PODCAST: 009 – Developing Real Estate and the AirBnB Test with Mark Ebner
Introduction: Welcome to the Real Estate Locker Room Show with John Carney. Did you know that investing in real estate is a team sport? Join John and his guests as they explore the intersection of the business of real estate and athletic competition. The goal for this show is to grant you direct access to the real estate pros that are closing profitable deals and growing their businesses. On the Real Estate Locker Room Show we are getting in the ring with successful investors, developers, operators, and all of the industry professionals to learn what it takes to achieve ongoing success. Now it’s time to kick off and level up with new ways to grow your real estate business.
John Carney: Welcome back to the Real Estate Locker Room, folks. My name is John Carney coming at you today from Cleveland, Ohio, and joining me in the locker room is another Clevelander real estate developer, Mark Ebner, and we’re going to talk about how to become a real estate developer. Mark lives down in Tremont and is the Principal Developer at True North Living. TNL specializes in modern single family homes for the urban environment, with each home being carefully designed to fit in with its surroundings. Mark is especially interested in traveling and the role of tourism in cities. With the first houses he built in Cleveland, he decided to test the AirBNB market for top of the line short term rentals and has been blown away with its success. Mark has a Master’s degree in Urban Planning Design and Development from Cleveland State, and while obtaining his degree he was a manager of research and engagement for CEOs for Cities, which is a civic innovation lab and network for city progress and success, and connects cross-border, cross-sector, cross-generational civic CEOs and change makers to one another as well as to smart ideas and practices. Welcome to the show, Mark. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us and our audience.
Mark Ebner: No problem, thanks for having me.
John Carney: Cool, well we’re going to talk about real estate development in a little bit, sports as well. So to warm up here and get this interview kicked off, we like to ask a sports question. Who is your favorite athlete of all time and why?
Mark Ebner: That would have to be Kenny Lofton. He was a big part of my childhood for my older brothers and my family in the 1990’s when he was playing for the Indians. Actually he was traded from Houston to Cleveland at the same time that my family moved from Houston to Cleveland, so he’s kind of been a part of my life. I still remember where I was the day we traded him after the ’95 World Series, and then was happy when we signed him back a year later, and then when we traded for him again in 2007 when we made another magical playoff run. So it would have to be Kenny Lofton.
John Carney: Great, and you got to see Kenny Lofton throw out the first pitch at game one of the World Series, correct?
Mark Ebner: Yes I did.
John Carney: And did you make it to all seven games this year?
Mark Ebner: I made it to six of the seven. It was game four in Chicago that I didn’t make it.
John Carney: That’s a pretty strong showing.
Mark Ebner: It’s a pretty shocking showing. Originally I went to Chicago and I just wanted to be a part of the atmosphere, and I was with a family friend who encouraged me to just go to the game because I had never been to Wrigley Field and it’d be an experience. And then for game five in Wrigley, my brother from Portland had flown in to Chicago to see us. Hopefully a win, but that didn’t happen as you may know, but both of my brothers and I were able to go to that game together and it was a lot of fun.
John Carney: Fantastic. Alright Mark, so we’re talking about real estate development, and I look at developing real estate as another form of investing because you’ve got to put your money and your reputation on the line. Can you tell us a quick story about how you chose to get involved in the development side of real estate?
Mark Ebner: So my family has been in some sort of real estate or another my whole life. My dad’s a general contractor who when I was young, when we moved back to Cleveland, bought an apartment building that he began renovating and then subsequently managing, and then also started flipping some houses. In 2007 my parents were fortunate enough to give me a house that we demolished and then had to build a new house on it down in Sandusky, Ohio. So that was my first foray into new construction, it was also my dad’s first house that he bought which was a lifelong dream of his. And then in 2011 I purchased a house that was built in 1890 in Tremont and we remodeled that. The house itself had three vacant lots around it; just the houses had burned down at different times, the previous owners who raised a family of five in the house over the years had just accumulated all the land around them. So after I remodeled that house we began building some new single family houses around it. And in 2012 I quit my job at a nonprofit to really get a hands-on feel for everything. I wanted to see every aspect of the real estate development, especially before my dad needed to quit because he’s now 66 years old. So I thought it was a good time to grab it by the horns.
