck to you and your family!
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks for the feedback. Keep at it and it will all fall into place.
    Ray Lin Rental Property Investor from Mississippi
    Replied 2 months ago
    Great article. I can relate to 99% of the things written in your article. The 1%, I don't have Italian parents.
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Ha! Thanks for the note.
    Ayo Akin from Alexandria, Virginia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    All so true and I can totally relate. I think I need some mentorship with the syndication part cos am almost out of money. It's always been a scary area for me knowing that you are holding and responsible for other people's money. Do u offer any sort of mentorship or mentoring programs on this specifically?
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Yes Ayo, I can help. Send me an email to [email protected] Thanks
    Randy Bloch Rental Property Investor from Minneapolis
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Great article Sergio and i am on similar path....you mentioned financial planner that helped u on your way. Did your financial planner assist and modeling your REI as part of the plan? If so, could we connect on DM and you provide their contact info to me?
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Hi Randy. Our financial planner was more to take a holistic view of where we were at and where we wanted to be income wise, then give us tools for forecasting and modeling. Let's connect and I can give you more info. [email protected]
    Nathan G. Real Estate Broker from Cody, WY
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks for sharing, Sergio. There's plenty of meat to take from your story!
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks Nathan, appreciate the feedback. Let me know if there is anything I can help you with.
    Alex Kesner
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks for sharing your story, Sergio, I feel inspired! I’m 27 and I’m already craving financial freedom and freedom to work where/when/how I want. Do you offer any sort of mentoring? I’d be interested in connecting if so. Thanks
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Hi Alex, thanks for the feedback. Great to hear my story hit a nerve. Yes, I can help. Send me an email to [email protected] and we can chat. Looking forward tot it. Thanks
    Timothy Tepes
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Sergio I would like to talk to you more about your syndication. I already have passive income from rentals and stocks. Just north of you in the Allentown PA area.
    Joseph Chan from Jersey City, New Jersey
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Congrats. Thanks for sharing.
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks Joseph. Much success to you!
    Sri Ram Rental Property Investor from West Palm Beach, FL
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Sergio Great work. thanks for sharing. Good luck in your future endeavors. I can relate
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks Sri, much success to you and your future!
    Thripura Vemireddy Flipper/Rehabber from Alpharetta, GA
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Sergio The whole narrative, the way you put in really connects to people Who wants to succeed in life. I really liked it, would like to connect with you. Thanks TSReddy
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks my friend. That's what BP is all about, helping each other. Connect with me by sending me an email. [email protected] Looking forward to it
    Byron Hunter Real Estate Agent from Dallas, TX
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Sergio, you wrote this article at the perfect time for me to read it!! Thank you so much for taking the time out of your life and away from your family to write it. I am only 31 and I quite my corporate job earlier this year. I recently obtained my Real Estate license in order to improve my income potential. I am a hustler, so that decision made sense to me. My wife and I have a 1 year old and I constantly think how I am going to provide the best life for this little guy. It is articles like this and investors like you who share their successes that are helping me get where I want to go in life. Thank you!!
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks Byron. Almost got choked up from your message. It truly means a lot to hear that my intentions of touching people in the right way resonates. I'd love to connect and hear more about your family, little guy and path forward. Please send me an email to connect. [email protected]
    Timias Woods Rental Property Investor from Los Angeles, CA
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Sergio, thanks for the advice and tips. The article was really powerful. Timias
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks Timias, I truly appreciate you taking the time to not just read it, but provide such great feedback.
    Cecil Valentine Rental Property Investor from Sarasota, FL
    Replied about 2 months ago
    This is an awesome, informative and inspirational piece. It covers just about every aspect for beginners and for those who want to burn the boats. Very insightful and real. Thanks for sharing your story Sergio and good luck to you and your family on your amazing and exciting journey.
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks for the kind words Cecil! Best of luck to you and your family as well.
    Stephen Loiseau Rental Property Investor from Philadelphia, PA
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Great read Sergio! Appreciate the transparency. I am a recent graduate of Drexel and am focused on investing in Greater Center City Philly as well! (Just got my first 2 deals in the last month)
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Great to hear Stephen. Best of luck in your journey. Let me know if I can be of any help.
    Edwin F Zhingri
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Great article. Thanks for sharing :). I followed Dave Rampsey as well and was able to pay off $45k in student loans in 1 year and 8 months after graduating college. Bought my first rental property 6 months after that (house hacking it at the moment, rent pays exactly all my bills and I live for free), and I am hoping to buy my second property this year, about 3 years after graduating college. My only difference from you I that I want to retire by 35 years old (and that you already have a lot of money lol). Dreaming big I know but it is possible. I was making $5 per day back in my home country before I moved to the USA at 14 years old, so I've come a long way already, don't see why stop now. Thanks very much for sharing, articles like this are the ones that inspire me to keep dreaming big.
    Sergio Altomare Rental Property Investor from Greater Philadelphia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks for the read and your story, Edwin. You're an inspiration in your own right. Coming from adversity is a strength we are blessed to have. Keep it up. Thanks again
    Account Closed
    Replied about 1 month ago
    Lovely write up. I can relate being a 15 year govt employee while investing in rentals and house hacking. When you decided to quit govt, how did you convince yourself to forgo the govt health insurance benefits that you get if you retire with the govt? I hear they keep paying their portion as long as you retire with the govt. Thanks Nick