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. ūüėČ

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.

Jun 08

Many years ago I used a voice to email app, Jott. ¬†Then six or seven years ago I wrote that Jott shut down, but I found a replacement that I liked, Reqall. ¬†That too met a similar fate. I tried another, Dial2Do. ¬†I didn’t like it that much, but better than nothing. ¬†It too ended a year later. ¬†So I relinquished myself to using Siri to send myself emails. ¬†A bit cumbersome, but I guess…

This past week I tried Drafts 5.o.  It has a lot of features that none of the previous ones had.  It is great at long form dictation Рsay a draft of a letter while you commute.  Much easier than the last time I tried Dragon dictate, but its been a while and Dragon may be great too.  You can send the text to a bunch of different apps and storage platforms.

Price is free, which most of us can still afford even with summer maintenance season upon us.

Oh, and it works on an ¬†Apple Watch, which I don’t own. ¬†But think how cool you would look doing your Dick Tracy impersonation while entering some job on your watch….


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.


Jan 03

Okay, time for a rant here…

For the sixth time in less than ten months, Pitney Bowes postage ( has posted late fees to our account for payments received posted two or more days prior to the due date.
Pitney Bowes has gone from the industry leader in SMB postage solutions to adopting slimy, time-consuming business practices.
If it has happened to us, then I’m sure it is happening to countless other small businesses. If it happened to you I would like to hear from you. ¬†Maybe it is time for legal actions.


I would also like recommendations for alternative services for businesses sending 400-1000 pieces of mail a month.
Aug 30

Years ago I had a secret weapon … Jott an iPhone app that allowed you to speak a note and have a fairly well typed email. Unfortunately Jott was shut down a couple of years ago.

A year ago I stumbled on an excellent replacement, DO note. This app is available for both iPhones and Android.  It is free as well.

While you are out in the field you can quickly take a note of something you will likely have forgotten about by the time you get to a proper place to jot down your notes.


Jan 02

A year ago I wrote of my five top ideas for real estate for 2013.

Of those ideas I have implemented .. not much. ¬† Shortly after the first of the year 2013 we found that my wife’s ongoing back pain was being caused by a large benign tumor. She had it surgically removed on Valentine’s day and is fine today, but it upended things for a while

Today as I reflect on the past year and think about this coming year I reread the ideas posted last year. A year later they all hold value.

Two have been implemented as part of an effort to increase the value of membership by the Apartment Association of Southeastern WI’s ¬†board of directors under the leadership of Joe Dahl.

The Association now has quarterly small group meetings as part of the Professional Membership. These meetings are an important element of #3 on the list, improving  how we share our collective knowledge

In a big step towards #1 on the list, reducing maintenance supply costs, the Association has teamed up with Home Depot, Pittsburg Paint, Sherwin Williams, and a number of other organizations to provide discounts to our members.

Home Depot offers a whopping 20% discount on paint and 2% cash back rebate on most purchases to our members. Sherwin Williams offers members discounts on paint equal to the discounts that major contractors receive. Pittsburg has similar discounts.

I would add a sixth and seventh opportunity for 2014, Crowdsourcing/Crowd funding for real estate. ¬†I’ll post my thoughts on these in the next couple of days

The five most important Real Estate Ideas for 2014 remain:

(Clicking on the topic’s title takes you to the full article)

  1. Reducing Maintenance Supplies costs
    Pre 1950 buildings in lower income neighborhoods require around $100 per month per unit for repairs, replacement reserves and improvements. Newer buildings in more affluent neighborhoods perhaps $50 ‚Äď $65. This is all maintenance from leaky faucets and unit turnovers to new cabinets, new roofs, electrical upgrades, replacing parking lots ect. (more)
  2. More Effective Maintenance Labor/Contractors
    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)
  3. Become better at sharing our collective knowledge
    The is good beginning. However it does not work real well as a reference tool as the posts are not organized by topics nor apparently easily searchable for many users. (more)
  4. Group purchase of a distressed block or two
    There has been this wild idea floating around in my head for years, acquiring a distressed block with a group of active owners and turn it around for fun and profit. (more)
  5. Tech Meets Real Estate
    There certainly are huge opportunities for software/web solutions for things that cause frustrations for owners and perhaps tenants. (more)
  6. Crowdsourcing for real estate, posting later in the week.
  7. Crowdfunding for real estate, posting later in the week.


Jan 09

Real Estate Ideas for 2013 Part Five: Tech Meets Real Estate

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 fifth and final 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 Five:

Tech Meets Real Estate

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

I see this as the greatest opportunity of those presented by me.  We are in an industry that has low margins and high expenses. A 10% swing in effectiveness can mean the difference between wildly successful and a miserable failure.

