May 3, 2021

JF2435: Banking on Yourself with Mark Willis


Mark is a certified financial planner with over 10 years of experience assessing commercial real estate investors. Mark also helps real estate investors become their own source of financing. Mark dug deep into some strategies to become not just debt-free but correspondingly found a solution to build wealth, to help clients invest in real estate. Mark aims to create a more secure financial life by creating contracts to determine outcomes.

Mark Willis Real Estate Background:

  • Certified Financial planner and Bank on yourself professional
  • Assessing CREI’s for 13+ years
  • Helps CREIs become their own source of financing
  • Based in Chicago, IL
  • Say hi to him at:  


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Best Ever Tweet:

“Know what you want your money doing for you, because if you don’t do that, you’ll end up chasing a lot of fancy, shiny objects. So ask yourself, sit down and make a little checklist..” – Mark Willis


Ash Patel: Hello, Best Ever listeners. Welcome to the Best Real Estate Investing Advice Ever Show. I’m Ash Patel and I’m with today’s guest, Mark Willis. Mark is joining us from Chicago, Illinois.

Mark, how are you today?

Mark Willis: Hey, Ash. Doing great man. How are you?

Ash Patel: Good. Thanks for joining us. Mark is a certified financial planner and bank-on-yourself professional. He has over 10 years of experience assessing commercial real estate investors. And Mark also helps real estate investors become their own source of financing.

Mark, before we get started, can you tell us a little bit more about your background and what you’re focused on now?

Mark Willis: Well, I think the best way I can describe my background is we graduated from our three private school degrees between my wife and I. Mostly on my side of the ledger, I had a lot of debt that I carried into our marriage, student loan debt. In fact, I jokingly say, it was two women I met in college; one was my gorgeous wife and the other was Sallie Mae.

Ash Patel: Yeah.

Mark Willis: And Sallie Mae wanted money out of my pocket every single month and we had to get rid of her. But as we dug deep into some strategies to become, not just debt-free, but better than debt-free, we also correspondingly found a solution to build wealth to help us invest in real estate, help our clients do the same… And quite honestly, it’s allowed me and my wife and our clients to write contracts with our own future, which has been [unintelligible [00:02:16].14] and peace in the midst of some pretty tumultuous times that we’ve had since 11 years ago, starting this practice.

Ash Patel: So Mark, you started your career as a financial planner; where did the real estate come into that? Because from my experience, financial planners don’t necessarily mix with real estate investments… And often because you don’t benefit from that; there’s not a commission that you’re able to make on that, right?

Mark Willis: That’s right. That’s unfortunate, because real estate is as old as the pyramids, right? It’s about as old as it gets when it comes to asset classes.

Ash Patel: So how did you cross that fine line and go to the other side?

Mark Willis: You might say I’m not your average financial planner, that’s for sure.

Ash Patel: Okay.

Mark Willis:  I did get a certified financial planner designation and I loved every moment of it. But it was sort of like when we started in the financial planning space. I’d say I was dropped into the frontlines of a war in the midst of 2008, 2009 and 2010. And that shook me pretty hard, to see clients in their 60s working with the CPAs, I worked for at the time, having those calls with her clients at the time, saying “I’m sorry, Mr. Client, you’re 62 years old, but I just lost you half your life savings.”

Niels Bohr has a quote, he says, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” And I felt like paper assets, things that are essentially profits one day and losses the next, are very difficult to predict.

And can you really call it a plan if there’s no real prediction or guarantee that my money will be worth anything when I go to need it, when it’s time to use it? So asset classes that were tied to contracts made a great deal of sense to me. Because if we don’t have the contract, we’ve lost civilization. That’s kind of my basic underlying premise in our firm. Without the contract, we lose civilization, even real estate. If you think about it, the basic notion of real estate is, “Hey, we can feel it; bricks, mortar.”

I was talking to a gentleman just the other day, he has 10 properties. He was working on tile and grout when I called him, and he was happy to say he was getting great cash flow, six figures a year easily off of his 10 properties, net operating income. So he was happy with the outcome. But we all had to sit down and review what was really providing that income. Was it the bricks and mortar? No. If you don’t have a contract with a deed saying you own that property, all you really have is squatters rights in your real estate deal. All you have is a shotgun right to the property.

