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House Hacking 101: A Guide for Getting to Financial Freedom

Financial Education, Investing, Real Estate

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House hacking is a fantastic way to build wealth, achieve financial independence, or improve your financial situation. With house hacking, you can reduce you expenses, increase cash flow, and build equity. 

Why you should rent your spare rooms

What is house hacking? What’s the definition of house hacking? Can anyone house hack?

House hacking has been an integral part of helping me build wealth at a young age.

In this post, I will be sharing with you the basics for house hacking, and talk about my experience with house hacking.

I want to share with you my experience with house hacking – becoming a landlord and living with your tenants – and how this experience has had an amazing positive impact on my financial situation.

Below, we will cover:

  • What house hacking is,
  • How to house hack
  • My house hacking story
  • How house hacking gets you on the fast track to financial freedom

Let’s get started with the definition of house hacking.

House Hacking Gets You on the Fast Track to Financial Freedom

What is House Hacking?

House hacking is buying an owner-occupied property and getting paid to live for relatively cheap or free.

How are you able to live for relatively cheap or free?

House hacking allows you to live for relatively cheap, or free, by owning a house and renting out your additional rooms or units to other people (friends, Craigslist people, strangers, etc.).

By “hacking” your housing expense, you use other people’s money (your tenant’s rent payments) to pay down your mortgage and live for free.

House hacking allows you to get into the real estate game and also have your housing subsidized by roommates or tenants. This post will give you a “House Hacking 101” lesson, starting with the basics.

What are the Benefits of House Hacking and Real Estate?

There are many benefits of house hacking. House hacking helps with cash flow, and is also an investment in real estate. You improve your cash flow, and get invested in one of my favorite asset classes.

Why do I like real estate as an asset class? Real estate is:

  • Accessible
    • Anyone can buy a house
  • Appreciable
    • Your real estate can increase in value over time
  • Leverageable
    • You can buy real estate on margin and borrow against equity
  • Rentable
    • Cash flow is king!
  • Improvable
    • Through sweat equity or contracting out repairs, you can increase the value of your house
  • Deductible/Depreciable/Deferrable
    • Real estate has some amazing tax benefits

In addition to these great benefits of real estate, house hacking allows you to decrease one of your biggest expenses.

Housing is such a big expense for so many people, and by reducing it through renting out extra space in your house, you can save more money over time.

5 Reasons to Consider House Hacking for Financial Freedom

There are a number of reasons why you should consider house hacking. If you are looking to achieve financial freedom at a young age, house hacking will speed up your progress.

Below, I’ve listed 5 reasons for you to consider house hacking if you are looking to achieve financial success.

  1. Decrease your biggest expense
  2. Increase your income and savings rate
  3. House hacking helps you gain landlord experience
  4. Increased cash flow and financial flexibility month to month
  5. House hacking gives you ownership of property and land

Now, let’s touch on each of these reasons to house hack in great detail.

1. House Hacking Helps Decrease Your Biggest Expense

Housing is the biggest expense for people in American, with nearly 40% of their income going towards rent or a mortgage.

By house hacking, you can reduce, or completely eliminate, your housing expense.

When I started house hacking, my mortgage payment was $1,820, and my monthly rent was $1,650.

Instead of paying $1,820 a month, I was effectively paying $170 a month for rent – $170 is unheard of for rent these days!

In addition, with principal pay down and appreciation, I was living for free and making money with house hacking.

House hacking allowed me to use my decreased expenses to pay off my student loans and pay off my car loan.

2. House Hacking Increases Your Income and Savings Rate

Similar to the first reason to consider house hacking, house hacking increases your income and savings rate.

Each month, you will be collecting checks from your tenants, and with this, you will be increasing your income.

With an increased income, you can pay down debt, take a vacation, or buy more rental properties!

3. House Hacking Helps You Gain Landlord Experience

When I started house hacking, I had no landlord experience. One of the reasons many people don’t invest in real estate is because they don’t have the experience and knowledge to manage their properties.

With house hacking, you can gain this experience.

Also, since you are living in the house you are renting out, it will be easier to manage any repairs, talk with tenants, and make sure everything is going well.

4. House Hacking Increases Your Cash Flow and Passive Income

If you are working a day job, you probably get paid every two weeks or so. With house hacking, you give yourself another paycheck, and this helps your cash flow over time.

What is great as well about house hacking is this income is passive income, and you receive this extra paycheck without doing any work!

