Saturday, May 18, 2013

Avoiding Cultural Gaffes while Appraising Abroad

British innkeeper Basil Fawlty [actor John Cleese] is confronted with an "ugly American"
One day in Perth, Australia, my Australian hosts and I had some time to kill between property inspections and we settled at a pleasant riverfront café at about 11 am.  Not quite ready for lunch, but having already had breakfast, I asked only for orange juice.  Then I immediately asked if it was “fresh-squeezed”.
My hosts immediately asked if I was trying to re-create a classic scene from the BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers, the famous 1979 “Waldorf Salad” episode in which an obnoxious American comes to visit.  I even remembered that episode, particularly since it was the first time I had seen Americans parodied in foreign media. This American from California was portrayed as demanding and belligerent, finishing his demands with the phrase, “or I’ll bust your ass!” And he and his wife insisted on fresh-squeezed orange juice. That episode was hilarious, but it did make me feel uncomfortable wondering if that was how the rest of the world perceived Americans.
As a southern Californian, I perceive one dividing line between better-quality and lower-quality restaurants is whether the orange juice is fresh-squeezed.  God knows we have enough oranges in this state, so when the waiter pours the orange juice out of a carton that says “Florida” I judge the restaurant to be “not really trying”.  Traveling in Mexico, I have found that restaurants there would never even think of not squeezing oranges. Naturally, I do not expect oranges to grow in England, but Perth, Australia looks so similar to a California city, with its palms and eucalyptus trees and waterfront, similar to San Diego or Long Beach, that I was disarmed into thinking that fresh oranges would be present.

We had a good laugh, but it was not the only cultural gaffe I’ve made while traveling in Australia.  On one hand, I have found Australians to be refreshingly down-to-earth and approachable, but have mistakenly assumed that this informality extended to attire. Last year, for instance, I again found myself in Perth on a 40 degree Celsius day (104 F), wearing a tank-top, and I spied a lively bar with a t-shirted crowd across from my hotel and tried to enter, but I was refused admittance by the doormen.  At first, I couldn’t even understand what they were talking about, as they use an Australian slang word for tank top, but then I realized that I had seen no one wearing a tank top that day and that I was underdressed for summertime Australia. Bear in mind that I live in a city (L.A.) in which I can dine at a $100 per person restaurant and not have to wear socks.  (We have a surreal culture which has adapted to the demands of imperious Hollywood stars.  If Rob Lowe doesn't have to wear socks at a 5-star restaurant, why should the rest of us?)
Likewise, I have been glad that I packed a business suit on my Australian trips, as there are more situations requiring it over there than here in the U.S. I even did a couple of guest lectures at an Australian university and noticed that the Australian faculty wore suits and ties.  If only they could see how California college professors dress – not much differently than their students.
There are many Americans who misunderstand Mexico.  Despite negative portrayals of Mexico in our news media, the concept of courtesy is stronger there than it is in America.
Even the poor people practice courtesy.  Once, when I was inspecting a contested property with a Mexican appraiser and his colleagues, we were greeted by residents of a local ejido, a commune composed of agrarian peasants, who politely asked why we there.  When we explained that we were performing a valuation for the owner of the property, they courteously explained that the property belonged to them instead.  No shouting or cursing was involved, unlike the last time I inspected a trailer park in Bakersfield, California.
Another time I was traveling in Mexico with another American (not my employee) and three Mexicans, and I felt like my American colleague was raising their eyebrows with his bossy behavior, calling the shots on when and where we would meet and eat and pause for souvenir shopping.  We met for breakfast on the second morning, and although I ordered bistec ranchero (steak ranchero), I received huevos rancheros (eggs ranchero) instead.  My American companion was outraged for my sake and thought I should have had the meal returned to the kitchen, but I was satisfied to eat huevos rancheros to avoid an international incident and any unfavorable impression of Americans, all the while understanding that he came from a city where it is acceptable behavior to stand up and shout “Where’s my f***ing cheese steak?”

Every culture has its blind spot, including our own. Once I was with an American who expressed his moral indignation at the sport of bullfighting. A Mexican responded with "We Mexicans find it strange that you Americans treat your house pets better than you treat your own children."  Touche'.

Traveling abroad, I am sometimes offered food that could be considered strange to Americans, particularly when traveling in China, where I’ve been served snake, dog and donkey meat, but I cheerfully eat it and say “Thank you.  It’s delicious.  I consider respect for other cultures to be part of appraiser professionalism.  It is also keeps an appraiser's mind open to differing concepts of value in other cultures.



Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tropical American Tree Farms Update and Other Teak Farm Promotions

Latest update:

I received many complaints about Tropical American Tree Farms (TATF) in Costa Rica, who did not sell titled land, but sold unenforceable "certificates of ownership" in individual trees, written in the English language and thus not enforceable in Costa Rican courts. Some investors claim that they are due payments in arrears for as long as 16 years. The owners of TATF were an American couple; the husband died about a year ago. It seems that no investor has received any payouts from this investment over the last two decades.

I sometimes get requests from readers to appraise their trees, but I have not yet been able to help. I have encountered investors who have no deed (known as the “escritura”) and cannot locate their trees on a map. Lacking that information, I cannot perform an appraisal for the IRS. I cannot state that their trees are worthless, either, because trees are not worthless.

If I have the relevant escrituras, I can appraise the investor’s ownership interest in the property, and if the escritura demonstrates that title has not been transferred to the investor, then the value of the ownership interest is likely to be zero.

Continued teak farm investment promotions

These are not necessarily fraudulent but are advertised with a large amount of puffery and unproven claims. For instance, in an issue last year of International Living, former congressman Bob Bauman, who normally presents sound legal advice for would-be expatriates, presented the new Panamamian residency visa for immigrants (such as Americans) wishing to pursue forestry in that country along with the unvetted investment claims of a Panamian teak farm investment promoter. (IL promptly removed the investment claims from its web site when I informed them.) The standard line from these promoters is that income starts coming from trimmings of teak trees at 13 to 14 years and that the trees can be profitably harvested at 20 years of age. No legitimate Latin American forester seems to agree with this.

"OLAT" -- Organizacion LatinoAmericana de la Teca, the trade organization for teak farmers, tells a different story. They considered a teak tree to be mature at 30 years of age, and immature teak has less value than mature teak, enough less that they did not even attempt to measure the value of teak less than 30 years old in their price surveys. Visit their web site at .

What are current teak prices?

Costa Rica's Oficina Nacional Forestal published average teak prices in June 2012 as 225 colones per pmt (pulgadas maderera tica) for standing trees and 326 colones per pmt for logs. A pmt is equivalent to 1 inch x 1 inch x 3.36 meters. Based on 504 colones per dollar and 364 pmt per cubic meter, this translates to a price of $162 per cubic meter for standing trees and $235 per cubic meter for logs. Bear in mind that the price per cubic meter increases as the tree matures.

My continued advice is to pursue all foreign investments with personal due diligence. If one's main goal is a Panamian residency visa, a forestry investment will help meet that goal, but don't expect to get rich that way, and make sure to actively manage your property.

Final analysis

In addition to being an appraiser, I have also been a Certified Fraud Examiner for the last 13 years.  What TATF looks like is a confidence scheme from the start. The art of this con is that it takes 20 years for investors to find out that they have been defrauded.

Some of you have expressed doubt that the Brunners had bad intentions at the start, but that is how confidence schemes work -- they rely on your misplaced confidence by seeming like trustworthy people. When investment promoters or loan borrowers smile a lot and talk about Jesus, I have learned to view it as a red flag and an effort to manipulate me.  I've been had before, too.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Down Payment Fraud – in the Perpetrator’s Own Words


I received a lot of feedback on my recent post on Purchase Contract Scams, and I was asked if I could provide an example, so I present one here in the fraudster's own words.
The above video was made in 2007 and is an illustration of a phony down payment scheme which can lead to mortgage loan losses.  Observe that he never states that his scheme is illegal. The red flag in his presentation is the discrepancy between the purchase price of $250,000 and the appraised value of $300,000.   

What immediately charmed me about the video presentation was the speaker himself in his sunglasses. Is he blind?  Is he Kanye West? No, he was the founder of a service known as Payout One, and he evidently thought his future to be so bright that he had to wear shades indoors. Payout One has ceased operations since then.
PayoutOne was one of many "private contribution" services at that time which deceived lenders into thinking buyers were making down payments and paying higher prices than actual. Some of these services, such as the Nehemiah Program, even had religious affiliations, with the attitude that this was the morally right thing to do in order to let low income people own homes. The "private contribution" would be added to the real purchase price to create a new "contract purchase price" that would mislead lenders and appraisers.

I first became aware of Payout One on a hot August day in 2006 on the south side of Kansas City, in a neighborhood (near the intersection of Broadway and Armour) that often leads the nation in multifamily foreclosure rates.
I was there to inspect an apartment building, and the purchase price didn’t make sense to me.  The price was not supported by comparable sales in the neighborhood.

It also made me suspicious when several people showed up for my visit, because additional people are often sent to persuade me about something that I might not believe if told by just one person.  
If I feel that I am being misinformed, I search for the “weakest link” in the group and try to isolate that person for further questioning.  On that day, I judged that person to be a young man who showed up in suit and tie (unnecessary and uncomfortable on the south side of Kansas City in August), carrying a very thick file.  He introduced himself as the mortgage broker’s assistant.

