Ex-lorry driver raises £500k in a year to fund a property business

When Narelle Cowan joined Samuel Leeds’ academy, she was unemployed, with no money, no experience of property investing and bad credit. Since then, the ex-lorry driver has raised just shy of £500,000 in a year from investors. Narelle has bought a pub and secured a hotel which are to be converted into an HMO and flats. She also has an income from a serviced accommodation portfolio and is now financially free with assets in South Wales worth around £1m.

Birthday treat results in Narelle signing up for the academy

Narelle was a Class 1 lorry driver who went part-time to try to get into property. 

“I was working three days a week trying to get investors for a little buy-to-let or something. But with no experience that’s hard,” recalls the mother-of-one.

She also had no savings and was earning just £1,200 a month, out of which she paid £950 for childcare.

Then when her daughter went from nursery to school, the hours no longer fitted in with Narelle’s job and so she could no longer carry on with it.

While urgently trying to find another way of earning her living, one of her two brothers kept mentioning Samuel Leeds. Narelle had never heard of him and so looked him up to discover that he held regular crash courses about property investing.

As a surprise for her brother’s birthday, she paid £2 for them both to attend one of the events. By the end of the day, she had signed up for the academy. Her brother never joined.

Narelle says he is still sceptical about her success because she was poor for so long.

“It’s just insane [to go from being a lorry driver to where I am now] because people knew me for being poor. I had loads of animals and my little girl. Now I’ve got people ringing me from my past saying, ‘What are you doing? Oh, you have to teach me.’ 

Her reply is always the same that they should register for the academy.

Thanks to her training Narelle has become an expert at raising finance. She attracted her first investor through one of her posts on a Facebook group.

“I kept posting different deals saying I need this much, and I’ll give you a fixed per cent return. He said, ‘I’ve ignored so many of those posts but for some reason I just got drawn to the last one you put up.’ Loads of people used to contact me but nothing ever came of it apart from him.

“The deal that he invested in fell through and then I asked him if we could repurpose it into serviced accommodation because I’d met Samuel at that point and that’s what we did. So, I put it into the first couple of SAs and went from there.

“That guy now guarantors me on everything because he needed to at the beginning, and we’ve since bought a property together.”

Uganda trip sparks joint hotel venture 

It was on a trip to Uganda to see Samuel Leeds’ charitable work, including the building of a hospital ward, that Narelle met another academy graduate, Hannah Boden.

“She was telling me she’d just done a nine-bed HMO. I said I’d bought a pub that I’m converting into a 15-bed HMO, so we bonded over that. We’re doing a similar thing. She’s just much further ahead than me,” explains Narelle.

The two women discussed investing together in a 10-bed HMO. However, the deal was sold to somebody else. Then Narelle said there was a hotel she wanted to buy. 

She had seen an auction sign on it and made enquiries only to be told that it had been sold in 2020. The entrepreneur was puzzled as there did not appear to be any redevelopment work going on.

Then the hotel came up for sale again. It transpired that the owners had been seeking planning permission, which was subsequently granted, to turn it into eight apartments with a separate commercial unit.

Narelle and Hannah did their calculations and concluded the ‘numbers worked.’ They acted quickly, securing it within two days. 

The hotel, which they are buying together for £260,000, will be worth £1.2m just with the permitted development alone. However, they intend to go back to the planners to increase the size of the development, says Narelle.

“They wanted us to demolish a coach house which is outside. That could be more flats. There’s a massive demand for one-bed flats in the area. So, we’re going to contest that by saying we’re providing more housing.”

As it stands, the cost of the conversion to flats would be just over £400,000 which would still leave them with a sizeable profit.

The hotel is just down the road from the pub which Narelle is buying on her own for £130,000 in the town of Maesteg. 

She is putting no money of her own into the pub scheme. An investor is paying the deposit of £32,000, with the redevelopment being funded entirely through a bridging loan.

The cost of converting it into an HMO will be about £150,000. Having received a commercial valuation of £686,000 once the work is complete, the payoff promises to be huge.

The end value is based on the annual rent of all the rooms, minus the expenses multiplied by 100.

The plan is to then refinance the property which will enable Narelle to pull out all the money and pay back the bridging company and the investor with the interest as well. It will effectively leave her with a free pub and there will also be a profit in it, she says.

