Growing up in Scarborough, my family didn’t have a lot of money. Both of my parents are Chinese immigrants who grew up in India. My dad dropped out of sixth grade and worked in a kitchen to support his parents and four siblings. When he moved to Toronto in the 1970s to be closer to friends, he worked in coffee shops and delivered for Pizza Pizza.
My mom came to Toronto a few years later, in search of better opportunities. She scraped by working as a labourer in a warehouse. In the 1980s, my parents met through mutual friends. They had my sister, Angel, a couple years later and purchased a four-bed, one-bath house in Scarborough for approximately $90,000. I was born in 1995.
As a family, we bonded on road trips, mostly to visit churches in Midland and Buffalo, because my mother practices Catholicism. These trips are some of my favorite memories. But finances were always a concern. We plotted our road trips based on which gas stations along the way had the best prices, scoured flyers in search of coupons, purchased oversized T-shirts to grow into. It always seemed like the things I wanted to buy were just out of reach. I dreamed of growing up to be a doctor or dentist because then I would never have to worry about money. I could have whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.
When I was in grade five, alone in my bedroom, I played RuneScape, an online game in a medieval world where players buy and trade items. I wanted my character to stand out with luxury armor. To save up, I mined minerals and cut wood, and sold the raw goods for game money. But it was a long process and eventually, I thought up a better idea: I’d buy cheaper sets of armor in bulk, then sell individual parts for a higher price. I didn’t know it at the time, but that strategy would come in handy a little later in life.
My parents told me that education was the key to success, so I always worked hard in school. They said good grades would be my ticket to university and to a good job later. Every summer, I worked full time at the warehouse with my mom, packing DVDs in boxes for shipping. I made minimum wage and saved all my money.
After graduating from Lester B. Pearson High School in 2013, I got into the co-op management program at U of T Scarborough. I received a U of T Governor’s Award and some other scholarships, which covered $25,000 of my $60,000 tuition over the four years. I landed internships at top companies, like PwC, Deloitte and HydroOne. But no matter what I did, I wasn’t happy. I hungered for prestige and money. Eventually, I switched into finance classes, knowing that it would lead to a lucrative career. I wanted to be free to buy whatever I wanted without having to think twice.
After graduating in 2017, I got my first full-time job as a commercial banker at RBC Canada. I made $70,000 a year, more than I’d ever earned before. Do you think that was enough to make me happy? Of course not. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about how I was feeling. I thought that was just how life works: you get a secure job that makes a lot of money—even if you’re not necessarily happy—then you work for 30 or 40 years and retire.
Everything changed in August 2018, when a friend told me about a book: Rich Dad, Poor Dad. It’s a must-have for entrepreneurs. The author promises that everyone can retire if they create a passive stream of income, money that can be earned without working full time for it. That’s when I realized that money wasn’t the problem—what I wanted was the freedom to spend my time how I liked.
I started by investing in the stock market while still working at RBC. I knew nothing about stocks, so I ended up losing $4,000. I also realized that although stocks would allow me to profit over time, I wanted money now. So, I started researching. I watched YouTube videos about earning a passive income. I landed on one about investing in real estate. I was intrigued, but didn’t have enough money to play in the Toronto market. After paying off my university debts, I had $40,000 left over from my internship, working at the warehouse and other savings. If anything, my childhood of frugality taught me to be a savvy saver. But $40,000 wouldn’t be nearly enough to afford a home in the city. Hell, that wouldn’t buy me half a downtown parking space.
Like many Torontonians, I was discouraged by the high cost of real estate in the city. But most people don’t think about investing elsewhere in the province. It makes more sense to start buying in smaller towns, because in Toronto, there are limitations to how much a person can borrow from the bank—you buy one property and you’re done. And even if you’re using the place as a rental, it’s hard to turn a profit. The goal for passive income is to maximize profits while minimizing expenses. In smaller cities around Toronto, property is cheap and available, and can increase in value with a few renovations.
I never thought about these things until my research pulled up a house in Windsor. I contacted the listing agent and learned that the house had already sold, but she offered to show me some other places. That ended up being a terrible idea. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that agent wasn’t there to help with my investment strategy—her job was just to sell.
In the fall of 2018, I bought my first property for $130,000. It was a three-bed, one-bath single-family home in Windsor. The down payment was $26,000. When I first saw the place, I thought all it needed was a new paint job. That’s about all I could do at the time, since I still lived in Scarborough with my parents and worked full time at RBC. But after I bought the house, I realized I needed to redo the floors, plumbing, electrical, kitchen and bathroom.
I was gutted. I didn’t know anything about owning property. Around that time, I went to my first networking event where I met some real estate investors. I told them about the problems with my new property and they referred me to a contractor. I hired him right away.
Unfortunately, I should have vetted him better. A one-month job took three months. The cost went from $12,500 to $25,000 and I ended up having to borrow $13,000 from my girlfriend and my parents. But it was worth it. When the renovations were finally complete, I sent an appraiser to determine the value of the home. It had jumped by nearly $50,000.
What came next was crucial: instead of selling the house, I refinanced it. I learned the concept from YouTube videos, but when I asked the investors I met, they said it was a good idea. It was like recycling my money over and over again.
With the cash from refinancing, I bought another property. I did the same thing: renovate, refinance, rent and repeat. Sometimes, I’d partner up with someone to buy a place. This way, I managed to buy 18 properties in Windsor and two properties in Toronto in just over two years, all of which range in price from $130,000 to $650,000. I rent them out for between $1,400 to $4,000 per month and use that money to pay off the mortgages, which now total around $5 million. That still leaves me with more than $4,000 per month for savings.
When the pandemic hit, things got dicey. I contacted all my tenants individually and assured them that if they couldn’t afford to pay rent, I would be willing to take out credit. Thankfully, everyone was able to pay. I learned a big lesson, though. By growing my portfolio aggressively, I exposed myself to plenty of risk. Moving forward, I’m doing things a bit slower and more calculated, only making moves I can afford.
I learned some other lessons along the way, too. For example, I should’ve consulted an investor agent before buying my first property, instead of relying on a listing agent for advice. I should’ve researched my contractor before hiring him. But I plan to pass along what I’ve learned to help others. In early 2020, I started a non-profit called RISE Network, a get-together for people looking to invest in real estate. We meet online monthly. All the money I make from these events is donated to charitable organizations. Most recently, I started a podcast that discusses how everyday people can find success investing in real estate.
Because I still live in that same Scarborough house owned by my parents, I have few living expenses. My bank job—which shifted to work-from-home—covers all my expenses, with money left over. That cash, along with whatever I make with investments, goes straight into savings. I hired a property manager to collect rent and deal with tenant complaints. Now, whenever I need someone to do something for me, I vet them thoroughly and ask for references.
A few years ago, my dad, who’s now 64, got a job at the same warehouse as my mom. He works as a labourer there. My mom, now 57, is his supervisor. Things are much better for them compared to when they first arrived in Canada. They’ve paid off their mortgage and put their money toward savings and leisure. My parents started with nothing and sacrificed everything to provide a better life for my sister and me. My goal is to help them retire within the next two years. That way, they can enjoy the life they worked so hard to build.