April 22, 2021

JF2424: What Can Go Wrong Investing in Syndications?

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Today Theo and Travis will be sharing experiences and stories about investing in syndications. They want to ensure no one ever wants to invest in syndications. It’s good to give the alternative perspective because things aren’t just black and white, or good or bad in terms of investing. There are people that make money doing a lot of different things. There’s no perfect investment — there are always risks. There is definitely a risk in communication and reporting of financials.

We also have a Syndication School series about the “How To’s” of apartment syndications and be sure to download your FREE document by visiting SyndicationSchool.com. Thank you for listening and I will talk to you tomorrow.

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Theo Hicks: Hello, Best Ever listeners, and welcome back to the Actively Passive Investing Show. As always, Theo Hicks and Travis Watts.

Travis, how are you doing today?

Travis Watts: Theo, I’m doing great, thrilled to be here.

Theo Hicks:  So today we are going to provide you with another contrarian perspective. Last week we went through some of the reasons why someone might elect not to passively invest and decide to actively invest instead. And today, we are going to talk about some of the things that can go wrong when investing in syndications. So as always, before we hop into these reasons, Travis is going to give a little bit of background on why we’re talking about this today.

Travis Watts: Sure. I think the main goal here is to scare everybody off and make sure no one ever wants to invest in syndications. [laughter] And secondarily, it’s good to give the alternative perspective, right? Because things aren’t just black and white, right or wrong, good or bad; in terms of investing, anyway. There’s people as we said many times, that make money doing a lot of different things. So we just kind of want to give the other side of the coin here and share some experiences, some stories that I have specifically, as a limited partner, where things didn’t quite go as planned. And I just want to paint that picture of what that might look like and how that works.

So again, there’s no perfect investment and there’s risks in everything. That’s why we’re doing these shows, and hopefully, the next show will do a little more positive spin on something. But to your point Theo, the back to backs of having this contrarian point of view. So happy to jump into our first topic here. Did you have anything you wanted to add before we get rolling?

Theo Hicks: Yeah, I’m not actually sure we’ve talked about this before, but I know we’ve talked about qualifying the sponsor, the GP before passive investing, and one of the questions that we’re going to want to ask is about a time something went wrong or something bad happened, a deal didn’t go the way they thought it was going to happen, and how they handled that situation.  It’s a really good question, because it can indicate experience and transparency/trust; so if they say nothing’s ever gone wrong, then they might not have you done that many deals, or they’re lying to you.

So some of the things are more scenario-based, other ones are just high-level, what can go wrong at syndications, but it’s just keeping in mind that when you’re speaking with sponsors, as Travis said, it’s kind of good to get an understanding of if they’re going to be able to handle if something were to go wrong.

Travis Watts: Exactly. Great point. Something we talk about all the time on the show are the three primary areas of risk, which would be the deal, the market and the team. So that’s kind of going to be the theme for what I go through here and what you go through as well. I also want to point out a few things we’ve never talked about before, Theo – I’ll let you handle that after I start this first segment – and just some alternative points of view on a couple things.

So what I want to start with is just first and foremost, and just the blunt, right to the point, and that’s just losing money. Everybody’s fear, right? We don’t want to lose money. How do I not lose money? Warren Buffett’s number one rule “Don’t lose money.”

So yes, it’s possible to lose money when you’re investing; it doesn’t matter what you’re investing in, there’s always a risk to that. So maybe unlikely, but it is certainly something to put in your mind as you go through the process. So first and foremost, this is the best thing I’ve come up with myself – diversification. So that means diversify among different operators that you work with, different general partners, that means diversify among different asset types. You’ve got multi-family and self-storage and industrial and office and hospitality… So lots to choose from; maybe choose a few there that you could kind of trickle some money into as you go along.

You could also diversify in terms of active – you do a couple deals actively, but then you do a couple of limited partnerships passively. And then also geographic areas. You can imagine if you had your entire portfolio, like I used to have, in one little 30-mile radius. Well, imagine that 30-mile radius being Miami and a hurricane comes through. There’s obvious risks to having all your eggs in one basket in one geographic location.

