March 27, 2022

JF2763: 100% Tenant Turnover in 6 Months: Tips for Overcoming Value-Add Hurdles On Challenging Properties ft. Ben Suttles

Ben Suttles, managing partner at Disrupt Equity, faced a problem with his deal: there was 80% occupancy, but only 35% of the tenants were paying rent. Add in the crime rates and drug deals that occurred on the property, and he soon found himself having to do massive turnovers to the complex. Ben shares the lessons learned from this challenging deal and how he was able to turn it around for a profitable outcome.

Ben Suttles | Real Estate Background

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Slocomb Reed: Best Ever listeners, welcome to The Best Real Estate Investing Advice Ever Show. I'm Slocomb Reed and I'm here with Ben Suttles. Ben is joining us from Houston, Texas. He's an apartment syndicator with Disrupt Equity. They have over 200 million in assets under management, with 2000 units across Texas and Georgia. He's also an LP in 2500 units. Ben, can you start us off a little more about your background and what you're currently focused on?

Ben Suttles: Well, thanks, Slocomb. Man, I really appreciate the invite. Hopefully, I can add some value to your listeners today. A little bit about my background - I come from IT sales. Everybody's going to be like, "How did you get into multifamily syndication?" I'll tell you a little story here. As a lot of people that are probably listening, I have read a little bit of a book called Rich Dad Poor Dad, I did the same thing in 2012. It was a light bulb moment. I said at that point, "Hey, I need to get into real estate." Not knowing anything about multifamily; everybody knows about single-family, rentals, flipping, the stuff that you see on HGTV. So I got into that in 2012 and 2013, and did that for a couple of years here in Houston, where I'm from.

As some folks realize, after a couple of years of being a landlord on your own, flipping houses on your own, I lost the remainder of my hair, and I was looking for something different. I love real estate, I love building legacy wealth for my daughter, and ultimately looking to try to get out of the rat race as soon as possible, too. So I started looking at commercial real estate; and within commercial real estate, I found out about multifamily. So in 2015, I joined a group, learned how to do it, learned how to raise money, and I found out that my skill set as a sales guy was a good segue into raising capital and doing presentations and pitching deals. So I kind of took off from there. I did my first deal in 2015, did another deal the next year...

From there, I said, "Hey, I really want to scale this out, but I'm lacking some of the things that I need in order to scale." I started actively looking to identify a potential partner. In 2017, I met a gentleman named Feras Moussa; he came from IT as well. He wasn't on the sales side, he was on the development side, but he had some of those skills that I was lacking. I'm a big proponent of one plus one equals three, so it was a good symbiotic relationship. In 2017, we created Disrupt Equity.

After that, we went on a tear for the next few years, bought a bunch of deals, then obviously COVID hits. But we're back onto it now, we've got some pretty ambitious goals for 2020 and looking forward to getting back into the swing of things. We sold about five deals last year, and hopefully, we can continue to grow in the multifamily space.

Slocomb Reed: Awesome. So within your partnership with Feras at Disrupt, what do you focus on? What's your specialty?

Ben Suttles: I'd say it's raising money, acquisitions, and then ultimately, on the back end, I do the asset management side. Feras helps with the back office, IT, and also the property management side of our business. We have our own property management company, and that in itself is its own job. So we've divided and conquered, and again, it's worked out fairly well, because his skill set does well over there, and this is kind of where I thrive. And it ultimately is what we enjoy to do too.

But I'd say day-to-day, the main part of my day is going to be the acquisitions, which is talking with brokers, identifying opportunities, and working with our underwriting team. The flip side of that, the other four hours, actually, probably six or seven hours of my day, is going to be the asset management side of our business... Just managing our current portfolio and making sure that we're hitting the business plan that we're trying to hit.

Slocomb Reed: Are you doing all of the asset management yourself for the whole portfolio?

Ben Suttles: No, we've since hired on a couple folks that actually do the day-to-day, and I'm just managing them. I think as you grow a company, you step back from doing the doing, to managing the people that are doing the doing. It's been a little bit of a paradigm shift for both me and Feras, because in the beginning, you're doing everything. Then you start delegating and carving out little pieces, and then you wake up one day, 80% of that is somebody else. Now you have to manage them and make sure that they're doing it in the way that it needs to be done, keeping them accountable, keeping everybody trending towards the same goals, managing people and their time, and sometimes in some cases there are challenges. Bottom line - yeah, I manage the asset management team, I guess is probably a better way to describe it.

