A Minimum Pay Check and 95-Hour Weeks: How This 27-Year-Old Was Able To Afford His First Home

by Garcia Chris
14 minutes read
A Minimum Pay Check and 95-Hour Weeks: How This 27-Year-Old Was Able To Afford His First Home

Can an American who earns close to minimum wage ever hope to buy a house? Maybe, if he works a 95-hour week at minimum wage for two years.

That’s exactly what 27-year-old Elijah Ray did to get a foot onto the property ladder.

Three years ago, this high school graduate was determined to purchase a home in Portland, OR. To pull it off in this pricey market, he worked not just one, but two hourly jobs. In Portland, the minimum wage at the time was $15.45 per hour.

By day, he earned $21.50 per hour driving an Amazon delivery truck around 30 hours a week. By night, he clocked an additional 50 or so hours at $17 an hour working fire security at a mill.

“I worked 75 to 95 hours a week for two years straight, which I know is a lot, but that’s what it takes if you’re an hourly worker making near minimum wage,” says Ray. “If you want to buy your own house, this is not for the weak—you’ve got to really want this.”

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After two years of working around the clock, barely sleeping, and saving every penny, Ray finally succeeded in buying a three-bedroom house for $333,000 in 2023. But getting to this point is a long story filled with hurdles and heartache that illustrate just how hard a road hourly wage workers face if they ever hope to buy property today.

“People think I’m some crazy, magical creature or something that I bought my house at 26,” says Ray. “They always say, ‘I could never do it,’ and I’m like ‘Why can’t you do it?’ It’s not like I was born into a rich family. I literally worked my a–– off to buy this.”

Is an hourly wage enough to buy a house?

In the U.S., more than half of all working Americans over age 16 get paid by the hour. One survey found that in 47 of America’s 50 largest cities, workers earning the average hourly wage for their area needed to log in 40-plus hours a week to afford a two-bedroom rental.

And it it can even tougher for those earning minimum wage (which ranges from $7.25 at the federally mandated lowest end to $16 in California). In California, for instance, affording a one-bedroom apartment would require working 161 hours a week.

Hourly workers who hope to transition from renter to homeowner face a whole new slew of challenges. One common problem is debt.

Ray, for instance, was saddled with $22,000 in car loans and medical bills. He knew, from listening to various personal finance podcasts while doing his Amazon deliveries, that he’d have to pay down his debt first before he even started saving up for a house.

“I had no money in my bank account because I’d pour all my money into paying off the debt,” he says. “Every week, I watched that debt number drop and drop and drop.”

He also moved from an $1,800-per-month apartment in downtown Portland to a place that cost $1,000 per month. When you’re working 80-plus hours a week, you don’t need a nice apartment, he figured.

In addition to being debt-free, he also needed a good credit score, so he made sure to pay his bills on time and checked his credit score regularly on a variety of apps. Ray says he achieved a score of 785—well above the 650 minimum typically required to buy a home.

In a year, Ray had whittled his $22,000 debt to zero. Then he spent another year funneling his earnings toward a down payment. After two years, he was finally ready to apply for a loan—and that’s when a whole new series of setbacks appeared.

‘Mortgage rates were climbing’

Ray had done the math and figured that to purchase a home in the $350,000 range, he’d need to save enough to put about 3% down, or $10,500. While this was a fair estimate in 2022 when mortgage interest rates were in the mid-5% range, once mortgage interest rates approached 7% in summer 2023, he realized his money wouldn’t go as far as he’d thought.

Fortunately, some lenders realized that the inflated interest rates of the post-COVID-19 years were prohibiting some homebuyers from entering the market, and were willing to give them a leg up.

While listening to podcasts, Ray heard that Rocket Mortgage was offering a “1% down” loan.

“Rocket Mortgage was one of the very few that was doing 1% down,” says Ray. “So I was like, ‘I’m going to go with them.’”

Eileen Tu, vice president of product development at Rocket Mortgage, confirmed Ray’s loan with them.

“To help increase access to homeownership, Rocket Mortgage offers a program that only requires qualified homebuyers to put 1% down and Rocket Mortgage will cover the remaining 2% needed to meet the 3% minimum for a down payment,” Tu added. “This program is focused on those who earn less than 80% of the area median income so we can impact homebuyers who need some extra help achieving their dreams of homeownership. Our goal with every client is to help them responsibly achieve homeownership, including hourly workers.”

Rocket Mortgage helped Ray achieve homeownership amid high interest rates in the mid-7% range. But there was one wrinkle: Ray, who worked 80-plus hours a week, couldn’t factor in his overtime on his loan application because the income was inconsistent. He was also told he couldn’t be approved for the loan until he’d had two years of steady employment. Luckily, by this time, he was a month away from meeting that threshold.

In June 2023, Ray was handed a pre-approval letter, which meant it was time for the fun part: home shopping.

‘I keep getting heartbroken’

Ray reached out to Portland real estate broker Lydia Hallay about buying a house.

