The Achieve Wealth Podcast
Guest: Ben Label
Title : Underwriting Phoenix with Ben Leybovich
James: Hey, welcome audience to Achieve Wealth Podcast. This is where we look at operators around the countries and learn from them. And I really appreciate you being here just because you have thousand and one things to do somewhere else. But listening to us or listening to me on this podcast gives me great pleasure to be with you all. So today I have a very nice guest and I would say a well-known guest in the bigger pockets and outside of bigger pockets community as well. Today we have Ben Label, which is from Phoenix; hey, Ben, thanks for coming.
Ben: How are you? It’s a pleasure to be with you. I do a lot of these podcasts, but I have fun every time.
James: Yeah, that’s awesome. Yeah, we want to go a bit more into detail, so I’m sure you’ve gone into a great line in other podcasts as well, but there are a few things that we look for. I mean, I’m an operator. We would like to go into a lot more details, into the numbers and the strategies and all that just because we want to learn and my audience want to learn and we listen to podcasts to learn, right? Because everybody’s spending the time to listen to each one of those podcasts and there are thousands of those out there but I think it’s important that we learn from each other. Right? So, Ben has been almost investing in multifamily residential real estate for over a decade and he has been on numerous times featured in Bigger Pockets Podcast. I’ve been following him since the very early days when I started in single family and I’ve learned a lot of things from Bigger Pockets.
He has been featured on like three different episodes in Bigger Pockets, he is also the creator of Cashflow of Freedom University and author of House Hacking. He and his partner, Sam Grooms, has been a buying deals in Phoenix market. I think they close on 98 units and recently you close on 130 units, is that right?
Ben: 117, it’s 117, last week we purchased.
James: 117. Okay. So why don’t you tell us about yourself to our audience on aspects that I’ve missed out about introducing you?
Ben: Well, thank you again for inviting me, I appreciate it; I like doing these things. Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves, especially when you were so good-looking like me and I guess most often do, it’s fantastic, right? Sam is like, not showing up for this, he knows how it’s going to go. I don’t know, my story has been very kind of public, through Bigger Pockets and elsewhere. Folks, you know, my website, justaskBenwhy.com, my stories are all over that website.
I basically was informed that I have a medical condition called multiple sclerosis when I was in college. I’m a professional fiddle player, but I wasn’t able to do that because it’s kind of hard to do that when your hands don’t work like they’re supposed to. So it was a kind of a long path toward discovering some way of making money that wasn’t reliant upon my physiology to the extent that music would have been. And I kind of, through zigging and zagging through this rationale, I ended up eventually in real estate. I bought a few single families first, figured out that I didn’t like it, went onto small multifamily, syndicate larger apartments today, with my partner Sam Grooms in Phoenix. And that’s kind of my story.
James: Yeah. Hey, thanks Ben. So I remember you, were in Ohio and you moved to Phoenix, what is the reason for that transition?
Ben: Well, there are many reasons. Like everything in life, I think there are synergies that need to take place in order for things to really work and gel and work properly. For one thing, I’m 43 years old, I was 40 years old at the time we relocated. My mentor, who is no longer with me, once upon a time told me, whatever you’re going to do, do it by the age of 40. If you don’t do it by the age of 40, you’re not going to do it in your life. It’s a lot easier to keep the ball rolling that’s already going than it is to start the ball rolling at the age of 40, midlife basically.
So that was one kind of driving force is that I felt like Ohio wasn’t the place where I want it to be but you know, the driving force for that timing happening the way that it did was really, I was cognizant of my age and I just wanted to offer myself and my family a good opportunity, [05:42inaudible] start in a better world. That’s one thing.
The second thing is I wanted better weather, I wanted blue skies, palm trees; I wanted low property taxes, I wanted a good business environment, I wanted a lot of growth. If I never see snow in my life is going to be too soon, I’m completely done with snow. I wanted educational opportunities for my children that I simply wasn’t able to attain where we were in Ohio. All of those things, just kind of synergize together and we moved so far, everything’s working out absolutely beautifully. My kids are having fabulous educational opportunities and my wife has been a very successful Real estate agent; she makes a lot of money. I am syndicating buildings that it’s not something I could do in Ohio just because I wouldn’t allow myself when we talk about the underwriting, we can touch on why I wouldn’t do it in Ohio or Midwest in general. And then, my job as a function of sitting down by my pool and working my way through some spreadsheets and making some offers and my life is a beautiful thing right now. So that’s how and why we ended up in Phoenix.
James: Yeah. Let’s talk about markets in a short while. So once you moved to Phoenix, I think you met Sam here and you guys started a partnership, right? So my first question is, why do you want to partner up? And second is, how did you choose the partner or how did you choose Sam and what are the skills that you guys see that was complimenting?
Ben: Sure. Well, first of all, the reason I wanted to be in Phoenix is because I want to be in a growth market. We buy only in Phoenix because it is a very, very serious growth market and I happen to be very bullish on it and see quite a bit of runway still. Now, for instance, we took a look at Texas because Texas, everybody likes Texas, but Texas was a market that started recovering like 12 years ago so it is a very seasoned recovery at this point. There are other places, Phoenix among them that is a younger cycle still. So I feel because of that and a lot of other, be it income growth, rent growth, occupancies, a lot of other metrics are just looking better to me in Phoenix than in a lot of other markets so that’s why in Phoenix.
The way we met is I was putting a deal together that didn’t materialize, it fell apart, but Sam was going to be one of the investors as a limited partner in that deal. It was also a red D and after the fact, after the thing fell apart. Well, actually before the thing fell apart, he called my attention to the fact that I had a mistake in my underwriting. It wasn’t a very serious mistake, but it was an oversight on my part and like nobody finds mistakes in my underwriting. So I’m like, who the hell is this guy and how is it that you know? So I started looking into him and the thing about him was he took the offering memorandum and he milked the spreadsheets to reverse engineer my offering memorandum and he found an inconsistency that I had missed. And I was just like, wow! So we had lunch and when that deal didn’t materialize, the two of us just kind of got together.
