27 November 2009

Ten Questions On The Housing Market

The Wall Street Journal

The U.S. housing market has been in a slump for the past four years. When will it ever end?

In recent years, real estate has proven as jittery and unreliable as any other market. The average U.S. home price nearly doubled between January 2000 and April 2006, according to the First American LoanPerformance index. Since then, the average has fallen about 30%. The drop has been 53% in the Las Vegas metropolitan area and 39% in Miami, where about a quarter of all households with mortgages are behind on their payments or in foreclosure. The value of your home might be determined more by whether the neighbors keep their jobs than whether the house has ample light and closet space.

Here is a guide to navigating a fractured and volatile market:

1. Is the housing market getting better?

It has shown some signs of healing this year, but the much-touted recovery is tentative and fragile.

Home sales have increased from the severely depressed levels of 2008. The inventory of unsold homes listed for sale also is down. Bidding wars are breaking out for foreclosed homes in the sorts of neighborhoods (near jobs and decent schools) that attract both first-time buyers and investors seeking rental properties.

But more than 6.7 million U.S. households with mortgages, or about 13%, are behind on their payments or are in the foreclosure process, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Eventually, many of them will lose those homes, sending more supply onto the market. Unemployment has continued to rise, and the housing market is unlikely to show a sustained recovery until job growth resumes.

While the supply of middle-class homes on the market has declined somewhat, it remains ample in most places. And there is a huge glut of high-end houses for sale in many areas. That means prices of high-end homes might still have a long way to fall.

2. When will housing bottom out?

There probably won't be any clear turning point. Monthly indicators, such as home sales and prices, tend to bounce erratically from month to month, making it hard to discern the underlying trend. And the housing bust will end at different times in different places. House prices already might have bottomed out in the coveted Virginia suburbs with short commutes into Washington, D.C., for instance. But it probably will be years before all of the unsold condos find buyers in parts of Florida.

Generalizations about states or metropolitan areas don't say much about what is happening in your neighborhood. In Summit, N.J., known for good schools and an easy, 45-minute train commute to Manhattan, the median home price in September was up 1.2% from a year earlier, according to Otteau Valuation Group, an appraisal company. In Atlantic City, N.J., which suffers from too much speculative building of condominiums and weak demand for vacation homes, the median price is down about 12% from a year ago.

3. What signals should I watch to determine whether my local market is improving?

One way to get a sense of supply is to ask a good local real estate agent for stats on how many homes are listed for sale in your town and how many months it would take at the current sales rate to absorb that supply. Anything over about six months generally is considered high, meaning that sellers might have to cut prices. Another way to get a sense of a neighborhood's health is to count the number of for-sale signs and vacant houses. If there are more than a couple vacant homes in a block, that might be a bad sign, particularly if no one is taking care of them.

The supply of homes listed for sale has fallen very sharply in some areas. But the supply is likely to balloon again in many areas with a renewed surge in foreclosures. Many local newspapers provide information on foreclosure filings.

Demand depends heavily on the job market. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides unemployment rates by metropolitan area. In September, they ranged from 2.9% in Bismarck, N.D., to 30% in El Centro, Calif. State and local agencies provide job-market data, too. Celia Chen, a housing economist at Moody's Economy.com, says help-wanted signs can be a useful local indicator; if you start seeing more of them around your neighborhood, that is a sign that business in your area could be starting to recover.

4. How can I figure out the value of my home?

You never know for sure what a home will fetch until you put it on the market, and then it is partly a matter of luck. Will the eager buyer who shares your taste in home style and neighborhood show up on day one or day 200?

Some Web sites -- including Zillow.com, HomeGain.com and Cyberhomes.com -- provide estimates of individual home values. These estimates are largely based on recent sales of nearby homes, and in some cases they are wildly off the mark. But they often provide a ballpark idea of a home's value.

You might come closer to the real value by talking to a local agent and looking at recent prices for homes that you know are very similar to yours. If you want to be more scientific and don't mind paying a few hundred dollars, hire a professional appraiser.

5. Does it matter whether I'm "under water"?

At least you have plenty of company. About 20% of owners of single-family homes with mortgages owe more than the current estimated value of their homes, according to Zillow.com.

If you can afford your monthly payment and don't need to move soon, that might not be a big problem. But it is hard, and sometimes impossible, to refinance a mortgage if you are under water, and you will take a bath if you have to sell the home now. Some people who can afford to make their monthly mortgage payments are deciding it doesn't make sense to do so because they don't expect their home values ever to recover to past peaks, and they could rent similar houses for much lower monthly costs.

6. If I lose my home to foreclosure, how long will it take to repair my credit record?

It probably will be three to five years before you can qualify for a home mortgage insured by the government, depending on your circumstances, and that assumes you have re-established a record for paying your bills on time. The foreclosure will remain a blot on your credit record for seven years, likely raising your interest costs even if you do get another loan. If you pay bills on time, keep your credit-card balances low and don't apply for too many cards, you can make a "slow, gradual improvement" in your credit score, says Tom Quinn, a vice president at Fair Isaac Corp., which provides tools for analyzing credit records.

7. If I'm renting, is now a good time to buy a house?

It may well be. Prices in most areas are well below their peaks, even if they haven't hit bottom. Don't kid yourself that you can time the bottom of the market perfectly. But don't feel any pressure to buy in a hurry, because the supply of housing is likely to remain ample for years in many areas.