Slocomb Reed: Gotcha. Yeah, I was going to ask with 2000 doors and 200 million in assets, how you're doing all the asset management yourself...

Ben Suttles: No. It would be very difficult. I think that if I was to do that, I would never have any time to buy anything else, because you're constantly blinders on trying to focus on making sure that your current portfolio is performing well. You don't have time to go develop relationships with brokers, underwrite additional deals, or make offers, because you're so bombed doing that. Actually, it's a good point that you bring up asset management, because our first hire at Disrupt Equity was an asset manager. I identified that it's just a really -- I'm not saying time suck, because it has really negative connotation, but it was just not the highest and best use of the time that I felt like I needed to use. I wanted to focus more on acquisitions, so the first person I did was hire an asset manager. It was one of the best decisions that I've ever made.

Slocomb Reed: So a lot of time was spent in asset management. Do you guys have property management in house?

Ben Suttles: We do. We do first party and third party, so that's been its own set of challenges. But yeah, we do have our own property management company called Disrupt Management. We started that in 2019; actually Q4 of 2018. Everybody knows what happened three or four months later... So it was a blessing and it was a little bit of a curse. Obviously, bad timing, but I'm actually glad that we took over our whole entire portfolio at the time that we did, because it allowed us to have that transparency and allowed us to pivot... Because all those things - I would have cringed to have a third-party company trying to manage our assets during COVID. Things were shifting week-to-week, nobody knew what was going to happen, what were the rules and regulations, and it was really nice to have our own in-house management where we could say, "Hey, no, we got to do it this way." Boom, it gets done that way. Versus trying to go back to one of the big property management companies and say, "No, I want you to manage my assets this way." It doesn't work like that; they've got their own box... I understand why they do it. They're big and they have to slam everybody in there in order to be able to manage it all. But it makes it difficult when you want them to pivot or be nimble when challenging times pop up. So it was a blessing in that respect when COVID popped up, because we could pivot when we needed to.

Slocomb Reed: Yeah. I do a lot of direct to seller lead generation here in Cincinnati, and in the conversations that I was having with owners in 2020, there was a direct correlation between how close the owner of the property was to the tenant, and how well their property performed in early 2020. The owner-operators, people like me, I didn't have any collections issues, in March, April, May, June 2020. I've said this on the podcast before, but the moment the shelter-in-place order was announced, I had a plan. I reached out to all of my tenants and said, "Hey, if you experienced any financial hardship? I have plans to help you through. Please connect with me." Several of them did.

On the other side of that spectrum though, the people in Cincinnati whose properties aren't local, the owner is not local, and they hired a big box third party manager like you were saying, who has to fit everyone into the way that they do things - those are the people who really suffered. Those were the tenants who took advantage of the opportunity to not pay rent and not get evicted. The further the owner of the property was from the tenant, if they weren't here locally and they were relying on a third-party manager, and they were relying on the wrong third-party manager, those are the people whose collections absolutely plummeted. So to your point - yeah, I bet it was. I don't know how much time you spent comparing yourself to other operators in the space, but getting yourself that close to the tenant right before a serious macro-level event happened - I'm sure that did help with your operations.

Ben Suttles: I'll also say we were able to control the messaging that went back to the tenants, too. I think in a lot of ways, that's also challenging. Because for people that are trying to filter, "Hey, I want you to say this, or I want you to direct them to go here," that can be tough when you're trying to do that through a third-party company. Once we got our hands around what was happening with COVID, I think at the end of the day, it was always nice to say, "Okay, hey. We just found out about this new rule or this new whatever mandate, let's send out a letter and say, 'Hey, this is how we're going to handle it. These are who you need to talk to.'" We provided almost like a Wikipedia page to all of our tenants with all the different links to all the different resources within their specific sub-market. People - man, they really ate that up, they really appreciated that because we took all the guesswork out of it. "Hey, if you're having challenging times, you need to go here. Or if you need this, you need to go here. If you need this, you need to go here."

