Moses Kagan on Real Estate

Archive for the ‘How to’ Category

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

Taking apart a deal: An East Hollywood Duplex

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Today, I’m going to try something new: Taking a look at a deal in one of our neighborhoods so that we can get a sense for what the numbers look like for the new owner.

So, let’s take a look at an East Hollywood duplex that sold yesterday. I should start out by saying I didn’t offer on the property and do not know the agents, the buyer or the seller. So I have no special information about anyones’ motives here. My intention is just to take a look at the deal from several different perspectives to see if I can figure out why the buyer chose to buy this particular property at this particular price.

Here is the headline information from the MLS and ZIMAS:

  • List price: $549,000
  • Sale price: $563,000 (so, above list)
  • Two 2 bed / 1 bath bungalows totaling 1,443 sq ft
  • 6,200 sq ft lot zoned RD1.5
  • Rents of $851 and $557 (so, $16,896 / year)

And here are some ballpark estimates for the actual annual costs of ownership:

  • Property tax: $563,000 x 1.25% = $7,037.50
  • Insurance: $1,800
  • Water/sewer: $1,200
  • Gardener: $1,200
  • Pest control: $550
  • Repairs and maintenance: $1,800

So, my guess is that the total annual costs of owning the property are approx. $13,600.

Let’s take a look at this deal through a few different lenses in order to see if we can understand what the buyer was thinking.

Buy and hold investment deal

The first, and simplest way to think about this deal is as a buy and hold where the new owner is just hoping to sit there, collect the rent, pay the expenses and keep whatever is left over as a return on his money. For simplicity, let’s start by assuming the buyer pays all cash. Assuming the above numbers are correct, the owner pays $563,000 in cash and gets, in exchange, $16,900 (rents) – $13,600 (expenses) = $3,300 in net operating income.

Then, divide the $3,300 NOI by the purchase price of $563,000 to get your cap rate… or, on second thought, don’t because you’ll plotz (that’s Yiddish for “drop dead”). All I’ll say is that, if you know anyone who’s interested in investing $563,000 of their hard-earned money in exchange for a return of 0.5% annual, please send them my way.

Probably someone reading is thinking “Ah, but what if you borrowed the money, rather than paying cash”? Well, that’s even worse. Say the buyer borrowed 75% of the purchase price ($422,250) at 4.25% fixed for 30 years. His mortgage payment is 2,077 / month, or $24,924 / year. Of course, he’s getting $3,300 in NOI, so his actual annual cashflow is only $-21,624. Another way of saying that is: For the pleasure of investing $140,750 of his cash, he gets the right to lose $21,624 in the first year. Again, not something I’d recommend!

Owner-occupier

Ok, but some of you are thinking, what about if the owner intends to move into one of the units? Does that make this a reasonable deal? Let’s see…

Owner-occupier needs to live in the property, so will have to relocate one of the two tenants. Because both tenants live in similarly sized 2/1 bed units, the city will force the owner to bump the tenant who moved in more recently, which is presumably the one paying $851. The cost of doing so will be around $15k, plus whatever the new owner wants to spend fixing up the unit for him/her to live in.

Let’s assume the new owner buys with a mortgage, because no owner-occupiers buy beat-up duplexes all cash… people that rich don’t live in beat-up duplexes!

What do the numbers look like? Well, the annual expenses are still $13,600. The rent from the remaining occupied unit is $557 x 12 = $6,684. That means the new owner will have to cover $13,600-6,684 = $6,916 / year in expenses out of pocket, or $576 / month. But there’s also the mortgage to consider… which is going to be $2,077 / month.

So, our new owner-occupier would be putting down $140,750 plus $14k for the tenant relocation plus, say $15k for renovations to the unit, for a total of $169,750 for the privilege of paying $2653 / month to live in an apartment which he could probably just rent for $2200. That, friends, is a terrible deal.

Developer

Maybe our buyer is a developer. Maybe he doesn’t care about the existing rents or structures and is instead going to build something new on the lot.

