JF1946: From Auto Mechanic To Commercial Real Estate Investor To Real Estate Mentor with Peter Conti
Peter got his start in real estate in the 1990’s while he was a full time auto mechanic. We’ll learn how he went from that profession to doing commercial deals, and what he has to teach others that want to do the same. If you enjoyed today’s episode remember to subscribe in iTunes and leave us a review!
Best Ever Tweet:
“You have the ability at any time to walk away from the payments” – Peter Conti
Peter Conti Real Estate Background:
- Founder of Real Estate 101
- Began investing in real estate in 1990 as an auto mechanic. Has taken his lessons learned and helped mentor thousands of real estate investors build their own portfolios
- Based in Annapolis, MD
- Say hi to him at https://realestate101.com/
- Best Ever Book: Unlimited Power
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Joe Fairless: Best Ever listeners, how are you doing? Welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I’m Joe Fairless, and this is the world’s longest-running daily real estate investing podcast, where we only talk about the best advice ever, we don’t get into any of that fluffy stuff.
With us today – Peter Conti. How are you doing, Peter?
Peter Conti: I’m doing great, and to all of the Best Ever listeners out there, thanks for joining us today.
Joe Fairless: Yeah, and a little bit about Peter – he is the founder of Real Estate 101. Began investing in 1990, and is based in Annapolis, Maryland. With that being said, Peter, do you wanna give the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and your current focus?
Peter Conti: Yeah, thanks to all of you for tuning in. My focus is really on commercial real estate. I got started investing in 1990, and at the time I was working as an auto mechanic. While I enjoyed fixing cars, it was a lot of fun, it wasn’t gonna really take me financially in the direction I wanted to go… So I got started investing in real estate. I’ve done everything from single-family homes, to commercial properties, apartments, shopping centers, land development – all kinds of stuff, actually all across the country. I had a lot of fun with it over the years.
Joe Fairless: Shopping centers – do you still invest in them?
Peter Conti: Currently no. With the changes in the commercial real estate market we’re a little more cautious, unless there is a definitely play on doing like a WeWork type facility, [unintelligible [00:02:34].18] or something like that. But the interesting thing is that real estate is always changing. That’s one of the things that I love it, and that’s why I’m still involved with it today – it’s always challenging and interesting, even though I’m working on a much smaller basis. All I do these days is just basically help out, consulting with a handful of clients. But I just love doing deals, and I love looking at stuff, and finding what we call “the deal within the deal.”
Joe Fairless: What’s an example of a deal within a deal?
Peter Conti: Well, a lot of people go out and they may learn, for example, how to use the cap rate formula, and how to convert the net operating income of an apartment building into a value… And the trouble is if that’s all you’re going on, and you’re just looking at the information, if you’re looking at retail deals, all this stuff just from commercial real estate brokers and that type of thing, most of the deals aren’t gonna look really stunning. Retail will sell the property for top dollar if someone comes along, type of thing.
I’ve seen people who’ve made the mistake of spending their first year or two basically analyzing deals and never finding one, to get to a point where they start talking to the broker, and more importantly, directly to the seller, which is really — your question is “Hey, it’s a great property, but tell me more about your situation, what’s going on with you. Why would you ever consider selling a property like this? It looks like the thing is cash-flowing. Why would you ever consider selling it?” And then just shutting up and being quiet, listen for what they tell you, maybe by the tone of their voice, what they’re not telling you… I generally encourage people to go back and ask that same question a number of times, on a commercial property as well as single-family houses, to really find out what’s going on. That’s where you find out what their problems are. And if you can solve those problems as a real estate investor in a way that works for you to also make a profit, then you’re moving ahead on putting a deal together.
Joe Fairless: When you’ve asked that question, “Why would you consider selling it?”, what’s an answer that you’ve received?
Peter Conti: Gosh, over the years I’ve heard everything from “Oh, we just thought we’d put it on the market and see if someone would pay full price” kind of answers, to “My son died out back behind the house here, in the drainage ditch, and we just need to get rid of this property immediately” type of stuff. You hate to see that type of thing, but as real estate investors we solve people’s problems, and there’s a broad range of problems out there… Everything from people who are going bankrupt, to medical issues, or people towards the end of their life… All types of situations like that.