We curated the page for actually all of 2020. We finally took it down I think in Q1 2021, but that was where we were pushing everybody, and we had essentially figured out all the resources and how to help them. People like that, and I think that that's important. I think even in normal times, just communicating with people...

Slocomb Reed: Yeah, totally.

Ben Suttles: I think in a lot of ways if you try to wall yourself off and be all rigid, it's hard to work a solution. But if you come to people and say, "Hey, this is what I'm trying to do. But ultimately, we want you to stay at the property. We know it's been challenging, but here are some solutions." We're doing that even to this day, as eviction courts are starting to open up; we've found ourselves working out deals with folks, trying to get them back into paying rent, and how does that work, and "Hey, if we waive this, let's get you back on track. You don't want to have that eviction, that scarlet letter on your record, so how do we make this work?" It's really been successful. If you start really working with people and talking to them, a lot of people have come in out of the cold and said, "Okay, here. Here's what I can pay, what can you do to work with me?" It's been very, very successful this year, and so we're going to continue to do that, too.

There have been some submarkets, Atlanta being one of them, that are still trying to get their act together as far as eviction courts. And what they're telling people is that "Hey, I'm starting from March 2020 and I'm working my way all the way to where it is now." So they're two years behind, man, and some of these are still not fully open. If they are there - again, they're starting in March 2020 and they're working their way through... You can imagine what kind of backlog they have, it's crazy.

Slocomb Reed: Ben, you're in a breadth of markets, at least in Texas and Georgia, but I know you said before we started recording that you're also looking at Columbus.

Ben Suttles: Yup.

Slocomb Reed: Quick question... As involved as you guys are in day-to-day operations, the way that COVID was handled in a market with shelter-in-place, mass requirements, and eviction moratoriums, how much is that playing into your decision about whether or not you want to enter a market right now?

Ben Suttles: Huge, it's huge. We love Atlanta as a market but, man, they muck the whole thing up, man. I would say, for the most part, and in normal times, Georgia was fairly pro-landlord. But it went almost completely to the other side of the spectrum when COVID hid and they just didn't really work with us. They made it very challenging to get rental relief through. Maybe they don't realize this, you have federal funding, went down to the state level, state-level then goes down to the local level, they push it down to the local administrations. Now there were some statewide programs in certain states, but in some locations, especially in Atlanta, it was administered by the counties. Each county had its own set of rules and regulations. If anybody knows anything about Atlanta, that's made up of seven different counties.

We had to deal with four different ones and each one of them was extremely challenging. It has made us kind of pause acquisitions in Atlanta because not only do we know there are huge delinquency problems, they haven't been able to evict anybody even to this day, we also just have a little bit of a sour taste in our mouths, I'd say, from how we were just treated as landlords by the local administration. I know that obviously stuff happened and I'm not trying to politicize anything. There were other states and other locations that handled it a lot more effectively. I'm not saying that one is better than the other, we'll still ultimately go after deals in Atlanta if that makes sense. But I'm certainly going to be a little bit more cautious on my underwriting of deals in certain markets because of what happened during COVID.

Slocomb Reed: Ben, it sounds like you guys have taken a lot of deals full-cycle already. I think you said you sold five properties last year.

Ben Suttles: Yep.

Slocomb Reed: Tell us about the biggest challenge that you've had to overcome specific to a particular deal you took full-cycle.

Ben Suttles: Another Atlanta deal. This deal was challenging from the beginning, it was in what I'm going to call a transitioning market. You read into that statement however anybody wants to read into it. It is South Atlanta, anybody that knows anything about Atlanta, South Atlanta is different than North Atlanta. We've done very, very well down there but you just have to realize what you're getting yourselves into. Well, this property had every challenge that you could possibly have. It had down units, it had crime, and it had deferred maintenance. We bought it from a slumlord that did nothing but put band-aids over just gaping wounds on the property. It had tenants that were criminals and everything else. I would say the most challenging deal that we ever had was that one. We bought it, on paper, it was at 80% occupied. Of that 80%, only 30% were actually paying rent.

Physical occupancy of 80%, economic occupancy 30%.