Generally, it doesn't make sense to buy unless you expect to remain in the house for at least four or five years, because the transaction costs -- including commissions for real estate agents and mortgage fees -- are heavy.

But now is clearly a good time to rent. Many landlords need tenants badly. The national apartment-vacancy rate in the third quarter was 7.8%, the highest in 23 years, according to Reis Inc., a New York research firm. So landlords are cutting rents and offering such sweeteners as free flat-screen televisions or several months of free rent to retain or attract tenants. Some owners of condos will "cut their throats to get some kind of rental income to cover part of their expenses," says Jack McCabe, a real estate consultant in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

8. Can I get a tax credit if I buy a home now?

Under an expanded and extended program approved by Congress earlier this month, tax credits are available to many people who buy or sign a contract to buy a principal residence by April 30 and complete the purchase by June 30. The tax credit is up to $8,000 for first-time home buyers and $6,500 for people who already have owned a home for at least five consecutive years during the previous eight years. The credit is available for individual taxpayers with annual incomes of up to $145,000 or joint filers with incomes up to $245,000.

9. Can I get a mortgage on attractive terms?

Only if you have a good credit record, a moderate amount of debt in relation to your income and the ability to fully document your income. That last requirement is fairly easy for people who work for a salary and have had the same employer for more than two years, but it can be tough for self-employed people with incomes that vary substantially from year to year.

A borrower with a strong credit score of 740 or higher (on the scale of 300 to 850) and the ability to make a down payment of at least 20% could get an interest rate of about 5% with no origination fees on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, says Lou Barnes, a mortgage banker in Boulder, Colo. But if your credit score is 680, the rate jumps to about 5.5%.

People who can't make a down payment of at least 20% generally are being funneled into loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration. That means paying extra fees for the FHA insurance.

Borrowing costs are steeper at the high end of the housing market. For so-called jumbo loans -- those above $729,750 in areas with the highest housing costs or $417,000 in places with the lowest costs -- interest rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages last week averaged 5.95%, according to HSH Associates, a financial publisher.

10. Should I invest in foreclosed homes?

Probably not. A lot of investors chase these properties, and only the most experienced know how to deal with all of the pitfalls. Homes auctioned at trustee or sheriff sales are sold on an as-is basis, and there is no provision for an inspection before you take ownership. If after buying you find out that termites have been treating the floor joists as an all-you-can-eat buffet, that is your problem. You must pay for the full price within a day or two, so you need a lot of cash or access to special short-term loans for investors that come with interest rates of around 18%. This is a pursuit best left to people with a lot of time, nerve, cash and knowledge of the local market.

25 November 2009

New Home Sales Highest Since 2008


Purchases of new homes in the U.S. rebounded more than anticipated in October as buyers rushed to take advantage of a government tax credit before it expired.

Sales rose 6.2 percent to an annual pace of 430,000, the highest level since September 2008, the Commerce Department said today in Washington. The median sales price fell 0.5 percent and the number of unsold homes reached a four-decade low.

Rising demand shows the administration’s incentive for first-time buyers, which earlier this month was extended into next year and expanded to include current owners, may help housing recover from the worst slump since the Great Depression. Home values may remain under pressure as builders are forced to compete with mounting foreclosures as unemployment climbs.

“We are getting some help from the Federal Reserve in terms of low rates, lower prices and of course the tax credit,” said Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics LLC in Pepper Pike, Ohio. “People are coming off the fence and getting into the market. We have seen a bottom. I’m pretty confident that the turn in the housing industry is behind us.”

Sales were projected to climb to a 404,000 annual pace from an originally reported 402,000 rate in September, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of 75 economists. Forecasts ranged from 350,000 to 425,000. The government revised September’s reading up to 405,000. Commerce Department also said.

U.S. stocks rose after the report. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index increased 0.2 percent to 1107.66 at 10:36 a.m. in New York.

Sales in the South

The entire increase in sales was in the South, while the other three U.S. regions registered a decline.

“The South is the largest region by size, accounting for over 50 percent of new home sales, so that the gain is still significant, even though a broader improvement would have been more favorable,” Ryan Wang, an economist at HSBC Securities USA Inc. in New York, said in a note to clients.

The median price of a new home in the U.S. decreased to $212,200, from $213,200 a year earlier.

Sales of new homes were up 5.1 percent from October 2008, the first year-over-year gain since November 2005.

Inventories dropped. The number of homes for sale fell to a seasonally adjusted 239,000, the fewest since May 1971. The supply of homes at the current sales rate decreased to 6.7 months’ worth, the lowest level since December 2006.

Timely Indicator

While accounting for less than 10 percent of the housing market, new-home purchases are considered a timelier indicator because they are based on contract signings. Sales of previously owned homes, which make up the remainder, are compiled from closings and reflect contracts signed weeks or months earlier.

President Barack Obama this month extended the $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers until April 30 from Nov. 30, and expanded it to include some current homeowners.

Borrowing costs may stay low as Fed policy makers have signaled they will hold the benchmark interest rate near zero for an extended period.

“The housing sector continued to recover, on balance,” central bankers said in minutes of the Nov. 3-4 meeting released yesterday.

Lower rates and stimulus efforts are reviving demand. Existing home sales jumped in October to the highest level since February 2007, the National Association of Realtors reported this week.