My experience over the years has been if you can go in with a passion and an eagerness to get to know someone, find out really what’s going in a good way, put together a deal that’s a win for them and a win for you too, then you’re gonna be successful.
Joe Fairless: What’s the last deal you closed on?
Peter Conti: Let’s see… A deal just about a month ago. This was a deal I did along with one of my clients. He’s located in Northern California. It’s a 10,000 sqft. office, retail, and had a section that was a restaurant at one point in time. The property was worth 1.2 million, we were willing to pay $950,000. We were able to get the bank that was selling it all the way down to $840,000.
Then we found a local investor there who had money available that they wanted to invest, and even though we could have closed it on our own, we got the investor to put up all the money to buy it, and all the money to fix it up, and no payments for the first year. Pretty exciting deal there.
Joe Fairless: And how did you structure it on the GP side?
Peter Conti: Generally, this was a deal basically just put together from the two of us, so it was a lot simpler than some of these big, fancy syndication deals, with all sorts of partners and things. So it was really quite straightforward.
Joe Fairless: Got it. So it was just 50/50?
Peter Conti: Yup.
Joe Fairless: And in that type of deal, 10,000 sqft. office, retail, it used to have a restaurant – what’s the business plan?
Peter Conti: The plan is to get it leased up over the next 1-2 years. We were able to arrange the financing where it was no payments for the first year. It has a one-year term, but it can be extended for a second-year term if we need it. Basically, get the property leased up where it’s stable and operating. At that point in time, bring some long-term financing in place and decide “Is it something we wanna sell? Or do we wanna keep it long-term?” My guess is we’ll keep it 5-10 years at least.
Joe Fairless: And how did you all come across this? I think you said the bank was selling it?
Peter Conti: Yeah, this one came through relationships. I know that – listening to some of your other podcasts – it’s something that comes up time and time again… Building relationships is a tough one, because all of us wanna go out — we wanna make a relationship, but we wanna also get a deal, if not next week, we want it yesterday, right? And relationships take time. It’s a matter of letting people know who you are, letting them know that you’re investing in real estate, giving them an idea of what you are looking for and what you’re not looking for, and then providing them feedback over time when they send you stuff, to say “Hey, thanks for sending me that deal. It’s not quite what I’m looking for. The thing’s 100% leased up and it’s been fully renovated; I’m looking for something that has an upside to it… But thanks for thinking about me. Here’s what I’m looking for…” and then defining clearly your focus in the market, whatever it is.
Generally, the commercial properties – we’re looking for something like this one; it wasn’t 100% vacant. Actually, the previous owner was still in there, was paying rent to the bank after the bank had foreclosed on it… So part of the game plan is getting him to move out in a good way.
Joe Fairless: And how do you do that?
Peter Conti: Well, generally what I’ve found over the years is if you can do what I call a friendly eviction, as opposed to fighting somebody… And it boils down to basically bribing — maybe it isn’t a politically correct word, but… Finding a way to make it where they decide that they’re gonna move out of the property and cooperate with you. Generally, it involves paying them some money, or working with them.
In this case, he’s got a bunch of furniture and stuff in there, and he wants some time to be able to do kind of a going-out-of-business sale type of thing and get most of his inventory sold before he moves out of there.
Joe Fairless: Let’s talk about the last full transaction deal you’ve done. Tell us about it, please. Or full cycle deal, I should say.
Peter Conti: Gosh, I’ve been involved in so many…
Joe Fairless: The last one that closed.
Peter Conti: Yeah, there’s one down in El Paso, Texas. It’s a shopping center deal. That one was interesting because a lot of shopping stuff we’ve been staying away from for reasons I mentioned earlier… But this particular one was available at a good price. It was a combination of some national tenants, but other more mom-and-pop type businesses. It was just located in a growing area down there where we liked the market, we liked what things were doing.
That was a deal that we put together with myself and other investors coming in. We’ve got a total of eight people in the deal altogether. I like deals like that, where I can own a little piece of something across the country, and I’ve been there, I’ve seen it… But I generally will just look at a photo now and then to see what it’s looking like, or get an update from our partner who’s in the area, managing that deal.
Joe Fairless: Tell us about the deal that you’ve lost the most amount of money on.