5. House Hacking Gives You Ownership of Land and Property

Finally, house hacking gives you ownership of land and property. While the American Dream isn’t necessarily what it used to be, it is really cool to own something which is real and tangible.

There is finite space on this Earth, and no one is making any more land.

By buying property and land, you can own something which is scarce and can grow in value over time.

house hacking calculatorHow to Buy a House to House Hack

Buying a house to house hack is very similar to buying a rental property.

A very common strategy for house hackers is to buy a duplex and live in one of the units. With buying a multi-family property, you don’t have to see your roommates, and can make repairs on your unit while bringing in rent.

However, before buying a house to house hack, it is important to have a real estate investing strategy for your money.

Real Estate’s One Percent Rule

The basic benefit of investment real estate is its ability to produce rental income. Before buying a property, it’s important to do some calculations and analysis to see if the prospective property will be a good investment.

The One Percent Rule for real estate is a very easy calculation to run to see if a rental property is a good investment.

If the monthly rental income is greater than 1% of the percent price, it could be a decent purchase for your rental real estate portfolio.

For example, if you are looking at a $200,000 house, then the 1% rule would mean the monthly rent would have to be $2,000.

For a house hack, if you plan to move out in the future, it might make sense to look at the 1% rule to see if the property could be a good investment for you. Other metrics might be cap rate, and net income after expenses.

With all houses too, since you are going to live in the house, you will want to think about location, repairs, potential tenants, and budget.

Your criteria should be based on the following factors: price range, discount, cash flow, and appreciation potential.

Buying a house is a big decision to make. While you will have wiggle room with rent coming in each month, you still want to make good decisions with your purchase.

How to Acquire Financing for House Hacking

Acquiring a mortgage and acquiring financing for house hacking is the exact same as getting a mortgage for an owner occupied house.

Real Estate Financing Options in the United States

The median home price in the United States is roughly $200k. Since most people don’t have that kind of cash laying around, they must go to a bank, a credit union, or online to acquire financing.

There are many types of loans. Let’s focus on the 3 main products most home buyers use: 30 year fixed rate mortgage, 15 year rate fixed mortgage, and 5/1 adjustable rate mortgage.

In addition to the type of loan, there are variations within each product: Conventional and FHA to name two.

30 Year Mortgage vs. 15 Year Mortgage vs. 5/1 Adjustable Rate Mortgage

Let’s discuss the 30 year fixed rate mortgage (yes, it is as simple as it sounds). For 30 years, you have the same (fixed) interest rate on your loan. Similarly, for the 15 year fixed rate mortgage, you have the same interest rate for the 15 year period.

Each month, you pay interest equal to the interest rate multiplied by the principal balance. The remaining portion pays off some of the principal.

Typically, the interest rate on a 15 year mortgage will be less than the 30 year mortgage, but due to the time difference, but the payment on a 15 year mortgage will be higher.

comparison of 15 and 30 year mortgage

Next, we have the 5/1 adjustable rate mortgage (ARM). This product probably sounds complicated but it really isn’t. For the first 5 years, you have a fixed rate. Then after 5 years, your rate will adjust each year after that.

The adjustment will typically be based off of LIBOR rates (a common one is 2.25% + 3 month LIBOR). The fixed rates on ARM’s are generally lower than mortgages with a fixed rate for the whole term since they can increase after the fixed rate period.

With these 3 products, after 15 or 30 years, your loan is paid off and you are debt free!

Conventional vs. FHA Mortgage Loans

As I mentioned above, there are a few variations of the mortgage products: Conventional and FHA to name two. Conventional loans are straight forward loans: lenders typically require a 5% down payment and rates are determined by the market and your credit score.

If you don’t make a down payment of 20%, lenders will have you pay Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI), which protects the lender from a loss if you default on your loan, until you get to 80% Loan-To-Value (20% equity) in the house. Once you get to 20% equity, you don’t have to pay PMI anymore!

FHA loans are mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Borrowers with FHA loans pay PMI. Since borrowers pay PMI, lenders offer FHA loans at attractive interest rates and with less stringent and more flexible qualification requirements.

Lenders will allow a 3.5% down payment for FHA loans. A big difference between FHA and conventional loans is with an FHA loan, you will always pay PMI, no matter how much equity you have in the house (until the loan is paid off).

How to Find Renters to Live With When House Hacking

Finding renters for your house hack can be as easy as asking friends and family, going on Craigslist or getting started with a service like AirBnB.

For me, I’ve used Craigslist for finding my house hacking tenants. For my Craigslist messages, I look to be descriptive and helpful about what I have to offer, and also, the price expectations for the unit.

