Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Appraisal in Tepotzotlan, Mexico

The story sounded compelling: 26 hectares of flat, residentially zoned land at the northern periphery of the Mexico City metropolitan area, not far from the Autopista, the major north-south highway leading to Mexico City, 42 kilometers south. Next door was said to be a gated subdivision with a golf course. The owners claimed to have had a bank appraisal in 2006 establishing a value of 177 million pesos, equivalent to about $16 million USD at that time.

The idea of the site’s potential for residential subdivision seemed plausible at first. As modern life takes over Mexico City, it has increasingly grown like an American city, with residents fleeing to growing suburbs and the city population actually declining, similar to Chicago, Detroit or Baltimore. The subject property initially sounded like an ideal location for a new housing subdivision.

The paper chase

One of the documents I requested from the landowner was the most recent predial (property tax receipt). I use it to double-check items such as owner, location, tax ID number (clave catastral), and assessed value, which I hope might point me in the right direction of true market value.

I was provided instead with a predial from 1992, indicating an assessed value of 87,696,000 pesos. Why would they do something like that?

At today’s exchange rate of 12.18 pesos to one dollar, the land would have been worth $7,200,000 back then, but that would be in nuevos pesos, which were not established until 1993, after a period of hyperinflation, when Mexico issued the “new peso” to replace and be valued at 1000 old pesos. The exchange rate on the date of the predial would have been 3064 “old” pesos to one dollar, with the assessed value being equivalent to only $28,621 USD!

Thus, the purpose of providing a predial dated prior to 1993 was an attempt to confuse me. The alleged bank appraisal from 2006 never materialized, either.

The property inspection

After exiting from the Autopista, we traveled another half hour on roads that progressively got narrower and rougher, making numerous turns as we traveled through residential neighborhoods with speed bumps on every block. The paved roads then ended and we traveled on narrow, rutted dirt roads.

Arriving at the site, I found it to be a hillside. The elevation dropped by 150 feet from top to bottom.

Immediately west was a neighborhood of makeshift shacks and dirt roads.
Immediately south was a neighborhood of modest, concrete block structures on small lots, served by paved roads. Graffiti was prevalent.

Immediately north was the countryside. Immediately east was the gated subdivision I had heard about.

Neighboring gated community

After walking about the subject property, we drove to the gated community next door to perhaps give me some idea of the residential development potential of the subject site.

The guardhouse was closed. One of the four gates was open to traffic, however. Once inside, I saw mostly vacant lots, a few structures, some which appeared to be vacant, and no golf course. Census data indicated that only 18 households live in this subdivision. The developer is still advertising to build attractive new 3-bedroom homes of 2500 to 2600 square feet for 1.2 million pesos unfurnished or 1.5 million pesos furnished, equivalent to about $98,000 and $123,000.

Comparable properties

Sales of large parcels were not to be found, so I turned to listings. The most similar property in terms of size and proximity was in the next town west, but its H500A (municipality of Tepotzotlan) zoning allowed 5 times as much residential density as the subject site – 20 dwellings per hectare or 8 dwellings per acre. Its listing price translated to about $72,000 per hectare, for five times the allowable density. Other local parcels were priced as low as $20,000 per hectare (although that one was in a more remote location).

It soon became apparent that the appraised value was going to fall far short of the $16 million that the lender was led to believe. Moreover, this particular lender’s minimum loan size is $1 million with a maximum loan-to-value ratio of 50% for raw land, so there was no real possibility of getting a deal done here.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Costa Rican Teak Farms for Gringo Investors

I’ve been preparing for an upcoming tree farm appraisal assignment in Costa Rica, but learned late that what was thought to be a teak farm is actually a tree farm with lesser tree species. Nevertheless, something should be said about the teak farm market in Costa Rica.

In the late 1980s Costa Rican President Oscar Arias declared a state of emergency concerning the depletion of the nation’s forests, much of which had been felled for timber harvesting or cattle ranching. Generous tax exemptions were put in place to encourage commercial reforestation projects. Capitalism quickly and enthusiastically addressed the problem, and some of those who observed the flow of international capital into Costa Rican forestry investments figured out that perhaps there was more money to be made by selling forestry investments than in actually growing, harvesting and processing the trees.

As with any market for investment properties, distortions are created when properties are developed in response to investor demand rather than consumer demand. For instance, great surpluses of “rental homes” were developed in Arizona, Las Vegas and Kissimmee, Florida, not in response to a shortage of housing in those areas, but to sell to out-of-state investors. Costa Rican tree farms are now repeating the same concept all over again.

Teak became the preferred tree farm crop because of its high value. There were no restrictions on the creation of new supply in Costa Rica, so many entrepreneurs got into the teak plantation business and European “investment funds” (syndications) were organized to develop teak plantations for small investors, charging high mark-ups. Many teak plantations were subdivided into smaller parcels for purchase by small, absentee investors in North America and Europe.