Peter Conti: The deal that I’ve lost the most amount of money on… There was an apartment building deal out in Oklahoma City that we put together, where the plan was to buy the property and then bring in a HUD financing for it. HUD had a program at that point in time where they would provide all the money for you to completely renovate the units inside and out. We were gonna do new roofs, new appliances… Basically everything to reposition and turn the apartment complex around. It was 276 units, nice property in a nice area.
The problem was this was my one deal that — well, let’s see… Another one I lost 10k on, but this was the one deal I lost when the market turned back in 2008-2009. And unfortunately, we were in a position where we had all the boxes checked off, we met all the requirements for HUD, we submitted our applications, got everything in place, and then they were kind of dragging their feet because the market is changing, and then they changed their underwriting requirements, ended up rejecting our proposal for refinancing on it, put us back to the drawing board, spent another 4, 5, 6 months, going back to him again, and we went through a number of times going back to HUD, as HUD tightened up its requirements.
That’s one of the few projects that I’ve had go south in my life… So it does happen. But I tend to be pretty conservative investing. A lot of the deals I’ve been involved in over the years are things with creative financing, going in and buying an apartment building for example using a master lease. The type of deals I like are deals like that, where you basically structure it where if for some reason the deal doesn’t work out, you’ve gotten into the deal with very little of your own capital, ideally without using investors’ capital, because you don’t wanna lose investors’ capital either… But having it set up where worst-case if you had to take that property and turn it back over to the previous owner, you can do that.
One of the nice things about that – I always tell someone that I’m working with, “Look, you’ve done really well to get to the point where you are today… The last thing you wanna do is go out and get into some real estate deal that’s gonna risk the assets and the credibility that you build up at this point in your life.” So we like to structure our deals where you’re got the upside, but the downside is extremely limited. In most cases, we’re gonna try and limit the downside to where your downside is if you have to walk away from this deal, or it doesn’t work out, you’re gonna lose your time but you’re not gonna lose money.
Joe Fairless: That makes sense… And yeah, I’d love to talk a little bit about the master lease stuff. On the 276-unit, just to close that out, how much did you end up losing?
Peter Conti: That one – I don’t like to say the number, but it was $350,000.
Joe Fairless: Got it. And what happened with the property.
Peter Conti: It ended up getting taken back over from a bank that we had brought in as part of the original purchase. They were carrying a note on it for the time period where we were getting it turned around and getting the HUD financing in place.
Joe Fairless: And I know that happened to a lot of people… So when you apply for future loans and they ask about that, is that generally accepted from a lender’s standpoint that “Hey, that was a crazy time, with a recession, so we understand that that took place”, so you’re still able to move forward with future loans approvals?
Peter Conti: Well, there’s two parts to that. One is I didn’t sign personally on that, so it didn’t affect my personal credit rating. I’ve found, Joe, over the years, that there’s so many ways to buy properties, buying it leaving the existing financing in place, getting owners to carry financing, doing something like a master lease, bringing in an investor who maybe wants to take some of that upfront risk for the first year or two, like we did with that property in Northern California…
The [unintelligible [00:13:33].27] there’s not a ton of times that I’ve gone out to a bank and said “Hey, pretty please, I’m down on my knees… I’ll fill out whatever applications you want. Here’s a blood sample and part of my first-born son”, just because — I don’t know… I’ve always had a hard time going in and talking to someone who’s making a tenth of what you can make as a real estate investor, who holds the reins on a bank loan. Not that we don’t do deals with local banks, but there’s so many ways to go out, if you’re willing to learn how to qualify someone and connect with someone, and really find out what’s going on. A lot of times the discussion that we end up having with them goes something along the lines of “Hey, this apartment building here – you’ve done a great job with it.”
We generally are looking for properties that people have owned for a period of time. My rule of thumb is I want someone to have owned it for at least 15 years. It’s one of the rules that we use.
Joe Fairless: Okay.
Peter Conti: You’re looking for someone who’s what I call a lazy landlord. They’ve had the property — yeah, they probably really worked and got the rents up to market and spruced it up 15-20 years ago when they first bought it, but now they’re in a position where they probably are set. If they’ve been successful in real estate, they probably have all the money that they’re gonna need for the rest of their life. Any other money that they make is just gonna end up going to their heirs; maybe their kids aren’t interested in real estate or don’t appreciate what they have given to them… And they’ve chosen to just take the easy route, which is to not raise the rents, not keep it up to market, not stay on top of all the maintenance and repairs.
