Bob Voelker has taken on several different titles throughout his career. He started out as a CPA, then attended law school and became the first attorney in Texas to focus on low-income tax credit projects as a practice area. He then became a real estate developer focused on urban complex, mixed-use, and high-rise residential projects. Now retired, he recently authored his own book, Managing the Complexities of Real Estate Development. In this episode, Bob explains how he got into development, the lessons he’s learned, and how his tax credit knowledge has helped him along the way.
Bob’s Path to Development
Making the transition from a tax attorney to an affordable housing developer was fairly simple, Bob says, because his new role involved using other people’s money for the most part. Before becoming a full-time developer, he had spent approximately 12 years observing others in the development business.
One of his first projects was an affordable housing community in Ft. Worth, which he funded with low-income housing tax credits, bank financing, and a contribution from the nonprofit organization involved in the project. They created 250 units of affordable housing, with 50% designated for previously homeless families.
The Biggest Lessons He’s Learned
Bob made his biggest mistake when he lost money on an affordable housing development project. To cut costs, he and his team decided to hire their own (inexpensive) sub-contractors. “It’s a time and a budget problem if you’ve hired inexperienced sub-contractors,” he says. “So I ended up losing a ton of money on some projects because of that very issue.”
He’s also learned to choose his battles wisely. As a former lawyer, he’s sometimes been tempted to sue cities over, say, fair housing violations. He said after having gone that route in suing cities, he experienced such a physical and emotional toll that he decided it’s often best to cut his losses early and seek out another deal elsewhere.
Types of Public Funds That Can Help Bridge Equity Gaps
Due to his credentials, Bob has vast knowledge when it comes to funding new development projects. In this episode, he highlights several public funding options available to developers including the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, Historic Tax Credits, New Markets Tax Credits, and Tax Increment Financing.
To learn about what programs are available to you, Bob recommends contacting a lawyer or law firm that specializes in this category. He also advises going to your local real estate department and asking to speak with a tax attorney, who should be able to explain which programs you can use. Many cities also have an economic development department that can provide further information.
Bob Voelker | Real Estate Background
- Retired after 38 years as a real estate attorney and developer focused on urban complex, mixed-use, and high-rise residential projects.
- Joint ventures with other developers and real estate syndications.
- Author of Managing the Complexities of Real Estate Development, a training manual for young developers, attorneys, and debt and equity associates.
- Based in: Athens, GA
- Say hi to him at:
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Ash Patel: Hello, Best Ever listeners. Welcome to The Best Real Estate Investing Advice Ever Show. I'm Ash Patel and with today's guest, Bob Voelker. Bob is joining us from Athens, Georgia. He is the author of Managing the Complexities of Real Estate Development, a training manual for young developers, attorneys, and debt and equity associates. He has retired after 38 years as a real estate attorney and developer, focused on urban complex mixed-use and high-rise residential projects. Bob, thank you for joining us and how are you today?
Bob Voelker: Oh, I'm great. Thanks for having me.
Ash Patel: We're excited to have you. Bob, before we get started, can you give the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and what you're focused on now?
Bob Voelker: Sure. My background - I'm a CPA, went to law school, and became a tax attorney. In 1986, Congress decided they didn't like tax attorneys anymore, changed all the tax laws, and I moved over into real estate. Happened upon one of the first low-income housing tax credit projects in Texas in the late 80s, became the first attorney in Texas to focus on that as a practice area. Left shortly thereafter and became an affordable housing developer and developed 3,300 units of affordable housing in Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Came back to the law firm when my daughter went to college and got put on a big project out in LA, the W Hollywood hotel and condos at Hollywood & Vine, it's a $620 million mixed-use project... After having never worked on a hotel deal, a mixed-use deal, or a condo deal, so it was a totally different experience for me. I spent two and a half years of my life working 250 hours a month just on that project. Came back to Dallas during the Great Recession, worked on a bunch of projects where we used public incentives to try and fill equity gaps. I did that for about four years and then got hired by StreetLights Residential to become their VP and also their in-house legal counsel. Did that for about five and a half years, developing high-rise and mixed-use projects in California, Texas, Georgia, and Florida. That's kind of how I got to where I am today; then I just retired and moved to Athens, Georgia.
