Our Story // Renovating Old Houses and Early Retirement

The other day I was explaining what it is that Garrett and I do to a total stranger, and it got me thinking, have I ever really explained it here on the blog?  Sure I share all about the houses and our family and the before and after photos of our renovations (and I’ll get back to it next week), but there’s a whole other story in the background.  The tale of why and how we do what we do.  Why we buy old houses.  Why we spend so much time renovating them.  Why we lease them out as rentals.  And why we’ve been working so hard for the better part of a decade.


family photos by Ryan Flynn

To answer that, let’s rewind to 2008 when our renovation journey began, long before our band of renovation gypsies numbered four.  It was just Garrett and I back when we bought our first house, a 1916 craftsman “fixer” with an unfinished basement, a unique detached cottage/workspace in the backyard, and tons of potential.  In a desirable Seattle neighborhood back then, old and in-need-of-work cost you a whopping $445,000 (that number is now substantially higher…eeech!).

At the time, I had just started my engineering career and Garrett had returned to school to pursue his PhD (which he completed in 2015…biochemistry, the smart guy!) so we planned to live in that house pretty much forever, while we slowly fixed it up, had a couple kids, and worked away at our careers.  But you know what they say about best laid plans…

Well just 8 months after buying our first house, I got laid off from my oh-so-short engineering career, and life went into a tailspin.  With a big mortgage to pay and no job in sight (there weren’t a lot of jobs for newbie structural engineers in the building downturn of 2008 and 2009), I suggested we finish out the basement, rent the main house, and move into our 400sf backyard cottage, which at the time was lacking a kitchen and even a bathroom sink.

I told myself that small-space-living would be an adventure, and Garrett went along with it because he’s a real trooper.  So we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. The only problem was that we didn’t really know that much about renovating.  So we learned as we went and asked for help from pretty much everyone we knew (especially our folks).  Sure, we made some mistakes – like that pink tub…oh goodness why did we buy that pink tub?! – but three months later, we had turned our 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom house into a 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom house.  We got renters in the main house then moved out to the cottage to start that renovation.

Essentially, we were house hacking, before the term actually existed. If you’ve never heard of house-hacking, I like to explain it as getting-someone-else-to-pay-your-mortgage-so-you-can-do-what-you-want-with-your-life.  But more on that in a minute.


We spent three years in that cottage. During that time I got a job, we cut expenses, we lowered our mortgage payment by refinancing, and we raised the rent in the house. Suddenly we weren’t just living rent free, we were actually making money on the house. Our house-hacking endeavor had turned into actual income and it felt good. We saw this whole other path open up before us and although the destination was a little fuzzy, we called it financial independence.  Our goal became to make it there – to financial independence – by the age of 35.

After those three years in the cottage, we used the money we had saved up and bought a second “fixer” house. And shortly thereafter, a third. We moved into each renovation project and loosely followed the BRRRR model (which is apparently a thing although we had no idea at the time): Buy, Renovate, Rent, Refinance, Repeat.  And although we were saving all along, we had to get creative to find enough cash for down payments and renovations (this is Seattle after all and houses don’t come cheap).  Over the years we’ve utilized traditional financing, a FHA loan refinanced into an 80/20 loan, cash-out refinance, HELOC, personal loans from family, and cash-purchase-turned-delayed-financing. Finding time to renovate our properties was tricky. Garrett was in school and I was working full-time, so we had to renovate on nights and weekends, often turning down social plans to get dusty and bang on walls. Of course, we love old houses and renovating, but we love our friends too.  While the sacrifice has been well worth it, these choices were often hard ones to make.  Once the boys came along, our renovation pace slowed down, but we kept at it. By then, our goal was crystal clear: make enough income from our rentals so that we could “retire” and spend more time with our family and working on our own projects.


By the time we rang in 2016, we had four houses plus the cottage in Seattle, and we projected enough income from the rentals to bankroll our life (granted, not a lavish life, but a modest, happy life for our family). So when we found our dream home, a farmhouse on 3 acres in our hometown, I quit my 9-to-5 and we moved to the country. Garrett and I were both 34.

Our “retirement” is in it’s infancy, but we are excited for what we have planned. We will still spend a lot of time as landlords and of course as parents, but also plan to dedicate time to outdoor activities, fresh-food cooking, country-dwelling, and renovating any old house we can get our hands on.


So that’s the story of how this little family house-hacked our way from first-time home buyers to full-time renovators and landlords. How we turned our love of old houses and renovating into income and retirement plans.

I should note that being a landlord is not really retiring.  Nor is being a parent of young children.  These things can be hard with a capital H.  But the first affords us the luxury of having more time to do the second and provides us the lifestyle we want without having to work more than a few hours a week, hence we call it “retirement”.

