Moses Kagan on Real Estate

Avoiding a pretty painful “oops”

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A reader wrote in to ask me a question about yesterday’s piece, which argued for refinancing and holding, rather than selling, completed repositioning projects.

The question: “Only thing I don’t understand is why not refi on a LTV more than 60% to get back all of your original 2million dollars.”

It’s a reasonable question. After all, with a property value after stabilization of $3.2MM, you might be able to get a bank to loan you as much as 75% LTV, or $2.4MM.

Remember that we invested $2MM in the hypothetical property, so a $2.4MM loan would allow you to get all of your money out and then some. That seems like a pretty great deal, right?

The reason I stuck to a 60% LTV loan in the example is simple: Risk avoidance.

When you have a fully-renovated property with very high rents, you need to be conscious of the fact that rents can fall in the event of a recession. For example, in 2008-9, rents at our 16 unit building on Reno fell roughly 20%.

Recall our example property, which has net operating income (“NOI”) of $160k. Let’s assume that equates to rents of $220k / year (if you think a 72% operating margin is unusually high, you’re right – our unusually high rents make our properties’ margins unusually high). Now imagine the economy tanks and rents fall by 20% to $176k.

In recessions, expenses don’t fall by nearly as much as rents… the tenants are still going to use as much water / sewer as they did during the good times, right? Let’s say expenses decline by 10%, from $60k / year to $54k / year. What happens to your NOI, the money available to service the debt? Well, it falls to $176-54 = $122k.

Recall that at 60% LTV, our annual debt service was $116k. So, even with the 20% decrease in rents, our NOI still exceeds our debt service and we can still pay our loan and even have cashflow (albeit microscopic).

What would have happened if we had borrowed to a 75% LTV? Our debt service on that $2.4MM loan would have been $146k, which would would have serviced with our NOI of $122k… Ooops.

We at Adaptive get paid a lot of money to avoid “oops” moments. So that’s why we wouldn’t ever lever up as high as 75% on a property with maxed-out rents.

Written by mjkagan

10/31/2014 at 10:32 am

Posted in Debt, Development, How to

To sell or not to sell

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One of the problems a beginning money manager has is deciding whether to sell or hold completed projects.

To understand dilemma, you first need to understand what we’re generally left with when a project is completed:

  • Fully renovated building with all new plumbing, electric, etc.
  • High quality tenants on modern leases with good security deposits
  • An un-levered yield on cash invested in the deal of 7-9%

Implicit in the final bullet point above is a bunch of value creation and, therefore, unrealized capital gain.

To understand why, consider a hypothetical deal into which we invested $2MM and which is now generating an 8% unlevered yield… so NOI of $160k.

We’re theoretically in a 5% cap market (though, for maxed-out properties, probably more like 5.5-6%), so that property is potentially worth $3.2MM. Assuming 7% cost of sale, that’s a net value of $3MM and an unrealized gain of $1MM or 50% on the $2MM investment.

The incentives for selling ASAP are clear: Return capital and realize profit.

The above sounds pretty compelling, right? After all, the whole point is to make a lot of money quickly.

But the downside of the above is the requirement of paying taxes.

To keep things simple, assume the manager is entitled to 20% of the gain and the investors the rest. That means the investors are taking $800k of the profits… a 40% ROI.

But the problem is that they are going to pay taxes. In CA, depending on your income, you’re looking at paying 25-30% in taxes. Assuming 25%, the investors are looking at $600k net.

And guess what? They’re left with the problem of where to invest both the original $2MM AND the $600k profit. If they just buy plain old 5% cap properties, they’re looking at generating NOI of $130k… worse than holding the original property (even accounting for the manager’s take)!

What’s the better solution?

Refi at 60% LTV on the new valuation. Pull out $1.9MM in cash. Assuming a 4.5% interest rate on the $1.9MM loan, that means annual debt service of $116k and free cashflow of $160k-116k= $44k. That’s a 44% return on the $100k in equity remaining in the deal.

And the $1.9MM in loan proceeds that the investors get back? That’s tax free money.

Much better solution, right?

Written by mjkagan

10/30/2014 at 9:47 am

Posted in Development

How a good contractor handles inspectors

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By now, we’ve had a LOT of experience dealing with city inspections.

And we’ve seen how many different contractors handle them.