John Carney: Great. So you have a mentor and a sounding board with your father, and then were you learning a lot with your degree at Cleveland State- your Master’s degree in Urban Planning? Was that a part of just an all-around interest, or was it also a push in the direction that, ‘this is my career path.’
Mark Ebner: You know I studied mostly city management and economic development when I was there, I thought I was going to work for a city and help them on a larger scale. But as I was working before a nonprofit and then as I was working for the nonprofit, I began becoming frustrated just talking about what other people were doing, and I was sitting with my land and saying, “You know I can go make a difference. I can go do what I’m talking about telling other people to do,” and I think that was what really motivated me to start it.
John Carney: Cool so I’m looking at your timeline here and my notes that I’m taking. In 2007 you and your dad build a new construction house from the ground up. No doubt you could write a book about all the lessons you learned doing that. And then you get into a purchase in 2011, so four years later, you got a house to renovate, to rehab, and you own three or four blocks around that. And then when did you start building? Because I guess we’re coming up on 2017, right? So there’s your ten years right there to become an overnight success, but you’ve been slowly chipping away at it and learning- building your team which we want to talk about here in a second. But give me a little bit of a synopsis of those ten years, and how overnight you became a real estate developer.
Mark Ebner: So in 2007 it was right when I graduated college. I’d studied Political Science with minors in History and Social Justice, so I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I became an adult. We worked on the house in 2007, that gave me a great opportunity to do something with my hands. I still didn’t quite know what I wanted to do so I actually moved to Vail, Colorado and I was a ski instructor for two years, which was really important for my development [Inaudible [00:08:47] because- bringing this back to sports, it was really what taught me how to teach and really deconstruct everything that you do and be able to communicate that with other people. You play sports your whole life, you’re taught how to skate, but you don’t really think about your foot position as you’re skating until you need to describe that to someone else, and when you really have to describe the most miniscule detail that’s really important, and I carried that through my whole career. But I then worked some office jobs and eventually decided to study the urban planning. And it wasn’t until 2014 that we started building the second new house, and when we started building that house is when I left my job at the nonprofit. And after that we started slowly- we did one house, I did almost all of the construction on it with help of my dad and a few other people working for us. The next house I subcontracted out a lot more, the last house that I built I subcontracted out even more. My happy point on that one is I’m building 35-foot tall houses, I never even stepped foot on the roof of that house. So learning how to delegate more, learning how to speed the process up, and select the right subcontractors.
John Carney: So from the ground up on new construction on your lots in Tremont, you’re at four completed projects?
Mark Ebner: That’s correct. Four completed if you include the renovated one.
John Carney: Right.
Mark Ebner: And then I have plans to build two more starting next spring, and I have a couple more lots that we’re trying to figure out the best way to build on them. They are in an area that hasn’t seen a ton of development yet, so we’re trying to come up with something a little more affordable, and maybe be able to get a little more density on my lot, and still fit in with the neighborhood characteristics.
John Carney: So for our audience that’s not Cleveland-based and unfamiliar with the Tremont area, in some respects just becoming familiar with the area and checking out your awesome project when I moved back to the US, you were almost a pioneer there and really everyone built up around you while you were getting your degree. Is that a good way to put it?
Mark Ebner: Yeah when I bought my house, directly across the street from me, it was a weed forest of just weed trees, and there were two houses that were around 1900 circa, and then since I bought it that forest has been torn down and there are now twelve new units of housing across the street from me.
John Carney: And for our audience that- there’s a few movies that we can bring it back to this area. It’s the Deer Hunter, the church that they filmed in Deer Hunter, it was just down the street from Mark. And then the Christmas Story house is just around the corner, correct?
Mark Ebner: Correct. Yeah the first house that we built, there are windows overlooking the St. Theodosius which was the church featured in Deer Hunter quite a bit. So that was- my brother was the architect and he had me getting up on ladders in the yard taking pictures so he could figure out the best way to orient the windows.