One other note, I’ve hesitated for a long time on whether or not to get so personal on the blog, especially about a topic as touchy as personal finances.  This is, afterall, a renovation/home blog.  But ultimately I thought about our younger selves, that 27-year-old couple who had just moved into a cramped cottage without a bathroom or kitchen, who had no real income and struggled with the weight of their debt. Those two would have been really excited to hear a story like this. So I hit publish.


We are really excited for what comes next in our story! Thanks for being a part of it.

Also thanks to Ryan Flynn for these family photos!  He had the patience of a saint and a shutter speed fast enough to catch even the wildest of toddlers 😉



p.s. Love all the feedback on the interior of our farmhouse from you guys and over on Instagram. Sounds like there’s plenty of folks out there who wouldn’t paint their millwork, either 😉

p.p.s. I’m absolutely in love with this vintage London apartment.  It’s ethereal and beautiful and so well styled.  Kudos Ms. McAlpine!

p.p.p.s. This kitchen. I loved it when I saw it a year ago, and somehow it’s gotten even better.

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  1. I’m so glad you hit publish! The hubs and I are aiming for early retirement, and NO ONE understands (not even our parents, who are like, “what will you do?” “why do you want to do that?” etc. etc.). We’ve stopped talking about it because we feel pretty misunderstood…which is sad, because I do think early retirement is attainable for many with some old-fashioned hard work.

    We’re going about things in a more conventional way than you though, by working hard at our 9-5 jobs and saving ridiculously while doing some side hustles when we can. We won’t be where you are at 34 (currently we’re 27), but we hope by 40 or 45 we can live a simple, “retired” life with our little family, with plenty of time to parent, volunteer, grow food, and so much more.

    All this to say…your real life story makes me thing we’re less crazy. 😉

    • I love hearing that other people are doing the same thing! We often feel crazy as we took a very different path than most our peers, but it was right for us! Might I suggest you check out Mr. money Mustache – you’ll find lots of like-minded folks there.

      • LOVE MMM…he’s our main inspiration! I love reading the forum journals on his site–other people’s stories totally keep us going.

  2. Thank you for posting this! So inspiring. I’m 26 and grappling with the idea of debt is awful. My BF and I just completed a huge renovations doing the work ourselves and learning as we go. It’s been awesome to build value in something using your time. I’m looking to make a career move that will a) bring more life/work balance and b)afford me more time to take on another project house.

    I love following along with your lives!

  3. I love love love this. Best wishes to your family in this new adventure.

  4. You guys are living our dream! I am very inspired by you. I’m also happy to hear numbers and actual advice on what it took. We’ve been working on a similar goal. My husband and I remodeled our first house in Northfield, MN, sold it in 2014, and moved to Washington (Auburn area) following a dream to live in the PNW (it took 7 years of hard work and living on a teensy budget). We are now remodeling house #2 and hope to take the profit and get a few rentals, or at least one in the next year, and moving ourselves back to a quieter, more country setting like we were raised in Indiana. We love to refurbish/design furniture also and the goal is to have more time for it beyond our day jobs. I’ll be 34, my husband will soon be 32, and I hope to retire at 40 (maybe sooner). Maybe finally start raising a family beyond our 2 dogs. I adore seeing your posts about your new old farmhouse. Beautiful place. Truly inspirational!

  5. Great post!! I’m so happy you shared this info because it is super motivating!! Plus it is like the missing jigsaw piece, if you will, to your blog. Now I want to go back and reread all my fav posts (which is every post, ha!) with the added flavour of your behind the scenes plans. Keep on keeping on guys! 🙂

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your road to financial independence and all the lovely renovations along the way! Your story of hard work and commitment is nothing short of inspiring. I’m so excited for your next adventures and to follow along with that beautiful farmhouse renovation. Congratulations to your whole family!

  7. Wow, this really resinated with me! Thank you for taking the leap and getting personal with us, your readers and all the 27-year-olds out there struggling with debt. This post serves as a much needed reminder that a big dose of hard work with a side of discipline can get you through tough times. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  8. Sharrol Poshust says:

    Love this.

  9. I am glad you hit publish. It is nice to know the story behind the blog. You made some great smart choices and it paid off. Congrats! I hope you continue to blog. You are my favorite because you blog because you want to, not for financial gain. You don’t have ads all over the place and no pop ups, its sooo nice.

  10. Wow. You’re story is so inspiring! I am currently 27 and my husband is on the verge of 30, and we are at the point in our lives where we are tired of living with debt and not being able to focus on the what we love. Your story proves to me that if we make some sacrifices and are disciplined with our finances, we can live the life we want!