Misleading data crowding out objective data

The Costa Rican timber market is fragmented and lacking in price information, which has led to the crowding out of objective information by hyperbole crafted by investment promoters, many of who claim historical investment returns in the timber industry of greater than 13% per year. This is not based on Costa Rican data, however.

The most recent price survey among the Costa Rican members of OLAT (the Latin American Teak Organization) indicates prices between $120 and $595 per cubic meter for standing teak trees, depending upon diameter, but prices appear to have decreased since February of this year. For instance, standing teak trees of 50 to 59 centimeters in diameter were priced at an average of $220 per cubic meter then but are now priced at $175 per cubic meter, a drop of 20% in the last six months. Mature trees above 30 years in age have much greater value per cubic meter than immature (“short rotation”) trees, as they can be more efficiently processed into large pieces of sawn wood.

Investment promoters, however, are misleading investors with pro forma cash flow projections based on price increases of 5 to 10% per year, despite the increasing supply of Costa Rican teak, and unrealistically shortened maturity times of 20 to 25 years. OLAT’s data is based on reported prices for mature 30-to-50-year-old trees (the older, the more valuable) and describes 20 to 25-year old plantations as “young plantations” for which there is insufficient market price data, and also commenting that Latin America will supply an important part of the teak market, but is not properly geared to marketing short rotation material. This will change in the coming years, with the knowledge that producers are not getting the best price, the market being controlled by buyers.” In Asia, teak trees are often not harvested until 60 years.

As for the balance between teak supply and demand in Costa Rica, OLAT states “With all the money that was invested by forestry funds over the years in Latin America many plantations were enthusiastically created and the know-how has been improving steadily. Lacking, to some extent, are the sales aspects of plantation products.”

Investment Promoters and Scam Artists
Some investment promoters are not even selling land to investors, just the trees themselves. It is important to know that titled ownership in Costa Rica extends to real estate only; there are no tree titles, and the idea of tree titles in a nation with so many more trees than people would be an administrative nightmare, even if it was tried.  How does one prove ownership of trees that are situated on someone else’s land? Any contract in English is not valid or enforceable in Costa Rican courts, either.

Many investors claim to be victims of scams in which plantation owners sell tree ownership and then charge a fee to manage the tree investment; Tropical American Tree Farms seems to have attracted the most complaints. Most of the alleged fraudsters are gringos themselves, including Eric Heckler, who was a fugitive from mortgage fraud charges in Florida when found selling Costa Rican teak trees that weren't his before being extradited back to the U.S. in 2009.

In the numerous listings of teak plantations for sale in Costa Rica, a sizeable discount per tree is apparent for the larger plantations, indicating an insufficient demand for the quantities of teak they are producing, with prices as low as $167 per standing tree for 20-year-old trees, which translates to about $244 per cubic meter (based on an average of 0.8639 cubic meters per 20-year-old teak tree), or 58 cents per board-foot, quite a bit lower than even the OLAT-published prices.

Next stop: Tepotzotlan, Mexico
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Monday, August 1, 2011

Why Fraud is Attracted to International Real Estate Transactions

Several of my previous blogs refer to the possibility of fraud in international real estate transactions. It stands to reason that a property owner or developer who cannot find buyers or financiers in his own country will seek them out in other countries, perhaps taking advantage of the foreigners' lack of local knowledge. Why, for instance, must Spanish hotels be marketed in the U.S.? Could they not attract European investors?

I do not wish to seem overly critical of Chinese or Central American property owners. A predilection to commit fraud is a fault of human nature and knows no nationality or ethnicity, as I’ve seen plenty of it in the U.S. Fraud tends to flow to those areas where:

1. The controls are weakest,
2. The opacity is greatest,
3. The penalties for fraud are the least severe or least likely to be enforced, and
4. The story sounds the most sensational.

Let me provide an example:

Imagine a nation which has experienced average annual economic growth of 5% after inflation for the last 14 years and real estate prices are rapidly increasing [the story]. Real estate transaction prices are not disclosed due to privacy concerns [opacity]. The culture is very pro-business and real estate regulation is non-existent except for the licensing of real estate sales agents [weak controls]. Prosecution against white collar fraud is unheard of [lack of penalties and enforcement].

Are you ready to invest?

Well, you’re too late, because the place I just described was my home state of Texas in the year 1985. What happened next was an economic disaster. Much of the Texas economic miracle had been based on real estate construction, adding far more supply than could be absorbed at even robust growth levels. Any new development could get 100% financing from a Texas bank, and developers were allowed to order their own valuations from their favorite appraisers. As new buildings stood empty, bank loans could not be repaid. Property prices plummeted. Almost every Texas-domiciled bank and thrift institution failed. Construction workers, realtors, appraisers and bankers lost their livelihoods. The unemployment rate was 12% in Houston when I lost my job there and moved to Los Angeles in 1987.

From 1984 to 1987 I was working in the Houston office of Jones Lang Wootton. My colleagues were busy acquiring and managing investment properties for British, German and Saudi investors who were excited by the Texas story. This all changed rather quickly.

Travel ahead 25 years in time and is China or Costa Rica that much different?