Grant Smith is the Principal at Sharper Capital Partners, an Ohio-based hard money lender committed to funding great projects for residential rehabbers. In this episode, Grant discusses how he studied hard money lending from the ground up to grow a substantial business and how he built a unique real estate portfolio consisting of self-storage, raw land, and an auto repair shop.
Grant Smith | Real Estate Background
- Principal at Sharper Capital Partners
- 80,000 square feet of self-storage
- 18 acres of raw land
- A NNN auto repair shop
- Based in: Cincinnati, OH
- Say hi to him at:
- Best Ever Book: Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Greatest Lesson: It’s ok to trust, but verify as well. Do your due diligence before getting involved with a partner or deal.
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Slocomb Reed: Best Ever listeners, welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I'm Slocomb Reed, and today I'm here with Grant Smith. Grant is a personal friend of mine based here in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a principal at Sharper Capital Partners, an Ohio-based hard money lender committed to funding projects for residential rehabbers. He also works full-time in medical device sales. His real estate portfolio includes 80,000 square feet of self-storage just North of Cincinnati, with some outdoor parking, 18 acres of raw land in the Sycamore Township neighborhood of Greater Cincinnati, and a triple-net auto repair shop in South Lebanon, again, just North of Cincinnati. Oh, and also a duplex they just acquired here in the neighborhood of Evanston in Cincinnati. Grant, can you tell us a little bit more about your background on what you're currently focused on?
Grant Smith: Yeah. Slocomb, first and foremost, I'm super-happy to be here, so thanks for having me on. A little bit about what I'm doing right now - I run a hard money lending company based out of Cincinnati, Ohio here; we service the entire state. So that's been probably the bulk of my focus at this point, while still maintaining my active sales job. Background - going back, I was a finance major at the University of Cincinnati, graduated from there; always wanting to be involved in something finance-related. I ended up working my way into sales, and that sort of thing. And then it just kind of progressed in terms of the assets I acquired through some family members and things of that nature, and then really got into private lending because I didn't know any other investment products that were going to give me the return I was looking for. I always wanted to find something that outperformed the S&P 500, so I kind of worked my way into private lending, and just kept scaling it up from there as I did more deals. So that's how I got to where I am today.
Slocomb Reed: Real state-wise -- I know you're still working full-time in medical device sales, Grant... But real estate-wise, your focus is primarily the hard money lending company, as I understand it. Thinking about the members of our audience who are more actively involved in their investing, and have capital or the ability to borrow at low interest, who are weighing their options with how to invest or how to be engaged in the real estate investing space... You've engaged in a variety of commercial real estate investing niches now. Why is hard money lending the place that you've decided to focus?
Grant Smith: Honestly, I ended up in it by accident. Like I said, when I went to University of Cincinnati, my senior thesis was on the persistent performance of private money managers, which meant "Can average Joe's like Grant Smith outperform the returns of the S&P 500?", which over a long period of time was about 9%, 10% pre-tax. So I was looking for investments that were going to outperform that, and I liked some of the characteristics of the real estate investment space, specifically that there really was no one winner. When you think of who owns all the real estate, there wasn't just one company that dominated everyone. Obviously, there are a few, but by and large, it's a lot of mom and pop ownership.
The other thing is that it's not perfectly efficient, relative to what you would see with the S&P 500. So a lot of the information about properties, you really have to do a lot of digging and figure out, okay, why are things the way they are? So with inefficiency, there's usually just more opportunity. And later on, I got into looking at businesses that had less regulation. So what I liked about private lending is I really wanted to own assets. It wasn't initially the goal of mine to just lend on them. But I wanted to get started in real estate, and I didn't want to sit around and wait for the perfect opportunity to come by before I started making relationships and adding the real estate community. So what worked out in my instances - I had a surplus of capital, and I had access to a line of credit that was at a relatively low interest rate compared to the rate that I could lend out to other investors. So with that in mind, I decided just to get involved.
