Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Effect of Chinese Government Policy on the Failures of High-rise Residential Towers in Los Angeles and Other World Cities

Graffiti-clad Oceanwide Towers in LA

In March 2019 I reported on the failure of three 40-story residential towers being built in downtown Los Angeles. ( Lendlease, the Australian general contractor, had rocked the LA real estate world by announcing that it had halted construction on Oceanwide Plaza over unpaid bills. The interior remains to be built. There were rumors that the lender had pulled out of the project, but no explanation of why. A press release from China Oceanwide explained the need for capital restructuring and that construction would resume in February 2019. With my own eyes I see the project rotting and covered in graffiti five years later in February 2024. Its location is less than ideal, being across the street from a sports and concert arena occasionally plagued by basketball riots.

At the same time, similar residential towers in LA, New York, Malaysia, Australia and Vietnam, among other countries, have also been failing, towers which were effectively being built for Chinese millionaires trying to get their money out of China. Most did not intend to occupy their new condos.

The Towers of the Waldorf Astoria, developed by Chinese Developer Dajia, is one such project that is also languishing without sales for its 374 units. The Chinese government seized the insolvent Anbang Insurance Goup to sell off its U.S. hotel assets, acquired for $7.45 billion during 2014 to 2016, which includes the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York at a price of $1.95 billion. 

One of my first blog posts in 2010, now deleted, was the Forest City development on the Iskandar peninsula of Johor Bahru, Malaysia, and directly across the strait from Singapore. This particular luxury project was also directed towards Chinese investors. I went to an international property buyer conference in Singapore in 2010 and found this to be the most heavily promoted project at the conference, but the scale seemed outrageous in scope -- $100 billion to build 300,000 homes on 4 man-made islands off the southern coast of Malaysia close to Johor Bahru, a bedroom community to Singapore. I deleted my post after being told “Don’t count out Chinese investors!” 
Nowadays, only a fraction of these homes have been built, and most that have been built are still vacant. In hindsight I was really being told not to count out lemmings, even though lemmings can be counted on to eventually jump off the cliff. 

There are two major Chinese government policies that have slowed the demand and financing for such projects:

1. Chinese capital controls on citizens, instituted at the end of 2016 by Chairman Xi Jinping, are preventing the necessary funds from leaving China. The purpose of the new regulations was to reduce “irrational outbound investment.” China has been cracking down on capital flight, characterized by Chinese investors purchasing foreign condos, perhaps to place ill-gotten gains away from capture or perhaps due to distrust of the government. The PRC wants the money back. One expert estimated that the ratio of outbound Chinese capital (back to China) to inbound capital was about 10 to 1 at the time of my last blog post in March 2019. These same controls have caused other Chinese developers to place their North American assets for sale. Greenland, developer of a similar project called Metropolis, a few blocks north of Oceanwide Plaza, placed one of their three residential towers plus their Indigo hotel for sale. 

 2. The “Three Red Lines” policy. This might sound like a cute maxim from Chairman Mao, but it is actually sound banking policy instituted by Chairman Xi Jinping back in 2020. The three red lines are: debt-to-cash, debt-to-equity, and debt-to-cash. If a developer wants a loan from a Chinese bank, these tests must be met. These new controls have sent some major Chinese developers, such as Evergrande and Oceanwide, reeling into bankruptcy.

3. The Communist Party policy switch to "Common Prosperity" in August 2021.  This follows the famous open door policy started by Chairman Deng Xiaoping in 1978, igniting unbridled capitalism with the proclamation, "It is glorious to be rich!" The switch to "Common Prosperity"  is to "reasonably regulate excessively high incomes, and encourage high-income people and enterprises to return more to society.” This might not be good for real estate developers.

Indeed, the Minister for Housing and Urban-Rural Development promised no bailouts for real estate developers, stating "For real estate companies that are seriously insolvent...those that much go bankrupt should go bankrupt or restructured."

Now China and Chairman Xi are facing an American-style real estate collapse, too. The Chinese government did what they had to do, but too late. It was like taking the punchbowl away from a festive party that was already out of control. 