Tax Credit

The timing of the tax incentive’s extension indicates existing home purchases may jump again this month, decline in December and early 2010, before picking up again, the Realtors group said this week.

The erosion in prices is also abating, the S&P/Case-Shiller home-price index showed yesterday. Home prices in 20 cities rose in September from the prior month, the fourth straight gain. Compared with September 2008, the gauge had the smallest year- over-year decline since the end of 2007.

The labor market needs to turn around to ensure a sustained rebound in housing, according to economists. The unemployment rate, which rose to a 26-year high of 10.2 percent last month, will exceed 10 percent through the first half of 2010, a Bloomberg survey showed.

Foreclosure filings surpassed 300,000 for an eighth straight month in October as rising joblessness made it tougher for homeowners to pay bills, according to RealtyTrac Inc. data.

Home Improvement

Companies seeing signs of stability include Home Depot Inc., the largest U.S. home-improvement retailer. The Atlanta- based company’s third-quarter profit beat the average estimate of analysts as it slashed costs, and the chain gained market share.

Home Depot “continued to see signs of stabilization in the markets that were hardest hit by the housing crisis,” Chief Executive Officer Frank Blake said on a conference call with analysts on Nov. 17. “Despite this positive momentum, caution is appropriate.”

24 November 2009

Commercial Mortgage Defaults Next Problem For Insurers

Investment News

Potential losses from mortgage-backed securities, direct loans could top $22B through 2011, rating agency Fitch predicts

Already under pressure from credit rating agencies, U.S. life insurers are about to be rocked again — by defaults on their investments in commercial real estate and mortgages, according to a report from Fitch Ratings Ltd.

Unless the commercial real estate market recovers, Fitch estimates that commercial-mortgage-backed securities of recent vintages will suffer losses that average out to about 9%. The ratings firm expects pressure on the securities and other non-AAA rated bundles of commercial mortgages to rise sharply next year.

Fitch projects the potential losses from commercial-mortgage-backed securities owned by life carriers to be between $13.1 billion and $16.0 billion. Directly-placed mortgages will generate $5.4 billion to $6.6 billion in losses through 2011, under Fitch’s core stress scenario.

As of the end of 2008, Fitch’s universe of life carriers had about $308 billion or 12% of invested assets in directly-placed mortgage loans. Exposure to commercial mortgage-backed securities, including collateralized-debt obligations comprised of commercial real estate, topped $150 billion or 5.8% of total invested assets at the end of last year, according to Fitch.

However, most of the securities were investment-grade, as less than 2% of invested assets were in high-yield securities at the end of 2008, according to Fitch.

Fitch also notes that the steep declines in statutory capital over the last 18 months have hobbled the insurers’ ability to get through an extended downturn.

To date, the life insurers have not recognized material impairments or losses on investments related to commercial real estate, according to Fitch.

One In Four Borrowers Below The Waterline

Wall Street Journal

The proportion of U.S. homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than the properties are worth has swelled to about 23%, threatening prospects for a sustained housing recovery.

Nearly 10.7 million households had negative equity in their homes in the third quarter, according to First American CoreLogic, a real-estate information company based in Santa Ana, Calif.

These so-called underwater mortgages pose a roadblock to a housing recovery because the properties are more likely to fall into bank foreclosure and get dumped into an already saturated market. Economists from J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. said Monday they didn't expect U.S. home prices to hit bottom until early 2011, citing the prospect of oversupply.

Home prices have fallen so far that 5.3 million U.S. households are tied to mortgages that are at least 20% higher than their home's value, the First American report said. More than 520,000 of these borrowers have received a notice of default, according to First American.

Most U.S. homeowners still have some equity, and nearly 24 million owner-occupied homes don't have any mortgage, according to the Census Bureau.

But negative equity "is an outstanding risk hanging over the mortgage market," said Mark Fleming, chief economist of First American Core Logic. "It lowers homeowners' mobility because they can't sell, even if they want to move to get a new job." Borrowers who owe more than 120% of their home's value, he said, were more likely to default.

Mortgage troubles are not limited to the unemployed. About 588,000 borrowers defaulted on mortgages last year even though they could afford to pay -- more than double the number in 2007, according to a study by Experian and consulting firm Oliver Wyman. "The American consumer has had a long-held taboo against walking away from the home, and this crisis seems to be eroding that," the study said.
Home prices have fallen so far that 5.3 million U.S. households are tied to mortgages that are at least 20% higher than their home's value
Just months after showing signs of leveling off, the housing market has thrown off conflicting signals in recent weeks. Jittery home builders and bad weather led to a 10.6% drop in new home starts in October, and applications for home-purchase mortgages have dropped sharply in recent weeks.

These same falling prices have boosted home sales from the depressed levels of last year. The National Association of Realtors reported Monday that sales of previously occupied homes in October jumped 10.1% from September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.1 million, the highest since February 2007.

The bump in sales was ahead of forecasts, spurred by falling prices, low mortgage rates and a federal tax credits for buyers. Congress recently expanded and extended the tax credits.

The latest First American data aren't comparable to previous estimates because the company revised its methodology. First American now accounts for payments made by homeowners that reduce principal, and it no longer assumes that home-equity lines of credit have been completely drawn down.