If you plan on going with AirBnB for your spare rooms, then you will already have an existing system in place for acquiring renters.

So far in this post, I’ve provided information on house hacking in general. Now, I’m going to share with you my house hacking story.

house hacking fireHow I Started House Hacking After College

I’ve been house hacking the last 4 years after graduating from college.

In June 2015, I had just graduated with my Master’s in Financial Math in May, and had been working full-time for about 5 months. Life was good.

Over the few years leading up to that point, I’d been reading about different wealth creation strategies on different blogs. I was interested in building extreme wealth, and was definitely interested in real estate.

At this time, I was renting at the time with 5 other friends. 4 of us were looking to live together, and at the time, we were thinking about finding a place to rent.

The week before my 23rd birthday, I was hanging out with my friends in the house I was renting at the time. We were interested in moving over to the nicer part of town, but our 4 bedroom house or apartment search wasn’t going as well as we had hoped.

Then, a clever idea popped into my head. I was sitting on the couch with my buddy and said to him, “Hey, I know we are kind of striking out with the whole apartment search… I wonder what I could buy.” That set off a 1 week search for my house.

Can house hacking help you become wealthy? I was about to try and find out.

“I’m curious… I wonder what I could buy. Let me look at mortgages tomorrow and see what I can get”, I told my roommate.

I had just graduated from my Master’s program, had about $8,000 in student loan debt, but had a $63,000 salary.

Over the next week, I looked at a few houses and found a great one. Built in 1900, this two story house had been a rental for the past 8 years. The kitchen had been re-done, the bathrooms re-done, and the woodwork was in great shape.

Below are a few pictures:

backyard and deck

View off the back deck

clean kitchen with granite

Updated Kitchen

In addition to the back deck, updated kitchen and bathrooms, and the fact it previously was a rental property, there is a 3 season porch off the master bedroom and a 3 season porch off the front of the house.

The downside was there were only 3 bedrooms (and we had 4 people). However, there was a den, and I was hopeful we could turn it into another room.

The location of the property is in a vibrant area which is very walkable.

I had found a great property, but now had to get financing and get my offer accepted.

How I Financed My House Hack

When I started my search in June 2015, I didn’t know anything about financing a house through a mortgage.

First, I went online and went to my bank’s website and got pre-qualified. I typed in my income and monthly debt information and out spit a number! At the time, I was making $63,000 and had a student loan in the deferral period.

Mortgage lenders typically will try to keep your Debt-to-Income Ratio below 43% of your pre-tax income (per CFPB rules).

Given I was making $63,000 a year, this equates to $5,250 a month pre-tax. 43% of $5,250 is roughly $2,200. After determining the final debt number, the lender will do a calculation based on current interest rates.

According to the bank, I was pre-qualified for a loan of $330,000. Essentially, getting pre-qualified is code for “now the bank can contact you and try to get you to originate a mortgage with them!” 🙂

After being pre-qualified, I sat down with the mortgage loan officer and we chatted about different options. At the time, I only had about $3,000 in cash and was making payments of $2,000 per month towards my student loan.

Since cash was an issue, the lender suggested I do FHA financing and put 3.5% down. After doing a full credit check, I was pre-approved for a $300k loan. A 3.5% down payment on a $300k house is a $10.5k down payment. This would be tough to get to, but I was still optimistic…

After getting pre-approved, sellers and agents are more willing to work with you because they know you are serious: you already have thought about getting financing and have taken action.

Negotiating My Real Estate Deal for House Hacking

After getting pre-approved for financing, it was time to make a deal.

The list price on the property I described above was $289,900. I wanted to see if I could get the house for a little less than the full asking price. I initially offered $280,000, but ultimately paid $287,000.

the millionaire real estate investor, by gary keller

As I learned in The Millionaire Real Estate Investor,  as a real estate investor, it is important to negotiate everything!

In addition to price, there are numerous things to negotiate to ensure you get the best deal:

  • Contingent upon inspection
    • Any repairs from inspection
  • Contingent upon funding
  • Mortgage Closing Costs
  • Buyer’s Agent Fees

First off, you should always say the offer is “contingent upon inspection”. This protects you as the home buyer if the inspector finds something alarming, seriously broken or out of code.

“Contingent upon funding” is also used to protect the home buyer if the home buyer cannot obtain financing. If the home buyer cannot obtain financing, then the home buyer is not obligated to buy the house.

