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Ian Ippolito came from the world of tech entrepreneurship. He had run a couple of companies and started some companies, some more successful than others. He had a few failures but over the years he had built up a bunch of different companies. In 2013 Ian sold a company called VWorker. It was an online marketplace that was sold to a company called Freelancer. He enjoyed a nice exit and found it was time to move from being a tech entrepreneur to his new job, managing the finances of his family. He had to really get up to speed and had always been investing while an entrepreneur, but his job was his primary thing and he had invested passively in a whole bunch of things but had never really gotten down deep.
So at that time he really needed to get serious so he took a look at his entire portfolio and just redid everything because his risk was totally off. He had neglected a bunch of things and so started looking at stocks and bonds and traditional investments which were OK. But he also wanted to branch out to other things including branching out to peer to peer lending. Ian looked at Lending Club and Funding Circle which do business loans, and that's what led him to real estate crowdfunding. When he discovered it he thought, wow, they're taking the idea of lending to peer to peer lending which is a good one but a lot of times is based on an asset that's not collateralized so you don't have any protection or if the person defaults on the loan they're gone. But now we're putting it into real estate so if you're doing debt it might be collateralized or you know you've got equity and then you've got this tangible piece of property behind it. And he was really intrigued by it.
This was in 2013, when Ian began in CFRE and at that time there weren't that many sites but they exploded really quickly. Everyone was really excited about the idea. It was kind of like a big explosion and then it kind of winnowed back and then another kind of growth spurt. But back then there were some of the names that people are familiar with today. One of his favorite sites was FundRise and Patch of Land was around back then. A lot of the sites changed over time or changed their business models or maybe they changed their underwriting or whatever but those were some of them back then.
Beforehand Ian had owned some rental properties so had knowledge of what being a landlord involved. He had invested in a couple of passive deals with varying success and had gotten into a one deal right just before the Great Recession. He invested passively with a syndication and just the bad timing didn't understand what he was getting into and didn't understand how to evaluate the terms of the deal. Looking back, it was something he never would have gotten into. Thankfully he didn't lose any money but it took about 12 years to break even. It wasn't something he wanted to repeat and he decided when he got into CFRE that he was going to do a lot more research to learn a lot more about what was going on inside and kind of up his game.
He came across a deal, did some research and contacted the sponsor directly. It was investment in residential real estate and that was their business model. The minimum was pretty high – in the hundreds of thousands and came with a beast of a PPM. It was just a huge thing. He took it to and attorney because, well the thing you do is when you get these things is you need to take them to an attorney to evaluate them. And this is really important. He learned how difficult it is for people starting out because he didn’t know who to bring it to so he asked around who's a good attorney that understands real estate. And the guy he chose to take a look at it, after charging him all of the usual fees and everything, told him ‘There are some things in this contract that limit your rights [but he couldn't say if they were typical or out of line]. So if you trust this person, then maybe it's fine to go ahead. If not then maybe you shouldn’t.’
Doing the Work
This wasn't what Ian was looking for. He wanted someone would had evaluated 100’s of these and could tell him that the terms look good or don't and so the experience was a kind of a wakeup call because he had to educate himself. It was hard for to find that type of expertise he needed to get to do it. He found everything to be interesting but it was overwhelming because he there were debt funds, and equity, and they're investing in senior housing, or they're investing in apartments as well. What's the difference? Some are value added, some are opportunistic. It was really difficult at the beginning to piece together the relative risks and so he needed to create a coherent overall portfolio strategy and just going through the platforms and just taking it deal by deal which maybe is the way most people do it and that was the way he was doing it was just not working.
He wanted to understand what he was getting into; yes, the return looks great but how much risk taking and of course the sponsor doesn't tell you. So Ian took some time to figure out which investments he wanted to go through and thought maybe a good shortcut would be start with the platform's first because there were so many at that point and it had exploded and he thought he could find the ones he liked. That way he could weed out a whole bunch to start with and once he found the good platforms, I could start digging into the deals. So that was the way he looked at the different platforms. And there was nothing out there on the internet that would explain it which would have been the easy way. He realized he was going to have to figure this out himself. He had his research assistant help out and together they contacted every single one of the platforms, talking to the people involved. He talked to other investors asking how was their experience on the platforms.
Coming to Conclusions
He looked at their legal setups. If they go bankrupt what's going to happen? So just looking at what are their fees and comparing them to the other ones. So he started looking at all of these different things and it was just really for himself, putting it together over a couple months until he felt pretty confident that he had found those he liked and those he didn’t. Then people started asking him for it and then another pretty soon he found it was too much answering individuals and so he just put it out on a Web site. And that's how it all got started.
Listen to Ian while reading the transcript
In the Beginning
To get going he just started reading and read as much as he could. And he found that after reading 30 or 40 PPMs you start to see patterns that are occurring over and over again. And then you notice something that's a little bit different; No, that's not super great of a term or you know that's pretty questionable or he’d find deals where investors were liable for a lot more than actually the money they were putting in or whatever it is. He went into a whole bunch of these things and just started looking over and over again and seeing which ones he liked and which ones he didn't.
To learn about the art of real estate, Ian went online. He wished there had been some source back then that put it all together into one place but unfortunately there was not anything like that. So he did it the way that he had learned to do his stock market investing and his mutual funds. He read everything out there and digested it, repeating over and over again each investment doing the same thing over and over again until, eventually, he figured it out.