Here’s what he’s thinking:

  • 6200 sq ft lot
  • RD1.5, meaning 1,500 sq ft / dwelling
  • So, 6200 / 1500 = 4 dwelling units (you always round down with zoning calcs like this)
  • That’s [$563,000 + ($18,600 x 2)] / 4 = $150,000 per unit of developable land (the $18,600 is what you’d have to pay to reloc each tenant under the Ellis Act)

The simplest way to go would be to try to build four 800 sq ft apartments. At, say, $200 / sq ft to build, that’s 800 x $200 = $160k / unit in construction costs.

$160k construction plus $150k in land costs = $310k / unit. Assuming rent of $2500 (brand new construction) x 12 months = $30,000 annual rent for each unit, that’s a GRM of $310k / $30k = 10x… decent, but really not anywhere near good enough to justify the hassle.

Repositioning

Hopefully, it’s clear from the above that the buyer is not a buy and hold investor, an owner-occupier, or a developer. He must have more creative plans for the property… perhaps he plans to steal a page from Moses’ book and reposition the property.

Maybe he’s thinking:

  • Buy for $563k
  • Relocate the tenants for, say, $40k total (unlikely, but possible)
  • Renovate for $100k ($50k / unit is cheap for separate structures)
  • All in for $703k (this assumes it’s his money and that he doesn’t need to pay interest on it)

So, what’s the thing worth? Well, maybe he gets $2400 / month in rent / unit. That’s possible if he does a good job. $2400 x 2 units x 12 months = $57,600 / year in rent. Do we have a home-run on our hands? Well, the yield is now $57,600 (rent) – $15k in expenses (up a bit, because prop tax and insurance will be higher in this scenario) = $42,600 / year in NOI. That’s an unlevered return of $42,600 / $703,000 = 6%. Not bad, but, again, not really worth the work

And, unfortunately, the deal’s not flippable. With $57,600 in rent, even at 12x (a stretch with the rents maxed), you’re exiting at a price of $691,000, less than you put into the property (and that’s before paying brokers, transfer taxes, etc.)

Conclusion

Again, I don’t know the people who did this deal. It’s totally possible that they know something about this property that I don’t. But unless it’s sitting on an oil field or something, I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what the buyer was thinking. Any ideas?

Written by mjkagan

10/17/2014 at 2:48 pm

How DWP steals your money

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If you manage apartment buildings, you can probably guess what I’m about to write about.

If not, here goes:

  • DWP is criminally under-staffed / incompetent
  • DWP makes huge numbers of mistakes
  • Getting someone on the phone to correct the mistakes and/or request normal service changes takes 30-90 minutes, each time

For an individual trying to do something simple, like turn on the electricity in a new apartment, this is a pretty awful situation, but at least it’s only a once-every-few-years kind of thing.

For an owner who self-manages a few small buildings, the DWP-imposed delays probably take up a few hours a month.

For big property management companies that manage hundreds or thousands of units, the delays imposed by DWP result in employees spending tens or hundreds of hours per month. Pick an hourly wage and do the multiplication and you’ll see that DWP’s disorganization is imposing thousands upon thousands of dollars in costs on property management companies.

Econ 101: Businesses will attempt to pass increased costs on to customers if possible, either by increasing prices or cutting other costs. Management companies will eventually pass on the increased costs to owners. And owners will eventually pass on the increased costs to tenants, in the form of rent increases.

All because a city-owned agency can’t get its act together to answer the phone.

Written by mjkagan

10/02/2014 at 10:35 am

Posted in How to

Why we don’t announce closings

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If you’re at all active in real estate, your email account is spammed daily by brokers announcing the closings of their latest deals.

Why do they do this?

Because doing so:

  1. Shows everyone in the market how active the broker is
  2. Keeps the brokers’ name in front of potential clients, increasing the chances potential clients call them when it’s time to buy or sell

Seems reasonable, right? So why doesn’t Adaptive send out these kinds of emails?

