October 7, 2022

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How a Millennial Paid Off Debt and Built Wealth Through Real Estate

10 min read
  • Sean Allen racked up $81,000 worth of debt between student loans and credit cards.
  • He bought his first property, a $53,000 short sale, with his friend while paying down debt.
  • Today, Allen owns six properties, has a net worth of $1 million, and is financially independent.

When Sean Allen started college in 2006, his parents struck a deal with him: After his freshman year, they’d invest in an off-campus home in the area that he could live in.

The catch was, he’d have to manage the property himself and find roommates to help cover the mortgage.

“They told me, ‘You have to bring in the tenants to make it an affordable situation. If not, you’ll be paying rent just like everyone else,'” recalled Allen.

He lived on campus at North Carolina A&T State University his first year. Then, at the beginning of his sophomore year, his parents bought a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home close to his college campus in Greensboro, North Carolina. They furnished it for Allen and then put him in charge of the $800 monthly mortgage payment.

He moved in with two friends and charged them each $400 in order to cover the entire mortgage. They split utilities, plus they paid a neighbor $20 a month to cut the grass.

“That was the beginning of me being a live-in landlord,” Allen told Insider. “I had to learn how to communicate house rules, how to set expectations, and how to collect money on time.”

After three years of managing the Greensboro property, “I did not profit, but I did not lose money,” said Allen, whose parents kept the home after he graduated and continued renting it out to students. “Luckily, we didn’t have any major mechanical issues so I didn’t have to come out-of-pocket for typical homeowner items.”

sean allen

Allen managed a home in Greensboro, North Carolina as a college student.

Sean Allen


Allen graduated in 2010 and moved to Rochester, New York for a one-year Master of Science in Business Administration program. After completing his master’s program in July 2011, he headed to southern California with about $3,000 in his bank account and $48,000 worth of student loan debt. 

Three thousand dollars seemed like a lot at the time. “I felt like I was pretty comfortable,” he said — until he started looking at apartments in Long Beach, that is. “Rent was $1,600 and they wanted first and last month’s rent. That’s $3,200. I didn’t have it.”

What’s more, the job he had lined up — a project manager role with BP America — didn’t start until the end of August and he wouldn’t receive his first paycheck until mid-September. “So I had to make it about two months,” said Allen. He decided to live out of his car and get a membership at the YMCA so he could work out and shower each day.

After three weeks of living in his car, a friend’s family who lived nearby said he could stay with them. He took them up on the offer and moved into their home until he got his first paycheck about a month and a half later. Shortly after that point, Allen moved into his own apartment, a one-bedroom in Long Beach, and started paying $1,600 a month in rent. 

“When you’re 10 months into renting, the question is, ‘Where are you going to live next?'” said Allen, who was thinking about finding a roommate to lower his housing cost. As he was considering his next move, he realized, “I just spent $19,000 the whole year on rent to have nothing to speak for it. That’s when I was like, there’s got to be another way.”

Buying his first property with $8,000 in savings

In 2012, Allen moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Hermosa Beach with his friend and coworker David Shea. They started talking about the feasibility of owning property, how much it would cost, and what it would look like if they were to buy together.  

“We both had about $8,000 saved up, so we had $16,000 total,” recalled Allen. He’d spent the previous year setting aside about $700 a month for “future investments,” he added. At the time, “I didn’t know what that looked like, but I knew I wanted to get into investing somehow, so I thought, let me at least start by saving money.” He’d also been putting about $600 a month towards his student loans. 

With $16,000 in cash, they worked backwards and figured they could afford something around $60,000. That purchase price would allow them to put 20% down ($12,000) and have $4,000 left over to go towards


closing costs

.

They figured they probably weren’t going to come by a $60,000 property in southern California. “But I happened to remember I went to school in a place called Greensboro, North Carolina, where the properties were between $60,000 and $80,000,” said Allen. “So we thought, let’s start there.”

In June 2013, Allen and Shea founded DAS Estates LLC, a North Carolina limited liability company, and flew to Greensboro to meet with a real estate agent and look at properties. They found one they wanted: a 2-bed, 2-bath short sale property. They offered $53,000 and, after an unusually long closing process, they closed on the home in December 2013. They financed it with a conventional loan and put 20% down — or, about $10,600 — and did a few minor home-improvement projects, like cleaning the carpet and adding fresh paint to the walls. 

It took about two months to find tenants. “Not a lot of people were looking at properties in the December to January time frame, so that was a struggle,” said Allen. They filled it in March 2014 and rented it out for $750 a month. After expenses — including their $350 mortgage payment, a property manager fee, and an HOA fee — they profited about $220 a month. It all went into an account earmarked for future real estate investments.

About a year later, Allen and Shea started looking at properties in Los Angeles. At that point, Shea had decided to move back home to Chicago, so they decided to invest in a property that Allen could live in. They closed on a $264,000, 3-bed, 2-bath in South Los Angeles in May 2014 and financed it with a 5% down conventional loan.  

Allen moved into one of the rooms and they rented out the other two, which covered the entire mortgage. As for the other monthly expenses, including the $400 utility bill, Allen covered those. 

