Personal Finance

A Suburban House Hacker’s Story: How a Single Mom Paid Her Single-Family Mortgage

Expertise: Landlording & Rental Properties, Real Estate News & Commentary, Personal Finance, Real Estate Investing Basics
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As a BiggerPockets reader, you’ve probably heard of house hacking.

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You likely think of small multifamily properties when you think of house hacking—which is one tactic, and it's a powerful one. Remember our case study of Tim Puffer, and how he house hacked a duplex and now lives for free?

But multifamily house hacking isn't the only way to cut down your housing payment. What other options are available?

I can think of at least seven ways to house hack, and I’m sure there are others. Many of them are available for single-family homes, too.

My friend and partner Denise Supplee has used no fewer than three distinct tactics herself over the years. And not one of them required a multifamily or hunting for a new home.

Here’s a glimpse into her story and how she’s used house hacking long before that term was “a thing.”

Meet Denise

By the time I met Denise, she was a successful landlord and manager of a fast-growing startup.

Aside from being smart, funny, kind, and grounded by the kind of rock-solid faith most people never even dream of, Denise has had more diverse experiences in real estate than anyone I’ve ever met.

She's been the head property manager of a 200+ unit apartment complex. She knows more about landlord-tenant law than any non-attorney I've ever met. At one point, she even owned and managed a bar, with a full building of apartments above it. She's managed vacation rentals, taught her children how to succeed in real estate, managed a landlord services website for 10 years.

Related: 7 Steps I Took to Land My First House Hack (& Rent it Out) With Ease

And now, for full disclosure, I’m lucky enough to have her as my business partner.

But long before all that, Denise was a struggling single mom with four young children. After a painful divorce, Denise was working as a secretary, had very little work experience, and couldn’t afford to pay all of her family’s bills.

So what did she do?


Denise’s First Foray into House Hacking

It was both a terrible and an enlightening moment when Denise finally admitted to herself that she couldn’t afford to pay all her bills. For anyone who’s ever been in that position, you know how hard that is to admit to yourself. It feels like an admission of defeat.

It’s not.

Instead, it’s a pivot point because it forces you to ask yourself a follow-up: “OK, what will it take for me to cover all my expenses?”

Denise was already renting an inexpensive home and had no room to downgrade further. She was already buying the most affordable groceries she could to feed her four children and never ate out at restaurants. She needed her car to get to and from her suburban job and to get the kids to and from everywhere they need to be. Her car was dirt cheap, so there was no room to downgrade there either.

What she could do, however, was bring someone else into her home to help her pay the rent.

Her kids were already doubling up in bedrooms, but there was a tiny room (think walk-in closet size) that she’d been using for storage. She moved a bed in there, vacating the master bedroom so she could rent it out.

Starting to sound a little Harry Potter-esque? Well, her new housemate, Missy, proved to be her magic ticket out of Dursley-ville.

Missy’s payment covered two-thirds of Denise’s rent. And in a surprising twist, Missy loved kids and volunteered to watch Denise’s children whenever she wanted.

With one change, Denise’s life turned around. Not only was she now cash flow positive in her personal budget, but she had a free babysitter. She began to slowly rebuild her life—and her sense of control over her finances, family, and her career direction.

House Hacking 2.0

Fast-forward a decade. Denise was now earning significantly more and had developed marketable skills as a property manager and burgeoning real estate expert.

After remarrying and buying her own home, Denise found herself with a suburban house with a large detached garage. She had far more storage space than she needed.

Can you guess where this is going?

Yep—she rented out her garage as storage space.

At no sacrifice to herself, she covered a third of her mortgage payment. She never saw her renters. She just got a check every month, in exchange for not using something she didn’t need to use anyway.

And as a nice perk, the laws governing storage spaces are much, much easier on landlords than residential landlord-tenant laws. If someone doesn’t pay, they don’t get 3-9 months in free rent, while the landlord has to jump through legal hoops.

It was the easiest money Denise ever made.

Related: Why I’m Not House Hacking (& the Strategy That Will Cover More of My Rent)

Getting More Creative: Denise’s Current House Hacking

Today, Denise’s children have reached their 20s. They’ve flown the nest.

But the nest is still home. Denise and her husband Jerry love their sprawling suburban home and didn’t want to move, but it felt too big, too empty, too lonely without their huge Brady Bunch-style mixed family living there anymore.

Oh, and large suburban homes come with large suburban mortgages, which can be tough to justify for empty nesters.

Denise knew she needed to do something outside the box again. But what? In her 50s now, she didn’t want to bring in a housemate.

Then it hit her—what if she and Jerry got to be parents again, and this time get paid for it?

After wading through mounds of research, Denise found her perfect solution, a service that places exchange students for a year. Once again, Denise managed to solve her largest problems with one stroke: She brought laughter and life back into her empty house and got a stipend to cover over half her mortgage payment!

