JC 016: Lessons from selling 42,000 units with Daniel Burkons
Multifamily success begins with a strong team
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. I’m your host John Carney, coming at you again today from Cleveland Ohio. I’m here on the sunny west side and joining me today is mister Dan Burkons, and he is on the south side, correct?
Dan Burkons: I am, Independence.
John Carney: Alright, perfect. This is going to be a great episode today. We are talking to one of the regions’ premiere experts on multi-family investing. Dan is a broker and he is a senior director of Institutional Property Advisors, or IPA, which is a division of Marcus and Millichap. And he’s one of the three original founders of the Marcus and Millichap Cleveland Office.
His leadership and specialization within the Midwest department market enables him to create substantial value for major private and institutional investors. Dan joined the firm in 2003 and he and his team are approaching 42,000 units sold across 14 states, totaling over 1.8 billion. Impressive stats there. Dan’s expertise is in assessing value and leading national marketing campaigns, selling apartment portfolios ranging from to as many as 25 properties in multiple states, owned by multiple partnerships.
In 2013 Dan received Crane’s Cleveland Business Forty under Forty award and in 2012 he was induced into the Midwest Commercial Real Estate Hall of Fame. No stranger to the media, he’s regularly featured in publications such as: Apartment Finance today; Globe Street; Heartland Real Estate Business; Midwest Real Estate News; Multi Family Executive; Multi Housing News; The Cleveland Plain Dealer; and of course, Crane’s Cleveland calls him for any information they need from an expert regarding the multi family. Alright Dan, welcome to the show. Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise with the audience.
Dan Burkons: Well thanks John, thank you for that nice introduction. It’s all flattering but I still think of myself as doing the same thing I’ve been doing for 15 years of selling apartment buildings.
John Carney: Right, and you’re good at it. So that’s okay to be good at stuff. 42,000 units sold, everyone starts with one. We’ll get to that in a minute. So, I like to kick off this show with a little bit of a stretching question to get everyone warmed up here, and I generally ask our guests: what sports did you play growing up and who was your favorite athlete?
Dan Burkons: Well I would say — so hockey is the sport that I played the most growing up, and I still play. In fact, I skated last night, had some beers and that’s actually — to me, I’m not the world’s greatest hockey player but I like it and got great friends through it, and that’s what I do for exercise more fun than the treadmill.
If you asked my favorite athlete, I actually was just thinking about that as you said — I know you have a lot of Australians followers and I tell you one of my favorite athletes, nothing to do with hockey, is Matthew Dellavedova, Australian guy that came to the Cavs and was a real part of a couple of those runs to the finals. And he’s my favorite athlete because, like me, he doesn’t have the greatest natural talent but I envy his work ethic. The guy shut down Steph Curry, weekend VP in a couple games 2015 and went straight from the basketball court at Quicken Loans arena to Cleveland Clinic because he was almost dead of exhaustion, to get IV fluids to come back the next day. That’s a guy I admire.
John Carney: Yea, maybe we should have kept him around to shut them down again this year.
Dan Burkons: Right.
John Carney: So, I believe that for those of us that like the competitive nature of sports, whether it’s a team sport like ice hockey or an individual sport like golf with your buddies, that business has the same type of competitive nature to it. And so, we draw the comparison between business and sports on this show.
But look, I’ve had clients in the past come to me who want to — when I was living in Australia and working with America Property Source — clients who wanted to get into US multi-family investing. And just like anything, I believe you need to start small and you have to find an expert for your team before you even start small; before you get started you have got to recruit your team. And so finding the right agent with the right experience in the market is critical. Tell us a little bit about your experience over the years, from kind of when you got started to where you are now. You’ve probably seen it all and — share some insight on how do you get started in the multi-family game if you don’t own any apartment buildings or duplexes yet.