So contracts are really the fundamental law of nature, as well as our finances, which I can kind of extrapolate on this briefly, but – what is a contract? Well, it’s a written code that determines our outcome. And isn’t that what you nature does. Isn’t that what DNA is? And I know I’m getting a little philosophical, but I’ll bring it right down the ladder, I promise, Ash.

DNA in an acorn has a prescriptive future written and baked in and guaranteed right into that little acorn. And it may look very different than what the acorn looks like. An acorn is small and stubby, versus an oak tree is incredibly large, strong and lasting for generations. But the outcome is determined before the acorn is even planted. Now, how many parts of our financial life do we have an outcome determined before we even begin?

Ash Patel: Zero.

Mark Willis:  I’m thinking about 401(k), IRAs. Exactly, yes; the outcome is a mystery. We’ve got longevity risk, we’ve got inflation risk, we’ve got stock risk, we’ve got long-term care risk, tax rate risk. We can keep going, right? There’s zero guarantees. We need a contract with our own future, at least on some of our financial portfolio. So that’s what got me inspired to start this practice, like growth financial services, where we could write a contract with our own future.

Ash Patel: And in your financial planning career, where did real estate come in?

Mark Willis: Well, it’s a contract, right? It’s one of those key pieces of the puzzle that I think helps us determine an outcome. Again, if we’ve lost civilization, we’re going to lose the contract. And at the end of the day, there’s not much more you can do with your real estate without that contract. So real estate was easily one of the asset classes I feel like I needed in my own financial life, and we need to encourage and develop a strategy for among our clients as well. So easily, certainly more than say, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, things that essentially have no guarantees, except—well, I should say, the investment advisor certainly has a guarantee; he or she will be paid an investment fee on your mutual funds, whether or not you make money. So the only guarantee is on his or her side of the table, and not yours.

And so I looked at all the ways in which we could incorporate contracts into our clients lives, and my own personal financial journey as well, Ash. So that’s where real estate came into play.

Ash Patel: Well, let’s talk about that… Because the financial planners that get commissions on stocks, bonds and funds don’t make money on real estate deals historically. So how do you bridge that gap? How do you get paid when you recommend real estate deals? And I guess, how do you even recommend real estate deals? Do you recommend syndications, single-family investments?

Mark Willis: Well, you look at the options you have, syndication deals are one, single families another, fix and flip, BRRRR method, whatever your options and strategies are; my job is to be a little more ambivalent about the particular strategy and to look at your overall goals.

So we do Zoom calls, one-on-one meetings over the phone, whatever with our clients to sit down as an advisor and a listener first before we start prescribing solutions, certainly. But I think it’s just the right thing to do as a fiduciary and also as a just the right best plan is the one that puts you in the best shape. My goal as a human, but also as a financial planner, is to leave people better than I found them. So if that incorporates real estate, we should use it, we should mention it, even if we’re not being paid for it. Is that not the right thing to do if it helps our client?

Ash Patel: It is the right thing to do.

Mark Willis: Right. Yes. So should everyone have real estate? No, I’m going to say that out loud. No, everybody should not have real estate in your portfolio, but more people should than currently do.

Ash Patel: What about exposure to syndications?

Mark Willis: Yes, if you’ve got the credentials to do it, accreditted investors, et cetera, absolutely. Syndications can be a great tool for passive income and possibly some tax advantages if you find the right deals, for example. But again, it comes down to analysis, sitting down with a professional who can help you get a second set of eyes on that investment deal. I’ve met too many people who lose money because they just jump out of the frying pan of what I call “amateur retail investment products” like stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and into the fire of maybe even riskier real estate deals that don’t have any kind of credentials or backing behind it.

So you can lose money no matter where you put your money if it doesn’t have a contract that says it’ll grow guaranteed, which is what we specialize in at our firm, is in building financial contracts that have a guarantee built-in to complement and even supplement what the real estate is doing.