It’s pretty simple, really. We are primarily in the business of placing capital in specific neighborhoods. In order to do this effectively, we spend a ton of time thinking about acquisition prices, rehab prices, and achievable rents. When we find a neighborhood that works, we and our clients want to buy as much fairly-priced product in that neighborhood as possible.

If we sent out emails every time we closed deals, anyone with a brain could figure out what neighborhoods we like and then just piggy-back on our hard work / insight to compete with us.

So, yes, Adaptive closed a bunch of deals last week. But no, we won’t announce the addresses or deal sizes. Because we don’t want you to compete with us / our clients.

Written by mjkagan

10/01/2014 at 4:50 am

Posted in Buying, Development, How to

Adaptive’s proof of funds problem

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When you make an offer on a building, what you’re really saying to the owner is: “Please give me the exclusive right to consider buying your building at this price for the next 21 (or 30 or 60) days.”

For an owner to accept, she needs to be ok with your price and, crucially, as confident as she can be that you have the intention and ability to deliver your price. Otherwise, she has to worry that you’re going to tie-up her building, waste her time, and then not have the dough to close.

In order to give the owner confidence, the listing broker will usually insist on seeing “proof of funds” from the buyer.

The proof of funds is typically a bank statement or something similar showing liquid assets (cash, stocks or bonds) at least equal to the amount of cash the buyer requires to close the transaction. In other words, if you’re offering $1MM for the building with 30% down, the listing broker is going to want to see at least $300k in liquid assets before allowing the seller to accept the offer.

The above is totally fine for rich people, but it creates some real hassle for money managers like me. Why?

I use other peoples’ money to make deals. In order to get the ability to use that money, I usually need to offer a preferred return on it. I say something like “If you give me your money, then I will give you a 5% (or 6% or 7%, whatever) return on the money for the time I have it (plus upside, obviously), before I get to take any of the profits.”

Can you see how this creates a problem for me?

If I get $2.5MM committed on a fund, I have zero interest in calling it down from the investors until I have something to buy. Otherwise, I’m sitting there with $2.5MM in a 0% checking account and accruing $10,416 / month in preferred return (assuming a 5% pref) which I will owe my investors before I see a dime of profits.

So, because I refuse to call money down until I’m confident I’m going to close on a deal, I always end up in these annoying conversations with listing brokers, where I need to convince them that I actually have the money and they think I’m full of it.

What’s especially annoying about this problem is that, of all the potential buyers with whom they might go under contract, I’m nearly always the one most likely to close on the terms I’m offering, because:

  1. I’ve done a million deals, so I know before I make an offer what I’m going to do with the building and how much it’s going to cost;
  2. Because I’m going to renovate, I don’t care that much about the physical condition of the building (so I’m not going to ask for a price reduction because the light switches don’t work); and
  3. Because I do so many deals in such a small area, I try as hard as I possibly can not to chip price, ever… because getting a reputation for doing this is a sure way not to be able to do any more deals going forward

Compared to your typical lawyer or doctor who has $2.5MM sitting there in cash and does a deal every 2-3 years, I’m far, far more likely to actually close.

The good news is that, because we close almost every single time, over time, more and more brokers are seeing that we’re serious. And the second time around, they trust that we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do.

(Obligatory legalese: This post is not a solicitation of investment or an offer to sell any security.)

Written by mjkagan

09/30/2014 at 10:39 am

What we’re against

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Most people think that the way to get ahead is to get a job and work hard.

Their salary goes up a bit.

They save a little money.

They immediately go buy a house with the biggest mortgage they can get.

They think the loan is against the house, but really it’s a loan against THEM.

Now they’re stuck working harder and harder to keep up with the payments.

God forbid they lose their job(s)… bye bye house / credit / etc.

Even if they keep their job, they’re stuck working in it for decades to service that big loan.

They levered up to the hilt to buy an asset with negative cashflow which is likely to appreciate only a bit faster than inflation.

