Monday, December 23, 2013

An Appraisal in the Bakken area near the U.S.-Canadian border


A “man-camp” erected to house incoming oil workers, 99% of whom are male. At this man-camp, each worker gets an 8’ by 10’ room including a lavatory and window. Beyond the front door is a security guard who frisks residents for alcohol and drugs. Also note the security perimeter fence. If it resembles a prison, it is only to keep oil workers sober enough to safely operate heavy machinery.

The Bakken Formation, an entirely subsurface shale formation underneath North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, has become the biggest oil find in North America in the last half century, and is bringing boomtown conditions to western North Dakota towns and cross-border Canadian towns.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates up to 503 billion barrels of oil in the U.S. portion of the Bakken formation, of which 7.4 billion barrels are recoverable using today’s horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technology. This shale also holds an estimated 6.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, too. North Dakota oil production alone is now up to 871,000 barrels per day, estimated to exceed 1 million barrels per day in 2014. 25% of the Bakken formation is on the Canadian side of the border, though.

Most of the major oil and oil service companies are scrambling to build space up here, which is why I was evaluating a business park on the North Dakota side of the border and receiving a glimpse into the distortions in real estate markets caused by sudden economic booms. Within the business park alone, for instance, all lot sales had been at full list price, a phenomenon I had not seen in a few years.

Typical industrial park

The first distortion in boomtowns, of course, is the extreme shortage of housing for incoming workers. This is a real worry for oil firms and oil service firms desperately in need of manpower. The most common solution has been the erection of employee “man-camps” such as in the photos above and below. Sometimes, employee housing is installed in available space within industrial buildings, including truck garages.
Each mobile home houses up to 5 men

Newcomers often arrive to find hotel rooms sold out at high rates, such as $250 for a weekday night at the Holiday Inn Express or $197 for the Microtel in Williston, 70 miles south of Canada and one of the worst affected North Dakota towns. Apartments are full and nonworking apartment residents have had to leave the community after seeing their rents quadruple. Some newcomers resort to living in their cars at first. Then comes winter. The morning temperature on the day of my arrival on the last day of fall was minus nine degrees Fahrenheit, and temperatures have been known to go below minus 20 in the winter.

Retailers and restaurants cannot find enough workers when the oil industry pays much better. McDonalds is paying employees up to $17 per hour, but some fast food restaurants, such as Carl's Junior, have now closed their dining areas and serve customers only through drive-through. There is not enough manpower to clean and maintain interiors. The local unemployment rate is 1.8%.

The Manitoban towns of Virden (population 3114 and known as “the oil capital of Manitoba”) and Waskada (population 225) are also experiencing boomtown conditions such as a severe shortage of housing and hotel rooms, with real estate developers turning empty buildings into employee lodging.

Hotel rooms are also in short supply in southeastern Saskatchewan, and the oil town of Estevan, population 13,000, now has housing prices that match those of Calgary, another city made rich by oil, and the local Best Western charges starting rates of $160 for a weekday night. Meanwhile, in the town of Killdeer, ND, where I was working, asking prices on wood-framed mid-century houses start at around $300,000.

PS: The loan on the business park was funded by Kennedy Funding Financial out of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Declining golf course values in Asia parallel U.S. golf industry decline


The recently closed Kajang Hills Golf Club in a southern suburb of Kuala Lumpur

Revenues per golf course in the United States have been declining for more than a decade now, even when the main economy was improving. Revenues have been declining not just since the last recession but since the previous recession which coincided with the NASDAQ crash of 2000.

This is due to the twin problems of static or declining golf course usage and overbuilding of new golf courses by residential subdivision developers recognizing that golf courses increase the values of surrounding residential lots. For the subdivision developer, a golf course is often conceived of as a loss leader to enhance the value of the remaining development.

Private golf courses (“country clubs”) depend upon the sale of high-priced memberships, and these courses are even more adversely affected by current circumstances because:

1. Private clubs have traditionally had higher expense ratios (estimated at 84% in 2003, probably > 100% now) and lower profit margins than semiprivate or public golf courses in order to preserve their prestige and exclusivity, and

2. Private club memberships were sometimes bought by members not just for golfing use, but also because of their perceived investment value. These buyers have now departed from the market, making it difficult for country clubs to increase revenues as current members die off or else fail to pay their dues.

Every golf course I have appraised in the last decade has had negative operating income, as were the comparable golf course sales analyzed, but this property type still gets appraised by other appraisers as if new ownership is all that is needed to turn around an unprofitable golf course and that the industry will suddenly turn back to profitability. They often estimate value by using discounted cash flow models based on projections of improving cash flows and return to profitability. Many golf course appraisal specialists are also beholden to golf course owners and developers and produce inflated estimates of value for them.

The golf course valuation textbook most often referred to by appraisers is Analysis and Valuation of Golf Courses and Country Clubs, by Arthur Gimmy and Buddie Johnson, which was published in 2003. This excellent book offers much useful knowledge on golf course valuations, but was not written for the times we are currently in. At that time, the decline in golf course revenues was thought to be the result of a brief recession and that revenues would once again increase after the recession ended. Instead, revenues continued to decline.

Being an American appraisal textbook, there is ample discussion of the Three Approaches to Value (Cost Approach, Sales Comparison Approach and Income Approach), with most emphasis on the Income Approach, and rightfully so for any investment property. But their presentation of the Income Approach requires direct capitalization or yield capitalization of a positive net operating income, either at present or else in the rosy future, and this steers appraisers towards the use of unrealistic discounted cash flow models in which the 13-year declining trend suddenly reverses course.

Gimmy and Johnson also offer some other useful valuation techniques which are more appropriate to today’s circumstances (positive revenues, negative net operating income), such as the use of “total revenue multipliers”, “golf revenue multipliers” and “greens fee multipliers”, which I use instead when I appraise golf courses which are losing money and showing a pattern of increasing losses. They classify these methods, though, as “sales comparison approach” methods rather than “income approach” methods, while I contend that these methods are the new income approach for golf course valuations in light of the extreme shortage of profitable golf courses. Their classification of these multiplier methods as only allowable in a sales comparison approach only confuses appraisers who are required to perform an income approach in the valuation of a golf course.

These methods are difficult to apply to private clubs, however, in which most of the revenues come in the form of membership fees. Luckily, the private clubs I have appraised so far were already moving towards semiprivate status – allowing non-members to pay daily fees – and this data can be used to impute certain revenue multipliers corresponding to what would be received as a public (non-membership) golf course.

