JC 025: 3 Keys to Real Estate; Scale, Value and Risk with Ike Mutabanna
Learn how to penetrate new real estate markets
Announcer: Welcome to the, “Real Estate Locker Room Show” with John Carney. Did you know investing in real estate is a team sport? Join John and his guests as they explore 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 on-going 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 Show everybody. I’m your host John Carney, coming at you from my office here on the sunny Westside of Cleveland, Ohio this fantastic Monday afternoon in the month of August. We are going to be talking to a real estate investor and entrepreneur Ikbal Mutabanna, who is on the line and joining us in The Locker Room from Texas. But before we get into that I just want to remind you: the purpose of The Real Estate Locker Room Show is to help you as an investor or a real estate professional who supports the industry in some capacity, or someone who’s looking to break into real estate — we really want you to be able to: number one, recruit the best team of professionals that you can to work with you; to position yourself for success and really elevate your real estate game.
The person who we’re going to be talking with has definitely done that. We met through networking. Here you go, I’m up in Ohio and being connected to Ike and his business partners from Texas and Colorado. So that is just a matter of being in the game and participating in networking events I suppose. But anyways, welcome to the locker room Ike.
Ike Mutabanna: Hey, thank you John. I’m excited to be here.
John Carney: Yea. I’m stoked to have you. So, let me just let the audience know a little bit about you. Ike is his nickname, but Ikbal Mutabanna is the president of IHM Business Group. His previous business ventures include strategic technology services, commercial real estate syndication and multifamily acquisition. Ike is also the host of a podcast called The Side Business Show, where listeners learn how to build wealth through a variety of side businesses, regardless of whether they are full time employees, stay at home mums or students.
Previously, Ike spent 15 years as co-founder, president and CTO in a variety of startups and turnaround companies. He earned his MS degree in engineering from the University of Cincinnati and a BE degree from the University of Bombay in India. Ike enjoys mountain climbing and has recently started training for technical climbs on rock cliffs. He lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and two beautiful children.
Alright, so let’s get into it Ike. Not only are you an entrepreneur on the technology side and experienced business operator, but you’re also a real estate investor.
Ike Mutabanna: I am.
John Carney: Well, before we get into everything that you’re doing real estate related I like to warm up on the show and just get the conversation going with a few sports related questions. Do you have a favorite athlete that you looked up to as a kid?
Ike Mutabanna: As a kid, that’s a good question. Yes, there was actually. The only caveat that I will say John is that, because I grew up in India, some of the sports played there are different than the sports that we are familiar with in the U.S. So you being — having lived in Australia you’re probably familiar with cricket and field hockey.
John Carney: I am definitely familiar with cricket and my wife is a huge fan, so I’m into the test match cricket.
Ike Mutabanna: Right, right. So as far as cricket is concerned, there was a very famous — so cricket, for those of our listeners who don’t know what that is, it’s a game very similar to baseball, just a slightly different shaped bat and a ball that is made of living material, and a few different rules.
But we have an Indian player when I was growing up by the name of Sunil Gavaskar, also known as Sunny, who scored the highest number of runs in cricket at that time. He was later, of course, his records are broken about 15, 20 years later, but while growing up he was my idol in a sense. Not just for the game but also for his sportsmanship and his gentlemanly conduct in everything he did.
John Carney: You know, for the audience who — I know we have global listeners out there — but for the audience here in the states or North America who’s not familiar with cricket, it is a gentleman’s sport. But don’t take that as — these balls are travelling incredibly fast right at you. And they spin, right?
Ike Mutabanna: Yea they spin. I mean the spin is I think far more than I’ve seen in baseball, just because of the fact that it also bounces before it hits the batter.
John Carney: I just don’t see myself getting padded up and in the nets in front of a fast bowler anytime in my life.
Ike Mutabanna: Yea, I’ve done that, I’ve been hit quite a few times so I like the field now.
John Carney: So, you grew up playing organized cricket when you were living in India?