Slocomb Reed: Yes.

Ben Suttles: We weren't making a lot of money so we were bleeding money from day one. We took physical occupancy down to 35%, you can now imagine that we are really hemorrhaging money. We had to do all the work, upgrade the property, and then release it back up, all of this takes a good 18 months. At the end of the day, it ended up being all right but we had challenges from the lender. The lender tried to blow the deal up because they're one of these loan-to-own bridge lenders, I'm not going to mention anybody's name. They were very, very challenging, they held up draws, they would give us approvals on stuff and then kind of come back and renege and say "Oh, no. Actually, you can't do that." There was every challenge in the book. We had a lot of criminal problems and that created some challenges when you went to go try to sell the property too. There were news articles and all kinds of stuff. That was probably our most challenging deal.

Now, it ended up being profitable. I've never lost money on any of the multifamily properties that I've had. Now, the one time that I have lost money is, COVID, March 2020, me and Feras get a deal under contract here in Texas. This was before the 15 days to stop the spread or whatever it was called. Early March, we'd already done our due diligence, we went to go do the capital raise, and they shut the economy down. We're like, "Okay, that's going to dry up, equity is gone dry up. How can we physically get this deal across the finish line?" We went back to the seller who had said, "I'm going to probably refinance, we'll work something out. Yeah, I'll give you your earnest money back." Once we made it official, then everybody starts clamming up, and the guy didn't want to give us our earnest money back.

Well, we ended up having to sue him to get it back and we took it all the way to arbitration. It took a good 18 months to finally get our earnest money back. We didn't get it all back because you have to factor in the fact that I paid $50,000 for a lawyer to go chase after the earnest money that I had.

Slocomb Reed: How much was the earnest money?

Ben Suttles: It was quite a bit. I think it was $250,000.

Slocomb Reed: You got 80% of it back.

Ben Suttles: Yeah, we got some. But that was the only time where I feel like we've somewhat miscalculated it. The lesson that we learned from that deal, was to get everything in writing. Because this guy, verbatim over the phone, told us that he would give us our money back and then reneged on it. It was essentially, you go back to the lawyer and say, "Hey, well, this guy told us that." Unfortunately, it's unenforceable. A verbal agreement in most states, certainly not in Texas, is just not enforceable. That was a hard pill to swallow because, on top of that, COVID hits, and our acquisition pipeline essentially evaporated overnight. We didn't have any deals selling, we didn't have any deals buying. Ultimately, we had our current deals, but obviously, those were all slowing down because we're still trying to get people to actually just pay rent. It was kind of a double whammy for us. But that's probably the one time where I was just like, "Man, we probably could have done some things a little bit differently on that one."

Break: [00:20:25] - [00:22:21]

Slocomb Reed: Ben, going back to the Atlanta deal that you ended up buying with only 30% economic occupancy. You made money, it was much more of a lift than you expected, where are the lessons learned in that deal? Going back, were there any red flags that you just didn't recognize upfront or is there anything that you recognize now that you would have done differently at the onset?

Ben Suttles: Yeah, there's a big, big lesson to be learned and yeah, I had red flags going off in my head but on paper, it looks very, very strong. A young guy with some hubris involved, where I'm like, "I can make this work. I can do this. I can make this profitable." But I'd say the biggest red flag, not a red flag, but I guess the lesson learned is who you buy a deal from. I think people discount that. If you're buying from an institutional person versus some slumlord, guess what? The institutional person is going to take care of the asset, the slumlord's not. You need to realize whatever CapEx budget you have and if you're buying from a slumlord, go ahead and double it. There's going to be all kinds of skeletons in the closet when it comes to the deal because there's just going to be a ton more deferred maintenance or there's going to be things that are going to be uncovered once you take over the property and find out that this guy or this gal hadn't done anything. We had gotten the sense that this was who that person was just based on the conversation that we had with the broker. That should have been a huge red flag. But again, we're trying to get into a new market, the first asset in that new market, we're willing to roll the dice a little bit. That was red flag number one. I'd say red flag number two is...