When I got him alone I asked if I could see the file. He said “Sure.  You can even have it!”  I struck pay dirt when I found the escrow instructions from Payout One, as illustrated here.

In short, the purchase price had been inflated by $742,500 with this phony down payment.

Final thought
Readers, please use this information for good and not for evil.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Attempt to defraud 261 Chinese investors in U.S. EB-5 Visa Program for proposed Chicago Convention Center

Three 5-Star hotels and a convention center on a 2.8-acre site next to Hooters?

It's been a while now that this blog has been cautioning real estate investors of the world, whether North American, European or Chinese, to exercise due diligence in making real estate investments in other countries. Foreign investors are always at an informational disadvantage and can be exploited by the unscrupulous. I also promote my own valuation and due diligence services with this blog and do not have a conflict of interest by receiving sales commissions or advertising dollars or operating as a subsidiary of an international brokerage operation. Objective information on international real estate investment is in short supply.

The EB-5 Visa program and the real estate development it is spawning

The Appraisal Institute recently held a local luncheon program that spoke of new opportunities coming to appraisers as a result of the EB-5 Visa Program, a program that grants U.S. residency to foreign nationals who invest at least $1 million (or just $500,000 in “targeted” areas of high unemployment, 50% above the national average) in an enterprise that creates or preserves at least 10 full-time permanent jobs for Americans other than the immigrant’s family members, for at least two years.

Some EB-5 applicants are seasoned entrepreneurs who come here with a business plan, but there are others, many of whom are from China, who seem to have more money than ideas and pool their money into "regional center" EB-5 schemes which operate much like private real estate syndications. USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) recently reported that over 90% of EB-5 visa applicants are choosing the regional center route, and by far the largest number of applications come from China. Many of the new millionaires from China made their wealth through real estate flipping and are attracted to real estate schemes created by "regional centers". Not every regional center is well-conceived or honest, though, as the example below illustrates:

$156 million EB-5 fraud in Chicago

In February, the U.S. SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) filed suit against A Chicago Convention Center, LLC and 29-year-old Anshoo Sethi, its managing partner, in an effort to protect more investors from fraud. In the Offering Memorandum supplied to investors were counterfeit documents and misrepresentations, including a bogus franchise agreement with Hyatt Hotels and a counterfeit letter from the Qatar Investment Authority promising $340 million in funding. The defendants are also accused of misrepresentation of franchise agreements with Starwood Hotels and Intercontinental Hotels, permits from the city of Chicago, and an appraisal of the 2.8-acre site near the airport for $177 million. 

The site, seen in the above photo, lies between a Hooters restaurant and a Spring Hill Suites hotel along the Kennedy Expressway leading to Chicago's O'Hare airport.  My first reaction is that the traffic infrastructure was a bit lean for such a large project with 995 rooms and 260,000 square feet of convention space. It is also located across from a residential neighborhood. In a situation like this I would call the city planners, but no one did in this case.

Mr. Sethi's appearance on CCTV (China Central Television)

Mr. Sethi also claimed to have 15 years of real estate development experience, which means he would have started developing real estate at the age of 14. He has also spent several years working as a pharmacy technician. There is no record that he or his family has ever developed anything. They simply owned the hotel that previously occupied the proposed construction site.

Each investor supplied $500,000 plus a $41,500 administrative fee which was purportedly placed in escrow to reimburse unsuccessful visa applicants, but more than 90% of these administrative funds have been taken out already, including $2.5 million transferred to Sethi's private Hong Kong bank account.

Willfully Blind Accomplices

Investors need to realize, too, that promoters of such schemes, whether American or Chinese, receive large sales commissions, and the dodgier the investment, the higher the commissions.  Chinese migration agencies have been offered up to $125,000 per customer, an obvious conflict of interest in advising would-be immigrant-investors, leading to serious competition among finders to reel in the Big Kahunas. Many American "finders" are failing to register with the SEC as broker-advisors.

There is a lot of money to be made in misleading Chinese investors, but who is there in China to protect them? Likewise, when they arrive in the U.S., they are heavily influenced by their handlers, and who is there to caution then?

Independent inquiries need to be made before making such investment decisions. Some of the real estate projects spawned by this visa program seem ill-conceived, and immigrants would be better off starting businesses that create needed things or services rather than unneeded buildings. If immigrants feel that they must invest in real estate development, they should get a second opinion from an objective advisor, such as American Property Research, for instance.

