Sunday, October 21, 2018

Why I Don’t Appraise in Antarctica

Saturday, September 1, 2018

An Industrial Building Appraisal Done to both USPAP and RICS Red Book Standards














"This appraisal should not be considered a report on the physical items that are a part of the appraised property.  Although the appraisal may contain information about the physical items being appraised (including their adequacy and/or condition), it should be clearly understood that this information is only to be used as a general guide for property valuation and not as a complete or detailed physical report.  The appraisers are not construction, environmental, or legal experts, and any statement given on these matters should be considered preliminary in nature.
24) The observed condition of the foundation, roof, exterior walls, floors, heating system, plumbing, insulation, electrical service, and all other mechanical and constructions based on a casual inspection only and no detailed inspection was made.  The structures were not checked for building code violations, and it is assumed that all building components meet applicable building codes unless so stated in the report.  

Because no detailed inspection was made, and because such knowledge goes beyond the scope of this appraisal, any observed condition or other comments given in this appraisal should not be taken as a guarantee that a problem does not exist.  Specifically, no guarantee is made as to the adequacy or condition of the foundation, roof, exterior walls, interior walls, floors, heating system, air conditioning system, plumbing, electrical service, insulation, or any other detailed construction matters.  If any interested party were concerned about the existence, condition, or adequacy of any particular building or site component, we would strongly suggest that a construction expert be hired for a detailed investigation."





Monday, August 27, 2018

More Appraisals in British Columbia: How Helpful is USPAP in Preventing Mortgage Fraud?


An applicant for a loan from my client was about to bid on a court-ordered sale of an assortment of foreclosed British Columbian land properties scattered all around the province.  The foreclosing lender had been a victim of mortgage fraud, feebly assisted by a supposedly reputable Canadian appraisal firm. 







Remnants of the disaster 11 years ago at Lake Chehalis


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Another EB-5 Regional Center Failure: Imperial Regional Center




The goal of the EB-5 regional center was to develop a 78-acre commercial center (“Imperial Center”), in the unincorporated town of Heber, in Imperial County, California, containing over one million square feet of building area, mostly focused on retail, wholesale and food and beverage operations, with a hotel, cinema, and public space. There are 135 Chinese investors who have supplied $67.5 million in funds in order to secure a U.S. green card. The first phase of the center, which was an ARCO gas station and AM/PM Minimart, has been successful.  The second phase consisted mostly of food and beverage operations, including 4 restaurants and a nightclub. All are open now. The third phase has not started, and an aerial map from March 21, 2015 shows no further development since that time more than 3 years ago.

Mr. Lo also owned several other companies, one of which is “Veggie & Tea House”. A “Veggie and Tea House” truck was on site during my inspection, making me believe that he and his wife were the restaurant suppliers to the center, a possible conflict of interest, and maybe the reason why this fledgling center already has 5 food and beverage operations.
If Imperial Regional Center is not paying its loans or property taxes or contractors, perhaps some of its income is being diverted to the Lo family through Veggie & Tea House.

The attorney writing the complaint for the cheated investors is Jing Wang, Esq., Kingswood Law, Diamond Bar, California. 




Thursday, June 21, 2018

Another Budding EB-5 Scandal in California's San Gabriel Valley



An attorney retained me at the request of a skeptical investor in this EB-5 project sponsored by the America FX Regional Center, LLC, approved as an EB-5 regional center in 2016, well after it was understood that there was an ethical crisis in the EB-5 regional center industry. I was supplied with an initial Offering Memorandum, dated 6/1/16, and a restated Offering Memorandum dated 4/24/17 for the project "FX Boutix Duarte EB-5 Lender".


The goal of the offering was to develop a 318-room FX Boutix hotel across from the City of Hope, one of America’s top ten cancer research centers, in the middle-class Los Angeles suburb of Duarte, California. The total project floor and parking area was to be 445,000 square feet. So far, they have received more than $53 million from 96 Chinese investors, but have never received development approval for their oversized project, and the development application was withdrawn several weeks ago, according to City Planner Jason Golding.

The principals of this EB-5 regional center are Sherry Ho and Alvin Tzuen-chung Ho, former chairman of the Chinese hotel firm FX Hotels Group. He is also known as Hou Zunzhong, depending upon whether the name is pronounced in the Mandarin or Taiwanese dialect. The FX Hotels Group is a hotel corporation traded on the Taipei Stock Exchange, but with almost all its hotels based in the People’s Republic of China. This corporation has lost 95% of its share value since the beginning of 2014. As of today’s closing share price of 3.05 Taiwanese New Dollars (worth about 10 U.S. cents), this company’s market capitalization is equivalent to about 6.3 million U.S. dollars. One Asian stock analyst joked that FX’s only success was taking Taiwanese money and dumping it into bottomless pits in China.

