Monday, January 9, 2017


Welcome to another year at the Real Estate Think Tank. I enjoy writing about real estate and am thankful that I have this forum to share my thoughts on the subject. With that said, let’s get into Cooperatives.

A Cooperative, also known as a Real Estate Cooperative or Co-op, is a form of real estate ownership in which owners purchase shares in a corporate entity that owns a building. This entity is usually called an Apartment Corporation. Despite the name “Apartment Corporation,” a co-op can be both residential and commercial. Although residential co-ops, known as Housing Cooperatives, are more prevalent, commercial co-ops are not uncommon. 

In exchange for the purchase of shares in a co-op, each owner is given both an ownership interest in the Apartment Corporation, usually in the form of shares of stock, and a proprietary lease. The proprietary lease entitles each owner to occupy a certain portion of the building exclusively and confers most, if not all, of the rights of property ownership over the designated space, called an apartment.

Since the Apartment Corporation owns the building and not the owners, owners in a co-op are referred to as shareholders. Furthermore, shareholders do not technically own real estate or real property, but instead own shares, which are considered personal property. This distinction has certain legal ramifications that are noteworthy, but beyond the scope of this post. The ownership characteristics of a co-op, however, are also very interesting.

Monday, December 26, 2016


Condominium ownership is a form of real estate ownership that has unique characteristics. For those not well-versed in condominiums, here is a quick overview of their definition and purpose:

A condominium or condo allows a property, typically a multistory building, but not infrequently a large parcel of land, to be split into sections and owned by multiple owners. The unique aspect of condominium ownership is that it entitles an owner to ownership of a specific portion of a property and the space or “air” bounded by that portion. For example, through condominium ownership, one can convey the first floor of a three story building to one party, the second to another party and the third to yet another party. Interestingly, the units are frequently not required to be the same size, so one could create a two-unit condominium out of a three story building and convey the first floor to one party and the second and third floors to another party. A condominium is formed by recording a document, typically called a declaration in most jurisdictions, but also referred to by other names, such as a master deed, against the property. This document informs the public that the property is now a condominium, outlines the sizes of the units and common areas and provides other relevant information about the condominium.  Once a condominium is formed the property can no longer be sold as an undivided whole, unless the condominium regime is abandoned. The condominium regime will remain in effect until either the unit owners decide to abandon the condominium, the government dissolves the condominium, the property somehow loses the condominium status through the violation of local laws or the government condemns the property.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Easements are a common occurrence in real estate, but what are they really?

Essentially, an easement is the right to use a property granted by the owner of the property to a non-owner or class of non-owners. An easement is by no means the only way for a property owner to confer use to a non-owner, but unlike other forms used to grant usage rights, such as licenses and permits, easements are recorded against the title of the property over which they are granted and remain in effect despite the transfer of the land. The ability of an easement to survive the transfer of title is called “running with the land.”

Easements differ from leases, which also confer the usage rights of a property to non-owners and also run with the land, in that easements exist in perpetuity, whereas leases have a term with a termination date. As a result, in order to terminate or “extinguish” an easement, an affirmative action must be taken like merger or abandonment. A lease, however, automatically terminates upon the end of its term, without any further action by the parties to it.

There are different types of easements and easements are generally categorized in different ways. The first way that an easement can be categorized is based on to whom or what the rights of usage are granted. If the easement grants rights of usage to the owner or occupant of another property, it is called an easement appurtenant. In this instance, the property on which the easement is established is called the servient estate and the property that receives the right of usage is called the dominant estate.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

My How Local Lending Has Changed!

Today's banks are unabashedly international businesses which thrive on providing services and taking advantage of opportunities throughout the world. Long gone are the days of the local Savings and Loan as the provider of the community's mortgage needs. Instead, behemoths of consolidations dominate today's lending scene, thriving off of large economies of scale that make any potentially smaller competitors shutter. This change in the role of banking in the community, although the largely the product of intentional moves by the banking industry and Congress, is not without its effects on the real estate industry, particularly the residential market.