He’s a CPA with SCC reporting background, so he obviously has a lot of strengths that are complementary and scalable, complementary to mine. He didn’t have operational experience, but he had a lot of bookkeeping and accounting and paperwork wise, corporate level, institutional level experience. And he’s obviously a very strong underwriter because spreadsheets are like his bloodline. So that worked and that’s why it worked. And the main reason that works, because I like him a lot and I trust him. I don’t have to worry about him stabbing you in the back. I would be amazed that ever happened and I don’t believe it, he’s just a good person. So that’s how that worked and that’s why we’re in Phoenix, kind of the high level, tips of the trees; we like the market and that’s why we’re together because we have a very complimentary skill set.
James: Good. Good. So let’s go down into a little more details into the deals that you guys do. So you have told me why Phoenix. So at a high level, Phoenix did go through a huge upswing and the downswing when on the previous market cycle of market correction in 2008, so aren’t you worried about that? [10:41inaudible] I think you froze.
Ben: Yeah, we froze up a little.
James: Okay, go ahead. Yeah, I can edit that out. So did you hear my question?
Ben: You’re freezing up again. Yeah.
James: Okay. So nothing now it’s good. So my question is, Phoenix did go through a huge downturn, it was a huge swing in 2008 so aren’t you worried about Phoenix going through that again?
Ben: You’re freezing up, James. Breaking up real bad.
James: I’m not sure what’s happening. Is it good?
Ben: It’s good now.
James: Okay. Let’s see.
Ben: No, freezing up again. Wow!
Ben: Okay, you’re back now. Okay, let’s try it again.
James: So let’s go into the details of the market. Phoenix went through a huge downturn during the last 2008 crash, the real estate and the economy crashed so aren’t you worried about that?
Ben: No because Phoenix today is a different market from Phoenix 10 years ago. So Phoenix 10 years ago was very heavily reliant on construction. A lot of the GDP in the state and Phoenix, in particular, was all about construction. Construction is like 10% of our economy today. We have a very diversified economy, meaning; tech, banking, health-care are the three kinds of big industries, they’re very well diversified. So additionally, the population growth that we experienced in Phoenix prior to the last cycle was all driven by a snowbird housing. There was a lot of housing being built for people from the Midwest, from Canada. Well, what happens when the economy crashes is these people lose nothing but just dropping the bag and making themselves scarce so we had a lot of foreclosures because of that. The dynamics are completely different now because of the population growth, while we still have people coming in, snowbirds, but we have a lot more true retirement.
So this isn’t a second home, it’s actually the first home for a lot of people that are relocating here. We also still have snowbirds, but by and large, our population growth is driven by economic growth. We’re located in a place where you have California over here, Texas over there and Mexico over here, top 20 economies in the world and we’re within a day’s drive so it’s a good place to be in terms of commerce and trade and all of that. And then there are little things like, listen, 20 years ago the HVAC units couldn’t even keep up with 115-degree weather and today it’s just really a non-issue at all can so life in Phoenix has become more comfortable.
The infrastructure is very new because the whole place is new. The property taxes are extremely low as compared to the Midwest or Texas. The regulatory environment is very friendly to business and as California experiences what it experiences, we are certainly benefiting with x coming out of California and we are one of the places that they’re going, Seattle being another one, Texas being another one, but they’re definitely coming here. So the economy is very much more diversified than it was prior to the last crash. So that’s kind of the big picture view of why would answer no, I’m not, I mean, I’m always concerned. People ask me, what are you afraid of? I’m afraid of everything but you have to be logical about how you kind of respond to things and look at facts. And the facts are that nationwide, last I read, average apartment rent stands at $1,470 per month; in Phoenix, we’re at 1070. Maricopa county, which encompasses all of Phoenix and surrounding MSA is the number one growth county in the entire country.
Phoenix is the number two growth city in the entire country. We now have a population of 5 million so we’re number five largest city in the country. And with the proper regulatory environment, the low taxes on property, all of those things, insurance costs are lower because we don’t have hurricanes, we don’t have fires, we don’t have all the nonsense right? We don’t have the freezing pipes in the middle of the winter, we don’t have any of that stuff so there’s a lot of positives. So the question people are asking is, hey, here’s this growth market. Our rent growth in 2018 clipped at 8.2 %.
James: Wow! That’s huge.
Ben: Well that’s because we’re 1070 and nationwide, you’re at 1470. There’s a 25% delta in the highest growth market in the country so you are asking yourself, why? Basically, you’re saying, why would an average rent in like Cincinnati, Ohio cost more than it does in Phoenix, which has the good weather, all the growth and all of the income growth and all of the job growth and everything and the population growth? So that’s why the investors are asking themselves, can Phoenix organically catch up to the national averages? Like forget surpassing the average, can we catch up to the national?
And if you say yes, it’s because you see what’s happening economically. If you say yes, then if you deploy your capital at five cap and you just sit on it until that process kind of happens on your basis, you’re at six and a half gap three or four years later without having to do any value-ads. So this is why the cap rates are so compressed in Phoenix is because people are just making a play on the fact that Phoenix has undervalued. For the type of economic prowess that is currently taking place in Phoenix, it’s just undervalued; rents are undervalued, property is expensive relative to the rents. But if you consider the prospects of rents going up, if you look at Marcus and Millichap, they’re predicting this year at 6.2%; if you look at Colliers, they are over 7% so again, depending on who you look at. I think we’re going to be closer to 7% just because we have such delta and because of what I am personally experiencing in this environment.