I was approached by one of my good friends from college, who then became a real estate agent, and he connected me with a flipper. So from there, I started finding properties, we started doing deals together, and that first deal I funded, I remember sitting up late at night, sweating, thinking about, "Oh my gosh, am I ever gonna see this money ever again?" And that was back in 2018, in December... And I've done millions in transactions since then, and it's been a good business. And when I first started out, like I said, it wasn't that I was trying to build a business per se, but really just trying to deploy the capital that I had access to.
Slocomb Reed: If I could summarize it in my own words, Grant, it sounds like it's a combination of two things. Yes, capital that you had access to that you wanted to be able to deploy in a way that beats the S&P 500. But also, that you were looking for an opportunity to better learn the real estate investing space, without necessarily taking on all of the risk of becoming just straight up owner-operator. Does that make sense?
Grant Smith: Yeah, that's exactly right. A lot of the issues I ran into early on I think are challenges that just everyone faces, no matter how much money you have, but really how much experience and how connected you are in the real estate space that you operate in locally. So for me, it was more so "I'm not finding deals that pencil out", and later on, I find myself in a situation now with this property in Evanston where it doesn't necessarily hit the returns cash on cash that I would be getting on hard money, but I chose to do that deal anyway, for different reasons, and we can talk about that. But really, what I wanted to see happen was I wanted to get involved in the real estate community, start making those relationships, and get experience with different properties and see what kind of deals people were doing out there.
Slocomb Reed: Quick point of comparison before we transition this conversation grant... I did a very different thing for similar motivations. My story might be a little bit more common than yours, but I know that we have a lot of listeners who have capital they're looking to deploy in real estate, so yours may be a solid avenue for them. I was looking to get into real estate full-time, and I was coming from a much lower income career than yours. I was a full-time professional youth minister. I had time and hustle and an eagerness to learn that you also have, but I become a real estate agent so that I would be fully immersed in the investing activity that was happening around me, and helping find great deals for other people until I could be finding those great deals for myself. And it sounds like you are using lending for a very similar purpose. You don't necessarily have the infrastructure built out to find great off market deals; you don't or didn't when you started have broker relationships and things like that that were going to lead to great opportunities to own and operate. So networking with the people who have the skills that you're hoping to develop, or hoping to build on in the future, making your capital available to them so that you're adding value also putting yourself not in the driver's seat necessarily, but in the car, with the opportunity to go along on the journey with them and learn what you can. Is that fair?
Grant Smith: Yeah, that's totally fair. I think one of the big hurdles in real estate when you first get started is just getting comfortable with all the nitty-gritty details. And at this point, over the last nine months, we've looked at and quoted 440 different deals, and I learn new things every single time I go and do that.
One of the bigger things that I've gotten comfortable with is understanding scopes of work, and what things are going to cost... And there's only so much you can learn about looking at them on paper though. So again, that kind of leads into what we're doing with the property in Evanston at this point, but... It started the learning process and really accelerated it for me, because back in 2018 I had an opportunity to purchase two single-family properties, and they were great deals looking at them in hindsight, and I just didn't pull the trigger on them because I got truthfully scared and cold feet, and didn't pull the trigger. And if I had that opportunity again today, they would have been off market[unintelligible 00:10:10.13] But things change...
Slocomb Reed: Yeah, absolutely. And hindsight is better than 2020 when you have all of the inflationary appreciation events that happened around COVID, for sure. I want to transition this conversation, because I believe that there's another piece of value in your story that I know because of how I know you personally, that I want to get into. First, let me ask - obviously, Sharper Capital Partners is the current focus; I want to get to that last. but I have within your current commercial portfolio self-storage, raw land, and a triple net single tenant commercial space. Chronologically speaking, how did you acquire this, or when? Which one was first, which one second, which one third? And then we'll dive in.
