What if everything you thought you knew about property management was wrong? What if your properties were actually liabilities, and your greatest asset was your tenants? David Tilney has an unconventional approach that will definitely make you question all you thought you knew. It’s a fascinating episode with someone that has honed his approach over the decades. It’s a great episode…don’t miss it!
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Hey, it’s Mike Hambright with FlipNerd.com. Welcome back for another exciting VIP interview, where I interview successful real estate investing experts and entrepreneurs in our industry to help you learn and grow. Today I’m joined by David Tilney. Actually several former guests I’ve had on the show recommended David. He’s got some great knowledge to share with us. He’s an expert property manager who teaches others how to manage rental properties in a hassle free way.
As he told me already, it’s going to be some innovative ways and some things that may sound unusual to you, but the results don’t lie, it works great for him. David is one of the premier teachers on how to properly manage properties. Today he’s going to share his vast knowledge with us, albeit just a little bit of it. We’re also going to talk about a really interesting concept that David also uses. It’s not really a concept for him, called master leasing, which you want to hear. Before I get started today though, let’s take a moment to recognize our featured sponsors.
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Mike: Hey, David, welcome to the show.
David: Hi, Mike, thanks for having me.
Mike: Yeah, so good to meet you. People hear me say this all the time, but we rely very heavily on previous guests for future guests because we have to keep raising the bar and improving quality. We just found that from a guest we’ve had on the show, they know what it’s all about. They tend to bring us the best guests and you happen to be one of those individuals that several different people have recommended. I’m happy that you’re here today.
David: I hope I can give you some information that’s helpful to your listeners.
Mike: I’m sure you will. I’m sure you will. For those that don’t know, you’ve done some seminars, you taught a lot of people over the years. Why don’t you tell us, maybe you can go back on how you even got started in real estate investing. Then we’ll dive into some of the ways that you operate that are really intriguing.
David: Way back when, I came from a background that said, “Don’t buy real estate, it’s not liquid.” That’s where I started. I was pushed, pulled, and dragged into buying my first house by a good friend of mine that I worked with. After buying a first house, we bought a second, a third, a fourplex, and we have had several different managers to run our properties.
The problems was we found none of them had the attention to detail and follow through that we required to make them work correctly. It was either get the heck out of the business or learn how to do it right. We started managing properties back in 1978. My last eviction was in 1981. I’m one of these very, very strange people who really do enjoy property management. Quite honestly, I find it’s a lazy man’s game. I find it doesn’t take too many moving parts. It’s just a fun way to make a living.
Mike: That sounds counterintuitive to what everybody else thinks, or a lot of people think. I want to clarify. I was trying to do the math here. You haven’t evicted a tenant in 34 years? Does that sound right?
David: That’s what the math is. I’ve actually only evicted one tenant in my career.
David: It happened to a urologist out of a higher end house and it wasn’t for nonpayment or rent, he was just wasting the asset. The night we threw him in the street, his kids were on the roof ripping off shingles. We’ll swat flies with a sledgehammer in that kind of a situation and we did. But I determined that going to court was not fun. It wasn’t productive, and I didn’t want to do it again. We really tightened up our procedures and knock on wood, have never had to do it since.
Mike: Yeah, that’s incredible. Do you only manage your own properties or do you manage for others as well?
David: I managed for others starting in ’81. I stopped in 2006. October 1, 2006. We cancelled every agency relationship we had. We turned around and leased the properties we used to manage for owners. We found that was a much better situation for the owners and a much better situation for us. The difference really is I was no longer their agent. I was now a principal and in the situation. I rented or my company rented their properties, and then turned around and subleased them to the occupants. That was a good thing.
One of the things that people don’t realize when they hire a manager, this is just one example, if the manager gets hit let’s say, with a fair housing complaint, through the laws of vicarious liability that complaint goes right through to the owner and he’s personally liable. By separating the rental, the owner renting to my company, then me renting to the occupant, that further insulated the owner from that kind of a situation. Of course, there are many other benefits to both parties in doing it that way. But since October 1, 2006, we have not managed or anyone else, but we have run a few more than a hundred properties since that time.
Mike: I see. This is what you refer to as master leasing?
David: It is.