As for the outcome of Oceanwide Plaza, I laid out the following scenarios back in 2019: 

1. A white knight lender from outside China will provide necessary funds to finish this project, 

2. The property will need to be auctioned off to a more solvent owner, 

3. Or in the worst case, if building and safety laws were allowed to continue to be violated, Oceanwide Plaza could end up being 3 decaying 40+ story hulks sullying the downtown L.A. skyline. Scenario number one was a possibility back in 2019. I had at least two inquiries as to whether I wanted to appraise the property, but the clients changed their minds. So, what we see today is Scenario number three, with 40-story towers covered in graffiti and serving as jumping bases for wannabe “spidermen” and their YouTube audiences.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Another land appraisal in Costa Rica


Here was a property that measured 4 square miles of ocean view land, of which there are plenty in Costa Rica due to the sloping topography. It is not uncommon for properties this size to be marketed to developers, but they are not necessarily publicly marketed, making comparable properties, particularly closed saled, hard to find.

This particular property, at its closest point to the ocean, extended as close as 1000 feet to the water. As is often the case, the developers of such a parcel try to secure a beach parcel, too, often with the label “Beach Club”, to establish an identity as a beachfront property, but such a parcel is not necessarily contiguous, as was in this case, so the developer of an ocean resort property with a noncontiguous beach club has the added difficulty of purchasing a connecting easement or parcel, or else have the added burden of transporting hotel guests to the beach. In this case, the distance was slight. In Costa Rica, the best beach parcels (closest to the water) are on leasehold parcels on "concession land" which is owned by the municipality and typically leased at favorable rates. This "concession land" is the land belt immediately inland from the undeveloped "Maritime Zone" preserved as public beaches. 

Comparable sales ranged from $12,200 per hectare to $19,500 per hectare (indicating a significant discount for extra large size), and could be adjusted for distance from beach, with the cheapest parcel being no closer than 2 kilometers to the water, but still possessing ocean views.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Appraisal of a Residence in Cuba

In the almost 14 years of writing this blog, my practice has shifted from large international projects financed by big lenders to smaller properties involved in estates and divorces. It’s often the case that the bereaved family or the spouse does not even know what Dad’s property or the other spouse’s property in the Old Country looks like, but they need a valuation, and don’t want to spend the money for me to make the trip there. This home in Cienfuegos, Cuba, is such an example. I sometimes have to turn to remote valuation methods instead. 

Google Earth sometimes works wonders but is not as complete or even available in some countries, such as Iran, Morocco or Cuba. In this instance I hired an English-speaking tour guide to visit the address and discreetly take photographs. It worked well because Cienfuegos is a tourist town on Cuba’s south coast. 

Another complicating factor was the need for a retrospective appraisal report for a date 3 years ago in a country which has no public database available and only a fledgling home sales industry. In situations like these I like to turn to Internet archives and hope to find real estate listings relatively close to the date of value. 

In this case, I was able to get my comparable listings from the web site archives within a month of the date of value. Homes for sale at that time were listed in the Cuban Convertible Peso currency. From 1994 to the end of 2021, Cuba had a special currency, “Convertible Peso”, pegged to the U.S. dollar. The regular Cuban Peso is a completely different currency and is much less in value. The advantage of this pegged currency is that one is likely to be looking at the same value as if the home is sold in US dollars. 

Aerial photos were also helpful in comparing the locational differences of the comparables. Two larger homes in the Historic District were both for sale for about 714 CUCs per square meter, whereas a smaller home inland in La Gloria neighborhood was listed for only 500 CUCs per square meter. In coastal areas property values lessen as one travels inland, and one advantage of being closer to the water for many Cuban citizens is the refreshing sea breezes that can cool down the heat in homes without air conditioning. The Historic District, on the other hand, was judged to be slightly superior to the subject neighborhood.

The lesson learned here is that there are an increasing number of Internet tools available to help with remote valuation – Google Earth, Google Translate, Internet archives, real estate listings, ads from tour guides, English teachers, real estate salespeople, etc.

Friday, January 20, 2023

German Property Portfolio Valuation


Four story commercial property in downtown Hannover 

The actual valuation assignment was to appraise a one-half ownership interest in four rental properties in the cities of Hannover and Kiel in Germany. These were multifamily, mixed use and one retail property. 

These interests were inherited by a U.S. citizen, but the other half owner is German. 

To value a partial interest, one has to discount for an owner’s lack of liquidity, lack of control, lack of marketability and lack of mortgage financing. 

Finding comparable sales is extremely difficult, especially in a country of such strict privacy laws as Germany, and because only about one out of about every 500 property sales in western capitalist societies are of fractional interests. 