And here’s what separates the contractors who get their permits signed off from the ones who get endless streams of corrections:

  1. Good quality work (obviously); and
  2. Confidence.

The nature of renovating old buildings is that things are not always going to get built exactly to plan.

You and your contractor are going to have to improvise in order to create the best possible space within the constraints under which you are forced to operate.

The hard part is when the inspector comes in and sees that what has been done deviates from the plans.

Now, if what you have done violates the building codes, there’s not much anyone can do… you’re not going to get away with it.

However, if the work is to code, then you might. If your contractor has a history of doing good work and projects confidence in his own knowledge of the building code, the inspector is likely to allow some deviations without requiring you to go back to plan-check (which can impose weeks or months of delays).

If, on the other hand, your contractor does low quality work and/or lacks confidence in his own knowledge of the building codes, the inspector is likely going to run roughshod over him, which means multiples rounds of additional inspections and / or trips back to plan-check.

With isolated exceptions, we have found city inspectors to be pretty reasonable people. If they think you know what you’re doing, they let you proceed. If they think you’re an amateur, then they force you through the wringer (which, by the way, is how you go from being an amateur to being a pro… trust me!).

Written by mjkagan

10/29/2014 at 10:23 am

Posted in Development, How to

Describing what we do

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Have been doing some thinking about how, exactly, to explain how Adaptive helps clients deploy capital in the multifamily space.

Regular readers know we do bunch of different things, including:

  • Managing real estate investments (via discretionary funds and one-off projects)
  • Fee-for-service development (where we get paid cash to help investors buy and rehab their own properties)
  • Property management (for our own deals and select 3rd-party owners)
  • Brokerage

On the brokerage front, I’ve recently found myself describing our service in the following way:

“Adaptive applies the tools, methodologies and procedures developed for our own deals to the deals we do for our clients.”

Someone is eventually going to help me turn the above into a catchy tagline… clearly it hasn’t happened yet!

Written by mjkagan

10/28/2014 at 11:34 am

What we want in a contractor

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The construction part of our business is inherently messy.

This isn’t new construction, where you start with a nice, flat lot and build exactly what your architect drew on the plans.

Our raw material is old buildings with weird framing where the foundation has probably settled unevenly over the years. That means that what is on the plans and what gets built are not always the same thing.

Sometimes the surprises are bad: It turns out you’re missing a crucial two inches to fit a shower you need to get the rents, the framing doesn’t allow you to open up the kitchen, etc.

Sometimes the surprises are good: You find concrete under the carpet that you can polish, the roof framing is sufficiently strong to allow you to raise the ceilings, etc.

In order to mitigate the negative surprises and take advantage of the positive ones, you need a contractor who who finds a way to say “yes”.

Most contractors aren’t like that. They want to stick exactly to the plans and, if you ask them to deviate, try to kill you with expensive “change orders” (additional charges over and above the agreed contract price). Because of the inherent unpredictability of our raw material, this forces us either to spend way, way too much money and time planning the project, to live with results which are very suboptimal, or to spend more than we budgeted. None of these is an acceptable outcome.

The contractors we want to work with know going in that changes are likely. They price the job accordingly, so that if we throw them a curve-ball, they can accommodate us (within reason; obviously massive changes necessitate additional payments).

The way they think about it is this: On any given job, they may make more or less money (more when we don’t change anything, less when we do). But, over time, they end up far better off, because we keep them working all the time, so they don’t have any down-time.

Amazing that more contractors don’t think like this…

Written by mjkagan

10/27/2014 at 10:48 am

Posted in Development

My current catch-22

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There are some deals right now that:

  • Aren’t right for our current fund (because the near-term returns aren’t high enough), but
  • I want to buy (because I think they have a lot of potential down the road)

One obvious solution to this problem would be to buy the deals with non-fund money, either my own or from a JV-partner.

The problem is that doing so might come pretty close to the line from a fiduciary perspective, because I’ve committed to my fund investors that I will give the fund my best ideas.

If I go buy these deals with separate money, the investors in my fund might get the idea that I haven’t lived up to my moral and legal obligations. And that’s not something I’m willing to let happen.

So, I’m going to let these pitches go by. How annoying.

Written by mjkagan

10/24/2014 at 1:43 pm

How an HPOZ can screw up a deal

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Am looking at an interesting deal, but it’s in an HPOZ (Historic Preservation Overlay Zone).

