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Vetting a Real Estate Operator: Questions & Red Flags You Need to Know

When selling or buying a home, you often interview multiple real estate agents before you decide on the right one. A real estate agent which focuses on rural areas may not be the best fit for someone who is looking for a large neighborhood with a pool.

You need to do your due diligence as a buyer or seller to vet the real estate agent. Some ways to make sure the real estate agent is the right fit for you is by looking at their website, selling data, and other key information.

When you decide to start the investment process and pursue a real estate syndication, you will want to research locations, the age of the investment property, the type of commercial property and trends related to that industry, and many other details.

Beyond property and market details, you'll need to review the real estate operator carefully. A real estate operator is a person or company who rents, leases, and manages residential and commercial properties. They are involved in the development of properties, connected to brokers and sellers agents, and heavily involved in the appraisal and property management processes throughout your investment hold period.

How To Vet a Real Estate Operator

Investors are always very excited to hear about the returns. When looking at different investment opportunities, you want to know what the cash flow will be like and how much money you will make.

But before you get too excited, you must realize that the deal operator is in charge of executing the business plan. It's the proper execution of the plan, properly timed decisions, and the operator's choice in other property management partners that create those returns.

So, before choosing a particular investment, you need to make sure your views and goals align with the operator and that you like the property market they are in. Then you can start talking about returns.

Due Diligence Process: Choosing the Operator

There are six questions investors should ask an operator when looking at different real estate syndications they are interested in. These questions will help you ensure you get all the information you need to have a successful transaction and a great real estate partnership.

Questions To Ask The Operator

  1. What is your investment philosophy? You want your investment philosophy and your operator's philosophy to be aligned. Aligned philosophies mean you have the same expectations regarding a real estate deal, investments, properties, financial matters, etc. All parties involved should have the same goals, and you want the operator's philosophy to align with what you need in your portfolio.

  2. What does the company invest in? This is when you ask about property information. If you are looking to invest in multifamily, but that operator does self-storage, you will not be a good fit. You also want to look at what the operator actually invests in. Do they invest in direct assets (single asset entity) or funds with multiple properties within it?

  3. IS the OPERATOR competent? Do they know what they are doing? Do they have a track record of successful real estate syndications? Have they done deals before, and if so, have they been through the full cycle and exit? Have they ever exited a deal early, and if so, how were investors treated throughout the process? You want to be with operators who have experience and have learned from multiple deals—looking at the return profile as well.

  4. Does the company work with sophisticated and/or accredited investors? If you are in the middle of the due diligence process and are looking at the company website, see if they work with 506c deals. 506c deals mean they only work with accredited investors. Once you have found a deal, you've vetted the operator by conversing with them, looking at their markets, and getting a good idea of how the deal will work. You want to move on to number five.

  5. Get references or talk to other investors who have invested in previous deals with the operator. When you decide to invest, you are taking a risk; therefore, you do not want to take a risk with an operator who has thousands of poor reviews. You can easily make sure your operator is in good standing, and it's in your best interest to look at multiple sources.

  6. Listen. How does the company respond to you? Is the company happy to hear from you, and how do they respond to questions? When doing your due diligence, you must listen to your gut and feelings. How do you feel when you speak with them via phone or email? What type of vibe do you get from their social media? You will have a business relationship with them for a minimum of 5-7 years, and this relationship is an important part of real estate syndications.

Due Diligence Process: Operator Red Flags

When you are vetting a real estate operator, you should be aware of any possible red flags. These red flags may not completely rule out an operator. But if you notice a red flag during your due diligence investigation, you will need to dig a little further into your research. If a real estate investment opportunity seems too good to be true, it probably is!

  1. No Business Background. There are a lot of new syndicators out there, which is excellent. But, they don't come from a business background if they have worked with syndications or real estate. Ask or figure out who does have this background on their team? It doesn't have to be the person starting the company.

  2. Part-Time Operator. You are transferring your time and energy. You want your investment to be taken care of by someone doing this full-time, and you want them to put excess care, time, and energy into the investment. In exchange for your faith and financial capital, you want a full-time, dedicated operator who will make the proper management of this asset and the people involved a priority.

  3. One Managing Partner. If there is only one managing partner within the company handling the deal, what happens if something happens to this one partner. What happens to the deal? How does the deal continue? Who takes on the financials and the exit plan? Looking for an operator with multiple managing partners is a good idea. Teams always bring great things to the table.

  4. No Succession Plan. You want to understand who the partners are within the company. A business with multiple partners allows for a good succession plan. They need to have a plan in place to make sure their team is ready to continue with the deals and investments they have in place.

  5. No Preferred Return. Preferred return is when the operator is so confident the property will make an excellent return that they are willing to give away the first X percent of the deal to the limited partners. If there are no preferred returns, this doesn't mean it is not a good deal, but do your due diligence and dig a little deeper into the real estate syndication waterfall model and see what is going on and why a preferred return is not being offered.

  6. Include Refinances In Projections. Is it a part of the company's practices to put refinances into their underwriting projections? This practice is more of a deal breaker than an operator breaker. But you will get a sense of the operational level if this is their common practice.

  7. Distributions are Return of Capital. You'll want to determine if the distributions are returning capital or return on capital. Either one can be okay when it comes to a real estate syndication. You need to research and understand exactly how returns are calculated and whether you’re to expect your initial investment money back or not. You're investing your own capital and need to know how returns will be handled.

  8. Skin in the Game. Do the operators have skin in the game? Is it their general practice to invest alongside the limited partners? There are some reasons a general partner would also want to invest in the property. The major one is to represent and prove their belief in the properties, and secondly, so they can reap the tax benefits too! This may be a red flag if they do not have plans to invest alongside you.

  9. Encountered No Challenges. If you're talking to an operator and every deal they have ever conducted has been a success, that means they have no experience navigating a bump in the road. This type of practice seems pretty unrealistic and may mean they've only been in business a short time or during a hot market.

  10. Dodges Questions. Poor communication is a huge issue. If you are asking multiple questions or the same question in different ways and the operator continues to dodge the question and not answer it or does not seem interested in answering any of your questions; this is a huge red flag. You want to make sure your operator knows the answers or can quickly gain access to the answers.

Try not to have unrealistic expectations about what you may find. Remember, operators are not perfect. Remember to refer to what we often call the "gut test." It's always in your best interest to follow your gut feeling. If your gut is telling you this operator does not align with your best investment or personal interests, it's time to walk away.

The Perfect Operator For Your Investments

In any endeavor, you want to make sure you have the best team built around you. Real estate syndications involve risks, and it is always in your best interest to make sure each person on your team is the best fit.

Whether it's an experienced sponsor, an operator, or other members, you want to do your due diligence to vet anyone who will be a part of the real estate transaction. Use the valuable advice throughout this article to help you perform thorough due diligence and avoid the major headaches one might experience if they wound up working with the wrong operator.

Looking to level up your investments in yourself or real estate? Schedule a strategy session today!

This work by Annie Dickerson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


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