Here’s the chart action in recent years, and consider that one U.S. dollar is approximately equal to 30 Taiwan New Dollars.

It seemed that the Mr. and Mrs. Ho misled investors in the America FX Regional Center by stating that Mr. Ho’s family owned the FX Hotels Group and that FX Hotels Group was interested in foreign development. Most of FX Hotels Group is owned by other Chinese hotel corporations such as Furama and Fu Lihua. Almost all FX hotels are in China.


The second Offering Memorandum for America FX Regional Center has no mention of Mr. Ho or any affiliation with the FX Hotels Group. This might be because Mr. Ho was fired in spectacular fashion at an FX shareholders’ meeting on 3/28/17, after another year of losses, which was video recorded and published on the China Times web site, including police called in to quell Mr. Ho. http://www.chinatimes.com/realtimenews/20170406001317-260410  He had not been notified in advance that he was going to be replaced on the spot by the leading shareholders.

Perhaps this news was behind Mr. Ho’s ouster:

“FX Hotels Group Inc. Auditor Raises 'Going Concern' Doubt
Mar 31 17
FX Hotels Group Inc. filed its Annual on Mar 31, 2017 for the period ending Dec 31, 2016. In this report its auditor, Deloitte and Touche LLP, gave an unqualified opinion expressing doubt that the company can continue as a going concern.”

Meanwhile, a new, restated Offering Memorandum for the America FX Regional Center was published less than a month after his ouster, and there is a disclaimer that investors should not expect FX Hotels Group to manage the property.

The most outrageous inaccuracy in the Offering Memorandum, stated on page 2, is the claim that the hotel would be built across the street from the City of Hope Medical Center, which includes a 217-room hospital with 40 extra rooms for visiting family members. Most patients are cancer patients.

The City of Hope is actually located 1.2 miles from the location of the hotel project, as measured in the Google Map below. The gold and red colors along the route indicate traffic bottlenecks due mainly to shoppers patronizing Wal-Mart and Home Depot in the immediate area.

Visiting investors must have instead been shown the closed Santa Teresita hospital across the street behind the discount retail center anchored by “Dollar Tree” and “Smart and Final” stores, shown in the top photo. Santa Teresita surrendered its surgical/acute care license in 2004, and the 5-story building in the background is composed of offices and vacant space, but there is also an adjacent 131-room senior care home.

The architect's drawing seem to have no compatibility with the L-shaped site, as seen below:









In terms of locational advantages, this project is also a miss because it is not located on the Gold Line light rail system serving the San Gabriel Valley, including a stop for the City of Hope. The nearest west stop on the Gold Line, Arcadia Station, includes several all-suite hotels such as Springhill Suites, Hilton Garden, 2 Extended Stay Americas, Residence Inn and Doubletree, all with a better restaurant selection than Duarte offers. Visiting families would not need to rent a car or deal with the Duarte traffic jams associated with Walmart and Home Depot. The subject hotel project, on the other hand, is not located on the light rail line.

So, there should be 96 Chinese investors asking, “Where’s our money?”

The actual City of Hope
The attorney writing the complaint for the cheated investors is Jing Wang, Esq., Kingswood Law, Diamond Bar, California. She also successfully litigated against the California Investment Immigration Fund, also previously reported on this blog.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Timeshares, Fractional Vacation Home Ownerships and Condotels are a Bad Deal



Fairway Forest


By now there are millions of disappointed investors in these types of properties. The most important lesson learned is that buildings are a deteriorating asset.


When these property types were originally conceived in the 1980s, the U.S. economy was beset by a high rate of inflation. Real estate was known to provide protection from inflation, because property values were increasing at a similar rate, and leveraged rates of return were even higher. In the early 1980s, condotels had also become the rage in Miami Beach.


My mother was a realtor at the time, and she and her fellow agents were all encouraged by their broker to buy timeshare units at a resort known as Fairway Forest in western North Carolina. They were told that they were fixing their vacation costs at 1980s prices while their investments would continue to appreciate in value as vacation travel would become more expensive in the future. I even co-signed the deed.