The changes reduced the total number of borrowers under water -- although both old and new methodology show increases from the previous quarter. Using the old methodology, the portion of underwater borrowers would have increased to 33.8% in the third quarter.

Homeowners in Nevada, Arizona, Florida and California are more likely to be deeply under water, according to the analysis. In Nevada, for example, nearly 30% of borrowers owe 50% or more on their mortgage than their home is worth, said First American.

More than 40% of borrowers who took out a mortgage in 2006 -- when home prices peaked -- are under water. Prices have dropped so much in some parts of the U.S. that some borrowers who took out loans more than five years ago owe more than their home's value.

Even recent bargain hunters have been hit: 11% of borrowers who took out mortgages in 2009 already owe more than their home's value.

Andrew Lunsford put 20% down when he bought his home in Las Vegas for $530,000 in 2004. Now, he said, his home was worth less than $300,000.

"I'm to the point where I feel I will never get my head above water," said Mr. Lunsford, a retired state trooper who works for an insurance company. He said his bank won't modify his loan because he can afford his payments, and he's unwilling to walk away, he said: "We're too honest."

Borrowers with negative equity are more likely to default if they live in a state where the bank can't pursue their assets in court, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

But borrowers who are less than 20% under water are likely to maintain their mortgage if their loan is modified and the payments reduced, said Sanjiv Das, head of Citigroup's mortgage unit. "Beyond 120%, the most effective modification is a complete loan restructuring, including a principal reduction."

Mortgage companies have been reluctant to reduce mortgage principal over worries about "moral contagion, with people not paying their mortgage or redefaulting because they believed the bank would reduce their principal," Mr. Das said.

Many borrowers are so deeply under water that they can't take advantage of lower rates and refinance their mortgage. "We're declining hundreds of loans each month," said Steve Walsh, a mortgage broker in Scottsdale, Ariz. "The only way we will make headway is if we allow for a streamlined refinance where the appraisal is irrelevant."

Realtors reported that home sales in October were up 24% from a year earlier. The number of homes listed for sale nationwide was 3.57 million at the end of October, down 3.7% from a month earlier, the trade group said. But that inventory could rebound next year as banks acquire more homes through foreclosure.

About 7.5 million households were 30 days or more behind on their mortgage payments or in foreclosure at the end of September, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Many of those homes will be lost to foreclosure, adding to the supply of homes for sale.

A recovery could pay off for the roughly 30% of underwater borrowers who owe 110% or less of their home's value and are able to endure the slump. "Most people prefer to stay in their home" even if the value of their property has declined, said John Burns, a real-estate consultant based in Irvine, Calif.

18 November 2009

Apartment Complex In Foreclosure


The Belmont at Cowan Place apartment complex on Cowan Boulevard in Fredericksburg could be heading to foreclosure, but residents there shouldn't be affected.

A public foreclosure auction on the 300-unit, 21.7-acre property is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Dec. 4 in front of Fredericksburg Circuit Court. Legal classified ads for the event have been running this week in The Free Lance-Star.

Stellar Belmont LLC bought the apartment complex for $35 million in August 2004, according to city property records. Its tax assessed value is now $30.9 million.

The property is managed by Stellar Realty Management, a division of Rockville, Md.-based Stellar Advisors. That company, which includes numerous different investment partnerships, owns complexes in Virginia, Maryland, Florida and Texas apartments.

This semester, the Belmont apartment complex has been housing dozens of University of Mary Washington students who weren't able to live on campus due to space constraints brought on by UMW President Judy Hample ending the practice of allowing three freshmen to a single dorm room.

Foreclosure auctions are often delayed at the last minute. Even if the Belmont complex goes to foreclosure, residents there won't be affected initially, said Phillip Pitney, chief operating officer at Stellar Realty Management.

"It should be invisible to residents," he said.

A manager at Belmont said she didn't know anything about the possible foreclosure auction.

The financing for the 2004 Belmont purchase was done through a real estate mortgage investment conduit (REMIC) loan originated by now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers. It was then securitized, placed into a commercial mortgage-backed security with other loans and sold to investors. That was a common form of commercial lending during the boom.

Thus far during this recession, there have been just a handful of commercial foreclosures in the Fredericksburg area. But some worry that pace could accelerate over the next few years due to higher vacancy rates, lower rents and difficulty with refinancings.

Amerca's New Land Baron: FDIC

Wall Street Journal

ATLANTA -- In the waning days of the Great Recession, the federal government is still jumpstarting the economy and propping up financial markets.

It is also trying to sell Dresden Heights, a failed condo development on a noisy freeway ramp next to a Motel 6, a Waffle House and a Do-It-Yourself Pest Control.

For more than a year, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has been seeking a buyer for 36 partially built condos it inherited from a high-flying, short-lived Atlanta bank. The agency has been fending off vandals, haggling with architects and uncovering the developer's blunders, all in a bid to dispose of this condo project, just one of the 2,554 foreclosed assets dumped onto its books. "These are properties with a bad story," says Jim Gallagher, a senior official in the FDIC's Division of Resolutions and Receiverships. "What we're trying to sell is something that is rundown or not completed or has some property damage."

Click Image to View Interactive Graphic

The financial crisis started with Americans buying homes they couldn't afford. It is ending with the government struggling to sell buildings it never wanted.

