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Hitting the Right Note

Dave Van Horn finds success in his niche

Dave Van Horn started working early—in every sense of the word. In fourth grade, he had a paper route, delivering the news at the crack of dawn. Since then, he’s continued putting in the hard work, but over time, he’s learned how to put his money to work as well.

Van Horn is president and CEO of PPR Note Co., based in Berwyn, Pa., which offers various note funds for real estate investors. He launched the company in 2007 with his co-founders, Bob Paulus and John Sweeney. In Van Horn’s view, everything he’s done since fourth grade, from the paper route to working in fast food to painting, has molded him and provided lessons he’s used to build his success at PPR.

Setting a course

He wasn’t born into the world of real estate, but his mother did influence his career choice both directly and indirectly. Though she was a single parent of six children, she encouraged Van Horn to take an entrance exam for a college preparatory school in Delaware. He protested that the family couldn’t afford it; his mother claimed that since he had good grades, she just wanted to see whether he could get in—no harm done. The next thing he knew, Van Horn was offered a four-year scholarship and looking for hand-me-down suits to wear to class.

“The interesting thing was it changed my sphere of influence dramatically,” he said.

From there, Van Horn went on to become the only one of his siblings to complete college, and the experience as a whole left an impression on him about how relationships can influence one’s path.

Though he earned a degree in management, working throughout school and paying as he went, Van Horn couldn’t find a job in his field and couldn’t afford rent. At 25, with a wife and son in tow, he moved home with his mother and worked for a painting contractor. The work was grueling and unglamorous. His mother suggested he look into real estate to supplement his income. Van Horn took her advice, becoming a residential real estate agent for a local brokerage.

He was a great salesman, but real estate didn’t become his sole focus, even as he began investing. His first foray was a multiunit property, where he lived with his growing family and rented out the additional units. As Van Horn learned the ropes as a landlord and handyman, he gained confidence to continue investing through buy-and-hold rental properties and fix-and-flips. Meanwhile, he had also started his own business, Van Horn Painting.

At 42, Van Horn reached a crossroads. He was injured and couldn’t work in his painting business. Fortunately, he had built up enough properties that he still had income. He decided to transition fully into real estate. With 40 rental units, he was well on his way toward a goal he’d set to own 100 rentals.

Like many investors, Van Horn was always on the hunt for leverage. In the beginning, he was using traditional bank financing. Later, he was introduced to the idea of using credit cards to finance his purchases and renovations. At the time, there weren’t prohibitive cash advance fees, so he would write himself a check from one credit card, deposit it, and buy a house in cash. Using another credit card, he’d fix up the house. Once he found a tenant, he could refinance to pay off the credit card debt. The tenant would pay back the refinance loan, and Van Horn often had money left over to continue the process.

Through a local networking group, Van Horn learned about private money lending and was introduced to a hard money lender. As the credit card fees increased and banks turned him down for holding too many mortgages, private money lending allowed him to continue to grow his investments.

However, as he racked up rentals, Van Horn realized how busy he had become with tedious tasks, like inspections and eviction court appearances. Once again, his real estate investor networking group introduced him to a new concept: private notes.

Becoming a capital allocator

When PPR got started, it was just Van Horn, Paulus and Sweeney. Sweeney had experience as an investor-friendly lender, and Van Horn and Paulus were skilled at raising capital. Dealing in note funds, they were able to achieve cashflow without the hassle of directly dealing with tenants.

Over time, the operation grew. Today, PPR has four streams of business that make up its funds:

Nonperforming notes: PPR’s original focus, which remains the majority of their business, is dealing in residential loans that have gone delinquent.

Commercial notes: Short-term business loans and real estate investor loans, including construction, fix-and-flip, bridge loans, and hard money loans.

Commercial real estate: PPR has begun investing in multifamily properties within the past year and now works with about nine operators in markets nationwide.

Affordable housing: For this new aspect of the business, PPR works with a woman-owned nonprofit, providing capital to acquire assets and build new, affordable housing.

As it has grown, Van Horn said PPR has evolved from an asset manager to become primarily a “capital allocator.” It makes sense to work with joint venture partners who are experts in their niche and who have access to a product or better execution, he said. That allows PPR to focus on its strength, which is raising capital.

Through its ventures, Van Horn said PPR helps investors build wealth and passive income while providing an avenue for community stabilization. His wealth management motto is “share, build, preserve.”

“We’re giving investors access to an asset class they wouldn’t usually have access to,” he said. “The result is financial freedom for them through passive income.”

At the same time, PPR’s expertise allows its partners to grow.

“We help our JV partners in what they find difficult, which is finding private equity quickly,” he said.

Through its note collections business, Van Horn said the goal has always been to help the individuals as well as the community. He considers it socially conscious investing.

“Collections is never a popular thing, but we can still do good work. You have to be empathetic and understanding. We can usually help people in those situations [of having a nonperforming loan],” he said. “We have more flexibility than banks because we bought the loan at a discount, and we can sometimes share that discount with the borrower or help them in moving on.”

