A Solid Foundation

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Tarek El Moussa_credit Andrea Domjan Photography
Tarek El Moussa, HGTV star known for the shows “Flip or Flop” and “Flipping 101 with Tarek El Moussa” | Photo by Andrea Domjan Photography

HGTV star Tarek El Moussa talks about flipping houses, cancer and his happiest new commitments.

By Ashley Breeding

 

When “Flip or Flop” premiered on HGTV in 2013, co-hosts and then-real-life couple Tarek El Moussa and Christina Haack held viewers in suspense as they rehabbed a ramshackle house in La Mirada that they’d purchased at auction for $210,000—their entire life savings. As construction costs tripled alongside unforeseen repairs, there were moments when viewers wondered if the pair could really make a profit before the market shifted.

“That was the first house I ever flipped. I had just bought [the place] and met a guy who was on TV. That gave me the initial idea to flip houses on television,” says El Moussa, a Newport Beach resident who says he was initially inspired during the housing crisis, when he saw houses being sold for dirt-cheap and then turned for a profit in 2009.
 
El Moussa pitched the concept to producers at HGTV, who soon had him and Haack sign a contract with the promise to flip 13 houses in a mere 10 months.
 
“We had no idea how we were going to do it,” El Moussa says, noting that they didn’t have any experience in flipping houses and used their life savings for that first flip. “… It’s really a miracle we pulled it off.”  
 
As real estate agents, neither El Moussa nor Haack was a neophyte exactly, but this was new territory. It would be a year of “16- to 20-hour days” on the job, he says, before they’d really develop the talent for bidding on the best properties, understanding the cost of renovations, and employing all the right materials.

Occasionally, there’s an error in judgement, like a $2,000 setback because they’ve misjudged an exterior paint color. They also discovered the benefit of enlisting designers to stage a newly renovated house when it came time to list it.

Tarek Movember Charity Event_no credit needed
Tarek El Moussa (sixth from left) at a Movember charity event; as a cancer survivor, he also supports the American Cancer Society as well as housing-related charities like Habitat for Humanity.
After the pilot, “Flip or Flop” took off, eventually climbing to the No. 1 cable show for the 25 to 54 age range, with more than 22 million viewers tuning in to see what the next project would bring. Over nine seasons, the duo—now divorced, they remain co-hosts and co-parents of their two children, Taylor and Brayden—has come out ahead, mostly, as they’ve renovated everything from a midcentury modern ranch house designed by architect Cliff May in Long Beach (“This was my favorite,” El Moussa notes) to a Spanish Colonial in Hollywood, and more than 130 others in between. Part of the show’s allure, perhaps, is that no project is without its horrors—swimming pools taken over by tadpoles, leaping cockroaches, an enormous termite colony—you name it.

“We have broken even … and we’ve even flopped,” El Moussa concedes, “but there was never a house where I thought it was going to be a home run and I ended up losing money.”

The show’s popularity has served as a springboard for his prosperous career, including a new solo series, “Flipping 101 with Tarek El Moussa,” which premiered in March 2020 and follows El Moussa as he pulls from his experience flipping homes—he has bought and sold more than 500—to mentor others who hope to do the same. He also leads an educational real estate investing seminar titled “Homemade Investor by Tarek El Moussa,” through which he shares his industry expertise; and TEM Investments, which offers partnership opportunities to accredited parties buying apartment buildings. 
 
El Moussa may be on the crest of the wave—he also recently moved into a new home on the Balboa Peninsula with fiancee and “Selling Sunset” star Heather Rae Young—but not without first hitting rock bottom.

Soul Survivor

Born in Long Beach in the early 1980s to immigrant parents (his mother is from Belgium, his father from Egypt), El Moussa says he learned the value of hard work and a “competitive spirit” early on. In his second year of college—he attended both California State University, Fullerton and Fullerton College, where he debated between majors in business or communication—he found himself more profoundly motivated by something outside of school: the real world.
 
