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Increasing Transparency in the Real Estate Industry with Brandon Donnelly of TAS

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Brandon is a young, hungry, up and coming developer in the city. and interestingly enough, just like Matt Young, Brandon is a VERY busy guy with side projects and entrepreneurial ambitions outside of his day job working with the Toronto condo developer TAS.

Brandon Donnelly Interview Highlights

1:21 Who is Brandon Donnelly?

2:28 How Brandon Donnelly Got Into the Condo Industry

6:20 DIRT Website

11:20 What is Brandon Donnelly Doing Now?

13:28 Brandon Donnelly’s Blog

16:19 Is There a Condo Bubble in Toronto?

18:03 Is Brandon Donnelly a Condo Investor?

19:10 The Marketing Behind Kingston & Co.

24:00 OpenDoor.com

26:20 How to Reach Brandon Donnelly

Links

Brandon Donnelly on Twitter

TAS

Kingston and Co

Architect this City (Brandon’s blog)

Dirt (brandon’s past project)

Unlyst (Brandon’s latest project

How to Leave a Review for The True Condos Podcast on iTunes

Brandon Donnelly Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hello, and welcome back to The True Condos Podcast. A special welcome if this is your first time listening to the show. I’m your host, Andrew la Fleur. I’m a realtor, and I specialize in helping people to make money by investing in the Toronto condo market. I’m also a condo investor myself. This podcast is a chance for you to listen and to hear from experts and industry insiders about what’s really going on in the condo market. We also like to find out where these insiders are putting their own money when it comes to condo investing. If you like the podcast, please go TrueCondos.com and subscribe to get even more great content all about investing in condos in Toronto.

Again, thank you so much for everyone who’s been listening to the show, supporting the show, helping it rank really well in iTunes especially by leaving your reviews. If you’d like to leave me a review, just open up the iTunes store on your computer. Search for The True Condos Podcast in iTunes and click to “Write a Review”. The reviews really help get the word out about this show and they help more people to find it, so thank you so much for all your ratings and reviews. On today’s show, I sat down with Brandon Donnelly. Like my interview last week with Matt Young, Brandon is a young, hungry, up-and-coming developer in the city.

Interestingly enough, also just like Matt Young we talked to last week, Brandon is a very busy guy with side projects and entrepreneurial ambitions outside of his day job which is working with the Toronto condo developer TAS. For all the show notes on this episode, just go to TrueCondos.com/Brandon. Now, here it is, my interview with Brandon Donnelly. Great. Thank you very much Brandon for doing this interview with us today. I appreciate your time and looking forward to just introducing you to my listeners. I think you got some really cool stuff going on, so I think people are really be interested to hear what you’re up to, what you’re all about, and what your take is on the condo market as well.

Brandon: Thanks. Thanks for the invite.

Andrew: No problem. Why don’t we just start by tell us a little bit about yourself? I know you’re like involved in so many different things from real estate development to startups to … You got amazing blog going on. Tell us a little bit about yourself like what … Who is that you are, and what do you do?

Brandon: Sure, sure. I initially got into real estate development from the architectural world. That’s what I went to school for. That’s what I started studying. I love architecture. Obviously, there’s a big part of me that’s interested in design, and city planning, and that whole world.

Andrew: Are you an architect by trade?

Brandon: Yeah. I have my undergrad in architecture and my master’s in architecture as well too, but I’ve never practiced architecture.

Andrew: Interesting. Okay. You’ve done everything, but?

Brandon: I’ve done everything, but. It is basically because as I was going through architecture school, I think I quickly learned that architects used to be the master builder, and that’s what you’re led to believe. Then, you realize in the reality of the world, it’s developers and other people that have a lot more say in terms of what gets built a lot of the time in cities. I became very interested in development as … I figured there’s two ways. I could either become an architect, and try to fight the system, and figure out how to promote good design that way, or I could just become a developer and use that to promote good design. Obviously, I chose the latter.
I became very interested in development. When I did my master’s, I did my master’s in architecture and real estate development, and then went straight in to working for developers. First, in Ireland for a little bit, and then back in Toronto. It was that more regard before I was at TAS. Then as I was going through in working in development, I just realized how … You see how the inefficiencies in the industry, and as we were talking about it before, just how opaque it is relative to tech, and other things in other industries.