So in addition to real estate, we have what’s called Whole Life insurance contracts, or we call them bank-on-yourself policies, that complement and supplement the real estate portfolio. So by doing both, you’re able to really mitigate some risk and even give you additional upside, just because of how you bought that property. So part of our analysis is not just the selling… The old saying, “You make money when you sell your deal.” Well, I’d also like to say, it’s how you buy your deal, whether you just pay cash, use another person’s bank, or you bank on yourself. That is a tremendous hinge that can swing the door toward profits in your real estate portfolio.

Break: [00:09:48] to [00:11:50]

Ash Patel: Let’s come back to banking on yourself. You mentioned there’s some people that real estate is not right for. What determines that?

Mark Willis: Well, it comes down to what do you want your money doing for you? And on a podcast — I certainly don’t know everyone listening, but I can say if you came up with a checklist, and we’ve got a nice checklist I’d be happy to share with anybody; I’ll tell you how to reach me at the end of this episode… But we’ve got a checklist of 2-3 dozen financial instruments; there’s over 400, Ash, in the financial universe, over 450 financial products where you can park money, everything from checking accounts to 401(k)’s to dynastic trusts to REITS, the list goes on and on. The key question is should you have real estate? Well, it comes down to what do you want your money doing for you?

Because where you put your money makes it do different things. A hedge fund is different than a savings account, which is different than an annuity, for example. So key questions are, do you want a competitive rate of return? Do you want guaranteed access to the money? Do you want government involvement? Do you want it to be tax-free when you access it? Do you want penalties if you touch it too soon? Do you want it to be protected from creditors and people just looking to sue any landlord they can find? Do you want to protect it from creditors and predators? Do you want it to be tax deductible when you contribute to it?

These are questions that come out in our discussions with clients. And the key is just learning about your own desires. I think too often people put money in things just because they’re told to or they heard it on a really cool show or they read it on some MarketWatch article. But they didn’t really stop and think, do I really want my money acting this way? And do I understand what the ramifications are? So it really comes down to what people want, which is too often the case; we just don’t know what we don’t know.

Ash Patel: So Mark, you mentioned banking on yourself – what is that?

Mark Willis: Let’s say philosophy for taking control of your financial future, but it’s also a system that exists in the real financial world. So it’s a cool concept to think that you could be your own source of financing. And there are a lot of people out there who would love to be your banker for you. It’s easy. In fact, I heard the average real estate investor spends about a third of his or her profits, a third of his or her profits on bank interest, just servicing the bank. So if you had a business partner taking a third of your profits, without really contributing much and demanding terms and conditions on your partnership, that would be a problem over time. So bank on yourself is using a little-known form of Whole Life insurance, which is an insurance contract, to go back to the idea of contracts, where you have a predictable and guaranteed increase of your cash every single year.

In fact, I’ll do this, Ash, in just a few seconds here. TGIF – what is a Whole Life insurance policy designed the bank on yourself way? Well, it’s grows with tax advantages and if we design it right, we can get the money out completely tax-free. That’s T. G, it’s guaranteed to grow for us every single year, my net worth in those policies that I own increases every month and every year, I have the policies no matter what the stock market, no matter what real estate does, guaranteed. Not my guarantee, it’s the insurance company guaranteeing that future for me.

Third, it is insurance, so I can leave my family more than I’ve ever saved for them inside the contract, just because it’s life insurance. The only other thing I can automatically become wealthier when I die is if I was like a famous painter. I’m not that, so I’ve got to use life insurance, I guess, to leave my family legacy like that.

And then the fourth piece to the puzzle is financing, TGIF; F is financing. If I could become my own source of financing, I’m bringing back in-house the most profitable part of any business. If you guys think back, there’s a great book, Ash, by David Graeber… The book is called Debt: The First 5000 Years. He wrote the book a few years ago, great book; the title’s the best part, maybe. Just think on that for a moment, how debt has existed, as long as we have human records of civilization; to back to contracts, back to civilization, debt is a contract. It’s a predictable stream of income to the lender, and a stream of outflows from the borrower. So if you could find a way to bring back in-house what we have all currently outsourced, whether it’s my Sallie Mae student loans, or a mortgage, or a car loan, or your kids college, if you could insource the banking function, you’ll win by default. Banks are the most profitable business in the universe. I mean, just look at the biggest building in town, it’s often the bank.