Mike: Maybe take a few more minutes and tell us maybe an example of how that works, and the pros and cons to all the parties involved.
David: Master leasing, the nice thing is it’s not one size fits all. You assume what the owners needs are, give them what they need and take everything else. You can do it on a performance basis that says, “I’ll pay you a percentage of what I get if and when I get it.” Which a little bit looks like a management agreement in reverse for the sake of discussion and these are never the percentages that we would use, but just for the sake of discussion, if a management fee would be let’s say, 10%, we might lease it for 90% of collected rents. The net to the owner would be largely the same. It doesn’t have to be a performance lease. It can be a fixed lease. I could guarantee to pay the rent whether it’s vacant or full. I could take care of all the expenses up to a stop loss.
Anything in between there, all of those things work. There are tremendous benefits to all parties. Master leasing is something that has gone on in the commercial side of the business for years and years.
Mike: I guess whatever you decide happens, but who typically is responsible for vacancy and the maintenance, make ready type stuff?
David: Again, it totally depends on the owner’s needs. If an owner is really strapped and they need every dime out of the property, I can really show them that a performance lease works better for them because we’re very good at keeping the place full. We really view our tenants as employees. The biggest thing we’ve done is hire a tenant to do a job. The primary job is to maintain and improve the house and grounds. Secondary job is to pay the rent on time, but if they don’t want to do that, they shouldn’t rent from us because we’re too tough. Thirdly, we want them to get along with the neighbors. Fourthly, we want them to stay at least for their lifetime and hopefully their kid’s lifetime and usually we get a little chuckle about that. Lastly, we want them to leave us alone.
But that kind of an approach, the owners will probably net more if we do a performance lease. However, some owners are very adverse to risk. Those kinds of folks, we’ll guarantee to take care of all the expenses up to some stop loss. We’ll take care of all vacancies. It’s very easy to figure out if you know your business and you know your expertise, you start at market rents, then you figure out how much would management be, would vacancy be, maintenance be? Then you take off one more thing, and that other thing you have to take off is profit. Because if you’re willing to take on the risk of some of these guarantees, you should earn more than under a traditional situation. They can be very, very profitable.
Mike: You’re saying you effectively take those expenses off of the rent? Effectively somebody could rent cheaper if they take care of the house and plan to stay there for a long time?
David: Yes. You’ll actually make a heck of a lot more.
Mike: Vacancy and make ready turnover stuff kills my business. If there’s anything that’s what it is. We totally rehab a house and it’s like brand new and you get a tenant for four months and they do $7,000 of damage. You have to take two months to evict him. That doesn’t happen at every house but it happens almost every few months to me.
David: I would say, whose fault is that? I’d say you hired the wrong employee. You hired the wrong guy and put him in the house. You’ve got to change your systems and clean that up because that will either cause you to get the heck out of business or cause you to go broke. I have a guy from Ohio who contacted me some time ago and said, “We can’t keep people in the house more than six months, and every time they move out it’s a $6,000 nut to crack to put the house back to normal.” It doesn’t make sense. Right now, I’m in Naples, Florida. Our houses are all in Colorado Springs. We have a tenant moving the end of March. I anticipate that that tenant occupancy on April 1, I will have a new paying tenant in there. I will not lose a day of rent.
Rarely do we ever have any downtime unless we’re taken on a new property. We’ll go from a tenant to a tenant with no downtime, but why is that? We’ve got the systems in place. We’ve got the tenants on our team. They know what they’re job description is and they do a great job, and we scream like heck to put people with the right attitude in our properties right up front.
Mike: Can you share some tips on that? I think that one of the challenges a lot of people face is they do the traditional stuff. They check your credit score, is your income three times rent or more? It kind of stops there. If they get a bad feeling about somebody they usually don’t put them in. I think that the general common belief is a lot of tenants don’t treat the house as if it was their own. They tend to be more transient and things like that. What you do, it sounds very counterintuitive to that kind of line of thinking.
