Friday, December 30, 2011

Those “Guaranteed Income” Rental Home Investments

Rental condos in Kissimmee, Florida

A recent inquiry from a Canadian journalist has me revisiting this topic, as there is now a burgeoning industry of selling “rental home investments” to foreign investors, particularly the Canadians and the Chinese. For instance, some unsuccessful builders of failed subdivisions in places like Arizona and Nevada are advertising their unsold homes as “rental home investments” for which they or their agents promise to rent and manage for foreign investors. Their ads often tout “guaranteed ROI of xx%” or “guaranteed rental income for two years”. Are such investments a good deal?

“Guaranteed rental income for the first two years” is a seller promise that should be interpreted as a sign of weakness, not security, because a rental property in a stable market need not be sold with any such guarantees. What often happens, too, is that the property’s previous asking price has been inflated to more than cover the amount of these guaranteed rents.

Enforceability of guarantees

Guarantees are not quite guarantees if the builder or manager goes out of business, even if just to emerge again as another legal entity (for example, if the principals of Get Rich Quick LLC dissolved their LLC and reorganized as Get Rich Guaranteed LLC). If the guaranteed rents stop coming in, there is also the logistical problem of filing a lawsuit far away from home to collect what is due, and foreign investors are at a disadvantage in negotiating the complex U.S. justice system. Accept this common piece of advice from Craigslist:

Only a scammer will ‘guarantee’ your transaction.”

Recommended Due Diligence for U.S. rental homes

1. Try to get vacancy rate data for the community the home is in at the most granular level, whether it is the subdivision, the zip code, or the census tract. One helpful tool at the moment is the U.S. Census, which recently completed a decennial census with data as of April 1, 2010. The U.S. Census Bureau counted vacant housing units as of that date and will soon publish data down to the census tract level. For instance, realtors crow about Green Valley, Arizona, being the second fastest growing town in Arizona, itself one of the fastest growing states, all according to the U.S. Census, but may neglect to mention that in Green Valley, a suburb of Tucson, the Census counted 4581 vacant housing units out of a total of 17,322, equivalent to a vacancy rate of 26.5%. What will happen to a rental home there after the guaranteed rental income runs out after one or two years? Tucson isn’t much better, having a 15.9% rental vacancy rate.

2. Google the name of the seller and the management company and look for consumer and investor complaints. It helps to add the words “scam”, “fraud” or “complaint” to your search terms to get beyond the pretty web sites of the scammers. Try “MRI Overseas Property scam”, for instance. The really active fraudsters, though, will publish articles designed to show up in such search results, such as “Get Rich Quick LLC – No Scam!” or “Guaranteed Riches, LLC – No Complaints Here!”, and may even write their own highly favorable Wikipedia article, so keep on searching all the results. If the company is so new that nothing can be found in a background search, Google the name of the principal of the company, and that’s often where you will find a history of a swindler moving from state to state or even nation to nation to perpetrate scams.

After applying the aforementioned screening criteria, you should have a much smaller list of prospective investments.

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