The proper action when things are going well is to pay off debt and consolidate your position. Then you will be financially strong and can go for further expansion without fear of loosing what gains you already have. When you are not deep in debt you do not have to worry about your creditors getting paid. Since the usual history of a business is cyclic (boom and then every 7 years (plus or minus) bust) you can predict when it is time to consolidate.
When the prices are “too good to be true, they are.” In the two years just before the top of the market is reached, prices are going up at very incredible rate. I have seen real estate go up 25%, per year, right at the top. This is incredible and I guarantee you it cannot sustain itself, at that rate. As hard as it is to give up a profit, it is harder still to sell an investment when it is going straight up. But, understand this is when you need to sell. If that is not what you want to do then you need to go to plan B: pay off your debt and get ready for the market drop.
If you are debt free you can survive the drop and then be solvent and financially secure when the recovery comes. I would like to tell you a story of the largest apartment owner in Hollywood.
It was 1980 when I met Nick. He owned 11 buildings at that time. He bought the worse buildings in town. These had the best cash flow. He owned mostly brick buildings. This was because they cost less money than stucco and wood buildings. This lower price allowed Nick to generate higher profits. Nick would buy a building. He then did a market study, and figured out what size apartments and what numbers of bedrooms were generating the highest rent, per square foot. Then he remodeled his building to get the highest price per square foot he could. He spent over $100,000 per building to do this. He also had to earthquake proof all of his buildings.
One of the reasons that brick buildings sold so cheaply was that they needed to be earthquake reinforced. When Nick finished remodeling a building, it was producing a very nice cash flow. Nick would use that cash flow to buy and remodel the next building. This was very smart thinking. Where did Nick fall off the rails? First he would find a great deal, while he was still in the middle of a remodeling job. He just couldn’t pass it by. He borrowed on one of his finished buildings to get the down payment to buy the building.
Then he would borrow on a second building to get the money to remodel the new building. Now he was remodeling two buildings at the same time. By borrowing on two of his successful buildings, he now had to pay the loan payments on the two new loans. The rents from the older buildings now went to the lenders instead of to Nick’s remodeling project. The new building, just bought, didn’t produce enough income to cover the new loan on it because half the building was empty due to the remodeling. Nick now needed to keep borrowing money to fix the buildings and pay the loan payments on the buildings that didn’t generate enough income. When a building was completed it then supported itself very nicely.
Was Nick happy with that? No, he wanted more and more buildings. If at any time Nick had stopped borrowing to buy new buildings, and just finished all his buildings in remodeling, he would have been able to catch up with himself and started expansion from a new level of security. That was, using the buildings profits after paying all of his loan payments to buy and remodel more buildings. Nick just couldn’t wait and consolidate his position. He had every building he owned loaned up to the maximum value that he was able to. The rents were more than enough to cover the payments on each individual building. So what happened?
Two things. The first was his greed. We entered the 1991 recession, and the price of buildings went down. The banks were starting to foreclose on buildings and put them back on the market for very cheap prices. Nick just couldn’t let a deal pass him by. He bought 3 of them. He borrowed the last dime he could squeeze out of every building he owned to buy these buildings, thinking that he could do no wrong. One bank made him the deal of a century. They wanted a lot of money down but the price “was just too good to be true.”
Nick was so much in a hurry to get his hands on this great deal he didn’t bother to do his normal structural inspections and research. After all, Nick owned 17 buildings in Hollywood by now and knew the market better than anyone else, he thought. He looked at the building and saw it was only 20 years old. The building was empty, which meant it brought in no income. That didn’t bother Nick, he would just get it rented quickly and the building would support itself. What Nick hadn’t noticed was that the foundation was damaged and a $100,000 repair was needed. This was a repair that Nick couldn’t afford. I begged Nick to walk away from this building and let the bank have it back. He refused and squeezed more money out of his collection of buildings.
As you can imagine, Nick was loaned to the hilt and had no money set-aside for an emergency. At his peak he owned 17 buildings worth $45,000,000 with him estimating his net worth at $7,500,000. He was definitely worth a lot of money. That was for sure. Before we get jealous of him, lets look at these numbers a different way. If Nick was worth $7,500,000 then his real estate loans had to be the difference. That is $37,500,000. These were sure big numbers.
Let’s look at these numbers in terms of their percentages. This $37,500,000 was 83.3% of $45,000,000. $45,000,000 had to be the retail value of all these buildings. Nick would not think in terms of selling them. He never sold a building. He only bought, and bought, and bought. What Nick saw was the potential. If property values went up only 10%, Nick’s net worth would go up $4.5 M. Property values had gone up over 20% in the 1980’s but the recession that had started was of no concern to him. It is clear that he had stretched himself to the limit. The last building the bank sold him put him in trouble. He might have even survived it if he sold one, two or maybe three buildings. No, Nick wouldn’t do that.
One year later the recession was not over. Unemployment in California went up and up. Businesses were closing, President Reagan was closing down Aerospace, and workman compensation insurance was so high no one could stay in business. Vacancies in apartments were going from 1% to 5% to 10%. Then it happened, we had the LA riots. Hollywood became a ghost town and then it happened again, the earthquake of 1994. Brick buildings fell down on Hollywood Blvd, none of Nick’s buildings. People moved away and vacancies rose in Hollywood too as much as 17%.
Do I need to tell you what happened to Nick? He lost everything when vacancies went to 5%. He had no reserves or cushion for a margin of error. For 18 years Nick lived like a pauper, in one of his small apartments. He did his own property management for all of his buildings. He drove an old car, worked seven days a week, took no vacations, always had to worry about paying his next loan payment and where to borrow his next dime. His plan was to make $10 Million Dollars and sell everything. What he got was nothing for 18 years of his life. I have no idea where Nick is now. He disappeared off the face of the earth. So, “A BIRD IN THE HAND IS WORTH, A MILLION THAT ARE PROBABLY NOT IN THE BUSH!
About the author
Willard Michlin is an Investor, Business Broker, California Real Estate Broker, Accountant, Financial Distress Consultant, Well known Public speaker and Administrative/Business Consultant. He can be contacted at his Ventura, California office by calling 805-529-9854 or by e-mail at email@example.com. See other article by Willard at http://www.kismetgroup.com