My name is on many “real-estate-for-suckers” spam lists, and some it comes out of Britain from Mondinion, Global Investments, PropertyO, NuBricks or whatever name they change to again. This is a group of British real estate salesmen internationally hawking rental properties in some of America’s most troubled urban residential markets, such as Detroit and St. Louis. The central problem with these cities is depopulation, and in 2017 CBS News declared St. Louis to be the fastest depopulating major city in the nation, with population declining by more than 1% per year.
One may wonder why they would go to such trouble to find and market properties in bad neighborhoods of America’s fastest depopulating major cities. It is because they can claim high initial rates of return on investment (“capitalization rates”) without disclosing such recurring problems as vacancy, low income areas, foreclosures, depopulation and crime in the neighborhood, instead describing these neighborhoods as “stable” and “safe”. These properties can be acquired quite cheaply and be flipped to naïve British pensioners and foreign investors.
High capitalization rates, such as return on investment > 10%, indicate properties with uncertain futures and high risk; thus the investor wants to get his return on investment much sooner before conditions deteriorate. There is also the possibility that the numbers are false.
I commented previously about Mondinion in 2017 (https://www.internationalappraiser.com/2017/11/lately-i-have-been-receiving-e-mails.html) when they were selling residences in the Detroit area, which they continue to do. They described the Inkster, Michigan neighborhood as safe although it ranked 93 percentile for crime in the state of Michigan.
This time Mondinion contacted me with a list of 6 homes in St. Louis. I chose to analyze one at random, 5752 Astra Avenue, an 1107 square foot, two bedroom, 1 1/2 bathroom home built in 1927 which they listed for $43,900 (about $45 per square foot) and described as “fantastic” and tenanted at a rental rate of $750 per month.
Checking the local Multiple Listing Service I found that the home was still vacant and listed for sale, but a sale was pending, maybe to Global Investments, the company that is marketing these homes. The brochure begins by describing the house as a 3-bedroom house (not 2 bedrooms as actual) and already tenanted. If they do have a tenant waiting, why would a tenant wait? The brochure itself shows the house to be vacant, with the only furniture being a dining table. They also neglected to disclose that the home is next to a mosque.
From an appraiser’s point of view I searched for the 3 most proximate sales to the property this year and found two similar but larger homes at 5980 and 5984 Astra which sold for $10,000 and $20,000, respectively. The next closest sale was on a cross street, 5756 Vivian Avenue, a 2504 square foot duplex that sold for $52,000. The prices ranged from $6.86 per square foot to $20.52 per square foot.
As for the neighborhood, the Census Bureau’s information for this census tract as of 2015 was that it had a median annual household income of only $24,519 and a housing vacancy rate of 19.2%. This is about as bad as urban neighborhoods get.
The property was represented as tenanted, although vacant, so it is hard to say whether it would earn $750 per month, but more importantly, neighborhoods like this have poor tenant quality, so the new owner would have to scramble around to rent the home again before too long. When there is depopulation, filling homes can sometimes be like a game of musical chairs. This home is also adjacent to a mosque, which may be considered an adverse influence.
I was later telephoned by Global Investment’s sales director, who also advised me that they also charge a fee of $4000 in addition to the purchase price, to compensate their efforts in turning around the property. Had they actually been to St. Louis?
I have seen other rental home opportunities marketed by Mondinion for cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Memphis. These are all depopulating cities. CBS News, for instance, compiled a list in 2017 of the 12 major U.S. cities fastest losing population:
1. St. Louis
Here’s the reason to avoid such investments: Depopulating cities experience decreasing property values and rents. Investing in older buildings in depopulating areas is a prescription for failure. The Rust Belt, for instance, has many cities that have lost half their population in the last 50 years, including Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown and Dayton. This usually means increasing vacancies, despite gallant leasing efforts. Rents are so low that only the lowest cost renovations make any sense, too. Even then, other new space gets built, hastening the demise of the older buildings.
So beware of rental properties being offered at high returns; these returns might not be long lasting.