Her new “son” Alex is a 15-year-old exchange student from China. He’s quiet and studious, but warm and kind, and Denise and her husband Jerry have fallen in love with him.

More House Hacking Options

I love house hacking. If there’s one thing that the average person can do to boost their budgets and supercharge their savings, it’s house hacking.

In fact, it was one of the tips we talked about in “How to Live on Half Your Income.”

There are plenty of options out there for house hacking, even in the land of suburban detached single-family homes. And most of them don’t require you to move, either.

As a “house hacking evangelist,” I can go on all day about it (just ask my wife Katie). Luckily for our spouses, Denise and I have an outlet for our love affair with house hacking: our website. If you want ideas, you know where to find us!

What outside-the-box house hacking situations have you dreamt up?

Let’s talk below.

G. Brian Davis is a landlord, personal finance expert, and financial independence/retire early (FIRE) enthusiast whose mission is to help everyday people create enough rental income to cover their ...
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    Maddie Evans
    Replied over 3 years ago
    I love these kinds of creative approaches. I signed up for your webinar on different house hacking tactics, looking forward to it!
    G. Brian Davis from Baltimore, MD
    Replied over 3 years ago
    Thanks Maddie, excited to see you there!
    David Krulac from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania
    Replied over 3 years ago
    Great, Brian. When you mentioned the exchange students, I thought of a tenant of mine who had foster children. They had 4 foster children and got paid $900 a month per child for providing that service for a family income of $3,600 a month. Now out of that certainly comes food and clothing and other expenses, but for this family the payments provided a boost to their income; similar to exchange students.
    G. Brian Davis from Baltimore, MD
    Replied over 3 years ago
    That’s a great point David! It’s real money, and it adds up.
    Marina Spor Investor from Buena Park, California
    Replied over 3 years ago
    Hi Brian, I love your post! Could you please provide more information on the student exchange program? I’d love to do that.
    G. Brian Davis from Baltimore, MD
    Replied about 3 years ago
    Thanks Marina! If you PM me with your email address, I’ll connect you with Denise and her exchange student program.
    Ken Konecny Real Estate Agent from Davis, California
    Replied about 3 years ago
    Hi Brian, Great post! Love the idea of renting the garage for storage. How did you handle access for the tenant?
    G. Brian Davis from Baltimore, MD
    Replied about 3 years ago
    Good question Ken! I’ll check in with Denise and either she or I will get back to you.
    Chibuzor Alumba from Winnipeg, Manitoba
    Replied about 3 years ago
    Please let me know as well Brian. Additionally, I have a small shed and garage in my backyard that I don’t use. I know from your post that I can rent out my garage; I’m just wondering if I can rent out my shed as well. My major worry-point is that the only security I will have is a small padlock that can easily be destroyed by the renters or by strangers, making me liable to pay for the goods of the renters. Any advice about that?
    G. Brian Davis from Baltimore, MD
    Replied about 3 years ago
    No reason why you couldn’t rent out the shed! I would make sure your storage lease agreement includes an aggressively-worded “security not guaranteed” clause. You could also beef up the security a little (bigger padlock, sturdier lock clasp, etc.), if you think that’s a sticking point for potential renters. You may also want to include in your lease that you don’t guaranteed climate control, water-tightness, or that no animals will enter.
    Chibuzor Alumba from Winnipeg, Manitoba
    Replied about 3 years ago
    Awesome. Thanks for the prompt response Brian.
    Ryan Donzelli Investor from Lakewood, OH
    Replied about 3 years ago
    @Brian – I would love to hear how Denise did the garage storage space as well. Please PM if possible!
    Chuck Rittling
    Replied about 3 years ago
    Hi Brian, can you also send the exchange info to me as well? Thanks!
    G. Brian Davis from Baltimore, MD
    Replied about 3 years ago
    I certainly will Chuck! Please private message me your email address and I’ll make sure you connect with the company Denise used.
    Alden Simpson Wholesaler from Greenville, South Carolina
    Replied about 3 years ago
    Wow Brian, your article is very different from what I’m used to reading on bigger pockets. I loved reading the story and loved how Denise was able to get out of a bad situation.
    G. Brian Davis from Baltimore, MD
    Replied about 3 years ago
    Thanks Alden! Glad to hear that “different” was a good thing in this case 🙂 I try to mix up what kinds of articles I write, keep things fresh!
    Tina Huffman from Napa, CA
    Replied over 2 years ago
    Inspiring story for a single mom like myself!
    G. Brian Davis from Baltimore, MD
    Replied over 2 years ago
    Glad you enjoyed it Tina!
    Marija Sparano Accountant from White Plains, NY
    Replied about 1 year ago
    Great article Brian. Renting the garage as a storage space is an excellent idea. I will make sure I do that once I buy my first rental property.
    G. Brian Davis from Baltimore, MD
    Replied about 1 year ago
    Thanks Marija, glad to hear you got something out of the article!