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How This Movie Theater Manager-Turned-Real Estate Investor "Retired" at 39

Tom Brickman left his 9-to-5 behind before age 40 thanks to years spent learning about real estate investing. He owns and rents out 19 properties in Texas and Ohio.

Written by Andrew Pentis / August 9, 2022
Headshot of real estate investor Tom Brickman
Tom Brickman

Quick Bites

  • Though not without risks, real estate investing is one way to build your own career, and Brickman is proof of that.
  • Starting small helps to minimize the risk of investing: Brickman’s first house purchase required only a $9,000 down payment.
  • Unlike what you may see on TV shows, house renovations take time, money and effort, and don’t always turn a profit.

Everyday problems spur on clever solutions and, for Tom Brickman, the problem was two-fold: He had to work days and weekends to pay rent for a house that wasn’t actually his.

So Brickman worked toward a better outcome. He saved as much as he could from his retail jobs and, later, his general manager gig at an Ohio movie theater; took on side hustles like re-selling name-brand purses; and used the proceeds to buy admittedly “ugly houses.” He purchased his first property, a $90,000 multi-family home in Toledo, Ohio, when he was just 21 while making $8.50 an hour at the Gap.

Then Brickman bought another and another and another—until the properties he accumulated, and the rent they paid out, were more than enough to live on. He quit his movie theater 9-to-5 job at age 39 in January 2022 and now owns 19 “doors” in Ohio and Texas, one for each year since he started investing. The “doors”—some properties are multi-family homes—made leaving his approximately $80,000 salary an easier choice than it would be for most people.

Map of Tom Brickman's Toledo properties
Brickman's Toledo-area "doors" | Tom Brickman

“I didn’t just sit here and say, ‘Okay, this 9-to-5 that I’m working for 40 hours a week is going to make me rich,'” says Brickman, whose starting salary at the theater was $32,000. “I was buying the ugly condos on purpose because nobody else wanted them, they were inexpensive and I could go in and put in tile, make them nice. And collect rent from them."

“Going along the way, I was like, ‘I could buy a new car right now, or I could buy this condo that’s the same price as the car and get money from it every month.”

Brickman “stuck with (his) crappy car,” a Pontiac Vibe hatchback, investing in real estate instead. That's just one of the strategies he used to get to where he is today. Read on for more.

Map of Tom Brickman's Dallas properties
Brickman's Dallas-area "doors" | Tom Brickman

How Brickman got started in real estate investing

You might be wondering how a movie theater employee, even a manager, could afford to buy so many properties. But think of Brickman’s buying like playing monopoly. He passed “Go” with his paychecks and bought purple Baltic Avenue, not blue Park Place.

Because of the low prices, Brickman didn’t have to take out home loans for many of his initial purchases (though he says he took out a mortgage for his very first purchase).

Of the first home purchase that began his story, Brickman says, “The downstairs tenant paid $600, and my (mortgage) payment was $738; I didn't know where I could live for $138, so I did it.”

Investor Tom Brickman's first home purchase
Brickman's first home purchase | Tom Brickman

Still, on his salary at the theater—plus, side hustles—Brickman could only buy one to two properties per year. He needed cash for down payments and to actually fix up the properties he was buying, readying them to rent or, in fewer cases, to sell.

“I did [improvements] slowly because when you make $8.50 an hour, my paychecks were tiny,” says Brickman, who recalled installing windows and flooring in that first home. “So I didn’t have a lot of extra money, but when I did have an extra $100 or $200, it would go to paint or improving the property.”

After a Cleveland, Ohio, home that he lost money on in 2005, Brickman said he didn’t really know what he was doing until he bought a third house, in Texas in 2009. In Dallas, he repeated his initial success as a 21-year-old, buying a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo and living in half the space, renting out the other.

“I was able to just pay for utilities and save for the next property and the next property and the next property,” he says.

Tip

Real estate investing isn’t without risk, to be sure, but you can minimize risk at certain turns. Brickman weathered the Great Recession of 2009, for example, by buying properties in zip codes that he was confident he could rent out. He also paid for them in cash—if he had borrowed beyond his means before the economy collapsed, this story might have had an unhappy ending.

Real estate investing is no get-rich-quick scheme

Brickman has seen the home improvement shows on HGTV. It’s what he watches on the treadmill at the gym, even if knows the shows set unrealistic expectations for the rest of us.

“I hate that those shows make it seem super simple, and that’s one thing that people miss, that it takes an hour, 30 minutes” to house hack, says Brickman, who was renovating one property in June 2022 and had cash for a new project while waiting out another possible economic recession. He notes that once, it took him an entire year to renovate a house before he could start making money on it.

In fact, Brickman says he didn’t really start earning a living until his fifth property started “to cashflow”—that is, bring in more rent that it cost to buy or maintain.

Below are Brickman’s hard-won tips for anyone thinking about investing in real estate.

Put in the research

One of the unglamorous parts of real estate investing is the research. For all the awe-inspiring before and after pictures, there’s a lot more time spent sitting in front of a computer, trying to identify the right opportunities to invest.

Brickman’s shorthand: Identify zip codes where there are high rates of occupancy (perhaps it’s near a landmark) and low rates of crime. In Toledo, Ohio, and Dallas, Texas, for example, Brickman can rattle off zip codes with bad reputations that are best avoided.

