Tom Higgins is a Managing Partner at Terra Capital, a real estate investment firm that rolls up mini-multis (2-15 units) through fund offerings into large, fully renovated, optimized cash-flowing portfolios of 100–200 units. He has leveraged his experience working at large institutional development companies to lead Terra's first-class operational and development professionals.
In this episode, Tom discusses investing in mini-multis, including the benefits, the options it gives investors upon exit, and how to raise capital for mini-multi funds.
Tom Higgins | Real Estate Background
- Managing partner at Terra Capital
- Mini-multis (2-15 units) in Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Indianapolis
- Based in: New York City
- Say hi to him at:
Best Ever Book: Principles, by Ray Dalio
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Slocomb Reed: Best Ever listeners, welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I'm Slocomb Reed and I'm here with Tom Higgins. Tom is joining us from New York City. He's a managing partner at Terra Capital, a real estate investment firm that rolls up mini-multis through fund offerings into large, fully-renovated cash-flowing portfolios of 100 to 200 units. He has experience working with large institutional development companies as well. Current portfolio includes mini-multis in Pittsburgh, Columbus and Indianapolis. Tom, I want to ask you about your background, but I also want to ask how do you define mini-multi.
Tom Higgins: Slocomb, thank you very much for having me on the Best Ever podcast. I've been listening to the show for some time now and I've found it very valuable and insightful, for both experienced real estate investors as well as people just starting out. And I'm excited to get into my favorite topic today.
So I've heard the term mini multis being thrown around a lot, very recently, and we're actively trying to coin the term. But what a mini multi is, is it's anything from a two to 15 unit apartment building, kind of the smallest multifamily properties around. And we like to think about these properties, specifically the ones we focus on, as being too big for a flipper, and too small for a syndicator. It's very difficult to syndicate four to eight unit apartment deals, and that's what we focus on; kind of that lull in the marketplace.
Slocomb Reed: So the idea here is that you buy these two to 15 unit properties until you can get to a portfolio of 100 to 200 doors, and then you position them to be sold to institutional money?
Tom Higgins: Institutional may be a little bit of a high bar. We focus exits on international investors, or family offices, certain real estate private equity companies that are focused on the lower market. But yeah, it's creating a syndicatable offering at the end of the day. So a 150 unit portfolio - that's a great scatter site around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where an investor can go out and raise capital or they already have committed capital, and they can get great exposure to one part of the market, and be in all the best neighborhoods with a turnkey asset that's cash flowing, at a higher yield than what maybe Brookfields buying a 200 unit multifamily in one location down the road from some of our properties.
Slocomb Reed: For those of you who are listening who are not familiar, I am an apartment owner-operator in Cincinnati, Ohio, and very familiar with the space, the property type that Tom is discussing here, so we're likely to dive deep into this more specifically. And I'm willing to say that Cincinnati has a very similar market to Pittsburgh, Columbus and Indy.
One of the things that that leads me to first, Tom - when you say mini multi, you mean two to 15 units. I'm curious why those are the numbers, two and 15. In my experience, again, also as a residential real estate agent who's worked with investors for several years, the two to four unit base is very different from five plus, because on paper the difference is the lending that the property is qualified for, but in practice, the difference is who is willing to buy them, and what they're willing to pay in terms of cost per door for those assets. Two to four family - there's much more competition because they're much more people willing to buy those.
And then I'm wondering also - that's the floor of two doors. Why isn't that five, where most people would put it? And then why is the ceiling 15 doors? Knowing that you're working in the Midwest, you really can't syndicate or raise capital for anything smaller than 40 or maybe 50 doors, just because the value per door isn't there here, when it comes to the cost involved in registering as a security for that property. Those costs are fairly fixed, all things considered, and so the six figure purchase prices instead of seven and eight figures make that cost prohibitive to syndicate in most cases. So why two to 15 and not five to 40?
