Aug 23

We spent much of week two of our three weeks out west in the warehouse district of Los Angeles. I was shocked at how large LA’s homeless population is. I was also a bit shocked as how bad the area smelled – stale urine, extreme heat and no rain to wash it away is not very pleasant.

It is really a sad scene given the overall wealth of our country and of SoCal in particular.

An interesting real estate related concept in LA was the number of what appears to be privately owned SRO (Single Room Occupancy or rooming houses) Nice, modern buildings.

So even in this most economically, and probably socially, challenging housing environments, rental owners are able to find workable solutions by providing housing uniquely suited for a specific population.

The third thing I learned while out west for much of July is the most interesting. It has kept me busy for the past three weeks. … More to come 😉

Aug 05

Every year we spend about three weeks in the southwest. Typically it starts with four days at a database developer conference, this year and last were in Vegas. While I was honing my computer skills, my wife offered some classes and coaching for her Vegas area students of the Event Decorating Academy. We then rented a car and headed to Los Angeles to reconnect with vendors that supply the Event Decor Mart.

Carmen put on a couple of more classes and coaching sessions while in LA.  The trip ends in Vegas for the ASD trade show.  In general, I do not like Vegas. It is expensive, and we are not gamblers or night people. Although one night I did stay up to 11 PM;-) It is also triple digit hot every day.

I always return with a lot of new database techniques and skills.  More importantly to this conversation, I am a constant student of the housing industry, taking every opportunity to learn something while away from home.

 

First takeaway from this year’s trip: Short Term Rentals

 

We rented furnished apartments in both Vegas and LA through Hotels.com. These are units that the property management has set aside just for this purpose. If you have mid to upscale rentals, this might be an opportunity to increase your occupancy. It appears the going rate per week is around the half the monthly rent, plus a $100-150 fee per rental for cleaning.

Renting an apartment for extended work trips is a heck of a bargain for the consumer. The cost is half that of renting a hotel room in the same area. Plus you get a full kitchen to make your meals, which is important given Carmen’s extreme food allergies, and a washer as you are not going to make it three weeks without doing laundry.

In LA we stayed in a one bedroom at the Apex, just a block or so from the Staple Center. The Apex is a modern glass high-rise with a good sized living room, which Carmen needed for her coaching sessions.  In Vegas, we found a place half a block from the Convention Center – two bedroom, two baths, kitchen and laundry with a large living room for far less than the cost of a Vegas hotel.

From an owner’s perspective,  weekly furnished business rentals could help owners of mid to upper-end apartments in high demand areas increase their collected rent. I’m sure AirBnB also fits in here.

Municipalities often oppose things like weekly rentals and AirBnB because they cut into the hotel tax revenue. So if you are going to give this a go I would check local ordinances as well as with your city’s taxing authority to make sure you stay on this side of the law.

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.

Apr 25

To be successful at landlording you must approach it as a business.  No better way to be innovative than to liberally steal ideas,  grabbing the best from other industries and repurposing them for ours.  I also have been thinking a lot about starting an incubator for physical businesses in Milwaukee that employee people that have a hard time finding good jobs.

Good artists copy, great artists steal. — Pablo Picasso

This past Saturday John Lee Dumas, who does the podcast “Entrepreneur on Fire” was speaking at the inaugural  Young Entrepreneur Convention in Des Moines.  If you have heard his podcast you know how great they are.  If you haven’t, go take a listen.  His format is doing an interview a day with a different entrepreneur, seven days a week.  He is an ex-tank commander in the Middle Eastern wars, turned successful podcaster and author.

I find such valuable insights in his stuff that I decided to go to Iowa to see him in person. I did not even look at who the other speakers were. After hearing him speak, if the Young Entrepreneur Convention been JLD alone, the trip would have been worth it.

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of every one of the presenters.

 

Kevin Harrington and Carmen Ballering at the Young Entrepreneur Convention

Kevin Harrington and Carmen Ballering at the Young Entrepreneur Convention

Probably the best known was Kevin Harrington, one of the original Sharks from Shark Tank.

 

His interesting story:  He got his start after seeing a knife pitchman at a county fair and noticing that the Discovery Channel was dark six hours a day in the early days of cable. This was the beginning of “As Seen On TV” and the entire infomercial craze.

Carmen spoke to Kevin Harrington off stage about doing a promo for the Event Decorating Academy. I think what he offered is a valid idea to try.

 

The other surprising presenter was Jeff Hoffman,  founder of PriceLine.com, the company that brought low-cost easy travel to the masses as well as the creator of the airport ticketing kiosk. There was some irony in seeing him Saturday and then having a terrible experience with American Airlines on the way home the next day.  His interesting story: He got kicked out of Yale for not having the complete tuition.  He solved it by creating a B2B software company even though he could not program himself at the time.