Andrew: Let’s dive into that a little bit. What do you mean by the industry is opaque?

Brandon: I just think it’s really interesting how on the tech side, you’ve got companies like Buffer for example which is a social media management company. I think they’re one of if not the most transparent company in the entire world. They publish all of their employees’ salaries for everybody to see. Actually, the formula for how they pay their salary. Depending on location, there’s …

Andrew: This is not a public company.

Brandon: This is not a public company, but they voluntarily do that. Everything is open internally in terms of how they push that content out. There’s a transparency there. I think there’s a lot of benefits from being that transparent, but also just as embracing of new technologies, and different ways of doing business, and different ways of marketing yourself, and inbound marketing, and all these changes that are happening in other industries that I didn’t see happening in real estate. I think it’s in comparison to pretty archaic industry. I became very interested in how technology could improve and change the way that the business is done in the real estate side.
When I was working on Dirt, when I was working on a startup, I didn’t actually … Some people thought of it as, “Well, you’re working on a tech startup now. That’s really … That’s a bit of a change.” I didn’t look at it as a change. I looked at it as leveraging technology to improve the real estate industry. For me, it was still a real estate related business. It was still a real estate startup. It was just taking technology and applying that to the industry. I think that, that’s a trend that’s going to happen in a lot of other cases as well.
It used to be that there was tech startups with their own silo, but I think now you’re seeing technology being applied to so many existing industries from publishing, and media, and real estate, and all of these things. I think that’s going to be the shift. It’s not going to be a silo anymore.

Andrew: Interesting. You mentioned Dirt, your website which no longer exist.

Brandon: It’s up and running.

Andrew: It is? Okay.

Brandon: Yeah. It’s just we’re not working on it.

Andrew: Okay. Tell us about Dirt. Some people might have be familiar with it. You had a big feature article I think in the Toronto Star.

Brandon: Yeah. Yeah.

Andrew: It got quite … It got some good traction there for a while, but you’ve I guess stepped away from it. You’re not working on it.

Brandon: No. Yeah, we’re … No. We’re not.

Andrew: What is Dirt, and where did it not work out?

Brandon: Yeah. First of all, thanks for being an early user because I know that you use that site. I appreciate that, and it’s … When you’re starting something new, it’s critical to have …

Andrew: I thought it was a fantastic site, so I’ll just jump in here. The site was basically review site for condo buildings where anybody could come on and leave a review either … Could it be anonymous, or did you have to have …?

Brandon: Yeah, it could be. It could be anonymous.

Andrew: You could do anonymous or non-anonymous reviews of condo buildings both new and resale in Toronto?

Brandon: Yeah. We thought of it as a Yelp for condo buildings basically. Owners and renters or even past owners and past renters could go on and leave a review, their impression of the building, and then a five-star rating of how much they would recommend that to a friend. We got a lot of great feedback on that. People, I think people saw the value in it. This gets back to the whole transparency piece is that people are making such a big decision. They’re going to be buying a condo or moving into a new place, and they don’t have access to as much information as they probably would like. I think that’s where that, the need was.

It’s interesting because I was speaking with a realtor a few weeks ago. He was actually saying how it helped him sell a unit because he was representing an owner. He was selling his place, and he received a lowball offer. The owner said, “No, no. I don’t want to accept that. It’s a lowball offer.” He actually sent him a review from Dirt, and it basically had a bunch of negative comments about the building which the owner knew was true and said, “Fine, I’ll accept it. Let’s just sell it. I want to get rid of it.” It’s interesting how it … This age and really enjoyed the site.