So that is a beautiful thing about being a passive investor.  One of the primary reasons I shifted gears to go that direction, is I could place capital in multiple states nationwide with very experienced, reputable operators. And I’m just so grateful that this stuff exists, because I was getting so anxious and paranoid having all my net worth, all my assets in one asset class, one geographic area, and it was freaking me out. This was back in 2013/2014/2015, before I shifted gears.

So the other thing I want to address is some folks bring up just fraud, or Ponzi schemes. We all know the Bernie Madoffs, or the Enron scandals and things like this. My best solution to that is always, always, always do your due diligence; you can only do what you can do. The crazy part about stuff like that is if you’d invested with Bernie Madoff before that whole scandal unfolded in the Great Recession, you could have ran a background check and it would have come up clean. He had a positive reputation in the industry. He was a board member or whatever he was, a chairman of the NASDAQ; this was a very reputable firm, reputable guy, no criminal history, et cetera. And he was running mostly a legitimate business, up until he decided to do this one particular fund that ended up being this massive Ponzi scheme.

But read the PPM’s, leverage attorneys, leverage other people in your network to get second and third opinions. Ask for investor referrals, network with other people, ask people who they invest with and what their experience has been. This is all parts of due diligence, and everybody does it a little bit differently.

And then last but not least, again, diversify. There were folks that put nearly everything they owned and had with Bernie Madoff. And then there were folks that allocated 100k that direction, but also had $10 million over here. Well, those people did just fine, relatively speaking. So diversification, I can’t say it enough. And then as far as the deal itself, that was about the team, and we talked a little bit about markets and geographic stuff. But as far as the deal, ask for stress tasks or a sensitivity analysis. Again, to your point, Theo, ask the operators what could go wrong, what has gone wrong. And really get into the deal. You don’t have to get into analysis paralysis, but know what the breakeven occupancy is, know what kind of debt terms are going on this; know if it’s conservatively underwritten. If you’re buying it at a five cap – we’ve talked about this before – hopefully, the projected exit cap is a higher number. That’s not because you want that to happen, that’s because that’s a conservative underwriting best practice. So things like these. Do you have floating interest rates? Do you have lock fixed interest rates? If they’re floating, is the GP buying a cap for them?

There’s so many things, I can go on and on, but do your due diligence on the deal itself, obviously. But if you get a reputable general partner or sponsorship team with a track record and experience, they’re probably going to be doing, hopefully, a good deal. But you still want to know about the deal. There could just be something that was missed or overlooked are something that you personally don’t agree with as part of your own criteria. So I would advise everyone to pass if you’re not feeling good about the deal itself, even with a good operator. There’ll be other deals, just pass. So those are some thoughts on just losing money.

A lot of questions that come up, especially for new investors in this space about Ponzi schemes and fraud… And I’ll be the first to admit, I was very skeptical in 2015 when I started investing in these asset types, because I just didn’t know. What is fear all about? It’s fear of the unknown. And so that’s why we’re here to educate and share some ideas on that. So I’ll stop my rant there. I’ll turn it over to you, Theo, for your segment here.

Theo Hicks: Yeah, before I go into my segment, as Travis mentioned, there’s a lot that goes into addressing the risk points of the deal, the team and the market. We’re going to go into the team and the market a little more detail in this episode, but Travis and I did three separate episodes, one each focusing on those risk points. So how to vet the deal, how to vet the market, how to vet the sponsor, on Actively Passive here. I think one of them was almost 15 minutes long. So all those different questions that you want to ask to determine how risky the team is, how risky the deal is, how risky the market is; we went to a lot of detail in those episodes, so definitely check those out.

So in addition to losing money, it is also possible to lose your passive investor protection. So again, we’re not securities attorneys or real estate attorneys, but generally speaking, when you’re looking at the liability for these types of deals, the LPs have limited liability, which means that if something were to happen, a lawsuit or fraud or whatever, then a resident or another investor or the bank can’t pursue your personal assets, they can only go so far as to take the money that you had invested in the deal, but they can’t go further than that. Whereas for being on the GP side, they can go further than that. So when you think about passive investing, it’s technically possible to be more of a hybrid version, where you’re bringing money to the deal, but you have some other role in the deal; maybe you’re signing in a loan, maybe you’re responsible for certain aspects of the business plan, and then you’re on the actual general partnership, and you don’t have that same level of protection as the limited partners.

