South African game ranch lodge -- February 2008

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Appraisals of "View Land" in Costa Rica



Much of my work involves flying to faraway places and then being driven in a 4-wheel drive vehicle into the countryside, up winding dirt roads, to a parcel of land with sweeping vistas featuring bodies of water, and then being told “Just look at this view. It’s priceless.”

I often encounter misconceptions of what constitutes the value of a “view parcel”. There is no argument that a finished lot with a view commands a premium over lots with no views. I emphasize the word “finished”, as “raw” mountainside or mountaintop land with views is usually priced and valued less than flat land at lower elevations.

Why? Because of the extra costs to develop land in rugged terrain or higher elevations.

Let’s indulge in a reductio ad absurdum to make my point.

The top of Mount Everest offers spectacular views, but I offered to sell you a lot up there, you would say “How ridiculous! How could I get my Range Rover up there? How and when could I get utilities connected? Where would I buy groceries?” I would attract no buyers, despite the magnificent view.

Suppose that I had already graded the lot and just completed a 4-lane road to the top of Mount Everest, installed all utilities, including digital cable, and even supplied extra amenities such as a golf course, supermarket, and gourmet restaurant? Now that might be something somebody is willing to pay a lot of money for, and the value would be enhanced by the unequaled views from the top of the world.

The extra costs of land development at such a high altitude would probably not be compensated for by the view premium for the finished lot, so this hypothetical unfinished lot on top of Mount Everest would be comparatively worthless.

View Land for Rich Gringo
Developers all over the world have spent the last few years acquiring “view land” for subdivision and sale to rich foreigners, whether they are North Americans, Europeans or Australians. Costa Rica is crowded with numerous proposed “5-star developments” as developers compete to attract rich gringos. Most of the developers are foreigners, too. Many of the projects have impressive artists’ renderings and obligatory photos of female backsides in infinity pools, beautiful women getting massages, Caucasian families frolicking on the beach, and exotic fauna and flora.




The result in Costa Rica, as I’ve also seen in Mexico, Fiji, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Canada, and Barbados, is a surplus of unstarted or unfinished (see previous post on Barbados) 5-star projects and declining values for raw land.

Such was the case with two land parcels I recently appraised in different parts of Costa Rica. The dome-shaped parcel below looks very difficult to develop because of steep slopes, but there are views at the top of the scenic Orosi Valley. Also limiting value was the lack of approved entitlements and a well report indicating a water flow rate (10.8 liters per second) which can only support about 16 households.


The Orosi Valley


The other subdivision had distant ocean views and was farther along in the entitlement process, still not having local approval, and the “will serve” letter from the municipal water utility read more like “we might serve in the distant future”, as was their commitment to waste collection. This project had pre-sold 9 out of 94 lots in the last 20 months, at prices ranging from $100,000 to $270,000, but pre-sales stopped in 2011, and once pre-selling stops, it is very difficult to get it going again, as foreign buyers fear that the project won’t get completed and they may lose their deposits. When existing buyers see land prices falling, moreover, they may be willing to forfeit their $5000 deposits.

The foreign subdivision projects I actually see succeeding, on the other hand, are the ones aimed at the local nation's burgeoning professional class, offering lots and residences at lower prices within reach of the upper middle class and within commuting distance of major employment centers.  In the Dominican Republic, for instance, when a new highway improved accessibility to the beach towns east of Santo Domingo, such as Juan Dolio, Grupo Metro made a lot of money building condos and villas for sale to professionals working in Santo Domingo.  Similarly, I've seen the Palm Springs community north of Natal,  Brazil, achieve enviable pre-sales as new roads and a bridge to downtown Natal are enabling Palm Springs to become an oceanside bedroom community for Natal commuters, with lot prices starting at $30,000, certainly within reach of the middle class.