In the past two years, the FDIC has taken over 150 failed banks. In the process, it has seized more than 5,000 houses, subdivisions, buildings, parcels and other foreclosed assets. The current backlog of property stuck on the agency's books, with an appraised value of $1.8 billion, ranges from an $18,700 clapboard home with stained carpets in Birmingham, Ala., to a $1.7 million mountainside lodge with a heated driveway in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Taxpayers will be grappling with this flotsam for years to come, one example of how the crisis will linger long after the economy begins to revive. At a recent FDIC auction in Atlanta, the agency offered a four-unit condo building it had already sold once before -- after the savings-and-loan crisis two decades ago.

These days, it takes the FDIC on average six to eight months to sell a property. Dresden Heights, tied up with unpaid bills, a lawsuit and complex right-of-way questions, is among its toughest prospects.

The project was the brainchild of Quantum Homes and its chief executive, Ramsey "Jim" Salahat. In March 2006, just as Atlanta's housing market was peaking, Mr. Salahat took out a $3.78 million, 18-month loan from Main Street Bank in Covington, Ga., to purchase and prepare 5.3 acres abutting an interstate entrance ramp.

The developers brought in a crane, knocked down soaring oak trees, installed sewers and laid out two short roads, Heights Way and Quantum Lane. They planned 80 residential units and seven buildings.

At the groundbreaking in May 2007, Mr. Salahat and Quantum President Eyal Livnat posed for photos, wearing white hardhats and digging red Georgia soil with shovels festooned in blue ribbons. They threw a cocktail party, serving wine, roast beef, quiche and cookies.

Quantum Homes and its owners defaulted on some $10 million in bank loans when the Dresden Heights condo development in Atlanta failed. In 2008, Alpha Bank & Trust foreclosed on the collateral -- three partially built buildings and the land directly beneath them -- and soon failed itself. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. took over both the bank and its assets, only to discover that at Dresden Heights its property was completely surrounded by land owned by BB&T Corp., which had foreclosed on another loan to the developers. The uncertain right-of-way made it difficult for FDIC to sell the property; buyers couldn't be certain that they'd be able to reach the buildings without trespassing. Above, a blueprint. The three buildings are outlined.

"Future homebuyers are quickly reserving space at Dresden Heights...so interested homebuyers should act fast to ensure they have a home at this great community," Mr. Salahat said in a news release afterwards.

The release quoted Deanna Helie, a "prospective home buyer" who attended the event, as saying: "When this area begins to grow, I want to be in on that growth at an early point."

Ms. Helie, who lives adjacent to the Dresden Heights property, said she was talking about the neighborhood only, and stopped by out of curiosity, not to shop. She wondered about the wisdom of building homes next to a pest-control outlet. "I was thinking, 'This isn't going to fly,'" said Ms. Helie, a computer programmer.

A few days after the groundbreaking, Mr. Livnat signed a two-year, $6.75 million loan from Alpha Bank & Trust, a startup bank in nearby Alpharetta, Ga., to finance construction of the first three buildings. Two dozen customers, most of them first-time home buyers, put down $500 to $1,000 deposits on the condos, which started at $194,900. The developers told the early buyers they would likely be able to move in within a year, according to Kristy Jeffries, who at the time was Quantum's saleswoman.

In early 2008, work on the project slowed, Ms. Jeffries recalls. People started asking for their money back, "and the builders weren't giving it to them," she says. In her office, located in the basement of a model home, she started receiving calls from disgruntled subcontractors complaining they hadn't been paid. She says one unhappy supplier repossessed Quantum's construction trailer, which still contained file cabinets with records of potential buyers.

That spring, Mr. Salahat closed Quantum's headquarters in a lavish Atlanta office complex. He moved the company into a cramped, low-budget space behind a chiropractor's office outside of town, where Ms. Jeffries says she went for her paychecks.

The last time Ms. Jeffries saw Mr. Salahat was over a Tex-Mex meal in May 2008, when the developer told her the company was going bankrupt. Former associates say he has moved to Jordan. Neither they nor the FDIC could provide contact information. Mr. Salahat's listed phone numbers in the Atlanta area have been disconnected.

During a brief interview on his stoop, Mr. Livnat, Quantum's former president, declined to discuss details of the Dresden Heights project. "It was an unfortunate time to start a company," Mr. Livnat said. "Things were at a peak, and it went down quick." Mr. Livnat was skittish about answering the door, and he said he is worried the FDIC or creditors might come after him.

Alpha Bank foreclosed on the three partly finished buildings a year after Messrs. Salahat and Livnat broke ground. On May 6, 2008, a bank representative stood outside the Dekalb County courthouse and offered the property for sale. No one was willing to beat the bank's $4.692 million minimum. Alpha Bank now owned Dresden Heights.

The buildings sat exposed to rain, sun and wind through the summer of 2008, prompting bank officials to sign an agreement with McGuire Properties Inc., of Kennesaw, Ga., to finish construction. The company is run by George F. Nemchik, Jr., who was also an Alpha Bank shareholder, according to his attorney and Ms. Jeffries. Mr. Nemchik didn't return calls seeking comment.

Alpha Bank retained Ms. Jeffries to sell units. When she went to pick up her paycheck one day in October, a bank executive told her the lender was on the brink of collapse. He suggested the FDIC might want to keep her on as a sales agent for Dresden Heights. She demurred. "I think that property is cursed," she says now.