David: I think it is. First of all, our longest tenant was with us for 24 years and 10 months. The only reason they left is they went into the hospital. We had another tenant with us for 18 years. We really do screen for long-term occupancy. There are plenty of people who want long-term occupancy. What most landlords can’t tell tenants is they can’t look them in the eye and say, “Gee, you can move in. Put in the vegetable garden, hang pictures on the wall, do whatever it takes to make it your home and enjoy the place.” Most tenants are concerned when they move in. If a sales sign is going to go up in the front yard, they’re not going to have that stability. If you can give them that stability, you’re going to say, “What do tenants want?”
You give them what they want. Think about it for a second. Most landlords usually start with a lease. It goes from a period of time to a period of time. At the end of the lease what typically happens for most landlords, would you say?
Mike: They wait for you to go vacant, they go in and fix it up.
David: I’m saying if the tenant remains there at the end of the lease, what happens at that point?
Mike: I think it’s typical that they would either go month-to-month or they would try to get them the resign the lease.
David: I would say that most people do go month-to-month. You’re right. The leases you see, at the end of the time period it says if nothing else changes this becomes a month-to-month tenancy. I don’t think any of that makes any sense. I think the first year you do business with tenants it ought to be a month-to-month tenancy, because they are untried and untested. You don’t know if you’re going to want to jerk their chain and end it. Once they are tried and tested then you probably want to lease. For me in my market, the best times for my properties to become available are the last day of June and the last day of July of some year. Why is that? That’s because kids are out of school. There is no snow on the ground. In Colorado, that’s when you get the most people looking at the highest rents.
If you have a month-to-month tenancy, and after the first year then they move out November 30, that’s not a very good time. There is snow on the ground. There are kids in school. You can have multiple months vacancy. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Plus if all of your properties become available at the same time, that means you have to analyze the market about once a year.
We analyze the market in May to determine what are the market rents for our properties, then how do we scale our tenant that we’re looking at on a scale of most desirable to less desirable tenants? We’ll set their rent for the next year based on what we determine. If we want them to move, we’ll raise the rent through the roof, apologize like crazy, say we sure hope you’re not going to move, but wish you the best wherever you go if you do move.
If they say they then are paying for their sins, because they’re paying way above market rent. There are a lot of things that people don’t really think about. Screening is absolutely crucial. To me, the credit score is number one. It’s more important than anything else. There are three things we look at on screening. One is credit. To me that’s number one, that’s the first thing I look at. Another is employment income. Obviously it doesn’t help anyone to get them overextended. We want them to have plenty of money to be able to enjoy life. Lastly, we want to make sure that there are no problems with present and past landlords. We look at all three together. Our basic rule of thumb says unless we can verify two out of those three things positively, we’re going to pass.
Think about it for a second. You’ve got some people who make lots of income, but they’re not very good stewards of their assets. They may have plenty of income but they have too many darn expenses. The three times income, to have a firm exact rule on that, that may not work for us. What I much prefer are folks with a 775 credit score that may not have quite the income, but if they’ve had the history of renting in the same price range, and they have the stability, that they stay where they are for extended periods of time, that meets my needs a heck of a lot better.
David: Landlords, most people check present and past landlords. We check the last four years rental history. You’ve got to go back far enough. We check the last four years of employment history. On our application we ask things like personal skills, plumbing, roofing, appliance repair. We ask tools you own, we want to know what tools they own. We think that to live in a house, demands owning tools, and if you don’t own them, then we want you to know right up front that you’re going to pay the nice man who does own the tools to solve the problems. We do put responsibility on our tenants to maintain and improve the house and grounds. That really is number one. We really share those expectations.
By sharing them, you can’t get people to do what you want, unless you tell them what you want them to do in the first place. Most landlords think, “Oh, there’s a great business if I didn’t have to deal with tenants.” That doesn’t make a lot of sense. I really enjoy dealing with my tenants. Rich dad, poor dad. We talked about assets and liabilities. I’ll ask people all the time. I’ll say, “Tell me about your assets.” “I’ve got all these houses. They’re great assets.” They’re not assets, think about it for a second. If you have houses and they’re vacant, do they feed you or do they eat you? They eat you, and you talk about turnover and you talk about doing the rehabs, the turnover. That doesn’t feed you, that eats you. What are your assets? Your assets are your tenants.