I think the challenges that we faced were getting to that critical mass of reviews and of information on the site. The way that Yelp did it was they really empowered and promoted this close-knit group of people within each city. They would develop, they would hire a community manager to basically go out and find the people that are eating out all the time, going to bars, going to restaurants, and love writing reviews about them. They managed to scale up by taking a concentration of users and getting them to produce lots of content for them.

The challenge that we were facing with Dirt is that you had … Every single user could only produce so much content for the site. No matter how enthusiastic you maybe about it, you didn’t know about all the buildings in Toronto and you weren’t going to buildings on a regular basis like you go to restaurants in order to get that information. We really had to … You had to have a higher percentage of people actually contributing. It’s much more difficult to do that because on most sites, you have most people just reading and a very small portion of people who actually contribute or create any sort of content, right?

Andrew: Right. Isn’t there also a problem just that or did you find this to be true that there’s just a positive bias to any of these review sites where it’s harder to get the more honest or more negative reviews out of people especially in real estate where people don’t want to leave a negative review of their own building because obviously it’s self-defeating?

Brandon: Totally. Yeah. That was one of the criticisms we received and that owners would never leave a negative review for their building. I get that. There were actually people that did who weren’t fussed about that, but that’s one of the criticisms we received. It’s a valid one, but at the same time, our bigger picture was always about the data that we collect as a result of this reviews. For example, when people would say that, “I’m an owner, a current owner, and here’s my review,” or “I’m a current renter,” then all of a sudden, we would know. We’d know that that person lives in the building today or this person is an owner or a renter.
The idea was that through this process, we could collect those interesting data, so we could go back to people and say, “Well, this building is 33% renters as far as we know,” and pull out some of that, those stats from it. That was really the big picture in where we wanted to go is create a lot more openness around it. Because if you think about it, if you think of the average condo building, you have no idea how many people are owners, how many people are renters, how many investor units, what’s the demographics of it, what’s the average age. There’s all these information that …

Andrew: Which you would love to know.

Brandon: Would love to know. Anyone would love to know, right? We were trying to figure out ways to get us to that point where we could collect that information and share it with everybody else. Right?

Andrew: What are you working on now? I know you’re … We talked about a few different things. What’s your day job now? You’re here at …

Brandon: Yeah. I’m here at TAS.

Andrew: TAS DesignBuild?

Brandon: Yeah, although we rebranded. Just TAS.

Andrew: Just TAS now?

Brandon: Yeah. The DesignBuild is really the history of the company which started in the custom home business, so building. The company, it’s been around since I guess the early ‘80s. Built a number of high-end homes in the Bridle Path and areas like that, and then transitioned over into condos. Zed in King and Bathurst was one of the first projects. Then after that, it was Dia, M5V in King Street. Now, we’re in the process of selling DUKE at a junction and Kingston&Co in the upper beaches.

Andrew: What’s your role here day to day here?

Brandon: I’m a Project Manager, Development Manager, and here full time working. It’s a relatively small company still, so we’re involved in a lot of different capacities, but basically overseeing development projects.

Andrew: You’ve got your blog. Tell us about your blog as well. It was awesome.

Brandon: Sure, sure. Thanks. Yeah. The blog is called “Architect This City”. It’s BrandonDonnelly.com. What’s interesting about it is the blog actually really came out of Dirt. It’s that part of while I was working on Dirt, we started blogging, or it was really me responsible for that, and it’s because we had no money to spend on marketing, so we’re … How do we create content, and how do we create a natural pull again in mail marketing and all that? We started blogging with Dirt. When that went down, I got really into the habit of doing it. I enjoyed it. I liked it.
I said, “I’m going to start blogging now on my own,” and had no … All I knew is I was going to blog about cities because that encapsulates a lot of my interest around design, planning, real estate, et cetera, and then it just evolved and snowballed from there. It became Architect This City as a brand, as a name.

Andrew: You blog a lot like …

Brandon: I blog every day.

