Name: Marc Savatsky
Company: Choose Boston
Hometown: Saddle River, NJ
Dream Job as a Kid: Sailor in the Navy
How'd you get started?
It all started in 2011 when I was about 26 years old, my lease was up, and I needed a place to live. I stumbled on a 3-bedroom, attached single-family fixer-upper home in South Boston for $275,000 at a time when you could do things like that. Having worked in construction for a few years, I had enough confidence to pull the trigger. I pooled together every resource I had and was able to buy and renovate the house. The renovation took about six months, and I moved in shortly thereafter. I brought in two roommates who paid me rent, which covered my entire mortgage, and I haven’t had a mortgage or rent payment since.
From there, I just rolled into the next one, which was an identical single family home attached to the other side of the wall. A doctor who owned that house reached out to me and said he was tired of being a landlord and asked if I’d be interested in buying his. So I rented the first house and moved out my front door and to the other side of the wall and repeated the renovation. I did a cash-out refinance, and I pulled some equity out of the first one and rolled it into the next property. I feel like I executed the BRRRR method (Buy, Rehab, Rent, Refinance, Repeat) before I even knew what that was. Crawl, walk, jog, run. That’s been the gradual succession to where I’m at now.
That sounds so natural — did you have intention up front about your plans, or did you just roll with it?
More the latter. I can’t say that I had this master plan to how I’d become a real estate developer. It just started from needing a place to live and being fairly budget constrained. After I did my first renovation and refinance and saw the new appraisal from the bank, I was able to see how much value I created, and I was hooked.
Do you see that lifestyle continuing, or would you like to settle in one spot for a bit?
I don’t ever think there’s such thing as a forever home, for me or someone in my business. The government has created a tax system whereby if you spend 2-3 years living in a place you just built and then sell it, you can take a lot of those earnings with you, tax-free. Not to mention you get to live in a beautiful new condo or house every few years. So, why not?
What’s on your plate right now?
I wear a lot of different hats. ChooseBoston, which is my own development company, I do 1-2 developments at a given time. I am my own general contractor, I don’t outsource many pieces of the puzzle. I also work as an owner’s rep, so I use my experience and knowledge to help others and make sure they’re setting themselves up to be successful on their projects. I’m working with Volnay Capital right now on The 600, which is an 85 unit apartment building in Everett. I also work for New Boston Ventures, which is a much larger development shop in the South End. We focus on high-end, multi-family residential. Our typical deal sizes are 30, 40, 50-unit kind of buildings.
You spoke about how involved you are with every stage of the development process. Why not outsource more to others?
I just like being involved in the whole process and I’m good at it. I like to do a lot of my own zoning and community work, I like sales and marketing, and I love building. I know, in a business sense, it might hurt my ability to scale, but I like to be the one on-site, meeting the guys at 7 AM and going over the plan for the day. Some might call me a control freak, but it allows me to sleep better at night. One day, I hope to let go of some of it, but not yet.
It must help to know all these roles and understand who to plug in where, since you’ve done it all yourself. There’s no faking that.
It’s like trying to manage a team of carpenters. If you’ve never swung a hammer or used a saw, it’s hard to gauge the quality or pace or execution. There’s no substitute for experience.
Is there one specific part that you enjoy the most?
I love to build and I actually really like the initial site work phase of the job. I like being out there when we’re laying out the building, managing the excavation for foundations and thinking about the building to follow. You really set the building up for success or failure at that very first stage of construction.
Let’s talk about the podcast — Real Estate Addicts. Anyone can start a podcast, but you guys have sustained one. What’s the thinking there and how did it start?
I love hosting the Real Estate Addicts Podcast. We felt like there wasn’t a very good resource out there for real estate developers. There isn’t really a textbook. There isn’t a great course. We wanted to de-mystify the process and take listeners behind the scenes, and explain how the sausage is made. I hope that it gives people some real insight into real estate development in the city of Boston. For far too long, people have held their cards too close to the vest, and we wanted to help others.
Have you been able to generate business from the podcast, from elevating your own profile and potentially attracting some opportunities?
Absolutely. I was selling a condo in one of my newer developments, and the broker on the buyer side had started following me and found out about my business through the podcast, and he ended up bringing a buyer who purchased one of my units. On a less tangible level, hosting the podcast lends legitimacy to my business and helps solidify myself as a leader in the industry.
Is there a dream guest you haven’t gotten yet but would love to?
We tried to get John Fish from Suffolk Construction to come on, but he told us he was too busy. Another one — Steve Samuels, from Samuels & Associates, has just done so much impressive work. Fenway used to be just a bunch of Howard Johnsons and McDonald’s before he sort of changed the zoning by virtue of his own cult of personality and character. They got together the political will to change Fenway, starting with 1332 Boylston, and from there, he just marched down the street — and when you go down there, it’s hardly recognizable compared to 10 years ago.
Some industries aren’t zero-sum, where for me to win, you have to lose. Others are. Real estate actually strikes me as one that is. There are only so many deals available in the city. Can you talk about why you’re not worried about putting good content out there, spilling secrets, and possibly helping your competitors?
People were so generous and willing to send the elevator down for me that I feel a certain responsibility to do the same as I move forward in my career. I think for a long time, real estate has been thought of as a zero-sum game, but I really don’t think it has to be. Some of my best friends are in the industry and whenever I have a challenge, or I’m thinking about a new project, I reach out and ask them to sort of challenge my assumptions on it, and help me see if I have any blind spots on it. I think we can all win, and the pie can get bigger.