One stigma that is currently complicating lot sales in Costa Rica to foreign buyers are some spectacular development project failures, such as Hacienda Matapalo and Wyndham Jade, which are alleged to have been fraudulent schemes all along. There have been development scams, teak farm scams (see my post entitled “Costa Rican teak farms for gringo investors), and squatter scams (see my post entitled “Latin American land grabs from absentee owners”) going on in Costa Rica, many of which are being perpetrated by foreigners, too, such as Americans, Canadians, British and Dutch. That does not mean that local developers are any more trustworthy, and the inherent problem spoiling confidence in the real estate market in Costa Rica is its slow, ineffectual justice system.

Meeting a Costa Rican appraiser

In this valuation assignment, the developer asked me to meet “the independent appraiser” to discuss his recent valuation of the two properties together for a combined value of $12.4 million. Finding the “independent appraiser” sitting across from me at the lunch table made me doubt his independence, and his valuation reports were addressed to the developer.

The developer invited me to ask the appraiser questions. My first question was “¿Qué es lo que utiliza para las ventas comparables?” (What did you use for comparable sales?) His answer was quite unexpected but interesting. There is some institution, perhaps governmental, which has mapped out real estate values, and a Costa Rican appraiser consults the map and then makes adjustments much as any appraiser would. This is not the same thing as researching comparable sales, though, although the map is probably based on previous sales; I just don’t know how long ago they occurred.

Incidentally, all professional appraisers in Costa Rica, as in Mexico, are either architects or engineers, and are expected to have a more rigorous education in quantitative methods than in the U.S., where one can major in Psychology or Religion and still meet the academic standards needed to get certified or designated.

I am not an architect or an engineer, but as an appraiser I am a traditionalist. I like to use recent comps and listings (if the listing prices are below previous closed sales prices, and there is no shortage of failed subdivisions for sale in Costa Rica). Unfortunately, my estimate of value came in lower.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Appraisal of Unfinished Condo Project in Barbados


My previous appraisal assignment in Barbados was in December 2009, at a time in which vacation residence projects were faltering, the most famous of which was the Four Seasons Resort at Paradise Beach, which had already pre-sold multi-million dollar villas to the likes of Simon Cowell and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Construction had halted in the spring of 2009.

                                Unfinished Four Seasons Resort

Fast forward to 31 months later, and the situation for vacation residence development is still a difficult one, with many stalled projects all over the island of Barbados, including the still-stalled Four Seasons Project. Mr. Cowell and Lloyd Webber must be livid by now, and I can just imagine Simon rolling his eyes and overusing the words “appalling” and “dreadful”.

The most highly developed section of Barbados is its west (“Platinum”) coast, home to 5-star hotels and restaurants, world famous golf courses and polo clubs, and numerous sightings of UK celebrities and princes. In my previous visit, I saw Simon Cowell’s yacht parked off shore and was shown his red Range Rover in the parking lot. This is an area with a rich tourist infrastructure.

This particular project I appraised is different in its isolated location along the Atlantic shores of the island near the town of Bathsheba. Because of high winds, rough waters, and rough topography, the Atlantic (northeast) coast of Barbados is the least populated and least popular with tourists except for surfers.

In an island oversupplied with resorts, the developer planned an end run around the competition by building the only approved condominium resort on the Atlantic Coast. There is certainly no oversupply there, but there is a question about demand.

The Atlantic Coast lacks tourist infrastructure other than its popular surfing area. But do surfers buy million-dollar villas? The proof is in the pre-sales, of which there have been none after one year of marketing. The developer has turned to fractional ownership sales, too, but once again, no sale.

I thought the problem was in the pricing of the units, and this was also the independent conclusion of CB Richard Ellis, who came up with remarkably similar appraised values.

This developer had based unit pricing on the island’s easternmost resort, The Crane, which is a much larger resort with many amenities on the eastern periphery of the tourist area of Barbados. The subject is a 43-unit condo project at least 20 minutes north of the Crane, quite off the tourist path, and lacking the resort-style amenities (such as an acclaimed restaurant) that the Crane has.

