Tarek El Moussa chased Hollywood to make ‘Flip or Flop’ a TV reality

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From the tender age of five years old, Tarek El Moussa learned that nothing in life would ever be handed to him.

The tough lesson came when El Moussa’s father, Bill Arnould, was asked to coach the all-star team for his son’s soccer team, and when the time came to select the all-star players, little El Moussa wasn’t one of his dad’s picks.

“So that was a very valuable lesson early on,” El Moussa told Inman. “I’ll never forget being a five-year-old kid sitting at the dinner table, crying to my family about how it’s not fair, I didn’t make the team. And my dad told me the truth — he said I wasn’t good enough. But then he said, ‘If you want to be on the team next year, and if you start training now, and you work hard, you will be.’

“So very early on, I learned that no one’s going to hand anything to me. And if I wanted it, I had to set a plan, I had to set a timeline, and I had to work for it.”

The HGTV star who would go on to flip over 100 homes over the course of 10 seasons on the network’s Flip or Flop, and who today has amassed over 1 million Instagram followers and nearly 900,000 Facebook followers — becoming a 2023 Inman Influencer — apparently took his dad’s lesson to heart.

A tough initiation into adulthood

El Moussa, who is a first-generation American with a Lebanese dad, Arnould; and a Belgian mom, Dominique El Moussa; said that growing up in Buena Park, California, with his parents and older sister was like living scenes out of the 2002 romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding because of the clan’s loud, boisterous nature.

But his parents’ strong belief that with hard work and perseverance, anything is possible opened El Moussa’s mind to dreaming big.

As he puts it, El Moussa did well enough in high school to go to college, and that’s where the real-world lessons began. He moved into a one-bedroom apartment with a friend and immersed himself in his newfound freedom — a bit too hard.

“My life was a mess,” El Moussa said. “I was drinking too much, eating too much. I was completely lazy and not motivated. It was a rough time in my life.”

It was during this period that El Moussa really had his first exposure to the real estate industry. The triplex that he and his buddy were living in was sold to a new owner who told El Moussa and his friend that they had to move. But the pair had a signed lease that was still valid and refused to leave the apartment.

When the friends went to campus for class and returned home, they were faced with a construction zone. The new landlord had started demoing their kitchen and continued throughout the apartment while El Moussa and his roommate were still living there.

“We came home to Sheetrock and broken tile all over our clothing, our furniture — it looked like a war zone,” El Moussa said.

Eventually, El Moussa and his friend were forced to move out when they noticed some of their personal belongings started to go missing. Fed up with the situation, El Moussa hired a lawyer to help them, and four years later, he won $26,000 in damages from the landlord.

Tarek El Moussa | Andrea Domjan Photography

From Cutco salesman to real estate agent

That introduction to the industry didn’t leave the best impression; but around the same time, El Moussa started dating a woman whose father had been a real estate mogul in the ’70s. The man lost most of his profits due to a gambling problem — but he had some great stories to tell from his heyday.

And that’s what made El Moussa consider a real estate career when he lost the gig he had as a salesman for Cutco.

“We would literally sit outside every night and he would tell me these horror stories about real estate and how he’d play cards and bet houses on hands, hundreds of houses,” El Moussa said. “He’d always just tell these grand real estate stories and I used to love listening to them.”

So when El Moussa spotted a sign advertising real estate classes, he decided to give it a go. As it is with many new real estate agents, the first few years were no piece of cake.

“I learned early on, you can be young, hungry, motivated, excited, passionate — you can have all these things, but if you don’t know what to do and you don’t have guidance or coaching or direction, it’s very, very hard to find success,” El Moussa told Inman.

Therefore, when a flyer for a real estate coach ended up in El Moussa’s inbox, he took the bite and became a believer, signing up at the age of 20 for one-on-one coaching to the tune of $1,000 per month. At this point, he and the girlfriend he had been living with split, his parents had divorced and his mom had rented out his old bedroom.