Slocomb Reed: Ben, before we go to red flag number two. Slumlord is a very triggering term in our industry, it's even more triggering out of our industry. I want to give you the opportunity to put some definition behind that. What is it that you mean when you say slumlord and how can people who are underwriting deals, analyzing deals, identify a bad owner operator who's leaving a property in very bad condition?

Ben Suttles: Apologies, I'm certainly not trying to...

Slocomb Reed: I'm not saying that you did anything wrong. It's just a very broadly used term that I want to put some details behind what you mean when you say that.

Ben Suttles: What I consider a slumlord... Here's a more positive way, a low-cost operator.

Slocomb Reed: You've gone too far in the wrong direction now.

Ben Suttles: These people don't put any money into the project. That is the definition of they are there to just squeeze as much juice out of it without putting a dime into the property. That is not what we do at Disrupt Equity, we put money into our properties because we're trying to create value and create a better community for our tenants. We look at it from an abundance mindset versus a scarcity mindset. We knew that doing the due diligence, and again, talking with the broke, just how these guys operated, and just pick up on these details that they're trying to kind of drop on you. Because they don't want to be perceived as not telling you about something. We also had another deal in Texas, it was the same thing. The person had owned it for 10 years, had not really put any money into it, and I would say that was the second most challenging deal. The lesson again that we've learned is you really have to know who you're buying from.

The other thing too, is you have to have some kind of audited, not necessarily audited financials, but do some due diligence on the financials too. Because, in a lot of ways, these people that are kind of mom-and-pop low-cost operators, their books are either going to just be very, very sloppy or they're downright fraudulent. In this case, it really was. Yeah, people say, "Why didn't you sue them?" Because at the end of the day, that's buyer beware. You have to do your own due diligence upfront, folks, or you can't necessarily blame the guy. Now, if there was some clear-cut fraud that I could tie back easily and not have to spend 100 grand to go chase them with, that could be one thing. But we said "Hey, we're just going to roll with it. We got enough money and enough capital to put into the project. We're going to make it work." That's what I mean when I say that term. It's just people that don't put any money into it and all they're trying to do is take money out.

Slocomb Reed: I will always stand behind the belief that treating people with dignity and respect is the most profitable way to operate any business. It sounds like you agree and it sounds like this is a property, it sounds like you've bought a couple of properties from people who did not operate that way. They just wanted money in with no money out, they let the place fall into disrepair because they knew there would still be someone who was desperate who needed to rent from them. Even if it was below market rent, hey, they have no expenses because they're not fixing anything so why not just take below-market rent from someone who's desperate?

Ben Suttles: A lot of these guys’ basis, we bought this deal in Atlanta. People are probably going to cringe because anybody that's looking at Atlanta is going to say, "Whoa, what?" These guys bought in at 10,000, the door. The deal they bought in Texas was bought in 2008, everybody knows what was happening in 2008. Those guys bought it at the bottom of the market so their basis is low. They're still probably cash flowing, to be honest with you, because their basis is so low. They have no real incentive to push it at all.

Slocomb Reed: Other than treating people with dignity and respect.

Ben Suttles: Well, that's just the types of folks that they were. But my point is that there was no financial incentive for them to push it either, not to mention just the type of person that they are. But yeah, we live in an abundance mindset where, hey, if you put money in, you're going to create money. If you create a community, you're going to not only have less turnover, but you're going to attract the right tenants that want to live in a community that's safe, that has the quality and clean housing. That's important. People need to realize that if you look at it through that lens, you will still make money but you will also be doing good for the community because all ships rise with the tide.

If you're coming in and you're the first person on the block, you're the trailblazer that's going to dump 10,000 a door into your community, and you're just going to completely revolutionize it, and you're going to start pushing rents, guess what? The guy next door is going to say, "Man, in order to compete, I either got to refi and pull some money out and put some money back in this thing, or I got to sell." And the next guy that buys it from him is going to do the same thing because he's going to say, "Well, hey, Ben and Feras are doing a great job. I got to put 10,000 a door into my deal too." Guess what? All ships rise with the tide folks. I've seen whole communities transformed just by what we can do. It's an exciting incredible thing to see it and the same thing can happen in single-family too. Don't think of it in terms of gentrification or something negative. You're just trying to lift the community up by improving the housing that's in there. That's what we try to do and try to look at it through that lens.