The sad conclusion to this story is that the final bulk sale value of the completed units did not justify the remaining $9 million of construction costs, and this was CBRE’s conclusion, too.
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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Appraisal of proposed solar farms in Ecuador

      Corn farm at almost 10,000 feet above sea level

In my native land of southern California it is becoming fashionable to turn marginal agricultural land into photovoltaic solar farms, particularly in Kern County, the Mojave Desert and Imperial County.  Some parcels have a unique advantage if they are located near a power grid substation, near a major city (Los Angeles or Las Vegas), and have enough water available for keeping dust off of the machinery (about one acre-foot of water per 20 megawatts of production due to the dusty climate of inland California. One acre-foot is equivalent to the water needs of about 4 households.)

Many landowners in these areas, most of whom are absentee, hope to get phone calls from solar farm builders who want to lease or buy their land.

Other countries have “Green initiatives”, too, and such initiatives give hope to owners of marginal agricultural land in Ecuador.

The farms I appraised were at opposite ends of Ecuador.   One was located about 20 km north of Quito, Ecuador’s second largest city, at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet above sea level, and one was located in the low-lying Guayas province about 50 km west of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city.

        High voltage transmission lines on subject property

Both farms had high voltage electrical transmission towers on their properties, but only the Quito property was near a power grid substation, 2 km away in Pomasqui, which provides power to the entire northern half of the Quito metro area, having a total population of 1.5 million residents. Nevertheless, this solar farm operator planned to supply power directly to the high voltage lines on his properties, which can be done in Ecuador because the power grid has single government ownership in Ecuador vs. the multiple private ownerships that govern power lines in parts of the United States.

This being the case, that anyone with a high voltage transmission tower on his property in Ecuador could supply electricity to the Grid, greatly increases the supply of available sites and provides little or no financial advantage to the landowner compared to his neighbors.  Neighboring farms with power lines near the Guayas property were selling in the range of $900 to $2000 per hectare.  Not a lot of value there. 

The property near Pomasqui was very difficult to appraise due to its unique flaws -- steep slopes and lack of accessibility. The escritura (deed) indicated that the property had been purchased for 1,680,000 sucres in 1997.  That sounds impressive until one learns that the Ecuadorian sucre was replaced by the dollar in 2001 at an exchange rate of 25,000 sucres per dollar, making the purchase price effectively worth about $67. Then again, it is common in Latin America to record false purchase prices in order to minimize transfer taxes.

To make matters worse, the borrower did not even own the land serving as collateral for the loans. Never was a purchase mentioned, either.  There was a misunderstanding of the concept of "loan collateral". A collateral lender expects the loan proceeds to go towards immediate purchase of the land; otherwise, what else is there to provide security for the loan?

Another complication for this assignment was that the client, a private lender, ordered an “as is” appraisal, and the borrower did not even have licenses yet for the solar farms. So the properties had to be appraised as agricultural land, which was a big disappointment to the borrowers.

In any case, there is not yet an established “market” for solar farms in Ecuador, making valuation a very difficult process, and even if there was one, 99% of the value is in the improvements and little value is in the land. 

PS: I have received several inquiries asking who is financing construction of solar photovoltaic cell farms, but the only financiers that I am aware of can only lend upon substantial existing assets. Any solar photovoltaic construction lenders are welcome to introduce themselves in the comments that follow.

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Appraisal of land outside Regina, Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan is unique in Canada for its continuing economic boom, fueled by world demand for its potash and oil.  Similar mineral-led economic booms in places such as North Dakota, Wyoming and Western Australia have also led to housing shortages and rising land prices.

Before this valuation assignment, I last appraised in Saskatchewan during the Fall of 2010, and the boom has continued since then.  The property being appraised this time was almost one square mile of cropland right outside the city limits of Regina, SK, presently cultivated with canola and wheat, but in the process of being rezoned for mixed use to accommodate the expansion of the city of Regina, a city of 200,000 residents in the southeastern part of the province.