What sort of projects are next for you?
I’d like to continue to grow in terms of project size. I don’t necessarily desire to do 6, 8, 10 projects at a time, but I’d like to do bigger 25+ unit buildings. It’s funny how if you’re doing 2 or 3 family versus 6 or 7 units, it’s not that much more work on the margin. It’s the same number of trips to the building department, it’s the same number of inspections, the check sizes are larger, and some of the demands are greater, but the demands on your time do not grow linearly as the project size does.
Switching gears — where does the inspiration for your style come from?
Design is definitely something I’m passionate about. I go to a lot of open houses when I travel. I spend a lot of time on Instagram. I have saved folders for things I like, or want to incorporate into my next build. I really do enjoy picking all the finishes and putting together a really cohesive and beautiful product.
Between your own with Choose Boston and New Boston Ventures, you must see basically the full spectrum or projects, from smaller in scale to big ones, too. Is that intentional on your part, or has it just worked out that way?
I love it. Working on the big stuff is really exciting, and I get access to some of the smartest people in the rooms, from geotechnical engineers to zoning attorneys to interior design teams. I learn a ton working on those big projects, and fortunately, I’m able to take a lot of that with me when I work on the smaller-scale buildings that I’m doing on my own. I like doing smaller projects because a lot of it is just a handshake and an understanding, whereas on the bigger projects, everything has to be documented and sometimes you feel like you’re building a case more than a building. So I like the streamlined nature of building small scale residential, and working with guys I’m out with the field with every day.
How do you know if a person will be good at their job, high character, someone you want to spend time with, etc.? How do you know when a person is a good fit to work with?
I’ve made mistakes in the past. We’ve all benefitted from evolution in a certain sense. I may have a fantastic roofer, and my friend Derek has a really great electrician. So all these various players — be it attorneys, tradespeople, architects, engineers — we’re always kind of calling back and forth and sharing that information. So we’ve kind of started to assemble a really effective team. References and in-person meetings are huge. I want to make sure they’ve really spent time digesting the specific project and thought about all the potential challenges. Once I get that sense of investment from their end, I feel good about signing them up.
Is there anybody who sticks out who has really helped you along the way?
Absolutely. David Goldman and Dennis Kanin, the two principals at New Boston Ventures, who gave me a chance and have taught me so much about real estate development in Boston when all I had to offer was really a knowledge of construction. I’m extremely grateful to them and to the NBV team.
Do you have a favorite project?
It’s like picking your favorite child. But this latest one in Dorchester, 4 Payne Street, is certainly close. I just love the design of the building. There are just so many unique features to it. We built these 17 foot cathedral ceilings in all of the bedrooms, we built the parking into a hill, re-did a 250-foot long private way with all the infrastructure associated with that. We executed the project from start to finish in 12 months, and since those 12 months, 6 families have moved into the building, and so far the feedback from the buyers and the neighbors has been so incredibly positive which is extremely rewarding.
One piece of advice for someone just getting started who wants to get a leg up and be a developer?
I’m a big skier, and I always say “respect the mountain,” and development is very much the same. Don’t just take the gondola to the top of the mountain and think that you’re going to put on your skis and cruise down. Start at the bunny slopes, work your way up, and eventually you’ll be at the top. But if you try to skip too many steps, it can be really tough to recover from a big mistake.
There’s a certain amount of folklore that goes into failure, and that it’s OK to fail, but failure in real estate development can be catastrophic. The consequences aren’t just that you lose your job, you’re very leveraged — and when a project goes south or sideways, it can be catastrophic. So for that reason, I always like to say “walk, jog, run” and start with something small. An interior renovation of a condominium. Live there. I always say that if you’re doing anything, ask, “Would I live there?” and that’s usually a good fallback plan. And then build on top of the success.
Any last thoughts?
I work in a lot of emerging neighborhoods — East Boston, Dorchester, South Boston, and I think that the finishes in a lot of the homes I’m putting in is perhaps a step elevated from the rest of the competition. And some people ask things like, “Why did you do waterfall countertops?” and my response to that has always been that I don’t pay for advertising. I think of some of these ancillary costs as a form of marketing, so that buyers know a Choose Boston product will deliver a certain quality. And so because of that, I’ve almost always been able to pre-sell my units prior to certificate of occupancy, prior to completion. So that’s something I’m proud of. I’m not one to always look at each decision, like, “If I spend a dollar, will it return at least a dollar and a penny?” I really just think if I were to live here, and I was the buyer of the home, is this something I would value for that price? And if it is, I do it.
It’s 2032 and there’s a hot new area near the city. Where do you think it is?
I’m pretty bullish on smaller cities. I think places like Salem, Portland, Lynn. Just the notion that we all benefit from density to some extent, but we also want to feel like we have space, and in a short amount of time, we can be out hiking or away from people, I think those more emerging cities offer that. That’s where I’d be placing chips right now.
If you had to leave Boston and start over elsewhere? Where would it be?
Chicago. I love Chicago. I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago, I went to Purdue University. I admire their architecture and their willingness to go big. Their skylines has a good mix of skyscrapers. The process seems much less onerous than other parts of the country. And for that reason, it’s more affordable — to build and buy. I think that’s a place that cities like Boston should aspire to.
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