The American government came to own Dresden Heights on Friday, Oct. 24, 2008, about six weeks after the collapse of Lehman Bros. Georgia regulators closed Alpha Bank and turned it over to the FDIC. That weekend, Stearns Bank of St. Cloud, Minn., took over Alpha's branches. It acquired just $39 million of the $354 million in assets. The FDIC took possession of the rest, including Dresden Heights.

The FDIC inspector general's post-mortem blamed Alpha Bank's failure on "management's aggressive pursuit of asset growth concentrated in high risk" residential real-estate development and construction loans. Former Alpha Bank chief executive Joe Briner, now a consultant with a corporate-turnaround firm in Atlanta, didn't return calls seeking comment.

The FDIC wanted the property sold quickly, despite a series of obstacles, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in liens filed against Dresden Heights by building-material suppliers and McGuire Properties, the company that was finishing construction. If enforced by a court, any potential buyer would have to cover those bills before taking possession.

In January, the FDIC's outside property-management firm gave the listing to Atlanta real-estate broker Rob Jordan, a 40-year-old who had spent 10 years as a commercial banker before joining his father in the family firm. These days, Jordan Co. does virtually all of its business selling foreclosed commercial properties.

Mr. Jordan and his colleague, David Walmsley, pulled the county records on Alpha's construction loan, a routine step. They stopped cold at the surveyor's description of the property put up as collateral. "Said tract of land contains 6,776 square feet," the documents said of the first parcel. The other two parcels were similarly small.

Messrs. Jordan and Walmsley realized that Alpha Bank and now the federal government owned the three buildings and the land immediately beneath them -- but not an inch more. "What about the sidewalks? The stairs? The stoops?" asks Mr. Jordan. "They're all on someone else's property." The brokers checked with the county and confirmed that even the two small streets running through the subdivision belonged to someone else.

That someone else was BB&T Corp., a Winston-Salem, N.C., bank. BB&T had bought Main Street Bank, which made the original loan to Quantum that allowed the developer to buy the Dresden Heights land. When Quantum went bust, BB&T foreclosed on that land and put it up for sale for $1 million.

Rifling through court records, Messrs. Jordan and Walmsley discovered that Quantum had signed an easement allowing passage between the two properties. But it wasn't clear if the agreement would be legally binding on future owners.

The murky right-of-way made the sales job far more difficult. The FDIC would have to inform potential buyers there was no guarantee they could gain access to their property without trespassing. The brokers next sought to obtain the building plans, vital documents for anyone hoping to finish the development. In January, Mr. Jordan called Bill vonHedemann of Niles Bolton Associates, the principal architect on the project, to ask for copies. Mr. vonHedemann declined, politely. The developers, he said, owed his firm more than $60,000 in fees.

Anyone who wants the 85 or so computerized drawings will have to pay for them, he told Mr. Jordan. "We don't give the plans away," Mr. vonHedemann said in an interview.

Mr. Jordan didn't worry, initially. Alpha Bank should have had plans on file and regularly sent an agent to the site to check progress. But the brokers found no evidence Alpha had kept such records.

Meantime, the property was beginning to deteriorate. Over the winter, the outside pipes froze. In March, thieves broke into a model unit and stole the refrigerator, the range and the dishwasher. The FDIC boarded up the ground-floor windows on all of the townhouses, changed the locks, stowed the air conditioners in the garages and hired a full-time security service.

Messrs. Jordan and Walmsley fielded nearly a dozen offers, but none was close to the $2.8 million asking price. By May, the brokers worried the FDIC was shooting too high.

The FDIC ordered two new appraisals, a process that took almost five months. The brokers put off would-be bidders by saying the FDIC was undertaking "internal adjustments," an intentionally vague phrase intended to keep shoppers interested without responding to offers.

McGuire Properties, the company that had agreed to finish the Dresden Heights construction on behalf of Alpha Bank, dropped its liens on Aug. 17 in the face of a federal law making the FDIC immune to such claims. Instead, McGuire sued the FDIC in federal district court. McGuire contended that after seizing Alpha, the agency had directed the builder to continue work on the condos, and reneged on a promise to pay. The company demanded $653,014 plus interest.

In court filings, the FDIC denied the main allegations and asked the court to force McGuire to cover the government's legal costs. The two sides are in settlement talks. In September, the agency cut Dresden Heights's asking price 25%, to $2.1 million, and the brokers called the serious prospects.

One repeat bidder was 39-year-old Ho Hyun Chung. Mr. Chung moved from Seoul to the U.S. in 1996 to study business. He stayed to work for the U.S. cell-phone unit of LG Group, a South Korean conglomerate. Frequently up late on conference calls with headquarters, Mr. Chung became hooked on TV infomercials touting DVDs and books that promised riches through foreclosed real-estate. "I bought most of them," he says.

In 2007, as the real-estate market was tanking, Mr. Chung quit LG and started a business with his wife. Their niche: Buying unfinished foreclosed townhouses and completing them. He says he owns 42 units in 11 properties around the Atlanta area, including five townhouses he bought from the FDIC in December. He says he makes money on some, and loses on others.

Mr. Chung spotted Dresden Heights on the FDIC Web site. He liked that it was inside the perimeter beltway and near two universities.

He figured he could make a good return if he put no more than $1.5 million into finishing the project and then sold the units for $130,000 to $145,000 each, generating almost $5 million in gross revenue. It's a plan, he says, that depends heavily on the federal government's $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit. The credit, just extended by Congress, expires at the end of April. "If that goes, I don't know how the market will react," he says.