Too many landlords don’t understand that their assets are their tenants. I wrote an article a number of years ago. I had a friend that owned a bank. I still do business with this bank. It’s now been bought out so it’s owned by a bigger bank, but the value in his bank in my opinion were his employees, the same employees there for 20 or 30 years. What I said in the article is that his biggest assets are his employees. Every night they go home, and his job is to get them to come back into work the next day. I think the same thing is true with tenants. Your job is to motivate your tenants to number one, do what you want them to do and be happy in the process. Number two, to stay in your properties long term. Does that make sense?
Mike: Yes. Talk a little bit about how do you motivate tenants and how you get them to stay for long period of time. I think you’re right. I don’t manage my own properties, and I don’t know a single tenant’s name. I’ll be really frank right now. I don’t want to know any of their names. I just don’t want to deal with that. I look at it the exact opposite way that you probably do, although what you’re saying is very intriguing. How do you get people to want to stay for a long period of time, and how do you motivate without having to be a counselor 24/7?
David: The first thing I’d say is you ask on your applications, how long do people want to rent the property for? That’s number one. That’s basic. Whether that works or not, I’ve seen situations where people move in this week and next week they’re having a marital problem and they need out. That doesn’t always work, because the world’s not a perfect place. But you’ve got to start there. You’ve got to start someplace. You’ve got to look at their history. How much turnover have they had in the last three or four years? Very, very important. That really counts for us. Motivating them. First of all, we have a whole bunch of hoops that applicants have to go through before they have the opportunity of signing a rental contract with us. That’s number one.
When they get to the rental contract, that really is the final sieve in our screening process. That’s set up to do two things. Number one, if they got through everything else, and they seemed right, they looked right, smelled right, tasted right, but they aren’t right, that should wash them out. But number two, we believe that that is a training session. That training session is set up to share the expectations and train the tenants as to what we do expect from them, and what they can expect from us. That takes a while. That may take me an hour and a half to two hours just depending on the situation, but if I do that right, I bought myself an annuity from then on out. How do we motivate them to do things?
First of all, people like to be treated like adults. We essentially pat them on the head and say, when we first call them up to offer them the property, I’ll usually say something like, “Well, is this your first choice?” They’ll say, “Yeah, we want it.” I’ll say, “You’ve risen to the top. We think you’re the right guy for this property.” From our standpoint, nothing ever counts until contractors sign and money changes hands. When can we get together?
We won’t take if off the market and I’ll tell them, “We’re going to keep showing it. We’re going to keep taking applications. We’re not going to tell anyone it’s rented until we have a contract signed and money has changed hands. When can we get it together? How about this afternoon?” We’ll get together and we’ll go through the rental contract, and they’ll find our rental contract is a very, very unusual document.
It does give them the responsibility. What we say is that most property managers say, “Here’s the contract. Sign here, press hard. Last copy is yours, read it later if you want. Move into the house, face the wall, and don’t touch anything. If you do anything wrong, here’s how we’re going to beat you up.” Our approach is very, very different. Our approach says, “Here’s the house. We want you to make it a home. As long as you’re enjoying it and improving it, we’re on the same team. But we don’t want you to do something that is going to hurt yourself, hurt someone else, or hurt the property. If you got a great big idea as to something to improve the property, make sure you run it by us first so it doesn’t come back to either haunt me or haunt you.”
I can give some dramatic examples. We had a tenant who did a 350-square-foot addition on a house for us one time. The addition included an Olympic sports sized master bath with tubs, shower, double sinks, skylight, wood parquet flooring, oak trim and all the frills. He built the cabinets himself. He also changed the master bedroom. This house, if you can visualize it, it had a chicken coop roof. Meaning it slanted from one side to the other. It was low on one side. Previous owners had put a peaked roof on top. Where he wanted the master bedroom, he got all of the building permits, did everything correct. Cut through the first roof, made a master bedroom 13 x 15, 9 1/2 -foot ceiling, two beams across, and a big bay window. We paid for the materials, but we didn’t pay a dime for labor.
