January 8, 2021

JF2320: Adapting Your Real Estate Business With Bruce Wuollet

Bruce is the founder, and owner of Bakerson, a multifamily syndication business. Growing up in the bakery business in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, Bruce wanted to pay homage to his now late father, hence the name “Bakerson”. He has a proven track record of success throughout Bakerson’s nearly 18 years in business with thousands of individual units bought, repositioned, and sold. His personal portfolio consists of 250 units and he focuses on finding good deals while his passion is serving the residents by providing them with one of their basic human needs – shelter.

Bruce Wuollet Real Estate Background:

  • Owner of Bakerson, full-time multifamily syndicator
  • Over 18 years of real estate investing experience
  • Bakerson has bought thousands of individual units, repositioned them, and sold
  • Personal portfolio consists of 250 units
  • Track record of 16 multifamily – 850 units and transacted over 2000 single-family homes
  • Based in Phoenix, AZ
  • Say hi to him at www.bakerson.com 
  • Best Ever Book: Relentless

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Best Ever Tweet:

“Always adapt” – Bruce Wuollet


Theo Hicks: Hello Best Ever listeners and welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I’m Theo Hicks, and today we’ll be speaking with Bruce Wuollet. Bruce, how are you doing today?

Bruce Wuollet: I’m doing fantastic. Thanks for having me on.

Theo Hicks: Absolutely. Thank you for joining us. A little bit about Bruce. He’s the owner of Bakerson, which is a full-time multifamily syndication company. He has over 18 years of real estate investing experience. Bakerson has bought thousands of individual units, repositioned them, and sold them. He has a personal portfolio of 250 units, and then his track record is 16 multi-family deals that are 850 units. And he has also transacted over 2,000 single-family homes. He is based in Phoenix, Arizona and his website is bakerson.com. So Bruce, do you mind telling us some more about your background and what you’re focused on today?

Bruce Wuollet: That’d be great. So, the first thing is the name Bakerson, I called it Mr. Bakerson, and people say where does that name come from? So I’d like to share that. I tell everybody that I’m an S-O-B, I’m a son of a baker. I grew up in the bakery business in Minneapolis; my grandfather started the Wuollet bakeries. I worked there as a kid, and it’s to pay homage to my father. He was alive when I named the company and he really, at that time was suffering from cancer. He loved the name, “That’s just awesome, Boo.” That’s what he called me. So it’s pretty fun to keep and have that name in his memory. So that’s where it came from.

And I got started in real estate, in tax lien foreclosures. And in the tax lien foreclosure world, it’s a long and arduous process, so we found ways that we could get into the transactions in a shorter period. I worked with a guy named Gary who has now passed away; he was my mentor. And one of the things is he left money on the table when we were negotiating with these people to buy their homes, and I said “Gary, you could spend 15, 20 grand for this house and turn it around and make money on it.” And he said “No, that just not my model. I buy the tax lien and if they redeem the taxes, that’s it. If they don’t, then I get the house.” So I said, “Well, what if I buy them?” He said, “Go ahead.” So I started buying houses that way, from basically the Kiyosaki mindset of other people’s money. I picked up a triplex, duplex, and three houses.

But then in 2002 I met Jack Martin, and he and I wanted to go full-time in real estate, and we started finding houses, and I could find more houses than we could possibly fix and sell or keep… So I was introduced to wholesaling. And that’s where I’ve done over 2000 transactions in the single-family world. We were one of the top wholesalers volume-wise in Phoenix. And when the market shifted in 2006 and 2007, we got into land. Then the market came back after it crashed, I got back into houses at the auction and what have you…

But the transition to multi-family was the one that was almost accidental, because we got squeezed out of the wholesaling world and we didn’t adapt to technology like other people have. So to always adapt is something that’s very important to us now is you need to pivot and turn as the market shifts. Because everybody is shifting to technology, and we’re still doing the driving the neighborhoods, and the little yellow notes and everything done through the courthouse. But people were buying online, bidding online, getting loans online, title insurance, the whole bit for $1,200 somebody would flip a property to them. And I thought, “Man, I can’t compete with that.” We were averaging aroun$5,800 a flip. So we ended up switching to multi-family. And we did a couple of dozen of those 20, 25 multi-family flips, and we said, “Hey, we can buy, fix and sell those.” So we ended up doing our first apartment deal in Phoenix, a 64-unit with another group, and bought a 120-unit, and after that, we ended up buying six properties in Phoenix.

Then when we thought the market peaked, we said “Hey, we’re going to look at Tucson, it’s a little softer market, a little better margins. Let’s go down there.” And the values in Phoenix have almost doubled since we thought it peaked six years ago, five years ago. So in Tucson we’ve done 11 projects. So it’s actually 17 multifamily projects, the smallest being six units, the largest 120. Our sweet spot seems to be the 60 to 100 unit, which is where we’re able to carve out our sweet spot.