The ultimate intended user of the appraisal was the Internal Revenue Service, so the appraisal report had to be an English language report done by an IRS “qualified appraiser” who prepares an appraisal report compliant with USPAP, the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice. Much of my international work is this kind – inheritances, gifts and the increase in tax basis to spouses of decedents. 

I used a technique known as “factor-based fractional discounting”, a technique developed by the Appraisal Institute, in which individual value factors are quantified and discounted, such as asset risk, profitability, condition, liquidity, diversification, size of interest, lack of control, quality of management and growth potential. I also had to do this method in my last jobs in Korea and Mexico as well as one of the French properties I handled in 2017.

The trip to Germany took place during the New Year Holiday, and it rained every day I was there.  I bought a raincoat of the German fashion name "Camp David", no relationship to the U.S. President's weekend white house. Here I am displaying it.

I finished the trip in the charming city of Hamburg. Perhaps John F. Kennedy would have said "Ich bin ein Hamburger!"

Sunday, December 11, 2022

"Today is the Day, Club Wyndham!" Why Timeshares, Fractional Vacation Home Ownerships and Condotels are a Bad Deal


        Condotel unit in Waikiki

By now there are millions of disappointed investors in these types of properties. The most important investment lesson learned is that these buildings are deteriorating assets that have ever increasing maintenance needs.

When timeshares and other forms of fractional vacation ownership became popular in the 1970s, the U.S. economy was experiencing a high rate of price inflation. Real estate was known to provide protection from inflation, because property values were increasing at a similar rate of return, 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 in the 1980s, and she and her fellow agents were all directed by their broker to buy timeshare units at a resort 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. 

By 2007, my mother was retired and living on 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.

Now the maintenance fees have increased to $139 per month, meaning that I would be paying $1668, or $556 per day, for annual 3-day stays in Honolulu, San Francisco or New York, which I could get for a lesser cost without any sort of vacation club ownership. Since 2007, these maintenance fees have increased at an 8.66% rate of annual inflation in a period in which the U.S. CPI has increased at only a 2.4% rate of annual inflation.  But this is not fraud, it is the simple arithmetic of property depreciation.

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. Over time, income for a real estate asset will increase approximately at the rate of inflation, while expenses increase at the rate of inflation plus the rate of depreciation. Anyone who tells you differently, including Wall Street, is selling something, paid to sell something, and paid to deny arithmetic.

Hospitality assets deteriorate even faster than most other real estate assets because of the exacting standards of the hospitality industry, under constant pressure to renovate. This is why maintenance fees are always rising so much faster than consumer price inflation for timeshares and condotels and other fractional vacation interests. And you, the investor, will be contractually obligated to pay these increasing maintenance fees for the rest of your life and the lives of your heirs! Thanks, Mom.

Meanwhile, an excess of vacation properties was built between 2005 and 2008, and values plummeted after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and some have not yet recovered due to the oversupply. 

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 1) high maintenance fees, many more than $10 per square foot per year, 2) having to share 35 to 50% of revenue with management without any guarantee of occupancy, 3) having to compete for occupancy with other owners, 4) having to frequently buy new furniture packages to comply with the hotel franchise rules, 5) HOA dues, 6) housekeeping fees, 7) special assessments, and 8) elevated insurance costs. On top of that, this is an investment type that rarely experiences capital appreciation. If capital appreciation was reasonably expected, the developer would never have wanted to sell units prematurely, right?

Condotels continue to re-emerge as a brilliant new concept before crashing in flames yet again and then forgotten. Some friends of mine were just pitched by WorldMark this week for a condotel investment in the California Wine Country.

Industrywide failure to consider buildings as deteriorating assets

The real estate industry in the 1980s newly embraced a valuation method called “Discounted Cash Flow Analysis”, in which valuations were based on 10-year cash flow projections. The only problem was that most of the DCF practitioners inflated income and expense projections at the same identical rate of inflation, not acknowledging that buildings were deteriorating assets in which operating expenses increase faster than income over long term. Every DCF valuation thus became inflated, and hundreds of millions of dollars were lost in the collapse of the commercial real estate and savings and loan industries in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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. 

Twice when I stayed in Manhattan, for instance, the unit was not ready on time, even if I arrived at 8:30 pm, and then I would be handed off to a high-pressure salesperson trying to convince me to buy more points or I would never be able to stay in New York City again. 