In order to explain the effect of big banks on the residential real estate market, one must understand the role of local banks prior to the expansion and consolidation of banks that led to the current situation. Until the 1980's, US mortgage lending was dominated by small local banks and Savings and Loan Associations (S&L's), local banking entities that engaged in lending and offering savings deposit accounts. Initially, S&L's were heavily regulated and restricted from offering consumer loans and investing deposits in most of the investment vehicles available in the market. The Savings and Loan model relied on a favorable treatment by the Federal Reserve to allow for an increased spread between the rate charged on mortgage lending and the rate offered on deposit accounts. S&L's also frequently managed underwriting risk with local market knowledge.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Monte Carlo Mortgages

In his book Mortgage Wars, former CFO of Fannie Mae, Timothy Howard explains how Fannie's realization that mortgages behave like bonds with embedded call options revolutionized its ability to value its portfolio and manage risk. Prior to this change in thinking, Fannie Mae's methods for reserving capital were consistently shown to be inadequate. Today, the valuation of mortgages and mortgage-related securities as bonds with embedded calls is nothing new.

A call option is a type of derivative, which conveys the right (but not the obligation) to purchase another financial instrument (the underlying asset) for a specified price (the strike price) at a specified time (the expiration date). Purchasing a call option offers the right to purchase the underlying asset and selling a call options impose the obligation of delivering the underlying asset at the strike price on the execution date.

Mortgages are freely refinanceable at any point. In this way, they function as bonds in which the payments from the homeowner serve as the coupon payment and the ability to refinance serves as a call option sold to the homeowner by the mortgage holder. Typically the refinance rates increase as interest rates decrease. Although mortgage prepayment penalties are included in mortgages to discourage refinancing, a large enough drop in interest rates can make refinancing worthwhile to a property owner in spite of the prepayment penalty. For mortgage and MBS investors, prepayments are undesirable. Given that most mortgage investors look to invest anywhere between 5 and 30 years, an early decline in interest rates can leave many investors with cash from prepayments that must be invested in a market offering lower interests rates. This undesirable situation is the double-edged sword of prepayment risk for mortgages.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Why Historical Beta Does Not Always Work For Real Estate

Real estate investment is typically viewed as an essential part of any balanced portfolio. Its immutable characteristics, such as its relatively long pricing cycles and its above average returns, cause real estate to be seen as a stable asset. On the other hand, due to its sensitivity to interest rates, its lack of liquidity at the property level and its longer periods appreciation, exposure to the real estate can also serve as an inflationary hedge. Although real estate exposure may be purchased for any number of reasons, the risk profile of real estate assets is of interest to most, if not all, real estate investors.

The ways in which the risk profile of real estate has been expressed vary from the informal to the highly computational. On the most informal end of the spectrum, owner-operators of property frequently concern themselves with the tax consequences and appreciation of the property, content to face changes in the market or externalities, as they come. On the opposite end of the spectrum are portfolio managers and fixed-income investors, who seek quantifiable means to express the volatility of real estate securities. One such attempt at quantifying the volatility of real estate and its related securities is through the use of real estate's historical beta.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

From Property to Liens and Back

In light of my previous post on timing the market, I thought that I would follow up with a post on one type of investment strategy that takes advantage of the cyclical nature of real estate.

There are a number of ways to invest in real estate. From property acquisition to shorting housing starts to buying equity in a REIT, each type of investment in the real estate market comes with its own idiosyncrasies, which must be understood in order to ensure maximum profitability. Specialization in one category or subcategory is often expected and praised among real estate practitioners and investors. The various entry points into real estate, however, allow for diversification. Purchasing property, notes or securitized bonds provide direct access to the real estate market, while liens, nonperforming notes and real estate derivatives can serve to counteract real estate defaults, if properly purchased. Although, given the change in the regulatory climate for derivatives, real estate derivatives have become more theoretical than piratical.

Since the real estate market has some many points of entry, one can balance a real estate portfolio by investing in different asset classes, depending on the performance of the market at any given time. In this way, an investor can capitalize on the cyclical nature of real estate. One such way to diversify is to purchase property for appreciation and purchase liens and nonperforming notes as the market declines.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Buy Low, Sell High

I am always amazed at how the real estate market seems to demonstrate a certain level of fervor during the upswings and panic during the downturns. Although the magnitude and length of each particular cycle may vary, the cyclical nature of real estate is one of its fundamental traits.  Given the illiquidity of property, however, real estate cycles typically take place over a number of years. It has been my experience that an entire real estate cycle can last 5-10 years. Given this timeframe, there is usually sufficient opportunity to prepare to take advantage of the idiosyncrasies of each section of the real estate curve.