Update 2/22/17:  Anjoo Sethi has received a 3-year prison sentence for his fraud.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Important Synergy of Being Both a Certified Fraud Examiner and a Commercial Appraiser

Harry Markopolos, CFE, testifying before U.S. Congress

Some readers have noticed the CFE credential placed after my name. It stands for “Certified Fraud Examiner”, a designation earned from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners requiring testing in accounting, law, criminology and investigative techniques. This once-obscure designation became better known with the media attention on Harry Markopolos, a Certified Fraud Examiner who tried for 8 years to alert the SEC (US Securities and Exchange Commission) to the fraudulent Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme and who later testified before the U.S. House Financial Services Committee on the negligence of the SEC. He was interviewed on CBS Sixty Minutes by Steve Kroft and has his own book, No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller.

Most CFEs are also CPAs (certified public accountants) and thus concentrate on forensic accounting matters not related to real estate. I know of no other CFE who is also a commercial appraiser, which is a shame, because it would be foolish to think that fraud is not present in the commercial real estate industry. I specifically pursued this credential because I witness so much fraud in the commercial real estate business, and I also work with attorneys pursuing fraud complaints.

Most of my work, though, is for private lenders, and the emphasis is on fraud prevention. Private lenders are usually lenders of last resort and therefore attract some desperate loan applicants. My job is to not only value the property, but also detect misrepresentations and verify essential facts about the property and the borrower before a loan is made. This is how I got involved in appraising internationally, because international transactions bear a higher risk of fraud, and some private lenders are brave enough to venture into this area.

I also perform pro bono consulting work for swindled real estate investors, mainly because they've already lost all of their money and can't afford to pay me, but asset recovery is elusive when the swindlers are allowed to declare bankruptcy while hiding assets.  The victims are all senior citizens, which saddens me when I pause to consider how many thousands of people employed in the financial services industry work towards cheating people who spent their entire lives in honest careers and expected secure retirements.  Nevertheless, I continue to explore asset recovery strategies for these aggrieved investors.   

My CFE education has also improved my real estate valuation practice in several ways:

1. Greater ability to detect inaccurate financial statements,
2. Knowing resources for investigating buyers, sellers and borrowers, including hidden relationships,
3. Knowing how to interview buyers, sellers and borrowers in order to spot contradictions and obtain more honest information, an area of knowledge I call "deception science",
4. Learning how to better serve attorneys,
5. Learning how to testify in court, and
6. Understanding the psychology of deceit.

Let me provide some examples relating to each:

1. I easily determined that an Indian hotel owner had provided false income and expense statements because all line items had been increased at the exact same percentage over the previous year, which is a statistical impossibility.

2. I am constantly preventing commercial mortgage frauds in which properties are being purchased at inflated prices by supposedly independent parties who are actually the sellers themselves or related parties. These inflated prices were being used to request loans which were greater than the values of the properties serving as underlying collateral.

3. I like to get the property owner to confirm essential facts just in case their representation of facts changes. In Mexico City, I confirmed a property’s zoning with the managing co-owner, by saying “I see from the zoning that you can build up to 100 homes on this site” to which he responded “Yes, but even after considerable site development we would only be able to build about 80 because of the topography”. Not surprisingly, I was contacted by the lender-client several months later to be asked why my estimate of value was only 5% of the value estimated by the Cushman and Wakefield Valuation and Advisory office in Mexico City. Their appraised value was based on zoning that allowed 1500 homes to be built there. Forced into a conference call with the Mexican appraisers and my client, I asked, “What made you think that this site was zoned for 1500 homes?” Their answer was “The broker told us so.” A recheck with the zoning office confirmed that zoning had not changed, only the borrower’s story. This further confirms my low opinion of Cushman and Wakefield appraisers. See and . Are they about to become the Arthur Andersen of the real estate valuation profession?

Being a CFE has also gained me access to the scholarly research in the area of deception, including research done by Harvard Business School.  Researchers, for instance, have catalogued linguistic differences between liars and truth tellers, much like some of the lessons taught in the former Lie to Me television series, starring Tim Roth, which was based on the real-life research of Paul Ekman, a University of California professor.  For instance, liars tend to be more loquacious than truth tellers, as they require more words to make their deceptions convincing.  This is called the Pinocchio Effect, as the number of words grows longer as does Pinocchio's nose does. They also use more third person pronouns, a phenomenon known as distancing.  They also use more profanity in their oral communications.  For instance, "I swear to God, Vern -- this project has generated more excitement than any other in the history of my country."  (The phrases "excitement is building", "poised to sell out" and "potential for explosive growth" are all phrases I consider to be evasive.  I prefer to hear real numbers such as "90% pre-sold with 50% down payments" or "number of households has doubled in the last decade" and then receive documentation supporting these statements.)

4. For instance, I encourage the attorney to get me the opposing side’s supporting appraisal reports right away so that I can prepare insightful questions for them to ask in their subsequent deposition of the appraiser. When the dishonest appraiser crumbles in the deposition, the case can be settled more quickly.