We just have a lot of upside, the ceiling is very high. Juxtapose this against Austin, which is stalling out at this point, it is a very seasoned market. The rent growth is stalling out, the vacancies are taking up, so now it’s Texas, so can it continue being Texas for the next five years? For all I know, yes, but given the choice to be in a younger cycle such as Phoenix or to be in a seasoned cycle, but in a very strong location, historically that’s proven itself, I don’t know, that’s where people kind of make their bed, I guess and make their beds. I like Phoenix, I’m bullish on Phoenix and I’m not even looking to any place else because if you can be in Phoenix, why would you look at anything else?
James: Yeah, that’s exactly my point as well. I’m in Texas and I’d rather invest in my backyard even though it’s competitive over here. But in your backyard, you have a lot of control. You can go and drive by and see it compared to somewhere else. I mean, real estate is so localized, it’s important for you to know your own back yard. So coming back to the sub-market, how do you choose the sub-market, is there a specific preferring for sub-market compared to the deals itself?
Ben: I don’t really worry about sub-markets because I don’t buy buildings, I buy stories. So if there’s a good story for a specific building, because all it is is that you are looking for a delta, the money is always in the delta. So if you can purchase the building here, but the story suggests that the building, the future valuation is going to be recognized here, then that’s the delta I am paying for, that’s what I’m buying. I’m not actually buying the cash flow, I’m not a cash flow investor when I syndicate these things. Cash-flow is there as a pathway to generating wealth and generating equity but that’s it. There are not cash flow investments because you can’t drive the IRR on cash flow, it’s discounted too much over time and you need the appreciation. The appreciation is in Delta and the delta is in the story.
So we bought a Kenyan 35 and that’s half a mile away from a university, a Grand Canyon University that grew from 2000 students to 20,000 students in 10 years. Received public status Accreditation, is investing $1 billion into their campus, gentrifying everything around them, of course, as usually happens with the universities when they grow and they’re going to be at 30,000 students within next five years. So I’m buying a building half a mile away, that’s my story there. I buy another one over here that is in the middle of a huge redevelopment and rejuvenation by the city. The city is deploying a lot of capital. There’s a lot of class A infrastructure coming in, both in terms of retail and office space and everything else. So I buy this class C building, it’s surrounded by all this class A stuff. It’s uniquely positioned to be able to compete with class A on finishing textures when I’m done remodeling, but at a much lower basis. So my rents don’t have to be anywhere near where the class A rents are and so, it’s a story, it’s always a story.
What is happening economically that is going to give my building desirability that is uncommon at the basis that I will be at. So the sub-market itself doesn’t really, I mean, yeah, I guess there are places you wouldn’t want to go, but we wouldn’t look in those places because nothing is happening in those places. The whole point of where we want to buy buildings is because things, good things are happening in that location, that’s why we want to buy a building there, especially in this season cycle.
James: Yeah. So what you’re saying is there are places that you wouldn’t even look at it, right? It’s basically a sniff test. Yeah, this area, I’m not looking at it.
Ben: Well, there’s area and there’s a building. I mean, I get these emails, 100 a week and the vast majority of them go into the trash before they’re even opened. And of those open, vast majority go into the trash and that’s got to do with age, quality, construction features because you can put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. You can put a gold plated toilette in a pig, it’s still a pig. Because of what it is, where it is, it’s gonna attract the audience that it’s going to attract, there’s nothing you can do with it and I don’t want those buildings like that.
I want the building, which inherently the bones of it are just something that’s not coming through in a recognizable way, shape, and form for the marketplace. But if I put some money and energy into this asset, I can bring back what it already is. I’m not trying to take a pig and make it into a unicorn. I’m trying to make a unicorn that’s been completely messed up and it looks like a pig, but it’s a unicorn, it’s not a pig. I just have to re-sculpt it, redo it, I have to clean it up, improve and then the market will see it for what it is, which is a unicorn. That’s what I want and that’s a function of both location and the asset itself.
James: Yeah, I mean, so I think what you’re describing is what I would describe as building upside. So I look for deals where I know today I can go and just improve on it; either by capital or reducing expenses and just realize that upside that has been hidden inside that building and that’s a lot of it in multifamily, right? And it just you’re to find that kind of deals. It’s hard to find that kind of deal, but that is the real deal, right? Compared to buy [24:23inaudible]
Ben: Right. Then it’s a needle in a haystack. In fact, I mean, if you are not doubling, almost practically doubling your NOI in the first three years, you are not buying the right kind of building because that’s what it takes in my experience is almost doubling the NOI in three years.
James: Yup. So let’s go to underwriting. So where are you getting your deals, are you getting from brokers?
Ben: Brokers; they’re off-market but they’re brought to me by brokers.
James: So why do they come to you?
Ben: Because I close.
James: Okay. No, there must be, I mean brokers do a lot of off-market but they look for qualified buyers, right? So especially people who have done deals with them so maybe…
Ben: Right, so that’s why, and I mean, even if I didn’t do a deal with this broker—I don’t know, I don’t want to drop names because I don’t want to but the national brokers, one of them reached out to me yesterday because even before we closed last week on the last one, somehow everybody already knows that we’re going to close on it. And so these guys started coming out of the woodwork. Well, this schmuck emails me, he calls me twice in a row, he says, Oh yeah, I got an off-market property for you. I said, okay, go ahead and email me the nondisclosure agreement, I will sign it and email me the stuff. Well, he emails this property to me; well another broker already showed it to me two months ago, not requiring any kind of nondisclosure.