So if I could bring back in-house the banking function and reclaim that 30 whatever percent of my revenue and my income to go toward my own source of revenue, rather than it go to JPMorgan or the local credit union that offers me a line of credit on my real estate deals, now all of a sudden I have a stream of money that I can draw on, liquid and tax-free to use for any big deals I need to take down, whether it’s a commercial loan or a personal need, like sending my kid to college, or anything else that we might need in terms of cash. So that is bank-on-yourself as a system. Does that make sense?

Ash Patel: It does. But I’m skeptical. I’ve been pitched Whole Life insurance by friends and family that are in that business, and whenever I did the numbers, it didn’t really work out. And you also have a lot of financial professionals out there. If they’re not selling Whole Life, they’ll tell you to get a term policy. So how do you address that?

Mark Willis: Well, I’d say saving in your Whole Life insurance contract does not mean sacrificing return. Now, I think the mistake a lot of financial advisors and radio gurus — I won’t name any names, but maybe their last name ends in -samzi, they’ll make the mistake of looking at Whole Life insurance on its own, in isolation, and say, okay, as a saving strategy, it’s going to take some time to produce a decent return; it’ll be a middle single-digit return, after say 10-20 years. The IRR might be 4% to 6% non-taxable, and don’t forget a tax-free death benefit in the double digits.

So to me, while it might bore other people, Ash, that’s a pretty sweet asset class, to have liquid cash earning at decent, productive, above-inflation returns. That’s a beautiful thing to me. But a lot of people will tell me, they’ll say, “Mark, I need 10%, 12% or 20% a year to be satisfied. So I’m just going to have to take more risk.”

Now, I think what happens there is they forget what the word “risk” means. It means you have the high probability of gain, but also the high probability of loss. So they might listen to other podcasts or read articles that only highlight the winners of real estate deals. When a podcast only brings on guests that celebrate the risk and won that risk, the listeners might get something called “survivorship bias”, thinking that we’re going to be just like all those people on that podcast and we’ll never lose, because we’re just like all those guests on that podcast. But the truth is people do lose money. Now, I’ll tell you a very quick story, Ash, with our time here, if you don’t mind, because this, I think encapsulates the concept.

Ash Patel: Sure.

Mark Willis: Okay. So in 2005, banks were already trimming back; you could not get a loan. In fact, they lowered the limits from 10 properties down to four properties at that time. So in 2005, a colleague of mine, his name’s Tim, he loaned from one of us life insurance policy, a Whole Life policy, when banks weren’t lending, he loaned a large portion of cash to a new company that he and his brother started 50/50. And Tim’s commitment to the company in terms of his commitment as a partner was basically to write the check and to show up for a two-hour financials meeting once a year. So he had like a two-hour commitment, once a year to this business that was producing cash flow. So that cash that he had out of his Whole Life policy was the source of money that they used to then buy a bunch of homes above and beyond what the bank would allow them to get.

So the bank was limiting them to four properties, but they ended up buying 22 properties over the years, right through the Great Recession, when banks weren’t lending a dime. Even when banks were desperate to give loans out, they were restricted by their boss, and real estate investors were desperate to get money, but they couldn’t get the cash, even if they were best buddies with the banker.

So the terms of Tim’s deal was to get 10% off the investment. So he was going to give this money to the business that he owns, he was going to get a 10% yield on that money. So let’s kind of walk through that, again. Tim had the money in the Whole Life policy, he could access it whenever banks stopped lending. He bought properties when the market was coming down. And by the way, it kept coming down after 2005. And he kept buying properties that they thought was 50% off at the beginning, kept going down to 80% off in the Detroit market where they were, as the recession worsened.

So they continued to buy these homes. They bought 22 properties, all of which came from policy loans over that period of time. And as the profits and cash flow rolled in off that real estate business, Tim paid off all the policy loans, he paid it back on his terms, so the life insurance company didn’t need any kind of schedule or a promise to pay back the loan over his certain period of time. He was in control. He was banking on himself. The policies were made whole as those loans are paid off; Tim got 10% return off the profits of the investment. Plus – and this is huge; this is maybe the crux piece to this whole thing – as he borrowed the money out of the Whole Life policy, the policy continued to yield earnings as if he had never taken out the loan to invest in the real estate deal.