Jeff Hoffman, founder of Priceline, with Carmen Ballering

Jeff Hoffman, founder of Priceline, with Carmen Ballering

Two big take aways from Jeff Hoffman:  Create BIG goals, envision that you have achieved them and then work backward each step until you are where you are today.  That is how he arrived at doing concerts with Elton John, Britney Spears, and NSYNC.  He also has produced a profitable indie movie.

The other, which is a to our businesses, is to look at what is occurring outside of your industry and see what opportunities presents themselves.  PriceLine.com was based on his reading articles on perishable goods, distressed inventory, and spot pricing.

 

As I wrote earlier, every presenter was great.

The guy that put the event together was Brandon T Adams.  He had created the (3rd?) largest Kickstarter campaigns and is a 2012 Iowa State University grad.

Two of the presenters are from Madison.  Megan Watt ,who just released her first book, is a leadership trainer at her company, Dream Catalyst Labs. I paged through the book after hearing her presentation and bought it. The other is Jenna Atkinson, who gave a great presentation on marketing and social media.

Ken Shamrock, "The most dangerous man in the world", Carmen Ballering Tim Ballering

Center, Ken Shamrock, “The most dangerous man in the world”, Carmen Ballering, who may just be the most dangerous woman in the world, and Tim Ballering

Cactus Jack Barringer is a very entertaining marketer. Guy holds a dozen patents.

There were a bunch other presenters during break out sessions that I did not get to see.  You can see the  YEC 2016 speaker list here.

One that we did see that I did not see a tie into our businesses but was cool to meet as our son-in-law and his brother are both MMA fighters, in fact, Monday of last week the brother, Kevin Vazquez, had his first major UFC fight was Ken Shamrock  “The World’s Most Dangerous Man”.  Shamrock and his partner were pitching a project to team retiring celebrities with young entrepreneurs.

The event was so great I can’t wait for next year’s conference.

#YECDM

Oct 30

As many of you know I like data.  Okay – maybe “like” is a little weak.  Perhaps its love, or at least a dangerous obsession.

Our industry, at least in regard to small properties,  shies away from meaningful data collection and utilization.  However, you can do so much with the right data – from setting your rents in the sweets spot between charging too little and losing money to charging too much, having your units remain vacant and … losing money.  What is that house you are looking buying at really worth and how much rent can you really expect to receive? In many neighborhoods paying assessed value is paying two to three times what everybody else is paying.  In a few high valued neighborhoods assessed value is a steal.  Ask the listing broker how much rent you can expect and some will tell you the sky.

Lately we’ve been looking at a lot of data points from rents, to evictions, to city orders, to special assessments, to tax assessments in general, to foreclosures and a ton of other interesting things.

For example we are developing an internal tool for suggesting rents that is using for rent ad data, including rent amount as well as other thing such as how long the ad has appeared, how many times in the past two years has the unit been for rent and mashes that up with property data – age, size, assessed value, date of last sale, how many units are owned by that owner and a dozen other metrics. Then combine this data with city order data, eviction data, tax delinquency and foreclosure information for the subject property.  While we haven’t finalized the algorithm, we are getting close.

Another fun project is trying to identify properties that will fail.  We look at when they were purchased, if they are tax delinquent, if they are on the DNS monthly reinspection list, if there are evictions, if the water bills have been placed on the tax roll, etc.

We started doing this with database tools, Python scripts and a lot of manual acquisition.  We’ve found a lot better methods since.

One of the tools we use for data acquisition is import.io. Today I was in San Francisco for their Extract conference.  The theme was “Data Stories Worth Sharing”  There were 600 in attendance, with what appeared to be an equal distribution of data scientists, data analysts, and application developers. Oh and there was one landlord.

I wanted to attend the last two but either the timing was bad or the event was in London, which is quite a trip for a one day conference.  Today was so great I regret not attending the previous events.

If people thought I was a pain in the butt before with my data obsession, I’ll be downright dangerous now. 😉

If you want to play with the tools I play with, another one to look at is Mirador, a data visualization tool developed by Harvard and others primarily for things like Ebla research.  This is a radically cool tool  for seeing patterns in data.  Before that we were only testing patterns against assumptions.  Mirador points out the patterns for you.  

To visualize the results there is Tableau or for the more adventuresome there is a Javascript library D3

I think I should call this “Big data about small properties.”

If you are interested in data and rental hosung and want to talk about this more, drop me an email at Tim@ApartmentsMilwaukee.com

 

 

 

 


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