Tom Higgins: That's a good question. I think that a lot of that comes down to the front of our funnel, and the way we source deals and the sellers that we are acquiring our properties from. Two to 15 units is really a catch-all for us. Our sweet spot is eight units. And I've also noticed that - yes, I would tend to agree with you that the cost to set up a syndication requires at least a 40 unit deal, but we have seen people doing their first syndications, or maybe just a friends and family all pooling money into one investment into that 20 unit, 18 unit space. So I do see a stronger demand on the top of our spectrum. But really, our sweet spot is that eight unit deal that requires anywhere from 25% to 50% of the total development cost in value-add renovations.
Specifically your question about two units... We do sometimes acquire duplexes within a portfolio acquisition where there's one legacy owner that is selling multiple properties, and we will buy the few duplexes that they own, but we're not often competing on an on-market duplex process.
Slocomb Reed: In my experience, what you're saying makes a lot of sense, that the eighth unit or sixth unit and most 12 units are flying under the radar of the vast majority of investors who are looking for something either more passive, or that can be made as an offering to passive investors. So you have mini-multi portfolios in three Midwestern metros already. If the end goal is to sell a larger portfolio at a lower cap than you purchased to investors, family office-like, or private equity fund-like, who require lower yields than the people who are grinding out eight units... Let me ask, how many times have you gone full cycle and sold a portfolio like this?
Tom Higgins: We have yet to sell a portfolio. We stabilized our first fund, which was Pittsburgh-specific, at an 8.8 yield on cost or cap rate. And we're projecting, depending on the capital markets in 2025 when it's our scheduled exit, we're looking to exit at six and a quarter. We have portfolio comps that traded in the high fives or low sixes, and we have large multifamily comps trading in the high for low fives. So I think 100 basis points award to a family office to take down a scatter site is very realistic. But regardless, when you stabilize a portfolio on that high 8 caps, 300 basis points, 250 basis points spread on a five-year hold with typical leverage still drives very, very strong returns for the GP and LPs.
Slocomb Reed: It's valuable as well that you differentiate between large multi comps and other scatterplot portfolio comps, because there is going to be a difference there. The difference is mostly, I would believe, operational. You have a lot more complication involved in operating a scatterplot portfolio, especially when you get to 100 to 200 doors. I'm experiencing that currently in Cincinnati. I manage 166 doors. What do your operations look like? This is one of the reasons that most people avoid eight unit properties, is because it gets to be too large to do on your own on the side of a full-time career. But at the same time, the majority of high-caliber property management companies aren't interested in things that small. So do you guys manage in-house? Do you have third party managers? And I'm gonna go ahead and ask a follow-up question - at what point was your portfolio big enough to pick up third party management?
Tom Higgins: I'll give you just a little bit more on my background, just to contextualize this for you. So after graduating Columbia University, I went and worked for one of the largest developers in New York City... There I did large-scale adaptive reuse, and that development company had all in-house management. Then I worked at a national scale, I wouldn't work for [unintelligible 00:10:01.02] doing ground-up development, and that company owned its own property management team. So in building thousands of units, and they were managing way, way, way more than that, I got great exposure to companies that were completely vertically integrated, and that's really the model that we follow. So all our properties are optimized through our in-house management team, and we hire locally service team members, service managers, and contract services to operate the properties, but all of the residential experience, all of the rent collection, all of that type of experience is all done by our asset management in-house team.
I like to control the destiny of our own properties, rather than hand the keys to third party managers. Personally, I've never had experience with a great third party management company. I'm sure they exist, but we're not actively interviewing them. We really are just trying to find the best people for the job that we can hire.
Slocomb Reed: Tom, that makes a lot of sense in my own investing journey. I've always self-managed; self management and property management in general gets easier with scale. In fact, that's one of the key reasons I started offering third party property management services in Cincinnati, was scale. I wasn't able to scale my own portfolio fast enough to get to the point where I could get myself out of the day to day operations of the portfolio. However, doubling my personal portfolio with third party management got me to the point that I can have full-time maintenance person, effectively full-time 1099 rehab crews, a staff of virtual assistants, a showing assistant, and have all those day to day operations handled to free up my time to be able to do things like this podcast. When you're looking to go into a new market, is there a critical mass of units that you need to be able to buy, just to get started, to buy all at once, so that you have the operational scale to be able to manage?
