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Real estate investors looking for an edge often think bigger is better.

Larger, highly capitalized firms with more brokers and broader reach usually have the advantage, right?

Sure, especially when transactions require scale, leverage, and capital. But independent investors can generate their own leverage with a tool that often outruns size: service.

Independent investors and boutique firms can compete, and even thrive, in real estate by channeling their service skills. Being agile and responsive with sellers, building relationships with investment partners, caring for residents, and nurturing their teams are foundational to a winning investment strategy. Independent investors compete with large-scale firms on their own terms, not the competition’s. 

According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, the 10 largest firms own more than 800,000 units combined nationwide. But our firm competes with those firms through a service-oriented culture that appeals to sellers and residents. Here’s our advice for independent investors who want to do the same.

Make your size a positive

What small but notable advantage do independent investors have over institutional firms? They answer their own phone. Instead of avoiding or deflecting their size, independent investors should lean into it. 

Independent investors are one call from financing partners, vendors, residents and others who need them immediately. They respond to requests in 10 minutes instead of 10 days. They have flexible schedules and can be on-site tomorrow instead of on Zoom next week. Their chat is with a person instead of a bot.

People want apps for ordering pizza and shoes. When making complex real estate deals, they want to deal with people. Small firms should sell their size as a service advantage.

Be trustworthy

Price wins in real estate, so it’s no surprise sellers tend to gravitate toward well-capitalized firms. But trust matters as well. According to PwC, 49 percent of consumers buy from companies they trust, and 33 percent willingly pay a premium for it.

Larger real estate firms have the capital advantage but also ask customers to wade through layers of procedures and committees that can dilute trust. This doesn’t make them inherently untrustworthy but can make them difficult and frustrating to navigate.

Independent investors have to prove they’re trustworthy by negotiating fairly, adhering to terms, and signing agreements in a timely manner.  Building trust takes time, but independent investors who do so actively win dealmaking points in the marketplace.

Be communicative

Requests from sellers, residents, contractors, and employees can be difficult to triage. In larger firms, they might get lost. However, independent investors who communicate quickly and honestly generate the goodwill essential to long-term relationships. Investors can outmaneuver institutional buyers and their financing committees by making the process direct and uncomplicated.

We take pride in closing deals with clear contracts, on time, and as the parties agreed. We communicate openly throughout the process. When complications arise, we often make adjustments on a same-day basis, before a large firm’s financing committee even reviews the changes. We answer questions as immediately as possible. Independent investors shouldn’t worry about being overcommunicators. 

Be responsive

Every multifamily housing property prioritizes fulfilling maintenance requests quickly and properly. But what about the grace notes of a living experience? Recently, one of our property managers assessed an entry plaza as uninviting and requested $2,500 for new landscaping. An institutional owner might have let the request languish or forwarded it to next year’s budget. Our ownership group approved it in 10 minutes. 

Responsiveness, trust, and communication are three tools with which every independent investor must equip themselves.

Be flexible

At first glance, bigger firms with more borrowing power would appear better positioned to close transactions. But they also can maneuver like big ships with a long turn radius. Independent investors aren’t beholden to asset managers or committee reviews to address negotiation concerns. They position themselves to make decisions and act on them. They turn more quickly. 

Boutique firms have the flexibility to make quick decisions, especially in today’s fluctuating lending market. Lenders might change terms or add proposals that fundamentally alter a deal. While a management committee must sign off for the institutional investors, boutique firms can acknowledge changes and reach conclusions on the same day. That dexterity benefits independent deal-makers.

Make service a priority

Residential service certainly is digital. Renters want to pay rent, make maintenance requests, and even control their apartment appliances with apps. In addition to digitizing services, independent investors must never lose sight of the personal touch. It still has tremendous appeal.

Investors who anticipate the needs of sellers provide better service. Property managers who serve their residents diligently turn apartment communities into homes. And companies that serve their employees cultivate employees who want to serve. Creating a cycle of service is invaluable for investors positioning themselves as market players.

Invest small and local

Big firms conduct exhaustive research to profile the best investment opportunities. However independent local investors often have more insight. Why is occupancy lower in one three-block area of town instead of another? How does long-term bridge construction affect resident commutes from a particular subdevelopment? Why are lofts trending so hotly in one particular district?

Independent investors and boutique firms can get a jump on the big firms by buying small properties, providing great service, and building a track record. Pretty soon, they’re competing with the major firms.

Our firm takes pride in being competitive bidders. And we understand when sellers choose investors that make bigger offers. They’d be silly to sell to us for less. However, transactions aren’t solely transactional.

Of course, we’ll make the best feasible bid. And when the numbers are equal, we believe that being agile, responsive, trustworthy and service-oriented makes the difference. More prominent firms might outbid us, but they won’t outwork us.

Michael H. Zaransky is the founder and managing principal of MZ Capital Partners in Northbrook, Illinois. Founded in 2005, the company deals in multifamily properties.

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