May 21

I wrote about unit fever a while ago. Recently I was speaking to a buddy and the subject came up. It is worth sharing again.

It is very easy to become a millionaire by investing in real estate…. simply start with five million.  Want to fast track your path to being a millionaire?  Start with only two million in the bank.

The above joke was originally about farmers, but our life and theirs are far too similar.  Both groups provide for fundamental needs, are hard businesses with high failure rates, both businesses rely too much on external factors and are both not well respected by society.  Another buddy of mine calls landlords “dirt farmers” and once told me that I should get into the day trading style of real estate.

You lose money in rental real estate by: paying too much for properties, buying at city assessed value for example; failing to consider all the costs associated with running the property, such as city sewer and water fees as well as the costs of compliance with all the rules that affect our industry; borrowing too much; and believing the broker’s or seller estimates of costs and vacancy rates…

The second greatest cause of owner failure is “unit fever” This is where one is fixated on ‘getting to 50 units’ or ‘owning a million dollars worth of real estate’ instead of focusing on the fundamentals of profitability. If your 50 units lose 5,000 a month or that million dollar commercial Class A office is 50% vacant, your checking account will be 100% vacant before long.

There is no “fun” in “fundamentals” no matter how you spell it. Fail at the fundamentals and fail financially.

Your success lies in knowing the true costs of running rental housing and accurate collection and vacancy losses that should be anticipated for the type and location of your rentals. Armed with this you must only buy properties that meet your performance targets within the confines of the economic realities of the market as opposed to some performa a seller provides you.

I remember back in 2005 or 06 when some kid (anyone 20 years younger than me) came to my office, telling me I was doing it wrong and offering to sell me an Excel sheet he had created to show the profit potential of well  leveraged near Southside housing.  Looking at his demo, I jokingly said ‘By the end of the decade Bill Gates will have to borrow money from you.” to which he replied enthusiastically, ‘Maybe not that rich, but very rich.’

Two years later he and his Excel buddies would be broke, their properties foreclosed and abandoned.  But I guess you can’t blame him entirely, some pretty smart people have done major worldwide economic damage with an Excel error.

The truth is the math is so simple all you need is a pencil and paper, okay a calculator may speed it up a bit, but not much.

How do you find accurate answers to costs and vacancy questions? The seller and their broker are probably the worst places to start looking for answers as they are both motivated to make it sound as good as it gets.

In the beginning, you should attend every local, in-person meeting of rental owners in your area. Get there early and talk to every old timer who will give you the time of day. Some will be curmudgeons, beat down by the realities of a hard business. But if you listen closely even they will help on your journey to enlightenment. Just don’t let the negativity wear off on you.

A side benefit from mingling with long-time owners is you may even meet one at the end of their career which offers you a good deal on some properties they are tired of, but of course do the math before committing. I met some people I ultimately bought properties from while networking at meetings. Seek out unusual opportunities as well. I met a group of Southside landlords that met for lunch every day. I bought properties from some of them, got maintenance connections from others and learned so much from all. Today’s new owner has a tool that we did not – Meetup.com. Go check it out.

A regret I have is that I was in the business over ten years before I joined the Apartment Association. I owe whatever success I’ve had to being an active member of the Association. Keyword “active.”

The other important tool for knowing your market is to limit your market. With few exceptions, the properties we own are within a 35 block by 35 block area, with the majority in a 15 block by 15 block subset of that area. I know these neighborhoods better than most people. That is a strategic advantage in both running the properties and buying wisely.

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