So the solution to that, which is making sure that you are actually the limited partner, so that if something were to happen, as Travis mentioned, that you lose money, you’re just losing the money you had in that deal, and your other assets aren’t exposed in that lawsuit.

Travis Watts: Exactly. Now, those are great points. And again, that’s one of the huge selling points, to me anyway – perhaps it’s a little more sophisticated conversation, but liability is huge; it’s so huge. And I won’t mention his name, but there’s a very well-known syndicator out there in the space that started first in single-family homes and moved into multi-family after the Great Recession. Why did he do that? He lost everything, and then some; he was personally liable for more than what he had invested in those properties. All the banks and creditors were coming after this guy individually after that.

And for those that know it from a real estate perspective, the Donald Trump story back when he was whatever it was, an incredible amount of money – I want to say over $100 million in debt at one point – underwater; no equity in the properties, plus him personally being responsible for that level of debt.

So as a limited partner, say I go put $50,000 into a deal, and everything in the world goes wrong and lawsuits fly and the world just ends – the max loss I’m looking at is 50k, and I don’t have to worry about someone’s coming after my personal bank accounts, my car, my wife, et cetera. It’s all sheltered there. So anyway, not to go too long on that, but that’s a big deal. Hopefully that makes sense to everybody listening.

Break: [12:43] to [14:45]

Travis Watts: The other thing I want to talk about, that not a lot of people talk about, is transparency and communication risk. There is definitely risk in communication and reporting of financials. That’s something that, again, isn’t talked about very much. But think about it like this – as a limited partner, I’m essentially trusting a general partner to manage my money, in most cases in an unlicensed capacity, meaning they don’t hold any kind of financial licenses for the most part. So that’s a big risk, and I have to trust that they’re going to be communicating with me on a monthly or quarterly or semi-annually basis, so they’re going to be sending me financial reports that are accurate and valid, and there’s a lot of trust. And as you operate, most of these syndications are operated in the 506(b) and 506(c) lens, so you’re not held to the same reporting requirements as publicly traded companies are that are on the stock market. So again, you have to trust that audits are being completed, the numbers you’re looking at are real, and things like that.

So what you want to do, the solution here is, again, back to due diligence, back to reputation and track record and background checks, and all these kinds of things… But additionally, you want to ask, what kind of reporting do you give to your investors? What kind of frequency is that on? Can you send me an example of a monthly update that you recently sent out? Can you send me an example of the quarterly financials that you send to your investors? Things like this. And every operator should be able to accommodate to that.

But do recognize too, that I partnered with a group years ago – and I didn’t realize this, because I didn’t ask the questions as part of my due diligence – they didn’t do financial reporting. It was like the craziest thing. They just didn’t feel an obligation to do so. And there was a few investors that kind of got on them about this, and they just wouldn’t disclose.

Now, I’m not saying that they’re fraudulent or anything like that… I was an investor for years with them, I got out of the deal successfully, unscathed and all that, but it was kind of a worrisome point to kind of think about sometimes. Why is this happening? Why can’t I get the financials? And they had their reasons, and I don’t remember all the details; it wasn’t a huge thing… But just recognize that it may not be standard for the group you’re working with to do this in the first place. So make sure if that’s important to you, that you ask the questions upfront. So that’s all I wanted to make on that. I’ll turn it over to you, Theo.

Theo Hicks: Yeah, I would say, just to add to that – another reason why this communication is a risk is that if something were to go wrong and they aren’t transparent, even though you’re a passive investor, you can’t really control how they react to what goes wrong… But the best sponsors, if something were to happen, they will let you know in that next email update and then they’ll have a solution in place for what they’re doing to fix that problem. But what happens if something goes wrong and you only get quarterly updates or something’s happening to the financials and they aren’t sending you the financials, or something weird is going on with the returns; I think you might go into that in a second… But something might go wrong and you don’t know that that’s happening until months later or maybe a year later, and maybe you’ve already reinvested in a couple more deals, right? So the sooner you know something is wrong and that they’re addressing a problem, the better. Because I think the big risk here is that you invest with them again, or just the unknown of not necessarily knowing why you aren’t getting your distribution, or why aren’t they sending financials for the first four quarters, and then all of a sudden, this next quarter they stop sending financials or stop sending updates.