“I was actually living out of my mom’s garage during this time, so I had no money,” El Moussa said. “No money, 20 years old, months in real estate, no sales, no deals, nothing, and I just ‘burned the boats,’ as they call it. I put coaching on my credit card and just told myself I’m going to do whatever my coach says.”

As someone who had played organized sports his whole life, the coaching really clicked with El Moussa. One of the things his coach first encouraged him to do was call expired listings. Within his first week of coaching, El Moussa signed on to a couple of deals and 90 days later, earned $120,000 in commissions.

From there, everything seemed to go up. El Moussa moved out of his mom’s garage, bought a nearly $1 million home in Orange County and recruited some friends as roommates.

“My life changed really fast,” he said. “I moved into what, for me, was like a mansion. My parents had never lived in a house like that. It was like a rich person’s house.”

Hitting bottom and learning how to leverage television

He went on to build his own team and life was good — until the Great Recession hit.

“By the end of 2007, I had to sell my house, I had to sell my cars, I had to sell everything I had,” El Moussa said. “I went totally broke. All my listings were sitting, they weren’t selling. When I had to sell my pride and joy million-dollar house, my Cadillac Escalade and my S500 Mercedes, I downsized into a tiny, little apartment.”

El Moussa struggled his way through about three years and during this time met Christina Hall, his future wife and co-host of HGTV’s Flip or Flop. He decided to transition his winning strategy for expired listings to short sales and finally started to see some movement again. He found some success with short sales but quickly learned of a more lucrative option.

After El Moussa witnessed someone he made a short sale to later flip the property at a profit about 18 times what he had made in his commission, “I realized I was on the wrong side of the real estate equation,” he said.

The math was simple, and El Moussa knew that all he had to do was buy low enough and sell high enough to earn a profit after all the expenses involved in the renovation. He called up everyone he knew and told them he was becoming a real estate investor. And the doubtful reactions from some of his friends only fueled him to work harder.

He bought his first condo to flip in 2010 with the help of an entrepreneurial friend; and around the same time, he attended a large real estate event in Las Vegas that forever changed the trajectory of El Moussa’s career.

At the event, El Moussa got to talking with someone who had their own local TV show in Palm Springs.

“He says he has a local TV show, and I’m like, ‘Well, what does that do?’” El Moussa told Inman. “He’s like, ‘Well, I go to the grocery store and people recognize me.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, what does that do?’ and he goes, ‘Well then they work with me and I get business.’”

That’s when the alarm bells went off in El Moussa’s head, and as he and Hall returned home from the conference, his gears were spinning.

That night, he cold-emailed Hollywood production companies pitching a house-flipping show. By a stroke of luck, one actually responded to his pitch the next day and said they wanted to see him and Hall in action. El Moussa sent them a home video of them flipping their first property, and the production company loved its unvarnished style that included El Moussa making all kinds of mistakes, like burning his feet with acid and painting the baseboards to the flooring.

The production company then sent a crew out to El Moussa and Hall to film a five-minute sizzle reel to shop around to different networks. For nearly a year, all El Moussa heard back about the sizzle reel was crickets. Then, one day while on a golf course in Yorba Linda, El Moussa got the call that HGTV wanted to do a pilot of a house-flipping show with El Moussa and Hall.

The pilot episode of Flip or Flop, which was shot in 2011, was only the third flip that the pair had ever done. Nonetheless, about two weeks later, El Moussa and Hall found themselves signing a contract to flip 13 houses over 10 months on TV. And if they didn’t fulfill their end of the bargain, they could get sued.

El Moussa told himself he would do whatever it took to fulfill the contract terms and went on to work about 18-hour days until he figured out how to make it all happen.

