At Age 26, I’m on the Brink of Financial Freedom: Here’s How

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I wrote this on the BP blog a couple weeks ago and after several have thanked me posting the article I thought I would add it to the forums to share with those that had not had a chance to read it. 

In this post, I will tell you how the long struggle of choosing to stay broke has left me with a foundation strong enough to now begin the pursuit towards wealth.

For some reason, real estate has been labeled a get-rich-quick joy ride for entrepreneurs. This is funny because in my experience, it has been more like a be-broke-for-a-long-time uphill climb. Can you get rich quickly and easily from real estate? Definitely — and you can also do that with the lottery. Unfortunately, both of those results are unlikely to repeat, and neither are anything close to sustainable. Getting rich quickly requires the use of self discipline in order to utilize the power of exponential growth AFTER you put in the long grind of foundation building. Whether that foundation is in knowledge, money, or connections, it must be built!

Exponential Growth is a Powerful Thing

I was never a good student in school. I would daydream, not care, and halfway pay attention to lessons. However, I do distinctly remember being taught about exponential growth. I have no clue what grade that was, but I remember typing 2^2 = 4 in my calculator, and then tapping the “=” button over and over to watch the numbers climb higher and higher.

The math behind exponential growth forever stuck with me. I always related it back to money. As a middle schooler, I would run scenarios, such as what if had one dollar and it doubled every day for a month? BUT WAIT — what if I started with 100 dollars and it doubled every day for a month? Boom. An investor was born.

My brother (my 50/50 business partner) and I share views on finance and wealth building. We have worked together since I was 18 years old. We began by opening a handyman business back in 2008 while living in a “house hack” with six guys. Through word of mouth, trial and error, and a ton of effort, we grew that company into a successful home renovation business, rehabbing kitchens, bathrooms, and additions for homeowners. It was pretty cool being 19 and making good money off these projects.

However, unlike the majority of our peers, we didn’t blow it at bars or on clothes. We saved it because we were never going to be the smartest by a long shot or have the most connections. What we did know was that we could out-work others, and if we had the capital to work with, we could build the foundation necessary to do so.

Take the Classic Investing Approach and Flip It on Its Head

The classic real estate investor newbie says, “I want to wholesale so I can make enough money to put a down payment on a house to flip.” After they profit from several flips, they can have enough money saved up to put a nice down payment on a buy and hold property so that one day they can pay it off and have a nice passive, cash flowing rental. Great. But where is the foundation to exponentially grow on? My partner and I are working the inverse of that equation (with some variation). I’ll explain how later in this post.

Have you ever heard “live below your means”? We took it one step further and lived at our lowest means — and did so for a long time. While running the home renovation company, we paid ourselves very little — some months nothing, some months $500. Remember, we were in college living in a house hack with six people, renting each room out. It’s funny; everyone is poor during college living off practically nothing, but as soon as they get some income, it’s impossible for them to continue living at such low means.

We got paid well, lived at the bottom of our means, and saved in order to prepare to enter into real estate investing. By 2012, we began buying highly distressed SFRs, rehabbing them all cash. We then rented these newly renovated properties out and took NO money for ourselves. We looked at it as if it wasn’t ours to have. We would have 3, 4, then 5 debt-free houses renting for $800-$1000 a month, but my partner and I would be doing quick rehab jobs for others and picking up scrap metal on trash night to pay for our personal needs (groceries, cell phone).

Sacrificing to Build a Foundation of Wealth

Sounds like it sucks, right? It did, but the foundation was being built. We were living like most wouldn’t so that one day we could live like most can’t. We knew the faster the foundation was built well, the more we could utilize exponential growth. After we had 7 houses under our belt, we finally leveraged some of them to continue the growth into another 4 SFRs, 3 more duplexes, and a 5-unit apartment building. Not until two and half years after we bought our first rental did we decide to pay ourselves a whopping 6% of gross rents. I will admit some where in this mix, we were lucky enough to find great wives to help support us through this financially draining journey.

As I mentioned before, we are running the inverse of the classic path of entering REI. We started by owning buy and hold properties free and clear. We then used debt from those properties to acquire more buy and hold properties.

We then pulled the remaining chunk of equity out of the rental portfolio (to a safe 70-80% LTV) and ventured into flipping houses. Because of our track record and newly liquid capital, banks and private investors were now willing to lend to our company on multiple flips at once. Even with the option to borrow money, we found most of the time we had enough to do the whole flip with our own funds. This only further accelerated profits and growth.

In 2015, we did 17 flips for just under $3 million in gross sales. Because of our background in contracting, a hot market, and our hustle, each flip produced very good profits. However, flipping is risky and didn’t meet our long-term goals, so by the end of 2015, we wrapped up most of the flipping. We had made a chunk of change and were ready to move onto the next step in our journey.

Setting the Framework to Scale

By the start of 2016, we had, for the most part, exited the flipping strategy. We added on our CPA asset manager as a partner to our rental company and formed a management company to consolidate operations between holding companies. At this time, we were ready to scale. We had all the systems in place and the right people. We were ready to jump in with the big boys buying apartment buildings.