One of Brickman’s better purchases, from 2020, was an inexpensive house next to a Chrysler plant. After making it more than livable, he received 40 applications from renters, many of them employees of the car manufacturer.

Here are other tips to consider before buying investment properties:

  • Leverage your education. With a business administration degree from the University of Toledo and years of experience supervising employees at the movie theater, Brickman knows how to manage. He often talks about the “team” of people who help him buy houses, including go-to title companies and lawyers. Look into your past and current expertise and identify strengths and weaknesses. Like Brickman, you can call on experts to help with parts of investing that aren’t your forte.

  • Ramp up your income. Even if you qualify for down payment assistance on property purchases, you're still going to need cash to buy and renovate homes. Brickman didn't wait for his movie theater salary to increase (he averaged a $55,000 wage over 15 years, he says), opting for side hustles as a supplement. He grew a taste for reselling merchandise. "Finding a Diesel purse for $2 and selling it for $70 never gets old," he says.

  • Start small, and proceed slowly. Brickman bought his first three houses in a five-year span; his first was $90,000 with a $9,000 down payment (funded by Gap employee stock proceeds). “I was buying really inexpensive properties in the beginning because that’s what investors were ignoring,” he says. This is another way for beginning investors to mitigate risk: By proceeding slowly with less expensive properties, you can avoid especially costly mistakes.

  • Identify less desirable neighborhoods with promise. After growing up in Ohio and being transferred to Texas by his movie theater company employer, Brickman had living experience in the places he was buying properties. With his knowledge of Dallas, for example, he bought a $40,000 house in a down-and-out, but up-and-coming neighborhood, renovated it to be the nicest one on the block, and now other investors are moving in.

  • Don’t take a zip code for granted. Yes, as Brickman mentioned, you can avoid a big mistake by prioritizing zip codes and ruling out others. But realize that there is some gray area. Brickman, for example, once bought a “crack house” in a “good” zip code. He was familiar with the neighborhood when he bought the property sight unseen via online auction for $13,500, but he was not familiar with the street. (He was able to later sell the house after renovating it.)

  • Look for red flags. Yes, it’s best to avoid fixer-uppers that may need a complete makeover (read: cracks in the foundation), but there are other clues that an investment might not be wise. The best way to avoid a bad home purchase, Brickman says, is to only buy where you would feel comfortable living. He recalled making the mistake of buying a Dallas condo where he didn’t feel safe taking the garbage out to the street. “Drive by it at night and see if you’re comfortable,” he says. “What if something happens down the road and you need to live there?”

Tweet from real estate investor Tom Brickman
Brickman posts about his investments to his @Thefrugalgay11 Twitter account. | Tom Brickman

Prepare for the role of landlord

Finding and buying properties is just the first step, however. Fixing up fixer-uppers can be the hard part.

There are the potential hassles of being a landlord (unless you plan to “flip” or resell houses for profit). In Brickman’s first house, for example, he inherited a tenant who occupied the first floor, while he lived upstairs.

“I remember arguing with her (because) she would stand out on the front porch and smoke weed,” says Brickman, who coaches clients on how to get into real estate investing via his FrugalGay website. “I was like, ‘My clothes smell because of you, and I have to go to work.' These are fights I’d never have now.”

Brickman now says he'd avoid a "petty" debate with his tenant, always aiming to treat them with the utmost respect, which is easier now that he doesn't share their living space.

In fact, there are many mistakes Brickman says that he's learned from. Here are his tips:

  • Build a maintenance team, don’t defer repairs. “Early on, I would wait for things to break or try to fix something (myself), but it would just cost me more in the long run,” Brickman says. Instead, he advises finding a general contractor you can trust and go to at a moment’s notice, while keeping a handy list of electricians and plumbers for unannounced home issues.

"Before" image of a Tom Brickman real estate property
"Before" image of a Brickman real estate property | Tom Brickman
"After" image of a Tom Brickman real estate property
"After" image of a Brickman real estate property | Tom Brickman

  • Find tenants without paying real estate agent commissions. Use free or low-cost tools (like Zillow’s Rental Manager) to find and background check applicants and sign lease agreements.

  • Treat your tenants well. Being responsive to your tenants can go a long way toward keeping them happy. Have your go-to contractor at the ready for a quick visit if an issue arises.

  • Don’t give into self-doubt. When you plunk a year and $100,000 into a renovation, as Brickman recently did, it’s easy to wonder whether you’re making a huge mistake. His sense of self-doubt shrank away in this case, however, when he visited the property in question and determined it would be Airbnb-ready within weeks.

  • Never stop learning: Seek out an expert, including Certified Financial Planners, after you’ve consumed free resources like Bigger Pockets, a favorite of Brickman’s. You might try investing podcasts, too, that tilt toward real estate. Whatever you do, continue to learn. Brickman, for instance, is now thinking of an international property investment. He's currently doing his homework.

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About the Author

Staff editor Andrew Pentis headshot

Andrew Pentis

Andrew Pentis has used his journalism background to write about personal finance topics since 2015. His work has appeared in over 40 publications, including LifeHacker, U.S. News & World Report and Marketwatch.

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