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Flipping into home design

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'You almost couldn't go wrong' flipping houses. 'The worst flippers in the world were making money'

The gig: Jeff Lewis of the reality show "Flipping Out" runs a Los Angeles design business. He has a line of paints bearing his name that sells online through Home Depot, and he's creative director of Living Spaces furniture, working on catalog shoots and with the buying team.

Beginnings: A strong believer in owning a home, he bought his first at 18 with $7,500 down and seller financing. Fifteen years ago, armed with a pre-law degree from Chapman University and experience working with a mortgage broker, an appraiser and two real estate agents, he began flipping houses.

Home flipper pitfalls: When Lewis began buying homes to renovate he had little money. "Capital was always my biggest stress and problem," he said. But the real estate market was red hot, and he was working on five to seven houses a year. "You almost couldn't go wrong," he said. "The worst flippers in the world were making money." Then, about six years ago, the housing market turned. "A lot of people got burnt, including me," he said. "It took me years to get back."

A lucky break: His assistant included him on a teaser reel in 2006 for a show that was never picked up. Lewis, however, was discovered from that tape and approached about doing a flipping show. That income kept him afloat in the housing downturn. "When I signed on I didn't need the show. Two years later I needed the show," he said. "It not only helped me get through financially, but it helped me reinvent myself as Jeff Lewis Design."

Reality television: Lewis has starred on seven seasons of Bravo's "Flipping Out" and two of "Interior Therapy." Although "Interior Therapy" was supposed to take over when "Flipping Out" ended, the flipping show remains popular and continues. "There was never really supposed to be two shows," Lewis said.

Reality check: Being on television proved eye-opening for the sometimes temperamental star and, eventually, helped him get his life in better balance. "When you see me looking like a jerk, it's because I was a jerk," he said. "I needed that shake-up."

Advice to flippers: Do your own research on comparable sales, active listings and pending sales, he advises. "Compare everything — square footage, views, pool," Lewis said, rather than rely on agent-selected comps. He tries to become an expert on the neighborhood before he buys a house. Then, have the financing in order to expedite the deal. Finally, have the right people lined up for the project, including contractors and subcontractors, he said. "You're only as good as your team."

A debt of gratitude: He credits veteran real estate agent Joyce Spector for modeling an impeccable work ethic and helping him learn to be responsible. "She was tough, successful and didn't have time for nonsense," he said of her sink-or-swim mentoring style. "Very 'Devil Wears Prada'-esque — I will always be grateful to her."

Sweat the small stuff: "I don't believe I'm above doing any job. I pick up trash every day whether walking the dogs or on a job site," Lewis said. "I'm not above that. I never will be."

Secret to success: "I work every day of the week," he said. "Sunday I might only work for a few hours organizing my week." Most days he starts early in the morning and continues well into the evening. Lewis doesn't take many vacations and often passes on social events. "I want to take advantage of this run I am having," he said. "I don't want to have any regrets."

Day-to-day: Lewis does design consulting around the U.S. and works with clients at his local design business. He also takes on speaking engagements and is working on a home fragrance line.

His ticket to ride? The paint line is his latest venture. The Home Depot product selection process was an awe-inducing experience for Lewis. "It's like standing in front of the Wizard of Oz," he said. "You give them a pitch and they say yes or no." If sales of the paint continue to do well, the line will be offered in test stores. If the paints succeed in those markets, the retailer will roll them out elsewhere.

Off camera: A dog lover who has three rescues, Lewis enjoys walking, hiking and going to the gym. He has a lifelong practice of using humor to weather adversity and boasts that he swims "two laps a week."

Parental advice: "My father always said, 'You need to find something where you make money while you sleep,'" Lewis said. "This is the first time in 44 years, I make money in my sleep. People are up buying paint online."

lauren.beale@latimes.com

@LATHotProperty

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Real EstateBusinessHomesTelevisionReal Estate BuyersFinanceFlipping Out (tv program)
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