Tom Higgins: So the way my business partner, Ray, who is a financial and acquisition strategy Jedi - the way we do it is that before we enter any market, same way we did it in Pittsburgh and in Indianapolis and in Columbus, is we go in and we acquire a small mini-multi or medium-sized mini-multi, call it the eight-unit. And we use that eight-unit deal as an anchor; one, as proof of concept to show to ourselves and to our investors that it works in this market, but with our own money, so we're able to really interview a lot of service workers, a lot of contractors upfront, and build out a pole in the market to start to rally around. And then once we've successfully done that, we feel like we have a good team, then we start organically growing our portfolio. And at first, you operate slightly inefficiently, as you build that mass. But you very quickly - and I'm sure you've experienced this, when you're working with a team member and you're telling them "I've got four more deals coming, I've got another eight deals coming, I've got another 10 deals coming", they want to work with you, they're excited to work with you, and we have a lot of tools and mechanisms in place, as we've been doing this for a long time and I was able to pull a lot of experience from the previous companies I worked at to create great protocols and great systems to have our contractors and service team members really be able to excel.
And the reality is is that we are truly optimizing these mini-multis. We are turning everything electric that we can, we are perfectly submetering... We're creating an experience -- all newly renovated kitchens, bathrooms, repairing floor joists, doing new sub-flooring, doing new engineered hardwoods, etc, etc, to our company standards. All keyless entry... In theory, these are all newly renovated units that have a lower operating cost on an ongoing basis, and it makes it easier for our team members to be successful.
We're not half-doing the job and saying, "Hey, please, make this work." We're really building into our iron-clad standards, and we took that from best-in-class standards from [unintelligible 00:14:21.20] Corporation, the second-largest homebuilder in the world. If you walked into one of our units, you walked into one of their units. The interiors of these units look very similar, and a lot of the same materials and best practices.
So it creates an asset that is understandable, and I don't want to say easily manageable, because I think that that's a misnomer. I think anytime you interact with the real world and real people, it takes hands-on experience and hands-on know how to be able to execute that well. But we're creating as many guardrails and systems to be able to execute that well.
Slocomb Reed: That's a great answer, and that makes so much sense, and there's a big part of me, Tom, that wishes I had your background in doing what I'm doing, for sure.
Slocomb Reed: I want to key in on something you said there... You said that you buy the first eight-unit with your own capital. Great, that makes a lot of sense. Get your proof of concept, have skin in the game. That makes it sound like you're raising capital for eight-unit number two. How does that capital raising working for you thus far? Are you structuring it as an open-ended fund? Is it joint venture specific to each property? How are y'all doing it?
Tom Higgins: Well, I think this is a perfect opportunity to plug something that is near and dear to your heart, and also a very exciting opportunity for us. Terra Capital was just chosen as one of the finalists at the Pitch Slam, sponsored by the Best Ever 2023. So we're one of the 16 finalists that you'll see us up on stage in front of Matt Burke, Joe Fairless, Ash Patel, pitching what we're very excited about, which is our Terra Capital Fund 2 offering.
So as I mentioned earlier, we did this fund one, which is a closed fund, for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a proof of concept for a roll-up strategy. And we stabilized that portfolio, and now we're actively focused on fund two, which is also in Pittsburgh, but also Columbus and Indianapolis, and we're actively raising for that fund. It's a 506(C) offer --
Slocomb Reed: Tom, for the sake of the podcast, and because we're not allowed to make specific offerings of investments on the podcast, and because you already will be pitching this at Best Ever, and that conference should be happening just a couple of weeks after this episode airs... So if you have not gotten your tickets yet, I highly recommend it, so you can listen to Tom and 15 other incredibly sharp people looking for capital to deploy into amazing investments... There are promo codes for tickets currently; if you listen to Joe Fairless is promo at the beginning likely of this episode - if not this episode, check yesterday's - to get a discount on your ticket last-minute, and join us in early March out in Salt Lake City.