In my case, I was not in a position to pay mortgage closing costs and agent fees. These are two additional things a buyer can negotiate. Many times, if the seller is looking to move the house fast, they will pay your mortgage closing costs.

This usually is a few thousand dollars. In addition to the mortgage closing costs, you can ask if the seller will pay the buyer’s agent fees.

Usually the seller’s agent will charge 3% and the buyer’s agent will charge 3%. If you can get the seller to pay the buyer’s agent’s fees, you can save a fair amount of cash!

It never hurts to ask, I was able to get the seller to pay for my closing costs and my agent’s fees. This was very lucky for me and I look back and realize how fortunate I was. I was going to get into a $287,000 house for about $10,000 total in cash out of my pocket.

One last point, when you make an offer, it is good to put earnest money into an escrow account for the seller.

Earnest money is used to show the seller you will stay true to your word of following through with the purchase. If you don’t, you lose the earnest money. Typically, $1,000 will do. I did $1,500 for my earnest money. The earnest money goes towards closing costs and the down payment.

The Power of Sending a Letter to the Seller in Real Estate

Something that I’ve learned now is that letters work incredibly well in real estate. I’m 2 for 2 getting my offer accepted because I’ve written letters both times.

At the end of the day, people own houses, and with people, there are emotions involved. It’s not all about the numbers. 

Here was my letter for my current house:

Dear Current Homeowner,

My name is Erik and I particularly fell in love with the back porch and the kitchen that you have
put in. I can imagine having fun sipping drinks in the backyard with friends and then coming in to
socialize around the kitchen island. I hope that I have the opportunity to partake in these activities going
forward.

Currently, I work at a bank in risk management and believe in investing and growing for the
future. Currently, I have 3 other roommates and plan to rent the place to them while living with them.
After a few years, I would consider to have this become a rental property for myself. This property has a
lot of potential as I am sure you know: I researched that you have been renting it out for almost 10+
years now. The proximity to downtown, uptown, and the lakes makes it a fine location.

To further prove my commitment, I am offering 280,000, a strong purchase price, and 1,500 as my
earnest money deposit. Additionally, financing should go smoothly, as FHA loans are government
backed. If possible, I would gladly appreciate help with 1,000 of a down payment in exchange for a higher
purchasing price. If not, I am confident that my down payment will suffice.

If you accept my offer, I promise to show your home the same love and respect the previous tenants
have. Thank you again for considering my offer. I, Erik, respectfully look forward to hearing your
response.

Sincerely,
Erik

You might think it’s over the top, but all of that was what I loved about the property. What’s awesome is that after 3 years of living here, I’ve had some great moments in the backyard and in the kitchen.

Letters work when buying a property. Keep this in mind if you don’t have the strongest financial position.

The Importance of Getting a House Inspection When Buying a House

Before buying a house, it is very wise to get an inspection.

This is done by a professional inspector who will go around the property checking pipes, the HVAC system, the circuits, roof, insulation, and every other little thing you can think of in a house to ensure it is up to code. Anything which is not up to code will be listed in the inspector’s report.

After receiving the inspector’s report, as a buyer, you can request some of the items be taken care of. For example, there were some branches hanging over a power line.

I asked if the seller could hire a tree service to cut back the branches. Again, it never hurts to ask!

Negotiating when buying a house never hurts, and can lead to savings and less headache for you when you move in.

What to Expect When Closing on a House

After getting approved for financing, getting the house inspection completed successfully, and saving up for the down payment, it was time to close on the house.

For me, closing was set for a Thursday in late July.

A week before closing, I was stressed out. I had pain in my chest and was not feeling myself. I was feeling a lot of stress due to the closing and was very anxious. Going on a walk with my girlfriend at the time, I wasn’t feeling any better. I needed to relax, but it wasn’t working.

The next day, I went to work and again, I was feeling tightness in my chest. I was nervous and anxious.

To add to my anxiety about the house, I was thinking about how heart troubles run in my family: my grandpa had a heart attack at 52 (he is still living and healthy at 76 now).

This only made it worse… After work, I was with my girlfriend again and decided to have a doctor check me out. Chest pain is never anything to scoff at!

Well, long story short, I was healthy and it was stress. My heart was completely fine and I was not at risk of having a heart attack or heart troubles anytime soon. This was a relief and I was able to take a deep breath and prepare for the week ahead…

Finally, closing day came.

Closing isn’t that exciting. You sit around a table with your agent, the seller, the seller’s agent, and a person from the title company. You sign a bunch of papers (sign your life away… mortgage = death!), and receive the keys to your new place!