Some thoughts on where tech and rental real estate may intersect:

  • Setting rents to market rates. 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, to some extent. ;-( ¬†What if there was a site that effectively tracked what other rents are at in your area?
  • Property acquisition.¬†Look at what sites like SpotProperty are doing elsewhere, but not here.
  • Vacancy filling Craig‚Äôs 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 without processing the full app ¬†by an individual owner may be problematic from a fair housing standpoint, a proper third party system could work.
  • Tools for ¬†group maintenance supply buying¬†mentioned in Part One of this series¬†where owners could opt into a group purchase of bulk supplies
  • Improved tenant screening. ¬†Things like “Bad Tenant Lists” are illegal, but there must be things that are not being done today or being done in a manner that is more difficult than necessary or simply be improved by tech solutions.
  • A site for creating and serving 5-day notices¬†etc. by certified mail or personal service from your computer without ever having to leave your home or office.
  • Put your solution here…

Where tech helps our industry today

Obviously MLS is the big tech tool of real estate.

The right property management software is essential for all but the smallest of property owners.  Our company uses very customized management software that makes many tasks and decisions automatic or semi automatic. In general a click a button and the machine does exactly what a well trained person would. Receive a WE Energies service termination notice and a work list item is created to check for vacant. Tenant collection actions are automatically determined on amount due, last pay date and how long they have been a tenant. One button and it select the proper notice or reminder for all tenants. Of course there are overrides as special circumstances require special treatment.

Automation of routine tasks frees our employees to think about things that need thought about, rather than thinking about the repetitive and mundane.  Computers are great at those tasks.

Another example of tech meeting rental real estate is the free eviction notices we provide members on the AASEW site.

Outside of MLS, management software, five days and the examples above, there are certainly other solutions and improvements just waiting for us to identify. ¬†Well, waiting for you to identify, as I’ve put all I can think of in the above list.

If any of the topics interest you comment either on the list or directly to me

Jan 04

 Real Estate Ideas for 2013

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 third 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 Three: 

Become better at sharing our collective knowledge 

The is good beginning.  However it does not work real well as a reference tool as the posts are not organized by topics nor apparently easily searchable for many users.

What if the¬†archives¬†were used to form a new reference tool, perhaps a Wikipedia style ‚ÄúBest Practices‚ÄĚ Guide¬†for Milwaukee rental owners. ¬†My vision is a user contributed, user edited tool that would be a ready reference to many topics we discuss on these lists.

It would include everything that a property manager runs into. Who is the best plumber, what notice do you use for the tenant that decided that partying till 6 AM everyday is being neighborly.

Many of us know a lot, but none of us know it all. Things change in our industry nearly daily.   Contractors and suppliers who were the best may have become expensive  sloppy or retied.   New vendors and contractors come on the scene every day. Bad tenants learn new ways to circumvent screening. Laws change. Judges and Commissioners change their views on how laws are implemented.

Similarly a Mastermind Group could reap benefits if the right people were involved. Here is a good overview of how Mastermind groups work.

Another model is what groups like StartUpMKE are doing in the tech field.  It is similar to what the Apartment Association does, but they seem  more involved in actual business creation.

Lunch with ¬†AASEW board members was an interesting idea. ¬†If you don’t recall this you can read more about lunch with AASEW board members here. ¬†When I look back on our prior attempt, I think this would work better if the sponsor board members would set a date, place and topic. ¬†Then if there was enough interest for that particular meeting it would move forward.

Bottom line: There is power in shared knowledge and we should do more to harness that power

Jul 05

Many of you know how I raved about, a service that allowed you to call in from your cell phone and leave yourself a message.   When you returned to your office you had an email with a fairly accurate text of the note you just left yourself.

This was one of the greatest boost to my field effectiveness in years.  No more little scraps of paper, no more forgetting something Рit was near perfect.

Then Bam! They discontinued the service as of May 3rd.  I felt like I lost half of my brain.

Over the weekend I tried a new service. ¬† ¬†I like it. ¬†In fact I like it a lot. It’s like having the other half of my brain back!

Dec 27

The Wisconsin State Bar Association has released a white paper on scanning/ document imaging.  While the piece is obviously aimed at lawyers, their suggestions and ideas apply equally as well to our industry.

Here is a link to the 20-page white paper,¬†‚ÄúHardcore Scanning for Law Offices of Any Size,‚ÄĚ

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