Some of the golf course buyers I have met are inexperienced in golf course management, but think that their success as bankers or lawyers will assure their success in this difficult business. Many golf course purchases seem to be vanity purchases, too, motivated more by social climbing than by economic fundamentals, as it can be a boost to the ego to have the town’s most important people playing golf on your golf course.

Asian golfing industry

I have heretofore considered the decline in golf course values as a phenomenon confined to the USA and the destinations dependent upon American tourists, such as the Caribbean.

In my recent tour of Asia I was surprised to find declines in the golfing industry in Japan, Korea and Malaysia, three countries which had growing golf industries until recent years.

Malaysia

It had been difficult to find collated data on the Malaysian golf and country club industry until the Inland Revenue Board (the Malaysian IRS) started enforcing full taxation last year on the advance fees collected from new members, which are typically 80% of the full membership fees. In the country clubs’ accounting statements, these revenues are prorated over the term of the membership, but IRB wants to tax the revenues at the time of collection, which adversely affects the finances of this industry. So far, it has identified 180 private golf clubs, almost 90% of the golf courses in this country, with about 500,000 golf club members, and has assessed a total tax bill of more than 600 million Malaysian Ringgit (about $200 million) for these clubs, or an average of about $1 million per club.

Prior to this sudden tax bill, a Malaysian blogger had reported that most of the country clubs were already running at a loss and that golf club membership fees had already declined by more than half. Just as in the U.S., buyers of memberships who previously bought in expectations of capital appreciation in the value of their memberships have now departed the market. Deflation in golf club membership fees is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it encourages potential new members to wait until there are further price reductions. Such private clubs often end up as semi-private -- having to allow in non-members who can pay daily fees for use of the golf course, but this in turn demotes the exclusivity of the club.

South Korea

South Korea is facing a similar situation. The Korea Golf Course Business Association has been monitoring golfing numbers for 30 years now and has reported steadily increasing numbers in rounds played, which were about 18 million last year. They count 248 golf courses, of which 20 have now registered for court receivership.

Noticing the increasing financial strains at private clubs, existing members have been suing the clubs for the return of their initiation fees, which they had also initially considered as appreciating investments. This is no trivial matter. The Korean Herald reports that there has been an average of 100 new lawsuits per month, and the total amount requested in these lawsuits is 7 trillion Korean Won (about $7 billion). Somehow, this number doesn’t seem right, because if it was true, these lawsuits would bankrupt the Korean golf industry.

Japan

Japan ranks second worldwide to the U.S. in golf demand, and third in supply (2350 golf courses) but half of Japan’s country clubs have gone bankrupt since the Japanese economic bubble burst around 1990. In Japan’s case, golf demand peaked earlier than in the U.S. and Korea, and as of 2010 (KPMG Benchmark Survey) the number of golfers in Japan had declined by one sixth, from 10.2 million to 8.5 million since 1992, the peak year, but rapid golf course development in the 1990s led to oversupply.

When demand exceeded supply in the 1980s, the Japanese golf industry also evolved towards a private club membership system which collected “deposits” from new members, which were refundable at any time without any adjustment for interest. As the Japanese economic malaise continued for a second decade, many members started requesting deposit refunds, forcing many golf clubs into bankruptcy due to the lack of cash to make refunds.

Conclusion


The private golf club industry have been adversely affected in the U.S. and Asia for the same fundamental reason, that such memberships were previously bought as investments with potential for capital appreciation. Now that such memberships have been depreciating in value, with many clubs facing bankruptcy, golfer-investors who purchase private club memberships as investments have left the market, leaving only those who purchase golf club memberships for nonfinancial reasons, such as playing golf. New golf courses were also developed in expectations of continuing growth in membership, while the number of golfers in these aforementioned countries has either remained flat or has declined, thus leading to oversupply of golf courses in general.


Friday, November 29, 2013

Interview techniques for appraisers and valuers

Each ACFE (Association of Certified Fraud Examiners) Fraud Conference has an optional pre-conference seminar on a subject of special interest by a dynamic and authoritative speaker.  This year’s presentation was on Forensic Interview Techniques for Fraud Examiners and Auditors by Jonathan Davison, director of Forensic Interview Solutions Ltd of New Zealand.  These interview techniques are meant to solve fraud crimes, but part of the job of a diligent real estate appraiser is to prevent fraud, thereby ensuring a more accurate valuation, and these interview techniques can be useful to the appraiser who cares about his clients enough to protect them from fraud.

Jonathan Davison
Mr. Davison travels the world for the ACFE, studies the investigative interviewing methods of various countries and measures their effectiveness on various quantitative scales. He has made investigative interviewing into a science.

Most people’s perceptions of "investigative interviewing" are not based on reality, but on dramatic representations, particularly in American television media.  Davison made a statement to the effect of “Don’t be Starsky and Hutch, be Columbo”, which immediately resonated with me, because in my own book on real estate fraud prevention (see right-hand sidebar), I also lauded fictional LAPD Lieutenant Columbo as having a particularly effective interviewing technique.

Columbo never starts an interview with a suspect by telling him that he is a suspect, and he is humble, deferential, friendly, inquisitive and persistent enough to keep the suspect talking under a false sense of security, revealing valuable clues along the way. He is a modest man who dresses poorly, drives an old car, and is easily underestimated.  It's only at the end of several encounters that Columbo finally does his trademark "Just one more thing…” that takes the suspect by surprise when he provides proof of the suspect’s guilt, with the suspect often having been tricked into proving his or her own culpability. And throughout the whole process, Columbo never shows any disrespect for the suspect.

What does this all mean, though, to real estate appraisers, investors, or lenders, when a crime has not yet been committed?  The answer is fraud prevention.

When starting any valuation assignment or performing a property inspection, I assume that the representatives I interact with are honest, but I remain alert to clues that they may be otherwise.  This often starts with honesty-calibrating questions.  The attorneys I work with advise other lawyers to only ask questions in court that they already know the answers to, and I do this to a limited extent when I start the interview process.

An appraiser should have already done homework on the appraised property prior to his inspection.  One honesty-calibrating question I like to ask is “Who owns the property, when was it acquired, and for what price?” The reason it works so well in the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK and some other British Commonwealth countries is that it is usually public record. If the answer to this first question is a lie or exaggeration, I remain on guard for more lies to come. Like Lieutenant Columbo, pretending to be ignorant of certain facts lays the bait for spotting liars or exaggerators, and it never ceases to amaze me that property owners, brokers, or other stakeholders are willing to believe that appraisers are ignorant. 

Keeping the property owner talking, even if I already know the answers to the questions, often dislodges inconsistencies or details that may have otherwise remained hidden and can open up new lines of questioning.  Inconsistencies are often clues to misrepresentations, as the truth should not vary.  Spotting inconsistencies is the way how Columbo caught killers and is standard investigative interview technique.

