Mar 09

The Journal is reporting:

Over the next three years, Barrett said raze orders in the city are expected to grow to 1,600 homes, with a cost of $24 million.  “We have a very severe problem right now,” Barrett said.

No kidding we have a “severe problem ”  This a problem that continues to grow rather than moderating.  The number of abandoned and foreclosed houses was bad nine months ago and with fresh snow on the ground you can see even a greater number of unoccupied properties than ever before. At least here on the Southside of Milwaukee these numbers are far worse than what is being reported by the city.

How much of the $24 million of anticipated razing costs could be avoided by making it more favorable to rehab properties and restore them to the tax rolls?

Perhaps the city would do better by working with, instead of against people willing to invest their own money, time and effort into putting foreclosures back in service.  I’m not even suggesting a hand up, just not the current beat down attitude. Not only would there be less spent on bulldozing, but more of the tax base would remain plus the positive economic impact for the community due to spending by owners to maintain and operate this housing.

Between taxes and the sewer and water bills the city gets  at least $5-6 million per year from 1600 functional properties. In the three year period Barrett defines this is a potential of $18 million in city revenue if the buildings were returned to occupancy. Add this to the $24 million to bulldoze and you are north of 40 million dollars.

Can every property that is deemed to be worthy of razing able to be salvaged, of course not.  But many that are in the pipeline today can be.  Every day that a property sits unattended is a day closer to the wrecking ball being the only option for that property.  There are many properties sitting vacant today that are worthy of repair, but will not be so six months or a year from now.

Additionally every time someone like you or I take on the challenge of putting properties back in service the local economy sees a benefit through the wages and materials we pay to get the job done.  All but one of my employees live in the city.  While the money you spend at the Home Depot doesn’t stay in Milwaukee,  the person who is employed by the Home Depot lives in the area and spend their wages here.

A downside for us, but an upside for the community is a greater amount of housing stock available holds rents down.  A more competative market also forces owners to do more to properties to get and keep them rented.

Once the property is back in service ongoing maintenance similarly impacts the local economy in a positive manner. It is estimated that repairs and improvements to rental properties represent $90 -120 million a year in the city of Milwaukee alone.   (These numbers are derived from our company’s experiences, the experiences of other long term owners that I’ve discussed this with and data from the Census Bureau’s Property Owners and Managers Survey.  Our data and that of many other owners indicate a slightly higher number than the Census)

Our company has the capacity and had the will to do 10-12 such projects a year without any government monies.  Heck if the environment was more favorable I could see us doing two properties a month.  We have not made an offer in MIlwaukee since November due the unfavorable policies adopted by the city. See my prior post on buying foreclosures in Milwaukee.  I talk to a lot of other owners with similar capacities that say the same thing.

Milwaukee acts like they are the only girl at the dance – as though real estate investors need to accept their petty obstructions and poor treatment because they are the only game in town.  But there are many other places to invest that treat owners much better.  One of our members is doing a big rehab in Beloit.  When I asked his project manager how it was going with the city he said they were unbelievably nice and truly seem they want to see the project succeed.  We are actively looking at the South Florida market today.

A few notes:

These 1,600 properties must be city owned or near to being city owned.  If they were bank owned the city could and would force the banks to demo the properties on the bank’s dime.  A growing trend is banks that  simply walked away from the mortgage rather than be subjected to the bad side of city regulations and fees. In another instance I spoke to an owner who the bank sued- he thought he lost the properties to foreclosure only to find out later that it was a money judgment only suit.  This adds to the zombie housing effect.  And you though only borrowers walked away.  😉

Our police chief is in the news speaking about the link between foreclosed and abandoned housing and crime.  I am certain he is correct on this.  But the Milwaukee Police do not do what they should in cases of property vandalism. See my prior post on property vandalism and the lack of police response.  This vandalism accelerate the rate of properties that are no longer viable for rehab.

Jan 03

Real Estate For Ideas 2013 Part Two

What can be done collectively to improve our businesses, save costs or generate additional revenue?

On January 1st I posted a list of ideas that I had that some of us could consider to collaboratively work on.  I intend to pursue one or two of the ideas presented and may entertain partnering with the right person or persons.