So that brings us to where we are today in the buy, fix, and sell. However, we’re now in another transition where I want to buy and never sell. I do not enjoy the sale process, and I absolutely love the buy and stabilization process. I love the impact we have on the residents and the community, so that’s really where we’re going in the future, is to buy and cashflow.

Theo Hicks: That’s interesting. So I don’t think I’ve interviewed someone who flips apartments. So I know that you want to transition into the buy and hold strategy, but what would you say is the biggest difference on your end between fix and flipping just single-family homes, as opposed to fix and flipping the 60 to 100 unit apartment buildings? Is it the same thing, just the property is different or is there something different?

Bruce Wuollet: Well, on the first flips we did in the apartment, we didn’t fix and flip, we just flipped the contract. So that’s where he flipped the apartments, that’s what I was talking about there. But on the buy, fix, and sell, as a standard syndication you buy it and within 24 to 36 months, you reposition the undervalued asset and sell it. So that’s pretty typical in the market. So those are, I guess, not really flips, I probably use the wrong term there, but the buy, fix, and sell, the 17 projects we’ve done in Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona.

So the difference between when we did the houses, even the ones that weren’t retail, of over the 2000 houses we did, only 12 were full retail products; everything else was buying them, cleaning them up, make it city of Phoenix primarily (or city of Glendale) compliant, and then selling to an investor. We do the trash out, get rid of the graffiti, and all that. The difference between that and what we’re doing in apartments is when you’re selling a house, it’s a commodity. When we do apartments, we’re selling a business, because we’re putting residents in there, we’re selling them as occupied units. So it’s your traditional buy, fix, and sell apartment turn, that is pretty popular right now.

Theo Hicks: So you said 24 to 36 months from buy to sell, right?

Bruce Wuollet: Yes, that’s historically what we’ve done.

Theo Hicks: Sure. So is a portion of that the fixing up, and then you stabilize, and then you sell, correct?

Bruce Wuollet: Yes.

Theo Hicks: So of the 24 to 36 months, what’s the breakdown? How long does it usually take to fix them up? And then how long does it take to stabilize them?

Bruce Wuollet: Okay, on the larger project like the 74-unit in Tucson took us three years. We bought it with 35 units occupied, so a 50% vacancy, or 55% vacancy. We ran it down to 17 occupied units. So basically there was a valley of death there, where we had a huge debt coverage to cover with no income. So that was part of that process. That takes about eight to 12 months to get through that. That whole cycle of getting in and repositioning those and putting in new residents.

And then the next year was where we did the additional value-add where we updated some of the units that were already occupied, and pushed the rents up to market. And then the last year is just getting from the 70% stabilized to 90%. Because when you go all the way down to vacant back up, it takes a good 12 to 18 months to create a really stable balance sheet. People say, “Oh, you can do it in six to nine months.” You can get there in six to nine months, but to keep it stable — when you ramp up that fast, you get a lot of residents you wish you wouldn’t have signed up for, because you get anything you can to get in the door.

So that is the reality that we have seen, at least in our experience. I’m not saying that’s everybody’s experience, but that’s been our experience… It really takes 18 months to get from when you’re filling the units until it’s completely stabilized.

Theo Hicks: Sure. So just to kind of dive into that a little bit and make sure I’m understanding correctly… So you bought it at 55% vacancy for that deal. And you said it went down to 17 units occupied. Is that because you evicted people, so it had low-quality residents? Or, I guess I don’t understand, because you said after eight to 12 months it was occupied, and then you did the value -add. So are you turning over the units first and then once you’ve got them occupied then you do the renovations? Or do you do the renovations right away?

Bruce Wuollet: Okay, this particular one was a slumlord that owned the property, so it was in a really, really rough shape. So there were some units that just needed paint and carpet. So we just did paint and carpet and we were moving people in. But then after those turned, we would update the cabinets, we’d update the countertops, update the flooring on some of those.

So it was almost like a two-phase value-add. First was to get rid of all the problematic tenants. And yes, that’s when we went down to 17. It was like a drive-through pharmacy; it was high, high crime. And we had to get rid of the bad residents and get a stable resident base in there. And that took a wave of people to get through there, because we ended up getting some bad people in initially, and we had to do a second wave of moving those people out. And then when we moved those out, then we did some updates to some of the units to show that, “Hey, if you update these units to this level you can push the rents to market.” And that’s the value add, the meat we left on the bone for the new buyer, that they can finish that, and push through the rest of the units.