It was a pig; it was the very thing that we’re describing, the ’don’t do’. It’s the wrong shape, it’s the wrong footprint, it’s the wrong mechanical layout, it’s the wrong age, it’s the wrong location; It’s the wrong everything. And these guys call you and they say, well, you know, you can get it for 75 per door. While I’m like, I would rather pay a hundred a door but get quality, that’s going to be worth 180 when I’m done with it, rather than paying 75 per door because whatever money I put into it, it’s still going to be worth 75,000 per door when I’m done because the market has decided this is a pig. It’s worth 75 per door, that’s it. There’s nothing you’re going to do to move that hurdle and so you get a lot of that.
But you also get some serious brokers. Like the biggest brokers in Phoenix is not national brokers, they are local, but they’re the biggest by volume. They do the most deals in the apartment space and those guys bring me deals, they’re deals, and they’re not the only ones, other people do as well. We’ve tried to go after some deals with other brokers, we came really close. We weren’t able to, for one reason or another, to execute those deals, somebody else got it or whatever. But sometimes brokers have deals and they’re off-market deals. The question of, what’s it gonna take to get those deals? I just don’t have an answer. It’s all about relationships and I’m going to have to convince somebody that you are worth having a conversation with and that you have a good chance of executing. Obviously, it gets easier immediately after the first deal closes, immediately.
James: Just because of the credibility. Let’s say today a broker sends you an OM, right? So some random broker and he said it’s a deal and you know it’s not a pick, right? So, you know there’s something more I need to do my secondary inspection here or my secondary underwriting here, right? So how would you go about underwriting the deal?
Ben: Well, the first and most important thing in the underwriting process is to place after renovated rents because if you mess that up, everything else just doesn’t matter. Where most of the money is, is knowing down to the dollar and the cents where those rents are going to be after you are done fixing the community and fixing the unit. So that’s the first thing I do is like if it’s well located, it’s the correct year, it’s the correct HVAC, it’s the correct roof, it’s the correct XYZ, which I can tell just by looking at this thing, it’s in the correct sub-market, where I know I would want to be, the next step in the process is just to put it through the underwriting that begins with placing rent, understanding what the rents are going to be.
James: So how do you place rents? I mean, how do you do the rent comps?
Ben: So, for me, if a broker is sending me something like this, what is accompanying it is some kind of Yardi report or metrics or something; some kind of report on the sub-market, which is going to give me the comps. Now those reports aren’t correct, they’re probably within 20% margin correct. We are looking in the market that’s trending seven, 8% per year, obviously, those metrics will be off. First of all, I know what the rents are in Phoenix, MSA for the class of asset I want to buy in, in the kind of location I want to buy in. To validate myself, I then look at that report. Now, the underwriting, for the most part, is an automated process because we kind of know what the OPEX is. There’s really very little magic to how much it costs to run these buildings.
There are a lot of reports that study and track by the state, by the locality, by the city, what the operating costs are running and so we underwrite to the averages and we have our own trailing numbers, which we use in the underwriting. So we do massage those for every deal, depending on the size and the complexity of the mechanical and things like that. The R&M is going to vary and certain services are going to be required here they’re not required there, contract services, things like that. But by and large, I know that on the operating side, I’m going to be somewhere between $4,200 per door and $4,600 per door. $4,600 per door is on a smaller asset, maybe 100, maybe 95; $4,200 per door is 120, 140 is going to tick up because now I need more payroll. And so you know what those dynamics look like. We can kind of, we’re both, Sam and I, are starting with numbers filled in because we know where those ranges are and this is just for the first path, right? First time through. Now, if the first time through, I mean, like it takes me about…
James: Let me quickly interrupt you. So how many percents of operational income is that? [32:06 crosstalk] do you look at percentages as well?
Ben: Yeah, that’s the beauty of Phoenix. You’re talking about being under 40% on a stabilized basis.
James: Under 40? That’s really good.
Ben: Between 35 and 40%. Well, this is the thing about Phoenix. I have to tell you; like I studied the operating costs all over the nation, I will tell you that in Texas it’s over $6,000 per door because the property taxes are so high. In Cincinnati, Ohio, it’s over $6,000 per door. Over there, it’s for a different reason; it’s all hilly, the buildings are all older, there are boilers involved, there are flat roofs involved, pipes freeze all the time and building sit at the bottom of where water flows and you just got RNM and contract nightmare.
In Phoenix, because property taxes are so low because the insurance is so low and because frankly a lot of things are easier in Phoenix because of the weather, it never snows, such things, the operating costs, If you look at the national reports that indicate per city, you will see that Phoenix is in the mid $4,000 per door. Now, as a relationship to the rent though, that’s very low because even though Phoenix is lower than the national average, still when you’re running at $4,500 plus or minus like we just purchased last week. So my underwriting for that asset is right around 45 $4,600 per door on the OPEX. But dude, we’re running, let me calculate, we’re running, which is 98 units at about $34,000 per month.
James: That’s awesome.
Ben: $4,000 per month divided by 98 times 12. Yeah, 4163, under $4,200 per door, that’s OPEX. Now obviously you’re going to have cap acts that you are exchanging blinds fixed. It’s not part of the scope is just part of the turn on each unit. But with my underwriting, 4,600, I really don’t think we’re going to need it. In fact, we can run a 117 unit on the same payroll that we run 98 unit. So theoretically that OPEX number, it should be closer to 4,000. So in terms of relationship to the top line, you’ve got very, very pleasant circumstance in Phoenix that you can’t achieve in a lot of other places.
James: Yeah, I think your rent is high compared to the Texas market. I mean, forget about Austin, Austin is a different market, right? But if I look at my San Antonio deals, usually my expenses are 4,500 4,600 but my rents are also lower so I end up my expense ratios like almost 50%. But what you’re describing to me in Phoenix, looks like mobile home parks expense ratio because I know there are mobile home parks expense ratios like around 35 to 40%. So if you can run at 40% that’s a really good market because your income is high and your expenses are low.