This post is the second of my more in depth notes on the ideas.  I will post others over the next week or so as time permits me to clean my notes into coherent sentences. If any of the topics interest you comment either on the list or directly to me

Part Two:

More Effective Maintenance Labor/Contractors/Service Providers

As mentioned in part one, maintenance, replacements and improvements to rental housing represents nearly $100 million per year in the city of Milwaukee alone. A savings of even 1% is a lot of money

More Effective Maintenance Labor/Contractors/Service Providers

The ability to have skilled, cost effective maintenance available on demand is typically a missing element for small owners.

If all of your unit preps are done two days after move out you will have far less vacancy income loss. If you can respond quickly to emergency repairs less tenants will move.

Even larger owners such as our company can’t do this efficiently with typical staffing. Either you have too few workers the first week of the month or too many the rest of the month.

The million dollar question is ‘How do can you have an on demand workforce without the risk of uninsured “contractors” who may later be deemed employees by taxing authorities or injured and not covered by your property insurance?’

A couple of years ago Affordable Rentals rolled out Rental A Worker, where we ‘rent’ other owners our maintenance people by the hour for small or large jobs. We benefit as we can have a larger workforce to meet the up and down demands of maintenance, while being able to share them when our workload is lighter.  We can also justify having highly skilled people on staff full time, such as certified heating techs.

The big advantage this offers other owners over hiring Joe off the street is our people are insured and have taxes withheld. There is a real danger and expensive otherwise. For the longer version read: Your Handyman-Cheap Contractor or $60000 Mistake?

The real vision for Rent-A-Worker is to expand it to a temp like service where there is an on demand workforce that can ramp up when there are a lot of preps etc and then can work for another temp agency on slow times.  This would hold an advantage for our company as well as other owners who participate.

Such a system would have a worker rating system, whereby the owners would grade them and their opportunity to work and future pay rate would be based on those grades.  So the best workers would achieve full time employment at a decent wage.

All the workers, whether they are laborers or small uninsured contractors would be treated as employees with the temp agency withholding taxes, maintaining worker’s comp etc., thereby eliminating a potential career ending risk for owners who were hiring “handymen” for cash.  The guy in the Cheap Contractor or $60,000 mistake went under.  I assume this was the cause

I pursued the temp angle a bit a year a half ago.  We hired a college grad who was formerly a manager a temp agency that moved out of the area. Excellent resume and references. I held a lot of hope for him to do well at this, but in the end it did not work out. By that time I was distracted with the purchase of a commercial property in Hollywood FL to house my wife’s businesses.  The basic software framework exits as well as some operating procedures.

I still believe an available,  flexible workforce  is the brass ring for our industry; seeing so much benefit for my company as well as many other owners. This may be the top new project to aggressively pursue this in 2013. The open question on this is does Obamacare make this in anyway less practical today if the number of temps exceeds 50.

Jan 01

What can be done collectively to improve our businesses, save costs or generate additional revenue?

I will post my in-depth thoughts on these topics over the next week or so as time permits me to clean my notes into coherent sentences. If any of the topics interest you comment here or email me at:

  • Reduce Maintenance Costs
  • Become better at sharing our collective knowledge
  • Group purchase of a distressed block or two
  • IT meets real estate

Reduce Maintenance Costs

Improve supply sourcing: ‘How can we use our collective shopping experiences and buying power to improve our bottom-line on a daily basis in 2013?’  More thoughts on better material sourcing.

More effective Maintenance Labor/Contractors/Services The ability to have skilled, cost effective maintenance available on demand is typically a missing element for most small to medium sized owners. Read more on  effective maintenance labor solutions that could change our industry.

Become better at sharing our collective knowledge

The is good beginning. But the idea could be greatly expanded upon. Perhaps a Wikipedia style “Best Practices” Guide* for Milwaukee rental owners. It would include everything that a property manager may run into.

Similarly a Mastermind Group could reap benefits if the right people were involved. Here is an overview of the Mastermind concept.

Also look at what groups like StartUpMKE are doing in the tech field.  Read my thoughts on increasing the sharing of knowledge.

Group purchase of a distressed block or two

Choose a very small geo area of Milwaukee. Think something on the terms of both sides of a block or two maybe three at the max. It should be depressed, as in make Detroit look like a nice place to live, depressed.

Apologizes to Detroit, but many people know of Detroit’s challenges and fewer of the challenges of Milwaukee.