5. Some of the things I’ve learned from ACFE about testifying include a) always tell the truth, b) try to provide only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers when being questioned by the opposing attorney, because the more one speaks, the more one can have his words used against him, and c) do not pretend to know more than the facts and analysis have revealed to me. Opposing attorneys, for instance, like to ask me “What if?” questions that would take me from the realm of what really happened to the realm of conjecture and hypothesis.

6. Fraud criminologists contend that fraud starts with a financial burden being experienced by the fraudster. In real estate, that often means a property experiencing negative cash flow or a property that is failing to attract interested tenants (in the case of developed properties) or builders or buyers (in the case of land). The fraud then happens when there is a perceived opportunity to relieve this burden (such as a naïve lender or a naïve group of investors). The final step is to rationalize the fraud, which in the real estate industry, is often the simple bromide “Everyone’s doing it”.

In discussing the problem of fraud with my professional peers, I find them divided into three camps:

1. Those who deny that it is happening.
2. Those who know it is happening, but do not think it is their responsibility to stop it.
3. Those who think it is also a problem, and make some efforts to prevent it.

An appraisal or valuation is worthless if it is based on false information.  It disturbs me that there are high-level members of the appraiser/valuer profession who think differently, people who see an appraisal analysis as an academic exercise based on suppositions.  These are people who think that an appraisal report is a good report even if the estimate of value proves to be erroneous.  They can justify faulty reports with a section entitled Assumptions and Limiting Conditions.

In summary, some instruction on fraud prevention should be part of every appraiser or valuer’s professional education. Let me also take this opportunity to plug my book (published by the Appraisal Institute), Fraud Prevention for Commercial Real Estate Valuation. See sidebar.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ronan McMahon’s "Real Estate Trend Alert" is Put to the Test in Costa Rica

I’ve been a reader of International Living for a few years now (I only subscribed for one year, but since they have my credit card number, they keep on renewing without my permission), and IL is just one spoke in a real estate advertising and publishing empire that includes such affiliates as Pathfinder International and Real Estate Trend Alert. Many of the IL articles are written by or about ecstatically happy expatriates who escaped dreary lives in RochesterWest Virginia or Minneapolis (December 2012 issue) to find low-cost, gringo-loving paradises without mosquitoes, muggers or muddy roads. A typical testimonial might sound like this: "Every morning we eat fresh tropical fruits on our patio while Juan Valdez roasts our coffee.  Unicorns come to us from out of the jungle -- and we can actually pet them!"

Nothing bad ever happens in Latin America in International Living. Crime? Never heard of it. Try reading expat forums to learn the downsides of living in Latin America.

A subscription to IL gets one signed up for complimentary Pathfinder Alerts, an on-line newsletter featuring foreign real estate deals. A recent e-mail from publisher Margaret Summerfield to a “select group of readers” presented a “For Your Eyes Only” audiovisual presentation from “an international businessman” with a “shockingly powerful wealth-building secret” which we, the "select readers" on their spam list, are urged to keep secret. "Secrets of the wealthy" is getting to be one of the most tired lines of the investment scam business, and this script has all the other standard vernacular of phony get-rich-quick schemes, including the requisite “what would you do with that kind of extra money!” and “You need to be serious about making money – fast!” -- except for the slight Irish accent.

The "international businessman" turns out to be Ronan McMahon, her business partner, promoting a premium IL product, Real Estate Trend Alert, featuring his alleged prowess in spotting amazing real estate deals and sharing “insider information” from his “millionaire friends”, a service normally priced at $999 per year, but temporarily reduced to $499 per year if one “acts now”. The price can even be broken down into quarterly payments of $124.75, and there is a 30-day money-back guarantee if not delighted with his service. I found myself intrigued when he said that his most recent finds are in Costa Rica, a country where I also appraise real estate. 

This presentation has many of the typical features of the Sleazy Investment Promoter's Playbook, such as:

  1. Playing on our dreams.  What would you do with all that extra money?” is a standard investment promoter’s psychological ploy that takes the listener out of the realm of reason and prudence and into the realm of dreams.  
  2. Exaggerated claims of investment expertise.  Mr. McMahon’s own resume shows that he was not employed in the real estate industry prior to being hired as Pathfinder/International Living’s “real estate expert’. If he is indeed a successful real estate investor, he should give us evidence.  As for RETA's claims of profits made my its members, they use the dishonest technique of calculating profit by taking the lowest original purchase price in the development and then comparing it to the highest current listing price in the development, misleading readers into thinking that Ronan McMahon provided 100+% profits for his readers. Aren't there any resales to calculate actual profit?
  3. Claims of “insider secrets” and “millionaire friends” and heavy use of investment promoter buzzwords, such as “confidential” and “insider”. This "fake exclusivity" is how many so-called real estate and advice gurus sell their expensive seminars and publications.  Truly successful investors have no need to sell seminars and publications. Most of today’s real estate and investment gurus, even Rich Dad himself, make their money from marketing books and seminars and not from investment.
  4. Calling us “select”.  This is also a "fake exclusivity" trick. Twenty years ago I often received mass-mailed letters addressed to “Select Area Single” from Great Expectations, an overpriced and scammy dating service.  They didn’t even know my name or marital status.  Likewise, the only thing International Living/Pathfinder knows about me is that I was a sucker who gave them my credit card number.  For that I should be labeled "naïve" rather than "select", unless I've been selected for being stupid.
  5. Special discounts if you “act now”, thus engendering a sense of urgency.

