Wrapping up my internship at Debt.com, I wanted to do something weird. I wanted to find out how to get rich.
So I went to Than Merrill’s Real Estate Class in Miami. Merrill, a former NFL player who left the game after just two years because of a knee injury, now apparently spends his time helping people like me make lots of money. The meeting took place at an upscale hotel and spa located on the main street, where apartments overlooked the folksy little shops, boutiques, and restaurants.
I was really nervous going in, but it didn’t look like a place where my organs would be harvested and sold on the black market. So I’d say it started off on a positive note.
Though the economy is on the rise, many are still searching for financial security. Was this just a group of scam artists spotting an opportunity to prey on innocent people’s insecurities? Or were they good people honestly trying to help others achieve some level of success? I wanted to find out for myself.
I found the class just by doing a quick Google search. Eventually I found one locally hosted by Fortune Builders, a company started by Than Merrill, who went from football to flipping houses. I just get an overwhelming sense that at some point in time, he’s referred to himself as “The Than.” I picked an available time and date and registered online. It was free.
Once at the event, I signed in. The attendees and I were ushered into a conference room where we were given booklets, pens, and scratch paper to take down notes. As we waited for the late arrivals, we were shown an episode of Flip This House, a television series starring Merrill and his two partners Paul and JD Esajian. Commercial breaks were clips of the Green Bay Packers “taking control” of their financial future thanks to Than. At the end of the episode, the group had made over $120,000. Then the seminar began.
We sat in neat rows as a speaker named Bill showed us a PowerPoint which we were forbidden to take pictures or video of because it was “confidential, copyrighted” material. From start to finish, the seminar lasted two full hours.
There were no snacks.
Our instructor, Bill, had a voice that was both calming and unnerving. I’m not sure if it was my pessimism or what, but he gave off a vibe very similar to that of Littlefinger on Game of Thrones. Which is to say, if you haven’t seen it, he seemed super shady. Whatever his endgame was, I was confident that no one would buy into it. Most in the crowd had their arms crossed, remaining quiet and doubtful.
Oftentimes, Bill would start the beginning of a clichéd saying or pose an obvious question, at which point the audience gave a half-hearted response. We were a united mistrustful force. At one point, he asked what kind of counter top we would want in our homes. A few kind souls took pity on him and said granite. Simultaneously, the woman beside me and I both defiantly muttered “Quartz.” We locked eyes. We traded devious smirks. It was a nice moment.
However, much to our surprise, Bill addressed the questions that everyone was thinking within the first ten or so minutes: What are you selling and how much will it cost? He applauded us for our skepticism, but asked us to refrain from being cynical. This was well-practiced.
He then told us about the Than Merrill Real Estate Three-Day Program. Over the course of three days, we would spend 36 hours learning the ins and outs of real estate. By the end, we’d be able to successfully flip real estate for profit. The total cost would come to $1,197 per person, but if we were to buy that very day, they would charge only $197 for two tickets into the program. Bill warned us that while it was a great opportunity, it wasn’t for everyone, that there are workers and there are entrepreneurs and we had to decide for ourselves which category we wanted to fall into.
He told us that we could sign up any time during the seminar, because by the end we would all want to and it would become too crowded. Initially, only two people made their way to the back. However, as the seminar continued, Bill would point out the extras the early birds got in their yellow bags. One free online course on wholesales. A guide to all-cash buying. A tutorial for accessing secret real estate listings. As time went on, a divide emerged between those who had purchased, and those who hadn’t. Those with the yellow bags began whispering amongst themselves, and more and more rushed to the back to register. Even my former quartz comrade shielded one of the documents in question away from me.
By the end, you could feel the excitement buzzing around the room. People were rushing to the back to speak with counselors, and many of those who had already signed up were excitedly making calls, no doubt ecstatic to tell friends and family about the solution to their financial troubles. Well over half of the roughly 40 people in attendance had signed up.
Find. Fund. Fix. Flip.
These were the four Fs of flipping a home that we were told to abide by. Following those rules, we were given a watered-down version what to expect at the three-day summit.
- Prey on the distressed. Finding homes can be difficult. We were advised to avoid short-sales and auctions, as people near and far were drawn to such listings. Instead, buyers should search Craigslist for estate sales. While sellers are distressed about the passing of relatives, we should go in with all-cash offers with the assurance of a quick and stress-free sale.
- Receive asset-based lending. Funding a flip can be difficult for those with little money or bad credit. We were told that certain companies provide funding for ARV, or after-repair value. If you have a solid plan on what you’ll be doing in the home, how much it will cost, and a good estimate on how the home will perform on the market, you can earn financial backing in return for providing them a cut of the profits.
- Use contractors. Fixing is definitely the most important step in the formula, and Bill encouraged us to not DIY a house flip, even if we were contractors. He advised that doing so would take longer, which would lead us to incurring higher holding fees, ultimately losing us money. We were told to ask multiple contractors to draft an estimation for cost and to only agree to pay for labor, and that we should pick and choose the materials ourselves to further cut back on costs. In order to weed out the good contractors from the bad, he suggested that everyone have their contractor sign a waiver holding them financially liable for any misdeeds. Only move forward with those willing to sign, and if they do a good job, keep the same group for future renovations.
- Use the money from your investments as your retirement fund. Flipping houses is meant to be a lucrative business, and one that must be done full-time in order to reap the full benefits. Bill suggested that instead of working day in and day out to build up a 401k that mostly benefits the banks, you should be benefiting yourself. He told us about self-directed retirement plans, special types of IRAs that can be used in real estate. Because it’s going towards your retirement, you aren’t required to pay taxes on any of the money that you make. He said that while some may find it crazy to invest all of your money into the housing market, it was even crazier to put your financial destiny in the hands of strangers. (Not including strangers like Bill, I suppose.)
I have to say, as someone with no background in real estate, the information given at the meeting mostly seemed valid, factual, and sound – if at times somewhat immoral. But I didn’t sign up and I wouldn’t vouch for the credibility of get-rich-quick schemes just yet.
You may think that $200 for a three-day summit seems like a good deal, but that’s only the start. Fortune Builders is really working up to convince students to participate in a “mastery” program that costs upward of $33,000. And what they don’t mention at the free class is how they pressure many of the students at the summit to go into credit card debt in order to pay for these mastery courses. They justify it by comparing it to college, saying you’ll be “investing in your future,” but they don’t warn you about the ridiculous interest fees that comes along with it if you aren’t immediately successful.
It may seem tempting to try to find an easy way out of your financial situation, but going to one of these seminars isn’t the way to do it. A lot of the information could be found by simply searching online. Especially since I just explained the basic idea. There are very few realistic ways to get rich quick, and most of them rely on luck or doing something illegal. But there are plenty of paths to become financially secure. If you’re stressed about your situation, check out the free resources online at debt.com.