For instance, in one loan application I received three almost-identical purchase contracts from stakeholders in a purchase and sale transaction, with the one difference being that the amount of acreage being sold differed significantly but the total purchase price was identical in each contract. Situations like this make me suspect that the purchase transaction is not real.

In a private moment with the seller, I had the following conversation:

Me:  So, where are you going next?

Seller:  What do you mean?

Me:  After the sale closes, what will you do next?  Where will you move to?

Seller:  We’re not going anywhere; we’re going to have a lot of work to do, developing this property.

Me:  Oh.  I thought you were selling the property.


As it turned out, the buyer and seller were partners and old military buddies, and the purchase contracts were sham documents.

In another instance, the owner could not get his story straight about the tenant improvement allowance he would be giving a new tenant, a state legislator. I called the state legislator and found that the landlord had forged her name on a lease and she had no plans on moving offices.

I also stay alert for seemingly innocuous but odd statements, as I try to discern a purpose for any unusual statement. For instance, one Puerto Rican land developer talked of using one particular escrow company for his purchases.  This is often done to steer business to a relative or a friend who owns an escrow company, which is of no particular concern to me, but it is also a common element in mortgage fraud, and a quick Internet search of this developer's name disclosed that he had been convicted of mortgage fraud a year earlier and was fined $1 million. The court should have jailed him so he wouldn't keep on repeating the same tricks.

Sequential ordering of questions

Mr. Davison advises starting interviews with non-threatening questions, and when inconsistencies are identified, ordering the questions from "least impactive to most impactive" to preserve the cordiality of the interview.  As for my own interviews, I save any controversial questions until after I have been driven back to my car, as I often appraise in remote areas.  In the Dominican Republic, I waited until after I had left the country, as the developer claimed to be a personal friend of the president.

The moral of the story is that when an appraiser starts getting unusual statements and different answers to the same question, a lot more questioning and digging is in order. Also see my recent blog post on "Critical Thinking Skills".

Monday, November 25, 2013

ACFE Asia Pacific Fraud Conference and Observed Patterns of International Real Estate Fraud

I have been a member of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners for 11 years now, and last week I attended their annual Asia Pacific Fraud Conference for the second time. I found it surprising that this year’s conference was held at the Marina Bay Sands casino hotel in Singapore, considering that gambling is a popular form of money laundering in Asia, but perhaps ACFE wanted us to see it firsthand.

I received useful knowledge from this conference, even if it did not directly relate to real estate. To this purpose, I thought I would summarize here the types of fraud and attempted fraud I have been encountering in my own international real estate work.

One of the things I learned early in my career at Jones Lang Wootton was that the dodgiest deals often had to travel the farthest in securing investors or financiers, so one must consider that international real estate transactions already present an elevated risk for fraud. Here are the types of fraud or misrepresentations I have personally witnessed:

Common scams:

1. Puffery regarding the quality of the distant real estate assets. “Resort land” is often no more than a sugar plantation or a mangrove swamp with or without development approvals. What is represented as “next door” to a prime area is often more distant than represented. Leaseholds about to expire have no value without documented proof of renewal in place. “Rental yields” often fail to stand up to scrutiny. “Substantially sold out projects” sometimes hang by a thread in the form of a minimal 5% deposit from would-be buyers (which buyers are willing to forfeit if the value of their lot declines by more than that). In this line of work, I am sometimes placed in the uncomfortable position of asking myself “they made me fly thousands of miles to see this?”

2. Bait and switch. One property is advertised or being pledged as collateral for a loan, but documents submitted to me are for another property. One particular ploy to watch for in Latin America is when documents refer to “Lote S/N”, which is an abbreviation for “Lote Sin Numero”, or “Lot without a number”. It may not be the same property, and professionals will need to be consulted to establish its proper identity.

3. No valid purchase contract. A foreign loan applicant must submit a valid, executed contract to purchase a property he does not yet own in order to receive purchase money financing. The purchase contracts I often receive are often submitted as a draft document in MSWord, with many blank fields, without proper signatories, and sometimes the seller is not the same party as the present property owner. These flaws do not allow me to consider the purchase contract to be valid, and they only arouse suspicion instead. Think about it -- how did you close on the purchase of your first home without a binding purchase and sale agreement? Yet these foreign buyers will tell me of impending purchase closing deadlines without even having ratified agreements in place.

There are two different scenarios in which I’ve seen this done:

a. There is another real purchase contract for a lesser amount of money, or

b. There is no proof that the legitimate owner of the property consented to sell the property or even knows about the phony purchase contract. This latter scam seems to be increasing.

4. Misrepresentation of ownership (similar scam to 3b). Foreign loan applicants sometimes attempt to pledge other people’s properties as collateral for a loan. One common ploy is when they present excuses as to why I cannot contact the rightful owner, such as “he is a high government official who is hiding his assets”. These scams quickly fall apart when the borrower cannot produce documents that an owner would be expected to have, such as a property tax bill or the actual development plan that has been officially approved. Government officials’ secrets are safe with me, any way; my job is to perform due diligence on a particular piece of real estate, not judge the integrity of government officials or violate principles of confidentiality. My job is completely apolitical.

5. Compromising the property inspection. Yes, I like to ride helicopters, but the proffered helicopter ride is often done to prevent me from discovering true ground conditions. Mangrove swamps can appear to be solid ground from the air, for instance, and rugged terrain can sometimes resemble terrain than it is flatter than it really is. In Fiji, I rented a hotel room a quarter mile’s walk up the beach from the subject property so that I could walk to the property that I was only allowed to see from a helicopter. It turned out to be a mangrove swamp. Likewise, after insisting in Belize that I be taken to the property’s edge, only then did I find out that the property could not even be reached by 4-wheel drive vehicle. I would have had to rent a tractor.

6. Tricking the appraiser by showing him or her the wrong property. I have seen MAIs from famous international real estate firms fall for this trick, which should not happen to any appraiser or valuer who has the ability to identify a property on a map or the ability to read a legal description. When will this skill be taught in real estate valuation courses?

7. Attempting to influence the lender or appraiser with biased feasibility or valuation reports from “experts”. Despite what is sometimes a long list of credentials of the expert, the biases are usually evident in the reports themselves, which are often revealed through disclaimers or “extraordinary assumptions”. I hesitate to be convinced by an expert who is being paid to be an advocate for a particular real estate transaction, especially if they are being paid to meet me or travel with me or pretend to be my new best friend.