“I would work from 8:30 in the morning at the office to like 8:30 at night,” El Moussa said. “Then I’d come home at 9 and between 9 and 9:30 eat dinner, and then between 9:30 and 10, I used to map out all the auction properties in Southern California that were being sold the next day. The reason I would do that is because I would have to drive by the properties overnight to see if anybody lived there, because for the show, I couldn’t buy occupied properties.”

“So multiple nights per week from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.,  I was driving around all of Southern California trying to see if anyone lived in these houses,” El Moussa said, adding that some struggling homeowners whose property he visited were less than thrilled to see him. “Oh man, I was exhausted. I mean, I was in car chases at like 2, 3, 4 in the morning — people chasing me in their cars, yelling at me, guns, you name it. I had a guy following me around with a machete one time. But yeah, I did what I had to do to get it done.”

Flip or Flop quickly became one of the biggest house-flipping show on television, gaining more than 90 million viewers over the course of its 10-year run and occasionally besting competitors like Property Brothers and Flipping 101 in the ratings.

In 2015, El Moussa also started buying and holding real estate to create a passive income. His name recognition through HGTV has also helped him forge partnerships and build new companies, including his multifamily and self-storage investment company TEM Capital, solar company Soar Energy, wholesale flipping business Tarek Buys Houses, real estate team at The Agentcy at eXp Realty and real estate investing mentorship program HomeSchooled by Tarek. El Moussa also launched his own solo HGTV show, Flipping 101 with Tarek El Moussa, in 2021.

In conjunction with his wife of nearly two years Heather Rae El Moussa, of The Oppenheim Group, El Moussa has also launched a line of home goods, Home by Tarek and Heather, which currently includes handcrafted candles and soap. The couple also premiered The Flipping El Moussas in April 2023 on HGTV. The network has not yet announced whether or not the show will be renewed for another season.

Tarek El Moussa | Andrea Domjan Photography

Finding a path through health struggles

Amid his professional journey, El Moussa also had to navigate some serious health struggles. In 2013, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer — something that was found after a nurse viewer of Flip or Flop noticed a lump on his neck while watching the show and wrote in to warn him about it — and testicular cancer. After getting through those scares, he also suffered a severe back injury that debilitated him for a year.

“I was really unhealthy for many years,” he told Inman. “I was overweight, I was underweight, and I was just not healthy.”

And it’s taken El Moussa years to get back on track.

“Over the last six years, I’ve completely rebuilt my body through vitamins, through supplements, through food and through exercise,” he said. “I used to be someone who would eat cheeseburgers and fries and drink beer and do all this crap. Today, food is fuel. I’ve completely rebuilt who I am, inside and out, physically, mentally, emotionally.”

Going through his very public divorce with Hall, whom he separated from in 2016, was also a big challenge. The pair share two kids: Taylor, age 12; and Brayden, 7. Tarek and Heather Rae also welcomed their first child, Tristan, in January.

“Going through my very public divorce kind of brought me back to rock bottom,” El Moussa told Inman. “[I was] there for quite some time, and I built my way out of it. And in 2017, I decided it was time for me to build a new life and it was the life that I truly wanted, which was healthy, happy, positive. And that’s what I’ve done.”

Today, El Moussa is motivated to succeed in providing a better life for his family. And he hopes that his kids will take away some valuable lessons from his experiences.

“The reason I do what I do is for my family, and the reason I buy these investments is for my family,” El Moussa said. “The reason I want to create passive income and cash flow is for my family, so I can send them to good schools and take them on good vacations and help them buy houses when they’re older … The reason I got started in real estate is to improve not just my life, but [the lives of] everyone around me.”

El Moussa added that he hopes his kids (who he expects to become real estate investors when they grow up) understand their potential is limitless — but they have to be willing to put in the work.

“In life, anything is possible,” El Moussa told Inman. “Anything we want to do is possible. But the only way to actually make it happen is through taking massive action. So it’s important to believe things are possible, but at the same time understand to get there, you have to outwork everybody in the room.”

Email Lillian Dickerson

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