Ike Mutabanna: Well, it’s interesting, even though cricket was a very prevalent game in India, it still is, in fact, it’s considered to be the second biggest religion in India, after Hinduism. The reality is when I was growing up, India was actually the champion in world field hockey so that’s the game that I played most when I was growing up.
John Carney: Which, now you’re in North America, and it’s really, we’re an ice hockey culture.
Ike Mutabanna: We’re an ice hockey culture, exactly. So I watch ice hockey, it’s similar. Different enough that I don’t necessarily follow it anymore. But yea, that was I think my passion all the way until college and then it fell apart once I left college.
John Carney: Alright, well thank you for sharing that history of growing up in a foreign country with our audience and bringing a new sport to the forefront of the conversations we have here in The Locker Room, and we’ll make sure that we link in plenty of stuff related to Sully and cricket in the show notes.
Alright, so real estate: we were talking when we met here in Cleveland about your past work experience. You lived in Indonesia and worked in technology startups and now you’re here in the United States. You went to school in Ohio and got an advanced degree and real estate is something that you’re pursuing.
So why don’t you give the audience the ten-thousand-foot view of what you do in the real estate game?
Ike Mutabanna: Sure. So I started real estate in a very small fashion about three or four years ago. I used to live in Boston, Massachusetts and, you know, like most people in this industry who first — who are not from real estate backgrounds — their first instinct is to go buy a single-family house that they can rent out. Or a duplex. And that’s pretty much what I did for a couple of years. Never really made that much of a profit from doing that, because generally the financial economics of that doesn’t work out too well. Your vacancy can hit you if you have vacant periods, when there’s turnover of tenants you tend to then get hit by all of the changes and the maintenance things that you have to do in the house. So I never really took it very seriously.
But about a year and a half ago, when I had moved to Dallas by then, I got introduced to our common friend actually, Joe Fairless, who is big in the multifamily apartment building business. And that really intrigued me, because of the economies of scale in that business. So I started studying it, I invested in a couple of those last year, and as I started doing that and studying the markets really well, it became apparent to me that that is really where real estate can achieve the kind of scale and profit and goals that you can strive after, right? Where you’re not going after the small little peanuts that you can get in the single-family world, but you’re really going after something that can build generational wealth. So that’s what intrigued me. I started going after it. And then really entered that full time at the beginning of this year.
So since then I’ve been working on syndication for large apartment complexes in DFW. I’ve got about three that I’ve invested in so far, and around the time that I started looking at expanding that portfolio is when I got introduced by my partner in Colorado to Cleveland. It just so turns out that his family is in Cleveland and we started just hearing this little buzz about Cleveland from a bunch of different sources. So that’s what brought us to Cleveland, that’s when I met you John and since then what I’ve been doing is working on expanding the network of people that we know in Cleveland, and trying to figure out how I can put in place all of the different players I need in order to be successful in the Cleveland market, considering that I’m going to be an out of state investor.
John Carney: Right, and that is — let’s talk about that. You’re in state in Texas. Are you in city? Are you in Dallas or are you looking at markets outside of Dallas?
Ike Mutabanna: Well, so far, I haven’t looked at markets outside of Dallas. The Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex itself is so massive that you can easily consider it to be equivalent to three or four different cities all meshed together. So there’s just such massive opportunities happening here that I’ve not really had the chance to look at other parts of Texas. We did briefly look into Houston, decided not to venture that at this time because, while Houston was attractive say about a few years ago, I think the dip in oil prices hit the economy pretty hard. So that doesn’t mean there are investors who are not in there, in fact there are investors in there who are actually grabbing up properties because they’ve gone done in value. I just don’t play in that particular niche. My goal is to play in the niche of looking at really stable class C plus or B type properties where we can really work on doing some amount of repositioning, but largely focus on the cash flow aspect. So we haven’t really done into Houston.
We looked at San Antonio, the market felt a bit too small but I haven’t ruled it out. In fact, just last week made a really good contact there and there’s a potential that San Antonio might be on the horizon. I did meet another person who started investing in San Antonio from California. So clearly there’s interest in that market as well.
John Carney: Yea, so. I suppose — I didn’t mean to cut you off.
Ike Mutabanna: That’s fine.