John Carney: Right. So that would lead me into the team. But what’s the bare bones team to someone out there who has a passion for creating something new in their market, or has their eye set on improving an up and coming area in their city but just doesn’t know how to get started? And you had a father who had a lot of the skills, you guys worked together, it’s like a storybook father son project. But what would the bare bones team you’d recommend someone recruit to get started in something like this?
Mark Ebner: You know I think it’s very important to work with an architect, maybe not so much if you’re building out on farmland where you aren’t limited by your lot restrictions, but my lots are 33 feet by 54 feet. In order to put a 2,000 square foot house on it, it takes a lot of work, a lot of planning, and you also have to make it fit in with the surrounding community so that the neighbors don’t feel like you’re trying to overshadow their house. I can’t put a three story house next to a one and a half story house like my old house, the one that was built in 1890. We actually started stepping that house up when we put an addition on it. We made it two stories, a little bit more modern with the additions so that we knew we could go up to three stories on the next house. So the very first person I would work with would be some kind of architect or some planner that you can map out the property and think about, ‘Well how does this fit in with the character of the neighborhood?’ And then you would need a really strong general contractor, someone that knows the business, knows how to find subcontractors or knows how to do the work, and that role would be my dad. I’m definitely starting to learn more of that role. But then you can start relying on your trades and let them do what they do best.
John Carney: Like do you see now after having a few projects- I mean for lack of a better term, you’re almost a custom home builder in building your own product, right? But I mean would you say all those critical trades, is there a little bit of a loyalty there, and trust, and a rapport that’s been built up now over four projects?
Mark Ebner: Yeah definitely. I think one of the most important things for me is being able to communicate easily with them. If I have a problem on the jobsite then I need them to come out and take a look at it, or if I need to schedule them so that I remain on my timeline. I just want to be able to get ahold of them, and if they say they’re going to be out on Tuesday, and they show up on Tuesday. Definitely it’s important to build those relationships.
John Carney: Alright I got side-tracked here. Alright so we’ve got our team and we are talking about figuring out the best use for a lot, how dense you can make it, what type of architects you can- your creative boundaries so to speak for fitting into a neighborhood character, which is all important. So you’ve got a few of these you’ve sold to new home buyers, and then you’ve kept a couple that you’re having outstanding success in the AirBNB market. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?
Mark Ebner: Yeah so I’m fortunate that my wife is very flexible because starting in January- which our house was completed in June, so six months after we moved into our house, she’s a nurse who doesn’t work Saturday, Sunday, or Monday ever. She allowed me to experiment with putting our primary residence on AirBNB just for weekends, and we were going to use it- I had been interested in a website called HomeExchange for a number of years where you trade houses with someone and you go to their house, they come to yours. That didn’t quite work out with us, we didn’t have all the flexibility that you might have when you’re retired and you can literally just go for long periods of time. So we decided to put it on AirBNB and we were going to use the money to go travel, and I just really wanted to see if I could build one of these houses and keep it, and do AirBNB rentals on it in say Cleveland. That first house we built in 2007 is down the street from an amusement park so that one’s been rented out on VRBO and HomeAway for as long as the house has existed, and it did tremendously well but we didn’t know how it would do in Cleveland. Cleveland’s not exactly the number one tourist market in the country, but I figured there was going to be enough demand for something cool, modern, and high end. And people when they’re travelling don’t necessarily want to stay in a downtown sterile hotel, they want to be out in the community, and Cleveland is truly a city of neighborhoods, so a blessing there. My house has been rented just about every single weekend all year, it’s getting a little taxing on us now, but in July Cleveland was fortunate to host the Republican National Convention, and that was right after I had finished building the next house. So when we were starting to think about selling it, we decided to furnish it and it was furnished in time to rent that one out for the Republican Convention, and once I did that and we said we already have the furniture, we’ve already paid down enough of our debt that we feel safe if we are able to sell one of the other houses that we just built. So we decided to keep that house and we’re renting it out full time now, and it’s definitely able to cover a mortgage, and it’s been an interesting experience seeing who’s coming to Cleveland, talking to people and getting to know what they’re here for.