Slocomb Reed: Ben, I distracted you from lesson two on the Atlanta deal.

Ben Suttles: What was less than two? Oh, okay. Yeah, less than two. We get through, we bought it, we're under contract, another big red flag... People are going to say, "This is glaring." We're on the property doing due diligence, within the first five minutes, I saw a drug deal go down. But I was like, "Okay, we're just going to..."

Slocomb Reed: Is this after you bought it?

Ben Suttles: No, we're under contract, we're doing our on-site DD, due diligence, unit-to-unit walks. I see a drug deal go down, I'm like, "Cringe, not great. But we're going to identify these people, we're going to have security from day one, and we're going to get them out." But as we were walking through the community, there was not once but twice, where there were people that literally threw trash out of the balcony onto the ground right in front of us. The big red flag there is that they didn't have any sense of community, they didn't care because they felt like the landlord didn't care. It really wasn't their home, it was just a flophouse, so who cares? They don't care about me, I'm just going to throw trash on the ground. I knew right there that we needed to just re-tenant the whole entire place because it was just going to be too challenging of a property.

But that was probably a big red flag that, "Hey, we're going to have to do some thinning of the herd a little bit on the occupancy." And we did. Again, we took it from 80% on paper down to I think 35%. But that was a big red flag. When you see crime, when you see people not taking care of the community, you know you're going to have some challenging times, and you're going to have to re-tenant that property. People don't take into consideration that there could be a fair amount of turnover in year one, to the point where we turned over the whole entire property in less than 12 months. I think we turned it over and six months, was what we did. Either people just skipped in the middle of the night, they were evicted, or by natural attrition, they just moved out. You need to take that into consideration. That was a big red flag for us.

Slocomb Reed: Ben, are you ready for the Best Ever lightning round?

Ben Suttles: Let's do it. Let's do it.

Slocomb Reed: Awesome. What is your best ever way to give back?

Ben Suttles: We have a charity, it's called Disrupt Gives. It provides financial literacy and education to our tenants. It's an actual charity and we do this every year where we put money in as part of our asset management fee that we take on a property, as well as have events where we can raise money and dump it back in. But we do that and that's the way that we give back. But I am also big on charitable organizations and I love giving back at the Houston Food Bank and some other organizations that we're part of as well.

Slocomb Reed: What is the Best Ever book you've recently read?

Ben Suttles: I'd say we're getting into EOS, entrepreneur operating system. I just recently read Traction about three months ago. I wish I had something a little bit more recent but I've been a little bit busy the last few months. I'd encourage anybody that's really trying to scale out a business or build a business. Or maybe you've already built a business and you just feel like you're in a rut, look into EOS. I think it's revolutionized how we've been able to scale our business and how we've been able to operate. I encourage everybody to at least read the book. I think it's Gino Wickman is the author of that one.

Slocomb Reed: Ben, what is your best ever advice?

Ben Suttles: I'd say be persistent but also just keep grinding it out. People that get into real estate have this understanding or this thought that, "Hey, I'm going to get rich and I'm going to get rich quick." I see people that I aspire to be and I can quickly get there. Just be patient but be persistent. Because I think that that last day where you're just about ready just to hang it up and just say, "You know what? I'm done with this. I haven't found a deal or the deals that I have done haven't been profitable." It's that last day that if you just continue to grind it out, you're going to see a lot of progress and you're actually going to hit one. I've seen people that three months in "Oh, the market's too hot, it's too expensive, it's just too competitive." On day 91, kept grinding it out, they might have found the deal. But instead, they just hang up their cleats and say "Alright, I'm done." Be patient, be persistent. I'll tell you, the profits and the money will come, you just have to continue to keep grinding it out.

Slocomb Reed: Absolutely. Ben, where can people get in touch with you?

Ben Suttles: You can check us out at or you can email me directly. I like to talk shop as people can probably tell, as well.

Slocomb Reed: Awesome. Best Ever listeners, thank you for tuning in. If you've gotten value from this episode, please do subscribe to the show, leave us a five-star review, and share this episode with a friend who could gain some value out of the conversation we just had with Ben Suttles. Thank you and have a Best Ever day.

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