December 13, 2022

JF3022: The Progression from Active to Passive Investing ft. Emma Powell

Emma Powell is the owner of Highrise Group, where she works as a multifamily owner, operator, and capital raiser. In this episode, she tells us about the investing strategies she has used to work toward her goal of becoming a purely passive investor, the deals she’s doing right now, and how her biggest financial loss helped her pivot her business in a major way. 

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Emma Powell | Real Estate Background

  • Owner of Highrise Group, where she works as a multifamily owner, operator, and capital raiser. She and her husband, an IT developer, invest their own capital as well as partner capital, run a joint-venture investing club, and syndicate for limited partners.
  • Portfolio:
    • GP of:  
      • 10 residential units
      • 75 multifamily units (co-managing partners)
      • 490 units as minor/non-controlling GP
      • 265 multifamily units and short-term rentals in new development
      • 34 multifamily units and 156 multifamily entitled units sold/full cycle
  • Based in: Salt Lake City, UT


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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 Emma Powell. Emma is joining us from Salt Lake City, Utah. She is a multifamily owner and operator and a capital raiser. She currently has 10 residential units, 75 multifamily units, another 490 units as a minor non-controlling GP, and several units in other ownership structures, including some new development and some entitled units that have gone full cycle. Emma, can you tell us a little bit more about your background and what you're currently focused on?

Emma Powell: Yeah, thank you for having me on the show. I have learned a lot from you over the years. I basically got my start from listening to your episodes and reading your Best Ever book, so it's really an honor to be here.

Slocomb Reed: Nice.

Emma Powell: So that's my background. I started out not knowing what I was doing, and then read a lot of Best Ever stuff, and figured out what I was doing. So we started out - I was a real estate and wedding photographer in Austin, Texas. We lived there for 20 years, and my husband was in the IT industry, and he got laid off at the end of 2017. And at the time, all of our friends would say "Yeah, this is the best thing that's ever gonna happen to you", but it doesn't feel like that when you have so much uncertainty... So he ended up finding a new job pretty quickly, and we relocated suddenly from Austin to Salt Lake City. And when I got here, I had the choice, do I start my photography business over again? I had just graduated college the summer before 2017, and it was just like, I could get a full-time job, now that I have my degree finished, I could start another photography business, and looking at all sorts of options, like starting another kind of business... So I was doing some freelance marketing consulting for a couple of different firms, and I just really wasn't knowing what direction I should go, so I started attending business networking meetups and came across some real estate ones... But I had really always wanted to do this; we had just sold our house in Austin, and we had some money burning a hole in our pocket, so I started showing up to our local real estate clubs and made a private loan, and just started looking for houses, and started attending all the meetings, and learning and reading and just consuming a lot of material... And when you have some cash to get started, I think it makes it maybe a little bit easier, because we had earmarked that cash from the sale of our [unintelligible 00:03:26.17] and we bought a house with it, and then we earmarked some to start the business, and so it allowed me almost like a monopoly money mindset, where I could go out and try and do the best I could with it, but because my husband had a full time W-2, I felt psychologically a lot safer to just go out and see if I could make something of this business.

Slocomb Reed: That makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of people who get into real estate who have a partner or spouse who has a full time job that can sustain them while they do things that at least feel more risky. I know that's how I got started. I'm an active owner-operator in Cincinnati, primarily apartments; we bought our house-hack, and I wanted to dive in. So having a lot of our living expenses covered by the house-hack helped, but my wife having a solid income also made it easier for me to dive into 100% commission business, where I knew I wasn't gonna make anything for a little while. So I resonate with that, for sure. You started your real estate investing about five years ago then?

Emma Powell: Yeah, so the first deal that I closed was in September of 2018. So he got laid off in November of 2017, and we were in Utah the first weekend of February, and it didn't take me very long... If I go back and look at the calendar, I'm pretty surprised how fast I landed on some real estate clubs when I was out just to business networking events trying to figure out what I want to do with my life... I was probably only watching cat videos on YouTube for three weeks, and then I found some good directions, and I was able to connect with some of the people that I was watching on YouTube, and found Bigger Pockets, and found Best Ever, and was able to start attending some of our local clubs. And so that happened pretty quickly. Like I said, the private loan happened right at the beginning, probably - I think it was in March. When I look at the date of those title docs, [unintelligible 00:05:10.02] We closed our house on March 1st, and I think I had the money out the next day. So it was pretty quick, like a month.