By 2007, my mother was retired and living off a limited fixed income. The maintenance fees on the timeshare had increased to $40 per month and she asked me to take over the deed and use the unit as I wanted. I never visited the actual unit, but since it was part of Club Wyndham, I exchanged my week for other places each year – Hawaii, San Francisco, New York, San Antonio and Mexico. My week only counted for 3 days, though, for a stay in Honolulu, San Francisco or New York.

In a few short years, the maintenance fees were increased to $80 per month, meaning that I was paying $960 for 3-day stays in Honolulu, San Francisco and New York, which I could get for a similar cost without any sort of vacation club ownership. Units at Fairway Forest could be rented for just $850 per week. I was also losing money in opportunity costs, as twice I had to turn down profitable appraisal assignments because I had already invited friends to vacation with me in Hawaii. I would rather lose money than lose friends.


I quickly learned that listing a timeshare unit for sale only attracted scammers. I offered the unit for free to my brother and his family, but he told me that he could get better deals on vacation residences just by shopping around. The $960 in maintenance fees was a deal breaker. Meanwhile, I received constant letters from scammers on soliciting their help to stop paying maintenance fees.

Just Google “Wyndham Timeshare” and you will see what I mean.


Luckily, belonging to a scuba diving club, my offer of a free timeshare in Club Wyndham attracted a taker, someone who had come along on our diving trips to Hawaii and Cozumel.

Meanwhile, the various hotel awards programs I belong to have recently been calling me with the secret mission of selling me timeshares.  Today it was IHG (InterContinental Hotels Group), known particularly for its Holiday Inn franchise. When a caller with a foreign accent tells you that they are "recording this call for quality purposes", it means that they are about to try sell you a timeshare and they want recorded proof of your order. Why do they need proof so badly? Just hang up.  

Why are timeshares and  condotels a bad deal?

It's the maintenance fees, Stupid!

This leads me to an important concept that gets forgotten in the real estate investment world, that buildings are deteriorating assets. Hospitality assets deteriorate even faster because of the exacting standards of the hospitality industry, under constant pressure to renovate. This is why maintenance fees are always rising for timeshares and condotels and other fractional vacation interests.


Meanwhile, an excess of vacation properties was built between 2005 and 2008, and values plummeted in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and many have not yet recovered due to the oversupply. The only phenomenon I see is maintenance costs increasing faster than property value appreciation, of which I have not seen any. That is today’s economic reality as we live in a world of low inflation. Your timeshare or condotel just might be worth nothing as an investment, but you can still use it for fun.

As for condotels, I first witnessed them in the early 1980s, spurred by the 15-year Accelerated Cost Recovery System enacted by the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, but the Tax Reform Act of 1986 took away these benefits, and the burgeoning oversupply of vacation units killed the condotel industry, a historical fact that keeps getting forgotten after each time this industry collapses.

Constant problems with condotel investments include high maintenance fees, on the order of $10 per square foot per year, having to share 35 to 50% of revenue with management without any guarantee of occupancy, having to frequently buy new furniture packages to comply with the hotel franchise rules, HOA dues, housekeeping fees, special assessments and elevated insurance costs. On top of that, this is an investment type that rarely experiences capital appreciation. If capital appreciation was reasonably expected, the hotel developer would never have needed to sell units prematurely.

Condotels continue to re-emerge as a brilliant new concept before crashing in flames yet again and forgotten. Now I am once again getting e-mails from Mondinion about a brilliant new concept: the Condotel.

Industrywide failure to consider buildings as deteriorating assets

The real estate industry in general in the 1980s newly embraced a valuation method called “Discounted Cash Flow Analysis”, in which valuations were based on 10-year cash flow projections. That is what I was hired to do after graduating from SMU in 1984 with an M.S. in Real Estate degree. The only problem is that most of the DCF practitioners inflated income and expenses at the same rate of inflation, not acknowledging that buildings were deteriorating assets. Every DCF valuation thus became inflated, and hundreds of millions of dollars were lost in the collapse of the commercial real estate industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


In a book I was commissioned to write for the Appraisal Institute in 2011 (see sidebar), I was prohibited from mentioning that over the long term, expenses always increase faster than rents, because buildings are deteriorating assets. If you don’t believe me, think about your car expenses. Are they really increasing at only 2.5% per year according to the CPI (Consumer Price Index)? Of course not, as cars are also deteriorating assets.