Dan Burkons: Sure, I’d be happy to, and for myself getting started as a broker it was the same thing; starting really small. My first listing was 14 units in East Cleveland, which for those of you who aren’t familiar with the area is a war zone, it’s the worst of the worst of the worst. That was a $230,000 transaction barely qualifying as commercial real estate. Went from there to — we closed a 58 million dollar deal a couple of weeks ago. So everybody, whether it’s as an owner of a brokerage, starting small — no one is just going to plug you in and you’re not going to be doing 58 million dollar deals. You’ve got to start somewhere, you’ve got to build, you’ve got to build off success.
One of the most rewarding things, and really just the coolest things in my career as a broker is, as I’ve grown from a young adult to — I don’t know what I am now at age 37 — as I’ve grown as a person and I’ve grown in business, I’ve had a sort of symbiotic relationship with several key clients where we’ve grown together. One of them — in fact I mentioned the 58 million dollar deal we just closed — one of them, my second listing at east Cleveland, one was 13 units in another, not much better suburb. And I sold it to this group that was four young guys with full time jobs, and they’ve bought 10 or 20 units. They wanted to buy this thing and they actually ended up — we ended up arranging it with seller financing and I learned a couple of tricks because I didn’t understand what it was at the time. They actually got in with cashback at closing, which isn’t always the best thing but worked for them. And the bank thought they were growing too fast so one of their parents had to cosign for them.
They ended up making a ton of money off that deal, buying another one, buying another one, buying another one, I sold them a lot of it. Then four of the guys that bought that $300,000, no money down transaction in 2013, I’ve actually sold them a 53 million dollar and just recently 58-million-dollar deal. As they grew organically, left their jobs, went into real estate full time, then they hooked up with a private equity shop who gave them the capacity to take down really big deals and portfolios. So it’s an example of somebody who started in commercial real estate part time, built up their management expertise, learnt from some mistakes, took in a little money from local investors and once they’d perfected their craft a little bit, took on little bigger time money and was able to really get into the big deals.
John Carney: So when I look at real estate, and you can just pick the asset type, or the class, I mean it really does always boil down to good management: what I believe is the success multiplier. So, could you elaborate on that component, about how these guys were able to grow about over 10 to 15 years, right? They were an overnight success in 15 years, right?
Dan Burkons: Right, from zero to ten thousand units. Yea, whether it’s them or anyone else, management really is the key. And I know you have a lot of listeners on here who are earlier on, or some who are just looking to start, or some at obviously more advanced levels, but as far as building that portfolio, management is key. The place where I’ve seen, particularly international or out of state investors come to our markets, and where I’ve seen some fail over the years is not having thought out about a management plan, just looking at the numbers on paper and saying, “Yea, this is a good cap rate, this will work, this meets what I’m looking for.” And a day before closing saying, “Oh, can you recommend a good management company for me?” It sort of should be in the reverse.
You should be — if you’re looking in an area, you should be trying to get comfortable with a management company first, before you really make any serious offers and about to invest your hard-earned money into deals. Because the best deal in the world can get screwed up very, very fast by somebody — whether it’s a dishonest manager or somebody who just doesn’t have the expertise. That is crucial; very small differences in occupancy and rents and expense management can have huge impacts on operating incomes and failures.
John Carney: Yea, across the board I suppose, because some management companies make it easy on themselves by keeping the rents low, but there’s all this money being left on the table, right? I’m sure you’ve come across that. That also leaves a big chunk of value for an incoming buyer I suppose.
But, so if you’re coming in from an out of town market — I’m contacted by people often that want to pick my brain about the Cleveland market. The first thing I tell them is that it’s competitive like any market. Can you give us a little bit of the 2017 overview of what Northeast Ohio looks like in multi-family?
Dan Burkons: Sure, like any sort of market there’s stratification based on asset class and asset size. And on the larger assets; on the, call it ten million and up, a lot of competition is experienced, national syndication groups. Not so much in northeast Ohio, recent and public companies — it’s for various — are less desired market for that, which actually makes it more profitable for others because those types of public entities often compress cap rates and starve the yield.