And then I did a couple of wholesale deals, it really wasn't for me... And I just didn't like the residential real estate. And I knew that we could go commercial, because we had some friends back in Austin, who were doing some commercial deals, like developing self storage units and things like that. So it didn't really seem that foreign to me; like, oh, regular people can do this? I had been exposed to that idea already, and I knew that my husband - he grew up in a college town, and a lot of his neighbors owned small apartment buildings for college students, near the campus... So again, sometimes just knowing that something is a thing, and it's possible for regular people, or people just like you are, whether you're regular or not - sometimes just being exposed to that idea as being possible is all you need to figure out how to do it. You're never going to figure out how to do it if you first don't know that you can do it at all.

Slocomb Reed: I have a couple of questions there for you, Emma, but first, shameless plug for Best Ever... Speaking of events local to Salt Lake City, the Best Ever Conference is coming to Salt Lake City, March 8th to the 10th of 2023, and for our Best Ever listeners, if you want more information on that, you can go to The link will be in the show notes.

Emma Powell: I'm giving a shameless plug, too. I have a VIP ticket, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Slocomb Reed: Were you at the conference last year?

Emma Powell: I wasn't at the one last year. A couple of my business partners have gone the last two years in Denver, and they said "Why are you not coming? Why are you not here?" I don't love flying. I do love conferences, but I don't really love flying, and so I find every excuse in the book. And then when I heard it was moving to Salt Lake City, and I logged in to go buy my ticket, I thought "I'm just gonna splurge. I don't need a plane ticket, I don't need a hotel... I can really make the most of this conference without having to sit on an uncomfortable airplane or [unintelligible 00:06:56.29] first class." And so I just decided, "Let's just go for it." So I am really looking forward to it.

Slocomb Reed: Awesome. Emma, you have what seems in your portfolio like a progression of investing strategies... I don't know if I'm reading into the tea leaves too far, but I want to ask, where did you start? Because it seemed like you started with something, and then you evolved or upgraded to another strategy, and another strategy, and then you brought on business partners... Am I totally off-base here, or what did that evolution look like from 2018 to now?

Emma Powell: Well, by the time I bought my first investment home at the end of 2018, I was already having my mind set that we were going to do commercial; we had had a contract on - I think it was a 14 unit in my husband's hometown, the college town where he grew up, and we couldn't get a loan, because the lender wanted to see some landlording experience... And at that time, I didn't have the network to say, "Hey, this is a great deal. Can you come partner with me and sign on this loan?" Nobody's gonna give you a loan for a 14-unit if you have never run a deal before. They're going to require some sort of experienced loan guarantor. And we thought that we could do this by ourselves. We were nervous, but we believed we could figure it out.

So I let that one fall through, because finally, looking at all of it, I wasn't even sure if I had run the numbers correctly. I just didn't know what I was doing, and I could have asked somebody to run the numbers and partner up, I just didn't know who to ask. But at that point already I had met the people that I ended up partnering with on future deals, we just needed to solidify that relationship.

So that's where I started, and then when we bought that first house, we also put a 25-acre development under contract in the same town... And obviously, that was way too big for us to bite off. But I learned a lot by attempting to purchase it, and attempting to find partners... So we eventually let all three of those properties go, that were in his hometown; we've been looking for the last four, almost five years and still haven't found another one, but we found three good deals at the beginning, and I thought that we can come in anytime, and I still haven't been able to buy anything... So I'm still kind of disappointed we let some of those go, because knowing what I know now, they were actually good deals and I should have bought them.

So that commercial commitment and understanding from my photography business that commercial always is going to be a better profit margin than consumer-level stuff... But I knew I needed a couple of smaller rentals in order to get that experience built up. I intended to flip a couple of houses and I ended up keeping them as rentals. So I've never actually flipped a house, but that's where we got our residential units from.