Yes, unfortunately, there are many areas like this in Milwaukee and the numbers are increasing as foreclosures work their way through the system.

The plan would be to assemble a group of investors and turn the area for fun and profit. My  expanded thoughts on group purchasing of a distressed block.

Tech meets real estate

There certainly huge opportunities for software/web solutions to things that cause frustrations for owners and perhaps tenants.

Some ideas:

    • Setting rents to market. How much are you losing because your rents are too low or how much have you lost due to your rents being too high and your vacancies languish? Me, too. ;-(
    • Property acquisition tools Look at what sites like are doing elsewhere, but not here.
    • Vacancy filling Craig’s List used to work, but now there is too much spam and fraud. What about a system where the tenants need to prequalify before actually applying. While pre qualifying by an individual owner may be problematic from a fair housing standpoint, a proper third party system could work.
    • Custom Management tools My company’s secret sauce is our highly customized management software. Nearly every task is one or two clicks and the computer makes many mundane management decisions on its own.
    • Put your solution here

You can read my thoughts on tech and real estate here


What? This is not enough ideas for one year? Then post yours on the comments!

Shy, then email directly at: either for my review only or to repost anonymously as you direct.



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Mar 05

With apologies to the Steve Miller Band for the title …

This past week we received a notice of  a $52.05 “fee” being assessed for “improper care of a discarded electronic device” at one of our properties.  Wow! They revert to five dollar words to say you put a radio in the garbage can.

Upon review it seems  our tenant put a radio/CD player in the green garbage cart.   Either a scavenger or DPW took it out of the cart and left it in the alley.

City of Milwaukee fee for electronics disposal.

As I drove around the Southside this weekend I noticed a bunch of small electronics laying next to garbage carts with little orange stickers. So despite the bill saying the property was posted, it appears the only posting were these stickers that mostly face away from the house.  To make it worse the property owner does not get notice by mail until the fee is assessed.

This must be one helluva profit center for the city.

I really wish city officials were there to hear the tenant’s reaction to having this charge passed on to them.

Milwaukee Code:

79-2-13-b. No person may place an electronic device in mixed municipal solid waste or discard or otherwise dispose of an electronic device except by delivery to an electronic device collection or recycling facility.

State law that defines what an electronic device that is prohibited from being placed in the garbage:

1. A peripheral, as defined in s. 287.17 (1) (j).
3. A facsimile machine.
4. A digital video disc player.
5. A digital video player that does not use a disc and that is not a camera, as defined in s. 287.17 (1) (a).
6. A video cassette recorder.
7. A video recorder that does not use a cassette and that is not a camera, as defined in s. 287.17 (1) (a).
8. A covered electronic device, as defined in s. 287.17 (1) (f).
9. A telephone with a video display.
10. Another kind of electronic device identified by the department under s. 287.17 (10) (i).
Apr 25

I was having a conversation with a buddy today about the accuracy of the most recent City of Milwaukee assessments and where values are truly headed. I thought it was relevant enough that I turned my email to him with links supporting my views into this post.

The Milwaukee Journal quotes Alderman Mike Murphy who believes our housing market has hit bottom:

“I do think we’ve hit the bottom,” said Ald. Michael Murphy, chairman of the Common Council’s Finance & Personnel Committee. Murphy, Mayor Tom Barrett and Assessment Commissioner Mary Reavey all said they were hopeful that property values would start to slowly rise again over the next few years.

It would be wonderful if that in fact was correct, however there are many indicators that the bottom may still be a ways off.  The Feds are considering forced reductions of mortgages to appraised value.  This will allow owners to sell for less than today and remain financially  unscathed.  Previously if you owed $150k on your home you would fight like heck to get at least $150k, otherwise you would have to pay out of your pocket to sell.  If this becomes policy it will allow owners to sell for much less than they owe today, creating a general downward pressure on all home prices.

Then there is the phenomena of  people who can pay their mortgages, but are simply walking away.  It used to be dishonorable not to pay your debts.  Now it has the cute name of “Strategic Defaults.”  This along with short sales undermine our entire economic system as well as real estate values.  There just isn’t the social pressure to pay what you agreed to anymore.