Paying off $81,000 worth of debt and expanding his real estate portfolio

Between undergrad and grad school, Allen accumulated about $48,000 in student debt. Plus, he tacked on another $33,000 in credit card debt in his early 20s, he said: “I was doing what 20-year-olds do — Vegas and traveling — but I was also buying property and paying utility bills.”

After five years of living in the red, he got tired of seeing his balance remain the same month after month, despite the payments he was making. 

“There was a turning point in 2016, when I was making $2,000 to $3,000 payments a month and my balance wouldn’t change because I had so many expenditures and bills coming out,” said Allen. “I realized that if I’m going to be buying more property, I need to make sure that I’m paying off the ‘bad debt.’ That’s when I put together a plan.” 

For the next year and a half, he focused on increasing his income and decreasing his spending. 

sean allen

Allen became debt free just before turning 30.

Sean Allen


He revamped his resume business, Sean’s Resume Shop, which he started in 2013 and got certified as a career coach. He brought in up to $2,200 per month doing career coaching and helping people write their resumes, he said. Plus, he was still earning a salary from his full-time job. He and Shea were also bringing in rental income from three properties at that point — ​​they purchased a $62,000 condo in North Carolina in July 2015 — but all of the profit went straight back into their business.

To reign in his spending, he started tracking his finances. “I put together a spreadsheet that tracks bills and income, so I can see where my money is going and how I can plan better,” said Allen, who still checks all of his accounts daily. 

Tracking his spending helped him better understand where he could cut back. For example, after combing through his credit card statements, he found 28 recurring charges. “I probably only needed about 18, so I started cutting those down,” he said. “I took the bus if I went to Vegas — I stopped splurging on airplane tickets and took the Greyhound. I drove a beat up car that didn’t have a car note. I got it all the way to 340,000 miles. No one would ride with me but it saved a lot of money.”

Allen also started “house hacking” in order to eliminate his monthly housing payment. He rented out the room he had been living in — meaning all three bedrooms of that home were filled and bringing in rental income — and moved into the garage of the property, which was finished but not furnished, in March 2016. It was a smaller space and less comfortable, but allowed him to live for free and pocket an extra $600 a month. He lived in the garage for two years. 

After a year and a half of working extra hours and living frugally, Allen became debt-free in September 2018, just before his 30th birthday. Insider verified all of Allen’s claims regarding debt payoff,


net worth

, and property ownership. 

“I felt free,” he recalled. “I felt like I could allocate more money to invest and to take care of myself a little bit more.” 

Today, Allen and Shea own four properties that gross about $68,000 annually. After expenses, the business takes home about $20,400, said Allen.

Allen also owns two properties on his own, which gross about $71,000 each year and profit about $19,000, he said.  

Becoming a property investor all started with a conversation back in 2013 with Shea. 

“It’s very important to facilitate conversations about what you’re interested in with as many people as you can. If you’re interested in real estate, you might find a business partner, a loan officer, another investor, a mentor, a tenant, or a roommate,” said Allen. “We often shy away from talking about money, debt, and investments because they’re personal. But one of the things I’ve learned is you can learn from other people’s lessons and mistakes before you make the same ones. It will save you money, time, and stress.”

Becoming a millionaire at age 33 

On December 19, 2021, Allen became a millionaire on paper, he said: “That was the day where my assets minus my liabilities was greater than $1 million.”

“I don’t have much money,” he added, as most of his net worth (about $600,000) is tied up in his properties, “But if I said, ‘I want to liquidate everything today,’ I would have a million dollars in the bank account.” The other $400,000 is in retirement accounts, including an IRA and 401(k). 

Nothing about his lifestyle changed when he hit $1 million. He didn’t boost his spending or even really celebrate. “But that was the day where it all felt worth it: the trips that I couldn’t go on because I was fixing a water heater, living in a garage for years, driving a beat up car that didn’t have AC or heat. It was all worth it when I looked at the number,” he said.

Allen still works full-time and does career coaching on the side. Technically, working for someone else is optional at this point in his life, though. 

“My definition of financial independence is when all your bills and current expenses are covered by passive income — and I meet that,” he said. “I met that sometime last year, when I realized my mortgages and utilities are paid by other people’s money, I don’t have a car note, I don’t have student loans, and I don’t have credit card debt. With the profit that I have, all my bills are covered and I can maintain my standard of living for now.” 

That said, he’s planning on starting a family one day with his fiancé and recognizes that his expenses will change, and likely increase. 

sean allen

Allen and his fiancé.

Courtesy of Sean Allen


Still, he expects to be able to retire in his 40s if he continues growing his income through his real estate business. “I’m probably about 10 to 12 years away from being able to live off my passive income, continue to invest, and afford a family,” he said.

While he invests most of his money in real estate, he does invest in the stock market, too. But he’s hired a financial advisor to handle those investments. 

“It’s important to understand your strengths and weaknesses,” said Allen. “For me, investing in the stock market and picking stocks is not my strength, but finding property and managing it is. I’m going to pour more of my time, energy, and money into something that I’m good at and pay somebody else to do the things that I’m not good at.” 

It’s equally important to have a vision and a plan in place to see your vision through, he emphasized: “What do you really see yourself doing at 30, 40, or 50? Now hold onto that vision and ask yourself if the plan that you’re doing now aligns with that vision. Because every decision that you make is either going to get you closer or further away from that vision.”

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