Ben: I’m going to look at it right now.
James: Okay. That’s really good numbers in terms of percentage relationship.
Ben: Yeah. So in the first year, I’m projecting 49%; second year, 39%; in the third year, 35%; and then it ticks up a little bit because I’m using a little more O&M as my remodel gets seasoned and it gets older, a little more money for turns, a little more money for O&M and those kinds of things. So, but yeah, we’re staying underneath 40%.
James: That’s very interesting. So is that what you’re consistently seeing even on the broker O&Ms?
Ben: The broker O&Ms are going to be even lower. The broker O&Ms on deals like this, come with like $3,900 of operating costs; 38, 39, which is unrealistic. If you go to the bank, trying to get financing on that, it’s not possible. So for the bankers, you have to show underwriting in the mid four thousand, you just do. But I have to say that in Texas if you are showing 45, $4,600 per door, that’s really good. [36:47inaudible] a lot higher than that.
James: Yeah. We have our own operation, we want to be integrated so we are able to run it much leaner. And the question I have for you on the property taxes, how do you [37:05inaudible] property taxes in Phoenix? I mean do you have the same or do you increase a bait? Because I know in Texas
Ben: In Phoenix, there are regulations in place that were passed about three, four years ago. Whereby the municipality is not allowed to raise property taxes any more than 5% per year, this applies to the assessed value and the actual tax bill so it’s regulation on the books. So the tax on the writing and Phoenix is the simplest thing ever because you don’t have to guess, you don’t have to take a basket of properties, you have to do nothing. You know you’re not going to go up any more than 5% so in my underwriting I use 5% a year, which is the worst case scenario done. Now there are caveats if you are going to put another building on the property and trigger reassessment, that triggers all kinds of circus; we don’t do that. I won’t buy anything that requires me to move exterior walls, to do that kind of stuff.
James: So what are you saying is even though the property has changed, hand the maximum they can do is 5%, wow! It’s awesome.
Ben: And this is what I’m telling you about the regulatory environment being conducive to doing business. They don’t change the chase sales. And everybody says in Texas, oh, just buy the LLC, they will never know what you pay. They’re not stupid, they’re going to look at the loan. They’re going to apply the LTV in reverse, they’re gonna get what you paid and they’re going to assess your taxes up to Wazoo. I mean, the glutens up there, it’s laughable, it’s hilarious. And Texas has always scared me because of that because I can’t underwrite taxes. The same is true in the Midwest, the Indianapolis. I remember I’d paid an attorney, we were looking at a deal in Indianapolis. Well listen, it has in place property taxes of about $60,000 but if I were to follow the letter of the law, I was getting three times that much. Which obviously is going to penalize the building and obviously the broker wasn’t showing that much increase.
So I paid an attorney to speak to an attorney. Even they can’t tell you because yeah, they’re not chasing sales, but they are going to take a basket of properties, like properties and like location, they’re going to kind of synergize all of that data and they’re going to increase everybody by the same amount. But who knows what kind of basket of properties it is, which properties make it into the basket, when were they sold? So the only thing you can do there is looking at trailing billings and back into the probable increases. But it’s not scientific, over here, no more than 5%, boom. And so far that’s exactly what has been 5% per year.
James: That’s awesome. I mean in Texas is just so crazy in terms of property taxes. You do not know what to underwrite. So I always underwrite to a hundred percent increase, just to be safe in terms of underwriting but it’s also a problem because you can buy a deal, which is like 24 years, not changed hand and now you’re at a hundred percent, which can be huge. And it’s mismanaged expectations between buyer and seller because the seller is going to say, hey, this is what I’m running and buyer’s going to say I’ve done completely different and it’s just hard to do business, but that’s very interesting on how they do it in Phoenix. So how do you underwrite like miscellaneous income in terms of after you take over?
Ben: Well, the next step in the process. So once we put it through the underwriting and it looks good, Sam and I drive out to the property. We’ll look at the property, we like it, we go home, we really dial in our underwriting; what do we think the rents are going to be? What do we think the expenses are going to be? If it still looks like it’s a deal, the next thing that happens is we send it over to our property management company with 20,000 units under management and obviously all kinds of access to all kinds of trailing data that we don’t have. So the ultimate decision on where the rents are going to be, where the OPEX is going to be, all old form of it that ultimately is all approved or okayed by them or adjusted whichever way they see fit.
The rubs, the utility income is a very simple proposition. I mean, I underwrite 90% recovery and sometimes we can do better, but I underwrite 90% recovery. Whether you do it, whatever methodology you use, a third-party or Rubs or whatever, RPM likes to use third party, but because of legal absolve, so to speak, they like to offset the risk in that way. And as of late, past few years, regulatorily, it has become more and more difficult but I shoot for 90% recovery of the properties, utility bills, and other income is just purely specific to the property. What I’ll tell you on the other income is that when we’re taking, I have to back into that conversation a little bit.
What different about Phoenix than it is about most other places including Texas, value-add means something very different here. Usually, when we do value-add, we’re looking for a mismanaged department [quote-unquote]. Well, mismanaged usually manifest itself in vacancy. So a big part of our value-add is to put proper management infrastructure in place and to capitalize on that vacancy and to bring it from 12% 14% to 6% which is, according to the market, that’s where you supposed to be, right? So you do what you gotta do to fill those units. The issue with Phoenix is that they can see, pretty well doesn’t exist. It’s such a high growth market and there’s such a lack of demand of 800 to $1,000 units; there’s just such a lag because you can’t afford to build it.
So there’s such a lack of that demand that that asset class is basically full. Even like the most poorly run properties are operating at full occupancy.
James: So you’re saying lack of supply, not lack of demand.
