- Dion McNeeley didn’t have any money to his name and lived paycheck-to-paycheck for years.
- He worked overtime and managed to save up $20,000 to buy an investment property in 2013.
- Today, he owns 16 units in Washington and profits six-figures in rental income a year.
Dion McNeeley has lived paycheck-to-paycheck for most of his adult life.
“I made it to 40 without ever having $1,000 in the bank,” the 51-year-old told Insider. “My plan was to retire on two pensions, and neither one of them worked out.”
McNeeley started his career in the Marine Corps when he was 18. “My family is in the tree services industry. I joined the Marines because that was easier than doing tree work,” he said. He planned to serve for 20 years. After 20 years of active-duty service, service members receive a retirement pension of up to 50% of their base pay.
He ended up doing just one enlistment, from 1988 to 1994, and received an honorable discharge. “After Desert Storm, the Marine Corps downsized. There were stricter requirements to re-enlist,” he explained. “I would have had to change fields in the Marines and could have been turned down even if I did that. So I got out.”
After leaving the Marines, McNeeley was homeless for a few years and lived in a bus he rented in California. He got back on his feet, moved to Washington, and started driving commercial trucks, doing local deliveries. The consistent income allowed him to rent a place and eventually buy a $98,000 single-family home. He and his wife at the time moved into the house in 2000.
In 2001, he decided to enter the police academy and ultimately joined the police force in a city outside of Olympia, Washington. That lasted until 2008, when he got laid off during the Great
His next career change was driving trucks for Oak Harbor Freight Lines, which paid well, at roughly $115,000 a year plus benefits, he said. The gig change would be short-lived, however. Hundreds of truckers went on strike in 2009 and, sensing instability within the company, he started working at the CDS (Commercial Diver School), where he trained truck drivers. He figured he’d work there temporarily, until the strike ended, but ended up staying on and still works there today.
“I kept having my sources of income taken away due to things outside of my control,” recalled McNeeley of his early jobs. “That’s why I got into real estate.”
Inspired by his brother who was able to retire in his 50s thanks to smart real estate investing, McNeeley decided to start saving up for an investment property. That was in 2011. At the time, he was making $17 an hour working at the CDS and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Plus, he had about $89,000 worth of debt from after his divorce in 2006.
His financial situation made it challenging, if not nearly impossible, to purchase an investment property. To improve his odds of being approved for a loan, he decided to move into an apartment and rent out his house.
Doing this did not help McNeeley save on his housing costs; he was paying $1,500 to rent an apartment and was only breaking even on his house, as the rent he was getting only covered his mortgage, and nothing more. However, he was now able to point to rental income, which increased his total annual earnings, and improved his debt-to-income ratio.
“That’s what mattered to the lenders I talked to,” he explained. “So I was able to buy, even though I wasn’t making a lot of money.”
For the following two years, McNeeley focused on saving up for a down payment towards a property. He put in overtime hours at the truck driving school and earned an additional $350 each month playing multiplayer online games like Ultima Online and World of Warcraft.
“In games like these, some items are hard to get or take a lot of time to acquire. I would gather the resources to get the items,” he explained. “In Ultima Online, it was virtual real estate — players could own houses — so I would take the time to create the house, any size from a small cottage up to a castle, and sell them. Each game has its own economy and learning that economy made it possible to consistently make several hundred in profit a month.”
By 2013, he had managed to set aside $20,000 in savings, which ended up being enough money to put down for the purchase of his first investment property: a $300,000 duplex.
He financed it with a conventional loan and put 5% down, or about $15,000. He took on PMI (private mortgage insurance) since he didn’t put 20% down.
McNeeley moved into one unit of the duplex and rented out the other, meaning he was now collecting rental income from two properties: his single-family home and half of the duplex. This is where he really improved his situation and was able to save significantly on housing costs. He went from paying $1,500 per month in rent to paying just $300 to live in his own home, since rental income from the other half of the duplex nearly covered his entire mortgage.
“I was instantly able to add $1,200 a month to my savings rate,” said McNeeley. He was already thinking about his next property.
Expanding to 16 units, profiting six-figures in rental income, and becoming financially free
It took McNeeley another two years to save up for his next investment property, which ended up being another duplex in the Tacoma area. He paid $298,000 for it in 2015.
He assumed it would take about two years to save up for the next one and that he’d continue buying investment properties every other year. “I thought, if I can buy a property every two years, in 10 years, I’ll have five,” he said. He was able to speed that timeline up, thanks to a promotion at work and his growing rental income.
He purchased his third duplex in 2017, which brought his total unit count to seven.
By the time he built his portfolio up to four rental properties in 2020, his rental income started to exceed what he earned from his day job. At that point, “work became optional,” he said. This was also around the same time when McNeeley became debt-free, as he’d been simultaneously paying down his debt while saving up for properties.