And by the time we went in to go get a larger unit, it was much larger. The first one we bought, the commercial was 50 units, and they made us get a loan guarantor anyway; so the person who first put this syndication idea in my head is actually the one who introduced us to our loan guarantor. So I ended up with the people around me that I needed. Like I said, I'd already met them at the point I had the 14 under contract. We just didn't know each other that well yet.

Slocomb Reed: Gotcha. So you started with smaller unit counts for the sake of increasing your unit counts in the future, and it sounds like you made a pretty decent jump from single-family to 50-units.

Emma Powell: I think I had a duplex and a triplex at that point...

Slocomb Reed: So basically the same thing...

Emma Powell: Yeah, basically. So it was basically a [unintelligible 00:10:02.23] And the reason that I made the jump, again, is because they had pointed out, "You can do commercial; you can skip residential." That was one of the first REIA club meetings that I ever went to... And I asked him a question when I was there. He said, "If you can skip residential and just go straight to commercial, you should do that, if you can." And somebody asked him, he said, "Well, what are you going to do when you don't want to do active deals anymore?" and he said, "Well, I just want to be a limited partner, and I just want to put money into deals and take a break for a while." So I raised my hand and I said, "Well, what if you can just skip commercial, and go straight to being the money provider?" And he said, "Then you should just do that." So I knew from that very first meeting that the goal of passive income was through becoming a limited partner, and the only reason that I was doing active investing -- well, there were two reasons. One, I needed something to do. I was watching cat videos on YouTube, right? So I'm really wanted to get out there and get some experience and do some cool things. And the other reason was, I didn't have enough cash at that point from that house that we sold in Austin to be able to just invest that and then just wait for it to grow. I really felt like we needed more cash in play, before we can hit our passive income goal.

So we really backed into it - we need this much per month, and we need this much invested, at this rate, in order to get that. So how much money is that? And so I went out there doing active deals, trying to earn that extra money that we needed to just become mostly passive investors.

Slocomb Reed: And that is what you're doing now, is mostly passive investing?

Emma Powell: I still haven't done a purely limited partner deal. I did a couple as managing partner, realized that asset management is really not for me... I learned a ton doing it, and I really focused on it hard for about a year, but that's enough time to know "I'm not good at this. I don't like it", and my partners probably would like it if I didn't ever do asset management again... And so I just got to the point where I was trying to take a more hands-off approach, but I wasn't ready to completely step away from active investing... Because I felt like now I have some experience. Now I have something to offer. I always have ability to sign on loans; agency debt, balance sheet, Experian... Now we have something to offer, and helping consult on the asset management team; helping to put teams together - that's really where I do better, is just finding the right people, the right resources and making stuff happen. But it's a serial entrepreneur type of thing, rather than a business manager type of thing, and I realized I just function better in that serial entrepreneur space. Each property is its own business, so I'm able to go and start business after business, and that's what really feeds me.

Slocomb Reed: Let me make the argument here - feel free to disagree with me. Disagreement would be great for our listeners. A couple of the things that are really great about single family investing - saying this as the host of a commercial real estate investing podcast - is the capacity to force appreciation quickly is greater. And over the long-term, the value of the property has more potential to grow. Yes, I'm saying this in Q4 2022. And single family residential is a much more emotional asset when it comes to property value, and it's going to fluctuate more in "times like these." However, in the long term it has more appreciation potential; so easier to force appreciation quickly, and then get appreciation over the long-term. That said, I am here as someone who has scaled out of it. There is a place for single family investing though...

Emma Powell: I still own my small portfolio, and that's when I realized -- when I'm trying to scale in the commercial area... And you hear that word a lot, "Scale, scale, scale", I actually got some pushback, because after our 15 unit, my next deal was a 34-unit portfolio. It was two buildings, a 16 and an 18-unit. And people kept saying "Why are you going backwards? Why aren't you going bigger?" So I feel like you're always at the edge of your level of incompetence when every deal you do is bigger and harder than the previous deals that you've ever done. So for me, I just wanted to take advantage of a good deal when I saw it, and managing a 16 and an 18-unit is no easy task either. So I didn't really see it as a step backward. And my single-family portfolio has built wealth that belongs solely to us, and we can refinance it and do whatever we need to do with it to build our passive income... But I don't like managing those smaller portfolios, because I'm not a day to day asset manager. So having a bunch of little properties that either I'm managing, or even have a property manager on - I just don't like it.