Grant Smith: Yeah, the self-storage units were actually first. And those were acquired from a family member, my father. So he's sold those units. To me and my four siblings. I'm the managing member of that LLC and entity. He originally had them sold for a price of about 4 million, and the appraisal ended up coming back on that property when he was selling it, and it came in at around 3.6 million, and that's what it was scheduled to sell at. And I raised my hand and was like, "Well, I'm a buyer at that price", because I knew some things about the asset in terms of how it was being operated; I thought I could do better and increase the value of that asset.
Slocomb Reed: I do want to get into that. You acquired the raw land next, and the auto repair shop third, of the three?
Grant Smith: Honestly, the timeline was kind of pretty close on those, so I want to say they were right around the same time.
Slocomb Reed: Gotcha. Well, we'll talk about the repair shop first, and then the raw land. So there's something I know about you, Grant... There's a very simple strategy that you execute on really well, that I want to get to; strategy for general success, not just in real estate, but I want to hone in on the way that you apply that in real estate. It's something, frankly, that I'm not all that good at personally, and I know there's a lot that the people who are listening to us now can get from you and your experience. Of all the people that I know, you're absolutely in the top five, maybe in the top three when it comes to figuring out what it is that you want to accomplish. Finding other people who have already accomplished it, figuring out or directly asking from them and receiving from them their blueprint for success in the thing that you want to do, and then implementing their blueprint for yourself.
So that strategy of know what you want, find the people who have it, get their blueprint, execut on it for yourself - that's what I want to talk about. And I want to talk about all these different avenues through real estate that you have pursued through that lens, and the advice that you can give on doing that specifically, the things that you've done right, and the things that you've done wrong, using each of these as examples. Does that make sense?
Grant Smith: Yeah, I'll do my best there. When I was in college, I can [unintelligible 00:13:20.24] I started my first business when I was technically in high school; I was doing graphic design work for YouTubers, specifically people who were playing Call of Duty, and things like that. So I did that business, and actually made quite a good chunk of change for that time period, when I was in high school. And then I tried five other product-based businesses in college that all failed. And being the son of a father who had a number of successful businesses, I kind of thought of myself a little bit as not successful. Just kind of a black sheep in that regard. So when I had assets behind my name, and I could go out and pretty much do whatever I wanted, start whatever I wanted, I wanted to mirror those that were successful, because I learned that from my dada, and that's what he had done. And I had much more success early on going that route.
So when it comes to -- we'll go with the Auto Service Center, just as an example. The tenant was already at a property that we had rented out and we were prepared to sell, and he just needed another facility that had similar characteristics. So I knew what I could pay for it based upon the lease agreement that he currently had in place. I didn't try to adjust rates, or anything like that. And I even used the same attorney that drafted those documents. And he corresponded for the title work and all that stuff, too. But we just drove down the street and found a property that was within a quarter mile radius.
Slocomb Reed: Let's take a step back. Why are you looking at a triple that auto repair shop in the first place? I'm not normally this rigid, but you figured out something that you wanted to do, and then you found people who had already done it, and then you went from there. So let's take a step back... Why is it that you were looking at a triple net single tenant commercial space in the first place?
Grant Smith: Because I'd seen not just my father, but other connections that I had made through my family and things like that, I knew that triple net was like mailbox money. And if I was going to get started into real estate, I wanted the closest thing to passive; if I was going to take a lower rate of return, I wanted the closest thing to passive. So I didn't fully understand what triple net lease was until I started actively trying to find out what this tenant needed for their facility. So when I understood what a triple net lease was, I was just smiling from ear to ear, because I'm like, "This is the best thing ever. I've just gotta go find a facility, I've just got to fix it up, so they agree to the triple net lease and all the work that's been done, and then it's all their responsibility, depending on how I negotiate the terms of the lease agreement." And that's basically what I did. I found a property within a quarter mile radius that fit those characteristics, and paid an offer, and got the deal done.
Slocomb Reed: Let's go to the self-storage facilities. There are two of them, in Middletown and in Dayton. That's what you were telling me before we started the interview. Why is it that you got into self-storage, and then how is it that you have learned how to operate?