John Carney: The question that’s sort of coming to my mind is, not only are you — you’ve moved around in the United States, so you’re establishing a business in multifamily real estate in your home town at the moment, which is Dallas, right? And then you’re also looking to other markets.
So whether they’re in state or out of state, let’s talk about how you went about recruiting your team locally, and then how that translates into how to be time efficient and find the right people in another market. Because this is an important message that I’d like to get across. And I believe that you’ve got the experience to give the pro tips on how to achieve that.
Ike Mutabanna: Sure. So there’s a substantial difference between investing in state and out of state. What happens is, in in state, as I started becoming familiar with the market, really studying the market, the ability for me to be on the ground made it much more of a favorable situation, where I did not necessarily have to depend on others to confirm things for me. If I heard of a particular neighborhood which was on the upswing and there was some good developments happening there, it would be a 15, 20-minute drive for me to get out there, park my car, walk around, really study the neighborhood in detail. And I have a habit of making lots and lots of notes. Every time I go to a neighborhood I’ll sit down and I won’t carry too much, I’ll just carry my phone with me. I enjoy using Google Keep. So I’ll just start making notes, I’ll take a few photographs.
But I’ve built up a huge databank of notes of a lot of the neighborhoods in the Dallas area. And that’s something I can do on an ongoing basis, which is really helpful because that means when I get an opportunity presented, or one that I’m looking at, I don’t necessarily have to depend on a pro-forma or someone else telling me what is the potential of an area or not.
But when you go to out of state, you no longer have that luxury, right? Unless you’re willing to fly down like two or three times a month. You really don’t have the luxury to go and do that on a regular basis.
So the big difference between how I’ve been able to do things in Dallas versus when I’m targeting a place like Cleveland, is that in Dallas I’ve done a lot of the groundwork myself and now I’ve spread the word, I’ve gone and attended meetups, which again, something I can do when I’m in state but I cannot do when I’m out of state. And I’ve made a lot of contacts. I’ve also made — I’ve created partnerships with larger firms, people who are much bigger than me in this industry, and many times, rather than finding my own deals, I go participate in their deals.
Interestingly, one of the companies I partner with, they actually are not in Dallas themselves, even though one of the partners is originally from Dallas. So when they get deals it’s easy enough for me to go validate their underwriting and all of the assumptions they’ve made, to make sure that I’m comfortable with it. Again, something not so simple to do when you’re out of state.
So as far as Cleveland is concerned, we realized early on that the only way we were going to be successful is if we spent the time upfront in building out a solid team before we even took the first step of identifying and trying to evaluate a property. So in fact, to be honest, I haven’t evaluated a single property so far, from an underwriting perspective in Cleveland. All I’ve been working on is just a slow, patient process of talking to people in Cleveland, finding the right set of partners in every different area that I need. So whether it’s property managers, whether it’s brokers, whether it’s lenders, title insurance, CPAs, lawyers. We’ve just been going methodically one by one talking to people.
I did visit Cleveland for about a week, which is when you and I were able to meet up, thankfully. And that was a very instructive week because again, as I said, because of the fact that in state, while you get a really solid lay of the neighborhoods, you can’t depend on a map or someone telling you something to realize what works and what doesn’t.
While I was in Cleveland, as an example — I’m sorry if I’m rambling, do stop me so that I can focus in a particular direction you might want John — but as I was looking at the area near Case Western Reserve University, what we found was, literally after crossing three streets there was dramatic change in the nature of the neighborhood. It went from a neighborhood where I would consider under my strategy a very desirable area to buy a multi-family, to a neighborhood where I would want to stay away. And in fact we encountered police cars, when we went up and talked to them and the police officers told us to stay away from that section. We’re talking about a few streets, we’re not even talking about an entire neighborhood changing. So that’s a big disadvantage that out of state investors are going to face when investing in an area that’s not in their backyard. And it’s very important to do some groundwork but then build a really, really superb team that they can over time depend on.
John Carney: Right, you definitely want your boots on the ground, reading from the same sheet of music as you, and you want their marching orders to be clear. So I’m familiar with the area around Case, and I’ve scouted it out, and literally, you come across the wrong side of the tracks are the wrong side of the tracks.