As for Club Wyndham, I was satisfied with the exchange possibilities, but displeased with the high-pressure sales tactics used on me whenever I showed up to peacefully use my reserved unit. Club Wyndham, why could you not just leave me in peace to enjoy my vacations without high pressure salespersons?

In the last 2 years, in Manhattan, the unit would never be ready, even if I arrived at 8:30 pm, and I would be handed off to a high-pressure salesman trying to convince me to buy more points or I would never be able to stay at their place again. 

There was also the Mandatory Information Breakfast Meeting I was required to attend during every stay at any Club Wyndham property. The first time, in Hawaii in 2007, I showed up and was denied admission because I did not bring identification, which was fine with me. They must have thought I was a tourist attempting to steal their orange juice and plastic-wrapped muffins.


In San Antonio, I attended their Information Meeting on a Sunday morning, to which I was bussed several blocks away, thus assuring I would not escape during the Texas summer heat. The speaker casually chatted with me before the Meeting started, mentioning that he had been a flight attendant before entering the career of timeshare sales. I had orange juice and muffins and scrambled eggs. 

When he started the presentation, the only information he provided for the first 15 minutes was about himself, in which he had elevated himself to being a former airline pilot. Then he asked all of us to chant the phrase “Today is the Day!” I felt like I was trapped in an Amway sales rally and quietly left, walking several blocks back to a nice unit on the San Antonio Riverwalk. I lived nine years in the Texas heat and humidity, so I could handle the walk. Plus, if you have read my other posts, I have done plenty of work in tropical locations, and sweated profusely in places such as Acapulco, Fiji, Costa Rica, St. Maarten and Roatan.

When I returned to my building, the doorman had already been alerted of my escape. He asked me if there was a reason why I left the Information Meeting so suddenly. I just said, “Today is not the day.

Now chant after me: Do not attend the Information Meeting!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Making Borrower Background Checks Part of the Appraisal Process

In two previous posts I suggested appraisers sometimes do “background checks” on loan applicants, which is contrary to everything taught to me as an appraiser and even seems blasphemous. After all, the same real estate should be worth the same, no matter who is buying or refinancing it, and the standard definitions of market value assume the sale of the appraised property on the open market to a third party. A staff appraiser at a lending institution may even be accused of “not minding his own business” in conducting such a check. “How dare you question a borrower’s integrity! Home Savings of America attracts only the most honest borrowers!” R.I.P., Home Savings.

I started doing background checks in 2012, though, and have no regrets, as I have rescued clients from scammers.

The Achilles Heel of the appraiser/valuer profession is reliance on false information. That is why an appraisal report may have many pages of “Assumptions and Limiting Conditions”, including the dangerous assumption that all information provided to the appraiser is true. This is supposed to absolve an appraiser from liability, but it does not necessarily serve the client’s interest, if the client is a lender or buyer.

The last time I discussed this was 8 months ago in my post, http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2017/06/commercial-mortgage-straw-buyer-scams.html , when I decried the proliferation of commercial straw buyer scams used to sell unmarketable properties. These scams seem to be becoming more sophisticated and organized. Instead of a lone individual who may have responded to a LinkedIn ad, there may be several people involved now, including an attorney (to scare the appraiser), a public relations executive (why would a good property even need PR?), and a “Capital Markets” representative from one of the major brokerages. CM is also an acronym for cow manure.

One of the characteristics of a straw buyer scam is that the buyers are the ones to show the property, with the seller not present, and they do everything they can to persuade me to inflate the value, such as providing me with inappropriate comparable sales data. In some cases they have already acquired the property, such as acquiring the seller's LLC (not recorded as a real estate transaction) or establishing a private joint venture with the seller. If the appraised value comes in too low, straw buyers do not try to negotiate a lower selling price, but instead waste their efforts on discrediting me. In my latest encounter with such a group, they even chronicled my bowel movements.

In the past, I used to waste many hours on e-mail rebuttals. Then I found that an $8 background check per person can stop such people in their tracks. The principals of the most recent group I encountered had multiple tax liens, a foreclosure and a bankruptcy. Their backgrounds did not match up with the project they were supposedly going to develop. All the arguing stopped once they were exposed for who they really were.