Ash Patel: Because he paid interest back on the loan.

Mark Willis: Regardless. Now, this is key, because there’s a lot of YouTube advisors out there who are using other colloquial phrases that aren’t credentialed or trademarked or protected in any way… Just call them banking, infinite… There’s lots of phrases out there for this concept. Nothing is copywritten or protected, and there’s not a credential process for any phraseology other than the phrase bank on yourself in this niche in the insurance space. There’s only a couple hundred financial advisors and CFPs like myself that can do this, have that kind of training, and also the obligation to design the policies correctly. But one of the key phrases in this is something called non-direct recognition loans.

When you borrow from a non-direct company, meaning they don’t recognize when you take a loan, it’s not just the interest he may have paid himself, which he did decide to throw some extra money in his policy as sort of special interest… The real juice here is that the policy was earning interest as if there was no loan. It’s a lot like buying a house and then getting a HELOC. The house doesn’t care whether we have a HELOC on the house or not. It’s just growing, even on the capital we borrow, assuming the neighborhood is appreciating in value.

So the upside here is that the Whole Life policy will grow as if there is no loan. But unlike real estate, it’s guaranteed to grow, regardless of what stock or real estate markets will do. As we know, HELOCs and houses can correlate and they can be collateral for a loan. But houses can come down in price too, as we’ve all learned; Whole Life insurance does not go down. So there’s some key differences but some key similarities there as well.

Break: [00:23:07] to [00:23:48]

Ash Patel: Can we go through a hypothetical example, so that we have some real-world numbers to look at?

Mark Willis: Yes.

Ash Patel: So you take an unhealthy 45-year-old male like myself and let’s say I get a million-dollar policy.

Mark Willis: Sure.

Ash Patel: Let’s hypothetically say I pay $1,000 a month. Is that along proper lines?

Mark Willis: Yes, our goal would be to cut that death benefit down to 200 grand rather than a million, because that’s where all the commissions are. So if we can get the death benefit from a million to 400 grand or 300k or 200k. Now all of a sudden, you get eight to 40 times more cash than the old fashioned Whole Life that [unintelligible [00:24:21].14]

Ash Patel: Why is that?

Mark Willis: Well, because it’s the right thing to do. And in fact, if the goal is bank on yourself; now if your goal is big death benefit, then yes, sure, keep that million dollars. But if the goal is to use this for financing, then we need as little insurance as possible and as much cash as possible over your lifetime.

Ash Patel: Interesting. Okay. So you look at this not as a death benefit as much as you do as your own bank?

Mark Willis: Right.

Ash Patel: Okay, so now a $200,000 death benefit… And let’s say I pay $1,000 a month. Is that right? Roughly.

Mark Willis: Yes. Sure. Roughly.

Ash Patel: Okay. So year one, I’ve paid $12,000 into this policy. How much am I able to borrow out of that in year one?

Mark Willis: So in the first year, it’s sort of like an airplane taking off – there are still insurance expenses and it’s least efficient in the first year. Nobody flies an airplane to the grocery store. But they will fly it from LA to New York; it’s all about duration. Is this a short-term, quick-fix strategy, or is this a lifetime financial strategy? Don’t get in the airplane to drive to the grocery store; get in a car. If you need a quick fix return, just keep it in a savings account or, “Here, I’ve got some GameStop, I can sell you.” But don’t use Whole Life for get-rich overnight strategies. So in the first year, you put in 12 grand, you might have somewhere between 6,500 and 8,000 bucks in cash.

Ash Patel: That I could borrow against.

Mark Willis: That you could borrow against.

Ash Patel: Okay, and about a year—

Mark Willis: And then in year two and three, it gets more efficient as you go.

Ash Patel: So can we assume it’ll go up by $6,000 or $7,000 per year?