Hopefully, you can see the benefits to both parties. First of all, he got to test his skills and abilities using our capital, which was a major benefit to him. Most tenants don’t like the fact that they say you can’t touch anything. Move in here, it’s not your home. We want it to be their home. It’s very important. We don’t want people “camping out in our properties.” That’s the wrong kind of person to do business with. We need people who will internalize and take our properties and turn them into their homes. If we got the right properties and we’re on the team, and they do some things to it, it’s very difficult for them to move once they’ve internalized and made it their homes.
Mike: David, maybe you can share a couple of thoughts. A property manager we had many years back had the same kind of approach. Paint however you want, do different things. But the problem is that sometimes we get these houses back and we would have to be purple or other things. We had some issues with people who were kind of making it their own. That would cause an expense or burden on us to deal with it, because the next person is not going to like what they did. Talk a little bit about that dynamic.
David: First of all, you’ve got to make sure they’ve got the right skill set. We don’t let everyone do a 340-square-foot addition. We knew what this guy’s skill set was. We knew this guy before he rented the house. It worked out fine. When he moved out, we moved someone in the property, did not lose a day’s rent. We raised rent $330 a month. Not everyone does that kind of thing for us. In terms of paint, everyone thinks they can paint, but not everyone can paint. In terms of colors, we told everyone for years and years that if you ever want to paint or if you’ve got to fix up something that needs some paint, we’ll supply the paint and we’ll supply top of the line paint. You paint it any color you want as long as it’s antique white low luster. We’re changing that.
It’s changing a little bit because antique white low luster is maybe not the right thing, but we want that control. We don’t do wallpaper and those kinds of things. We’ve occasionally done a border, but I’ll tell people, “You’re not tried and tested. You need to be with us a couple years, and we need to see what you can or can’t do. We need to see the yard and some of these other things. Down the road ask me again, but it’s not appropriate at this point in time.
Mike: That’s interesting. Talk a little bit about how you get people to stay. All of these people you’re talking about, you’re saying if they make it their home, they have a tendency to stay for longer periods of time. But are you still doing annual leases and renewals, or are you doing longer-term leases?
David: Every one of my contracts is a month-to-month rental contract. Every single one. The one that was there for 24 years and 10 months was a month-to-month. My approach is, as a landlord, which is better? A long-term lease or a month-to-month rental contract? I honestly believe that if a tenant wants to move, they’ll move first and ask questions second. A long-term lease may just be a very unpleasant situation for a landlord that can’t end it, whereas a month-to-month contract gives me the ability to jerk someone’s chain if I need to. But I don’t have to. As I told you, the last eviction I did was in 1981. In terms of getting people to stay, think about this for a second. My ideal house is probably a three or four bedroom, two or two and a half bath house with a two-car garage, and it has a garage door opener.
This is just a picture for you to think about. The first thing you want to think about is you want to go into the garage and hang up a big sign on the garage door opener saying, “Danger, high voltage, do not use.” Why is that? You want to accumulate new stuff. The more stuff that accumulates the tougher it is for them to move. You don’t want them to park their cars in there. If they park their cars in there, the toughest tenant to get to renew is the yearly tenant, because they haven’t accumulated enough stuff. What do we do to get that yearling tenant to maybe stay the second year, which once you get them two years, ID him, you’ve got him. Unless a couple of things happened, unless they’ve moved to buy a house. Unless they have another child and the house they’ve got isn’t big enough, or if you’ve got a house that does not have a separate bathroom off the master bedroom.
They can’t stand having a fight with the kids to get ready for work in the morning. There are few things like that so you’ve got to have the right house. You’ve got to have good locations, but those are really the issues you’re dealing with. What do we do? We sell all of our occupants on day one when they move in, what we call a rent lock. It’s really a first renter refusal option to renew the contract at the end of the initial period with a guarantee that if they’ve done everything they’re supposed to do right and the property is available for rent, we guarantee that the gross rents won’t go up more than 10%. It doesn’t mean they won’t go up 10%. It just means that if the market goes crazy, and rents go through the roof, we’re going to treat them differently than we treat John Q public walking in off the street.