Today, he owns 16 units across seven properties: a single-family home, four duplexes, a triplex, and a fourplex. He financed them all with conventional loans. One is completely paid off. As for the others, he’s in no rush to pay them off, he said: “The tenants will do that over a long enough period of time. My goal was to put money in properties, never touch it, and let the cash flow build up.”
After deducting all expenses from his total rents, he now earns six-figures in profit each year.
“My cash flow from last year was $128,000,” said McNeeley, who still works full-time at the truck driving company, where he’s now the company president. “I’m financially independent with real estate, but I don’t know that I’ll ever retire early. I’m not even sure I will retire late. I actually love my job.”
He only spends about two hours each month managing his properties, but the work hasn’t always been so hands-off.
“The first two years, it felt like a job. It felt like I was spending 20 hours a week managing two tenants,” he said. “I was doing everything wrong. I didn’t have any systems in place.”
Now, after nine years in real estate, he’s figured out how to maximize efficiency. All it takes is a couple of systems, he said. You need at least two handymen (or women) who you can call at any given moment. Finding someone you can trust takes time and a bit of trial and error. As for finding contractors to work with, he prefers using Thumbtack, an app that helps you find professionals, get quotes, and read reviews online.
It’s also important to establish a system for collecting rent that makes it easy on you and the tenant and leaves a paper trail. He prefers using Zelle, Venmo, Paypal, Apple cash, or
Saving 100% of his day job salary and living off of $35,000 a year
Despite his success, McNeeley maintains a modest lifestyle and budgets just $35,000 each year on personal expenses, he estimated.
Maintaining a tight and disciplined budget even as his income grew is the main reason he’s worth close to $2 million today, he said. For years, “I didn’t add to my lifestyle. I didn’t get a bigger car. I didn’t take vacations. I didn’t eat out at fancy restaurants. I didn’t do all the things that people think money is for.”
Today, he splurges a bit more on travel. And he has a soft spot for cars. He dubbed one of his rental properties the “car property” and all of the cash flow from it goes into an account earmarked for his next car.
“Every month, $1,500 goes into an account for me to buy the next car,” said McNeeley, whose past purchases have included a Corvette and a Ford F-250 pickup truck.
He still lives for free in one of his properties. He lives in one unit of his fourplex and rents out the other three for $1,800, which covers his entire mortgage and then some.
“I’m making $2,500 a month in profit while I’m living here,” said McNeeley, who also rents out a room in his unit for $1,000. “It’s really hard to give that up.”
He saves 100% of his W-2 salary and about 75% of his rental income, he said. All of his savings go into a highly accessible savings account earmarked for future investment properties. Currently, there’s about $302,000 sitting in his account for the next property, he said. It’ll likely be another multi-family. He recently made an offer on a $1.1 million fourplex.
“That is a number bigger than I ever thought I would associate with myself as little as 10 years ago,” he said of the seven-figure fourplex. “And now, I wish that property cost more because the more a property costs, as long as the yield scales with it, the more money you make.”
He plans to expand his portfolio to about 10 properties with a combined total of 20 to 30 units. At that point, he’ll probably stop investing in real estate and experiment with other investments.
“Warren Buffett’s business partner, Charlie Munger, says you get wealthy by focusing on one asset, and once you are wealthy, you diversify to protect your wealth,” said McNeeley, who’s still focused on real estate. Once his net worth is closer to $5 million, he’ll start diversifying, he added: “At that point, I’ll probably put 5% of my portfolio in crypto, 5% in stocks, and I might start investing in businesses.”
McNeeley believes that anyone can accomplish what he’s done.
“I didn’t inherit money. I had a lot of bad debt. I wasn’t making a lot of money and was a single parent with three kids. I can’t imagine many more barriers,” he explained.
That said, investing in real estate requires patience and a long-term view. “It’s not a ‘get rich quick’ strategy. It’s a ‘get wealthy for sure’ strategy if you set a time horizon of 10 years.”
I didn’t inherit money. I had a lot of bad debt. I wasn’t making a lot of money and was a single parent with three kids. I can’t imagine many more barriers.Property investor Dion McNeeley
It also requires passion, he added. “What matters is that we invest in something that excites us. We are more likely to stick to a plan we are emotionally invested in. So if real estate doesn’t excite somebody, it’s not going to work.”
If you’re interested in using real estate as a tool to build wealth and achieve financial independence, start by educating yourself, he advised. Read books, listen to podcasts, and reach out to successful investors.
Then, be prepared for the first five years “to feel like forever,” he said. But you might just be rewarded with generational wealth like he was. “If I didn’t find real estate, my kids would probably end up having to take care of me in my 70s and 80s. Instead, they’re going to inherit millions.”
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