So it's more of a question of how I wanted to spend my time, and I'm more of a long-term thinker... When my husband has a W-2 and he's keeping the lights on, what do we need cashflow for? What do we need instant appreciation for? We're going after the bigger bite, than the faster bite.

So for me, I definitely have found that we've built wealth more rapidly through our single portfolio. But the ultimate wealth building that's going to come from our commercial portfolio will blow that out of the water, eventually. It just takes a lot longer. And personally, that's where I prefer to spend my time. I just like it better. So if you like renting your single family portfolio, and you really enjoy that space, there's a lot of opportunity there; I just don't really like it. And I get to choose how I spend my time, because I don't have to keep the lights on.

Slocomb Reed: And from 15 units to 34 units is not a regression either.

Emma Powell: I don't think it was... [laughs]

Slocomb Reed: I'll say, I've gotten into commercial multifamily and I like it more. But I also bought a four family earlier this year, because it was offered to me at 70% of its value. So of course, I pounced on it. And another thing though, Emma... I will say, in my experience -- do you self manage?

Emma Powell: I self-manage my residential portfolio for IRS purposes, because we have that great combination of the W-2 worker and the full-time real estate professional. So our tax savings that we get from the depreciation offsets his active income. And in order to do that, we've been advised by our accountant that I do have to have a certain number of hours that I'm spending in substantially involved in the source of the passive income or the rental income. So I do self-manage a couple of the houses that are nearby us, and then everything that we have that's either too far away or too large, we have a property manager on it. And they're not too hard to manage, because I don't have too many of them that I'm doing myself... So they only call me a couple times a year, and I usually can hire some help to get them rented out from a local realtor, or something like that. So they're not that time-consuming, but I certainly wouldn't want to scale that business.

Break: [00:16:24.28] to [00:18:25.19]

Slocomb Reed: I am scaling that business right now, and I was actually going to say that makes it easier to go small; because per-unit it is much easier to manage a 50 unit than a four unit. However, if you already have 50 units' worth of systems, adding four units to them is quite simple. And when you're given an opportunity that seems like a no brainer, that you just can't pass up because there's too much value, there's too much opportunity in the deal, you can pounce on it, and I don't have to worry about how hard it is to manage a four unit, because it's not the only thing I'm managing; I already have the full-time staff. It's a drop in the bucket operationally for a significant upside financially.

Back to your progression through real estate investing in the last few years, Emma... You have talked about investing by yourself. You've also said that you have business partners. And I didn't list all of the different ways that you are in partnership on some of your deals. I want to talk about that progression though, because it sounds like when you got into real estate investing, you wanted to be doing it by yourself to build the experience to be able to do larger deals, and you've ended up bringing on partners and going more passively since then. Can you tell us how tactically how that progression happened, deal by deal, and then also explain why you've moved into more partnerships?

Emma Powell: So to differentiate, like you said, between progression and scale - scale means your business is always growing, that you're getting more units with each deal... And I didn't want to run a large business. So I'm progressing from active to passive, and that means that you take advantage of what is available to you to make that switch. And so that's one of the reasons I don't tend to like the smaller ones, even if they're a great deal, because I just personally find those to be more hands-on and more active, and I'm trying to get more passive. So really focusing on that goal has been really key to helping me choose projects, without thinking of the "I want 1,000 doors", and "I'm gonna crush it, and we're gonna go out and we're gonna scale this business." I'm not interested in having a large business. I try to keep things manageable, and always with that passive income goal in mind.

So the 34 units that we bought obviously was not supposed to be passive; I was the managing partner on that one, we did it as a joint venture with just a couple of us. And it ended up being an okay deal. It was supposed to be great, but with values -- we weren't able to sell it for what it appraised for, is really what it boiled down to. And then I got into a couple of deals where they were large enough that I didn't want to manage them, and so I brought in an asset manager, and gave away pretty much most of the equity. So taking small pieces of more deals.