Theo Hicks: So is that a typical deal where it’s not stabilized when you buy it? Like it’s got high vacancy? Or are you buying a mixed bag of deals? Do you target these types of deals that are really distressed? Or is your net a little bit wider?

Bruce Wuollet: Well, the net is wider now, but initially, yeah, that’s what we targeted. We would look for the roughest property in a somewhat stable neighborhood, and really zero in on that through our own efforts and the broker efforts to buy that property. There was a 32-unit in Tucson that we brought down to four occupied units. There was a 75-unit that was about 75%, 80% occupied, and when we bought it, we brought it to under 50%. 52-unit, brought to under 50%, because they were really, really rough properties. And they may have been a good quality product as far as the asset goes, but that resident base was really, really rough, where the property managers lost control. So we’ve targeted those. However, it’s been more and more difficult to find those types of properties in our current market cycle.

So we have broadened the net now… Our last purchase was a 90-unit in Tucson, and it’s a stabilized asset. It was over 90% occupied with a lot of economic vacancy. We’ve fixed the economic vacancy, we were at 80% occupied, now we’re back up to over 90%.

Theo Hicks: Is there a value-add/renovation play in that deal? Or is this still just a resident quality issue?

Bruce Wuollet: No, there will be a play on that as well for updating the units. It’s an older building that does need some effort. It’s not bad, but we can certainly upgrade the units. The beauty behind this one is the units’ average square feet is thousands, so they’re quite large. So we have an opportunity to bring in a more stable family resident base than the more transient single.

Theo Hicks: And then you’re raising money for these deals… Are you syndicating them with limited partners?

Bruce Wuollet: Yes.

Theo Hicks: What type of compensation structure is offered? Do you do a preferred return? Is it a profit split? Do I start getting a preferred return right away, or is it delayed until sale? How does that work for the people who are investing in your deals?

Bruce Wuollet: To date, there have been two times where there’s money exchanged. Once when they invest the money, and the second one when they get it back. And in between, there is no distribution, just because the assets have been negative cash flow. So that’s how it’s been, historically; there’s a pref or a split. So because there’s a heavy value add, there’s a little more favor to the sponsor for the return than some of the other syndications that you see. So the investors still get a mid-teens return, but it comes in a lump sum, it’s not distributed quarterly or monthly. However, the asset we’re looking at right now to buy would have immediate, probably second quarter, there would be a distribution. So we are moving more towards a stabilized asset where we can come into the market and finish the value-add that somebody else has started; kind of how we sold properties previously. But we’re looking at 150 to 200 units for the stabilized assets, under a hundred units for the heavy, heavy value-add.

Theo Hicks: Whenever you’re initially underwriting a deal, so not during the due diligence when you’ve got to go into more detail on the property… You mentioned that, for example, on these deals where you buy them and they were really distressed, maybe the property was fine, but it was more of a resident issue. So you know you’re going to go in there and reduce the vacancy to some unknown level, and then obviously, during that time, you’re going to have to cover that debt service, cover your expenses. So how are you calculating what that number is? So how do you know how much extra money you need to raise to cover the holding costs during that first phase of the value-add project?

Bruce Wuollet: We project pretty accurately how we’re going to vacate the units based on what we see when we do our inspection. You get a pretty good feel for “Okay, what number of residents are going to have to be let go?” And then you also look at their historicals… Now, when the resident base is not stable, you would see what their delinquency rates are, and you just have a feeling, “Okay, there’s going to be this many.” And it’s from experience, knowing that we’re going to vacate this many units. So with that plus the reserves that we save, there’s always been enough to cover the negative cash flow during that part of the renovation or the value-add.

So it’s put on a spreadsheet and we just build like a Gantt chart of when things are going to start, when they’re going to end, what is that… What we call the valley of death. What is our valley of death? Okay, it’s nine months. Okay, so we need to plan for more than nine months, because it may take longer, or we may have to plan for more vacant units, maybe a deeper valley than what we’ve projected. So we do the stress test, worst-case scenarios, and what does that timeline look like, and then we put that into reserves.

Theo Hicks: Do you know the death valley before the deal is under contract, or is it not until after you’ve done all these inspections that you know?

Bruce Wuollet: No, it’s during the due diligence that that is discovered.

Theo Hicks: So how do you come up with the initial offer price?

Bruce Wuollet: The initial offer price is based on four things: price per square foot, price per unit, and then based on the rent they’re getting per square foot and rent per unit. So if they’re not a performing asset, you can’t buy it on a cap rate. Right? So you say “Okay, I know that once this is stabilized, this property could be worth let’s say, 6 million.” So you’ll be able to back out the numbers. What is the estimated cost for renovations? Well, we have an estimate of the valley of death, but it won’t be finalized until we get through the underwriting after the inspection. But we usually have a pretty good idea of what the assets would trade for in that market, and then plug those numbers into the spreadsheet.