Even scientific and engineering reports from other countries can be biased. I remember one environmental report that conveniently removed one legally protected mangrove location in between the first and second editions of their report, thereby reducing the number of mangrove locations from 3 to 2. Luckily, I saved a photo of the problematic mangrove location.

I used to be challenged by clients for rejecting reports from famous firms, but the reports from these firms provide all the ammunition I need to discredit them, such as disclosures of pre-existing conflicts of interest, mandatory indemnification agreements in the valuation of questionable projects, and other disclosures indicating a lack of due diligence or verification of borrower-submitted data.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Appraisal of Waterfront Lots in Bimini, The Bahamas

 

Several years ago, the real estate industry perceived a proliferation of “high net worth” individuals (HNWs) seeking second or third homes, and the development industry geared up to build 5-star vacation resorts with expensive villas or lots to prepare for the onslaught of the latest nouveau riche.
 
Then the Global Financial Crisis happened, creating the dual adverse effects of lessening the ranks and solvency of the nouveau riche and also leaving behind partially completed resorts that had no hopes of being completed according to their original scale because of a steep drop-off in sales.  Buyers became much more hesitant to provide cash down payments when they questioned whether the resort would not be completed or else completed without the promised amenities.
 
Tourism has been seriously affected by the crisis, too, which has resulted in less eyeballs exposed to these resorts under construction.
 
This situation has resulted in my traveling to many tourist destinations to appraise failed resorts in places such as Fiji, Mexico, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and Barbados. 
 
Normally, when I see sales stop for a year or more, I never see a recovery.  New buyers are scared off, thinking that the resort might never be finished and they would be left holding overpriced raw land in a wilderness lacking services and amenities.
 
Against this backdrop I was sent to look at a waterfront lot sales program at a struggling resort in Bimini.  There were 41 lots sales initiated in 2012, but only one in 2013, although a previous phase of development produced a deepwater marina and over 350 condos and villas. These lots were typically sold as pairs, creating “sea-to-sea” parcels with a beachfront lot paired with a bayfront lot suitable for a dock. Sales prices were each over $1 million (USD or Bahamian dollars, which are equivalent).
 




Normally I would perceive the sudden drop-off in sales in 2013 as an indicator of another moribund resort, but these developers were able to find a savvy, deep-pocketed partner to bring back confidence and hope, and that partner was the Genting Group, the successful Malaysian casino and resort operator. For those unfamiliar with the Genting Group, their largest casino operation is their casino on Singapore’s Sentosa Island. Their Sentosa casino and the more visually prominent Marina Sands Casino Hotel are the two casinos that have catapulted Singapore into third place, behind Macau and the United States, in gaming revenues worldwide.  
 
They already built a casino in this resort and it is now operational.  Gamblers are ferried in from Miami (only 48 nautical miles west), where gambling starts on the boat when entering international waters and can proceed to the Bimini casino, which was built to showcase gorgeous views of the Caribbean rather than to shut out the outside world, as most casinos do.

There are many people who would not care to live near a casino, but the new casino is allowing the addition of more amenities, such as enhanced food and beverage operations, and a 300-room hotel which is currently under construction.  A tourist hotel can be a nuisance, but it can also offer management services for those who own high-end villas on their beach lots and need maintenance, security and domestic services while they are away.  A typical service might include the provision of fresh groceries and flowers in anticipation of the owner’s return.

Predicting the sale of these lots, and at what prices, is still a guessing game, but the shot in the arm by the Genting Group at least gave me hope that the lots could be sold as the number of visitors and amenities increase, and my assignment was to estimate a bulk sale value achievable within one year.  Without the fortunate game change for this resort, I might have had to value the remaining unsold lots as raw land, particularly since there were 106 more unsold lots that were not part of the collateral.




Monday, November 11, 2013

Critical Thinking Skills Needed for Real Estate Appraisers and Valuers

My posts on Scotland and Trinidad in September were critical of "chartered surveyors" who allowed false information to enter the valuation process with exculpatory phrases such as “the developer informs us that…” without verifying such information, even if it seemed preposterous. I did not intend to suggest that chartered surveyors were worse than valuers elsewhere.  The same problem exists in the appraiser/valuer profession throughout the world, including my home country of the USA.

Part of the problem is that “critical thinking” skills are not part of the valuer’s training in any nation where I have interacted with local valuers. 

In the English-speaking world, valuers are trained using “business school” methods.  Instructions in problem-solving start with set, unchallenged assumptions, and the question is never asked, “What if the information and assumptions are wrong?” or "What if the property owner is lying?" There is an intermediate step which is being neglected, the step that consists of verification, exemplified by such questions as "How do we know that the building measures 25,000 square feet?" Did we measure it? Did a government entity measure it?  Or were we just "informed" by the owner?

In Latin America and some other nations, valuers enter the profession through the field of architecture or engineering, and their more scientific education is even more dependent upon problem-solving that starts with set, unchallenged assumptions. I find many of these architects and engineers overly rely on the Cost Approach and also lack skill in discerning current market conditions (which need to be known in adjusting the Cost Approach for “external obsolescence”, the loss in value due to unfavorable market conditions or external adverse influences).

Imagine if all appraisers and valuers verified the information about the subject property that they relied on.  The world would receive more accurate valuations.  Instead, trainers of valuers indoctrinate their students into providing multiple “Assumptions and Limiting Conditions” that merely serve as disclaimers that complete due diligence was not performed, and then they have the nerve to call this "good appraising"! (Some U.S. appraisers even have the curious habit of rigorously verifying comparable sales while failing to verify the subject property's imminent sale.) Remember that "Assumptions and Limiting Conditions" serve to protect appraisers and valuers from liability and not to protect the client.  Take the following example:

In the post on Scotland (http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2013/09/appraisal-of-former-naval-base-in.html), for instance, I spoke of a former munitions site appraised as the site of a new, 5-star hotel, with the valuer stating the assumption that no environmental contamination was present (almost never the case with a munitions site), even with abundant metal scrap visibly leaching oxides into the soil, underneath signs warning persons to keep out due to ongoing asbestos removal. 
Making this assumption in the “Assumptions and Limiting Conditions” section of an appraisal is not good appraising; it is aiding and abetting fraud. Sure, a valuer is not professionally trained in measuring environmental contamination, but a valuer does not have to be an environmental expert to state the obvious in his or her report.

Once I had a debate with another appraiser on an on-line appraisers' forum.  I mentioned that I had one client who insisted that I inspect the roof on every building that I appraised for them.  This other appraiser insisted that roof inspections were outside the scope of an appraiser’s duties and that it was even unethical to state my observations because it would infer that I was representing myself as a roofing expert. That had been what he was taught.