So actually it’s more of an opportunistic market, in all sizes from small to big. And in the 500,000 to 5 million range, where we do a lot of business as well, there’s just a mix of local and out of town guys who are coming here — if they’re local, they’re here because they’re already here and they’re looking for the next deal that’s good for them to add to their portfolio. If its someone out of town, they’re usually finding their way to north east Ohio because the cap rates have compressed so much in other parts of the country. Even other parts of the Midwest make Cleveland look like a relative bargain, just because there is — historically there has been a little bit less interest, and quite frankly with the development of Cleveland there should be more, but not everyone has Cleveland on their map, which is good because it leaves the yields a little bit better. You usually get people who are not from the area saying, “Hey, I’m coming to look at properties in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis.” They’re not in love with any one market, they like the idea of getting into the Midwest. A lot of times they’ll come back and say, “Wow, Cleveland, there’s really nice areas and you can buy really stable product, not susceptible to these big swings of up and downs, and look, that’s what I’m coming here for. That’s why I’m not buying in California, I’m buying in the Midwest go get something really stable and those opportunities are here.
John Carney: It’s an interesting market. Cleveland has everything that any major city I’ve ever been to globally has, right? We’ve got three brand name sports teams, two stadiums right downtown, you can walk from one to the other and then you’re walking through multiple neighborhoods that have all the foodie and nightlife culture you’d want. Big banks and it’s a pretty homely town.
Dan Burkons: And to be honest, I think especially as Cleveland’s downtown has developed — like you and your partners have been an instrumental part of developing Cleveland’s downtown as more of a 24-hour center. as that’s happened more and more young people are saying wow I can really do all the fun 25-year-old stuff in Cleveland that I can do in Chicago or somewhere else and literally pay a third as much and live in a much better place. And as you get older with a family, a lot of my friends have been moving back because jeez I’ve tried to make it in San Francisco and we’re both working and I’ve got no money to pay daycare and this and that. And I go to the pool and there’s 10 billion people. In Cleveland I go anywhere I want, there’s no lines and they have everything. So the quality of life is really good and that’s actually been attracting more and more companies to come back here.
John Carney: Yea right so I was gone — I’ve just been back in town for my first year, completed my first year back living on the west side of Cleveland after being away for 19 and last night we took a drive with the kids downtown just for something to do and they had a free concert at Edgewater Park. And traffic on the shore way, which they have converted now into a boulevard and they’ve really spruced up the area and the Metroparks are running the lakefront beach. You know, it was wedged. It was a line of traffic from 25th street to the new Edgewater entrance and then from Lake road and Clifton to the west all the way down. And it was packed. It didn’t look like there was a place to park a car on that whole piece of property. And that’s now kicking off summer with concerts and the beach seems to always be full when I drive by. So they’re really doing a good job there in that Gordon Square and West 25th street neighborhood of utilizing the lake front.
Dan Burkons: It’s interesting that some of your audience — I’ll tell you what, we’ve had — that Westside area and Edgewater park west, the higher city area — there are places that even 5 years ago I would have thought of as man that’s kind of rough, sort of being a rundown part of the city. That area on the Westside is just — we’ve had a lot of out of town investors actually buying 10 unit 20 unit, 30 unit type deals there and seeing it as a big opportunity. And because those are some areas that were historically not nice in Cleveland, a lot of local people overlook them and the amount of millennials and highly educated young folks who want to live in those — it’s a little bit more like living in a neighborhood of Chicago or something, a little more edgy area. A lot of the out of towners are getting that faster than the local folks, and buying up stuff that ten years ago would have been worth $15,000 a unit, and they’re buying it for $20,000 a unit, putting $5000 into it and making it worth $40,000 a unit. And there’s opportunities there, and seeing the opportunity and the growth pattern in some of those Westside neighborhoods.
