ACCUSTOMED TO “DEFINING MOMENTS” SHAPING HIS CAREER, ONE OF HGTV’S TOP STARS IS NOW EXPANDING HIS MEDIA IDENTITY
BY LAURA D.C. KOLNOSKI
Tarek El Moussa always knew one thing for certain; he didn’t want to work for someone else. Early on, working odd jobs (including at five colleges) was a way to earn money while taking business courses at Fullerton Junior College in his native California. Very early on, selling kitchen knives seemed entrepreneurial, until he lost his sales tools…literally. Exasperated, he noticed a sign for The Wise Old Owl Real Estate School (he’d once dated a woman who worked in real estate and also spent time with her realtor father).
“At that moment it just clicked,” he said. So began a journey that propelled him to fame as one of the most recognizable personalities on Home & Garden Television (HGTV). But before the fledgling realtor truly “arrived” with his hit series Flip or Flop, there were dues to pay.
We caught up with El Moussa at the new Public Hotel in Manhattan between TV interviews and meetings with prospective publishers vying to land his first book, a memoir tentatively titled Defining Moments. He provided exclusive revelations in advance of the tome.
Emphasizing Flip or Flop’s reach, our interview was preempted by a Jordanian woman declaring her ardent fandom. She was rewarded with a selfie. El Moussa then recalled that early in his real estate career (circa 2002), agency owners took advantage of his green eagerness.
“I was driving all over, selling $60,000 condominiums; there’s no money in that and I went broke,” he said. “I was waiting on telephone leads, still in school at night. One day I quit and walked out. I then got a call from the office that someone wanted to view a house. Because I like to make a mark, I personally visited the seller, who owned another real estate company. He said he’d take my buyer’s offer if I went to work for his company. I made $33,000 on that deal. If I didn’t go there in person, it never would have happened.”
Another defining moment occurred while El Moussa languished in night class. He abruptly decided to leave his books and backpack to the girl next to him, and left.
“I was living in my parent’s garage, literally sleeping on a cot between two cars,” he said. “I told myself that in the next 20 days, I would work 12 to 16 hours per day. I made $100,000 in that time and bought a $1,000,000 home for myself. I was 21. My entire life changed within months.”
Shortly thereafter, El Moussa met his now ex wife Christina, with whom he eventually created flip or Flop. (Although the couple divorced last year, they continue working together on the show and are the parents of two young children.)
El Moussa’s early real estate successes meant he was soon leading his own sale team. At the height of the housing boom, he was selling multimillion dollar mansions “like hotcakes.” Fresh from college, Christina Haack joined the firm.
“I thought she was beautiful, so I had her join my team,” El Moussa said with a nostalgic laugh. “We officially got together a year later. That’s when the market turned. I had to sell my house, my cars, and my watches. I started beating myself up with self doubt, thinking maybe I’m not that good. It was two rough years.
“Christina and I began anew with short sales a new thing after the marked tanked. I started becoming successful selling to investors. I saw an opportunity in flipping homes, but for my first flip, I couldn’t convince investors; no one had faith in me.”
So, El Moussa began attending home auctions, creating an exercise to test his mettle. He would pick homes and predict the sale prices after renovations.
“All my estimates were within one to two percent of what the homes sold for,” he said. His more experienced friend, Pete de Best (whom viewers will recognize from the show), agreed to review the homes, put up money, and help sell, and is now El Moussa’s “full on business partner.” Together, they own 45 rental homes.
Fate and timing continued pairing well for the entrepreneur and his telegenic wife. At a time when HGTV producers were seeking new shows and talent, the couple was sitting in the back of a room at a real estate convention attended by 5,000.
“Two people in the front row left and a friend invited us to take their seats,” El Moussa said. “People started coming up to us. We were outsiders but were able to penetrate. One guy had a local television show, and after talking to him, I had the idea to do our own show.”
As the couple flipped their first property (a Santa Ana condo), El Moussa filmed the process, created a bio, and posted it online. A production company saw it and asked them to do a home video, which was pitched to television networks. A year later, HGTV called.
“We had finished flipping three or four homes, and HGTV wanted us to do 13 more in ten months!” El Moussa exclaimed. “I signed the contract, despite doubts about whether we could do it, and learned ways to flip the houses so success would repeat itself.” Asked to title the show, El Moussa came up with Flip or Flop, which in time extended to HGTV spin offs like Flip or Flop Atlanta, Flip or Flop Las Vegas, and the latest, featuring married military veterans, Flip or Flop Fort Worth. The original series will air its seventh season in spring or summer, the star said.
Another successful offshoot for El Moussa is T & C Construction and Design in Anaheim, California, which now has ten employees. The firm’s vice president is a young man who appeared on Flip or Flop seeking guidance as a new flipper. Impressed, the couple offered him a job finding potential properties, and he now makes a six figure salary.
“It’s rewarding to watch someone else’s life change just like mine did,” El Moussa observed of his protégé. Similar success was experienced by carpenter Israel “Izzy” Battres, a fan favorite who appears as project manager on most episodes. The 2008 real estate crash similarly left Battres and his two brothers looking for work, and El Moussa revealed the genesis of their relationship:
“Early on, I hired a contractor because he was cheap, who did an awful job. A flip around the corner finished faster, so I called and Israel answered the phone. I got a bid from him for the HGTV pilot episode [as well as] one from another guy. Israel’s was $5,000 higher, so I went with the other guy. A year later, I called Israel for another estimate. He wanted $100 just to meet! He still has that check. He’s been on this journey with us and now has his own construction company.” Today, Battres Construction employs 30 people.
The El Moussas have flipped some 300 homes, leading to the creation of their Success Path Education seminars in The U.S. and Canada. While they do not attend all sessions, they engage a team of real estate professionals that teaches on their behalf.
“Many successful students follow our model,” said El Moussa. “I share my knowledge and trained all the coaches. I created a house flipping bible…all scripts, and details, and approached one student who flipped 60 homes in a year to do a pilot for HGTV.” That student, Mark Perez, along with his wife Liz, now star in HGTV’s Chicago Flippers. El Moussa, who has over 242,000 Instagram followers, is now producing and developing new shows, and has created his own production company.
A two time cancer survivor (a nurse viewer famously noticed a lump on his throat while watching the show, which turned out to be thyroid cancer), the real estate celebrity said that he is thrilled about his solo career.
“This is the beginning, I’m just getting started,” he said. “I had an ego when I was younger, but I got my ass handed to me, so I learned I’m no better than anyone else. We’ve been a big part of HGTV’s growth. I hope to continue with them, and find other entertainment opportunities with my brand.”