Grant Smith: I'm obviously still learning to operate, but I got into self-storage, again, because I knew people who actively owned and operated them, some being family, some people not in my family, and all I heard dinner side talking was that these things are cash cows. And once I started going through college, I learned how to read P&L statements, and balance sheets, and all that good stuff, statements of cash flows, so I started reviewing them for all the businesses that my dad had owned, and I noticed some unique characteristics about the self-storage business, specifically surrounding overhead that was required to run these assets. And then I thought to myself, "Okay, well, if it's this simple, is there an opportunity to aggregate these?" And sure enough, there was, and there were many people out there who were aggregating these things. I didn't know a whole lot about public storage, or all those types of major, major organizations that are out there, but I was learning on the job and through the process of "Okay, well, this is how they run from a financial standpoint." And then when it came time to acquire and operate a facility myself, I really didn't know much about operating them. We have a manual that's probably 15 to 20 pages, and it doesn't really go through any marketing, because these assets weren't being marketed. There were some paid traffic going through SpareFoot, and that was really all of the marketing that was being done. These facilities had been around for about 40 years, so they were pretty well known in the community... And they were in communities - if you know Middletown and Dayton, there are some major players, like the public storages and the big REITs, but it's not super-competitive like that.
So with that in mind, I started just comparing what the rates were between the facilities that we owned, versus the ones that were out there. And I had been encouraging my dad for years to try and raise the rates on them, and it was just something that was not in his wheelhouse to do. So I noticed that when he was going to sell, he was going to be selling the property to a company that was going to make an absolute killing. Because when I did my secret shopping, whether that was online, or physically walking facilities and asking them what units were available, which oftentimes you would find in the areas that I went to that they were almost totally occupied, and the rates that they were charging were majorly hight, and they were much higher than what we were charging. So all those things combined, I just kept OpEx where it was at, and then penciled out what rates would be like if higher. And I could offer something in the vicinity of six or seven cap, and then with financing, wind up with a 20% cash on cash return, if I paid what I paid and got the rent increases and maintained occupancy.
Slocomb Reed: You acquired that in 2019?
Grant Smith: I believe it was 2020. The date ranges for me are kind of all blurry, because I think I had COVID timewarp, so I'm not specifically sure.
Slocomb Reed: I get that. How is it performing now?
Grant Smith: Fortunately, things have gone according to plan, in terms of people accepting the rent increases. There are active property managers on site, and I've chosen to keep them in place because they know more about renting facilities than I do. So I chose to keep management exactly the same. The people have been there for very long periods of time. They were there before my father originally bought the facilities in 2010. So when I asked them about when their last rate increase was, they couldn't even remember. So I thought that was a good thing. And in addition to that, while operating the facilities, from raising rents, and all that sort of thing, maintaining occupancy was going according to plan. The facilities had significantly deferred maintenance with the roofs, and the electrical was very old, so we ended up having a fire at one of the facilities; we couldn't determine what the cause of the fire was, but it ended up burning out an entire row of units. I think it was approximately 30 units or something like that. But fortunately, I had all the proper insurance in place to make sure I could recover and sustain that.
So we ended up putting new roofs on all the entire facilities and redoing the electric, just to make sure that that wasn't going to be a cause of concern in the future. But we've talked outside of this before, where you have a game plan going into operating these things, and then you get punched in the mouth when you actually own it. So that would be a prime example of that.
Slocomb Reed: Let's take a couple minutes to talk about the 18 acres of raw land in Sycamore Township. For those who are not familiar, can you describe Sycamore Township within Greater Cincinnati? And also, there are three or four school districts that Sycamore Township touches. Which school district is this land in?