It allows us investors to go in and sit down and talk to them and say “Gosh, you’ve done such a great job.” What we’re doing is positioning that person as someone who’s done really well… And kind of speaking to their sense of ego, but also saying – for those of you who are listening, maybe if you’re younger and you think that is a disadvantage, it’s not. It’s a huge advantage. Because what you say is “Gosh, I’d like to be as successful as you someday. If you were in my shoes, what would you suggest doing? What if we were to do something like this? The property – yeah, it’s probably worth 1.5 million once everything’s all completely up to market, and with everything fixed up, but as you know, the rents are low, there’s deferred maintenance and repairs and things… The property is gonna need some capital put in it to really get you top dollar for it. What ways could we structure something where it would give me enough time to go in, really do the work on the property to get it up to snuff, where – you know, and we both know it’s not all the way up to where it could be. Is there a way I could make you payments over a period of time, or if I got you X amount of dollars per month for the first year or two, and then we had a closing at that point in time and cashed out there – is that something we should be talking about, or you probably hate the idea?”
We always like to go with negative phrasing. So if they say “No”, they’re really saying yes. So we’ll end up with “You probably hate that idea, huh?” and they say “No, I wanna find out more. What would that look like?” And then at that point we’re shifting into, rather than telling them how great it is to work with us and how long we’ve been around, like a lot of people make the mistake of doing, we generally go right back and say “Well, gosh, I’m curious, what is it about that – if there was a way that we could get you a steady 12k a month over time from the property, what is it about that that even makes this something worth spending the time talking about?” It gets them to jump in to say “Here’s the reasons why I wanna do the deal.” And getting that part of it really down in the seller’s mind, and of course in our mind as well, knowing what they need to achieve and how they wanna do it is very helpful for putting a deal together… Rather than “Here’s what we can do, and here’s a photo of the before and after, and here’s all our properties”, and going in what I call sales mode.
Joe Fairless: Very smart. Instead of you doing the talking, you’re prompting, and then they’re doing the talking, and then you’re collaborating on the deal structure, and they’re taking the lead based on what they’re looking for.
Peter Conti: Yeah. Ideally, if you do it correctly, you are controlling the situation, but you’re doing it in a manner where you put your thumb exactly on it, Joe. They feel like they’re coming up with this idea of how to structure the deal and put it together… And I’ve found some of the best deals come as a result of that – you and the seller sitting down together, putting your heads together to say “What could we come up with? Tell me why this would work for you. Gosh, I’m not sure we could do that… If we could, is it something you’d really wanna do?” And kind of having that reluctant buyer standpoint, so that it’s almost like they’re talking you into doing the deal, rather than you trying to twist their arm into doing the deal.
The one real big benefit, besides a much funner way to put together deals, is it helps deals (I’ve found) stay together. We have a saying, “Friction holds deals together.” I had a car years ago – it was a ’65 Oldsmobile. I put an ad in the newspaper – that was before Craigslist – I said $500. Some guy called, he came over that morning, gave me $500 and drove off. And there I was thinking “Gosh, maybe I could have gotten $600 or $700.” Same thing is true with a real estate deal; if you help somebody really struggle to go through the process of putting the deal together with you, then it’s much more likely that they’re gonna feel like they did their job to get a good value for the property, and structure it in a way that’s good for them, and it’s much less likely that they’re gonna come back 2-3 days later saying “I decided I didn’t wanna sign the deal because of X, Y and Z.”
Joe Fairless: Very helpful. Thank you for that. And since you talked about master lease in particular, I’d love for you to just describe what that is, and maybe some nuances of it. I’ve done a master lease; that’s the only deal I’ve lost money on. However, it wasn’t because of the master lease, it was because I messed up. So the structure of it I think is a great structure. So what is it, and what are some tips for doing a master lease?