John Carney: Yea, I mean it’s fascinating to watch. They grow and continue to flourish. So if you’re coming to Cleveland and you’re looking in multi family, or any market really, obviously the role that you play as a broker agent — talk a little bit about how you work on the buyer’s side for people, and what level of expertise having the right person — there might be someone listening that wants to go to Florida and they don’t know anyone in that market, or they want to go to Texas. What questions should they be asking a guy like you to make sure that they get the right person helping them out?
Dan Burkons: I think it’s important that you find somebody who really is active in that specific product type in that area. So there’s a bunch of guys, for instance in Cleveland, who run around saying, “Yea, hey, you want to buy apartment buildings?” They’ve never really done an apartment building, they’ve done one. Our team have sold several hundred in Cleveland. It doesn’t have to be that, but wherever you’re going, Texas, figure out and find out and maybe call around, find out who are the guys who are actually active. If you’re trying to buy 10-30 in a deals in say, San Antonio, before you just grab on to the first guy and spend two years being dragged around by somebody, spend an extra couple of weeks figuring out and maybe interviewing or meeting a couple of people. Say, “I want to see your track record. Not the market, I want you to show me how many deals you’ve done.” It doesn’t have to be a guy who’s sold 400 deals, but a guy who, “Hey look, I’ve closed three deals, I have three on the market, here’s what I know about — I can tell you about.” Somebody who is actually active in that.
Don’t hook up with a guy who sells houses who’s trying to get in — make you his first client to do an apartment deal or a shopping center deal with or whatever it is. You don’t need to be the guinea pig. It’s okay to be with a younger guy, as long as the guy’s focus is actually to be doing some transactions in that niche. Because they’ll understand really quickly the fit. they’ll say, “Hey, you don’t want to waste your time with that deal, the expenses are not underwritten well.” Or “Hey, that’s a really poor rental market you’re not going to get upside.” Somebody who can make a very quick judgement on something.
Look, there’s so much information out there, all of us have limited amount of time to rule out the stuff — there’s a lot of stuff people throw on the market that doesn’t make sense. To someone who can very quickly cut through 50% of them and say, “Throw that in the garbage pile, let’s focus on looking through these other 50% of deals.” You’ll go a long way by hooking up with somebody who is actually plugged into that product type.
John Carney: Sound advice. And then, if you’re coming into a new market or just getting started, from your experience –management — let’s circle back to management, how would you go about finding the right group to manage and what advice would you have on how to source someone like that?
Dan Burkons: You know, I think if you find that right agent to work with that’s a good place to start. So if someone’s actually doing a lot of transactions in that specific niche, you can ask them, “Hey look, can you recommend three good management companies? What do you think their strengths and weaknesses are? Who might be good for me?” And they may say, “You know what, there’s really only one that’s good for what you’re trying to do.” Or they may say, “Well there’s a few.” That’s a good place to start is to hear from the agent.
You can also — another good thing would be to hook up with a local real estate attorney who is local to that market. Because we have a lot of folks who are from out of state, they are using their out of state attorneys. Every market has its niches and loopholes and laws and the way to do things. You want to find someone who’s experienced, who’s a local real estate attorney to that market, and that guy can, one: help you navigate the intricacies of the purchase agreement and so forth, but also that guy’s also great for a referral service. Both attorneys and brokers are constantly dealing with people who touch every other part of the real estate spectrum, and they say, “Oh no, you know what, I’ve got a few clients that use this guy. He’s a really good manager, he’s local he’s this that. Or stay away from this guy he’s got a great sales pitch on the internet but he actually has no substance.”
John Carney: I like what you just said there, because when you look at attorneys, attorneys who fill that niche and are laser focused and have the track record are good people to have on your team. I add an extra layer that you should gel and trust your attorneys on your team, and that’s just a matter of meeting a couple of people. But you know, they have so much insight behind the scenes and they really do connect the dots, don’t they?