There were also the mandatory Information Breakfast Meetings I was supposedly 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 cheap tourist attempting to steal their orange juice and plastic-wrapped muffins.

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

When he started the Information presentation, the only information he provided for the first 15 minutes was about himself, in which he had elevated himself to the status of 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 very nice unit on the San Antonio Riverwalk. 

When I returned to my building, the doorman had already been alerted in advance 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.

PS: See the film Glengarry Glen Ross. Watch this film about desperate timeshare salesmen even if only for the outstanding acting performances of the late Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, etc.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Appraisal in Panama

Looks like rice cultivation

This was a litigation situation in Panama in which 3 different Panamanian appraisers had already appraised a group of agrarian properties which were near each other, with the highest appraised value more than 5 times the lowest appraised value. I was asked to make an independent appraisal.

Two appraisals had been done for the respective litigants, and one had been done by the Panamanian government. One of the litigant’s appraisals and the government appraisal quickly became suspect when it became obvious that these appraisers had not visited the properties. One property was actually a revenue-producing rice farm, and another was a residential property, but two of the three appraisers did not know this, casting doubt upon their inspections of the properties. If they had just consulted Google Earth, they would have seen the rice cultivation and the residence.

My appraised value came in second highest because I was only one of the two appraisers to notice a rice farm instead of a vacant agricultural parcel. I elected to use local comps (from the same “corregimiento” which translates as “township”) rather than use superior locations outside of town.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The International Appraiser completes expert witness testimony in a divorce case in Costa Rica


A recent marital dissolution trial had me establishing value for proposed luxury lodges near the beach in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, in the Santa Teresa area where famous rich people have also been recently seen vacationing or buying houses, such as Tom and Giselle Brady, Mel Gibson and Matt Damon and family. These types of properties consist of several luxury villas on site renting at $400 or $500 each night, and development restrictions in Costa Rica make these types of properties easier to develop. 

I represented the developer’s wife in the trial. The American husband chose an appraiser from a Costa Rican appraisal firm, although the trial was in Massachusetts. 

Sometimes hiring the local Costa Rican appraiser does not help, if the appraiser uses demonstrably inferior methods (such as not adjusting land prices for differences in zoning), or the appraiser cannot effectively testify in English. 

One point of contention in the trial was that a work stoppage during the COVID crisis signified the failure of the project, particularly since the construction permit expired. 

I pointed out that tourists were coming back to Costa Rica as early as November 2020, and that the architect/builder, Benjamin Saxe, is one of the most famous architects in Costa Rica. A very short distance from this property is Saxe’s famous “Floating House”, a group of three tree houses situated at the top of the jungle canopy near by beach, presenting the illusion of floating in air. Surely he could get a permit renewed. 

Even more surprising, every local lodge near the beach was 100% booked over the next three months.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Appraisal of Coastal Land on a Pacific Island

Notice the proximity of the cliffs and the calm, reef-protected waters. 

Some of my appraisal assignments call for “second opinions”. This one called for a third opinion, as appraisal reports had been respectively submitted by two MAIs who resided on the island. The estimates of value were more than $50 million apart. Who was right? Who was wrong? 

A survey measuring more than 250 acres had been done 8 years previously after an assemblage of smaller lots had been rezoned to hotel use. This survey was officially accepted by the local government, but the survey had a strangely unprofessional appearance. The survey was two-dimensional except for a central portion of the site which was described as “cliff face area” and drawn 3-dimensionally, including ravines within the cliffs, and this area was given a significant amount of site area, 63.5 acres, even though the cliffs appeared to be almost vertical. Had “vertical” become the “new horizontal” on this quaint island? Upland area had been measured at 110 acres and beachfront area had been measured as 105 acres.

These cliffs are mislocated on the survey

Google Earth now gives us tools in measuring land, and the differences between the satellite view and the survey were quite apparent. The survey showed the cliffs by the shore at only the northernmost part of the property, whereas they seemed to be touching the shore in 3 different places from south to north in the satellite photo. 

Measuring all site area below 50 feet in elevation, I found only 36 acres of beach land, not 105 acres. 

Surveys of tropical beaches often have to be redone every few years due to beach erosion or accretion as a result of tropical storms, and this island experiences plenty of storms, but the loss of 70 acres of beach land seemed to be too much to be believable for a coral reef-protected beach like this one. 

I had to conclude that the survey was inaccurate to begin with, due to its strange measuring conventions, seemed almost to exaggerate this site's beach land and overall site area. 