In October, almost a year after the FDIC seized Dresden Heights, the FDIC and Mr. Chung signed a sales contract giving him 30 days to conduct due diligence. Neither side would disclose the price.

Only then did Mr. Chung's lawyer notice that the FDIC's buildings were islands surrounded by BB&T's land. Mr. Chung acknowledges the FDIC disclosed the information, but says he "didn't quite understand" the problem until his lawyer raised it.

"I need to clean that up first," he says. He also wanted to make sure the person who buys the BB&T land signs an agreement that allows for the development and sale of the three buildings.

This month, he asked the FDIC for an extension on his 30-day contingency period. The FDIC turned him down, and the agreement expired.

17 November 2009

Silverdome's Sale Price Disappoints

Detroit News

Nearly 35 years after taxpayers spent $55.7 million building the Pontiac Silverdome and a year after a $20 million sale fell through, city officials have sold the arena once called the most desirable property in Oakland County.

The price: $583,000.

"This was a giveaway," said David J. Leitch, a broker with an Auburn Hills based realty firm.

"The property alone, at $10,000 an acre, should have gone for more than that. And you have the Silverdome, its contents, and the infrastructure already in place. I had estimated it would probably go for between $1.2 million and $3 million. I can't believe it."

Such sentiments weren't uncommon Monday, after city officials unsealed bids showing the property that was home to the Detroit Lions was sold at auction to an unnamed Canadian company that plans to bring a soccer league to the stadium. The company's name will be released when the sale is finalized within 45 days, said Fred Leeb, the city's emergency financial manager. Leeb acknowledged the sale "is not a windfall," but said the Silverdome's $1.5 million upkeep drained the beleaguered city's finances.

"We had hoped it would have brought more, but now the city can be freed of its upkeep and get it back on the tax rolls," Leeb said. Pontiac Mayor Clarence Phillips said he was "disappointed" but knew the city had to shed the costly structure. Councilman Everett Seay said he expects someone -- possibly a prospective buyer turned down in recent years -- to file a lawsuit to block the sale.

"The citizens of Pontiac deserve better," Seay said. "This is pennies on the dollar (of what it cost). It goes to show how bad times are ... Worse, we don't even know who bought it."

The company, which Leeb described only as a Toronto-based group of real estate investors and a "family-run business," was one of four bidders considered during an auction at the Marriott Hotel. Others bidders were not identified and most left without talking to reporters. One, Mickey Shapiro, a Farmington Hills developer, was rushing to catch a plane.

"We tried a bid, but it wasn't good enough," shrugged Shapiro, who declined to reveal his offer. "You win some, you lose some."

Dan Courtemanche, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Major League Soccer, said the league wasn't in discussion with any group on placing a team in the Detroit area.

"We have not had any recent discussions about having an expansion team in Detroit," Courtemanche said.

"We've had very preliminary talks in years past, but nothing in the last six to 12 months of substance."

An official for the Canadian Football League said the CFL has focused its efforts on Canada and not expanding into the United States.

The 80,300-seat stadium opened in 1975 and has largely remained empty since the Detroit Lions left for Ford Field in 2002. The sale included 127 adjacent acres.

12 November 2009

Home Inspection -- Not a DIY Project

from Deseret News

Question: When purchasing a home, what are some of the most common problems you find? I really would like to have the home I'm buying inspected, but money is the biggest problem right now, and we can't afford to pay an inspector. If we do the inspection ourselves, what should we be looking for?

Answer: As a Certified Master Inspector and a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors, my answer is that you cannot afford to simply pass on the home inspection. If you decide to do it yourself, you may not find major defects that would be obvious to an experienced home inspector. Depending on where you live, a home inspection should cost around $300, but the savings reaped from the inspection report is often in the thousands of dollars.

I personally have performed over 10,000 home inspections and know of inspectors who have inspected more than double that number. All those I've talked to agree that the home inspection is the purchaser's last chance to ask the seller to correct the major defects listed in the report. After taking possession of the home, the seller is out of the picture, even if you later discover you need a new furnace ($2,000 plus) or an upgrade of the electrical system ($1,200 plus). Over the years, I can recall only two occasions where the inspection report listed defects with the repairs costing less than $100.

Invest the $300. Sounds like a good investment to me. You might also consider that a DIY inspection may not be accepted by the seller as an accurate description of what needs to be done. Hiring a professional home inspector, who can explain what the defects are and how they should be repaired, leaves little room for disagreement. You should also consider that a professional home inspector is unbiased and is disconnected from the emotional issues associated with purchasing the home. The home inspector gets paid for his services whether or not you follow through with the purchase and repairs of the home. If you are determined to do the inspection yourself, here are several things to look for:

1. Grading and drainage. Make sure the home's foundation sits high and dry. The yard and rain gutters should drain away from the foundation for a least 10 feet.

2. Any and all electrical wiring should be either out of reach (6 feet 6 inches above the floor) or the wiring should be in a protective conduit.

3. Metal flue pipes must have a 1-inch clearance to combustibles. There should be a clearance where the pipe passes through the drywall ceiling or through the wood-roof sheathing. The flue pipes must also have a continuous rise from the appliance to the main chimney connection. Rusted or damaged flues need to be replaced.