Dan Burkons: Yea and so again just with like the — it’s important, don’t just find the first guy you find with a picture on a billboard. Try and find out who actually is representing clients, doing real estate deals like yours in that market. Not the guy who is doing $500 divorces and, “No, yea, I do apartments and real estate stuff too.”
John Carney: Right, family law and commercial real estate, two things that probably one person can’t do well.
Dan Burkons: Right.
John Carney: But, I mean, again, when you make a transition, when you’re doing single family homes, you don’t really need a lawyer that much, unless he’s finding you deals through probate or other forms. But so you get this mentality that you don’t want to pay the fees. Absolutely, 100% critical to pay those fees as part of your costs of doing business when you’re on the commercial level, especially in higher dollar value transactions for sure.
Well cool. We’re kind of going to wind down into our two-minute drill here Dan, and so you’re talking about ice hockey, and you grew up playing ice hockey I imagine. What kind of lessons did you learn playing team sports that you bring to the table running your team at your business to help your clients succeed?
Dan Burkons: Well, hockey really taught me that hard work can be really fun and can be really motivating if you love the people that you’re with and if you love what you’re doing. So I love to play hockey, even more I love the guys that I met through hockey, lifelong friends at all these different junctures. So hitting the gym or skating or practice or whatever it was, never seemed like work when I was with people I wanted to be with, that I was doing something that I thought was fun. If I wasn’t with people that I wanted to be with, I don’t think I could have ever worked there.
Now the truth is, I’m not the best or have the most god given talent for hockey, probably at the other end of the spectrum. In real estate, it turned out that I do have some of those gifts to build and sell and understand and think quick on the feet and size up buildings. So it turned out I learned from hockey what it’s like to work hard at something you love, and then I found something else that I loved and I actually was good at it too. So that ended up being a good fit for me. And I just learned: hey, hard work is fun if you like who you’re doing it with.
John Carney: That’s a good story, thanks for sharing that. And look, do you read? Do you have a favorite book that you keep handy either at your desk or at home? I’m just curious, because we get a lot of — I’m compiling an awesome book list through this show and everyone’s got a different favorite so far.
Dan Burkons: I’ll tell you what, I’d love to see the book list when you compile it. Because to be quite honest, it’s been a while since I’ve read a lot of motivating business stuff. I tend to see reading as my escape from business, family, and chill my mind out. And by the way, I don’t read fun stuff like mysteries, I usually read history stuff. So that just takes me to totally different places and I like to decompress, not to think about business. However, I’d like to see some of those business books, because there’s always something new to learn.
John Carney: Well look, a lot to learn through history, what’s one of your recent favorites? I’m not going to let you off the hook.
Dan Burkons: That’s ok. You know what, I’m almost finished with this book that I found in my father-in-law’s bookshelf the other day. I’ll think of the name in a second. It’s called “How Wall street Created a Nation.” It’s about — it’s kind of a cross of history and business, and it’s about the Panama Canal and Jackie Morgan and a bunch of Wall Street people bought up big shares of the failed Panama Canal. This company from France, and then pushed the US government to more or less instigate a revolution of Panama. And then they got these great concessions from in the Panama Canal, and then all of a sudden, their shares that they bought for like two cents in the dollar were worth $2 a share. And it’s actually a great cross between history and business, and how there are certain actors and players in there who straddled both lines, who had the business connections and then went to meet with Theodore Roosevelt to push things into action to help them in their business.
John Carney: That’s very cool. I’m going to look that up. That’ll be online in the show notes. Well, along with books — look, I always have my favorite sport quotes and business quotes. Is there any quote out there that you think is that one motivator? You’re having a bad day, a deal is about to fall apart, you’ve got to figure out how to save it for your client, save it for all your hard work and effort.
