Vetting A Real Estate Operator: 6 Questions And 7 Red Flags You Need To Know

by | Dec 27, 2022 | Investing Process, Passive Investing, Real Estate Investing 101 | 0 comments

When selling or buying a home, you often interview multiple real estate agents before you decide on the right one. A real estate agent who 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. Your real estate agent will be your right-hand man or woman for at least a couple of months, and it is important they are the right fit for you.

When you decide to start the investment process and pursue a real estate syndication, you want to do your due diligence and research as well. 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 connected with brokers, involved in the acquiring and disposing of properties, and heavily involved in the asset management and property management processes throughout your investment holding period.

In this blog post, you’ll learn how you can perform extensive due diligence when vetting a real estate operator and discover some red flags you should be aware of before diving into the first real estate syndication investment opportunity that comes to your inbox.

Taking the time to gather and implement solid advice up front will help you feel more confident throughout the investment process and will more likely lead you to the projected returns and the investor experience you were hoping for!

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 about the projected returns, you must realize that the operator or sponsor 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.

An investor looking for double-digit returns who doesn’t need cash flow and wants to do hotel deals in California probably won’t align with our philosophy at BluSky Equity Partners. But an investor looking for stabilized cash flow, reasonable chance of appreciation, growth markets, and who likes the idea of value-add properties where we can force the asset to appreciate may want to invest with us.

Related article: Cash Flow or Equity Growth: How to Decide on an Investment Strategy

 2. What does the company invest in?

This is when you ask about property information. If you are looking to invest in multifamily, but the operator does self-storage, you will not be a good fit. You want to look at what the operator actually invests in. Do they invest directly in properties/assets, in funds, or in REITs?

There are many different investment opportunities, and you want to ensure you understand what that real estate business group invests in and how they invest. Check to see if the operator offers multiple vehicles for investment. You may be able to meet various investing goals under one roof.

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 exited? Did they exit early, on time, or late? And how were investors treated throughout the process?

When completing your due diligence investigation, you need to look at the real estate syndications the operator has been a part of and see how many have gone full cycle. You want to be with operators who have experience and have learned from multiple deals—looking at the return profile as well. 

A negative deal or two doesn’t necessarily mean you should run the other way. These deals do carry risk, so even the best operators may have an occasional deal go sideways. Instead, this should trigger additional questions to learn what went wrong, why, what they learned from the experience, and how they adjusted their operations because of it. Remember, adversity can make us stronger…and (nothing else besides) success can be a lousy teacher. 

There’s a reason some of the most savvy investors won’t invest with an operator who hasn’t gone through a challenge or failure. Adversity reveals a person’s character and whether they stand behind the principles they claim to have. Never invest with an operator you aren’t convinced is ethically sound.

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, 506b deals, or both. 

506c deals can only accept accredited investors. To be an accredited investor, you must either 1) earn $200,000 in annual income for the last two years or $300,000 jointly with your spouse or partner; or 2) have a net worth of at least one million dollars, not including the equity in your primary residence.

However, 506b deals can take up to 35 non-accredited investors per deal if they qualify as “sophisticated” investors. This just means they understand the deal well enough to make the investment decision on their own and they wouldn’t be in unreasonable financial distress if the deal went poorly. 

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’ll 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.

You can look at their review page, Google reviews, or their BBB reviews if they’re registered. There are also real estate forums where investors can carefully review and share information and resources.

6. Listen. How does the company or sponsor respond to you?

Are they 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 should plan on having a business relationship with them for a minimum of 3-7 years, and this relationship is an important part of real estate syndications.

You can probably find many of the answers to these questions on the operator’s website. If you can’t find answers to your questions there, call them. It is important to be thorough. Investments have risks, and you want the best team to handle your investments while minimizing your risks.

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 an operator out. 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!

Red Flags For Operators

1. No Business Background

There are a lot of new syndicators out there, which is excellent. But they might not come from a business background or have worked with syndications or real estate before. Ask or figure out who does have this background on their team? It doesn’t have to be the person starting the company. Also ask how they got into syndicating in the first place?

People start businesses all the time and build a dedicated team around them. Make sure someone on that team has the knowledge needed to successfully navigate through a market downturn, rate hike, occupancy slump, and more.

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. It may be a partner instead of the person you’re talking to, but someone on the team should be doing this full time.

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, or one that partners with other operators when acquiring a deal. Teams always bring great things to the table.

4. Including Refinances In Projections

Is it a part of the company’s practice to put refinances or supplemental loans into their underwriting projections? This practice can be more of a deal breaker. 

It is best when an operator does not put refinance projections into their underwriting because no one knows what the economic/financial environment will be like in X number of years when the project is ready to refinance or to take on a supplemental loan. You do not want the project’s success beholden to the refi or supplemental loan.

To be clear, a refi or supplemental loan can be great options that can enhance returns…but the primary business plan should not depend on them. Some operators might show you a set of projections for their primary business plan and include a second set of projections with a refi as one alternate possibility. That’s fine as long as the primary business plan and its returns are solid and the refi projections are just “icing on the cake.” Understand that at purchase, the assumptions behind a refi or supplemental loan at some point in the future are nothing more than speculation.

5. 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.

6. 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.

We know all investments have risks, and if deciding between two operators, it may be best to go with the one who has had to deal with some bumps in the road, because it shows they know how to conduct themselves in different situations, make tough decisions, and still produce successful opportunities for their investors. Adversity also reveals character, and you never want to invest with someone who is ethically questionable.

7. 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 without answering it or does not seem interested in answering 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.

There you have it!

Several red flags you can look out for during your due diligence process as you research and vet operators.

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 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.

Further reading: How to Find Real Estate Syndication Deals—and Understand Your Options