Thursday, July 26, 2012

Appraisals of "View Land" in Costa Rica

Much of my work involves flying to faraway places and then being driven in a 4-wheel drive vehicle into the countryside, up winding dirt roads, to a parcel of land with sweeping vistas featuring bodies of water, and then being told “Just look at this view. It’s priceless.”

I often encounter misconceptions of what constitutes the value of a “view parcel”. There is no argument that a finished lot with a view commands a premium over lots with no views. I emphasize the word “finished”, as “raw” mountainside or mountaintop land with views is usually priced and valued less than flat land at lower elevations.

Why? Because of the extra costs to develop land in rugged terrain or higher elevations.

Let’s indulge in a reductio ad absurdum to make my point.

The top of Mount Everest offers spectacular views, but I offered to sell you a lot up there, you would say “How ridiculous! How could I get my Range Rover up there? How and when could I get utilities connected? Where would I buy groceries?” I would attract no buyers, despite the magnificent view.

Suppose that I had already graded the lot and just completed a 4-lane road to the top of Mount Everest, installed all utilities, including digital cable, and even supplied extra amenities such as a golf course, supermarket, and gourmet restaurant? Now that might be something somebody is willing to pay a lot of money for, and the value would be enhanced by the unequaled views from the top of the world.

The extra costs of land development at such a high altitude would probably not be compensated for by the view premium for the finished lot, so this hypothetical unfinished lot on top of Mount Everest would be comparatively worthless.

View Land for Rich Gringos
Developers all over the world have spent the last few years acquiring “view land” for subdivision and sale to rich foreigners, whether they are North Americans, Europeans or Australians. Costa Rica is crowded with numerous proposed “5-star developments” as developers compete to attract rich gringos. Most of the developers are foreigners, too. Many of the projects have impressive artists’ renderings and obligatory photos of female backsides in infinity pools, beautiful women getting massages, Caucasian families frolicking on the beach, and exotic fauna and flora.

The result in Costa Rica, as I’ve also seen in Mexico, Fiji, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Canada, and Barbados, is a surplus of unstarted or unfinished (see previous post on Barbados) 5-star projects and declining values for raw land.

Such was the case with two land parcels I recently appraised in different parts of Costa Rica. The dome-shaped parcel below looks very difficult to develop because of steep slopes, but there are views at the top of the scenic Orosi Valley. Also limiting value was the lack of approved entitlements and a well report indicating a water flow rate (10.8 liters per second) which can only support about 16 households.

The Orosi Valley

The other subdivision had distant ocean views and was farther along in the entitlement process, still not having local approval, and the “will serve” letter from the municipal water utility read more like “we might serve in the distant future”, as was their commitment to waste collection. This project had pre-sold 9 out of 94 lots in the last 20 months, at prices ranging from $100,000 to $270,000, but pre-sales stopped in 2011, and once pre-selling stops, it is very difficult to get it going again, as foreign buyers fear that the project won’t get completed and they may lose their deposits. When existing buyers see land prices falling, moreover, they may be willing to forfeit their $5000 deposits.

The foreign subdivision projects I actually see succeeding, on the other hand, are the ones aimed at the local nation's burgeoning professional class, offering lots and residences at lower prices within reach of the upper middle class and within commuting distance of major employment centers.  In the Dominican Republic, for instance, when a new highway improved accessibility to the beach towns east of Santo Domingo, such as Juan Dolio, Grupo Metro made a lot of money building condos and villas for sale to professionals working in Santo Domingo.  Similarly, I've seen the Palm Springs community north of Natal,  Brazil, achieve enviable pre-sales as new roads and a bridge to downtown Natal are enabling Palm Springs to become an oceanside bedroom community for Natal commuters, with lot prices starting at $30,000, certainly within reach of the middle class.

One stigma that is currently complicating lot sales in Costa Rica to foreign buyers are some spectacular development project failures, such as Hacienda Matapalo and Wyndham Jade, which are alleged to have been fraudulent schemes all along. There have been development scams, teak farm scams (see my post entitled “Costa Rican teak farms for gringo investors), and squatter scams (see my post entitled “Latin American land grabs from absentee owners”) going on in Costa Rica, many of which are being perpetrated by foreigners, too, such as Americans, Canadians, British and Dutch. That does not mean that local developers are any more trustworthy, and the inherent problem spoiling confidence in the real estate market in Costa Rica is its slow, ineffectual justice system.

Meeting a Costa Rican appraiser

In this valuation assignment, the developer asked me to meet “the independent appraiser” to discuss his recent valuation of the two properties together for a combined value of $12.4 million. Finding the “independent appraiser” sitting across from me at the lunch table made me doubt his independence, and his valuation reports were addressed to the developer.

The developer invited me to ask the appraiser questions. My first question was “¿Qué es lo que utiliza para las ventas comparables?” (What did you use for comparable sales?) His answer was quite unexpected but interesting. There is some institution, perhaps governmental, which has mapped out real estate values, and a Costa Rican appraiser consults the map and then makes adjustments much as any appraiser would. This is not the same thing as researching comparable sales, though, although the map is probably based on previous sales; I just don’t know how long ago they occurred.

Incidentally, all professional appraisers in Costa Rica, as in Mexico, are either architects or engineers, and are expected to have a more rigorous education in quantitative methods than in the U.S., where one can major in Psychology or Religion and still meet the academic standards needed to get certified or designated.

I am not an architect or an engineer, but as an appraiser I am a traditionalist. I like to use recent comps and listings (if the listing prices are below previous closed sales prices, and there is no shortage of failed subdivisions for sale in Costa Rica). Unfortunately, my estimate of value came in lower.

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Vernon Martin, MSRE, CFE said...

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