So I have one in another joint venture that I'm fairly hands-off, past setting the thing up, getting everybody in place, helping with the systems, things like that. There's not a whole lot going on on that one, now that it stabilized. So then we bought another one in that same town where we bought our 50 unit. So I had a triplex, a 50 unit and a 26 unit in that same town.

And then we had a deal that we were doing, I think it was a 225, and I feel like I got talked into doing it. I really was not excited about it. Because I remember thinking -- that was a deal we ultimately lost, and didn't close, and lost all our earnest money, and it was a disaster from a transaction standpoint... But it ended up being a huge turning point for me in my progression of my investing career... Because when I was thinking to myself when it was still going was like "Hah, I'm signing up for another five to seven-year hold on this, being a managing partner. I'm the most experienced person in the group, and I really don't want to be. I need a lot more help managing assets." I already knew at that point that I didn't love that day to day, and I was really, really nervous about it. So we ended up losing that deal.

I was very upset about the money that we lost, but I was not upset one bit about losing the actual property. And that was when I had to take a week off and just say, "I'm gonna cry about all the money we lost." But then immediately, that self introspection started pivoting to me - the whole point of this was to be passive, not to run a big business. And I got sucked into the whole, "We're gonna scale a massive syndication business."

So that was when I started scaling to my club model, where we just get people together, we look at deals, we pool our money, and we go invest in stuff. And that's how we're non-controlling members. We add what we can add, but we're not the managing partners. And for me, that's a much better fit, because I can get involved in a lot more deals, my money can be working for me as well as my time... And I'm able to gain a ton of experience on different kinds of assets, but I'm not in charge of the day to day.

Slocomb Reed: Emma, one last thing before we transition to the end of this conversation... Tell us about the deals that you're doing right now.

Emma Powell: All the deals I'm doing right now are through my investing club, because I decided when we bought our 26-unit - it was a little over a year ago - that I was not going to sponsor any new deals until I really had a solid command on where my passive income was coming from, and exactly what I wanted my business to look like. I was redoing my avatar for my ideal investor, and it was just redoing everything. And that's been about a year and a half. And I'm just starting to close in on what that's gonna look like. So the deals I'm doing now - most of them are institutional-level multifamilies, that a group of us will pool our cash and then we'll use that to go collectively bargain. We'll bring in other funds, individual investors... So there's a bunch of us that get together and meet once a week and crunch deals, and if we like it, we'll take that pool and then we'll collectively bargain to get better terms; a higher preferred return... I always want a piece of the management in order to protect that investment and add what we can. So if we are looking at financials and we see things, we'll be able to bring it straight to them, because we're not limited partners, just getting our quarterly report, we're general partners who are there to help out with whatever is needed. And like I said, that's a much better fit for me. And I anticipate I'll keep doing that for a while.

We are also starting a fund where we can continue to do a similar activity, but without any co-GP, where we can just manage our fund and bring that pool in. And we'll keep doing similar deals, but we're trying to diversify more now, so not as heavy in multifamily, getting into some other commercial assets. So we've got vacation rentals, we look at self-storage units, multifamily in different areas, and with different operators, so we're more diversified, and also things like mobile home parks, RV parks. You don't have to be the expert if you're not the one who's doing it every single day. You can diversify a little bit more and protect yourself for when shifts are coming. And right now, it's all about diversification, because we don't know what's going on.

Slocomb Reed: Emma, are you ready for the best ever lightning round?

Emma Powell: Yes.

Slocomb Reed: Great. What is the best ever book you've recently read?

Emma Powell: Recently, I've just finished Hunter Thompson's Raising Capital, and I'm working my way through Story Brand... And both of those, I feel like they go together really, really well... Because Raising Capital is all about your marketing, and how you're talking to your investors, and getting your ideal investor, and then Story Brand really builds the nitty-gritty of how you do your website, and how you build your story and your marketing. So those two things are going together very well. I'm not through with Story Brands yet, but I'm finding that they go together very well, as we're getting ready to launch our fund and figuring out exactly what that's going to look like.