Mark Willis: Again, every mile an airplane flies, it gets more and more efficient, because it’s less fuel and it’s overcoming inertia. Similarly, by year two and three and four, usually, let’s say you’re still pumping in that 1,000 bucks a month, 12 grand a year; by year four, typically—again, everyone’s different. But typically the policy will grow by 14 grand, for example. So you’ve put in 12 grand; that year the cash increases by 14 grand and your death benefit is up to 300 grand or whatever, at that point. Your cash values in the mid-40s, early 50s, whatever. So all of a sudden, you’re like, “Wait a minute, I’m getting more earnings on my cash than I’ve put in this year.” In fact, you could say the net expenses are gone. If you put in 12k, that’ll give you 14k; how much did the insurance cost us that year? That’s a beautiful thing. And by year 20, year 30, year 40, it’s doing two times, four times, seven times your earnings, seven times your contributions annually… And of course, it’s all liquid compounding money, even when you access the cash; it continues to compound. So it’s not supposed to be an investment replacer, it’s supposed to supplement the real estate or whatever else investments that you want to buy. Does that make sense?

Ash Patel: It does. What are the drawbacks of this type of policy?

Mark Willis: Very clearly, you’ve got insurance expenses right upfront, so you’re going to lose some purchasing power in your first two or three years. So keep that in mind. Again, I don’t recommend this just because you heard it on a podcast. Also, I’ve got to say, the advisor is one of your biggest risks.

When I go to the grocery store, Ash, there’s all-natural granola bars, and then there’s USDA Organic granola bars sitting right next to it. Which of those has any meaning in the marketplace? Well, USDA Organic has some credentials, it’s got 30 hoops ahead to jump through to get that label. All-natural really means nothing at the end of the day. And while it’s nice to see those words, it doesn’t change what I’m getting. And if I’m specifically looking for organic food, I need to make sure I’ve got that label on that food.

The same is true with this particular niche in the financial universe. The only space I’ve been able to come across that has any kind of credential power, mentoring, labels, credentials is bank on yourself, which is why I’ve kind of hitched my horse to that wagon, you might say; but the key is really making sure you’re working with an advisor who can engineer this thing correctly. I’d hate to get into an airplane if it wasn’t engineered by a certified airplane engineer. Same concept with these policies.

Ash Patel: Mark, what’s your best real estate investing advice ever?

Mark Willis: Well, I guess the best thing I can say is, guys, you’ve got to know what you want your money doing for you. Because if you don’t do that, you’ll end up chasing a lot of fancy, shiny objects. So sit down and make a little checklist. I did. I put down 20-some-odd characteristics and attributes, you’ve got to know what you want your money doing for you.

Ash Patel: Good advice. Mark, are you ready for the lightning round?

Mark Willis: Yeah, let’s do it.

Ash Patel: Mark, what’s the best ever book you recently read?

Mark Willis: Well, on this resource, I’d say Bank on Yourself Revolution by Pamela Yellen; great book, user field guide on how to use this. I’m also a big fan lately of Dan Sullivan’s Who, Not How.

Ash Patel: I just read that. Great book. Mark, what’s the best ever way you like to give back?

Mark Willis: Well, I’d say again, just like we were needing a financial coach to help us through our student loan debt without charging a ton of fees or financial retainers, my wife and I decided years ago to make sure that we offered for free the chance to kind of review people’s debt situation. So we oftentimes will give back by doing a financial analysis and a debt reduction strategy. We even came up with a concept called the Debt Snowbank Method, rather than the Debt Snowball method. So using this Whole Life policy can wipe out all the debt, keep on growing your wealth at the same time; way better than just paying debt off the old-fashioned way. That’s how we paid off our student loans. So that’s one way we give back, among charities and other causes that we keep private of course; but that’s one strategy we like to shout from the rooftops.

Ash Patel: Fantastic. Mark, how can the Best Ever listeners reach out to you?

Mark Willis: Go to, and I’d love to chat; keep up with what you’re up to and see if this strategy or other similar strategies would be a good fit.

Ash Patel: Mark, thank you for being on the show today. You’ve given us a lot to think about. Before this podcast, I always assumed Whole Life is something you stay away from. But I haven’t really researched the numbers, and the book that you’ve recommended might be worth reading for our Best Ever listeners to get a different perspective on what they think of Whole Life. So thank you again for being on the show, and have a best ever day.

Mark Willis: And hey, if folks want to get that copy of that book, hop over to that link I mentioned, I’ll send it to you for free. Thanks so much, Ash. Appreciate your time.

Ash Patel: Awesome. Thank you so much, Mark.

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