I’ve heard stories of communication just completely stopping and not being able to get in touch with the people again.

So there’s a lot of horror stories that can go wrong if they’re not communicating properly, which kind of brings me to the next risk of something that can go wrong is that you invest with a bad sponsor, that you either didn’t know how to qualify initially, or they misrepresented themselves to you. So we already did a really long show about the questions to ask to analyze their track record, but basically, you want to know that they are an expert in what they’re doing, and you also want to know – which is really big – what their role actually is in the deal. Sure, they could be a GP, but are they the main GP? Are they the person who’s responsible for the asset management, buying the deal, investor relations? Or is it a co-GP situation where they just raise money and then maybe have other smaller role in the deal, but there’s someone else that’s more in control? Because it’s bad to invest with someone like that, but you want to know who you’re investing with. Someone might say that they control $1 billion in real estate or $100 million in real estate, but it’s not actually their company that controls it.

A couple other questions to think about is do they actually specialize in that particular niche, or are they kind of just all over the place, and focus on multiple asset classes, as Travis mentioned earlier? Better to focus on one than multiple. How many deals has their business done in the past? …taken full cycle, which is also important. So not just bought and then held, but have they actually sold a deal and then returned your initial capital, plus their returns. So they have true full cycle return projections, full-cycle actuals, and you can compare those two and see how accurate their underwriting was, how accurate their assumptions were.

Something else that you want to know too, that could indicate that you’re investing with a strong team, is if their company is vertically integrated… Which means that in addition to the GP, they have brought as much as possible in-house, as possible – asset management, acquisition, underwriting analysts, property management companies, in-house compliance people… Basically, a full-fledged company, where everything is in-house, as opposed to working with third-parties. Again, nothing objectively wrong with working with third parties, but there’s an extra level of alignment of interests when it’s in-house and it’s actually your company who’s managing the property, as opposed to another company who’s managing thousands of properties for other people and they get paid based off of a very small percentage of the rent, and they really just make money by managing a bunch of properties, and if they lose you or the revenue drops by 20%, it’s not really affecting their company at all. Whereas if you’re a property management company that works for you, if it’s not doing what you want them to do, there’s obviously a much bigger problem there.

So I guess there’s a lot more that goes into this, but one of the things as well that I thought of – are they guaranteeing a return? That’s another pretty big red flag, because as Travis mentioned in his first point, it’s possible to lose money, there’s no guaranteed anything in investing at all. So if you’ve got a GP who’s guaranteeing you, say a 12% return on your investment, year after year, that is an indication that something’s probably going to go wrong. It’s possible that they get 12% and that’s great, but eventually, they’re probably not going to hit that 12% number. And then what are you going to do? Are you going to accept the lower number, and maybe people start suing this GP, and then your capital is at risk…

So overall, just make sure you’re investing with someone who’s experienced. The more experienced they are, the better track record they have, the less likely there is something to go wrong.

Travis Watts: Exactly. I’ve shared the story before and I won’t go into the details here, but basically, I partnered — actually, it was a couple groups that didn’t have the track record or experience. One, I knew that for sure, the other was interesting, we’ll say that. But the risk ended up being that – no, I didn’t lose money, and no, they weren’t a fraud or anything like this, but what the pro forma had projected was about a 12% cash flow, and we ended up with near half of that, and near half the total IRR when it all came said and done; and there was a lot of hiccups and road bumps along the way.

So it was a risk nonetheless, and that’s how that resulted. And I would say, just to be realistic, in this industry, I would say that’s probably the most common type of scenario that you’re going to encounter, is you’re going to look at a pro forma and it’s going to look shiny and bright and amazing and double your money in five years and whatever, that kind of stuff… And the reality is, it’s going to be maybe 20% or 30% less than that that you end up with. I wouldn’t really complain about that because it’s still a solid return, but it may not be what you hoped for.