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

Emma Powell: Right now I have some young adult children, and I'm trying to encourage them to volunteer in the community. So we're doing the Humane Society once a month, and just trying to teach them how to be responsible adults. I also feel like the club that I'm running - I would love to eventually turn that into a nonprofit for young people who don't have access to the kinds of role models that they need in order to really take hold of their ambitions.

We have a couple of really young kids in there right now, younger college students, high school kids, and I'm seeing that and thinking, "Okay, how can we give them a lot of value through a nonprofit where they can jump in and do some of these things with us, even though they don't have a lot of money to be actually investing in deals?" Because everybody has to invest their own money in the club. So taking former athletes, maybe who are not as high paid, because maybe they're second string, or third tier sport, and just people who have a lot of ambition and mindset and grit, and put them into a room in a nonprofit way where we can help them build wealth. Because then they're going to go out, and they're going to build their own charities, and they're going to get their own causes. And so I feel, building an army of philanthropists, it really motivates me. So the club is moving that direction, where we'll have the people who have their own money to invest, as well as the nonprofit arm, where people who don't have as much can still get on board and learn and be exposed to this stuff.

Slocomb Reed: That's awesome. What is the biggest mistake you've made in real estate investing, and the best ever lesson that resulted from it?

Emma Powell: Well, that property that we lost was the biggest loss of money we ever had, and the mistakes that we made on that one were probably the biggest mistakes I've ever made, because of that loss of money... But I can't regret that happening, because it forced that introspection that pivoted my business towards really niching down on what I'm good at what, and I want to spend my time doing, and helping me create those lists of, "Here's what I want to do all day, every day. I would do it for free; maybe I can figure out a way to get paid for it." Then you've got that list of things I can do if I force myself, if nobody else can do it; if the person I delegated it to died, I could step in and take over." And then you've got that third list of things I am not good at, I don't know how to do, and I really don't ever want to get good at this thing.

So helping me to separate those things in my mind and really focus on what I'm good at, niching down, has been much more enjoyable, and I don't think I would have done it if we had closed on that property. I would just be running that property, and probably stressed out every time some little bad thing happened, and "How are we gonna pay for this?" I just really prefer to be at a higher level than that, and that deal is what made me realized that.

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

Emma Powell: Take action. I don't know why I don't have a hard time taking action. I wish I could formulate that with some sort of advice to say, "Here's how you go from analysis paralysis, here's how you go from fear to taking action." I don't really know. I think that I just hung around with enough other people that were doing things, and I recognize they're not really any different than me. They were the same intelligence level, we have similar backgrounds and upbringings. It's watching people doing this who were raised in very poor circumstances, or in abusive circumstances, and they're out there doing it; why can't I do it?

And so having that confidence to recognize that the people that you're hanging out with who are doing this are the inspiration that you're capable of doing it as well. So I guess if you had to boil it down, take action by hanging out with other people similar to you, who are really winning, and they're extremely inspiring. And when you have a problem, you know exactly who to go to, and they will help you.

Slocomb Reed: That's great, Emma. And the last question, where can people get in touch with you?

Emma Powell: My website address is And if you do a /contact, I have links to all my socials; there's a calendar there where you can book a call with me, a 30-minute call. That's my favorite part of what I do, is taking the 30-minute calls and just getting to know people, what they're working on, seeing if there's some way that we can help one another... So feel free to book a call. It just puts it on my calendar, I wake up in the morning and I just see what's going on, and I don't have to worry about being really that organized.

So if you want to get a hold of me, book a call on the calendar; again, links to all my socials, where you can interact, send me messages, follow, I've got my phone number on there, my email address... So anyway you want to get in touch is on that contact sheet on my webpage.

Slocomb Reed: Awesome. Those links are in the show notes for this episode, as well. Emma, thank you. Best Ever listeners, thank you as well for tuning in. If you've gained value from this episode, please do subscribe to our show, leave us a five star review and share this with a friend that you know that we can add value to through our conversation today. Thank you, and have a best ever day.

Emma Powell: Thank you, Slocomb.

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