Jan 20
Note, this began as a discussion between myself and another well known Milwaukee investor.
 
I have been an investor in Milwaukee real estate since the seventies. I have seen the market roller coaster many times. My belief for the coming months is:
 
In the next 12-18 months, we will get to near 2008 levels of correction both the mid-upper end of the market and the lower end, with the middle being less affected. Trump could make it worse, or Trump could make it better. It is not in Trump’s nature to not be involved an issue of this potential magnitude.
 
Mid-upper, 350k-1.5M range depending on the location, valued home sales will suffer as interest rates rise and the limits on tax and interest deductibility make them less affordable for those who are currently, marginally able to have such a home. In some markets, such as south FL and NYC, we’ve already seen discounting in the upper segment. It will get worse. Not many people, including politicians, feel sorry for the overextended Yuppie with the leased BMW in the drive of his McMansion that is filled with furniture bought on credit while working at a job he got with his degree that came with a significant college loan debt.
 
Low value (sub 100k) homes will take the hit as wages have remained static and interest are rising. We have been returning to “soft” underwriting. This is a segment where homeowners are more likely to quit when it gets hard. Those owners will fail. Unfortunately, no one in power truly cares when a poor family loses their home. The Dems say they care, but many secretly rejoice as each failure allows them to increase their political base by verbalizing outrage and empty promises of help. The Reps loyalty is more to the bankers than the homeowners. Rand Paul cannot change the world by himself.
 
Learning from the 2008 debacle, the government will prevent the full-on implosion of the middle. Too much economic and political damage if the voting class loses their homes again. But I still expect a 10-20% discount when owners must sell.
 
Throughout my career, when owner-occupied housing has suffered, rents and/or occupancy rise. Beginning in 2008 and continuing to this day, we’ve seen the most robust rental market of my career. In 2005-2007 we had our worst vacancy rates as every good tenant was suddenly, and temporarily, a homeowner.
 
When the economy is terrible opportunities abound.
 
In Carter’s 1980, prime rate was 21% at one point. Nobody was buying, well nobody but me and a few of others. I bought a hundred fifty units in the ten years between 79 and 89 when owner-occupied mortgage rates were consistently over 10% and rental mortgages near impossible to obtain.
 
In 79-89 we bought properties that worked at the 10-12% interest we were paying. I structured my buys so that I survived and made enough to support my family. When rates fell, values increased. Interest rate chart.
 
The longer the downturn goes on, the higher number of tired landlords, or their estates, will be seriously motivated to sell. They will create ways to make to make sales happen. Much of my purchases in 79-89 were owner financed because banks were not even enthusiastic about lending to owner-occupants at the time.
 
The combination of Amazon and remote working arrangements killed most commercial property value. My daughter does something important for AT&T corporate. She has worked from her living room for the past five years, and AT&T sold her former office.
 
The Chinese are selling off their US holdings.  WSJ: Chinese Dumped $1 Billion of U.S. Real Estate in Third Quarter, Extending Recent Retreat (Dec. 4, 2018)
 
Millennials don’t buy homes. They live in mom’s basement, or they rent. 
 
My three-year view:
 
I have good feelings about residential rentals across most segments. This will only hold true if:
• You have fixed rate financing; or
• You structured your purchases so that they still cash flow at 12% interest.
 
I think flipping will be a flipping foolish thing to do for the foreseeable future. Even if you are buying well today, you are buying higher on the price curve than you will be selling at three to six months from now.
 
Keep your powder dry for the next six to twelve months, i.e., hoard cash. Opportunities will abound.
 
Warren Buffet: “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.”
 
Jimmy Buffet: “If life gives you limes, make margaritas.”
 
Further reading: (A lot of WSJ pay-walled articles, but they do some of the best research.)
 
 
 
 
 
 
Aug 29

For years I struggled with setting rents. Too much under market rents and the properties did not perform as well as they could. Too much over market rents, they sat vacant and do not perform as well as they could. There seems to be a theme developing here. 😉

To succeed you need to know what others are charging for rent in your very specific market. To that end, we spent a lot of my time, my staffs’ time and effort trying to collect comparable rents.

Ten, fifteen years ago our team manually enter details from for rent ads in the local papers, Craigslist, Zillow and anywhere else we found them. Then we would combine that information with city property records, trying to get an accurate view of what the market rent was for a particular unit. This was expensive and annoying.

We tried freelance data collectors through oDesk (now UpWork) to collect and correlate the records. Better, but still costly and the results still were not exactly what I wanted.

Then I saw promise in AI and Machine Learning, using tools like BlockSpring. Better results, but then Craigs and others started blocking automated collection tools.

We went back to manual data collection where we had to and automated what we could.

We were doing the rent surveys once or twice a year due to the hassle and costs. Quarterly would be better to catch trends.

I had looked at Rent-O-Meter in its early days. It seemed promising but had far less data than even our rudimentary data set.

Last October I relooked at Rent-O-Meter. Wow. We have been using it ever since.  They have both a free version and a free trial of the “Pro” version that goes for about $200 per year.  Setting one rent wrong will cost you more than that. You may want to take a look.