 The old stock market adage: "buy low, sell high" can serve as a strong guiding principal when creating a real estate strategy that will yield success throughout the real estate cycle. Almost contrite in its simplicity as it applies to equities, "buy low, sell high" is a great way to describe the recommended counter-cyclical behavior of a real estate investor. Buying low essentially means that purchases should be made in a down market and sales should be made in an up market. The challenge with counter-cyclical investment however, is that it goes against market conditions. Buying in a down market can be challenging, as that is when lenders tend to be wary of additional exposure to declining price and credit becomes scarce. It is, therefore, important to have capital available for purchases in down markets. Solid valuation is also key in a down market, as purchasing too early can result in acquiring an asset at a price point at which the asset will take a substantial amount of time to recover through appreciation. The fear of overpaying, however, should not paralyze investors into inaction, but should be seen as requiring a higher level of diligence and discipline. Opportunities are generally present in the down market, but must be scrutinized.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Same Mechanism, Different Crisis

I recently read William Seidman's book Full Faith and Credit, which contains a detailed explanation of the S&L crash of the early 1990's that was spurred on by a crash of the US commercial real estate market. William Seidman was head of the FDIC at the time of the crash. A day after I finished the book, I walked by my bookshelf and noticed the book Bull By Its Horns, by Shelia Bair, the chairman of the FDIC during the 2007/2008 financial crisis, when it hit me--both publications are the same book written nearly 20 years apart. Although each of the authors have their individual differences, they are both similar in that they were Republican chairmen (or is the term chairpeople?), serving during Republican presidencies, who presided over the fallout of a banking crisis that resulted in the largescale nationalization of private assets and companies.

The political affiliation of both former heads of the FDIC is tangential to my point, however, I mention it to make two observations. The first observation is that both Mr. Seidman and Ms. Bair are linked by political party. The second is that the economic climate forced them to participate in the goverment takeover of private companies and their assets, an idea that is antithetical to most Republican ideology.

Although one of the chief duties of the FDIC is to close failing institutions and liquidate their assets, under most normal economic circumstances, this duty of the FDIC is either carried out infrequently or confined to a certain sector of the market. Both the S&L crisis of early 1990's and the Great Recession of the late first decade 2000's, however, forced the FDIC and other government agencies to either take ownership an stake or fully national financial institutions in a large, systemic manner.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

My Take On Tax Liens

Tax liens have always been of interest to me. As a teen, I would remember the infomercials advertising tax lien investments as the way to own tons of property for pennies on the dollar. Since my father was a contractor and property manager, I was introduced to real estate ownership at a young age and read my first book on tax liens in my late teens. At the time, I could not figure out why more people were not investing in tax liens. As an adult, real estate professional and attorney, I can now appreciate the risks/reward trade off that comes with this asset class. So, here is my take on tax liens.

Tax liens are a low cost way to obtain exposure to the real estate market. Although the supply and demand of tax liens is very much influenced by local events, tax liens will be around as long as there are municipalities in need of money and property owners who do not pay their taxes. Although cheap and available, investments in tax liens propose some unique risks and benefits.

One of the unique benefits of tax liens is that they initially offer passive income at high rates of return. Most tax liens are purchased via auction and most auctions employ one of two bidding methods--bidding up price or bidding down interest. Whether the price of the lien is bid up or the interest rate is bid down, the amount of back taxes owed does not increase and statutory penalty rates of interest typically offer an attractive return to purchasers that do not overbid. Moreover, upon the purchase of a tax lien, the municipality continues to serve as the collection agency for a statutorily mandated length of time, in most cases. This allows investors to collect on the purchased lien with minimal effort, for a period of time.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Taxes, Taxes, Taxes

This may be stating the obvious, but the tax consequences of a real estate transaction are one of the most important aspects of the deal. Although most generic measures of property value, such as cap rate and NOI seek to exclude taxation in order to generate values that can be comparable across investors, an individualized tax assessment of any real estate acquisition is essential to determining its true rate of return of and its opportunity costs.

Although I am not a tax professional, tax expert or tax adviser, I would like to briefly discuss various real estate investment tax considerations. I will attempt to address a few of the more popular tax considerations at the property, entity and security level:

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Mortgage Backed Securities and Personal Bankruptcy

At long last, the end of the series!

Personal bankruptcy is usually filed by an individual for very different reasons than corporate bankruptcies. Whereas the primary motivation behind filing a business bankruptcy may be protection of the business or satisfaction of debts, personal bankruptcies are frequently filed for asset protection, in addition to satisfaction of debts.