Four SAs generate an average of £1,000 to £1,500 a month each

Narelle’s initial investor funded her academy fee. She pays him a fixed percentage of 12 per cent on the amount.

“It would have been more for me if I’d done it as a loan because my credit wasn’t great when I started.”

Although she had no previous experience of property before joining the academy, she had dabbled in business before. She also went through a rigorous interview process to get on to the year-long training programme with Samuel Leeds Education.

When she was 19, Narelle, who has a degree in animal biology, attended another academy run by Peter Jones, of TV Dragons’ Den fame.

“I’ve always been business minded. I felt I did well in that year. We did a hypothetical pitch for investment, and they gave the money to me.

“So, for me it was either business or animals and I made the conscious choice to go with the animals.”

It was a lifestyle choice, which was never going to make her much money, she says. Her solution was to try her hand at various enterprises, including selling products on Amazon, which paid for her to travel abroad to work with animals.

When the time came to change her career, Narelle was ready to dedicate herself to learning the ins and outs of the property industry.

“I had nothing to lose. So, I knew I could give it my all, whereas my brother might have struggled to do that because he had a family to pay for.”

Narelle only had the one child to support and for her the ‘only way was up.’ She has brought her other brother on board and is passing on her knowledge to him. He views properties, while she deals with the paperwork.

“With bridging there is so much paperwork. The last one I bought with land took forever to get across the line. We had to change the company structure and do loads of stuff.”

After finishing her training Narelle focused on the serviced accommodation strategy to give herself a steady cash flow, obtaining four apartments funded by joint venture partners.

“They’re all now good friends of mine. On average they make £1,000 to £1,500 each. I give my investors 75 per cent until they get their investment back out.”

It means she is only receiving 25 per cent of the income for doing the work, but she has now hired someone to help her with her SA business.

As Narelle has progressed in her property journey, she has taken on larger projects to be able to attract investors by giving them a ‘big chunk’ of money back.

With these ventures, the entrepreneur is offering her backers a minimum of 25 per cent of the profits. 

“Sometimes we’re offering 25 per cent or 25 per cent plus five per cent of the cash flow for two years just to keep people on board.

“I will make money off all of them. But even if I didn’t make any money off them on the refinance, I’d still own the asset and have the cash flow.”

If the deal went sour and she couldn’t pay back a client, she would have to sell one of the assets. There is risk, but also big returns, she points out.

The investors are all from the academy where members trust each other. So far none of them have come to see the project which they are backing, Narelle adds.

The businesswoman is also a member of a property redress scheme, should one of her customers have a complaint, and her company is covered by insurance.

Her profile has increased by being active on Instagram, as she was advised to do. 

“I went to an academy party last week and people knew my name before I’d even said anything. I thought that’s just because I’ve upped my Instagram game a bit.”

Once the pub came on the market and she saw how much money could be made from redeveloping it, Narelle began looking for other commercial premises up for sale. Her sights are now set on buying a former doctor’s surgery which she visited as a child.

The two-storey building has a long corridor with lots of rooms off it and a car park, making it the ‘perfect HMO.’ 

“It’s in the middle of town, in one of the best parts of town as well. I’m just waiting for that because they’re struggling to relocate.”

These days she has more money to spend on her daughter, although she is conscious of the need to avoid spoiling her. Her visit to Uganda reinforced that belief.

“It was overwhelming. We went to seven schools and to the hospital where Samuel is building the ward. It’s so humbling. As soon as I got back, my kid said I want more chocolate and I said no.”

From her profits, Narelle has donated £5,000 towards the cost of the health facility. And she is keen to remain involved with the academy.

“I was gutted when I’d finished because I was away from the environment. I’ve asked if I can crew now. [at events]. I want to come back because I get to refresh on the knowledge. I also get to help others with their journey as they start out.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am if it wasn’t for the academy.”

Narelle’s tips

  • Come to the £1 crash course. 
  • You’ve got to have the confidence in yourself to succeed.
  • I always knew I wanted to be in business. I didn’t want to work for someone else and make them rich. You need the right mindset.

Samuel Leeds’ verdict

“One of the reasons Narelle has been so successful is she is courageous. At the Deal Selling Masterclass I remember thinking she’s also got passion and energy and a decent business brain. It’s incredible what she’s achieved so far. She’s playing real life Monopoly.”

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