I remember a situation with a former Honeywell building in Minnesota in which missing or worn-out roof flashings resulted in rain and snow melt leaking down inside the exterior walls and destroying several hundred thousand dollars of computer equipment. Now which appraiser is more likely to get sued – the one who pointed out the obvious hazard, or the one who performed an incomplete property inspection and had the attitude of “That’s not my job”?

The truly concerned appraiser or valuer (who cares about his clients) needs to think about whatever may affect the market value of the property.  This includes being properly informed in matters of construction and design, environmental hazards, flood zones and protected wetlands, demographic analysis, and microeconomic analysis of the equilibrium between supply and demand.  Anything less could make the valuation a meaningless academic exercise and is an abdication of professional responsibility.  It can also hurt the client.

This also answers a question I occasionally get asked, which is why do I get sent overseas to perform valuations where local appraisers are available?  The answer is that I offer my clients extra due diligence that they have learned not to expect from other appraisers or valuers, who instead provide pages and pages of disclaimers and limiting conditions. When others say "That's not my job" I say "I will make it my job."

But let us take "critical thinking" to an even higher level.  Shouldn't we as appraisers and valuers also question valuation techniques that may be incomplete or unsound to begin with? 

Take, for example, sales comparison analysis.  In many real estate downturns, one can find comparable properties listed for sale at prices below yesteryear, and these listing prices often set a new, lower ceiling for market values. I've been witnessing this since 1985, but the most widely used appraisal textbook in the U.S., The Appraisal of Real Estate, did not discuss how appraisers should be looking at listings until its 13th edition in 2008.

In a previous post, I pointed out the disconnect between academia and various professional organizations on the proper use of discounted cash flow analysis.  I studied at SMU under William Brueggeman, author of the most widely read Real Estate Finance Textbook, and many of his compatriots at Ivy League business schools also teach that in a discounted cash flow model of a building, expenses should be increasing faster than income. Why?  To account for the deterioration of the building.  In my first job at Jones Lang Wootton, I sat near the property management department and got to see real property operating statements which continually showed this trend over the long term.

Contrarily, the Appraisal Institute prevented me from writing this empirical fact in the last article and book I wrote for them, telling me that their leaders believed that the same rate of inflation should be applied to income and expense projections.  If that were really the case, though, expense ratios would never increase and buildings would last forever.  This also explains why discounted cash flow models generally overvalue properties. 


PS:  For younger or foreign readers, the above illustration is of a television character named "Sergeant Schultz", an incompetent prison guard played by John Banner in the 1960s television sitcom "Hogan's Heroes". His stock phrase was "I know nothing, NOTHING!" even though he sometimes knew that his prisoners were up to no good, but could be persuaded to look away by a piece of chocolate.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Appraisal in Abaco, The Bahamas


The appraisal was for refinancing purposes, but the subject property was the largest on a cay with only 110 homes, a substantial number being second homes for wealthy foreigners. This was the former residential estate of a well-known American commercial family dynasty.

Complicating the situation is that 37 of these homes on this cay are currently listed for sale. Just as elsewhere in the Caribbean and Latin America, the supply of vacation homes for sale is currently greater than demand.

Also complicating the valuation was the high value of land as well as the high cost of construction in the Bahamas, which forces an appraiser to segregate each home sale into components of land value and improvement value. On the continental mainland, the abundance of land makes land values cheap, but on a cay which measures about 2 kilometers by 100 meters and is surrounded by the sea, the constrained land supply makes land much more valuable, similar to Manhattan and San Francisco, where natural barriers also constrain the supply of land, making real estate more expensive.

Likewise, labor and materials are usually brought in from other islands and sometimes other countries, such as Haiti, adding to construction costs in the Bahamas.

Rather than using a normal adjustment grid, I performed a multiple regression analysis based on nine sales. From a statistical point of view, the sample size is not good, but still better than the classical adjustment grid method of valuation. The two variables which proved to be statistically significant were land area and finished living area, and I also tested variables for lineal feet of beachfront, number of docks, number of bedrooms, and a dummy variable for presence of a protected harbor (useful during hurricane season).

For this particular cay, for instance, the coefficient for land value was shown to be $745,286 per acre, while the local appraiser had already been using $750,000 per acre in his adjustment grid. The results were remarkably similar.

PS:  A $5,170,000 loan was subsequently made by Kennedy Funding of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Appraisal of land near Cancun, Mexico


Mangrove

This is the second time this has happened to me in Mexico.  The borrowers wanted to take me to a distant spot and then point to their property without having to take me to the actual property being appraised.  I hope this is not how land is usually appraised in Mexico.

I was told that the property was adjacent to a prestigious beach resort with $500 per night rates, which I verified through Hotels.com.  The land was actually across a lagoon to the west and took about 20 minutes to reach by car, but the biggest surprise was that the land was composed almost entirely of dense mangrove swamp (known in Spanish as "mangle" or "manglar").  From the air it appears as green fields, but when inspected more closely one finds that it is all swamp and no solid ground.  Furthermore, mangroves are legally protected in Mexico, as are the crocodiles that inhabit them, and I witnessed at least one crocodile warning sign.  (For more info on why most governments protect mangroves from destruction, read http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2012/02/effect-of-mangroves-on-valuation-of.html .
 
Adjacent properties were also undeveloped mangrove swamps, and the only human activity appeared to be the presence of squatters.
 
In a previous appraisal assignment in Acapulco, a parcel was represented as being along the road to the airport.  The owner took me to another parcel along this road and then pointed to his property in the distance.  I asked him if his property was landlocked, but he assured me that there were roads leading to his property. I said “Let’s go there,” and found the property to be an ecological preserve covered with mangrove swamp, situated next to a garbage dump. Moreover, we were politely accosted by residents, either squatters or ejidatarios, who claimed the land as their own. Furthermore, the water had been polluted by a former Pepsi manufacturing plant.  The property also had crocodiles.
Landfill next to appraised property in Acapulco


In a recent post I was critical of an appraiser who performed her property inspection in the Dominican Republic by helicopter.  This is not the way to appraise land. From the air, dense mangroves can appear to be lushly vegetated solid ground. Here is what the property near Cancun looks like from above:
 
Here is what the property looked like from below:
 
 
Nothing substitutes for “boots on the ground” when conducting land appraisals, and one should wear boots for land inspections. They keep your feet drier and also protect you from snake bites.