Tom, I want to ask more broadly... Let's put it this way - I'm in a very similar market, and I own and manage a handful of mini-multis and a couple of things that are larger than you're looking at. Tell me how I should structure a fund like this. Make this about me and our listeners. I want to do what you're doing. I have my proof of concept property. I have a handful of them. And now it's time for me to go start my fund. What's the first thing that I should do, Tom? And then talk me through it.
Tom Higgins: Look, I think that a lot has changed in the last six months to two years in the way in which you can do this. You had the Verivest guys on the podcast a few weeks ago, talking about all the innovation in this fund organization space. But you have to pick which regulation that you're forming your fund under, you have to declare with the SEC, and you have to hire a competent lawyer and accounting team the set up your structure. Fund one, we used Pittsburgh Council, fund two, we used Pittsburgh Council. We are now looking for future funds to use one of these tech-enabled partners to take subscriptions and enable a fund.
But basically you have your proof of concept, you have your thesis, you have your track record, you have your sponsor history, and then you go out to - either through your own network, or through networks like Best Ever, or other similar networks, and you look for family offices, accredited investors, high net worth individuals to invest in your fund, they subscribe to it, and then when a deal comes up or fund expenses come up, you call the capital to execute on the deals. And why that's valuable for an operator in the mini-multi space is that if you're raising money for every eight-unit deal that you're doing, it would be very, very difficult to be able to do this repeatedly and at scale. We buy anywhere from 15 to 20 units, and that's multiple properties every month. We need to not have to worry about where that cash is coming from. And the sellers - and we have a lot of repeat sellers, by the way - they like to work with us because there's certainty to close, lenders like to lend to us, because they know that we have all this committed capital. So it allows us kind of, as a mothership, to execute and be much more efficient.
Slocomb Reed: Tom, that makes a lot of sense. It also sounds like you have a mini-multi portfolio version of a fairly standard value-add business model, that as one of our Best Ever listeners, you know how often we discuss it in the apartment space on this show... With the idea being that you have a targeted sale time for fund one in Pittsburgh, are you underwriting to the five-year hold with a preferred return while you hold the assets, and a targeted IRR for investors? And what are those numbers?
Tom Higgins: Sure. Fund one was at 7.5% pref. So all money is returned, and then the LPs make 7.5% per year. And then for fund one we use the Lehman scale, and I'm not gonna try to articulate that on the show today... But basically, it's hurdles. So after you meet a certain return threshold, it's like the waterfall starts to diverge. Fund two, we made it much more simple, and we did 80/20, and that's kind of an institutional standard that I find much easier to explain to an LP. So I would encourage anyone when they're setting up any syndication structure or any fund offering that has high net worth individuals and/or small family offices to think through really how to award the people in the best and simplest way possible that believe in you and invest with you. For us, we have a lot of institutional guys that work at institutional real estate companies that invest with us, so they're kind of used to that sort of institutional standard, that I think a lot of syndicators are awarded for when they have that sort of simple, very favorable structures.
Slocomb Reed: Tom, before we move on - we're unfortunately running short on time for this conversation; I feel like we could talk for another hour and a half. I do want to give you the opportunity to say nice things about the Cincinnati market, since you told me you were considering it before we started recording... Here I am, Cincinnati owner-operator, and you're already in Indy, Columbus and Pittsburgh. What is it that you were seeing about Cincinnati? Are you considering it? Are you actively looking here?
Tom Higgins: We are not actively looking there yet. But it is on our very, very short list; I would say it's probably market four or five on the ones that we want to get involved with.
