Blakley Hughes the Lead Broker and Owner of Nest Finders Property Management and Real Estate.
In this two-part series, we will be talking in-depth with the owner of Nest Finders Blakely Hughes.
Blakely is not only the head of Nest Finders he is an all-around good guy. As a single dad of a smart 17-year-old son, he is busy, to say the least. An avid outdoor enthusiast he likes snorkeling, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. Unfortunately, he does not get to travel as much as he would like these days, but getting out on the boat helps.
In his free time, Blakely studies his industry looking for trends that will give him insight into the future. For the past 16 plus years, he has poured his heart into building Nest Finders into the top property management company in Jacksonville.
Below you will find a recap of our conversation where you will learn more about Nest Finders, how Covid-19 is shaping the industry, and how smart use of technology has and will keep Blakely’s team ahead of any curve sent their way.
Blakley, tell me a little about the origins of Nest Finders...
I started Nest Finders 16 and a half years ago as just an apartment locator service.
We helped apartment owners, communities, and individual investors just find renters. What we found is that many of them had problems marketing and finding quality renters. So we did that for them.
When we started we had 16 agents in Jacksonville, Florida and it has just evolved since 2004.
As we were helping apartment communities, individual investors, and multifamily communities find quality renters, they were then coming to us for expertise on problems they were having. They were asking us how to handle certain situations.
It got to the point where we were referring out all of our owners who wanted property management. After working with other companies they were calling us back and saying, you guys did an amazing job with marketing and getting a great tenant but the management lacks.
We tried many property management companies, it just got to the point where I just really needed to take a whole pie approach.
If we wanted to ensure the 360 experience for the owner or tenant I had to manage the properties. It got to the point where we just started managing.
How big is the Nest Finders team now?
Eight people total and a full accounting team. We have dedicated account managers for the properties. The accounting team is subcontracted but if the state walks in that door tomorrow our accounting team has everything there. Every dollar is accounted for. Keeping the owner's books clean is incredibly important for us.
Was there a turning point where you knew you had to step in on the management side?
Yes, during the economic collapse of 2009.
I can't tell you how many renters from other companies we had come into our office in tears because the owners foreclosed on the units and they didn't get their security deposits back. We didn’t want to see that happen to more people.
As the broker, we are strictly state-regulated on the escrow deposits. I know no matter what happens, that if for any reason, an owner goes into foreclosure that our tenants' security deposits are safe.
How is the Jacksonville market right now with all that is going on?
Right now, we only have two months of inventory available for sale. The sales market is red hot!
The election is definitely going to make things shift one way or the other. There are just people that are on the fence right now. A lot of people are waiting to see what happens with the election.
What about those homeowners who have seen a major life change due to Covid-19 and the Quarantine?
As a property management company, we are in a position where we have people who have bought homes in the last two or three years who got job transfers or have life changes and they want to sell.
Many would be facing a loss. They're not going to want to go to closing with $18,000 or $20,000 in commissions. What a lot of owners will do in that situation is they'll rent the home out and let someone else pay down the principal.
That way they can turn the house into an investment property and three or four years down the road, they will be able to sell it. Hopefully at no loss. It's not our first rodeo, we've been through this before.
What do you think about the rent and eviction forbearance?
It was ill thought out, the whole thing, on both sides of the aisle in my opinion. For example, in the state of Florida, that home may be paid off but the money is part of someone’s budget. That forbearance hurts the 75-year-old lady or guy who depends on that rental income to buy their $600 in prescription medicine each month.
On top of that, under Florida statute, those owners are required to make repairs, AC repairs, mold, repairs, leak, repairs. If there's no cash coming in, how do they make the repairs?
I think if they were going to do some type of a stimulus, they should have included landlords. Even if it's just landlords who have three, three, or fewer units. The little guys. Where people could apply on some government site to maybe have their rent paid versus a stimulus check or a payroll tax deduction.
Tell me a little bit more about those Florida statutes...
When your AC goes out in Florida and it's 98 degrees and 90% humidity. And the AC company comes back to the owner and says, you know, Hey, to $1,800 repair, whether the rent's coming in or not, the owner by law has to fix that.