The two sections of the bankruptcy code that apply to personal bankruptcies are chapter 7 and chapter 13. As with business bankruptcies, chapter 7 for personal bankruptcies is a process of liquidation and seeks include all non-exempt assets of the petitioner in the bankruptcy estate in order to liquidate them to pay off debts. Chapter 13, on the other hand, seeks to reorganize the debt of a petitioner pursuant to a payment plan, which typically last from 3 to 5 years.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Special Purpose Entity Bankruptcy Concerns for Mortgage-Backed Securities

Let us continue the bankruptcy theme begun in my last post and discuss the effects of Special Purpose Entity (SPE) bankruptcies and their effect on mortgage-backed securities. Obviously, most bond covenants designate the bankruptcy of a SPE an event of default and restrict the likelihood of its happening. In the unlikely event that such a bankruptcy does happen however, here is an overview of the process.

As a quick review, I would like to restate that mortgage-backed securities are the result of a process of securitization that takes place when a real estate lender sells a package of its loans to an entity, called and SPE. The SPE receives the money to purchase the loans from the sale of either securities, beneficial interests in the entity or trust certificates from a trust set-up to hold the loans. If securities or trust certificates are sold, they are called mortgage-backed securities (MBS). Through the securitization process, real estate lenders are provided with cash to originate more loans and investors are able to purchase MBS and invest in the real estate market without having to hold real property. If you question why one would want to invest in the real estate market at all, please see my earlier post, “Why I Choose Real Estate.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lender Bankruptcy and Mortgage-Backed Securitization

Mortgage-backed securitization is an essential part of the mortgage secondary market, as it provides both liquidity and expanded sources of funding for real estate lender. Securitization also allows for more widespread participation in the real estate market, since MBS bonds are an asset class that can be held by classes of investors that are restricted by law from retaining extended ownership in real property. More participation in the real estate secondary market, of course, translates to a more robust market with more available real estate funding and more real estate activity.

Despite its role in the market down-turn of 2007/2008, securitization of real estate assets has been and continues to be an important part of the U.S. real estate finance market. Securitization, however, heavily depends on a bankruptcy remote structure.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why I Choose Real Estate

A number of times throughout my career, I have been asked a very poignant question—why real estate? Admittedly, other asset classes do carry a certain level of prestige, which is typically more associated with the asset’s mystique, yet I find that real estate can be as involved and complex as any other asset class. Although the mathematics for risk curves and certain derivative transactions may be more intricate than those used in a typical commercial real estate property acquisition, such transactions and risk analysis can be structured around real estate financing structures. In fact, the mathematical aspects of some of the more “complex” investment vehicles are not as esoteric as they seem and most can be understood, given enough time and exposure to them. The legal issues specific to each class of investment can also be considered complex, but not beyond the comprehension of most competent lawyers. Ultimately, the decision to prefer one asset class over another boils down to a matter of preference.

So, why do I so closely follow real estate? The reason is that underlying any real estate-related transaction is a relationship to a tangible hard asset. A tangible hard asset that has a value influenced by easily understood factors. Real estate markets for every property class are motivated by the economy, real estate demand and the market for the business that the property serves. The real estate market is also relatively stable and changes over the course of years, not months or weeks. Finally, real estate is one of the few assets that lends itself to owner-operation in a way that a company or payment stream may not.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Second Mortgages: Why They Are Less Prevalent In Commercial Real Estate Than In Residential Real Estate

Early in my whole loan trading career, an investor once offered to fund a partnership that would purchase second position liens, also known as second mortgages, secured by commercial real estate. The investor promised to pledge a substantial amount of capital, if I was able to assemble a portfolio of target assets. Understanding the risk/reward profile of such an investment and desiring to deliver for what seemed to be a potential source of new business, I quickly began to work on finding commercial seconds to underwrite and select. After a few days on the phone with a number of commercial lenders, real estate debt funds and large financial institutions, I began to realize that commercial real estate second mortgages were not easy to find. Finally, after a few weeks of searching, I informed the investor that I was unable to find any asset worth purchasing that met his mandate.