Grant Smith: I think it's in the Sycamore High School school district. Honestly, I'm not exactly sure. It's close enough to be annexed to Blue Ash, which is strategically important in the case of the property itself. Something worth noting about the property too is that it did include a cell tower with the purchase of it, and it was a mobile home park, so there was already income being produced by the property when we acquired it; it wasn't just strictly raw land. And it was owned by family members who inherited the property, so they were having trouble figuring out how they were going to sell it and agreeing on a price, so we were able to come in with a price point that made sense. We had a broker bring us the deal, and all my family members participated. So we ended up acquiring that property, about 18 acres.
What's really important there too is it's got a lot of road frontage, with 275. And for people who understand the 275 loop in Cincinnati, it's a lot of traffic going by. So originally, we thought potentially like a hospital, but the access to a facility like that just didn't make sense for a hospital. So we ultimately decided that it would be best zoned as a residential type of community.
Slocomb Reed: You acquire the land before you knew your exit strategy, before you knew how it was going to be zoned on the exit?
Grant Smith: Correct. It was zoned light industrial, and as of - I want to say two weeks ago, it was approved by the township for R1 residential.
Slocomb Reed: Nice. So it was zoned light industrial, there was a cell phone tower and a mobile home park on the land at the time...
Grant Smith: And a single family house.
Slocomb Reed: And a single family house. Great. Well, reading between the lines for our listeners, being close to Blue Ash, and in the Sycamore School District - I am a licensed real estate agent in Ohio, so I'm not allowed to publicly have opinions about school districts, but I will say that the Sycamore school district does drive what are for the Greater Cincinnati market very high single family home values, especially if you are building four and five-bedroom or larger single family homes. So that makes a lot of sense. R1 is likely to be simpler to get approved, and there are likely to be more buyers for that than some of the other use cases that you mentioned. But also, do you have any numbers on how much more the land is worth as vacant R1 than it was as light industrial?
Grant Smith: Quite honestly, I'm not an expert in that area; we've relied a lot on broker opinions to tell us what it would be worth... And right now there's an active transaction going on, so I just don't want to disclose anything that might cause any issues.
Slocomb Reed: Got it. Going back to my original line of questions, Grant, why is it that you got into this deal in the first place? ...because the land wasn't quite raw when you acquired it.
2:Yeah. I considered a little bit about making it work as a mobile home park play, because they're so hard to come by anymore. But it made sense, just the value of the land, where it was physically located... It was a one of a kind of property, in the sense that to get that much road frontage exposure to I-275 - there were no other pieces of land like that that existed. So we knew it would be highly valuable to the right person, who was looking to develop something that was going to have a lot of exposure... And it so far has made sense as an investment that way.
Slocomb Reed: Now, for Sharper Capital Partners - we've talked about your motives for getting into hard money lending; how is it that you've been studying hard money lending as you go?
Grant Smith: Like I said, when I first started out, we wouldn't call it a business. I made it into an LLC so that I could run some expenses through there that pertained to the business, and operate it in that fashion. It ended up growing to a significant portion of my own personal capital, and a line of credit that I had been deployed... And really, I did not have any aspirations of loaning to anyone else, because I basically trusted one client to deploy my capital under their deals. So with that in mind, the intention was to use the proceeds that I was getting from this lending business to then hire an employee who would eventually work out to be a partner in the business, so that we could go out and acquire other real estate. It wasn't about lending on other property.
But what we've found while we were going through this process is I started to look at other people who were doing this as well at scale, and came to find a group out there called the Hard Money Bankers, and really looked up to the way that they ran their business, and also how they were achieving the returns that they were, and really just gotten education. So I ended up joining their mastermind, which is very inexpensive for what it's worth. I think it was 40 bucks when I joined, and they've kept it that way... So it's very minimal to join that. But took all of their information very seriously, and I applied everything that I learned along the way. Most of it had to do with loan origination, because when you first start, you don't really have a lot of lead flow.