Ben: Yes, lack of supply, I’m sorry. There’s a lack of demand and there’s a lack of population growth, but there’s a lack of supply. Specifically in that price 800 to 1200, because the basis of building it, will fall at $200-225 a square foot, you got to get higher rents than that. And so, for the huge section of the population that needs those 800 to 1200 rents, there is a lack of supply on that. So what is value-add? Well, value-add is $300 per door in this case. Well, let me walk you backward; we just closed on 117 units. The physical vacancy on an annualized basis in that sub-market is 2.6%. Now, can I underwrite that? No, I have to underwrite 6% plus economic vacancy.
But just speaking about the physical vacancy, I have to underwrite 6%. I am penalizing my underwrite because the seller is operating at 2.4. When we took over, there was zero vacancy. There’s one down unit and zero vacancy.
James: What about the economy occupancy, how much do you underwrite that?
Ben: I underwrite economic occupancy, 9%. Somewhere between nine and 10 but on this deal, I did 9% and so five to six of it is physical vacancy and three to four of it is, the rest of the economic vacancy. But what I’m saying is that if the building is operating at zero vacancy and the sub-market is operating a 2.6% vacancy and I am underwriting 6% vacancy, I am penalizing my underwriting 3.4% so I need the first amount of value-add just to compensate that so I can break even. And then I need a whole bunch more value-add so I can actually create the delta so we can create enough profit margin for the IRR to work. So what this ends up looking like as value-add in Phoenix is $300 per door.
James: How did you come up with $300 a door?
Ben: It’s just what it takes, in order for me to back into the IRR to the partners that is going to be attractive for people to invest. What it seems to me, I need, and it seems to be across the board for every deal that we do, what it’s requiring is $300 per door value-add. So we’re buying these deals that have, talk about a unicorn, $300 per door on value-add; only because we don’t have a vacancy.
In most places, like if you have physical vacancy of 10% that you can fill, then maybe you just throw some lipstick on the pig and make another $75 a door, paint the cabinets, do some resurface countertops, do something like that, get another $75 of value-add and you are good; your IRR works because there was vacancy in place that you are able to fill. We don’t have any vacancy so we actually have to do the heavy lifting to recapture the loss to lease and to get the renovation bump and cumulatively what it’s taking us is $300 per door. Anything less than that and we can’t get the margins that we need.
James: So my understanding when you talk about $300 a door, I mean when I underwrite my deals, the $300 a door is basically just the rent but you are saying the $300…?
Ben: No, it’s cumulative between LTL so about 175 of it. The reason the occupancies are zero is that obviously, the rents are too low.
James: Okay, got it.
Ben: You should never have zero occupancy. If you are staying with the market and you’re pushing your rent, you should never have zero occupancy. So the fact that the occupancy is zero is because the rents are too low so on day one, we’re walking in and we’re raising rents at 150 to $175 on the renewals and the rest of it is a bump due to the renovation so cumulatively.
James: Okay, got it.
Ben: So you have their stated rent, then you have their actual rent roll, which there’s a bunch of loss to lease between the rent roll that they’re actually getting and their stated rent. Now we’re coming in, we’re saying no, no, our classic rent is going to be this right here. So now we’re going from their LTL all the way to our classic brand. And then on top of it, we’re saying, but after we remodel, there is another piece of it that gets tacked onto the end. Cumulatively, that entire process in Phoenix, MSA in Class C value-add property, in my experience, $300 per door plus or minus is what’s required.
James: That’s awesome. And what is the total IRR that you look at for?
Ben: I look to deliver to partners, something in the mid 14 to 15 if I hit 14% IRR on a 10 year hold and I always underwrite 10-year hold, I don’t want to sit there for 10 years but especially because we’re late in the cycle, I underwrite a 10 year hold. So on a five-year hold, it ends up somewhere around 17, 17 plus. And of course, if we can exit sooner, then those numbers get [49:52crosstalk]
James: So let’s talk about once you close on the property, right? So yeah, you underwrite everything on the paper and it all looks good so now you close on the property, right? So now you have a task of pushing up that rent. So how do you go about pushing up that rent?
Ben: So I don’t do it, my PM does it.
James: But you’re going to hold the strategy to it, right? I mean, are you going to tell them how to write it?
Ben: Correct. So we had a meeting on the day after we closed at the property. We had a meeting, the meeting was the property manager that’s on site, the regional and Sam and myself. And what we discussed is that because, in the next three months, there are only about three or four leases coming up for renewal each month on 117 unit property. Right now we don’t have a classic rent. As leases come up, you can either stay in the unit as is and pay us our renovated pricing, but you’re welcome to leave. And then we’ll renovate the unit and somebody else will move in and pay the renovated pricing because the business plan calls for rent, so much renovated pricing to be entering to payroll each and every month.
So because we don’t have enough vacancy coming up, we’re basically not renewing leases and we’re not putting any in place. I mean, it’s unreasonable to ask people to pay the rent as if the apartment has stainless steel and granite but I don’t care if they leave, they’re entitled to leave and they should leave. The fact of it is, is that they’re probably not gonna find anything better to go anyhow. At the end of the day, as long as I’m getting the rent, I don’t care if I remodeled it or not because as long as I’m getting my rent projections, I’m in good shape. But I am prepared for a certain number of people to be, I don’t want to say forced out, but they’re welcome to stay as long as they pay our rent.
James: Yeah. So you’re renting is like 300 so there are two components to it. One is just a loss to lease even without renovation. And on top of it, there’s a renovated you need so you can do two ways, right? One is you can just not renovate and just go halfway up there. But I think what you’re saying is you write a business plan calling it.