What we’ve really done is we’ve told them day one that rents will go up because that’s very important. You have a very good tenant the first year, and they get done at the end of the first year and you raise the rents and they say, “Who do you think you are? I was a terrific tenant.” Then they say, “I’m out of here, I’m leaving.” They don’t realize that they’re leaving from your house, moving into another house that the landlord just raised the rent on because it was vacant. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that when you send out a rent renewal, they’re saying, “Gee, we paid for this consumer benefit. If we don’t use it, we lose it.” It might be one more way of roping them into the second year. Our whole attitude is different.
We essentially give them more latitude about how to make some decisions about how to maintain their house and grounds, and treat them with a lot more respect than most management firms do. With that in mind, it’s really hard to throw us away and leave us if they’re just going to another manager who’s an unknown, untried commodity. We really do like our tenants. We really do show them respect. They really are my assets and I understand that.
Mike: David, I wish we could have a four part series here. I know we could talk about this stuff all day. This is good stuff. We’re running out of time here, just a few minutes. I was hoping you could share a couple more things with us. One is, talk about how you collect rent, because I know you have process down where you’re not chasing people for rent and you get the rent collected quickly. Maybe share some insights on that.
David: I collect all my rents in five minutes a month. I use ACH Automatic Clearing House. Tenants don’t send it to me. I go into their bank accounts and take it. If they owe me more, I take more. If they owe me less, I take less. They sign a little form with me when they move into my properties, much like when you move into a hotel that says I agree to pay for all charges I owe. That’s the only thing I get. They give me their routing number and their checking account number and that’s all. I don’t show that form to anyone unless they try to dishonor an ACH pull that I would make. It never happened. It never happened to me yet. I’ve never had a problem. I have had a bounced ACH when the tenants don’t have the money there, but it’s so much faster. We collect all our rents before the first of the month every month.
They’re due on the last business day of the month. They come out of the bank account early in the morning. If they bounce on me with an ACH I know it very quickly, normally the same day. If a tenant going to be light, not have the funds, they communicated with me up front in advance. It’s going to cost them substantially if it’s not there. It’s not that I want to get rich on late fees. I don’t. I don’t have more than one late rent probably in a 12 to 18 month period a year.
Mike: Wow, that’s incredible.
David: It’s a very efficient way to do business. I did say that we ran over a hundred houses, and we did. I will say that since we moved to Florida, and we moved here January 2002, my numbers are substantially smaller. We’ve been here a long time, and I haven’t been building my business, and people have died off and situations are changed. Some of my master leases have gone away, but we still run of our properties that way and we do still have some master leases.
Mike: Yeah, that’s great. David, thanks so much for your time today. Definitely I appreciate your insights. I know you have a number of seminars and things around the country during the year. Can you tell folks where they should go if they want to learn more about you and maybe learn more about some of your teaching opportunities?
David: We do maintain a website. It’s just my name, so it’s David Tilney. Tilney is “T” as in “Thomas”, I-L, “N” as in “Nancy,” E-Y.com. You can always go to www.davidtilney.com. We’re not always current on our next seminars that we’re doing. I think this is the 24th year we’ve done them. This year in 2015 we are doing one. The only one that we have totally set up at this point is on Costa Mesa, California in September. I think it’s the 18th, 19th, and 20th. We do a two-day hassle free property management, and then we do a one-day master leasing. I don’t let anyone take the master leasing unless they’ve first taken the other, because you’ve got to know how to manage before you take on someone else’s property. If you don’t manage correctly, you’ll get in a lot of trouble, and you’ll get other people in trouble.
Mike: David, thanks so much. We’ll have the link for your site down below for anybody that didn’t get that written down quickly enough. I appreciate your time. I think we may have to have you back for a round two at some point. I know you’ve got a lot of great information to share, and I appreciate you sharing some of it with us here today.
David: That would be great. Thanks, Mike, I enjoyed being here.
Mike: All right David, have a great day.
Mike: Thanks for joining us for today’s FlipNerd.com podcast. To watch or listen to more great shows, please visit FlipNerd.com or visit us in the iTunes store. To access the most robust social platform in existence for real estate investors, where you can find off-market wholesale deals, great vendors literally in your market and to socialize with other like-minded individuals, please visit the one, the only, FlipNerd.com. If you’re not yet a member, you can set up a free account in about 30 seconds. It’s pretty much the coolest site that’s ever existed in the real estate investing industry. So get on over to FlipNerd.com.