So we did all the things - we went out and we built our own website, we got Google Voice numbers, we got the accounting setup, so that I made sure I could handle multiple deals at the same time... We had not necessarily an operating system, but a process for managing multiple loans at the same time, just through Google Sheets, and started marketing ourselves and going to all the local REIAs, and got some minor branding to make our business stand out... And really just committed to the process of "We're going to actively market my business, I'm going to keep showing up." And sure enough, it took three or four months, but this month we're probably going to originate 500,000 dollars in loans; our average loan [unintelligible 00:29:09.24] for nine months, so we'll go from basically having one client pre-existing to September of last year ,to having probably 20 to 25 clients totaling about four and a half million or five million in loan portfolio outstanding. So that's the trajectory.
And another thing that I'm doing -- mind you, none of it is original; none of it is unique to the business that I run. And I think that is a point that you were kind of highlighting. I'm just trying to find the best practices and apply them to my business, even if they're not in the same industry. So that's something I think people should look for, too.
Slocomb Reed: I was trying to highlight your success more than your humility though, Grant. You've done a lot of advice seeking and a lot of advice taking in the success of your hard money lending, but also in your real estate the last few years. Where has your advice seeking and taking gone wrong?
Grant Smith: Gosh, it's a great question. I don't know if it was advice that was given to me, but maybe it's just the general thesis of - especially when you're in college, all the learning that you do is in the form of textbooks, reading, taking tests... And really, the real learning starts when you actually start doing the thing. That's the highest form of learning. So I think probably that advice. Because I worked with professors all throughout college, I was a TA, making 850 an hour... So I was around a lot of people who were really deep knowledge workers, but in terms of the stuff they were teaching, they weren't always doing it. Some of them were, and so I took a lot of away, but a lot of times it was people who always found a reason to say no to things. And I had to open my mindset up to saying, "The first deal I do isn't going to probably be a home run, but it's the highest form of learning I can do at this point, and it's worth it to me, because I know it ultimately leads to the thing that I want most, which is financial security and financial success for my family and my friends."
Slocomb Reed: Well, Grant, are you ready for the Best Ever Lightning Round?
Grant Smith: I'm ready, let's do it.
Slocomb Reed: What is the Best Ever book that you recently read?
Grant Smith: I'm rereading Atomic Habits by James Clear. I know that's been on the Amazon bestsellers list for a long time, but it's a book that, again, when you take action on all the advice that's given in there, it's life-changing. So I recommend that to anybody.
Slocomb Reed: What is your Best Ever were to give back?
Grant Smith: This is a good question, because as busy as I am, I don't feel like I give back enough. If I had to say the most consistent form of giving I do - and it's probably tongue-in-cheek, because it's technically marketing for my business... But I run a podcast, so I have people on there and we create content so that people can learn about what we're doing, or what other people are doing in achieving financial success in their business. So that's probably the most consistent way I give back.
Slocomb Reed: Thus far, Grant, in your real estate investing activity, both acquiring and operating, and lending, what is the biggest mistake you've made, and the Best Ever lesson that resulted from it?
Grant Smith: Due diligence. I think that's probably the best advice I could give anyone. Even if you are working with someone who's high character, it's so important to do your due diligence, and it's okay to trust but verify. So a lot of times, especially in the lending business, you're working with people who have all the right intentions, but the biggest thing is just to make sure that you're setting both parties up for success. And I think that's true of partnerships, or anything of that nature. Just making sure you do your homework before you get involved with something.
Slocomb Reed: And what is your Best Ever advice?
Grant Smith: My Best Ever advice would be once you've read enough books - and if enough books is I'm spending more on purchasing the next book that I am actively going to meet ups or something like that - drop those things and start networking. And if you can, just buy your first property and get started, or write your first hard money loan or private loan, whatever you want to call it, and get started... Because you won't learn more than doing your first deal.
Slocomb Reed: Last question, where can people get in touch with you?
Grant Smith: The best way to get in touch with me is at SharperCapitalPartners.com. We have all of our socials and emails and all that good stuff there... So again, that's SharperCapitalPartners.com.
Slocomb Reed: That link is in the show notes. Grant, 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 you know we can add value to through our conversation today. Thank you, and have a Best Ever day.
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