8 questions with Dan Blackwell, Orange County broker and investor
Dan Blackwell got an early start in real estate. While in college in North Carolina, Blackwell worked for a developer and bought his first properties at age 21.
Then the 2008 recession hit and the real estate market ground to a halt. Blackwell needed a career reset. He uprooted his life and started over in Southern California, seeking bigger opportunities in Orange County’s multifamily sector.
The journey wasn’t easy, but Blackwell steadily built a successful career as a broker and now leads CBRE’s Orange County Multifamily Investment Sales division. He also started investing again.
Today, Blackwell owns 43 units, nearly halfway to his goal of 100 — a journey he’s documenting on YouTube, where he also shares Orange County market insights and conversations with fellow investors.
Blackwell spoke with Story about the lessons he’s learned along the way.
Story: What’s your morning routine?
DB: I have three kids, so my routine isn’t always first thing in the morning. The biggest thing that I do on a daily basis is write down what I need to get done that day. I’ve been doing that for 20 years.
These are things I need to get done now, not long-term goals. You don’t write out the big crazy long-term goals every day. Writing those down isn’t what’s going to get you there; it’s focusing on the activities you need to do every day. If you focus on the daily activities, then the goals happen.
Story: On your YouTube channel, you share videos documenting your own real estate journey, as well as local market insights and interviews with fellow investors. What inspires you to make these videos?
DB: In the beginning I really enjoyed sharing the process of acquiring a building, renovating it and fixing it up. But when an investor is willing to have a discussion about their business and perspectives, I think that’s probably the most important piece. A very rewarding part of being a broker is getting to know people’s stories and seeing how they built their portfolios, but unless you’re in the business, you don’t get to hear those stories.
Story: When you think about making improvements to your properties, what’s something that almost always pays off?
DB: If I have three or four units to renovate at a property, I’ll start with one as a test. I’ll go a little bit on the high side in terms of the level of renovation and see what kind of rent I get. That helps me model out whether I should pull back a little on the next one. And then that can be a test for the next unit.
Story: What’s on your must-have list when you’re considering a new multifamily investment?
DB: I need to feel good about the location. I also look at the cost of homes surrounding the location. If you can get a property for $400,000 to $500,000 per unit surrounded by million-dollar homes, it wouldn’t make sense financially for someone to buy one of the properties near you and build more units to compete against you.
I also look at the interest rate and cap rate (the rate of return on the property, as measured by its net operating income divided by its value). If your cap rate is lower than 4% but your interest rate is 4%, the money you’re borrowing from the bank is hurting your return. It’s really hard to get positive leverage, but if you can get neutral leverage in a great location where there’s an opportunity to improve the property over time, you can’t really go wrong.
Story: Tell me about a mistake you’ve learned from.
DB: I make mistakes all the time. That’s not failing. The only time you fail is when you quit.
When it comes to renovations, people are constantly focused on the budget, but it’s also about how fast you can get it done. Sometimes going with the cheapest person might take the longest, because they don’t have a crew and they’re doing it by themselves, or they’re really busy. We have a unit that rents for $3,000 a month, so that’s $100 a day. One time the person we hired took 21 extra days to finish the project, so that cost me $2,100 in lost rent.
Story: If you could give a younger version of yourself any advice, what would it be?
DB: Mentors may come and go; one person isn’t going to be everything for you. As you evolve as a person, your mentors can change too. You might have a mentor in brokerage, and a mentor in investing and a mentor in being a better parent. Never stop looking for good mentors. Know that people may come in and out of your life and just embrace the journey.
Story: Tell us about one of your mentors.
DB: On the investing side, someone who’s had an impact is Jim Colombo, president of Pointe Vista Management and an Orange County multifamily investor. He’s good at optimizing properties for cash flow and providing better-quality housing for the resident while improving the value. That resonated with me.
Some investors are all about the bottom line, but he’s really on top of management, which makes tenants more willing to renew and stay longer. He keeps the properties clean and does a good job with upgrades and fixtures, but it’s not over the top. It’s at that optimal level where you’re getting a great return on the cost of those improvements.
Story: What hobbies or passions do you have outside of real estate?
DB: Hanging out with the kids, boating and really anything water-related. It’s what I can fit into my life, and when you’re swimming, on a surfboard or paddle boarding, you can’t take your phone with you.
By Lauren Zumbach from Story by J.P. Morgan