This was not the only trick these loan applicants tried to play.  The deed showed that they were not the owners, nor did they possess a purchase contract.  Rather, they claimed they had the owner's permission to mortgage this property to finance an unrelated venture, but the contract supporting this claim seemed to be hastily and amateurishly prepared, and stated the property owner's attorney as the owner of the property.

When questioned about this, they stated that the attorney was a Mexican government official who really owned the site, using the registered owner as a proxy in order to hide his assets.  I googled the attorney's name but did not find any information on his government position. I never met or communicated with him or the registered owner. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Appraisal of a residential subdivision in Trinidad

 
The story was as follows:  A bank was about to foreclose on this struggling hillside subdivision with upscale hopes, although the developer had received “Town and Country Planning permission” (entitlements) for a change to multifamily development, which might appeal to a broader market than these expensive residential lots (each > $100,000 USD, pricy even by U.S. standards). 
 
The developer had a recent valuation from an MRICS chartered surveyor for $7,225,000 for a slice of land having a total of 11 lots plus roadways, including two lots required to serve as open space and a preschool/community center.  The appraised value worked out to about $14 USD per square foot for total land area before subdivision. Numerous residential lots are listed for sale in the neighborhood at prices of about $14 to $15 USD per square foot, so the chartered surveyor did not discount for the time and expense to sell out all of the lots, as required in U.S. appraisals -- these lots won’t fly off the shelf on Day One of marketing.  In fact, there have been no lot sales this year.
 
As with many other Caribbean and Latin American nations, developers here have crowded the residential submarket catering to the affluent class, which during better times has higher profit margins than land developed for affordable housing.  The result has been similar in each nation – a dearth of affordable housing for the masses but an oversupply of upscale residential projects – as each nation competes to attract North American and European millionaires.
 
Two lot resales occurred in this subdivision last year, at prices of $4.30 and $11.84 per square foot for lots of differing sizes. The buyer of those lots is now selling all holdings in this subdivision, though.  Part of the problem for developers is the very slow response time of the Trinidad and Tobago government in granting building permits.  Developers all over Trinidad and Tobago have been complaining about this.
 
In this case, the purported Town and Country Planning Grant of Permission document for rezoning to multifamily use turned out to be for a different site and a different owner, with the document truncated before it even explained the approved new land use.  The developer did not provide any documented approvals nor plans and specifications for the proposed townhouse development, which would have been required to obtain Town and Country Planning permission.
 
Just as last week in Scotland, this borrower assumed that a foreign appraiser would not check names on documents and would become overly reliant on a local appraiser who is hired only as an advocate.  This particular appraiser also scoffed at my decision to visit the Land Registry office to find comps, but he left me with no choice; his report had no comps or market data or analysis.  I found comps, and a lower value was indicated.
 
 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Appraisal of a former naval base in Scotland


According to HVS, this might become Scotland's next 5-star resort

This abandoned and derelict munitions facility outside a village of 2000 people has been vacant since the 1980s. A prospective developer of a 5-star hotel resort with vacation residences, marina and destination spa presented my client, a private lender, with a glowing HVS feasibility study describing the location as “enviable”, “impressive”, “magnificent” and “excellent”, not exactly the parlance of objective analysis. He had even collected elated (alleged) testimonials from Scottish VIPs. I was to appraise the property “as is”, though.

I called the developer to arrange an inspection. I started with the question, “Who owns the property now?” His answer was “We do,” referring to the limited partnership he directed, which turned out to be a "shelf company" (an aged shell company which is sold to scammers wanting to appear legitimate). I requested documents, including a title report [“report on titles” in the UK]. His solicitor [attorney] sent a current title report indicating another entity in possession of the property.

In my second communication with him I told him that if he does not own the property like he said, he needs to present a valid purchase and sale agreement before he can get funded. He followed up with a draft agreement in MSWord of a sale between two different shelf companies, designating the purchase price as £6.5 million. The selling entity in this contract, though, was not the registered owner of the property, nor was this an executed contract. Looking up both limited partnerships in UK Companies House, I saw similarities, such as a common former director, recent name changes from similarly named limited partnerships, and a distant location in Aberdeen, Scotland’s third largest city, on the opposite coast of Scotland. I judged this to be a suspicious, non-arm’s length transaction.

The HVS report said that the developer owned the property and had all the necessary entitlements [“planning permission” or “planning consent” in the UK] to develop the project without any additional conditions [there were plenty, such as improving the local highway at the developer’s own expense]. I asked him to send all the planning permissions by e-mail, and found that the permission was limited to the hotel, a café, and vacation residences, but that there was no permission for a marina, spa, or the 2 restaurants and 3 bars he proposed. There was no particular permitted amenity that would make this abandoned brownfield [“contaminated land”] into a 5-star destination resort.

When I finally met him in Scotland I once again reminded him that I needed a valid sale agreement. He seemed surprised that his draft agreement in MSWord between two shelf companies was insufficient, so I had to remind him that the lender needs proof that title will pass from the registered owner to the borrower on the day that the loan is funded. Otherwise, the loan will not be adequately secured and a mysterious shelf company with no recorded assets or financial reports could just walk off with my client’s money. Three weeks later I still have not received a valid sale agreement.

My visit to the site gave me mixed feelings. The loch and mountains made good scenery, but there was rubble all over the site, including a lot of oxidizing metals leaching into the soil, as well as signs forbidding entry due to asbestos removal. Then he had the nerve to tell me that he had already accomplished full environmental remediation on the site.




Abandoned munitions sites are almost brownfields by definition, as the ones operated during the World Wars typically have high amounts of toxic and volatile trinitrotoluene (better known as TNT) and its degradation byproducts (such as benzene, a carcinogen) in the soil. Traditionally, these soils have had to be removed and incinerated before replacement, although modern remediation methods include composting or bioslurry treatment, but the soil still needs to be removed.

Naturally, seeing all the rubble present, and having already discovered his untruths about ownership and planning permissions, I concluded that he was lying again. Unlike most appraisers and valuers, I do not bury a disclaimer in the Assumptions and Limiting Conditions stating that my valuation assumes that the property owner is telling the truth; that is too high an expectation. I care about my clients enough to verify.

On the other hand, this was not to be a valuation of raw land only, but raw land with entitlements that take years to obtain in this bucolic and environmentally sensitive locality. There can be a value to the right to build a hotel and vacation residences when such rights are in short supply in an “as is” valuation.

My valuation was based on local comparables, including a nearby, new, 5-story hotel
which was curiously almost vacant on a summer day, whereas HVS chose 5-star Scottish hotels, most of which are golf resorts, as comparables, and both valuation companies ignored any local competition including the nearby new hotel. They projected nightly rates more than twice that of any of the local hotels. What whores! HVS even put a disclaimer in its reports that the subject site was assumed to be free of contamination despite contaminants visually oozing into the soil.