“I’ve had clients who were hourly wage workers, but for anyone working near minimum wage, he might have been the first,” says Hallay. “The budget Elijah had was a challenge for sure. We had a lot of tough conversations. But he was determined, and willing to overlook a lot of things that might scare people off.”

While Ray was excited to be home shopping, he was still working two full-time jobs, which meant the handful of free hours when he typically slept was now eaten up by home showings.

“I’d literally be 22 hours awake and trying to look at a place,” says Ray.

He and Hallay looked at houses in neighborhoods that Hallay admits “were pretty rough around the edges.”

They toured homes with mold and fixer-uppers with mummified rats poking out of the ceiling.

Sometimes, “I feel really bummed out by this being the reality of our current housing market,” says Hallay. “My background is in labor organizing, and I know how hard it is out there for folks to pull it together.”

They looked at 12 houses in June and July and put in 10 offers, all of them outbid. Ray tried to focus on less desirable properties like fixer-uppers, but the lender rejected these properties since they would cost too much to renovate.

“There was one point where there were four houses I really, really loved and they all got snatched up, and none of them were in great shape,” Ray says. “I finally told Lydia, ‘I don’t even want to look because I keep getting heartbroken.’ I finally decided ‘the second I see a place I can remotely afford, I don’t even care what it looks like, I will take it.’”

The little house that fulfilled big dreams

After scouring the market for most of June and July, Ray and Hallay finally found The One.

“The weird thing is this house was on the market for two to three months,” Ray recalls. “I was scratching my head why no one wanted it.”

Elijah Ray knew this house listed at $335,000 was The One.

(Elijah Ray)

This house, listed for $335,000, was right by the biking trails he frequented, a food cart area, and all of his favorite shops. Although it was small at 906 square feet and listed as a two-bedroom, one-bath, the previous owner had built a big back room that could easily be turned into a third bedroom, or even an accessory dwelling unit.

“It was just like a big extra room that had a washer/dryer back there, and that room had another little room off it with a door to go outside. So it already had the separate entrance, it already had the hookups, and there was a half-bath,” says Ray.

He knew, based on the many podcasts he listened to, that establishing rental income was the key to financial stability.

“People kept suggesting you buy a house and then also set up a rental unit, so that was in the back of my mind,” Ray says.

This extra room is now a money-making accessory dwelling unit.

(Elijah Ray)

The unfinished attic became a colorful sleep loft adding 200 square feet of living space.

(Elijah Ray)

The house also had an unfinished attic that could work as additional living space that wasn’t counted in the original square footage.

Ray was happy to make this room his own, saying, “I like the treehouse vibes of it.”

There was also a big backyard, ample parking, and the built-in character that comes with a 75-year-old home. He knew this was exactly what he was looking for.

Hallay wanted to go low with their offer, but he said, “No, I don’t want to go under more than like $2,000. This is the house.”

They put in an offer for $333,000, which was accepted. On Aug. 22, Ray closed the deal, bringing $13,500 to cover his down payment and closing costs on a loan at a 7.5% interest rate. The house he’d been dreaming of for two years was finally his.

Moving into the future as a homeowner

In the seven months that Ray has owned his first home, he’s already made huge changes.

He immediately put up a wall to separate the back room and added a kitchenette and a shower. It cost him $7,000, but within weeks, he had a tenant.

“This guy was one of my YouTube subscribers, which is pretty funny, but he’s been great and super flexible. He even helped paint his own room,” says Ray. Although they live in the same house, since each has his own separate entrance, they feel more like neighbors than roommates.

“It really works out,” says Ray. “And he’s paying $1,200, and my mortgage is $2,550. He pays half my mortgage now.”

Collecting rental income has also allowed Ray to quit his Amazon job and focus on just working fire security at the mill around 70 hours per week.

Even so, Ray is not content to rest. This summer, he has big plans for his backyard.

In fact, he just put a tiny house out there and intends to eventually move in and rent out the main house for a few years, hoping these two rental units will pay for his mortgage plus leave a little extra for him.

At that point, he says, “You’re chillin’. You’re rich.”

Ray on “key day,” when he officially could move into his new home.

(Lydia Hallay)

Though Ray is clearly not afraid of hard work, he also knew at a young age that he didn’t want to have to grind so hard indefinitely.

“At 19, I looked up ‘How to retire early’ and ‘How do I do it without college?’ The answers that kept coming up always mentioned property ownership,” he explains. “My goal is to buy a new house every two years. I’d love to get, like, 20 different homes and just be making money off them.”

Ray also hopes to help his family—including his mother and six siblings—get out of the rat race of working paycheck to paycheck.

“They’re all very proud of me,” he says. “My older sister is planning on moving here soon and wants to follow in my footsteps buying houses. Eventually, we want to buy apartment complexes together.”

Ray also hopes to help others in difficult financial circumstances realize that anyone can buy a house, if they set their mind to it.

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“I really want to tell my story,” he says. “I think I’m onto something here.”

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