John Carney: So are you going to scale back on moving every weekend with you and your week and just focus on managing the house next door? And can you give the audience- just give us an idea in numbers how many dollars. I mean it wasn’t just the RNC that came to Cleveland, I mean that’s huge and we’re really only talking about from January until November. But you have the RNC, you have the World Series, and then you just have people that want to come downtown during the summer, you had the Cavaliers in their playoff run. What kind of money are we talking about these two houses generating in less than a year?
Mark Ebner: So my house in this year, if I exclude the Republican Convention, which I view it as an anomaly, we are expecting to ring in $25,000 just from renting it Friday night, Saturday night mostly, and sometimes Sunday night. The other house I’m projecting $50,000 on it if it’s rented every week or rented seven days a week. And I’m assuming that’s going to probably be about 40% occupancy, 50% occupancy, I don’t expect it to be rented much more than one week a month during the week and then most weekends. But I’m starting to see some business travellers coming in, they’re using the house either for meetings, or it’s three co-workers that don’t want to share a hotel room, and they want a little more privacy. So I’m starting to get those weeklong rentals. And I actually have someone coming for two weeks that just got married in London, she’s from Cleveland and she’s coming back to celebrate with her family. So I’m hopeful that we’ll pull in $50,000 or more on it in a year.
John Carney: So that’s an amazing- would you say that you stumbled upon this? You convinced your wife to test something, right? I’m big on testing and measuring, we talk about it in just about every episode. That’s the only way you really know. And then you’re looking at an extra $75,000 just on- as the Ozzys would say, on a punt, on a bet. And that’s a phenomenal, phenomenal story in and of itself. Do you see yourself as you look at new areas of the city to pioneer and figure out, keeping this model there? Build three houses, keep one. I’ve got another.
Mark Ebner: Yeah I do see it. I had joked around that it was build one, get one free if I’m able to rent it. But building three, keeping one of them is definitely doable and something that I’m really interested in doing moving forward.
John Carney: That would be a great- I’d be interested in seeing those numbers on a spreadsheet when you’re trying to nut out exactly how the numbers fall into place.
Mark Ebner: Exactly.
John Carney: Alright so we’ve talked a lot about points that we usually cover, but what advice do you have for someone starting out? You mentioned an architect as being one of your key team players in the development side of the business, but you want to become a real estate developer, it’s daunting, you don’t have to start out by building a massive shopping center, right? You can start out by just doing a two lot subdivision like I did. But what’s your advice for the people that have a burning desire to do this?
Mark Ebner: You’ve got to know the numbers. It’s so important to know what land costs should be, because if you overpay for land you’re shooting yourself in the foot right from the beginning and that’s going to be something that’s going to be hard to overcome. And I see that in some projects around here that land prices are starting to climb, and people are still buying hoping to make some money on it, but everything else is going to be fixed. You’re not going to be able to push the ceiling of the house up too much in the neighborhood because the appraisers need to have comparables to compare it to, and your construction costs are going to cost a certain amount, so you need to make sure your margins are good and know what they should be.
John Carney: Right. Sound advice. Start learning the market, knowing the cost of- well your time and energy but also the fixed costs that go along with it. Alright cool. So we’re going to get into our two minute drill here and wrap this up. What sport did you love playing as a kid?
Mark Ebner: Baseball, hockey, and skiing are my favorite sports. I used to joke around that baseball was my favorite sport in the summer and hockey was my favorite sport in the winter just because I can shift.
John Carney: And then today? Which of those three sports are you still actively participating in or what else have you added to the mix?
Mark Ebner: You know I still ski, I’ve gotten twenty plus days of skiing my last several years. This is going to be my first time not having a ski pass in a long time because we’re going to try to go travel this winter. So definitely skiing I keep up with the most.
John Carney: Perfect and one of my favorites as well. Alright so when you’re travelling, when you’re on planes or in the car, waiting around, is there a particular sports or business book that you’ve read recently that really stands out and would be something that you would recommend our audience pick up and read?