Peter Conti: Yeah, sure. For all of our Best Ever listeners out there – this is something you definitely want to know about. It’s not something that you’re probably gonna be able to learn how to do, and then just contact a commercial real estate broker and put a deal together next week. It’s definitely a deal that you’re gonna put together in the right situation, with somebody who’s got the motivation and also a willingness to go along with a deal like this… But big picture is I think for most of us that are here today, you and I are listening, as part of the collective group we have here – you probably are familiar with lease options on houses, where you lease or rent the house for a period of time, and then you have a price that you can buy it for in two years, five years, eight years, whenever down the line. It’s basically doing the same thing, for example, with an apartment building, where you agree with the owner of the apartment building that you’re gonna pay them a set amount each month as your payment, as part of buying the apartment building. You’re basically leasing the entire apartment building.
And the agreement with the seller allows you to – in exchange for making that payment to the seller of the property, you’re gonna do all the work that’s involved. Of course, your property manager is gonna collect all the rents, deal with vendors, pay all the expenses, everything including the property taxes on the property, and then one set, solid amount, each in every month – the same amount, by the way – is gonna go to the seller. In fact, when we’re talking to sellers about putting together a master lease, that’s one of the things that we point out – that they’re gonna get that amount each and every month. There’s not gonna be a month when they have to put in a couple thousand dollars because of a problem with a boiler, or whatever; other months where they make more, other months where they’re making less… They get that set amount and they can count on that each and every month as part of you coming in and basically taking full charge of the property.
It’s almost like you get all of the rights of owning the property, but rather than having to come up with 20%-30% down payment, like you would if you were using conventional financing, oftentimes with a master lease you’re able to put a deal together where the amount of money going into the deal is very little. A lot of times – in fact, most cases – on the ones we’ve done the seller doesn’t get any money upfront, other than their monthly payments… Although there’s certainly properties where you have to have some capital to maybe put a new roof on it, or deal with some of the situations of the property where it hasn’t been run well… But that’s quite a bit different from needing 20%-30% down on a big property.
Then you also agree on a purchase price that you’re willing to pay for the property, and the seller is willing to accept. And then the third thing you agree on is how long of a time period you’re gonna have to actually close and take title on the property.
Now, when we’re putting deals together with a master lease, we’ll call it a lease purchase. We won’t call it a lease option. The difference, legally, between those two is you have the option to buy, but you don’t have to buy. With a lease purchase, you have agreed that you’re definitely gonna buy it. But what I’ve found, Joe, is that when you structure these deals — one of the things that we do is we put together an actual purchase contract along with the lease agreement… And in that purchase contract there is default language that if the buyer defaults, this is what happens, and if the seller defaults, this is what happens. And one of the things that we’ve found is very valuable in any real estate transaction is to always be the person to volunteer to “I’ll go ahead and pay for document preparation.” If you’re the one that puts the documents together, then you control the language in the documents.
So in a master lease situation, the purchase contract that goes along with it – it’s always gonna have a clause that says “In the event that the buyer defaults or doesn’t do something in this contract, basically close and buy the property three years from now, in that case, if they buyer defaults, the seller shall keep from the buyer all amounts paid to the seller as full, incomplete, liquidated damages.”
Now, I’m not an attorney, please check with your own attorney before you’re using this advice that I’m giving you here today, but we’ve found that that’s a very good way to be able to go into a property. You’ve structured it, you’ve put it together where for all intents and purposes it’s a lease purchase, or a master lease on a commercial property, yet you still have the ability, if you want to at any point in time, to basically stop making the payments; the previous owner has the right to take the property back over. It’s an easy way for you to walk away from a deal without any risk, like there would be if you — obviously, if you had a bank loan on a property, you can’t just walk away from it.
Joe Fairless: And one other thing to mention – I actually delayed my closing, because we didn’t have the lender’s approval of us entering into this arrangement, and I wanted to make sure that the lender was on board… Otherwise, that could spell trouble later, when you go to exercise the option, or during the process of the master lease… If the lender is not aware of the arrangement you’re making with the seller.
Peter Conti: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve found if you’re ever putting a deal together where someone’s telling you that they wanna do a silent second, or something, or “We don’t wanna tell the lender about this”, that’s the last thing you wanna do [unintelligible [00:24:38].28] Definitely full disclosure to all parties involved.
Joe Fairless: Yeah. Based on your experience, what’s your best real estate investing advice ever?