Andrew: Definitely, if you’re interested in development, if you’re interested in cities, if you’re interested in real estate, what’s happening in Toronto, you definitely want to check out this blog. Subscribe to it.
Brandon: Thanks.

Andrew: You’ve been doing it for I guess a year. You blog I think every single day?

Brandon: Yeah, every day. Seven days a week.

Andrew: Seven days a week which is amazing, and it’s …

Brandon: They’re short though. They’re short digestible posts.

Andrew: Right, but it’s all good stuff. There’s not much fluff at all. Really. It’s all like every day, you put out some great content and some really good stuff, so I commend you for that.

Brandon: Thank you.

Andrew: As a fellow blogger, I know how hard it is to put out content like that on regular basis.

Brandon: Some days, it’s really tough.

Andrew: What do you …? You got a pretty big following at this blog. Where do you want to take it? What do you think you want to do with it now? You’ve been doing it for a year.

Brandon: I think when I started, I was … I basically said to myself that even if nobody reads it, there still be a lot of value in me doing it. It’s basically keeping a public journal. It’s funny because I think about grade 4 and 5, and English class, and how we had to grow forth to keep journals every day, and I wrote about silly things like …

Andrew: That was the dawn of blogging, right?

Brandon: That was … Yeah, that was … Yeah.

Andrew: Grade 4 journaling. That’s blogging right there.

Brandon: Yeah. Except then, it was talking about how somebody stole my granola bar. Now, I’m talking about cities. There’s a lot of value I think in … Personal value in just writing down your ideas because it’s one thing to think about things. It’s another thing to actually put it down on paper, and sort through, and structure your ideas. Then, doing that publically is a whole other layer of value because people can now comment on and engage with it. A lot of times, I’ll put out … I’m not an expert on all of the things I write about, but I’m interested in a lot of these things, and I write about it, and I’m sorting through ideas, and then people will come back and comment on it.

Through that dialogue, then all of a sudden, I ailed a form a better opinion about it or at least better understanding of it. I think there’s a lot of value in writing things down and doing it publically. That’s really … There isn’t a lot of other ambitions other than just keep doing it. I think there’s a lot of indirect benefits. I meet a lot of people as a result of it. People email me all the time saying, “You want to grab coffee? I’d love to chat.”

Probably part of the reason you’re doing this right now with me is because of that blog.

Andrew: Sure. Yeah.

Brandon: There’s a lot of indirect benefit. At the same time too, I can talk about projects that I’m working on. When we launched a new project, I’ll obviously blog about it. That drives traffic too to the main site. There’s a lot of great reasons to do it.

Andrew: We can talk about so many other things, but I want to talk about the condo market specifically. A question that I like to ask everybody and get your take on it is, do you think there’s a condo bubble in Toronto? Where do you see the market right now? Where do you see the market going?

Brandon: I think it’s amazing how many people think that. I was just at a launch event last night for a friend who … Moved to offices I should say. Everyone was asking me about the condo market since they found out that you’re in real estate. I think it’s overblowing though. I think once interest rates start to creep up, that will create … That will slow it down a little bit. It creates some negative pressure on prices, but it’s … There’s so many fundamentals emplaced that can explain what’s happening I think in the market. Every developer … Obviously, it’s self-serving, but they always talk about immigration rates to the region, how that’s driving things.

I think the other … The other pieces are just that there’s demographic changes going on. People are delaying having family, start having kids, moving to the suburbs, that whole piece. There’s a shift in consumer preference towards urban living, downtown living. People don’t want to commute. They’re willing to put up a smaller place in exchange for urban amenities, and less driving, and all of those types of pieces. The policies … The policy framework promotes intensification in this type of development, then Green Belt restricts parole. There’s all of these factors at play that are encouraging and acting as a catalyst for this type of development that we’re seeing. I don’t think it’s as crazy as everyone makes it out to seem.

Andrew: Are you a condo investor yourself?