Mark Ebner: One of my favorite books I’ve ever read, and I think it ties into this sports theme and business theme is, ‘How Soccer Explains the World.’ It’s a concept hard for a lot of Americans to understand, but how important soccer is in globalization, and how a lot of it’s tied to a city’s economy, or a country’s economy, and how there’s just so much pride around their team and how that can unify people.
John Carney: So did I hear ‘explains’ or ‘expands’ the world?
Mark Ebner: Explains.
John Carney: ‘How Soccer Explains the World.’ Interesting, I’ve never heard of that one. Is there a motivational quote that kind of you fall back on when you’re at a city planning meeting and they’re not really liking your design, or the contractor who was supposed to show up on Tuesday decides to go on vacation? Is there something that keeps you going that you fall back to?
Mark Ebner: No I’ve definitely had some problems dealing with other people having their opinions, or not wanting things in their backyard, and it can be a frustrating experience. I just try to remind myself and like look at the projects, and look at what we’ve accomplished, and just try to bring myself back to that when I get frustrated.
John Carney: Got it. And when you’re playing ice hockey and you’re on a break-away and you get in that zone, it’s a one-on-one scenario, or you’re up on the mountain and it’s an epic powder day and you’re off on your own absolutely killing it on your favorite run, getting to that flow state, is there a way when you- in business that you have found that helps you get into that flow state? To get your work done and be laser focused?
Mark Ebner: It’s very hard. I come back to that as I said, finances are the most important thing, but they’re also one of the easiest things to overlook when I’m out in the field every day. So I have to set aside time, I go up to my office and basically lock the door and try to take care of all my distractions. So I force myself once a week to go through the checkbook, make sure everything’s right, make sure all the bills are paid, make sure everything’s put into Quickbooks. And I’ve found it’s easiest to do that in the morning when your brain is fresh as opposed to the end of the day when you’ve been working all day and all you want to do is sit down and relax.
John Carney: That’s interesting. So you’re setting aside a certain amount of time every week to study your numbers and make sure that you’re on track. That’s why you’re able to just like whip out your house one and house number two AirBNB so quickly, right? Because we didn’t prep that, that just came out of the loop, and right there at the tip of your tongue. And for real estate investors out there, that is how it has to be. Alright cool, so I think that just about wraps it up, we’re coming up here on the thirty minute mark, but what is your number one tip for training for success in the real estate game based on all your experience?
Mark Ebner: Well other than knowing your numbers, I can’t preach that one enough is know your numbers. And also just being able to find the right employees, knowing how to train them, knowing how to work with them, or knowing- just knowing how to trust them. That’s important.
John Carney: Cool. Alright building your team, knowing your numbers, and scaling up. Well thank you for joining me in the locker room today, Mark. Where can the audience find you if they’re interested on carrying on a conversation with you offline? Do you have a website? Social media? Places like that?
Mark Ebner: Our website is www.TrueNorthLiving.com and my contact information is on there.
John Carney: Perfect so look up www.TrueNorthLiving.com and you can connect with Mark directly there if you have any questions for how to get started in the development game. Alright there you have it folks, I truly hope that you’ve picked up some actionable advice from Mark Ebner today. Make sure to check out the Post Game Report on iTunes, and while you’re there please click on the subscribe to the Real Estate Locker Room Show button to make sure you don’t miss out on any of our future interviews and pro tips from our guests. The mission here is to help you elevate your real estate game. If you like what this show is all about, I’d be grateful if you would leave a review for us so that other likeminded real estate investors like yourself can find it. It just becomes easier in the iTunes search engine. You can also visit www.JohnCarneyOnline.com for links and additional content associated with today’s show, and while you’re there, drop your email into the newsletter form and you won’t miss out on other real estate investing insight, tips, tricks, hacks, and other great stuff. Remember to stay focused on your goals, have fun, and stay in the game. I’m your host John Carney, until next week, work hard, play hard, and profit hard. Thanks again for joining us today, Mark. It’s been great.
Mark Ebner: Thank you.
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