“I was dating this girl at the time whose family was [very successful] in real estate. … They had rental properties and they had money,” says El Moussa, who also wanted those things. “One day it just hit me.”

At 20, he dropped out of college to pursue his real estate license and, at 21, became a top agent at the company he worked for in Orange County. A year later, El Moussa settled on his first million-dollar home. But this was during the housing boom, when mansions and beach bungalows in the seven digits were selling effortlessly—like “hotcakes” he recalls. Then came the crash.
HGTV Flipping 101 w Tarek El Moussa_credit HGTV
Tarek El Moussa on set for his latest HGTV show, “Flipping 101 with Tarek El Moussa,” where he mentors those who are new to the flipping business. | Photo by HGTV

“Suddenly I was broke and living in my parents’ garage,” El Moussa says.

And while he might’ve been able to wrestle his way back into success and wealth, eventually, it wasn’t without struggle.

“At the beginning of season two of ‘Flip or Flop,’ I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer,” El Moussa says. “A fan, [a registered nurse named Ryan Read,] who was watching an episode from season one noticed a lump on my neck and
messaged production.”

Two months later, he learned he also had testicular cancer and had to go through treatment. “It was awful,” El Moussa shares. “I had terrible migraines every day. I was dizzy. I was sick on set. I was gaining weight. But I filmed through it because I didn’t want to give up on my dreams.”

Today he’s in remission, he says, but “the hardest part from my cancer, you know, was the aftermath.” El Moussa describes his separation from Haack—a culmination of his illness, work pressures and a breakdown in communication—as “Ten times worse than cancer. … You can’t even compare it, having to show up to [film] like that every day,” he says. “It was the worst time of my life.”

The two-time cancer survivor is using his platform to spread awareness. “You don’t think at 31 that someone is even a candidate for cancer … until you get it,” he says. This compels him to lend his voice to a variety of cancer charities, among them the American Cancer Society and Movember. He also donates time to other types of charities including Habitat for Humanity, helping to build affordable housing for families in need.

Building the Future

While El Moussa hunts for his next best flip—“At any given time, I’ve got 20 to 40 properties on the books,” he notes—he and Young are also on the lookout for their dream home. “We’d like a more modern style on the ocean in Corona del Mar,” he says.

The couple’s place on the peninsula—a sufficient spot a block from the sand, with a rooftop deck overlooking the Pacific—was always meant to be an “in-between house,” purchased as an investment until they found one better suited for their family.

Cliff May house from Flip or Flop_credit HGTV
An after shot of El Moussa’s favorite flip, a midcentury modern ranch house in Long Beach originally designed by architect Cliff May, as featured on the HGTV show “Flip or Flop” | Photo by HGTV

Like most of El Moussa’s projects, this one posed some challenges. “We ripped out the rooftop deck and put the plywood back down, then had this crazy storm that blew away the plastic tarps covering the wood,” he explains. “Water leaked through the wood and flooded the house all the way to the bottom. Luckily, I caught it the same day … so no real structural damage [resulted].”

The rest was mostly cosmetic—custom paint and wallpaper, black and gold accents, and fire pits and a spa for the rooftop of what El Moussa describes as “a modern farmhouse with Hollywood-style glamour.”

Now they’re renovating a top floor space into a media room—or moving, whichever comes first.

The second half of 2021 looks bright for El Moussa. “Heather and I are getting married this year,” he points out for the second time. “And I’m loving shooting ‘Flipping 101.’ … I get to mentor rookie flippers through their first projects and teach them as much as I can. You would think they would listen to everything I say, but they don’t, which makes for great TV.”

But even as his ambitions and commitments grow, El Moussa’s highest priority, he says, is being a dad. One might wonder how a man with such a multifaceted career can balance it all with parenthood. “I live by my calendar,” he says. “If I’m not supposed to be working, I’m not working.”

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