So doing all these things we’re talking about puts you in the best position to work with the best operators, to have the best chance of actually achieving or overachieving what those pro formas are all about.

Break: [23:26] to [24:08]

Travis Watts: Last thing I want to talk about really in terms of this episode is the distribution frequency risk. So I just talked a few minutes ago about communication frequency, and now I’m talking about distribution frequency. This is something I’ve highlighted on previous episodes real lightly, but I wanted to paint the picture with actual numbers to explain the concept really quick.

So distributions should be part of your criteria as an investor; do you want monthly distributions? That’s payouts from your investments; quarterly, semi-annually? Or maybe you’re doing new development and you say, “I don’t really care about distributions. It gets built when it gets built, it sells when it sells, it’s in my IRA, and whether that’s in two years or 10 years, I could care less.” Everybody’s different, but just know your comfort level and your risk tolerance here.

And what I want to share is monthly distributions are part of my personal criteria. That doesn’t mean every single deal that I’ve ever done is monthly;  80% are,  20% are not. But it allows me to turn over my capital more quickly.

For anyone that’s ever listened to Robert Kiyosaki actually talk in-depth about investing, his whole thing is “How soon do I get my capital back?” It’s the velocity of capital; he puts money in a project, and then he’s trying to get it back, either through refinancing or through cash flow, as quickly as possible, so that he limits his risk in the deal. Because if you put 100k in and you get 100k back, but you’re still holding the asset, you then have what he calls an infinite return, or you can now take that 100k and put it somewhere else in another deal and do the same thing again.

So here’s the example – let’s say I had $250,000 to invest, and let’s say I parked it into a deal that achieves a 10% annualized return, just to use some simple example purpose numbers. That means I’m getting $25,000 each year in cash flow. So the way I look at that is I can then take $25,000 each year and I could potentially go do another deal with that money. A, I got the money back, in a sense, right? It wasn’t my initial capital, but still, I put in 250k, and I got 25k back in one year. So if you fast forward 4 years, that’s $100,000, right? 25k a year coming back to me and I keep parking that into new deals and now I have 4 other deals that I’m invested in, for example purposes. Well, that means at the end of 4 years, I only have $150,000 at risk in that initial deal, because I had put in 250k, and I got 100k back over a 4 year period. So I’ve now reduced my amount of risk in that particular deal. That’s why I like monthly distributions and cash-flowing assets.

So let’s say I did a new development deal where it’s going to take four years to build, develop, sell, convert, whatever, till I get my money back. Well, I put 250k in, but I still have $250,000 at risk for the entire period of 4 years. Because I didn’t get any cash flow off of that, I didn’t have any kind of refinance or return of capital or anything like that. So that’s one reason why, among many, that new development entails a higher amount of risk; at least in my opinion, it does.

So it’s something to think about in terms of your distribution frequency; some people could care less about monthly versus quarterly, that’s not as big of a deal. But if you’re talking about no distributions in an investment, where it’s all on the backend, versus monthly or quarterly, that can be a huge game-changer in terms of risk. So just something I wanted to point out in a little more detail. I know, I’m a very visual guy, so hopefully that made sense audibly, if that’s a word. But anyway, just wanted to share that.

Theo Hicks: I think that’s an app, Audible.

Travis Watts: Okay, there you go, whatever.

Theo Hicks: That’s a really good point, you need your capital to work for you sooner. So the last point, and I’m not going to spent a lot of time on this, because Travis has already mentioned this, and we’ve got a very long show diving deep on how to vet the market… But another way a syndication could go wrong is by investing in a bad market. So some of the factors that you want to look at to make sure that you are investing in a good market would be the diversified employment, so making sure that no one job industry dominates the market. A good number is 20% to 25% for that top industry. So if you’re investing in a market and 90% of the jobs are automotive or something, and that industry were to take a hit, well, then that entire market’s unemployment rate is going to go up, and it’s going to affect your rental rates for whatever you’re investing in.