Dan Burkons: Yea there is. It’s from my Dad who is a source of tremendous quotes, I always go back to what he told me when I started out which is: if it were easy, everyone would do it.
John Carney: There you go. That holds true for sure. Cool. What about any recent or, over the course of your career — where you and a client have found the perfect deal but you’ve got some obstacle, and you had a come from behind victory that you’d like to share?
Dan Burkons: Man, there’s been a lot, because I feel a lot more often than not, getting a complicated commercial deal, whether it’s apartments or shopping centers or whatever, to the finish line, there’s almost — there’s very few deals that are without major road bumps, bumps in the road or obstacles. I’d think if one comes to mind, but it might not do that on the spot here. But there’s always something — there’s always something wrong, and there’s always some player in the continuum who has a different motivation than you that is getting in your way. And I think the talent of somebody who can put deals together and get them closed is — you see those obstacles, whether it’s, hey the lender backed out, or this issue came up with inspections, or the seller changed his mind, it’s really finding out — it’s getting behind the people — oh well P&C bank is now saying this. Okay, who is the decision maker? Get to the decision maker, whether it’s a buyer, seller, lender, appraiser, an inspector, don’t just let it happen to you. Find out who is the one creating this roadblock, what is their motivation, how can you help them change their mind. whether it has to do with: give me the money or money off the price, or if it’s an inspection issue that came up say, “Alright, I want to meet with you Mr. Engineer, I want you to show me exactly what the problem is and then let’s figure out what the solution is. And by the way, don’t you think there’s a less costly solution to this?” And those sorts of things that’s really drilling down into any problem to get to the root, deal with the root person raising the objection and then finding a way to overcome it.
John Carney: That’s fantastic. I’m glad that you shared that because — would you believe that every problem has a solution if you’re willing to work hard enough?
Dan Burkons: I believe that — look, there’s a few that are real tough, like Israelis and Palestinians and stuff like that. For the most part, yea. I do believe that every problem has a solution.
John Carney: Right. We’ll add a caveat. Asterisk real estate problem. Okay, well great. I think that just carrying on what Dan just said, you know, I learned this one day, and I think I might have heard it on a podcast or read it in a book: if you just wake up and expect when you go to work that you’re going to be putting out problems, and you’re going to do it with a smile on your face, eventually you’re going to have an expectation, and you’ll kind of build up that problem-solving muscle. And you won’t’ be as phased as much; you’ll become a cool operator, people will want to do business with you. Perfect.
Well that’s kind of wrapping up. We’re right on the thirty-minute mark, Dan. So I’d like to thank you for joining me in the locker room today. Where can the audience find you to carry on the conversation? Or if we have any out of state investors or local investors that want to get a hold of you to learn more about the Cleveland apartment market?
Dan Burkons: Yea, first of all John, thanks so much for having me, this was great, I love your show. I’m honored to be a part of it. And as far as investors who want to come talk more about Midwest apartments or anything of that nature, getting into deals and so forth. You can reach me at my office is: 216 2642018. Or if you look me up on the web its danburkons@marcusandmillichat. You’ll find my website, you’ll find my link my email address etcetera.
John Carney: Perfect. Well we’ll post that on the show notes it will be on my website. So there you have it folks. I truly hope that you picked up some actionable advice today from Mr. Daniel Burkons. Make sure to check out the Real Estate Locker Room Show on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play and hit that subscribe button to ensure that you never miss out on the 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 really grateful if you would leave us a nice five-star review that other investors like yourself can find this show and join the conversation. The post-game report show notes, links and additional content related to today’s show will be available on my website: johncarneyonline.com/podcast and while you’re there feel free to drop your email address into the opt-in and we can keep in touch through the monthly newsletter where we offer other investing insights, tips, tricks, hacks and other good stuff. Remember to stay focused on your goals, have fun and stay in the game. I’m your host John Carney and until next week: work hard play hard and profit hard.
One more time, thank you very much for taking the time to share your story with us Dan.