An Interview with Blakely Hughes Part 1

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An Interview With Blakely Hughes
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. 


If there's a professional person working at Deutsche bank, or a retiree that watches the grandkids during the day, and they want to go view a home at 7:00 PM they can. By 7:00 PM most agents are not going to be available. They have their own families. So most property management companies aren't going to be able to show that unit. That is now costing that owner a potential renter because that renter may move on to another property. 


We want to give our renters every opportunity to view that home virtually in person with an agent or be a self show. It also gives the owner the most exposure. There is never going to be a time that they can't have their property show.


Can you explain the self show process to me?

The potential renter has to call first. We have a 24 hour a day leasing line that they call into where they get asked pre-qualification questions. When are they moving? What is their rent range? Do they have pets? 


It’s important if the community is pet-friendly and as for their move date, we don't hold units long term. If they are 30 or 45 days until move-in, there's no sense in looking at the property. 


Once they answer all these questions, to make sure that the property fits their timeframe and budget, they get sent a secure link where they upload a copy of their ID. That has to be verified. Once that's verified, and they arrive at the property they're sent to code to access the property. Once they leave they notify us and an agent follows up.


Do all of your owners participate in the self show process?

We leave that up to the owners to participate in or not. Some owners are not comfortable with that at the end of the day. What I tell owners is that a criminal is not going to go through the 10 questions and upload an ID to steal your washer and dryer or your refrigerator.

They're going to see the property advertised on or Zillow or wherever it's advertised. They're going to go to the house at two o'clock in the morning, kick in the back window and steal your stuff anyway. 



You have been utilizing YouTube for a really long time, can you tell me more?

Yes. I got laughed at when we first started, not by just, property management industry professionals but real estate in general for using YouTube. We have been doing YouTube videos since 2007.


We would go to an empty unit or an apartment complex and we would record a YouTube walkthrough. We would explain as we walked the unit what happens when you walk in the front door. We would talk about the tile,  this is your entryway, to the right is the kitchen... 


We would explain the layout and full of the property, to give them that visualization. What I learned very quickly about this was that it was saving my commission-based licensed agents a tremendous amount of time! 


If you wanted to look at a two-bedroom condo, I could send you a video link and you could watch that video link before our appointment. If there was something that was a no go, you would then message me back or call you back and say, Hey, Blakely, “I really didn't like the layout of that kitchen”. It allowed us to skip that property and go to the next one. It also allowed a greater range of efficiency on showings.

How did your staff react to having to go virtual?

They were extremely grateful that we're a forward-thinking company because they were all able to do their jobs without skipping a beat through this whole process. It didn't affect their income. We didn't have to lay anybody off or cut anybody's hours. 


Because we were able to keep our staff it allowed us to manage these owner assets just as before. They're not just homes or condos; these are income-producing assets for people. So we've been able to manage them and protect them without skipping a beat through this entire process.

Did you see any increase or decrease in the need for rentals during this whole situation?

We saw no change in business. We leased 42 homes in June, so it was business as usual. But I think that's because of how we're structured. We were able to continue showing we had these 360 tours already on file where everyone else was scrambling to go virtual. We were already there.

Did you see any increase in property owners looking for management?

Yes. We've had lots of property owners that have called because of problem tenants or just scared and asking questions. Our owner leads definitely had an uptick.


Do you think it's going to be more important for people to have property managers going forward post-pandemic?

I would hope so!! To put things into perspective in Australia and New Zealand 80% of the rental properties are managed by professional managers. The US is I think roughly 20-25% professionally managed. 


I do not understand why an owner would not want professional property management. I understand it's an expense, but the amount of money that we save owners, the amount of headaches that we save owners, the amounts of liability that there is out there for have professional property management is asset management. 


That is what we are, asset managers. I don't like the term property manager anymore because it demeans the profession. We are an asset management company. So that home is no different than an IRA or any other type of retirement tool. It's an income-producing property. It needs to be well-maintained.


What do you think keeps owners from using professional management?

I have owners call all the time and their number one concern is price. What do you charge? Well, X, Y, and Z charges, this or that. 


We're not the cheapest company in Jacksonville-St. Augustine. And I don't want to be. We invest heavily in technology and personal service, which affects everything from their tenants, renewing their tenants, staying happy, their tenants paying rent on time, and to continue to be able to operate. 


There could be a hurricane that hits tomorrow. We are set up so that owner can sleep well at night in DC, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, London, wherever they are. They can sleep at night knowing that they've hired the boutique of property management companies with Nest Finders.


What are the top reasons to not take on self-management?

Peace of mind! What's your time worth? Property management is not that expensive in the gist of things. Take property inspections where we catch a $50 problem. Without property management, that could become a $5,000 problem or HOA fines at a hundred dollars a day.

The cost of property management is extremely minimal compared to what we save owners. Just to give you an example...that owner that takes four days to repair the AC where we're getting an AC repair, same day next day, do you think the renters are going to be happy come renewal time? No, they're probably going to not renew. They're going to move out. 

Now that owner has a month of vacancy, one month's worth of mortgage payments, not to mention the cost of turning the unit and then paying a new fee to find a new tenant in that unit.


I could go on for 20 minutes about the pros and cons. We track taxes, income, and expenditure daily. An owner can log in any time of the day and find out what their expenses are, what their income is, and see how we are managing those repair costs. We know what an AC condenser costs and we've negotiated a lower rate with vendors. 


The amount of money that we save using our vendors and the peace of mind protection that when that tenant moves out there will be another tenant moving in in a week versus 30 days or 45 days from now. Owners often look at the short term cost and not the long term savings.


In the next installment, we will go into how Nest Finders handled the Covid-19 Pandemic and not only kept working but thrived!!

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