Keeping track of the deal

Solving for climate change solutions is a tough go as the time spans over hundreds of years and the inputs offer imprecise measures. Luckily issues around real estate are typically on shorter horizons and tangible resources. Consider the story of the novice developer from Texas, Nathaniel Barret, in the tweet at the end of the post.

By the time you’ve read through the entire description of his experience as a developer you’ll get a feel for the grit and grime of the process. He has even provided visual aids through extensive photos. You can also sense the apprehension he must have felt when he had to go back to friends and family mid-project and ask for a sizeable amount of additional funding. Keep in mind that at this stage the building is ripped apart and there is no going back. It’s like saying, gee thanks for the $50K, if I don’t find another $150K, I won’t be able to repay you.

Note #1- developers are all in on their own money as well as money provided by their network.

Then consider the time over which this transpires. It isn’t a couple of months, or a year, but several years of no income, free labor and no certain outcome. Several years of owing people, who hold you in high esteem, to sit tight until the whole thing comes together. The post has his adventure starting in 2016. It may not have taken five years to wrap it all up, but it took that long to write about it.

Note #2- there is a backlog of expenses in investment return and in personal favors and in unpaid sweat equity.

Some people may come away from this story wondering how anyone would want to pursue such a project. Some people will never understand the satisfaction in turning a derelict building back into a going concern. Some people do not have the impulse to go toe to toe with a failing neighborhood and throw one’s ambitions at it full force. But fortunately, some investors do. These people are long term thinking, maybe twenty-year scope people.

Luckily a fully renovated property should be good to go for twenty years without major expenses. This allows for the return from the upfront investment of resources and sweat equity to be recouped over a dozen to fifteen years. And there is still the uncertainty as to whether the direction of the neighborhood will turn and inflate, rather than erode the equity in the property.

Now let’s leave behind this story from Texas specifically, and more generally entertain a speculative scenario. Say about five years following a rental property renovation, there is an influx of new residents to the neighborhood. They have relocated from another state. These folks have no memory of the seedy buildings from the past. However, they do bring their recollections of what things were like from whence they came, about relationships with landlords and laws in their previous hometown.

The area attracts an influx of residents due to these restorations. That combined with an overall uptick in the economy causes rents to rise. Tenants who sign one-year leases see increases in their monthly obligations. They cry foul and become politically active due to what they see as greedy landlords. Their short-term framing is not in sync with the longer-term investor framing, hence the perception of corruption. Since tenants make up over fifty percent of the city’s population there is success through four-year term city council people to restrict landlords from earning what was originally projected.

If we are trying to model a neighborhood, a city, or a rural community, where real estate structures are built to last over many decades, then it seems the disjointedness of short-term politics versus long-term investments is counterproductive. Maybe even destructive.

Originally tweeted by Nathaniel Barrett (@ncoxbarrett) on January 27, 2022.

The 2016 story of my very first real estate project: How I bought a scruffy old strip center, almost died of stress, and started Barrett Urban Development.

After reading too many articles about problems with our urban development patterns (thanks @StrongTowns) and walking on our broken down sidewalks too many times, I thought there was no better person to address this than yours truly.

After reading RE books and looking at projects that would have surely failed (thanks @montewanderson & @IncDevAlliance for saving me), I found a pair of adjacent commercial buildings totaling just under 8,000 square feet both for sale. They were in…sub-optimal condition.

I raised money from family members and put a fair amount in myself and found a great GC and architect to work with. The scope: replace/repair everything except the wastewater lines, the foundation and maybe 60% of the structure.

During our walk-through, the GC ballparked it at $250,000 to white-box it. I was way too green to know of a better way to estimate costs or recognize the many red flags during due diligence.

Thanks to a pair of motivated sellers, the ACBM, and an REC during the ESA (don’t do auto-repair in the back yard), we negotiated pretty hard and got what I thought was a good deal: something like $400K for the pair of them.

The plan was divide the 2 buildings into 5 spaces since we figured we’d get higher rent that way. The building is awfully deep, but work with what you got.

The problems started almost immediately. Remember those wastewater lines I wanted to keep? Just past the bend we couldn’t get the camera past, the clay pipes had collapsed.

The plumbing bid to replace comes in: $80,000. I’m already 20% over my construction budget and we’re just getting started. This is not good but there’s no way to go but forward.

Since we’re replacing the plumbing anyway now, we move the bathrooms to the back of the building to shorten the run and reduce the number of bathrooms in the larger suites by 1 (foolishly I plumbed the wastewater lines for them anyway in case I wanted to add bathrooms later???)

Meanwhile, new problems come up: During due diligence, my GC commented that a lintel was sagging. Being naive, I didn’t probe further. Turns out you could put your arm through several of the beams over the openings. Now I need $20,000 of masonry work, steel, and welding.

At this point, I know I need another $150,000-200,000 to finish the project, money I don’t have. I have jaw pain as I start grinding my teeth at night while I sleep which isn’t much, because of the anxiety. A nightguard and sleeping pills solves the symptoms but not the problem

I look for money but I don’t know how: I apply for city grants, liquidate my stock holdings, and borrow against my 401k. I still don’t have enough and I find myself weeping outside City Hall after failing to get a grant as I wonder what I’m gotten into.

I finally have to tell my investors (should have told waaaay sooner). Most of them are circumspect but one is very upset and is making noises about taking over the project. I eat crow and fall on my sword.

I finally have a revelation: I can borrow money from places other than banks. Turns out if you pay a high enough interest rate, people are happy to lend you money*!

I raise another $150K and the project is on track: the walls are flying back up, the trusses going into place, the windows being installed.

It’s finally looking like a building again and I can start to think about actually leasing the place! One of my mentors comes by to check out the project and says I “Decided to skip the master’s degree and go straight for a PhD and now i’m studying 24/7 to get a C-“

I catch a break and a local publication does a favorable story on my project and I pick up several tenant commitments.

In not too long, the building is finally done. I get some really good long-term leases in place and the rents come in higher than expected, which is good because I owed a lot of people a lot of money.

I don’t recommend the above method for starting in real estate. I mostly succeeded due to luck and the good fortune of a large network of supportive people in my life. I can’t believe I actually made it through.

Originally tweeted by Nathaniel Barrett (@ncoxbarrett) on January 27, 2022.