Americans Are Building Vacation-Home Empires With Easy-Money Loans

Brenna Carles drives along a winding country road in the Great Smoky Mountains, a get-rich real estate podcast playing on the speakers of her brand-new Lincoln SUV. Not long ago, Carles was belting out tunes at Nashville honky-tonks as she struggled to make it as a country singer. Now, at 32, she’s one of the region’s most successful mortgage brokers specializing in loans for vacation home rentals.

Carles, who started her company less than a year ago, says she’s embarrassed to admit how much she’s clearing these days: $100,000 a month, give or take, on track to earn $1 million this year. “People ask how much I make a year, I try to lie now, because I think people wouldn’t believe it,” she says.

For as long as the market allows, brokers, lenders, and investors are cashing in on the real estate boom in America’s prime vacation spots. They include Carles’s turf, near Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., as well as the areas around Disney parks, Colorado ski resorts, and Gulf of Mexico beaches in Texas and Alabama. It’s a fast-growing and potentially risky business, especially now, as the real estate market cools because of higher interest rates.

Landlords have assembled mini empires, managing them from afar using smartphone apps. Software engineers, middle managers, teachers, military personnel—even TikTok influencers—flood social media with stories of newfound wealth. They’re snapping up properties, often sight unseen from out of state, at once unheard-of prices. Some longtime residents complain that these investors are changing the character of their communities and making their housing unaffordable.