After struggling to find a deal that met our needs, we eventually closed a multi-million dollar apartment complex without raising any money from outside investors. All of this was possible and will continue to be possible because of the foundation that was laid years ago when we were handymen cleaning out dirty houses, not taking money out of the company to accelerate growth.

After all these hard years, I am proud to say at the young age of 26, I am very close to my personal financial freedom number. That doesn’t mean we will stop there. As I said before, I work for the good money can do, and I believe that good can be endless. This is why moving forward, our journey will continue by venturing into larger apartment deals through syndication in Ohio and Georgia. I know this will continue our exponential growth and will only allow us to do great things in the many years to come.

“But That is Way Too Hard!”

My partners and I are willing to make the sacrifices now in order to reap the benefits later. This sounds great, but when it comes down to actually putting this to action, it is beyond hard. By no means is this lifestyle choice for most. People claiming that sacrificing your spending money in order to build wealth is nothing new. The reality you don’t hear about is all the other things that also get sacrificed. We realized that working 12-15 hour days rehabbing houses 6-7 days a week left very little room for other things. We willingly let go of much of our social lives in order to build this foundation.

Along with social life is the toll this can have on your health. The sacrifices go far beyond money. I know these years of buying my t-shirts out of the nine-cent box at the thrift store (yes, this does exist) will one day have a positive ripple effect on everyone important to me. We do not work for money, but rather the good money can do. We paid ourselves nothing and worked 80-hour weeks of hard labor in order to know that when the day comes when we have children, we can give them and our wives all they need and more while only working as much as we want to.

Some may say we could have leveraged sooner — even at the beginning. They will say in the formula of exponential growth, the exponent is more powerful than the base number. They are right, but the real world isn’t a formula, and having money makes it so much easier to make money. That’s the foundation I talked about. If you try to grow too fast without enough money, experience or connections, your foundation will crack, and you wont have any money to repair it. The next thing you know, you will be looking around saying, what the hell happened? You must take the time to build the foundation of knowledge, money, and connections.

Advice to the Beginner

Plain and simple, there are thousands of ways easier than the approach my partner and I took to build a foundation for growth. It worked really well, but there are better ways. You may be asking, “Then why didn’t you use the better ways?” The truth is, it’s because we didn’t know how — or even know they existed. We entered our investing career full blast, we hit the ground running. We didn’t take the time to educate ourselves well. We didn’t network with anyone for the longest time.

I did whatever I knew how in order to build my foundation stronger. We just were go go go, and when a roadblock came along, we just pounded away until it broke. Little did we know, with knowledge and the right connections, you can avoid half of the roadblocks we ran into. Along with our all-out approach, we were fortunate to enter REI in one of best markets to buy into. Because of this, our mistakes didn't hurt us as badly. Had it been 2006, our growth would have been much different.

My advice is simple to beginners: You don't have to be a pro, you don't need a team of 10 people. Just understand what REI is, and get a grasp on the basics of it. Find a couple people who you can call when you get stumped. Then hit the ground running with this amazing website (BiggerPockets), and you can accomplish all that relatively quickly. The rest you can sort out along the way, as long as you continue to learn from your mistakes and educate yourself as you progress. You don't need a degree or anything special.

When you make things happen, things happen! Just don’t ever plan for it to be easy or that you will get rich quickly. Once you get rolling, continue the sacrifices to build your foundation. Once your foundation is strong, let ‘er rip and watch the hard work pay off. If you aren’t able to have the self-discipline to sacrifice either time, money, or both, then entrepreneurship isn’t for you.

The only sustainable way to get rich quickly in real estate is to use self-discipline and sacrifice up front, building the foundation. So one day with the power of exponential growth, you will be able to get rich quickly!

Where are YOU on your journey to financial freedom?

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@Marshall M. Great question: The answer to that is no. But let me justify that. Knowing what I know today I would do it very differently. The issue there is, I only know what I know today because I went through what I did. With out the hard trek up the mountain I would not have the view I currently do. 

@Maureen F. You're very welcome! Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. 

I am currently working on a business plan for a REI similar to the way you described yours. I have a clear vision of what I want the middle and later stages to look like, but I am still looking at how to start and build a strong foundation.

I've been looking into buy and holds and other avenues of starting a base, but I haven't found something that I can get a clear vision of how it will work.  Basically what I am saying is that I know what I want to do, and I know how it all works, but I'm not clear on how it will all lead into branching out into larger multi-family and hotels.  

Would love to talk sometime, thanks for the post

What an inspiring story! Thank you for sharing your journey with us. As a brand new investor, I love reading the success stories- partly to get me motivated, and partly to learn about the different paths that people take so I can figure out which one is right for me. 

It strikes me that having the right partners is crucial- there is nothing like the moral support of like-minded individuals to keep going when the going gets tough!

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