Peter Conti: The best real estate investing advice I have ever is basically — I started out as an auto mechanic, and my belief is that if someone else has gone out and done something, then chances are pretty good that you can do it, too. So if I can make it starting out as an auto mechanic, you most certainly can, too.
Joe Fairless: We’re gonna do a lightning round. Are you ready for the Best Ever Lightning Round?
Peter Conti: Sure.
Joe Fairless: Okay. First, a quick word from our Best Ever partners.
Joe Fairless: What’s the best ever song that you like to play on the piano?
Peter Conti: Best ever song that I like to play on the piano is “As the deer panteth.” It’s a song that we played 25 years ago when my wife and I got married, and it was a fun one to pick up and learn. I just did that over the last year or so.
Joe Fairless: Best ever book you’ve recently read?
Peter Conti: The best ever book is one that I read a number of years ago, but I’ve picked it up a couple of weeks ago because I wanted one of my kids to go through it… It would be Unlimited Power, by Anthony Robbins. Some of the stuff he goes through in there is a little bit cheesy, but you know what – it works.
Joe Fairless: What’s the best ever deal you’ve done?
Peter Conti: Best ever deal that I’ve done – that would be a master lease deal on an apartment building where I went in without any money whatsoever; it was a nothing down deal. I ended up owning the property for just over 15 years, controlled it with a master lease for the first six years, then brought in new financing at that point in time. Because of the equity that we’d built up through the master lease, raising the rents and things, we weren’t required to bring any money at the table at the refi… And the property was really [unintelligible [00:26:52].07] some good cashflow. I put it on a ten-year loan amortization schedule, and had the property just about all the way paid off when I ended up selling it for right at about 1.2 million dollars.
So I hate to share that with people, but hey, you asked for best ever… There are deals out there where — they don’t happen every day, but that was a deal where I got it in with none of my own money, used the cashflow from the property to fix it up over time, and by the time I sold the property I ended up making on that one property over one million dollars. If that’s not enough to get you excited about real estate, then you probably need to look into doing something else.
Joe Fairless: Did you 1031 it or did you just cash out, paid long-term capital gains tax?
Peter Conti: That one I had some other things that were involved. I had a business that I had bought, and we ended up making some changes on that and closing that business down, so I actually had some lost carry forward stuff business-wise, and I was able to balance out against that… So tax-wise we came out okay on that deal.
Joe Fairless: Best ever way you like to give back to the community?
Peter Conti: For me, what I do is there’s a condition a lot of people aren’t aware of… It’s called chronic regional pain syndrome, and it’s something that I experienced a number of years back. I should have stayed off motorcycles, but I convinced my wife that it would be okay if I got a dirt bike for myself and my son. I ended up falling, shattering my hip, and unfortunately they crushed the nerve in my leg while they were working on me… And I got this condition where basically it’s sort of like phantom pain. Your brain goes into a loop and gets stuck on if something’s hurting, so even after it heals up, it still continues to hurt.
My solution for that was I decided that I was gonna hike the Appalachian trail. I said if I can go all the way from Georgia to Maine and hike 2,000 miles, my leg would have to be better. Quite a long story behind that, but I did hike all the way from Georgia to Maine; it was the perfect thing that I needed for my leg at that point in time.
Now I’m involved with a number of organizations that are both helping people that have similar conditions like that, and also starting to spread the word to let people know that if something doesn’t heal up after six to eight weeks, particularly if the amount of pain that’s involved is much more intense than it should be, then they need to find someone that specializes in this condition, that can take a look at them and get them some of the help that they need. It’s just heartbreaking to meet some of these people that have spent a good portion of their life in ongoing chronic pain.
Joe Fairless: Best way the Best Ever listeners can get learn more about what you’re doing?
Peter Conti: Probably the best way would be if they want to grab a sample copy of my Commercial Real Estate Investing for Dummies book. If they just go to petersfreebook.com – I’ve set that up for the Best Ever listeners there, where they can just go in, enter their information, and we’ll zip one right out to you.
Joe Fairless: Well, Peter, thank you for being on the show, talking about the deals that have not gone well, and the deals that have gone well, and talking about how to approach the conversation with an owner when you’re ideally wanting to do creative financing. I enjoyed that a lot. So thanks for being on the show. I hope you have a best ever day, and we’ll talk to you again soon.
Peter Conti: Thanks so much, Joe.