Since the Beginning
There definitely has been lots of change in the industry in just a few short years. There was kind of the initial explosion where everyone was trying to get into it and people were raising a ton of money from venture capital. And there was an explosion of platforms and it was a very exciting time. Then there was kind of a period where if you remember there was a scandal with LendingClub and there was a financial accounting scandal. And maybe they did some things that were improper. And when that happened all of a sudden the entire Fintech space was no longer as desirable to investors. All of a sudden these companies that were raising a ton of money couldn't raise their second round or the third round. So a bunch of companies started they were laying off people massive layoffs or they were shutting down. So there was a kind of a contraction.
What we're seeing right now in the last year and a half is like another expansion that's being done in a different way because of that VC capital is no longer flowing in. Instead people are actually turning to the newer crowdfunding rules that allow crowdfunding platforms themselves to raise funding for themselves versus with the investments. And we're seeing a new round of expansion to the ones that are successful on that. Sites like Fundrise and you've got Groundfloor raising millions for their own corporate development. This is a great way for a company that maybe had trouble with the VC market or VCs aren't the best thing for a company that is not going to explode and because it pushes companies to do that. So this is kind of like a slower growth model. It seems like there's a lot of appetite for it. People are buying up these shares left and right with all these deals filling up very quickly.
Of course, investing in equity in the platform is a speculative investment where it's not a real estate deal where people are going to get income coming in on a regular basis. You're hoping for some sort of exit at the end or maybe the platform was sold to somebody else and maybe did an IPO. And then at that point then the person hopefully is going to see a return on their money.
Facts, figures, and details
Primer on Crowd Fund Real Estate
Deal quality has not been totally positive. The deals earlier on were much better. They were higher yielding and were taking less risk and as the cycle has aged the risk has been ratcheting up the yields have been going down. Each quarter it’s been getting a little bit worse and worse. So a deal that would be considered maybe a good deal in 2018 would probably be a deal that maybe would not be such a great deal earlier on. There's so much money right now that's just chasing not enough deals. And you know definitely it has deteriorated.
For example, you would find on a particular platform you could find conservatively underwritten debt deals so that maybe 65 percent loan to value or less first position a residential flip or something. And that would be yielding double digits. Now to get something conservative like that is very difficult unless it's some sort of more speculative like some sort of huge construction project or something that's not going to be double digits, most likely going to be maybe like 9 percent or something like that or eight and more likely even less. The other way that there was a change just on the debt side. It's just that back then prices were cheaper. So because prices were cheaper it just made all the underwriting that much easier. Now prices have gone up but we've had a really good run now as a result of the great performance of all those old investments. Now a lot of the properties are really expensive. So it gets harder to find the good deals.
Finding the Deals
Ian does a bunch of things to find deals. He subscribes to all the crowdfunding sites and is constantly having new deals come to him. Just at this stage we are in the cycle you know, it's not going to last forever at some point it's going to end and there's going to be a downturn. And for Ian what he wants to be in at this stage of the cycle is a very experienced sponsor who's gone through a downturn and not lost money. And it's difficult to find it on a crowd funding site. Probably 95 percent of investments if not more. So he ends up networking with people, going to investor groups and talking to other investors. A lot of the deals just don't work out, but looking for them is Ian’s job, basically working on the investments so he spends a good portion of his day doing that.
The Real Estate Crowd Funding Review
Ian created this place where he puts the ratings of the different platforms out there so everyone could see them. Once he did that people were like hey what about the non-accredited platforms that were springing up. So he did a ranking of those that up there and then just started talking about things like real estate news as it were coming in and blogging about it; Here's my opinion about this or my views about that. And that kind of grew to a following. There are about 1600 or 1700 people who subscribe regularly. The site is getting maybe 7,000 or 8,000 visitors a month. So it's quite a few people are starting to come follow.
And then what's happened is he wrote something a little bit negative about one of the sites and it was an investment on a site and he felt that they were being very deceptive in their marketing and felt they were giving a guarantee that they couldn't give. There's no such thing as a guarantee really on investing. There's always risk. Anyway he wrote about that and they threatened to sue him. They looked up every single address he’d ever been at. And they sent their threats to it. They went all out and they said you need to take this down and it sounds like well you know this is a political thing as Ian was doing it for free he thought well he was going to have to shut it down or find some other way to get the information out there or do something else. So he created a private investor only forum on the Web site and vets the people that come in to make sure that they are truly investors and not associated with the platform and then that way the people themselves feel free to share information. Whether it's positive or negative. But to share it freely.
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Power of the Crowd
Every single time someone asks a question it's helpful. It may be something Ian’s thought of before but a lot of times it might be something that puts him in deeper or maybe at first he thinks that's an annoying question but then he thinks about it and realizes, no that person has a great point and he digs in deeper. That kind of give and take is really important and investors on their own are kind of in a little chamber and so to have other points of view is really powerful.
Ian thinks that with certainty that there's going to be a downturn coming up eventually and he suspects that we're closer to the next downturn than we are to the last one. He is positioning the real estate crowdfunding review with this in mind and focusing on the investments he’s interested in which are these conservative investments, sponsors who have experience doing multiple cycles who have not lost investor money or maybe they are debt funds that are very conservatively underwritten. Maybe they are real estate funds which is maybe a little bit too boring for some people but for Ian it's perfect for this part of the cycle. So a lot of the focus is on those kind of things a very conservative mindset trying to preserve principle not trying to extend too much and with the idea that hey after the downturn maybe there's going to be some opportunities there. And have some cash and some dry powder might be a really good thing.