Bottom line: That’s a recipe for being financially dependent forever. There is definitely, 100% a better way of doing things.

Written by mjkagan

09/25/2014 at 10:17 am

Posted in Buying, How to

How we value apartment buildings (part 2)

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In my last post, I talked about how our approach to valuing apartment buildings derives from my experience as an investment banker trying to value media and technology companies.

Simply put: When you’re trying to get a sense for the value of an asset in an illiquid market, you want to use all of the tools available to you.

For apartment buildings, here’s what we do:

1. Consider the property as a straight buy-and-hold / yield deal

This one is pretty simple. We assume the buyer of the property will be a rational investor looking to achieve a reasonable yield on the cash she will use to acquire the property.

We build a model of the property incorporating the rents it commands, reasonable estimates of the expenses, and appropriate financing structure(s). Then, we input a range of potential valuations, which results in the model outputting a range of potential yields an acquirer could expect to achieve.

Since we’re working with loads of buyers at all times (and buying for ourselves as well), we have a good sense for the yields buyers demand in the areas in which we’re active. One good way to think about valuation is to select the price at which a buyer would achieve the minimum yield which we have found buyers willing to accept.

2. If 2-4 units, consider as owner-occupier deal

Ah, but not all deals are acquired by rational investors. For certain properties, usually 2-4 units with at least one unit desirable, 2+ bedroom unit delivered vacant, an owner occupier will sometimes be willing to pay more than a rational investor would.

Why is this? People are irrationally excited to own their own homes. All the proof you need is right there in the sales data for single family homes. In Southern California, you can easily rent a home for $4,000 / month which would sell for $1,000,000. At 20% down and $800k borrowed at 4.5%, the owner’s monthly out of pocket expense is something like $5,500 / month. One way to think about the difference between the $4,000 and $5,500 numbers is that this is the premium people are willing to pay to be an owner rather than a renter.

So, when we are asked to value an income property which might appeal to an owner-user, we try to price in an ownership premium for the owner’s unit… in other words, we can confidently consider valuations for the building which result in the new owner paying more out-of-pocket each month than the unit would rent for.

3. Evaluate as re-positioning opportunity

There is a big category of deals that just don’t make sense as buy-and-hold / yield deals. These are typically properties with tenants paying far under-market rents. At a certain point, the rents are so low that a price derived from applying a standard yield to the expected cashflow would result in a ridiculously low price / sq ft or price / unit.

These are the deals we love to buy. So, we know the economics better than anyone.

By working backwards from the new rents possible in the property and incorporating an estimate of the profit a new owner would want to achieve for doing the hard work of repositioning the building, we can get at the maximum price this kind of buyer would be willing to pay for the property.

4. Evaluate as a development deal

You would be amazed at how few brokers think to check the zoning of properties they are valuing for sale. This is usually not a huge deal, because pretty often the existing structures are built pretty much to the maximum density that the lot allows. But, every so often, there are major, major exceptions.

I’ll give you one from my own career: I bought a 15 unit (with 1 additional, non-conforming unit) in 2009. Without stopping to consider the zoning, I totally rehabbed the building and re-tenanted it. Then, sometime later, I realized that the property was zoned for 26 units. I might have been better-off tearing down the building and building 26 units in its place.

Anyway, whenever we are valuing a property, we consider what a developer would do with the lot. We look at how many units can be built, how much it would cost to build them, what the resulting building would be worth, and how much profit a developer could expect.

Usually, the valuation resulting from this method is lower than from the other methods (after all, it implicitly values the existing structure at zero). But, every once in a while, it turns out that the land is more valuable for development than in its existing configuration.

Pulling it all together

The result of the above valuation methodology is to clarify what prices different kinds of buyers can afford to deliver for a property. This gives us (and the owner) a sense for the highest price likely to be achieved in a sale.

And, very importantly, it lets us know how best to market the property. For example: If what you really have is a land deal, it does no good to spend a bunch of time and money on staging and taking pics for the MLS, since the likely buyer is going to tear the place down, anyway. On the other hand, if you have a property that will work owner-user, then you want to spend some time and money really marketing that owner unit, because that’s how you’re going to get the best price.