Slocomb Reed: If I can cut you off, that means you chose Columbus and Indianapolis recently over Cincinnati. So let's flip the script. Why did you choose those two instead of my market?
Tom Higgins: Well, the only real reason is the size. So Cincy checks the boxes that we as a real estate investment company are laser-focused on, and that's why I said this conversation would be self-serving. Cincinnati is over-indexed in bio health, is over-indexed in manufacturing, is over index in low-cost professional services alternative jobs, and in low-cost alternative tech jobs. That to us indicates what we would like to say is a healthy market; job sectors that are recession-resistant, that we believe are going to only grow over the next 5 to 10 years. And the Midwest, Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh - they're just very well located to take advantage of the reshoring that's happening in America; they've had a lot of time to grow their health and medical as well as educational backbones, and we see them over-indexed in comparison to the US average. They also are not boom towns that a lot of people have been chasing in the South, like in Austin or in Florida, where it's in the news, that sounds great. There's a supply and demand issue. While that's great for short-term returns from a rent growth standpoint, it also comes with a lot of problems.
So we look for healthy markets that are affordable... You talk about this, too; I've heard you talk about it before. But the ratio of AMI to rent affordability everyone always talks about. But the golden line is that 25% of how much money you make every year; you should only be spending 25% or less on rent. That's only really true in very select, big markets in the US, and that line has been blown out of the water in a lot of coastal cities. So Cincy also checks that box for us. So these markets have a lot of amazing mini-multi housing stock, in great locations, near great hospitals, great universities, with healthy markets where we're not worried about the constituents not being able to afford rent and start voting people into power that push for rent control and rent stabilization.
So there's just a long list of these things, but really as real estate investors we're focused on risk adjusted returns and not chasing boom towns or the news. We want to use the value-add economics that we all are obsessed with in healthy, long-term growth markets, and I think Cincy checks that list, Indy checks that list, Pittsburgh checks that list, Columbus checks that list, and we're very excited to be heavily invested in those markets, from now and long into the future.
The reality is the news doesn't talk about it, but a lot of the biggest institutional companies in the US are talking about it. Brookfields recently did a massive acquisition in Pittsburgh, Lightstone just bought 5,000 units in Columbus... It's kind of the worst-kept secret in the industry, but I feel like a lot of people haven't caught on that the Midwest is a great place to get educated on.
Slocomb Reed: There are many more questions I want to ask, but it is time... Tom, are you ready for the Best Ever lightning round?
Tom Higgins: Yes, sir.
Slocomb Reed: What is the best ever book you've recently read?
Tom Higgins: I was gonna joke and say Sun Tzu, The Art of War... But right now really my favorite best ever book is Principles by Ray Dalio. I really love the way he talks about behavioral psychology, behavioral economics, and I've been thinking about it a lot while I'm setting up our team and building out Terra Capital. I think it's a really nice way to think about building a team, hiring the best professionals, really maximizing their strengths to grow the organization in the right way. So it's something we've been laser-focused on and trying to build on every year. Also, you didn't ask, but I do also have a best ever magazine that I recommend, which is [unintelligible 00:26:49.25] Magazine, for any of our value-add renovation or construction gurus or construction addicts like me, Fine Homebuilding magazine is phenomenal if you want to learn the right way to renovate houses, or mini-multis.
Slocomb Reed: I never would have expected a millennial to recommend a magazine. What is your best ever way to give back?
Tom Higgins: Really the main way I've been giving back and the thing I enjoy most is really mentoring and providing resources and recommendations to people starting out in real estate, whether it's on the entrepreneurial side, or an institutional/commercial side, connecting with people that are just coming out of college or even not going to college, that want recommendations on how to break into real estate... That has really been a very valuable experience for me. And I try to do calls like that at least a few times a month with people graduating from NYU, Baruch, and other universities, and try to point them in a direction given our current economic environment.