Another relevant post:
http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2013/01/when-extra-due-diligence-on-borrower.html

Monday, November 6, 2017

A Reassessment of Real Estate Guru Ronan McMahon: Real Math vs. "Ronan Math"


Almost 5 years ago I published a post that was critical of International Living magazine and their anointed real estate guru, Ronan McMahon, for the bad investment advice being presented. http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2013/02/ronan-mcmahons-real-estate-trend-alert.html I also pointed out a conflict of interest, as IL must serve its advertisers, and certain problematic real estate markets were being continually touted despite declining real estate values. (In my own travels, I have observed that the foreign vacation home/retirement home market has not yet recovered from the global financial crisis 9 years ago, and the price of land has been declining for years.)

Each month, Ronan McMahon writes in IL of another “get rich quick” market, and I have to bite my tongue because I may not have been to that place recently or at all. Nevertheless, in the last 5 years I have received many e-mails about the blog post about him, plus more than 50 comments published on the post, and no one has ever disputed me, but many have thanked me. I’m still waiting for the comment, “Ronan and Real Estate Trend Alert made me rich!”

Which brings up his latest article in the November 2017 issue of International Living, “Gold in the Hills: Prime Ocean Views No One is Looking For”. The article mostly refers to Nicaragua, where I have not visited yet, but he also refers to Costa Rica as a real estate investment success story. As he specifically refers to “ocean view” land in Costa Rica, I feel the need to offer a dissenting opinion.

My first appraisal of Costa Rican ocean view land was in early 2009, before I started this blog. When I returned in 2012 I was surprised to find that asking prices on ocean view land had declined by 75%, and there were many “se vende” [for sale] signs around. Two years later the asking prices were even lower, and the only sale I could find was an ocean view parcel that sold at one third of its listing price.

Real Math vs. Ronan Math 

This brings to mind his constantly deceptive proofs of price appreciation of his previous buy recommendations.  The legitimate method of measuring price appreciation is to measure closed sales prices over a time period and establish a price index or compute percentage increases over a fixed time period. The big real estate brokerages do this in the U.S., and I saw the same process used in France. Although I do not always trust brokers, I have learned to rely on their data. Occasionally, I have seen a realtor enter a false comparable sale into the Multiple Listing Service or LoopNet, but that is not common, so it should not have much effect on price indexes.

"Ronan Math" involves taking the lowest closed sales price in a condominium complex, probably a smaller unit, at the beginning of the time period, and compare it to the highest asking price in the same complex (probably a larger unit) some time later. There is no discussion of today's closed sales. Then he tells the reader that if we had taken his advice, we could have achieved returns over 100%. This is so disingenuous that it mocks the field of Mathematics.

The truest statement McMahon made in the article was “There needs to be a finite amount of coast and beach.” My own observations of Costa Rica are that it has an almost infinite amount of ocean view land, owing to its topography and coastlines, and much of this land is for sale.

Magazine articles often use callouts (insets) to reinforce the key points of the article. McMahon uses two callouts in his latest article:

Make a killing in the medium to long term”

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard of an investor making a killing in Costa Rica. If this is happening, I would expect it be happening in a trendy neighborhood in San Jose, where the real land shortage is.

The better the views, the more you’ll sell for.”

A view is worth little, though, if it has no access nor building permits nor infrastructure nor water or the grade is too steep for development.

McMahon never discusses such things, though, suggesting that his knowledge of real estate investment is primitive at best. It's almost as if he has never taken a class in real estate. 

Each article also recommends buying in a “Path of Progress”. My own observation is that the moment an area is labeled as a “path of progress”, asking prices for land skyrocket and then gradually fall as reality sets in that progress takes longer than expected.

In 5 years, no one has e-mailed me or left a comment that my opinion of Ronan McMahon is wrong.  His real estate investment advice is consistently bad.  I have seen no testimonials to the contrary. Even his arithmetic is bad.

So why does International Living continue to employ him?  It is because IL is a sales organization and McMahon is a master bullshitter. 

Some of my friends in the real estate sales profession have a favorite film -- Glen Garry Glen Ross -- released in 1992 with such star actors as Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris and the late Jack Lemmon. All the characters are land salesmen at a Chicago real estate firm, relentlessly telemarketing land in the faraway states of Arizona and Florida using every sales trick in the book.

The management of the firm sends Alec Baldwin to motivate the salesmen into improving their sales or face termination, with lines such as:

"Only one thing counts in this life -- get them to sign on the line which is dotted."

and the oft-quoted "ABC -- Always Be Closing".

So remember that Ronan McMahon and International Living have an agenda that might be inimical to your interests -- to get you to sign on the line which is dotted.




"Wot? Are you accusing me of bad arithmetic, too?"