Ben: We don’t want to do that for one very specific reason. This has been the model over the past five years. The model is $4,500 of renovation buys you painted cabinets, refaced cabinets, resurface countertops, maybe upgraded appliances, not stainless steel, maybe black, some fixtures, some flooring, and some paint. That’s what $4,500 buys you. We’re spending $7,500 per door and that gets us, granite, it gets us 100 hung sinks, It gets us stainless steel appliances, it gets us nicer flooring, paint all the rest of that. So the reason we’re doing that is not so much that we couldn’t make our numbers work, it’s driven by the cycle. We are late in the cycle and when the cycle changes, I want to have the best product in the sub-market at that price point.
When everybody starts taking on ‘loss to lease’ when everybody starts taking on concessions when everybody starts the race to the bottom, my thing is I’m paying for my staying power at that point, but I’m paying for it now, I’m doing the Rehab now. So we’re accomplishing two things with that; number one obviously we’re repositioning the property, we’re repositioning the tenant base, we’re creating a more manageable situation. And number two, the product that we ended up with three years down the road has a lot more staying power then another kind of product that wasn’t as renovated.
James: Especially if you’re going to fork out that much of money right now and make the deal work, you can always invest in that product right now as well.
Ben: So these are syndicated deals so we collect the money up front. There’s nothing worse than coming to your partners and saying, hey, we need $1,000 more. So we collect all the money up front and we deploy it right away and we re-positioned the property right away and 18 months down the road, we arrive at a situation where we start having an exit. Now our buyer may look very different 18 months down the road from the buyer three years from the buyer five years from the buyer seven years down the road. But we have a compelling story to tell at that point in time. We start working on that story right away, on day one.
But yes, our renovations are good renovations; we replaced the cabinets, they’re getting new kitchens, they’re getting new bathrooms. These are seriously upgraded units when we’re done with them. The pricing is phenomenal; we’re getting stuff done for 7,500, $8,000 on the interior that other people are complaining costing them $13,000 to do and they’re not wrong. It’s one of the benefits of having a PM with 20,000 units on her mat and there’s a pricing power that comes with that both in terms of subcontracting and in terms of materials, how they source their materials. We could work our IRR having deployed half the funds, just get lower rents but for less money, we could work it. Then there’s just the other piece of it, which is that three years from now when the market does cycle, potentially, what do I want to own at that point?
James: You want to one of the best product
Ben: I want to own the best quality that people can buy for that amount of money.
James: Got It. Got It. So what do you do, I mean, we have a few more minutes to go, very quickly; what do you do in terms of asset management? Are there any systems that you put in to manage the assets?
Ben: Yes, we use IMS.
James: The IMS is on the investor side, I’m talking more about the property side. I’m looking at property performance.
Ben: They use Yardi. The PM uses Yardi and then we get reporting weekly from on site in terms of, it’ll have things like to date collections, it’ll have vacancies, it’ll have remodeling information, like how many units were remodeled, how many units of pre-leased, how many units are leased, all that stuff. Vacancy; it’ll have delinquency, it’ll have a promise to pay all of that stuff. So it’s a one-page report that kind of gives us a bird’s eye view in the whole thing. And then once a month, at the end of the month, we get a packet this thick. I mean, I’ve never tried to print it off, but I’m sure it’d be this thick, from the PM and that includes everything; everything, trailing, everything.
James: Yeah. So one question that I ask all of my podcast guests is, what is the most valuable value-add that you see in your experience?
Ben: I think the finishing textures inside of the units. I think that people are willing to forgive you. And you know, we do things like upgrade laundry, little rooms we build out. We don’t build a separate building, but like if our laundry room is this big and it only needs to be this big, we’re going to put a wall here and make a gym over here and add and the laundry room over here, things like that we do. But people are willing to forgive you so much if you create an interior that looks good and functions well. I mean, I don’t care what you do on the exterior, if the inside of the unit is not great, it’s just going to be difficult to drive rents. Now, once the inside of the unit is great, there’s a bunch of other things you need; you can’t have an ugly looking laundry room, you can’t have no amenities, you can’t have a shitty looking office, it’s a complete packaging thing.
But I don’t know, I mean, I guess my perspective is different on it. I don’t nickel and dime my renovations because I’ll never get the rents because of what we talked about. I don’t want a hodgepodge unit, like painted cabinets that are 30 years old and resurface countertops. I just don’t want to be left standing holding that bag if I have to be in this property for another five or seven years, for example, I don’t want to be holding that bag for that long. So I’ve never really gone through and said, okay, how much is the countertop worth? How much are new cabinets worth? Because we’re doing all of it. I have my scope, I know what’s included. And at this point is just the easiest thing because we dialed it in, we know where everything is coming from. The PM just orders everything, we know how much it costs. If this kitchen is a little bit bigger, it’s got one more extra cabinet, well, pricing goes up by $135. It’s not difficult at this point to know what the remodel is going to cost.
James: Yeah. So you primarily focus on all of it inside the interiors?
James: So a lot of people are trying to start in multifamily nowadays. I mean, multifamily is a buzzword right now, right? I mean, the economy is doing very well, everything is so good. What would you advise to a Newbie who’s trying to get started in multifamily? That’s a long sigh.
Ben: I don’t know because the economy’s doing really well, that means the competition is very stiff. The thing is, you really got to know what you’re doing it, this isn’t a good time for newbies because the economy is doing very well and it’ll probably continue doing well at some point and they’ll go down and it won’t do so well. And the decisions you make today could hurt you tomorrow and if you are just starting out and you are a Newbie and you’re looking at, I can’t imagine how you do large multifamily and you haven’t bought some four-plexes before and some six-plexes, having to internalized all that stuff, you’re better off just investing money in somebody else’s deal, honestly, I feel at this point, because the stakes are too high. I am buying at four and a half gap, you can’t make money at four and a half cap, you can only lose money at four and a half cap, which is why I buy a needle in a haystack; a very specific asset. If you are a Newbie, what the hell do you know to be able to do anything of what I do?