Brandon: I invest personally in condos and low-rise homes, so I … Both sides.

Andrew: In terms of condos, what have you bought, or what are you buying, or what are you looking at?

Brandon: I just bought a new place for myself about a year now, almost two years ago now.

Andrew: Can you share the building?

Brandon: Yeah. I live in the Market Worth Building in St. Lawrence.

Andrew: Market Worth?

Brandon: Yeah, on Market. It’s a great building. People always ask me advice on investing in condos. My recommendation was always try to find something that’s unique about it. Something that’s defensible is the term I use. If it’s got something unique, a waterfront view, or a great terrace, or it’s a hard loft, or anything that’s unique about it I think is always great especially when there’s a lot of supply coming on the market. I think you have to find those really unique properties.

Andrew: That’s great.

Brandon: In my case, there’s a big terrace. That was the selling point for me.

Andrew: Nice. I love a good terrace. Let’s talk about one of the buildings that you mentioned, Kingston&Co. The marketing campaign that you guys are doing is pretty unique, and I think it’s awesome. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing with the marketing, and how that idea came about, and what’s the strategy behind that.

Brandon: Sure. When we …

Andrew: Maybe tell us about the building first for people who aren’t familiar.

Brandon: Yeah. Okay, sure. It’s a midrise building going up in the upper beaches. It’s on Kingston Road in an area that’s technically called … It’s straddling two areas, Kingston Road Village and Birchcliff Village. It’s Kingston Road and Victoria Park on the side of the old Alpine Hotel that used to be there. It’s a midrise building. It’s eight stories. It steps up to 10 on the west side. It’s got terraces that slope down all along the north side, so the 45 degree angular plane. That’s part of those, the midrise guidelines. Teeple Architects is the designer for it. They done some really great things with the facades, these articulations along the self-façade to catch the light and create shadows and all of these types of things.

All the units have outdoor space, so that was a big part of … That was one of the key mandates that we set. The terraces are also going to be equipped with harvest planters, so residents can plant fruits, vegetables, herbs, whatever they like which is really part of the whole … Part of the TAS corporate philosophy that actually … An urban agriculture insulation on the top of this building right now. We have lunches and we pull from the rooftop. That’s really part of the philosophy of TAS. One of the amenity spaces is a rooftop … Rooftop space which will have planting beds as well too that people can use outdoor space, barbecues, and so on. It’s really interesting building.

When we launched initially, we started with this Q&A campaign basically. What we did is we picked some of the questions that we thought on everybody’s mind like what you just asked me about the condo, is there a condo bubble? We picked these questions that we thought was on everyone’s minds, and we wanted to answer them directly, and then allow anybody else from … Anyone in the public to then respond as well too to create a conversation, a dialogue around these topics. It really gets back to trying to create transparency and openness in the market, and so …

Andrew: Which is what we started talking about today which is what your whole passion and what you’re all about in the real estate industries is bringing that transparency to an industry that’s really lacked it forever.

Brandon: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Andrew: You got the website and everything. You’re just … You’re taking questions or you’re answering common questions, and you’re actually opening it up to anybody to add to that, or to disagree with you, or to say, “Oh, you’re full of it. You’re a developer. You’re just feeding us lies or something,” stuff like that versus I guess the traditional approach which a lot of people perceive developers to have is quite different or it’s … Hold on to that information. Don’t tell people about what the closing costs are going to be or any issues they might encounter that they didn’t realize and things like that that come with buying a condo.

Brandon: Yeah. I think the natural response often with developers, and I think this also ties into things like community consultations. Is it just pull back and withhold information, and let’s hope that we can just get by and nobody really notices what’s going on? Obviously, in this case, our approach was to be much more open, and much more transparent around it, and really have a discussion with people, and be authentic about it.

That was the approach. It’s obviously something that I believe in, but it was also something that the company and the owners believe in as well too.