In Florida, you have a specified time frame to get those repairs done or be in violation of the law.
So, if you want to be fair and have an eviction moratorium and also have a repair moratorium. If your tenants are not paying rent, you get a pass on having to follow the typical protocol. But of course, then you have a safety issue. So we can't do that.
I want to get into what happened with COVID and the pandemic and how you and your business not only survived have thrived during this unprecedented time.
At Nest Finders, we always try to be prepared. So when COVID hit, as bad as it was, we were already structured to work remotely so we did not skip a beat.
Years ago we implemented a strategy of forward-thinking. We not only look at what the business is today and what people want today but what are people going to want three years from now, five years from now?
That's kind of how we run our company. We're forward thinkers. Our staff meets to have a think tank once a week. What can we do better? What's the latest technology, what are the latest trends and we try to implement those.
Because it is part of our culture we are much quicker to implement change than most. And if they don't work, then we learn, we readjust, we shift...but we're always open to new technologies.
How did you prepare to do business differently as things were shutting down?
We didn’t have to change much. That's the great thing about it. We manage over 400 homes and we kept on leasing. I caught a lot of grief in my industry, in my inner circle because I have been doing 360 Matterport tours for the last four years. At a significant expense, I might add.
Deep down I'm a technology guy. I'm a convenience guy. And if those parents or young professional or that retiree is on their Android or iPhone at 11 o'clock at night surfing rental listings in St. Augustine or Jacksonville, Florida, I want them to be able to tour the home clean, not having appointments canceled because the tenants have boxes everywhere.
So for me, it was worth the expense to market the property better. And to give not only the owners, the most exposure, but the renters, the flexibility and the convenience of being able to view the home virtually
Well, there's something to be said for that night owl person, who's just on the internet looking and picking to be able to walk essentially a 360 view. They are able to walk that property and get a real sense of it.
If they really like a place and want to come into the office at any point in time, we have an Oculus Go Headset, and they could literally put on a virtual reality headset and walk through the space. We've been doing that with all of our listings for over three years now.
If you want to feel how the space flows or how big the kitchen and living room are you can just pop into our office, and virtually “look around”.
Do you think that tech is giving you a real advantage in your industry?
Everyone has kind of jumped on board with the 360 tours. Now, of course, they're going with the lower end 360 tours, which I'm not a big fan of. I like the higher quality, more pixels, and clearer images. Most people don’t bother coming in to use the Oculus Go, but the options there. Most people are fine doing it on their computer or their mobile device.
It's still kind of a cool thing for those techie people who really want to feel the space that might not be empty yet.
What about leases, how did you navigate getting papers signed?
When COVID hit, we were already fully prepared. We were already paperless. All of our processes were paperless. We were probably one of the first real estate type companies in the Northeast Florida region to be doing electronic leases as early as 2008. We took on DocuSign pretty quickly in our business.
We've been doing paperless leases and applications for over a decade. For us, again, we're forward thinkers. We knew that was where it was going and we really didn't give people a choice. If people would come in and they wanted a paper application we told them we could not do that.
Some people wanted to pay with a check, we have simply have them pay online. We shifted people to that for convenience years ago.
So you were already basically prepared for all of this?
Absolutely! We also had implemented a self show system where our agents did follow up but were not there. They did show some properties during COVID with obvious protections.
The self show system is monitored and we encouraged all of our owners to allow us to show this way. Each property is assigned an agent and they follow up after someone views a property. It's a really, really neat system.
When people self show we get immediate feedback on what they thought of the unit, how they rated the unit, what they thought was wrong with it, and what they liked. We have independent agents assigned to each home that is actually following up in real-time. As soon as someone walks out an agent calls to ask, “Hey, what'd you think about this? Which thing about this property?” So it put the renter's mind at ease as well.
Some people may not want to be around an agent. And that's the world that we live in. And we implemented that a few years ago as well. Uber, Uber eats, DoorDash, Instacart, pretty much everything at this point is on demand.