Despite suspecting a hoax, it is to protect and inform all of you, my “select readers”, that I acted as a guinea pig in subscribing to his Real Estate Trend Alert service, authorizing a payment of $124.75 on my credit card and relying on a 30-day money-back guarantee. Little did I know that the scam had already begun.

Although I chose the $124.75 (3-month) option, their server automatically upgraded my request to the full $499 subscription. An hour later, my credit card company contacted me about this mysterious $499 charge. I contacted IL and asked for this charge to be corrected.  Four days later I requested a full refund, but only received a credit for $124.75, leaving me with a balance of $374.25.  I have since asked for and received a full refund on March 7, three weeks later, after several dealings with their flaky customer service department (with excuses such as "our computer is programmed to give only one refund, and we can't get it to refund the remainder"). Remember that Pathfinder is an Irish company and might not play by (or even know) the same rules as American companies.

Two days after ordering, I started receiving the daily Real Estate Trend Alerts, which turned out to be recycled (and free) Pathfinder Alerts and International Living classified ads. Nothing secret or "insider" about these, thus contradicting his claim that his selections “truly are insider investments, not available to the public.” Some of these properties are getting shopworn after being repeatedly advertised in these publications for two years or more. And if Mr. McMahon is such a real estate investment genius, why are most of his recommendations his own advertisers? When McMahon uses the word "insider", it really means "advertiser".

Case in point is the last “Alert” I received the morning before I called to cancel my subscription. The title was “Last 2 Lots at this Low Price (Great Views)”. The project was “The Preserve at Lake Arenal”, a Costa Rican project I’m already familiar with as the result of a free Pathfinder Alert. This morning’s alert told of two remaining half-acre lots available to RETA subscribers at the low price of $25,000 each, with 10% cash down and interest-free monthly payments of $187.50 per month for 10 years. McMahon tells us “Arenal is facing an inventory crunch. Land prices have risen,” when the opposite is happening. It always amuses me when I'm told that Costa Rica is running out of land.

I had already recently communicated with owner Greg Coxon, who basically offered the same deal to me: “Our lowest price lots start at 25k.” and “Were [sic] offering no interest financing on short term loans,thus contradicting McMahon’s promise of “off-market deals” and “massive discounts like 50%.” Moreover, the views from these lots are jungle views, not lake views, which makes a difference at Lake Arenal, also known as the "Lake Tahoe of Costa Rica".

A closer look at the sales history of The Preserve might make a buyer cautious. Having been marketed for over 2 years now (as determined from the date of the Facebook page), only 22 out of 57 lots have been sold. The pace of sales has slowed in the last year, with only 6 sales last year and one lot unsold (probably a payment default). Only a model home and a clubhouse have been built. Described as a gated community, the fencing around the gate can easily be stepped over on foot. The lots are not yet graded, and this subdivision is “eco-friendly”, the euphemism for having no public water or sewers. The sewage treatment plant has not yet been built, but there is well water. In other words, this subdivision is still in mostly raw form 2 years later, and the longer development is delayed, the harder it is to sell the remaining lots as prospective buyers become skeptical about the project’s viability. I’ve also never seen slowing lot sales speed up again, as confidence wanes when sales slow down.  Subdivisions are my valuation specialty.

The viability of The Preserve also needs to be judged in the context of its milieu. It is adjacent to another struggling community known as Turtle Cove Lake and Yacht Club. Turtle Cove has a marina, boat storage, and 5 custom homes built so far (two of which are for sale). After 5 years of marketing, only 22 out of 47 lots have been sold, and now their developer is holding a fire sale, with discounts of up to 34%. This spells trouble for the neighborhood. Financing is 20% down and 5% interest. The current price list and site plan can be found via this link: .

When lots get discounted like this, the stage is set for negative lot absorption -- many lots will become “unsold” as buyers who already put 20% down realize that all of their equity is gone and they are now “underwater” on their purchase loans, owing more than the lot is worth. Buyers like this are often litigious, too, but lucky for the developers, they will get nowhere in Costa Rican courts, and neither would you. Vacant lots in distressed subdivisions are among the worst real estate investments that can be made, because the investor could lose his entire investment. Why does Pathfinder and RETA promote them so much? And don't get me started on "Pre-construction pricing" on unbuilt condos.