Nearly ten years later, I now understand why the second mortgage, an established method of financing in the world of residential finance, is so infrequently used in commercial real estate. To state it plainly, the property-income focus of commercial real estate, makes commercial seconds more of a liability than an asset. It is this income focus that leads most commercial lenders to emphasize property performance over the qualifications of the borrower. As a result, most commercial financing is offered with no recourse to the buyer upon default, giving the lender as much control over a distressed asset as possible and incentivizing the owner of a distressed property to “walk away” when there are no more options. In order to maintain as much control over the property as possible, most commercial real estate lenders will insist that they be on the only creditor of the property and that the property be structured in such a way that it is remote from the bankruptcy of the borrower. These goals are typically accomplished by establishing a holding entity for the property to be financed, placing the borrower in the equity position of the entity and making the lender a creditor of the entity, secured by its largest asset.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Who Should Value the Property: BPO's Versus Appraisals

Appraisers and brokers are frequently considered integral components of a real estate transaction. Their roles are clearly defined in residential real estate, however, in commercial real estate, both professions frequently cross into a number disciplines. It isn’t uncommon for a commercial real estate broker to manage a property, arrange financing, market mortgage notes and even raise funds. Commercial appraisers are often asked to inspect buildings, estimate repair costs, estimate the value of construction materials and determine replacement costs. Brokers not only procure parties and assist in the negotiations of transactions, they are also frequently called on to value properties from a number of perspectives.

In light of the various demands on both the real estate broker and appraiser, there may be some questions as to the differences in the valuation reports that each professional issues. It has been my experience that a broker price opinion (BPO) and a property appraisal each serve different, but useful purposes. A broker price opinion typically reflects the value for which a property will generate either a successful lease or sale. The opinion can also suggest a value at which the property will generate substantial interest on the market. An appraisal, however, is typically useful as a justification of a given price, as may arise under a purchase contract, after an assessment or upon any other instance of valuation. Better stated, a broker price opinion can be seen as a forward looking valuation and the appraisal can be seen as a justification or backward looking valuation.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Return on Equity

Let’s keep this post short and sweet, by discussing Return on Equity (ROE). ROE is a measure of the rate at which a property’s after tax cash flow has performed in relation to either the equity in a property or initial investment. As a result, ROE has two definitions that yield different values:

1)   ROE = Cash Flow After Taxes/Initial Investment
2)   ROE = Cash Flow After Taxes/(Market Value – Mortgage Balance)

The first definition tends to be more useful to understand the first year of property ownership, where there is a negligible amount of mortgage reduction and market value has not changed much. The second definition is more useful to track the growth of ROE over time.

It is interesting to note, however, that as both cash flow and mortgage principal reduction increases over time, ROE decreases. There is a school of thought that advocates monetizing equity for reinvestment as ROE decreases. I tend to disagree, since I view debt reduction and equity build-up as benefits that must be considered. Additionally, ROE should not influence the decisions that one makes about other benefits of owning investment property--depreciation, tax shelter, appreciation, and improved utility.

What do you think?

Friday, January 9, 2015

IRR: Its Meaning, Its Uses, Its Benefits, Its Limitations and Capital Accumulation

It is time for this blog to take another step toward legitimacy in the ever growing world of real estate blogs. I am now going to address the frequently used and highly touted real estate metric of Internal Rate of Return. I remember being mesmerized by IRR when I was first learning about commercial real estate metrics. It was introduced to me as the magic number that could explain the true return of a property. I have since learned to respect it as one of the many tools that can be used to understand the return value of an investment property or ABS, while understanding its limitations.

In the interest of brevity, I am going to explain IRR as it pertains to investment property. I will not get into its uses in RMBS and CMBS bonds, as I will save that for a later post. I also will not go into detail on the iterative, successive-approximations technique by which the IRR value is derived. I am on the fence as to whether or not such a discussion would be helpful to this blog. Now that I have told you what I will not do, please allow me to begin my discussion of IRR.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Net Present Value, Discouted Cash Flow, and Profitability Index: Their Uses, Benefits and Drawbacks

It’s good to finally post again. I have recently finished reading What Every Real Estate Investor Needs to Know About Cash Flow…and 36 Other Key Financial Measures, by Frank Gallinelli. Gallinelli’s book is a well-known, highly respected “must read” for those who are looking to understand the basics of commercial real estate property valuation. Having read a number of books on real estate, I have come to two realizations—1) Books on investment property metrics and valuations, by and large, are very similar, 2) I secretly enjoy reading books about real estate. At first, I thought I was reading for informational purposes, but having read about NOI for at least the 20th time, I have finally admitted to myself that I enjoy doing so. Now let’s get to the meat and potatoes.

Discounted Cash Flow (DCF), Net Present Value (NPV) and Profitability Index are all measures of the value of investment property cash flow. The DCF is derived from the sum of a property’s cash flows, present or projected, discounted to the present. Discounting the value of a cash flow is necessary, due to the time value of money, which accounts for the fact that money today is more valuable than money in the future. An in depth discussion of the time value of money is beyond the scope of this post, but I am more than happy to write a post on it, if I receive a few request for one in the comments below.