Appraising land in Canada is an easy assignment compared to most international work.  Each province has its own land registry system capable of providing comparable sales, and the prices for sales data are low in Saskatchewan ($20 got me 150 sales), and the last time I appraised in Alberta, their sales data were free. In British Columbia, the provincial land registry wholesales the data to middlemen such as Landcor, which costs several times as much, but is still a bargain.

A couple of issues relating to the conversion of farmland to residential development relate to the ability of the soils to support vertical construction and the potential for toxic contamination of the soil by pesticide use.  Another newly built Regina-area subdivision several miles northwest of the subject is currently sinking in the mud, for instance, due to the failure to discover the unsuitability of the soils until it was too late.

I normally like to read a geotechnical study and environmental report during the appraisal of a subdivision instead of copping out with the use of “assumptions and limiting conditions” that everything is assumed to be all right. A lot of money has been lost with assumptions, and I disagree with the appraisal profession's mindset that placing "assumptions and limiting conditions" in appraisal reports is good appraising.  It is not good appraising; it is dangerous appraising. Complicating the situation, though, was a lender client who let the developer set the stage for intransigence by refusing to show purchase contracts.

Although this was a Canadian property, I still follow USPAP (Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice set by the Appraisal Foundation, a U.S. institution), one of which is Standards Rule 1-5(a): “analyze all agreements of sale, options, and listings of the subject property current as of the effective date of the appraisal”.  My request to see the purchase agreements spooked the developer, who called the client to call off my request due to the fear that I would practice “anchor bias”, the tendency among real estate appraisers to “hit the purchase price” in 96 to 97% of appraisals.

The developer’s fear was unfounded, as I do not practice anchor bias and am also mindful of USPAP Standards Rule 1-4(c): “When analyzing the assemblage of the various estates or component parts of a property, an appraiser must analyze the effect on value, if any, of the assemblage.  An appraiser must refrain from valuing the whole solely by adding together the individual values of the various estates or component parts.” This assemblage would probably be more valuable than the sum of its parts.

The comparable sales were rather consistent in this Rural Municipality – farmland was selling for about $2500 per acre, while close-in farms were being bought by developers for up to $20,000 per acre prior to rezoning. I certainly recognized the value of the assemblage going on, but my client's tacit permission to let the developer stonewall me hindered my ability to protect them.  When I asked for other information, such as a geotechnical study and the names of the current property owners, the initial responses were "Have a blessed day", and then "Geotechnical Report...not available at this present time" and finally "this question is un-usually [sic] and has no merit when completing an appraisal value report on a property."  

While I disapprove of the practice of most appraisers and valuers to defer essential issues as buildability and environmental contamination to “Assumptions and Limiting Conditions”, which often don’t get read by clients, I had to in this instance. If the soils or water table make construction infeasible or the soils are contaminated by pesticides, the value of the property reverts back to agricultural land values, a significant diminution of value.  I made my estimate of value conditional upon the receipt of an acceptable geotechnical report and environmental report and prominently displayed this by my conclusion of value, and then presented a separate value of the property as agricultural land just in case the developer refused to present relevant documents.  So far, this developer continues to refuse to cooperate.

As for why I ask to see purchase contracts, this is a USPAP rule (not required in Canada but sometimes followed), and it often alerts me to sales concessions, flips (when the seller is not the registered property ower), sales between related parties, or suspicious discrepancies, such as when a buyer or seller misspells their own name (suggesting forgery) or doesn't sign at all. The reason why I ask who the sellers are is if the sellers' names are different from the recorded property owner's names, the transaction becomes more suspicious. In a classic illegal flip, the buyer uses a disguise, such as an LLC or LP, to purchase the property at a lower price and then sell the property to himself at a much higher price, thereby fooling lenders and appraisers. The first time I saw this a doctor paid $1.8 million for an apartment building and then sold it to himself for $2.7 million, thereby tricking the lender into lending too much money on the property.

Lenders need to consider the consequences, though, of letting borrowers decide which questions they can decide to answer or not answer, which is tantamount to letting the borrower dictate appraisal policy and letting the fox run the hen house.

Next stop, Ecuador.

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