  11. Sarah Byers says:

    Read your blog for the first time today and found it so inspiring! My husband and I both love working on house projects as well, and fortunately my husband is able to do most everything! We are going into our 5th year of fixing up our 1st and current home. We’re chomping at the bit to get it sold next year possibly, because we stand to make a good chunk of profit from it. If we do, we’d like to dump all the profit into paying off our student loan debt, which means we’d need to move into another house that allows us to do an FHA loan, therefore no big down payment. And it would also mean that we wouldn’t be holding any money back to do renovations to the new house to increase it’s value…..so we’d be back to having to spend years fixing something up as we earned the income. Is there a better way to go about this? Do you have any advice for our particular situation in which we want to sell our house to help pay our debts but also want to be able to renovate our next house more quickly than we’re doing now? We ultimately want a forever home on acres and acres of land somewhere so we need to keep moving forward and not just laterally which is what I’m afraid of. Any thoughts you have would be great. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Hi Sarah – sounds like you guys have some great goals. I’m not sure I’m the right person to give you advice, but I would say that looking at your debt and what has the highest interest is important. Also, I’m pretty conservative and don’t like to stretch ourselves too thin, so I’d recommend waiting until you’ve saved. I know it’s nice to get renovations done quickly, but often times it doesn’t make good financial sense (like for us in our current Farmhouse). Good luck!

  12. I love this post because I think this aspect of home ownership and finance goals are important to share. I love that you guys have found your financial freedom and are able to produce such a cool blog because of it. Thanks for sharing. My husband and I are also on the rental track, and we love it. I was also in construction during 2008, not a happy time in my career either. But now we are on track to follow in similar footsteps as your happy family. Thanks! PS – Love Ryan’s work and those photographs!

  13. Just what my boyfriend and I needed to read! Just bought out little 1912 bungalow fixer-upper with an unfinished basement in the Ballard area (after 10 offers). Our dream has been to house hack and live under our means. You’re the proof we need to stay focused, thanks for the encouragement.

  14. I found you through One Room Challenge (I did it too this time and it was so much fun!) and your story is so inspiring! I’m so glad you hit publish on this post. We have kinda the same dream – we love renovating and its in our blood (I’m an architecture graduate/designer and my husband is an engineer) so its so good to hear other stories about how couples made it work. Bravo!! Can’t wait to follow along!

  15. As a 27 year old with a fresh-y baby (7months), a carpenter/contractor husband, and well a very complicated me ( a home decor boutique marketing manager/ wanna be designer, and decently successful health and wellness counselor at a wellness center.. A mouth full, and almost embarrassingly different), all I can say is thank you for hitting publish! We live in coastal Maine and have the same dream as the one you’re living. Often paralyzed by fear and of course the constraints of money, we’ve spent the last 2 years dreaming but not doing. I’m glad to have stumbled upon your blog today for a good old fashion kick in the butt.
    Also, we have a 1914 colonial and our millwork is the exact same as your beautiful 1912 farmhouse. Despite the white trend, we’ve kept it natural and absolutely love it. Although I am considering staining it a tad bit closer to ebony, but that’s another story.
    If you’re up for it, I’d really love to hear some more tips and advice of how, knowing what you do know, to get started down this path.
    Glad to be here!

    • Thanks for the comment Jenn! Tips and advice…hmmmm I suppose that’s a whole post in it’s own right. But right off the top of my head, I’d say that we always keep the long game in mind (i.e. we drive decade old cars because not having a payment frees up financing for homes; we also stuck it out in jobs we didn’t always love because they paid well and we could see them leading to early retirement), know your finances (keep a detailed budget and know how you’re going to get to that next step), and be prepared to work hard…harder than you think you can! I’d also recommend checking out Bigger Pockets and the BRRR method (getting your cash out of properties is important if you want to collect a few houses). I think everyone needs to set their own priorities and ours was definitely financial freedom, even though that meant sacrificing on fun sometimes. We were 100% alright doing things differently than most of our peers and just scrappy enough to pull it off.

  16. I’m so glad I stumbled across your blog. My husband (also a Garrett, from Seattle, and working on his PhD) and I just bought our first house with this exact end game in mind — early “retirement” for me and a farmhouse in the country. We don’t have kids yet but he is in school and I work full time so it’ll be a challenge to get this house remodeled and (hopefully sold so we can move on to the next one) by next summer but we’ll try our best! It is only 1,000 square feet…how hard can it be? 🙂

  17. We renovated two homes and sold both at a 50% profit which led us to buy our current home with 100% of our own funds, no mortgage. We don’t have passive income but hubby is back studying and going to do a PhD in time. We are both happy to have jobs but the pressure to work isn’t there, at the moment we are 1 x student and 1 x carer as our little boy has autism. In time we will have more investments and passive income but for now we are really happy with our decisions. I couldn’t face another renovation any time soon.

  18. Great post! Thanks for sharing. I am also in Seattle, and looking to leverage equity and buy another property to get into this. Do you have any specific recommendations for mortgage brokers?


  1. […] Stumbled is a great word to describe our path. I wish we knew more (or anything) about Financial Independence at the beginning of our journey, but back then I was just a newly-minted engineer eager to get a dog and an old home in Seattle. We got both in 2008. One year later, with the recession in full swing, I got laid off and we found ourselves with no way to pay our mortgage. That lead us to become renovators and house hackers by necessity. You can read more about that here. […]

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