Ash Patel: Alright, let's go quickly, because there's so much to cover here. CPA, law school, tax attorney - the perfect background to exploit... Not exploit, but to truly understand how these tax credits work, because they were new at the time. Because of the amount of leverage you can have with these tax credits, is that why you became a developer for affordable housing?
Bob Voelker: Well, that was an easy place to enter into being a developer because you're using other people's money for the most part. It didn't take much from the developer to get into the business. Initially, before I became a direct developer and had my own development company, I worked for a company out of Florida that had lots of experience in doing this; they were one of the largest affordable housing developers in the country at the time. I did that with them for a couple of years and they shut down their Texas operations, so I started my own development company. It was an easy way to enter into the business, and then I learned some really hard lessons after doing it, so... We'll talk about that later, how I managed to lose a lot of money doing it.
Ash Patel: Bob, how many years were you watching others in development before you got started?
Bob Voelker: Oh, I guess from really the time I got out of law school in '84 to '94, and then from '94 to '96 when I was working for the company out of Florida. So about 12 years of watching how these projects were put together and some of the complexities and difficulties and what it meant to sign guarantees and all those fun kinds of things.
Ash Patel: Can you walk us through some of the details of your first development project?
Bob Voelker: Oh wow, take me back a few years... Well, I'll tell you one of the early ones anyhow. I did a project over in Fort Worth... Affordable housing is very difficult to get through the city, because a lot of times they don't want affordable housing. And Fort Worth had empowered homeowners associations to kind of fight these deals. So I went and found a site over in Fort Worth, and it was because there was a non-profit over in Fort Worth that was doing housing for previously homeless families. They wanted to do their own deal and they chose a site that I knew wouldn't score for the state scoring to get the credits. So I went and found a different site for them and then they ended up contributing a million and a half dollars to the project.
I brought in the low-income housing tax credits and then we got bank financing. We developed, I think it was 250 units of affordable housing and 50% of the units were for previously homeless families. We bought the 5,000 square foot after-school building for the kids, that the parents would kind of operate with one of our professionals' help after school, and then the teenagers were involved in helping the young kids. So it was a really cool way of kind of building a sense of community. By proposing it that way, we actually got through the city's process, because we actually had to rezone the site, which isn't easy to do affordable housing. But because we had involved the community so much that kind of walked in our project.
Ash Patel: Was it hard for the lawyer in you not to want to just go to battle with the city and try to win?
Bob Voelker: That's another part of my background is I've actually sued cities before for fair housing violations... I kind of had a reputation for doing that in Texas. And yes, it is hard for me not just to win a battle with cities and say, "Hey, you're just excluding apartments, you're excluding low-income people, and ultimately, that also has some impacts on minorities." So you can make a fair housing claim pretty easily that way. But one thing I learned after having gone that route in suing cities, including the city I lived in, for fair housing violations, which - if you want to be popular in church on Sunday morning, that's a really good way to do it. [laughter]
One thing I learned is that with the emotional and physical toll on you, and just the time and attention it takes to go through that process of taking on a city - you're better off cutting your losses early, figuring out that you're going to have political opposition, and going elsewhere and just saying, "Look, I understand. I don't agree with your position, but I'll better go and find another deal and get it done."
Ash Patel: I love that creative solution that you put together. Has that been a reoccurring theme in much of your career as a developer?
Bob Voelker: It has, probably more so in Texas than a lot of places, because Texas is so kind of conservative, if you want to call it that, politically. They very much empower people who are in power, so to speak, to fight projects. And it doesn't matter whether it's an affordable housing project or a mixed-use project; it's going to create traffic and it's going to create noise, whatever the issues are that the local homeowners have. If you're better off early on - and part of what I wrote in my book, is one of the things you want to do when you're looking for a site is go really early and talk to the city. Say, "Look, I not only want to know what the rules are, how it's zoned, what the setbacks are, all those kinds of things, but I also want to know the political climate." And I want to know who I need to go talk to to figure that out early because you're better off just saying, "Let's go find another deal if you face that kind of opposition." So yes, that's been a very consistent theme.