Theo Hicks: Alright, what is your best real estate investing advice ever?

Bruce Wuollet: I’d like to go with opinions, because advice comes with so much responsibility, right? Just looking at the words. But for me it’s two parts – it’s focusing on the resident, and then also when you’re doing the inspection, to really dive deep into the plumbing and HVAC. That’s the area where it seems to be the most hidden costs in our projects, has been plumbing and HVAC. So the inspection of the property is to hire contractors who are specialists in plumbing and HVAC for us to make sure that anything hidden can be estimated.

Theo Hicks: I wish I would have had this interview three years ago when I bought all these fourplexes and the plumbing amd the HVAC were absolute disasters. And the inspector had missed that. Alright, Bruce are you ready for the Best Ever lightning round?

Bruce Wuollet: Yes sir.

Theo Hicks: Alright. First, a quick word from our sponsor.

Break: [00:18:05][00:18:55]

Theo Hicks: Okay, what is the Best Ever book you’ve recently read?

Bruce Wuollet: That would be Relentless by Tim S. Grover.

Theo Hicks: If your business were to collapse today, what would you do next?

Bruce Wuollet: I would do podcasts with you.

Theo Hicks: Every day. [laughs] What is the Best Ever deal you’ve done?

Bruce Wuollet: The Best Ever deal is my favorite one, it’s a 22-unit in Glendale that was in bankruptcy, foreclosure, a lawsuit, and the owner was arrested for drugs and prostitution, and it was vacant, boarded, distressed, and it was scheduled for demolition. And we were able to save the property, turn it around and sell it as a fully occupied asset. That is our favorite deal.

Theo Hicks: What about a deal that you’ve lost money on? How much did you lose and what lesson did you learn?

Bruce Wuollet: Well, the only deal that I lost money on is one that we didn’t buy. We had to walk away from the earnest money because we were uncertain of the market, so we ended up losing some earnest money. But as far as the projects go, they’ve been been profitable.

Theo Hicks: What is the Best Ever way you like to give back?

Bruce Wuollet: I like to give back by sharing anything that people ask me; that there is no secrets and I’d rather people would learn from people like me and you in the industry, and not from what they find on Google.

Theo Hicks: And then lastly, what’s the Best Ever place to reach you?

Bruce Wuollet: You can call or text me at 520-808-9111. That is my cell. And I invite people to reach out. Or bruce@bakerson.com.

Theo Hicks: Alright, Bruce. Well, thank you for joining us today and walking us through your multi-family strategy. So it’s kind of changing a little bit now, but what you were doing was focusing on very specific 60 to 100 units. These are properties that were very distressed, and it didn’t necessarily need to be the actual property was distressed. So it’s kind of like  property or operationally distressed.

As you mentioned, your best deal was the property and operations were a mess. But it could also be something where the asset is in good condition, but the resident base needs to be turned over. And so you’ll acquire the properties, and then during that valley of death, I think is what you called it, you’ll drop the vacancy so that you get all of the low-quality tenants out, you get better quality tenants in.

Once that phase is done, the second phase would be to upgrade the units and to kind of implement the value-add strategy. And then you will sell those properties as a business, right? Because the property is stabilized. And you’ll sell that as a business to someone else. You said that now because of the fact that those deals are kind of hard to find, you’re transitioning into properties that are going to be more of a buy, fix, and hold strategy.

We talked about the limited partner structure, so they invest and they get a lump sum on the back end whether it’s a preferred return or profit split. We talked about how you determine the upfront reserves, how to cover these holding costs during the death valley… And it’s basically you’ve got a spreadsheet where you’ll go in there during the inspection, looking at delinquency rates to be able to plug the numbers into your spreadsheet to determine exactly how long it will take to stabilize the property based off of the current occupancy, and then the number of people that you’re going to have to remove and then bring back in, how long that takes.

We also talked about how you come up with your offer price; so there’s a price per square foot, price per unit, rent per unit, rent per square foot, estimated cost renovations, estimated death valley time, and the after renovation value, to calculate the offer price.

In the beginning, you actually talked about a piece of advice about making sure you’re always at pivoting when the market shifts. You gave the example of wholesaling and how you didn’t transition into tech, which is why you accidentally got into multi-family.

And then your Best Ever advice, or as you said, your Best Ever opinion, was to number one focus on the resident, and number two, and I can concur with this wholeheartedly, is during the inspection make sure you take a deep dive into the plumbing and the HVAC, because those are where the most expensive hidden issues are. So thanks again, Bruce, for joining us today. Best Ever listeners, as always, thank you for listening. Have a Best Ever day and we’ll talk to you tomorrow.

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