I finished up the paperwork around 4 P.M. and was off to the new place! I was a home owner!

How I Got Lucky with My House

When writing about personal finance and financial freedom, many people don’t talk about the environment they live in which allowed them to be successful.

What do I mean?

Something that is incredibly prevalent in the personal finance online community is how everyone is a millionaire and super smart for investing in the stock market over the last 10 years.

Here’s the thing: everyone looks smart in a bull market. 

Why do I bring this up?

I was very lucky in getting my house. What I mean by lucky, is a perfect storm of events had to occur for this to happen.

These events were the following:

  1. Interest rates were low, and I could afford a sizable mortgage.
    • My salary at the time was $63,000. When I was doing a job search, I had an offer at $55,000 as well, but instead took the higher salary. If I’d taken the other job, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the house.
  2. The Minneapolis housing market was tight, but not on fire.
    • In 2015, things were still turning up in the Minneapolis market. This property was on the market for 10 days before I put my offer in. My offer was less than asking and it stuck. If this property went on the market today (which I’m thinking about), it would be gone in less than a week.
  3. I had enough in savings, and also was able to get a small loan from my dad
    • With $7,000 in cash, and a $3,000 loan (not gift, I paid him back) from my dad, I was able to meet the FHA down payment requirement.
    • But even with enough savings, it was very risky for me to put only 3% down on a house.
  4. For the past 3 years before looking for property, I’d learned about real estate, investing, and had a goal of building wealth.
    • This can’t be ignored as many people at age 22 are still in school and have massive loans 🙁
  5. I had 3 friends willing to move in to reduce my mortgage payment
    1. Using this house hacking calculator, my “rent” was $270 starting off, much less than if I was renting from someone else!

Combining all of these things led to a successful purchase. If the year was 2016, I don’t think I could have gotten this done because the market was getting hot. In 2014, I didn’t have a solid salary.

Again, I don’t want to poo-poo my success. However, to say that it was all me and not recognize the economic scenario I was working with would be a failure to think big picture.

Financial Results from 5 Years of House Hacking

Over the last 5 years, I’ve brought roughly $50,000 in rental income through house hacking. This rental income has allowed me to build an emergency fund, pay down my debts, and build equity in my house.

During my house hacking, I paid off my student loan, I bought a 2014 Jetta for $13,000 and paid off the auto loan associated with it, and have maxed my Roth IRA for 3 years.

Below is my house hacking income from the last few years.

house hacking income

In addition to the other debts mentioned above, I’ve paid down my mortgage balance from $282,000 to just over $240,000. This results in an increase of $40,000 in equity gains just through using other people’s money to help pay my mortgage.

As I mentioned above, one of the benefits of house hacking is the tax benefits which come along with real estate.

With my house hacking, I have been able to deduct some of the home improvements I made against my rental income. These deductions have helped with my tax efficiency, and allowed me to save more over time.

Finally, the neighborhood I purchased my house in has started to gentrify and the value of my property has increased 10-20%.

All of these factors have contributed to a net worth increase of over $100,000.

House hacking has allowed me to pay down debt, increase my investments, and grow my net worth by over $100,000. What could house hacking do for your life?

Change Your Life with House Hacking

House hacking is amazing and I recommend anyone who has an interest in financial freedom to consider it. The real estate investing strategy of house hacking is definitely tough with student loans, the want to live in luxury apartments, and the increased responsibility of being a landlord.

However, at the end of the day, it is more than worth it financially.

House hacking has changed my life with this amazing income coming in each month.

House hacking has been my most successful side hustle and has allowed me to take risks at work and now with my business and other side hustle endeavors.

I’m on the path to financial independence, and house hacking has sped this process up considerably.

I’m very thankful I’ve been able to do this, but not sure it’s sense for everyone.

Would I try to house hack today? Probably not.

If I was 22 again, I’d probably try to do it, but again, it’s a different scenario and naively thinking things will magically turn out is a little short sighted. I took a lot of risk (low down payment and no real estate experience) and it paid off. I’ve had real estate friends on both sides of success spectrum (success and failure), and every situation.

At the end of the day though, House hacking is definitely a strategy to consider if you’d like to become wealthy. As I mentioned above, I increased my net worth by $100,000 just by living.

What could you do by house hacking?

Readers: are you interested in house hacking? Have you house hacked before, and what were the results? Will you push your kids to house hack when they are older?

House Hacking 101: How to make money off your home

Why you should rent your spare rooms
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