Ash Patel: And who's the initial person to have that conversation with? Is it a city manager, a clerk?
Bob Voelker: Typically, you start with the planning and zoning department. They typically have a pretty good feel for that and they'll tell you who you need to talk to. It depends on the city. Some cities have council people who are elected at large, and other cities have council people who are elected from district. Like, when we did our deal in Fort Worth, I went and talked to the city councilman for that district. And lot of those cities where they have district by district council members, if one counselor for that district doesn't want your project, all the other people are going to support them, and they won't vote for you. They scratch each other's back, so to speak.
So if I have a project I like and I want your support, you'll support me because it's in my district, and then vice versa - if I don't like the project, you support me and you'll kill it. It creates a really weird political dynamic and a development dynamic, but it is what it is, and you've got to deal with it.
Ash Patel: What were some of the big mistakes and hard lessons learned in your career?
Bob Voelker: Hah! Well, I'd say the biggest one, the deal where I lost the most money was - we saw that we were having problems making our numbers work on development projects, on affordable housing projects. So we said, "Well, maybe we'll just take the contractor's fee out of the deal, so to speak. We'll just be our own contractor." We went and found somebody to act as my construction manager, construction VP, put him in place, and then we started hiring our own subcontractors. And the very worst thing you can do is to hire the cheapest subcontractors you can find. You may think it [unintelligible 00:11:10.11] your project and budget, but it will also kill you from a timing standpoint. The likelihood that they're going to have lien claims that are filed against the project because they aren't paying their bills, or they're not going to get it done on time... It's a time and a budget problem if you've hired an inexperienced subcontractor. So I ended up losing a ton of money on some projects because of that very issue. We tried to be our own subcontractor to cut costs. I would never advise doing that.
Ash Patel: And Bob, why did you write a book on development, equity? What was the inspiration behind that?
Bob Voelker: Well, I retired a year and a half ago, and didn't want to sit around and do nothing at the house, so I said, "Okay, how can I give back for what I've learned?" One of the things I noticed over time is - I ran the real estate department of the law firm I was at for a couple of years - senior lawyers are very poor mentors, because they don't have time. They're chasing bigger and harder deals, so they just dump projects off on their associates.
Then when I went over to the development side, I found it even worse. Senior developers are as ADD as they come. They are just way out there on the scale, because they're always chasing deals, they love making relationships... They never sit down with their junior analysts and their junior developers to walk them through all the intricacies of a project. So I learned a lot as a developer that I wish I had known as an attorney when I was drafting documents. And I learned a lot of things as an attorney that I wished -- a developer doesn’t read documents for the most part. They just sign whatever the lawyers put in front of them, but there are things they really need to know. Our impact on how the project is built, how it's run, how you report to your investors, and how you report to your lenders... I wanted to kind of bring all that knowledge together in one place, so that, as you said, young lawyers, young developers, debt and equity associates - they need a place where they can go learn the process without learning it on the job, over five to 10 years. That's really how you learn. It's almost like a really bad apprenticeship, where you don't have a mentor, is how a lot of learning happens in real estate development.
Ash Patel: Yeah, I definitely see that. Bob, you also mentioned using public funds to bridge equity gaps. What is that?
Bob Voelker: Well, if you have a project that for whatever reason, either federal or state funding is available, it could be a project where, say, under the EB-5 program -- I don't know if you know anything about that, but where we're bringing money out of China to invest in real estate deals. When I was working on the W Hollywood project, we had a gap, because what happened is that project opened in 2010 - there couldn't have been a worse time to open a $620 million project... And the equity investor for that hotel and the condos wanted to reserve money to make condo for sale loans, because the condo mortgage market just dried up in that period. So they said, "Well, we're going to take the money away from the nightclub and the restaurant that we're going to use to finish out, and we're going to use that for condo sale loans." We're like, "Okay, where are we going to come up with the money now to finish out the nightclub and the restaurant?" So we went and raised $35 million from China, through the EB-5 program, and invested that in the nightclub and the restaurant to finish it out. It's really inexpensive money. Basically, the people just want their visas in exchange for bringing funds into the United States.
