Foreclosure Fix-Ups Turn to Gold for Oregon Company

From: BUILDER 2012
Posted on: August 7, 2012 8:16:00 PM
Gorilla Capital spins success from volume resales at lower margins.

By John Caulfield

March 19th was a milestone for Gorilla Capital, a six-year-old real estate company based in Eugene, Ore., which has grown rapidly by buying homes at foreclosure auctions, fixing them up and reselling them at discounted prices. On that date Gorilla Capital acquired its 1,000th property, a 1,249-square-foot condo in Hillsboro, Ore., for which it paid $105,600, made $3,500 in improvements, and resold for $146,000 to a childhood friend of Gorilla’s COO, Ben Bazer.

Gorilla Capital is on track to generate $60 million in revenue this year, which Bazer says would represent a 43% increase over last year’s performance. In 2012, Oregon Business magazine ranked Gorilla Capital 118th on its list of 150 largest privately held companies in Oregon. The Portland Business Journal ranked Gorilla the state’s 63rd fastest-growing company.

“We have figured out a way to buy, fix, and sell houses in any market, good or bad,” says Bazer, who works out of the company’s Phoenix offices. Since its early days, Gorilla Capital has relied on an ever-expanding proprietary database Bazer developed that includes at least 30 characteristics of each property it looks at. Gorilla Capital currently operates in 40-plus counties in seven states—Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Utah, and Washington—where it purchases, on average, only one in every 150 homes it evaluates, and tries to limit what it pays to acquire any house to between $150,000 and $300,000, depending on the market.

And since he and his partner John Helmick launched the company in late 2005, Gorilla Capital has been profitable every year. Bazer says the company shoots for a 12% profit margin on each transaction, with remodeling costs accounting for 20% of a refurbished house’s resale price, on average.

In interviews over the years, Helmick, the company’s CEO, has compared Gorilla Capital’s business model to that of the warehouse retailer Costco: high sales volume, thin profits. Bazer confirms that Gorilla Capital likes to keep its prices about 10% below resales it competes against in a given market. And Helmick told the Register-Guard newspaper in 2010 that applying technology had allowed Gorilla Capital to replicate its business model in multiple territories.

Helmick, 53, met Bazer, 35, in 2002, when Bazer—whose father was a real estate broker who had handled foreclosures—ran a small business flipping rental properties. Helmick was looking for investment opportunities after, a web-based company he and his brother founded that enabled online college course instruction, went public in 1999. The duo hit it off, and Helmick started providing Bazer with cash to buy more houses. In 2005, he upped the ante by offering to help bankroll what became Gorilla Capital, which got off the ground with $2 million in financing from the partners.

Bazer says the conditions of the houses Gorilla Capital acquires vary widely. Those located in rural markets tend to be “cleaner,” with less need for remodeling. On the other hand, he says his company’s “niche” in urban centers has been “buying beat-up houses.” In either case, Gorilla Capital wants to move the property from purchase to resale within 90 days, and it has found that its houses are typically on the market for only seven to 10 days before they find a buyer. (In fact, he says that in Phoenix, Gorilla Capital has been fetching higher prices because its houses have been attracting multiple buyers.)

The company gets the word out about its products via multiple listing services and through co-brokering, although Gorilla Capital hasn’t always endeared itself with local brokers by marketing houses online and through email alerts to investors.

Bazer says his company isn’t opposed to reselling to investors that may convert those properties to rentals or simply hold them. Gorilla Capital is less interested, though, in leasing its properties to people who, at some later date, would buy them. Of its 142 inventoried houses as of Tuesday, only six are leases. “These aren’t the best way for us to use our money,” says Bazer.

At one point, the company’s owners talked about growing their business to Nevada and Texas. But Bazer now says Gorilla Capital is content expanding in its existing markets. After years of acquiring homes exclusively through auctions on courthouse steps, the company recently started acquiring short sales and REO properties just as banks are slowly but steadily releasing real estate at prices more in line with Gorilla’s profit objectives. But the company will continue to avoid buying homes in areas where “there’s a lack of real estate activity” and therefore fewer prospects for resales, says Bazer.

With more than 12 million homes underwater and with foreclosure filings jumping by nearly 60% in large metros in the first half of 2012, according to RealtyTrac estimates, Gorilla Capital and companies like it aren’t likely to run out of runway to grow anytime soon. “There have always been foreclosures, and there will always be foreclosures,” says Bazer.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.