Note: while this may sound like an ad for Rent-O-Meter, it is not.  I’m just a happy, paying customer of theirs.

Feb 23

The first question you must ask is ‘What is the market for similar units today?’

Market rates can change quite a bit in both directions.

If an area is suddenly overbuilt or there is the loss of a major employer, rents can go down. In those cases even keeping the current rent may cause you to lose a great tenant.

If the rents have gone up a lot, then you may be leaving too much money on the table.

You can look at a bunch of local ads and Craigslist to get an idea. This can be a lot of work. I cheat and use rentometer.com (they have a free level, but we do enough to make the pro version worth while) Then go and look at their comps to see where you should be as all three bedrooms in Anytown, USA are not created equal.

For a great tenant we do not raise to market, but will often raise a bit. There is a cost to turning a unit in prepping, advertising and lost rent.

If you are not planning on selling the place, getting the last 5% of rent  may be a fools errand. On the other hand if you are selling a place, 5% of additional rent can be thousdands of dollars of added value.

Dec 28

It is clearly advantageous for most people who have businesses or itemize their personal deductions to pay as many deductible items as possible in the next couple of days.  (Of course, check with a tax pro and not rely on some landlord you found on the internet before acting)

This could include property taxes, general bills due in the next 60 days, and state estimated income taxes. Perhaps if you have subscription based software etc., you could get a discount by switching to annual instead of monthly payments and move that payment into 2017. Same if you are on an installment plan with insurance let’s say.

We paid as much as we could and I’m feeling a bit broke today.  Knowing so many others had to do the same, it got me to thinking.

My prediction is retail and things like autos and refrigerators are not going to sell well for at least the first quarter of 2018 as so much was spent by small business owners in the final two weeks of 2017.

If you are into the stocks and options, perhaps there is an opportunity to make some money, knowing that the economy will be depressed for a couple of months as people recover from the forced spend to move tax deductions into 2017. (But again, don’t take my advice as I am Just A Landlord)

Dec 02

When I was just a wee lad of six or seven I was given a book for Christmas, The Way Things Work.

I do not think any gift had made as much of an impact on my life as this. Learning so many fundamentals of mechanics, physics, electricity, plumbing etc as a grade school kid was a foundation that helped me understand so much of what I needed as a small landlord that initially had to make all my own repairs.

These fundamentals also helped me succeed in my prior career in manufacturing.

How different my life would have been if instead I had gotten the Tonka dump truck I thought I wanted for Christmas.

Today, when deciding what gifts to give my grandchildren, I try to find gifts that may impact their lives as much as this book impacted mine.

In fact writing this post brought back such memories, that I just bought a used copy for myself.

Jul 19

Perhaps excluding the likes of Amazon, Google, and Tesla, most well run, and effective businesses can achieve 10, 15, 20% or more sustainable improvement every couple of years by applying “Fresh Eyes” to their procedures and processes.

Your business is doing well, at least you think so. But you know it would do better if only you could just … [put your challenges and opportunities here] You say ‘I’ll jump on doing that next week, or after the vacation, or after Labor Day or by the end of the year.’ Sorry, buddy. Ain’t happenin’. You said the same last year and the year before and…

Let’s be honest you can’t see the opportunities and obstacles, and if you do, you cannot act on them. The excuses your staff and you have created to avoid doing what must be done have been internalized and are no longer even noticed. Processes that were in place and working have fallen by the wayside. You step over great opportunities sitting on your front step every morning, without even noticing them anymore or worse, curse them for being in your way.

We are blind to missed opportunities and obstacles because we are too close. In the past twenty-five years, I went from 175 to 200 pounds. I did not see even one of those pounds sneak up on me, but they are here today. Your business is the same, slowly getting fat, but not noticed.

‘Well, I’ll just have my staff take a look and make changes.’ Sorry, they have worse baggage than you.

What we’ve done at my company for many years now is to hire a temporary set of “Fresh Eyes.” This person must be a potential superstar, who is available to work for a couple of, or a few months. They are never hired to fill a current role.

Rather the “Fresh Eyes” position is to question everything we do. You know how it is easier to tell someone how they should run their business or their life than to do the same yourself. That is what we are looking for in a “Fresh Eyes” person.

Typically we hire people outside of the rental industry, so they have a different perspective than us. We’ve had a former Health Department inspector, a former Alderman, a couple of former community leaders, a former manager of a temp service. I lean towards people different than us, but who have proven themselves as leaders and producers.

The goal is to hit a sustainable 15% improvement with a two to four-month commitment to work with the “Fresh Eyes” employee.

To get value full value from this experience, you must remember that “Ego is the Enemy”* and do not allow yourself to feel insulted or defensive of your soon to be former bad ways.
——
*Ego is the Enemy is the title of a book on Stoicism by Ryan Holiday – It is worth the read. Find it on Amazon.

“MY OPPONENT IS MY TEACHER. MY EGO IS MY ENEMY.”
— RENZO GRACIE

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

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