In summary, this shopworn property is not a suitable investment to be offering to subscribers, is more likely to lose money than make subscribers rich, and Real Estate Trend Alert is no more than a marketing gimmick that repackages paid advertisements into recommendations from a fake expert (a young man who came to IL from the industry) while collecting hefty fees from gullible subscribers.

PS: April 28, 2013, ten weeks later --

Pathfinder Alert has become increasingly desperate to market these shopworn Lake Arenal properties, with almost daily alerts.  Today's alert reads: 

"Once word gets out about this place, and it becomes trendy or hip, it could explode. There's no reason for its low property prices, other than the fact that nobody knows about it....

A lake-view lot for $17,500 - and it's open to offers."

What?  Could Ronan's insider deal at $25,000 ten weeks ago have actually been marked down 30% since then? And still be open to offers? 

PPS: February, 2014, one year later: The Preserve at Lake Arenal now has 36 lots for sale vs. 35 lots one year ago, indicating a net loss of one sale during the past year, and they are still offering "pre-construction" pricing! I seriously doubt if this project will get built.

Nevertheless, I just received this "Pathfinder Alert" from Margaret Summerfield:

"How to make $1.1 million in Costa Rica

Last week, Ronan McMahon told RETA members how they could have made massive profits from a land purchase in Arenal, Costa Rica. If you’re looking for access to “insider deals”, RETA could be your most valuable membership. Join Real Estate Trend Alert to be briefed the next time an opportunity like this crosses Ronan’s desk."

This phantom $1.1 million profit would have supposedly come from subdividing a large residential estate that sold at half its original listing price, but what hasn't been mentioned is that permits are needed to subdivide the land and Costa Rica's rules for approving subdivisions are just as onerous as California's; approvals take years, not months.  Then you have to find buyers for the lots, and buyers have been scarce at Arenal over the last 2 years.  If someone made $1.1 million on this deal, I would like to receive proof.

The style of communication of Pathfinder also presents some concerns. I'm talking about the frequent underlining, highlighting, bolding and exclamation marks!!  Where have I seen this before?  Just about every piece of spam I get, such as ads for miracle weight loss or genital enlargement pills. It's just so transparently sleazy.

11/20/17: I have published an updated article on Ronan McMahon: .

Saturday, February 2, 2013

“Crowdfunding” -- A New Name for an Old and Abused Concept

I’m normally a fan of Bloomberg BusinesWeek, but I found myself baffled by last week’s article, “Crowdfunding for Skyscrapers”, particularly with the idea that this is a revolutionary concept in real estate funding.  Was the writer too young to remember the “syndications” of the 1970s and 1980s, which made general partners richer and limited partners poorer?  Did the writer not notice the TIC (tenants-in-common) scams of last decade and the recent bankruptcies of SCI and DBSI, two of the largest TIC sponsors? ( He even implies that real estate crowdfunding is a concept that originated in – sit down for this one – Colombia, a nation that has given the world so many good ideas.

This concept often changes its name with each new decade as it repeats itself, with the sponsors selling their own properties or unwanted properties to investors, or buying first and then charging a hefty mark-up, all the while charging investors for selling commissions, wholesaling fees, placement fees, reimbursement of offering costs, underwriting fees, and reimbursement of offering and organization expenses. The sponsor is always the winner while investors are usually losers when it comes to "crowdfunding".
It's not the concept of crowdfunding that is the problem, though, so much as the people and the marginal quality of real estate that it attracts.  There is nothing wrong with organizing investors to fund great deals, but crowdfunding, or whatever else you want to call it, often attracts the unscrupulous seeking to exploit the unsophisticated, even if it is just to get rid of their own properties.

The crowdfunding sponsor featured in the BW article, Rodrigo Nino, started his Prodigy Network to sell troubled condo projects, such as Trump SoHo in New York and Sole’in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida.  To his credit, Mr. Nino didn’t cause the problems at these projects, he just solved the problem of selling the condos, something he does very well.  He sells them to foreign investors. And he is an immigrant from Colombia, which makes me suspect that BusinessWeek just let him write his own article.

What's in it for investors in these ventures?  Let’s get some investors to buy condos that Trump can’t sell!” is an investment proposition that does not inspire confidence. It is instead a casting call for suckers.

What was most alarming about this article, though, was the observation that the new JOBS Act “will open new deals to Americans”, as if the Obama Administration is doing our nation a favor in removing SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) barriers between naïve small investors and fast-talking condo salesmen. 