Then, when the recession hit and I came back after the Hollywood project, I started going around to the law firm’s clients and saying, "Okay, who has projects now in the middle of the recession?" I knew it was going to happen. Debt sized down, and equity was going to size down, and you're going to end up with a funding gap, if you kind of understand how the capital stack gets built. So I saw that gap, so I started going around to clients saying, "Show me the projects you're having trouble getting funded." So I found projects from various law firm clients that needed to fill gaps.
You can do it through EB-5, you can do it through all kinds of state and federal financing. We use tax increment financing in Texas, it's another way of doing it. So I did a lot of that kind of work. And really low-income housing tax credits is a way to fill a gap, historic tax credits are a way to fill a gap, new market tax credits... Over time, I ended up working on all those kinds of projects.
Break: [00:15:16] - [00:17:02]
Ash Patel: EB-5 - can you explain to the Best Ever listeners what that is?
Bob Voelker: Well, it's somewhat short-handed referred to as "visas for investment." It's done mainly with Chinese investors, because there were a bunch of them who wanted to get visas in the United States. Not so much that the investors wanted to come to the United States, but they wanted their children to come here to go to college, and ultimately be able to get jobs. I forget the dollar amounts what they used to be; I think it was if you invested half a million dollars in the United States and you created X number of jobs with that investment, you then got a visa for yourself, your spouse, and all your children under age 21.
They typically got like say a 2% rate of return on their money. You have to go through a regional center, which is a kind of federally licensed organization that is allowed to participate in this program. They're the ones who aggregate investors together, because typically you don't just need half a million, you may need 10 million or 20 million or 30 million. They aggregate all the investors together by going over to China, putting on a kind of like a syndication show for the investors. They talk about the projects they're going to invest in, they get all those investors together, and they then invest in your project. Typically, you're paying the regional center a lot more than 2%, so you're paying them like 7%-8% of the money. They're then stripping off the excess return, the regional centers; that's how they get paid for their efforts. Then the foreign investors only get, say, 2%. And if they create those jobs and they stay in place for X number of years, then they get a visa for themselves and their family. That's basically what the EB-5 program is.
Ash Patel: And has that been phased out?
Bob Voelker: You know, I haven't paid attention to it. I think it still exists. I just don't think it's used very much anymore, because it was really popular when equity was hard to get. Like I said, after the Great Recession. Once equity started coming back into the marketplace, now there's so much equity chasing real estate deals... It's really a pain for a developer to go through the process unless there's no other way for me to get the money. So I just think it's not as popular as it was years ago.
Ash Patel: So what do most developers leave on the table? For example, what's the low-hanging fruit from all of these other tax programs? What's the lowest hanging fruit rather?
Bob Voelker: I don't think that tax increment financing -- now, different states have different ways of doing that, but... Basically, it's where the states create these tax increment districts where they say "We want to see this district redeveloped." They take and they say, "Okay, as of today," say a piece of real estate has a million-dollar land value, but it hasn't been developed. If you agree to invest in that particular district, they take all that additional tax that's generated above that $1 million base, and they put that in a fund and they invest it back in the district. You may then be able to get a loan from that district - sometimes they float bonds to do it... And you may be able to get a loan from that district to be able to fill a gap in your project. And what's great about that ism again, it's a low-interest loan; sometimes it's a grant to create redevelopment in a particular district. That's something I don't think very many people know about, and various states and cities have their own rules on how they do that.
Ash Patel: Yeah. I didn't know about it. Thank you for bringing that up. Bob, you've done a lot with affordable housing over the years. Can a developer still take advantage of that today?
Bob Voelker: Sure. They have the [unintelligible 00:20:20.22] tax credit program and tax-exempt bond program that goes with that; it still exists today. It's still out there. There are two different tax credits; there's a 9% credit and a 4% credit. The 9% credit is competitive, and typically, there's six to eight times the number of applicants as there are credits to give out, and it's a scoring system.