Now I’ve done similar work to yourself, I invested and built a business around Phoenix, Arizona, based on a solid team and good relationships and limited knowledge of the area, and was successful and loved that market. But you have to have — in our case it was an investor who was also a real estate agent was our go-to guy. And he would be the first one to tell you, “No, that side of the street is no good, this side of the street is great. And I’ve got three houses here on this side of the street. Would never buy something on that side of the street.” So, that’s all sound advice as far as pros and cons for looking at your home town versus out of town. And then talk a little bit about the syndication. How does that look if I want to invest with you? Give the audience a little bit of: I wake up in the morning and work on this so that I can buy a building with this many doors.
Ike Mutabanna: So I think one of the factors about syndication is the economics of it, right? I work on syndication in the DFW area, primarily on really large properties. So mostly which is 100 doors or more. What that brings in is the kind of scale where you can not only achieve much larger returns on your investment, but you can also drive a much better return for your investors.
So one of the goals we try and do is that we try and ensure that we can return a certain amount of cash flow back to investors which we give them as a preferred return, and our goal is to try and beat what they would have got from alternative sources. So when most investors, sophisticated ones, when they talk to us the first thing they’ll say is, “Why can’t I just put this in a hedge fund or put this in an XYZ mutual fund where I can easily get 5, 6 or 7 percent returns?”
The argument that we have to be able to provide them is that not only can we exceed that, but the fact is that this is being backed up by a hard asset. So it’s very important for that to be an asset that is truly valuable.
Now many investors, when they get into syndication, there’s a different strategy that people will follow, right? Because of the fact that we follow a very cash flow driven philosophy, we don’t necessarily look at appreciation from a very wide angle. We don’t go after really large appreciation. So we stay away from properties where there is speculation that there might be five, six, seven times growth. Usually what happens in those cases is that either the market is severely undervalued because of some reason that we don’t necessarily know yet, or it’s in a neighborhood where there is a speculative element telling you that appreciation is going to happen but you have no way of knowing.
On the other hand when you go to a more conservative underwriting technique, where you say that we think we can get 2x or 2.5x multiple on this property, but we can drive 10% cash flow returns, well now that becomes very attractive. Because we’re not promising you that for every 50k you put in you’re going to get 150 or 200k back, but what we are saying that is that on a yearly basis we’re going to be able to return 10% back to you, which in most markets is a fantastic return. You know, you’ll be lucky if in certain places you can get even five or six percent, which usually matches what aggressive investors can get in the stock market or in hedge funds.
So our syndication philosophy is very much driven around finding properties that are larger scale, 100 plus doors, in fact almost every one I’ve done is 200 plus doors. And where we can — our underwriting can be conservative enough that we can promise, not promise, but rather where we can project, very conservatively, that we can return the capital with ten percent returns on a yearly cash basis, as well as potentially reach a 2x multiple.
John Carney: That all makes sense to me. And I’ll sort of come back at you with my summary. My question being, do you bring improving the property and raising the rents, right? You didn’t mention that, but is that part of your overall strategy?
Ike Mutabanna: Absolutely.
John Carney: Okay.
Ike Mutabanna: Absolutely. That’s always part of the strategy John. The extent to which you can achieve that can vary, our goal is always to find properties that are — where the rents are some percentage below what the market can bear. And one of the things that we try to keep in mind is that when we project our financials on the basis of doing the rehab and the renovations for repositioning, that we’re not projecting that we’re going to go try to match the market, we’re just going to try and improve the rents to come close to the market but still stay below. Because that’s what insures that we’re left with some buffer to deal with market fluctuations.
John Carney: So to recap: you’re finding units, your sweet spots, plus or minus 200 doors. You’re not trying to set a record in that area for the highest rent, what you’re trying to do is find undervalued properties that are undervalued by rent and fix those up and improve the multiples so that your investors get a preferred return and then you can scale the business model by replicating it. Would you say that’s accurate?
Ike Mutabanna: That’s a great recap.