Finally there is a large shadow market of homes and other real estate that are foreclosed but not on the resale market.  As these enter the market it will further drive down prices. If you want to see the shadow market in action write down the addresses of the obviously foreclosed buildings and homes that do not have broker signs in front of them, look up the ownership on the city site, then look for the property on MLS.  Many will be lender owned, but not actively marketed.

The Milwaukee Journal article reports the Assessor claims the decline in values over last year to be a meager 2.4%  One reader of the Journal article makes a very valid comment:

“Ask any realtor, appraiser, banker, buyer or seller of a home over the past 24 months how much values have dropped, 2.4% is a joke they need to remove the decimal point the acutal number is closer to 24%.”

I concur with this person that the real values of properties, at least in the neighborhoods we own in are dramatically less than the assessed values.  Milwaukee has typically overvalued the lower value neighborhoods in what I believe is a regressive tax scheme to lower the taxes of the more affluent white neighborhoods at the expense of these who can least afford higher housing costs.  The city assessor justifies this by excluding many comps as invalid, while being quite happy to use those homes purchased by first time buyers using down payment grants etc. that hid the true value of the purchase.  Today many of those homes are in foreclosure.

So while Milwaukee officials are hopeful that the end of the decline is nigh, and I too wish this was true as I happen to have a large financial interest in this subject, it probably isn’t so.  Many well studied economist and others believe that the Milwaukee area home prices will return to 2007 values in the fourth quarter of 2017 These same experts found that we are currently 15% off the mark today, not the 2.4% the Assessor has given.  They also predict the slide won’t stop until fourth quarter 2011.

But the city has strong motivation to artificially keep assessed values inflated:  That of course is to maintain artificially high property taxes while at the same time being able to claim that have only raised the mil (amount per thousand dollars of assessed value) by a small percentage.

So while many, including the city officials and  me, “hope” for a housing price recovery soon, hope is not a workable strategy. Please post your comments and challenge my views.  We all have a lot riding on making he best guess here.

Nov 10

A couple property owners approached me stating they have received notice from the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS) that they must obtain new occupancy certificates on properties they purchased a couple of years ago.  In both cases the properties had been in foreclosure.

Continue reading »

Sep 18

Listen to Charlie Syke’s Pod Cast

Sep 18
Sept 17th, 2009 Milwaukee Journal Interview with Tristan Pettit and Tim Ballering on rental housing issues
The Department of Neighborhood Services until lately was a particular
cross. “There was a real culture of hatred in the city towards
property owners,”
The Public Policy Forum a few months back said Milwaukee’s really
short of low-cost rentals. If more people went into the business,
researchers said, it could help. Yet Ballering, who’s owned for 32
years, told his son to find another occupation: “It’s such a difficult
business,” said Ballering. “There’s better things to do with your life.”
Not what a city in need of rental housing wants to hear from
entrepreneurs who provide it.
Read entire article
[My son was not happy to hear this from me a dozen years ago. He is
now the morning drive DJ on 92.5 FM and loving it]
From the Sept 17th Milwaukee Journal
“The Department of Neighborhood Services until lately was a particular cross. “There was a real culture of hatred in the city towards property owners,”
The Public Policy Forum a few months back said Milwaukee’s really short of low-cost rentals. If more people went into the business, researchers said, it could help. Yet Ballering, who’s owned for 32 years, told his son to find another occupation: “It’s such a difficult business,” said Ballering. “There’s better things to do with your life.”
Not what a city in need of rental housing wants to hear from entrepreneurs who provide it.” Read entire article
My son was not happy to hear this from me a dozen years ago. Today he is much happier than had he become a landlord.  He is  the morning drive DJ on WBWI 92.5 FM (Fuzz Martin) as well as doing freelance photography and marketing.
Aug 09

A reader of the ApartmentAssoc Yahoo Group asks:

What is the size of Residential apartment industry in Southeast of Wisconsin?

It is pretty big. I haven’t gone through the work to assemble this data recently, but here is some older data. Assembling fresh data should be less today due to the amount of information you can find on the internet these days.

Ten years ago there were 25,000 rental owners in the City of Milwaukee and 31,000 if you included owner occupied duplexes and fours. Continue reading »

Aug 04

As a rental property owner in Milwaukee the following items should rank high on your list of concerns. (Just a draft) Continue reading »

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