Because the structure was built during the time-period the HPOZ is intended to protect, it is categorized as a “contributing structure”.

It is extremely hard to do anything to a contributing structure.We would need prior approval for any work on the exterior and that approval will not be granted for anything that changes the original design.

That means we can’t, among other things, move or enlarge the windows, insert sliding glass doors, build our standard fencing, etc.

Because we can’t use most of our normal tricks, we need to project lower rents for the completed units than we would if we were not constrained.

Because we are projecting lower rents, the deal goes from being a marginal “yes” at the list price to a strong “no”.

On my numbers, the reduction in building value due solely to the HPOZ designation is something like $100,000, or 10-15%.

It’s not unfair to wonder what, exactly, the city is getting in exchange for that diminution of the property value.

Written by mjkagan

10/23/2014 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Development

Why I talk myself out of commissions

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Recently, have found myself telling a lot of people not to buy real estate. Weird, right?

It’s not that I don’t think people should own apartment buildings. They absolutely should, for a whole host of reasons.

But the market is pretty hot right now and it’s easy to make a bad deal.

I don’t worry about this with the sophisticated investors with whom we work. They trust us not to do anything stupid and we take that trust incredibly seriously. Plus, being sophisticated investors, they are accustomed to deals sometimes not working out. So, in the unlikely event that we were to lose money (it hasn’t happened yet, but it probably will!), it would not be the end of the world.

I do, however, worry about less sophisticated / less wealthy clients of our brokerage. These people tend to have $50-500k to play with and that money is very, very important to them.

So, we find ourselves advising many of these people not to buy things that they themselves want to buy.

Why would a brokerage talk itself out of commission income?

The answer is pretty simple: The brokerage is tiny compared to the rest of our business. We have big ambitions for it, but those ambitions will only be realized over the course of years. And the way that we will realize them is to make sure that our clients are happy with the deals we help them buy. Happy clients refer their friends / family / etc. and that is, by far, the best kind of marketing.

So, we’re perfectly happy to tell people not to buy marginal deals. We figure, over the long run, earning trust is considerably more valuable than money.

Written by mjkagan

10/22/2014 at 9:56 am

Never lose units

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Saw that someone arrived on the blog yesterday using the following search term “convert duplex into single family home”.

Here’s my advice: Don’t do it. Or, at least, don’t do it with permits.

Regular readers know I’m strongly in favor of using permits for every single construction project. It’s a bit more expensive, but you want to be able to sleep at night knowing that the work was done properly and is in compliance with relevant city codes.

So, why am I advocating doing any conversion of a duplex into a single family without permits?

This is one piece of work that can cause severe, permanent value destruction.

Why? Many older buildings have grandfathered units. For example: You might have a 4plex on a lot which is now zoned only for duplexes.

If you go to the city and ask for a permit to remove a unit in the aforementioned building and turn it into a triplex, they will happily give it to you. But later, when you want to re-convert the triplex into a 4plex, you will not be able to.

Why does this matter? After all, it’s not like, in converting from a 4plex to a triplex, you’re losing square footage.

But, as we’ve discussed previously, generally the smaller the unit, the higher the rent per square foot. Given the choice, you’d always rather have more units rather than fewer in any given square footage.

So, it’s insane to remove a unit, because you will impair the achievable rents and, therefore, the value. And the change is likely to be irreversible.

Written by mjkagan

10/21/2014 at 9:54 am

If I were a broker…

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…who didn’t also renovate tons of apartment buildings, I would:

  • Run rent surveys across all relevant neighborhoods, all the time
  • Constantly poll my clients about construction costs for different finish levels and unit sizes
  • Constantly poll my clients about eviction / tenant relocation costs

Why would I do all these things?

Because, without the above information, I would:

  • Ignore some deals which I absolutely should push my clients to buy; and
  • Push my clients to buy some deals they absolutely should not buy.

Both of the above mistakes would cost my clients money (either in bad deals or missed opportunities) and therefore cost me credibility.

Fortunately for me and for our clients, Adaptive does so many renovation projects in the relevant neighborhoods that we know better than anyone what the above numbers actually look like. That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, but it does mean those mistakes are rarer and less costly than they would otherwise be.

Written by mjkagan

10/20/2014 at 10:20 am