But more recently, and kind of more specific to your question, I started getting involved with an anti-bullying campaign founded by one of my jujitsu mentors, Tom Deblass, who's creating a national program to teach bullying victims self-defense via jujitsu, as well as trying to advocate to the parents of the bully on behalf of the victim and get that bully the help they need. Tom is joined by Special Force members, ex CIA members, police chiefs, etc. I think it's gonna be a really powerful program. And I'm just starting in the last few days, but I'm committed to being a part of it, both physically and financially. And if you want to learn more about it, please reach out to me, or go to Tom Deblass on Instagram. I think it's a really important thing for people to focus on across the nation. And he's really devoted to building it all across the nation.
Slocomb Reed: Tom, thus far in your own real estate investing, what is the biggest mistake you've made, and the best ever lesson that has resulted from it?
Tom Higgins: Well, I did not prepare that question... But I like it. The biggest mistake I've ever made was I put a steel beam in a superstructure on a skyscraper in the wrong place.
Slocomb Reed: Now, was this with your own investing, or was this when you were an employee of an institutional developer?
Tom Higgins: This was when I was an employee, owner representative developer at a very large developer. and you only make that mistake one time. And I think it's measure twice, cut once is the lesson I learned from that.
Slocomb Reed: What about on your own investing?
Tom Higgins: My own investing, the largest mistake I ever made was we started by syndicating deals in our backyard. And I think people have a propensity -- there's always been a narrative that is "Focus in on your market, focus in your backyard." I think that the way the world is set up with prop tech and big data, the reality is, is that the whole nation is accessible to investors if they set themselves up correctly. So I think one of the worst mistakes is I ignored underlying market fundamentals when I first got started in real estate, and was like, "Oh, I'll buy so well in my backyard that I'll make up for all the market headwinds." So I think what I've learned the most from that is invest in healthy markets, don't invest in unhealthy markets, just because it's down the road."
Slocomb Reed: That makes sense. On that note, Tom, what is your best ever advice?
Tom Higgins: Oh, my best ever advice... Again, not prepared this question, but I like it. My best ever advice is - I think that it's for anyone that wants to do real estate investing, I think it's really important to zoom out and see where the opportunities are in the real estate investing space, and maybe not follow the herd. See what assets are being overlooked. See how you can build a strategy around it. How can you scale that strategy? I think a lot of us will sometimes flock to maybe what's sexy, or maybe what's safe, what people have proven time and time again... And I would urge anyone to zoom out a little bit and think of a underappreciated aspect of a market or a strategy and build the thesis around that. And I know that that's for both my business partner and I, it's what we've gotten immense value out of, and what has awarded us the most.
Slocomb Reed: That's awesome, Tom. Last question, where can people get in touch with you?
Tom Higgins: The best way to get in touch with us is USAterra.com. Also, feel free to email me at Tom [at] USAterra.com. And also, if there's any accredited investors interested in learning more about our offering, follow the prompts on our website, or you can email us at investors [at] USAterra.com. We also are working on a non-accredited reg CF vehicle. I'm going to be happy to speak more about that with anyone that's interested.
Also, I'm very active on Bigger Pockets, so if you search Tom Higgins on Bigger Pockets, I'll probably be the first name that pops up. And there's a community that I've been engaged with, that Slocomb I think you would also really enjoy if you're not already a part of it; it's the REtweet community on Twitter. So I can be reached at Tom C Higgins on Twitter as well. But I think REtweet has been phenomenal. A lot of operators, developers, institutional starting out, entrepreneurs, are all really engaged on that platform, and I've really enjoyed talking there, and talking with other investors.
Slocomb Reed: Those links are in the show notes as well. Tom, thank you. Best Ever listeners, thank you as well for tuning in. If you've gained value from this episode, please do subscribe to our show, leave us a five star review and share this episode with a friend that you know we can add value to through our conversation today. Thank you, and have a best ever day.
Tom Higgins: Slocomb, it was amazing taking the time to speak with you today, and I'm excited to see you in Park City, Utah.
Slocomb Reed: Yes, see you there.
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