James: Correct. Right. That’s so many details in renovation, finding deals, underwriting deals so many skills involved, right? It’s not like anybody can jump in and do it right now.
Ben: Which is why we have this conversation, which it should be attractive to more seasoned people, to people like us, people that already have that ball rolling and they’re maybe trying to break out to the next level. So if you’re talking to me about newbies, this isn’t a conversation they should even listen to because half of it they will not understand.
James: They wouldn’t understand. You have to do it to really appreciate it. At least you should have flipped one property. [1:02:17 crosstalk]
Ben: Listen, underwriting is expressing with numbers, a behavior of people and the interaction of people and property, that’s all it is. If you’ve never dealt with a tenant once in your life, how do you know what those dynamics even look like?
James: Correct. I’ve seen a lot of newbies right now immediately, they’re buying 100 units, 200 units. I mean, yeah, the market is so good right now, you’re relying on property management, there’s a lot of wind on your back. Right? The appreciation itself carries you up, but that’s not going to be happening all the time. Everybody is a champion of bull market. So yeah, we started in the single-family, we did so many single families. We learned through the hard way when contractor management, it’s a skill by itself, right? The whole timeline management. So that’s really good advice, Ben. And is there any other things that you want to share to our audience that you have never shared in any other podcasts?
Ben: Yes, I think I shared everything about me in every other podcast, I want my own podcast to share the rest of it. And I’m not sure what the hell I’m going to talk about on my podcast because I already said everything on everybody else’s podcast.
James: Yeah. We already listened to Ben in something else.
Ben: But it’s going to be very, very high level and like, I’m not going to make those excuses. I’m like if you’re a Newbie, you probably shouldn’t listen to this because we’re going to be talking about stuff that you have no idea about. A friend of mine who’s no longer with me has always said to me, ‘stumbling blocks and stepping stones look a lot alike from a distance’. So if you are a Newbie, what I am telling you is be really sure that you know the difference between a stumbling block and a stepping stone before you step. So many of you guys are stepping first and then figuring out if it was a stumbling block or a stepping stone and that could be a very painful process. So I don’t know, education.
James: Education Yeah. Go through the hard work of going with smaller deals first, that’s what I would say. Just learn the ropes, learned the whole thing, make sure that you can do it. Syndication, turning around properties is not for everybody, that’s how I would say. I mean, there are a lot of people who can do it but start small and grow and learn the skills.
Ben: Yeah. I very much disagree with the gurus who say, hey, it’s just as easy to buy a 100 as it is to buy 10. This is true; it is just as easy to buy 100 when you know what you are doing. But the way you get to know what you’re doing is by having bought the fourplex and the six-plex and the 10 unit. I disagree; I think it’s criminal advice to send people directly into large multifamily. Have this be your goal, be excited about it, be whatever. But you need to internalize the dynamics of the game. People act in ways that are going to shock you and the numbers reflect that, don’t be stupid. Don’t be going and saying things like, ah, okay, here’s the income. Let’s just use 10% from property management and 10% for vacancy. Those things, get a little intelligent about what you’re doing.
For instance, the conversation I have with people all the time, listen, in a $500 rental, if you have to replace a furnace, it costs you $2,500; in a $1,200 rental, if you have to replace the furnace, it also costs you $1,200 or a $2,400. As a percentage of the top line, you see how that’s a totally different figure. That’s because all of the expenses in real estate are dollars, they’re not percentages. We back into percentages. So James and I know what our percentages are because we’ve studied the dollars and we backed into the percentages. So if we ever use a percentage, it represents a dollar. What you guys, newbies, do a lot is you take this rent and then you divvy it up percentage wise to this, this, this, this, this. That’s just not how real estate works and that’s how you get hurt.
Ben: Simple things like that that amaze me, that people don’t think about and don’t know and they jump into this stuff because Marcus and Millichap says on the proforma, this is how much percentage you need to allocate to XYZ, that’s just nuts.
James: Absolutely. Absolutely. So Ben, thanks for being here. Do you want to tell our audience how to reach you?
Ben: Yeah. You’re not getting my personal phone number. You’re not getting that, James can have it, but you can’t. But you can email me at Ben@justaskBenwhy.com or you can just go to, justaskBenwhy.com and we’ll look over my website. You can email me through the website as well if you’d like. But yeah, I have a couple of different email accounts for like serious people and then people like you, I’m not giving up those.
James: All right, thanks Ben for being..
Ben: To all the people that I offend, you know, I get on a podcast with one goal in mind; offend as many people as you can, Ben because like if this is your brand is what you do, so go for it. I think I offended a few people, didn’t I?
James: No, I think I like the real numbers, the real details because sometimes some gurus out there makes real estate and multifamily so easy. I mean people don’t realize it, people are selling education as far right. So it’s not that easy, there is a lot of science behind multifamily, there’s a lot of hard work behind it. It takes a lot of experience looking at hundreds of underwriting numbers and trying to figure out, and of course, there’s also another aspect of, now I already buy it, now I’m going through the whole real asset management stuff and they realize, oh, whatever and the road was completely different from what I’m doing asset management, right? So realizing that it takes a lot of experience as well.
So it’s a learnable trick, but there’s also a lot of hard work involved in growing and doing the real stuff, that’s what I see. So that’s really good advice, Ben. So thanks for being on the show for my audience. Thanks for being here. As I said, you have a lot of things to do outside of listening to this podcast and I really appreciate you guys being here. We hope we really delivered value to you guys. That’s the reason I’m doing this podcast, to give true value to listeners and learn as much as possible before dabbling into real estate and multifamily commercial real estate. Thanks. And I’ll talk to you all soon.
Ben: Thank you.