SEC scrutiny of crowdfunding promotions can already be avoided by making “Private Placements” to “Accredited Investors” of 35 or fewer. An accredited investor self-certifies that he or she has at least $1 million in net worth or an annual income of at least $200,000 ($300,000 for couples). The concept of “accredited investor” has been greatly weakened by time and inflation, though, as in the early 1980s, when these thresholds were established, an accredited investor was meant to be in the top 1% of Americans in terms of wealth and presumed sophistication. Today, this category covers about the top 7%, and many accredited investors are ordinary professionals, widows or heirs who are not financially sophisticated. To counteract this weakening of the definition of "accredited investor", the SEC has now eliminated home equity in the computation of net worth.  Nevertheless, this whole system relies upon investors certifying that they meet the definition of an accredited investor and understanding the change in the definition.

As a Certified Fraud Examiner, I have been approached before by groups of aggrieved “accredited investors” who lost most of their money to TIC promoters.  All who I met were senior citizens, and these were people who were counting on a secure retirement after an honest life’s work as, for example, a geologist, a radio engineer, and even a handyman. The DBSI and SCI bankruptcies alone (after the sponsors had received ill-gotten gains) wreaked financial havoc on 22,000 such investors, and the media has ignored the massive predation of the real estate investment industry on unsophisticated senior citizens. 

My neighbor, for instance, invested in the SCI Mezzanine Fund, in which investors paid for the privilege to lend SCI money, unsecured, rather than the usual protocol of the borrower (SCI) paying fees to borrow money from lenders.  His $87,000 investment has disappeared now in the SCI bankruptcy.  We watched the well-tailored SCI co-founder Marc Paul squirm in the bankruptcy court hot seat as he explained how he lost his home as the result of the bankruptcy.  He currently lives in a 4000 square foot Beverly Hills mansion (9661 Wendover Drive) that he deeded, not really "lost", to his children. What suffering he must be going through. Meanwhile, the SCI trustees are now suing my neighbor and his fellow investors for "performance fees" that are somehow owed to these TIC sponsors.

Thanks to the JOBS Act, though, the real estate investment industry will be able to find even more suckers with the new ability to use general advertising and general solicitation to attract accredited investors. Final SEC rules have not been issued yet.
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Monday, January 14, 2013

When Extra Due Diligence on the Borrower Can Pay Off for Appraisers and their Lender Clients

Most of my work is for private lenders, and there are too many scam artists out there who think of private money as stupid money waiting for their taking. They also think of appraisers as stupid, perhaps based on previous experience.

An appraisal purist looks only at the property itself and not who owns it or wants to buy it, which is not relevant when the standard definition of market value is based on the price the property can be sold for on the open market.

Considering, however, that the appraiser or valuer is highly reliant on information from the property owner or buyer, it can help to know the background of the giver of the information. When the information source is known for being untrustworthy, it makes an appraiser revisit all of his assumptions. It also helps the lender-client and can save time for the appraiser.

If and when one of my appraisals comes in too low and a dishonest borrower wants to waste my time with falsehood-filled rebuttals, I used to spend hours reading their rebuttals, researching and attempting to verify their factoids and even reading appraisal reports from their “pet appraisers”.

To save time nowadays, I order a background check on the principal borrower and find enough dirt to stop the deal before more time is wasted. I learn of bankruptcies, legal judgments, criminal convictions and even incarcerations. It’s amazing what types of people are attracted to the commercial real estate business and are allowed to continue to practice in this business.

In my recent post on Puerto Rico I found that the buyer had been convicted of mortgage fraud just one year ago. Coupled with the fact that he could not show me valid, signed purchase contracts, presented me with a misleading appraisal report, and wanted to use his own private escrow company, this made it easy for me to make a judgment call for my client. This was probably a bogus transaction and he was “at it again”.

In another recent instance, the borrower was claiming to buy land in order to develop a 100,000 square foot corporate headquarters for an ultra-high-tech company I could not find any information on. He was paying well above the current list price of the land, putting no cash down and relying on seller financing, which I found suspicious. He had no construction plans and specifications, just artist’s drawings. The background check indicated 2 criminal convictions, 2 bankruptcies, 2 legal judgments against him, several known aliases, as well as no background in technology. He was a political science major.

My theory was that he was hired as a straw buyer to bail out the present property owner. (Such opportunities are sometimes offered on LinkedIn, which has sunk as low as Craigslist. A commercial straw buyer can make $50,000 in one transaction.)

I hope this will shorten rebuttal time, although he has complicated matters by ordering an MAI appraisal at a value higher than the inflated purchase price. The appraisal report repeatedly refers to entitlements, but I called several people in the county planning department and not only were there no entitlements, there has never been a development plan submitted for approval. How could there be, when all he has are artist’s drawings?

Some appraisers won’t do due diligence. I do, and my clients thank me.

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