Population growth – obviously, you want to invest in a market that’s growing, because the population or the customers of the apartment or whatever you’re investing in. Looking at big Fortune 500 companies or even smaller companies relocating to the area; you’ve got these massive billion-dollar companies that have these arms that are doing all this massive research determining where to move next. And so if they’re deciding to move to a market, that’s because they see something, whether it’s something that’s happening now or in the future.

And something else too that isn’t really stressed a lot, but the political environment in that particular market. So you’ve got some places that are very landlord-friendly, and other places that are very tenant-friendly, which means that it’s kind of based on the amount of rights that the tenant has when it comes to how long it takes to do evictions and late payments and things like that.

Obviously, the more tenant-friendly a market, the more risk there is. And then also, taxes is a big thing too. It can be just one neighborhood over and the tax rate could be much higher, even though the rents might be pretty close if you’re in one county or the other. I live in Chicago, so right when you leave Cook County, the taxes drop by 50%.

Now, one thing that you kind of want to keep in mind when you are analyzing new deals when it comes to the market, particularly rental growth, for example – so if you want to invest in a market that has experienced rent growth and is projected or forecast to experience rent growth, but you also don’t want the GPs to assume that whatever the historical rent growth has been or the forecasted rent growth is going to be is what is going to happen at their property.

Right now is a really good example, because when you look at year over year rent growth for some cities, it went down 10—I think in San Francisco might have been 23% or something crazy like that.

So imagine if you were investing in San Francisco and they’re projecting 5% rent growth because that’s what’s happening every single year, and they actually assumed the 5% and it went down by 23%. Or On the flip side, places like Boise – it’s like, why you want to have this conservative underwriting is because let’s say you’re investing in Boise, they forecasted rents going up by 3%, you assume 2%, but then rents go up by 10 plus percent. So the rent growth assumption, as well as other assumptions you’re making based off of forecasts – keep in mind that they’re important, but it shouldn’t be the only reason why you invest in a deal. Or you shouldn’t only invest in a deal because the population is expected to double in the next 10 years, because who knows if that’s actually going to happen. It’s just kind of a cherry on top.

Whereas other things like being tenant-friendly and landlord-friendly or making these insane rent growth projections are a little bit more important and could potentially be a deal-breaker, because it’s a sign that something is probably going to go wrong in the future.

Travis Watts: Great thoughts, Theo. Let’s bring it home; I’ve got a final thought here… From a high level, there’s no perfect investment type; there’s pros, there’s cons, there’s risks in everything, as we’ve talked about over and over. So it’s just my personal opinion, my personal experience that I prefer mostly investing in these private placement syndications; a lot of multi-family. But again, that’s just based off my own self-study, my own experience, people I’ve networked with, just what’s happened in my life.

So what’s really important is what’s right for you, and this could be a tiny segment in your portfolio for diversification purposes, taking a little out of the stock market to put elsewhere, or it could be like me, where it’s your primary focus. So always do your highest and best, always enjoy what you do, always understand what you’re investing in, and of course, always seek your licensed advice from attorneys, CPAs and other. So that’s all I got.

Theo Hicks: Yeah, I’d say my final advice is that you as the passive investor have a lot of control over what you invest in. So that means that you also have a lot of control over making sure you’re not investing in something that can go wrong.

So we gave a lot of examples of ways that can go wrong outside of the Ponzi scheme example that Travis gave in the beginning, which would have been very difficult to identify… Do your research and have a strong understanding of how what you’re investing in works, right? If you don’t understand, if you’re unclear, then maybe wait and invest in what you do know, so that you understand how to identify if the sponsor is not properly addressing those three risk points. So it’s not saying that you should only invest in one particular thing, right? Diversification is important. But make sure you understand what it is you’re going to invest in. If you transition to self-storage, learn and understand how self-storage works, rather than just jumping in because of a nice investment summary that told you that you’re going to double your money in, say, 5 years.

Those are my final thoughts. Travis, as always, thank you for joining us today. Best Ever listeners, thank you for listening, have a best ever day and we’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Travis Watts: Thanks, Theo. Thanks, everybody.

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