HVS has a long history, being founded by Steve Rushmore, the father of modern hotel valuation and author of the Appraisal Institute’s textbook on hotel valuation. I’ve been reading their reports for most of my career and have become increasingly concerned about their deference to the hotel development industry to the detriment of the lending industry. The resumes of their appraisers indicate most of them to be recent hotel school graduates and not particularly experienced in real estate. When I was working 10 years ago at Bayview Financial Trading Group, now a subsidiary of Blackstone, I found HVS on their banned appraisers list. My very first post on this blog was a proposed 5-star hotel in Barbados, which I appraised at $17 million “as is” (not knowing that two other appraisals were being done), CBRE appraised for $18 million “as is” and HVS appraised for $50 million “as is”.

Lately, HVS has been aggressively expanding worldwide and licensing its name to other appraisal firms, and I question the level of due diligence being done. The HVS-branded appraisers in this assignment were from a Spanish appraisal firm licensed to carry the HVS name, and they included the HVS logo and boilerplate [canned comments] in their report without following up on the promises made in the boilerplate. As the loan applicant has not yet produced a valid sale contract and has made major misrepresentations about the subject site, and HVS has repeated his misrepresentations, it created the appearance that HVS is complicit in a scheme to defraud my client, unless they are just plain incompetent.

Am I the only one to notice the HVS credibility problem?

PS:  Scotland does not participate in the UK Land Registry, but has its own land registry as part of the "Registers of Scotland".  I ordered data as part of my research and was surprised to find a hefty price tag of   £300 + VAT (value-added tax of either 17.5 or 20%) for data of minimal value, equivalent to about $600 USD. I've often bought data from other land registries in British Commonwealth nations, such as the provincial registries of Canada and Australia and most recently in Trinidad and Tobago, where I spent the equivalent of $23.19 on data for an upcoming appraisal assignment, a price which is more typical of government registries that charge a fee for data, and many don't. I asked a Scotsman why Scotland would charge so much for public data, and the answer I got was "The Scottish government likes to make a profit."




Monday, August 26, 2013

Updated Guide to The International Appraiser’s Most Popular Posts



The two posts still drawing in the most readers, the post about the failed New South China Mall and the post about the mass marketing of Costa Rican teak farms to international investors, are two years old now.

The New South China Mall seems to be a source of endless fascination for journalists all over the world, having opened as the world’s largest mall in 2005 and going bankrupt soon afterward. I posted about my visit to the mall and my assessment of the reasons for the mall’s failure in May 2011. (http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2011/05/new-south-china-mall-worlds-largest.html)

I published “Costa Rican Teak Farms for Gringo Investors” (http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2011/08/costa-rican-teak-farms-for-gringo.html) in August 2011, and received more e-mails about this post than any other one, discovering that thousands of American, Canadian and British Investors had already invested in such teak farms or were considering investing. My post focused on the misinformation and deceptive marketing used to sell such farms and the perils of real estate and/or development done to satisfy investor demand rather than consumer demand.

The third most read post is one of the first posts from 2010, “Appraisal in Costa Rica” (http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2010/03/appraisal-in-costa-rica.html), which examined the feasibility of a tourist medical hospital project in a remote coastal area without paved roads.

The fourth most read post, about La Riviera Maya (http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2012/11/la-riviera-maya-ruins-from-post.html), was a farcical post on the modern ruins left by speculative real estate developers in this area of ancient Mayan ruins.

The fifth most read post has been the recent post on Ronan McMahon, International Living, and Real Estate Trend Alerts (http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2013/02/ronan-mcmahons-real-estate-trend-alert.html). I subscribed to both publications and found the investment advice (as opposed to travel, relocation, or retirement advice) offered by this publisher to be of questionable value, particularly the continued promotion of raw land parcels in failing subdivisions. Most of the recommended investments or brokers appeared to have already been repeatedly advertised in International Living.

I apologize to readers for rehashing old posts because of a lack of new international work in the last few weeks. I have recently bid on appraising an affordable housing project in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and a tourist development in Scotland, so I hope to have something interesting to report soon.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Appraisal of an Industrial Property in San Jose, Costa Rica


Urban real estate appraising sometimes yields pleasant surprises, as the shortage of land in growing or geographically constricted cities can create situations in which a property’s land value can exceed its value as currently improved. I appraised a similar situation in San Francisco, California immediately before flying to San Jose, Costa Rica to appraise the property of a bankrupt boatbuilding company.

I stayed at the charming Hotel de Bergerac in the Los Yoses barrio of San Jose while making a two-kilometer walk to and from the subject property, located in the rapidly urbanizing suburb of San Pedro in the canton of Montes de Oca. Vacant lots were few to be found, and new, upscale retail stores were often built next to dilapidated, corrugated steel structures, as often occurs in Latin American cities concurrently experiencing prosperity and land shortages. Moreover, much of San Pedro had been upzoned, permitting building heights of up to 7 stories and site coverage of up to 85%.

Montes de Oca has a particular attribute contributing to its growth. It is also known as Costa Rica’s “Cradle of Higher Education”, including the Universidad de Costa Rica, Universidad Latina and Universidad Fidelitas, all located in or near San Pedro.

Arriving at the subject property, I was initially disappointed to see the physical deterioration of the various structures, most of which were aging metal buildings with rusting steel roofs. This is one of the common letdowns of foreign appraising – traveling many hours and thousands of miles to find a property that is far less than as described. It makes me anxious that someone is going to be angry with my report. The remaining physical life of these particular buildings was rather limited, although San Jose’s 96% industrial occupancy rate does prolong the usage of older buildings.

What was encouraging to see, though, were two neighboring industrial sites that had already been redeveloped with attractive new multifamily housing. San Pedro has a housing shortage and has been encouraging multifamily development.


In one of my posts last year, http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2012/07/appraisals-of-view-land-in-costa-rica.html, I described my lunch with a Costa Rican appraiser in which I asked what Costa Rican appraisers use for comparable land sales. He said that because of the lack of publicly available land sales data, the San Jose provincial government has created a map system for appraisers known as La Mapa de Valores de Terrenos, which sets a baseline value per district, which is then adjusted by appraisers for site factors such as size, zoning, commercial street frontage and terrain. The base rate for this section of San Pedro is 180,000 colones per square meter, equivalent to $358 per square meter (or $33.25 psf) at today’s exchange rate. These land values are comparable to CBD land values in many U.S. cities.