When I was doing it, I'd apply in multiple states and hope to get one or two deals a year. We might submit 10 applications. And that's a lot of legwork to go through to just get one or two deals a year. But if you don't, you may end up with zero deals a year.
The other way to do that is you go through tax-exempt bonds, what they call 4% credits, and that's less competitive. But that even has become more competitive than it was back when I did that. So just two ways of doing it, but both of those still exist today.
Ash Patel: And how did the historic tax credits work?
Bob Voelker: Again, it's been a while since I've done those... The concept is that if you have a particular building that's designated on the federal historic records as being historic, and you agree to put X amount of rehab into the project, if you buy the project for a million dollars, remember, you have to put at least a million dollars into the project. And if you do that, you get historic credits that ultimately will pay you back about 40% in value. You get the credits and you try to sell to an investor, and it pays you back about 40% of what you put into the project. Kind of upfront once you get the renovations certified and you get the renovations completed as being done the way you said you were going to do them. So it provides a lot of equity again for your project that otherwise, a lot of these historic buildings wouldn't get renovated.
Ash Patel: Alright, Bob, you make a lot of this sound easy because you've got a lifetime of experience in all of these different areas. How do we find out about all these different programs?
Bob Voelker: Well, the best way to do it is to find a lawyer who's done a lot of this stuff. There are lawyers and law firms that kind of specialize in this type of work. Whatever location it is you're trying to do a project, go to the real estate department, tell them you want to talk to them and a tax attorney. Say, "Okay, I want to know what programs are out there." The other way to do it is to go talk to the city. Typically, there's an economic development department that's pretty well versed in this kind of stuff.
But most of these kinds of incentives involve some form of, I'll call it "public good." Whether it's renovating historic buildings, helping provide affordable housing, or creating jobs... So your whole project needs to be oriented around some type of social good. If you just want to do a project in a really high-end neighborhood and you're building a high-end hotel, you're unlikely to get any real help there from the city or from the federal government. But if you're doing something as a public good, there may be some type of benefit out there for you.
Ash Patel: And if you're doing something in an area that doesn't need any incentives, can you still get tax abatements for putting a lot of money into a project?
Bob Voelker: Sometimes cities will do that if it's providing jobs or it's providing something that the city wants to see. For instance, a convention center hotel in a high-end area. Some of the suburbs in Dallas have done this. There are developers who specialize in that kind of work, where they go and they work with cities. The city may help them float bonds to provide their debt and provide them special terms for that. The city may provide them with sales tax abatements, for instance, or a sales tax rebate.
Those kinds of things, you can sit down and talk with the city. But again, it's kind of a public good, but it's in a nicer area than otherwise you'd think it'd probably be in. So it's not providing that deep subsidy for projects that are more difficult to do, but it is providing a general public good.
Ash Patel: What's the biggest mistake you see developers make?
Bob Voelker: Finding a site and becoming so invested in that site... Say you've got $300,000 or $400,000 into putting up earnest money, some preliminary plans, you've spent some money on lawyers, etc, and then just never looking back and reevaluating whether that deal still makes sense. What happens is, "Oh, I'm already into this $300,000 in a year, I'll just keep going." Well, if you don't really do your homework and make sure that your proforma works... "We're going to get higher rents because... We're going to have lower operating costs because...", and you start believing your own story too much, and not saying, "Wait a minute, let's do a gut check. Does this deal still work?" I stated in the book that sometimes the best deals you do are the deals you walk away from. That's a hard lesson to learn, but it's critically important. Because otherwise, you're signing guarantees a lot of times as a developer. And one bad deal can take down four good deals if you're not careful.
Ash Patel: Yeah, that's great advice. Bob, what is your best real estate investing advice ever?
Bob Voelker: Real estate investing advice... I'm talking to some young people about what part of the field to enter into, and I'm telling them that hotels are one of the first things to go down and one of the last things that come up. Sometimes the economy will slow down and you don't need as many warehouses and people build warehouses like mad because they're easy to build. But multifamily is one area that just continues to shine, and has, historically.
My preference has always been to invest in, it’s what I know for one, but also, I just think that it's the most stable of the real estate classes. So that's probably one of my best investment advice ideas.