John Carney: So we just acquired a large asset. It was a complex capital stack. Having a seat at the table through this entire process from the day we first went and looked at this building, until where we are now, under construction building 29 units out. That’s almost coming up on a year for the work.
But I would throw this back out to you and the listeners: once you have been invited into a multifamily deal that’s a little bit more complicated than your standard single family home transaction, you’ll learn that with the right team in place you can go back out and do it again. Would you second that?
Ike Mutabanna: Absolutely. You do it once. The first time is definitely frightening. It’s also really, really hard. I think a lot of people under — they don’t realize how hard it can be to convince investors when you’re doing it for the first time. But once you’re over that hurdle; you’ve learned the business; you’ve learned how your entire process flows; you’ve learned the language, you’ve learned how you’re able to communicate with investors, what you can and cannot say. It starts becoming a lot more second nature to you the next time around. And you just get better every time. And you keep learning as well.
John Carney: So let’s carry that thought on and — I’m going to pick your brain here for just another couple of minutes before we wind this up — but three tips that you could give a listener or someone who, if you’re approaching an investor, what would be — sorry I’m a little all over the shop.
I’m just going to pick a number out and say $50,000, or maybe I’m too high, maybe $25,000 can get you a seat at the table. Talk about the three advantages of being in real estate through the syndication model. Especially if this is something that you want to pursue as a career. You have to get started and you have to learn somehow. So why not get started now with someone like yourself? So what are the three advantages that you can offer up to the listeners that would say, “Hey, think big, play big and this is why?”
Ike Mutabanna: Sure. So I would say that the first thing is almost self-evident, which is the economies of scale. There is absolutely no chance that in the single-family world you are going to achieve the kind of scale that you can achieve in multifamily. And the scale goes in many different directions, right? It’s not just in terms of the net income that you can derive, but it’s also the risk. When you have three single family houses versus a ten-unit apartment building, your risk is diversified in a far better way than when you have those three houses. So the risk diversification.
There’s better economies of scale in terms of net income, there’s also economy of scale in terms of the cost, right? How you manage the cost. Once you start going into larger size properties in multifamily, you find it easier to be able to afford to have property managers who can manage things for you where you’re just more of in a supervisory role. That makes it easier for you to start than once you’ve done one to go to another, because you’re not managing everything yourself. When your single-family world, unless you amass a really large portfolio of maybe 10, 15, 20 properties, you necessarily may not want to hire a property manager to do it for you because that then cuts into the little income that you’re making anyway on those. So those are the big advantages that I would talk about.
The other interesting advantage that you would see in multifamily is that, unlike single family, where the valuation of a single family, which is dependent on the market comps, in the case of multifamily it actually depends on the rental income that you can drive. Which means you can force appreciation. So if you can come up with creative ways in which you can increase rent, you can increase overall income, you can force appreciation in the valuation of that property, which is something that is phenomenal. What other asset can you think of where you can actually decide how much — and as long as, of course, certain parameters are fulfilled where you can push the values up by actively doing things in that property. So I would say risk mitigation, economies of scale and value appreciation. Three really solid reasons why multi family is a far superior asset.
John Carney: I love it. Great advice and thanks for coming up with those quickly on the spot Ike. Well I wrap this up with what I like to call the two-minute drill. And these are just a couple of questions I’m going to throw at you rapid fire.
Are you a reader? And if so do you have a favorite business book or non-fiction book that you’ve read more than once or you made some notes in that you keep on your desk and refer to from time to time?
Ike Mutabanna: Yea I’m a reader. A very avid reader. I’ll mention two books. One is non-fiction and one is a fiction but which has a lot of — it’s really influenced me a lot in my business life. The non-fiction is a very old book by Dale Carnegie called “How to Influence People.” Really old book, some of the things in there might sound outdated, but the underlying principles are really solid. And they relate to always having what he calls a “you” attitude. When you’re working with someone how do you do something for them is what you should be thinking about, because when you do that, it all comes around eventually.