Are you considering selling? Want to make sure your sale process is run in an intelligent manner? Get in touch and we’ll come run the numbers for you and discuss the right strategy for extracting maximum value.

Written by mjkagan

09/22/2014 at 10:18 am

Posted in Brokerage, How to

Amnesty for illegals (apartments, that is)

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Per the LA Times (and via Curbed): Landlord and tenant groups in LA are uniting around an initiative to allow landlords to legalize non-conforming apartments more easily.

Right now, if the Housing Department catches a landlord with an illegal apartment, here’s what happens:

  • LAHD cites landlord for un-permitted unit, orders her to either get it permitted or vacate it
  • Landlord attempts to permit; discovers that it’s nearly impossible to do (because adding a unit always requires adding parking and adding parking is nearly impossible)
  • Landlord decides to vacate unit
  • Tenant is evicted; receives $8-19k from landlord (ouch), who must also pay to remove the kitchen and bathroom

The net result of the above is that the tenant is out a place to live and the landlord is out a bunch of money and receiving less rent going forward.

You can see why landlords and tenants have an incentive to band together to try to change city policy. And, lo and behold, they’re trying: The idea is to get the city to make it easier for the landlord to bring the unit into compliance so that the tenant can stay.

I’ve permitted a non-conforming unit before and it’s no joke. The problems break down into two categories:

  1. Bringing the unit itself up to code. That means appropriate ingress/egress, windows, fire protection, etc. This is almost always possible to do, so long as there is sufficient money… and the value-add from adding a unit would almost always justify the cost;
  2. Adding the parking. In my case, I was able to squeeze in another parking space by moving a giant electrical panel at the cost of $30k. But, generally, this is impossible, because there’s just not enough space on the lot and digging out subterranean parking would be totally financially infeasible.

So here’s the rub: If the city is going to make it easier to permit non-conforming units, it’s going to have to waive the parking requirements.  And the city has generally been very wary of anything that would reduce parking and therefore anger neighbors.

Have rents got so high that politicians are willing to consider allowing alienating homeowners by allowing landlords to reconfigure existing buildings to add more units? I doubt it. But I hope I’m wrong… because my business would get much, much better if it did!

 

Written by mjkagan

08/19/2014 at 10:38 am

Posted in Development, How to

The math behind discovering a new neighborhood

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As prices continue to rise for the kind of beat-up, badly managed assets that are our bread-and-butter, we are spending more time looking at new neighborhoods.

Am I going to tell you which ones I’m focusing on? No, because a bunch of people who compete with me read this blog.

But I will share with you the way that I think about these things.

There is an equation that underpins our whole business: (rent – operating expenses) / (acquisition price + rehab) = yield

1. The cost of renovating a building doesn’t change much, no matter where you do it. No one charges you less for washer / dryers because you’re putting them in Compton, or more for ACs because you’re putting them in Beverly Hills.

2. The operating expenses don’t change much, no matter where in the city you are. You pay roughly the same amount for property taxes, water, management, repairs, etc. wherever your building is.

Given that your rehab and operating expense stay proportionately the same, what does move around?

1. The acquisition price of the building. Obviously, in the equation above, the lower the acquisition price, the smaller the denominator, and the higher the yield (all things being equal).

2. The rents. The higher the rents, the larger the numerator, and therefore the higher the yield (again, all things being equal).

What does all of this mean? Because all the stuff in the middle (the capex and the opex) doesn’t change much, you need to look for neighborhoods where you can buy cheap and rent expensive. Those are the areas where you ought to be able to generate excess yields.

The trick, of course, is to distinguish a truly improving neighborhood (one where you can buy cheap but rent dear) from a dumpy one (where you can buy cheap but can’t get the rents to work).

Written by mjkagan

08/07/2014 at 5:24 am

Posted in Buying, Development, How to