“Our main goal is to keep people in their homes, or if it’s vacant, we look at ways to get it back into the community and get it back on the tax rolls,” Van Horn said.

Van Horn can call on many examples of people his company has been able to help. One borrower hadn’t been paying on his second mortgage. As it turned out, he had been injured on the job and had fallen behind on bills. He had returned to work but needed to keep his payments closer to $500 than the nearly $700 his current terms required. PPR was able to modify the loan terms, allowing the borrower to get back on track and stay in his home, while recouping much of the company’s investment through a lump sum arrears payment.

PPR’s new affordable housing arm plays into the same aim of community stabilization. Affordable housing is a strong need in markets nationwide, but it’s often not profitable—and therefore most businesses won’t take it on. However, with PPR’s expertise in both multifamily and raising capital, Van Horn sees an opportunity to make a difference by working with its nonprofit partner to fill that gap for families across the country.

The human element

As Van Horn discovered through his networking groups, relationships are one of the most important assets a person can have in the real estate industry. He has built that into PPR’s DNA. Every investor is assigned to a direct point of contact so they never have to go through a chatbot or phone tree to get information. He also deals with investors directly and makes himself available for meetings with them. Just knowing they can reach a person—including the CEO—humanizes the experience and makes investors more comfortable, Van Horn said.

“People have faith in us because we treat their money like it’s our own money,” he said. “It makes them more comfortable and confident with us.”

Van Horn’s philosophy is to treat everyone the same, regardless of status at work or the size of investments. “You never know who you’re going to meet or where,” he said.

Putting that into practice has served him well in all aspects of business. A man who previously answered the phones at one of PPR’s partner companies later started his own business, which he grew into a multibillion-dollar venture. He was offered a buyout from his company and now consults for PPR. Similarly, an investor who started out putting $25,000 into funds at PPR—the minimum—has become a multimillionaire who now invests more than $1 million with PPR. He’s also become a great friend of Van Horn’s.

“Most of my life, I was a blue-collar guy,” he said. “Most of our investors will become high net worth at some point, but we don’t know which ones.”

Van Horn has developed many relationships through the education he provides about real estate investing and wealth management. He began sharing his knowledge on various platforms, and after about seven months of laying the groundwork, he was asked to appear on podcasts and had articles featured on real estate investing blogs. His topics struck a chord, resulting in a boost of recognition.

He’s been in restaurants where strangers ask, “Are you Dave? It’s not like Hollywood, but in your niche, you are (a celebrity).”

Van Horn has parlayed that interest and recognition into capital building for PPR. When he had maxed out his own contacts, he began looking at other networks where he could raise funds, and he has been able to leverage his name recognition to add investors.

“It became less of who I knew and more of who knew me,” he said.

Advice for smart investors

PPR started out as a “one-legged stool” of note investing, Van Horn said. But over time the company has worked to diversify its business. The strategy protects the company from being affected by big changes in any one area. It also offers its investors a naturally diversified option: PPR funds now include notes, commercial loans, short-term business loans, multifamily investments and other investments. These investments are in markets nationwide, which also naturally mitigates risk by investing across geographic regions.

“In any asset class or category, we don’t want to be too top-heavy,” Van Horn said. “That might lower our returns a bit, but we’re protected more.”

Van Horn’s experience in all aspects of real estate investing comes into play by mitigating risk for the business and its investors. For example, his strong background as a contractor and property manager gives him insight into the risks facing any new construction projects PPR may invest in. “I can tell a lot from a site visit,” he said.

For those starting out in note or real estate investing, Van Horn offers the following advice—much of it earned through experience:

  • Understand the scope of risk for each category of investment. For example, performing notes are less risky than nonperforming; first mortgages are very different from second mortgages in due diligence and how they’re sold. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing because there are reasons for everything,” he said. “Start out in a less risky category until you know what you’re doing.”
  • In the same vein, he emphasized knowing your note seller and making sure it’s someone you want to do business with. Early on, Van Horn said, his team was burned by a seller “who would rip you off.”
  • Though note investing is “somewhat of a learn-by-doing” process, Van Horn said there are a few ways to gain understanding without using your own money. He recommended shadowing a deal that a colleague or mentor is doing, or overseeing someone’s deal and adding value to them without having to put up your own capital.
  • When investing in rentals, it helps to know the laws in each state you may be investing in, particularly concerning eviction proceedings. In some places, it can take months; in others, it can last years. Investors might decide some properties aren’t worth the risk based on the applicable laws.

As he alluded to earlier, inexperience can be an investor’s worst enemy. New note buyers often have few assets, so their exposure to each one is significant. His main takeaway: “Usually, the biggest risk in the note business is you,” Van Horn said.

Knowing that, his goal at PPR is to educate investors and mitigate risks through PPR’s funds, allowing investors to overcome that initial hurdle and create financial freedom. Just as he has discovered ways that his money can work for him, Van Horn aims to create pathways for others to do the same, which ultimately affords them the most valuable resource: time.