Andrew: That’s awesome. Yeah. I hope that more developers especially the big boys really take note of what you guys are doing, and I hope it catches on as a bigger trend in the industry as well. It’s obviously something that I’m doing with this podcast, and with my blogging, and all my marketing that I do with my clients is all about just educating people on the market, educating people on the process of buying and investing in condos, so that … An educated buyer is the ultimate goal, so that everybody knows … Can make … The more knowledge you have, the better decision you can make, right?

Brandon: Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely.

Andrew: This has been a really great conversation. Is there anything else that you want add? A question I like to ask, is there any … Is there a question that nobody has asked you yet about yourself or about the real estate market, about what you’re doing that you wish that somebody would ask you?

Brandon: I think I’m pretty open about all of the things that are on my mind which is on my blog, but one of the things that I’ve actually been really interested lately … Have you heard of a company called “OpenDoor.com” out of California? You may have read it on my blog.
Andrew: I think yeah. I think I … It sounds familiar from your blog.

Brandon: Yeah. I’m really interested in seeing what these guys do, and I was talking about it with a few people last night as well too. They’re out at California. They’ve raised about $10,000,000 of funding already, and they haven’t even launched their product yet. The way that it’s basically going to work is that homeowners will go on to this platform which is … It will start as a web app I think, but they’ll go on. They’ll add their home.

The site will immediately provide evaluation for that home. It’s worth X as well as an offer to buy it and close within three days. It’s instant liquidity for home owners, and they’re actually launching in markets where there isn’t a lot of liquidity.

They’re not launching in San Francisco. They’re going to the Midwest in the middle of the US where it’s a lot … It’s slower to sell a home. It takes longer, and so they’re going to be offering that instant liquidity. That’s pretty much all everyone knows about the product, and they’re trying to remain fairly stealth about it, but I have reached out to some of the founders. I’m just curious to see how, what they’re up to, and how they’re developing. I think things like that are really interesting. I think the idea could potentially be very disruptive to the way that market works.

I think going back to what you were just saying about transparency and openness, I think that a lot of the times, what happens in markets is not the incumbent that make all the changes. It’s in you guys that come in and really change the way that the market has been done, and that forces the incumbent to really adapt to it. I think that while I think we’re trying to do our part and bring more openness and transparency, I think it’s important to look for some of those new startups that are coming up that could potentially have a huge impact on the way that we do business.

Andrew: Again, thank you Brandon for your time. If people want to find you, again what’s the best way to get a hold of you?

Brandon: BrandonDonnelly.com.

Andrew: BrandonDonnelly.com. Great, and check … We’ll definitely leave a link to that in the show notes for this episode. Great. Thanks a lot.

Brandon: Thank you very much.

Andrew: I hope you enjoyed that interview with Brandon Donnelly. Brandon is a really sharp cat. I think you could tell from the interview, and I like how he’s working to tackle the problems in our industry. Namely, the perpetual lack of transparency in the development industry. I really think and I’ve been saying this all along, we need more of this. Like he said, it’s the small guys in any industry who tend to be the ones who start any big change like this. It’s unlikely to be any of the big developers to really want to shake things up, but small guys like Brandon and others can really make big changes in the business.

I hope that he continues to work with that end. I found the True Condos in this podcast with really the same idea, to lift the veil off of the industry and to give condo investors the straight goods. When people have access to more information and data, they make better decisions. Pure and simple. You make better decisions when you have more information. I want to see more of that, and I hope you’re enjoying these podcasts, and I hope you’re enjoying all my blogposts. For those of you who are subscribers, I hope you’re enjoying all the emails and the information that I’m sending you each week via email.

Once again, for other show notes on the show, head on over to TrueCondos.com/Brandon for all the links and everything of the things we talked about. If you like the show, please leave mea review on iTunes. They are greatly appreciated. Thanks for listening. Bye.

Thanks for listening to The True Condos Podcast. Remember, your positive reviews make a big difference to the show. To learn more about condo investing, become a True Condos subscriber by visiting TrueCondos.com.

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