When the comparable improved property sales and listings and land sales and listings were compared, it became clear that the subject property was no longer improved at its “highest and best use”. The land value of the site, even adjusted for demolition and remediation costs, still exceeded the “value in use” of the current improvements, and there seems to be enough collateral value to support the requested loan, which, ironically, is going to be used to restart boat production.

More later, when the loan is funded.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Warning to Chinese EB-5 Visa Applicants about Investing in Real Estate through U.S. “Regional Centers” 警告通过美国的“区域中心EB-5签证中国投资房地产申请人”


Advertised as "suitable and qualifies for multiple EB-5 applications"

Twenty years ago the U.S. government began a program to grant permanent resident visas, or “green cards”, to immigrants who invest at least $1 million to create an enterprise in the U.S. that creates or preserves otherwise-lost jobs for at least ten Americans outside the immigrant’s family. The threshold investment was reduced to just $500,000 in “targeted economic areas” of unemployment; 50% above the national average or in metropolitan areas of less than 20,000 inhabitants.

While the EB-5 visa program was slow to gain popularity, the number of applications has gone way up in recent years in response to the following three forces:

1. The proliferation of “regional centers”, private projects that pool the resources of multiple EB-5 investors,
2. The explosion in the numbers of Chinese applicants for the EB-5 visa, which now exceed all other countries combined, and
3. The desire of the real estate industry to find new sources of low cost capital, particularly “dumb capital”.

The EB-5 visa program is administered by USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), who approves applications from visa applicants as well as projects wishing to be approved as “regional centers”. An approved regional center is allowed to solicit investments from EB-5 investors, but the USCIS continually issues the following caveat regarding investments in regional centers:

USCIS approval of an EB-5 Regional Center application does not in any way:
• Constitute USCIS endorsement of the activities of that Regional Center;
• Guarantee compliance with U.S. securities laws; or
• Minimize or eliminate risk to the investor.

In other words, “Investor Beware”. This is particularly problematic since USCIS states that more than 90% of EB-5 applicants are choosing to invest through regional centers rather than opening their own businesses. These are typically immigrants without entrepreneurial backgrounds, possessing more money than business skills.

I asked my Chinese associate who accompanied me in 3 of my last 4 business trips to China why there are so many Chinese millionaires choosing the regional center route rather than opening their own businesses.  How did they become millionaires in China without being businessmen? What was their source of wealth?

His answer was disarmingly simple – they became rich through real estate speculation. Being early in buying new condos in Beijing and Shanghai made many ordinary Chinese people rich without needing to learn the skills of starting and running a business. And having made their money through real estate, they are particularly attracted to regional centers which are real estate developments.

Although real estate developments have been approved by the USCIS as regional centers, they face a challenging task of proving that they have created 10 permanent jobs per investor, and there has been a lot of confusion as to what can be counted as qualifying jobs for purposes of earning the visa. Here are some of the misunderstandings:

1. Construction jobs to build the project are not considered eligible permanent jobs unless they are full time (35 or more hours per week) and provide 2 years of continuous employment for U.S. citizens. 

2. From the time of initial EB-5 visa application, the investor has two years to demonstrate that 10 jobs were created. Larger real estate developments can take sometimes take 2 years to start, beginning from the concept stage, then soliciting government approvals while ordering and submitting costly studies relating to traffic impact, environmental impact, and economic impact before finally being able to start construction. Finding protected animal and plant species or Native American burial grounds can indefinitely postpone the project.

3. Once complete, commercial real estate itself is not always labor-intensive enough, with the exception of hotels, restaurants and senior care centers, to produce 10 jobs per investor.

4. Normally, the jobs produced by tenants moving into the commercial property, such as a shopping center or office building, cannot be counted as jobs created by the EB-5 investment, unless it can be proven that there was such a shortage of space in that area that these jobs would otherwise not have been created or else that other qualifying jobs were indirectly created.

What about the people hired by the restaurant that moves in? Those are normally considered jobs created by the restaurant, not the real estate project, unless it can be shown that the restaurant would have never opened in that community unless this particular shopping center was built, and the standard of proof would require an expensive economic study. Restaurateurs usually have a selection of locations to choose from.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, USCIS delivered 895 pages of I-829 requests (the final application for the visa) that had been challenged or denied. The most prevalent issue was job creation, occurring in 65% of all cases. USCIS places the burden of proof of job creation on applicants. In many cases, the visa applicants had only created ineligible part-time jobs or had created an insufficient number of permanent jobs.

What is most concerning, however, is the data published by USCIS on May 31, 2017, indicating that only 61 out of the current 866 regional centers had actually gained I-829 approvals for their investors allowing them to get permanent residency.  In other words, only 7% of regional centers have been effective so far in getting their investors permanent green cards. 

Real estate developers applying to be regional centers

According to USCIS statistics, more and more of these developers are being turned down for regional center status, but some applications have gotten through, possibly due to the vagaries of USCIS staff, who are typically not trained in real estate economics, or else due to the persuasiveness of the developers who applied, and real estate developers can be very persuasive people. I meet one almost every month. Some fraudulent regional centers have been approved. See http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2013/05/over-250-chinese-investors-defrauded-in.html.

Exploitation of Chinese investors

Also troubling is the proliferation of seminars and services on how to finance real estate development with money from Chinese EB-5 investors. The focus is not on how to gain visas for these investors, but on how to fund a project that has been turned down by all the banks and private lenders. This is a risky environment for EB-5 investors.

The top photo, for instance, is an intersection next to a 320-acre agricultural property in Imperial County, California, being marketed as “For EB-5 regional center…currently suitable and qualifies for multiple EB-5 applications”. It was once approved for mixed-use development and is advertised as having been appraised for over $15 million in 2006 “as is” and close to $26 million if development approvals were granted. What isn’t said is that the project never started and the current owners purchased it at foreclosure auction for $5,565,000 in 2007. The asking price is now $12 million, or $37,500 per acre in a county where irrigated farmland sells for $7000 per acre.

Farms do produce jobs, I must admit, but in this part of California, just across the border from Mexico, the likelihood is low that most of the farmworkers are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, who refuse to work in the 115-degrees-Fahrenheit heat of a summer day in Imperial County. Once the farm is up and running, investors will then have to prove to the USCIS that the workers are legal residents of the U.S., and that will be hard to achieve.

The recruiters

Situated on both sides of the Pacific Ocean is an industry of recruiters, most of whom are also ethnically Chinese, for EB-5 regional centers. They have been paid commissions up to $125,000 (A Chicago Convention Center) to land one of these Chinese millionaires, and they often make extravagant promises in China, promises that they wouldn't dare to make in the U.S.