In addition, as I have constantly maintained on this blog, the most accurate technique for valuing beach land is the use of “price per lineal meter” or “price per lineal foot” as the unit of comparison. The use of price per square foot or price per square meter yields less precise results, as the value on the beach side of the property is so much more than the value of inland area. Every statistical analysis I have done indicates that price per lineal measure provides the least variance among possible beach land valuation results. 

Nevertheless, the appraisers were both using price per square meter as their metric. I asked one why, and the response was that there was no public data on beachfront or waterfront length on this island, so price per square meter is what they felt that they were limited to.

For certain comparable sales and listings, though, there were satellite photos, some of which were sufficient to make estimates of the beach length. Some times using the right metric requires some extra effort.  The comps for raw beach land were in a range of $1650 to $2500 per lineal foot of beachfront.

That's enough of today's lesson, but I want to discuss the politics I sometimes have to contend with on foreign assignments such as this. The politics typically comes from loan salesmen and/or jealous, mediocre appraisers.

1. "These are the acknowledged appraisal experts for this island! They are MAIs! How dare you challenge their expertise in their own land. You are geographically incompetent!"

First of all, these grand poobahs did not even agree on value. One estimate was almost three times as high as the other one.  They did not even measure the length of the beach, the most important part of the property. They used outdated sales from prior to the pandemic, and did not notice beach property listings at much lower prices than yesterday's sales. I have always wondered why The Appraisal of Real Estate, the most comprehensive real estate appraisal textbook in the U.S today, spends less than one paragraph explaining how listings can be used to estimate market value in declining markets.

I have had no prior experience with this island, but I have spent the last 15 years appraising beach properties in Fiji, Hawaii, Brazil, Barbados, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Mexico, U.S. and Canada.  So that is my statement of geographic competency.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Where do U.S. retirees really emigrate to? It’s not what international real estate purveyors would have you believe.

  Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia. Canada is the preferred destination of U.S. retirees.

While I have addressed International Living and Real Estate Trend Alert before, there are many other vendors of foreign real estate fantasies and get-rich-quick-schemes with their hyperbole about Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Vietnam, etc. 

Every year, though, the U.S. Social Security Administration summarizes the number of Americans in other countries receiving social security benefits, and it paints a much different picture. These are retirees, spouses and those who are on disability. In 2019 the Social Security Administration was mailing checks to 682,888 Americans outside the U.S., an impressive number, but most of the destinations don’t seem to be the ones constantly promoted by Katherine Peddicord or International Living

Where in the Western Hemisphere have the most U.S. retirees moved to? Canada. There were 110,626 retirees receiving social security and SDI checks there, although some of these retirees may have already been Canadian, and were returning home with U.S. social security benefits. 

What about the Latin American hot spots constantly featured in the real estate fantasy magazines? Costa Rica – 2551, Panama --2799, and Ecuador – 3879 U.S. retirees. One exception is Mexico, with about 60,000 retirees, but some of these may also be Mexican citizens returning home after a career in the U.S. 

Thailand and Vietnam are mentioned as the hottest retirement hot spots in Asia. The number of retirees is 7262 in Thailand and just 556 in Vietnam. Where in Asia are the most U.S. retirees? Japan, with more than 90,000. 

Portugal and Spain get mentioned as the hottest European retirement hot spots, but Portugal has just 12,910 U.S. retirees and Spain has 12,732. The leading European nations in attracting Americans are Germany (40,000) and the United Kingdom (37,500).

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Another appraisal in Seoul, Gangnam-style


The subject is a 14-story office tower in Seoul, built in 2006, with a height of 182 feet. Gross building area is 70,310 square feet (6532.81 square meters), covering most of the site.

This was yet another valuation assignment done for inheritance purposes as wealthy Korean immigrants to the U.S. pass on valuable real estate assets to their children. This particular building is situated in Gangnam-gu, one of the three major business districts in Seoul, and the most modern one. Most office buildings in Gangnam were built after 1990.

As luck would have it in this very active Seoul office market, two very comparable sales were found to have occurred in the last month within 2 blocks of the subject, and a third comparable sale was found about one mile west, having occurred three months ago. All were very similar office buildings less than 15 stories in height.

The last measured office vacancy rate in Gangnam was 4.2%, office building sales are amazingly active, and Seoul is a surprisingly easy place to appraise office buildings.