The other really awesome book that I’ve kept close to me is called “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. Even though that book is a fiction book, it’s usually coded more in the circles of people who like to read books that sound spiritual in nature. It is spiritual and it has helped me from that perspective. But it has also helped me motivate and inspire myself in what I’m doing. There’s a very interesting sentence in there which I’m going to paraphrase. It says, “when you want something really, really bad and you take the action to achieve it, the universe comes together to help you achieve it.” Which I think is fantastic. It’s a phenomenal way to think about something.
John Carney: So I’m going to use that in the show notes as your favorite quote. And I like that. I mean, I don’t know, there’s a lot of good motivational sayings that come from business leaders and athletes alike about overcoming the odds and the obstacles, and I think I’m kind of looking back now, some of the people I follow, on my social media threads are quoting the stoics.
So nothing is outdated because guys like Marcus Aurelius were writing this down a long long time ago and it’s pretty relevant to life and business today, right?
Ike Mutabanna: True, very true.
John Carney: Okay. Well one last question. How do you train for success? You’ve moved around the world, you’re a successful person, you know how to recruit a team. But how does that look like? How do you achieve that consistently?
Ike Mutabanna: I think what I try to do is always take up one activity that is not related to my business which I take up as a passion activity. Something that I put a lot of energy and effort into and that usually helps me train my mind to stay in that super energetic state, which then transfers into my work and business as well. So what I’ve recently started doing is — I mean I’ve always been an avid mountain climber, I’ve never really done any kind of technical climbs, it’s usually just been putting on my hiking boots and going with a bunch of friends and trying climbing whatever peaks are accessible. But about a year ago, I started realizing that if I really wanted to scale some heights here I needed to learn how to do technical climbs. And so then I went ahead and joined this local group that does a lot of technical climbs and they have beginner’s groups as well. So I’ve started doing that, it’s very early stage yet, but my goal is within a year’s time to get to a point where I can go climb at least one intermediate level peak in the U.S. which involves some amount of rock climbing.
John Carney: That’s a great goal. That’s a highly — you have to be very highly focused and strong to scale intermediate level fixed rope climbs. So I mean, I wish you the best of luck in learning that, and not that you won’t achieve it, but that’s going to be a practice. It takes mental and physical discipline to build up that stamina to be good at it. I lived in Colorado for a number of years, I was never a fixed rope mountain climbing type person. There’s so many sports and activities available out there that that just wasn’t one that I fell into but when I see photos of the people I know standing on top of these spires, it’s awe-inspiring. So that is great, thank you for sharing that.
Alright, well there you have it folks. I truly hoped that you picked up some actionable advice today from my conversation with Ike. And I want to thank Ike for taking the time out of his busy day to join us in The Locker Room. Where can our audience find you if they are interested in following you online or maybe even connecting with you to talk about syndication opportunities?
Ike Mutabanna: Sure. I think the easiest way is to go to my podcast website: it’s called thesidebusiness.show. You could also go to thesidebusinessshow.com and it has both my podcasts and also my contact information on it. I’d love to hear from your listeners.
John Carney: Perfect. You’ll be easy to find then. Alright. There we are.
Make sure that you check out the Real Estate Locker Room Show on iTunes, Stitcher or Google Play and hit that subscribe button to ensure that you never miss out on the pro tips from our great guests like Ike.
The mission here once again is to help you elevate your real estate game and be successful. If you like what this show is all about, I’d be grateful if you would leave us a five-star review on iTunes, Stitcher or your preferred podcast platform so that other like-minded real estate professionals and people just like you can find us when they are searching for real estate shows.
The post-game report show notes, links and additional content related to this show, specifically to the wonderful world of cricket, will be available on my website: johncarneyonline.com/podcast, and while you are there feel free to drop your email into the newsletter sign up form and you’ll occasionally receive some real estate investing insights, tips, tricks, hacks and useful tools from me.
Remember to stay focused on your goals, have fun and stay in the game. I’m your host John Carney and until next week, please remember to work hard, play hard and profit hard in your real estate game.
One more time, really thankful for you taking the time out of your busy day Ike to share your story of success.
Ike Mutabanna: My pleasure John. Thanks for inviting me.