Dan Lieberman
Dan Lieberman is an active real estate investor, renovator, speaker, and consultant. He is the author of three books, including his most recent: "The Effective Landlord." Dan is the president of Milestone Properties, a boutique firm specializing in apartment turnarounds…

Hello. Dan Lieberman here. First, I’d like to tell you I got into improving real estate by accident.

Aside from building a tree house as a kid growing up in the suburban outskirts of New York, I didn’t do any work on buildings until after college. However, I was always interested in the built environment and how it impacted people’s emotions and responses.

I studied architecture in college, but graduated during a recession and was unable to find any work in my field. In desperate need of some income, I answered an ad — posted on a bulletin board — to help a homeowner tear out his old kitchen one weekend. That weekend gig turned into a three-month-long project helping this homeowner renovate his entire property. During that time, I learned the basics of plumbing, electrical, framing, hanging sheetrock, and a whole host of trades.

I moved on to working for a small contractor. That led me to starting my own handyman business, fixing up houses and helping real estate agents prep them for sale. Eventually, I tired of doing only manual labor, coming home tired and dirty every day. So I took a job working in a commercial real estate office, working for two brokers on multifamily sales.

When I thought I knew enough to go out on my own, I purchased a small, run down, multifamily property in San Francisco (I needed to come up with a grand total of $12,000 to do this, which was more money than I had at the time. My dad ended up putting up the money in exchange for half the profit).

Along the way, I learned about tenant screening, dealing with people not showing up to appointments, and figuring out what worked and what didn’t work in renovating. I did multiple projects and after just a few years had built a small portfolio. I worked on loft projects, condo conversions, and multifamily upgrades. I eventually lost everything on a condo project when the market turned.

Needing to earn money working ‘being employed’ again, I was hired to manage and help turn around a troubled condo community. That was the start of my management company. Soon I added a bank as a client – dealing with REO properties. At first, we got only the worst properties in the worst neighborhoods – full of needles and feces. The properties were all trashed out. But, then we started getting houses in better neighborhoods. Around that time, I started both buying multifamily investment properties through partnerships and managing apartment communities for others.

Coming from outside the industry, I found I had a different perspective from most of the property managers I met. From my time renovating homes for resale, I started incorporating the same type of elements that had excited our prospective homebuyers into our apartment communities. Sure enough, using these same principals, we attracted better tenants and achieved higher rents. A property owner near one of our communities suggested I join the board of the local apartment owners’ association. That ended up having a great influence on me.

I learned skills and ideas from many of the more experienced owners regarding cost control, vendor expectations, tenant policies, etc. Soon, I began incorporating many of these into our buildings. I also heard many horror stories and learned from the mistakes of those who came before me.

My first apartment owner client helped me significantly. His brother had been in the casino business and had a lot of experience managing fraud and employee theft. He showed me several tricks to determine whether or not people were doing the job they were paid to do and helped give me a critical eye as I took over management of other distressed properties in the region.

Eventually, the company grew and we were typically managing 20-25 apartment communities at a time. I became an expert at taking over tired properties, many that were ‘out of control’ and cleaning them up and making them financial successes. In addition, we continued to acquire properties and upgrade them as well. Our staff grew to almost 50 people.

Along the way, we learned how to deal with late-paying tenants and non-paying tenants, drug dealers, unauthorized occupants, rent control, unscrupulous tenant attorneys, and a host of other problems landlords inevitably face. We continued to grow and take on new challenges and properties including the renovation of an 18 story high-rise apartment building and working on larger properties above 200 units in size.

From the early days of our company, I had always thought it important to step back and assess what was working – and what was no longer working. I would hold monthly trainings for our entire staff and discuss new ideas and trends. All this time I remained active in the rental housing industry.

In 2004, I became the president of the California Apartment Association, with over 50,000 members. I also was invited to speak at industry trade shows and conferences including Multi-Housing World, several California Apartment Association events, and the National Apartment Association’s annual Education Conference (now called Apartmentalize).

Eventually, I sold my management business. My focus now, aside from continuing to grow and work on our portfolio, is to help others succeed and to give back to the industry I learned so much from.