The other thing is, if you can ever invest with a general partner in what they call the "promote" in a project, that's a great way to put a relatively small amount of money at risk, but get a really high rate of return. The problem is you're in the riskiest position, but if you have a developer with a solid track record and a project that really seems to make sense, you can really make a lot of money that way.
Ash Patel: What is the promote?
Bob Voelker: Well, when developers do projects, they put a relatively small amount of their capital at risk, versus using other people's money, limited partner money, co-general partner money, whatever it is. So the developer initially, in the waterfall of profits coming out of the deal, they'll get part of the profits based on how much money they put in. That's just kind of pari passu, everybody's getting back based on what they put in. But then as your limited partner investors and general partner investors get more and more rate of return, their ownership percentage starts to drop off and the developer's ownership percentage starts to go up.
That gap between the developer's pro-rata shares and what the developer ultimately makes out of the project over time, because the other people's investment stake is going down while theirs is going up, that's what we call the promote. It's your oversized rate of return based on your investment.
Ash Patel: If there is a multifamily syndicator that has no experience in development and they have an interest --I wouldn't call it a passion; let's say an interest-- maybe because the returns are higher. Would you recommend they transition into development, or just continuous operators?
Bob Voelker: Well, if they're a syndicator, I guess they're just kind of taking people's money and investing it in projects. Being a developer is a kind of a totally different game. It's a lot more due diligence, it's a lot more being on the ground, dealing with the battles in development, it's facing off with contractors and subcontractors on a daily basis. If you're going to get into that business, you'd better understand what you're getting into, and you'd better hire the right people to help you do it. Can it be done? Yes. Have I seen people do it? Yes. It's not something I'd venture into lightly though without having the right team in place.
Ash Patel: Bob, I have a couple of restaurants that I own, and I talk to a lot of restauranteurs. And every one of them, if you ask them, would you recommend your kids get into the restaurant industry? They all are vehemently opposed to having their children in that business. Would you recommend your children or younger people get into development?
Bob Voelker: If you ask me the question about being a lawyer, I might answer the question differently... But sometimes there are great experiences to have that you don't want to do in long term. Being a developer - yes, I would recommend that you get into doing that. I think it's great, because you learn to juggle a lot of balls to get the deal done; you're really multitasking to the Nth level. I refer to it as juggling chainsaws and knives while on a moving landscape. So I think it's just a great experience to have.
I would start as an analyst and move my way up to being a junior developer, to a developer, because you'll learn a lot of the hard lessons that happened by seeing 5, 10 projects a year for 10 years before you kind of become a full-fledged developer. So I wouldn't just jump into it on my own and go say "Let's go do a deal." But would I recommend to my kids to do it? Yeah, it's really an exciting career.
Ash Patel: I love it. Bob, are you ready for the Best Ever lightning round?
Bob Voelker: Sure.
Ash Patel: Alright, Bob, what's the Best Ever book you recently read?
Bob Voelker: Leadership In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It's kind of the history of the two Roosevelts, Abe Lincoln, LBJ, and all the trials and tribulations they went through to do what they did as president.
Ash Patel: Bob, what's the Best Ever one you'd like to give back?
Bob Voelker: Right now, it's spending time with young people, talking to them about the development business... Because I think there are future generations of young developers and young leaders in the United States. I'm really enjoying just having conversations. I'm having a call after this call with a young development guy.
Ash Patel: Bob, how can the Best Ever listeners reach out to you?
Bob Voelker: Well, probably the easiest way is to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's the easiest way to do that. Or you can find me on LinkedIn; it's another way to do it. I'm pretty active on LinkedIn right now.
Ash Patel: Bob, I got to thank you for sharing your time with us today. An illustrious career starting out as a CPA, going to law school, becoming a tax attorney, learning about affordable housing tax credits, becoming a developer, and $600 million projects. Thank you for sharing all of your time with us today.
Bob Voelker: Absolutely, my pleasure.
Ash Patel: Best Ever listeners, thank you for joining us. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a five-star review, and share the podcast with anyone you think can benefit from it. Subscribe, like, and have a Best Ever day.
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