4. Loose toilet bowls and stopped up sink drains. Operate all plumbing fixtures for 10 to 20 minutes to make sure all drain lines are working, and at the same time check for leaks under the fixture's cabinets and in the basement or crawl space.

5. Purchase an outlet circuit tester and check each and every outlet you can reach. You will be checking for "open grounds and reversed polarity" at the outlets. Test and reset every GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) in the home.

6. Operate all home and kitchen appliances (furnace, dishwasher, range, etc. Do not operate an air conditioner when the outside temperature is below 60 F).

7. Operate the garage-door opener and check the auto reverse features and the photo cells to make sure the door automatically opens if there is an obstruction in its path.

8. Natural gas and LP gas pipes require a sediment trap, also known as a dirt trap or a drip leg, on each gas pipe just before the pipe connects to the gas appliance's main gas valve. Replace any and all copper gas pipe.

9.Stairways and handrails. Make sure all stair risers are the same height (seven to eight inches) and that stair treads are at least 9 to 10 inches deep. Where there are three or more steps, a handrail is required for safety. Longer handrails and guardrails also require baluster posts set at a minimum of four to six inches apart to keep children from slipping through the railings.

10. Tempered safety glass. Windows over bathtubs, shower enclosures, patio and French doors and larger windows that are easily accessible should be tempered or protected against accidental human impact. The glass should be marked "tempered" in one corner of each piece of glass.

While these are just a portion of the components of the home, a professional home inspector will check many more details too numerous to list and has a trained eye to spot problems the DIY'er may not be able to identify.

11 November 2009

Chase Tower Owner Purchases Chase Center

Houston Chronicle

In what could be a show of confidence in Houston's commercial real estate market, the owner of downtown's 75-story JPMorgan Chase Tower has purchased the JPMorgan Chase Center across the street.

The new owner is an entity affiliated with a company once led by late Lebanese billionaire and former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Located at 601 Travis on the block bounded by Capitol, Travis, Texas and Main, Chase Center contains 12 levels of parking and about 450,000 square feet of office and retail space.

‘Good news'

While it likely was a strategic move for the downtown property owner to buy the building next door, “I also think it's a bit of good news when people are willing to put capital at risk again,” said Russell Ingrum, executive vice president of commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis in Houston. The firm was involved in financing the transaction.

Tight credit

Indeed, sales of office buildings and Houston apartments have fallen off considerably since the credit markets tightened last year.

Investors have been waiting on the sidelines for prices to drop to levels at which they feel safe buying.

While the price of the Chase Center transaction was not disclosed, “I would assume it was going to have to be attractive to the purchaser,” Ingrum said.

“In a difficult environment, you don't overstretch” he added.

Hines will manage

Hines, which developed and completed the building in 1982 and announced the sale late Monday, will manage and lease the 20-story property.

Over the years, Chase has used the location as a data processing and operations center, but most of the bank employees who worked in the building already have been relocated.

For the last couple of years, the company has been consolidating workers to 712 Main and 1111 Fannin, both downtown.

Chase still owns 712 Main, but the property has been up for sale since at least August.

‘Not being a landlord'

“We'd rather spend our time and resources being the best bank we can be and not being a landlord,” said Greg Hassell, a spokesman for Chase in Houston.

Upon Chase's departure, 250,000 square feet will be available for lease, Hines said. The bank will retain 26,000 square feet in the building. The Bank of New York Mellon also leases space in the building.

Hines and Clifford Chance US LLP of New York represented the buyer. Texas Tower Limited, in the transaction. Mark Russell at Studley represented Chase.

Downtown healthy

Even with the bank vacating space, the move won't do much to affect downtown's office market, which is still relatively healthy.

But the worst is not over for the overall market.

Vacancy rates are expected to inch up as the local job market contracts.

At 15 percent, the area's overall office vacancy rate will likely reach close to 20 percent sometime next year, Ingrum said.

09 November 2009

Post Investment Group (PIG) Acquires Distressed Texas Apartment Units

PR Newswire

HOUSTON, Post Investment Group, LLC, a Los Angeles based opportunistic real estate investment firm recently announced the acquisition of two distressed multi-family projects: the 438 unit Serrano Apartments in Houston, Texas and the 300 unit Longhorn Station Apartments in Austin, Texas. These latest acquisitions serve to expand Post's distressed real estate platform. Post acquired the assets through separate joint ventures with two existing equity partners.

The two assets, though purchased separately, carried similar transaction structures characteristic of both the current real estate environment and Post's strategic directive. The properties were acquired directly from or through the special servicers, in both circumstances requiring the lender to substantially discount the outstanding principal balance of the notes and amend financing terms in favor of Post. In each case, Post will infuse significant rehabilitation and renovation capital through a focused, individualized investment thesis tailored toward short term stabilization and long term operational viability.

This method of distressed investment is a transactional direction Post has been pursuing over the past calendar year. However, until recently lenders were either unwilling or unable to discount the outstanding balance of their holdings to levels that were both in-line with market and operationally accretive. "These two acquisitions signify a discernible shift in lender expectations," remarks Jack Ehrman, Principal of Post, "in that expanded consideration is now given to the active preservation of remaining equity in lieu of blindly pursing an exit at par, an argument we have been touting for some time." In contrast to the bandwagon flock to direct note acquisition, Post has identified the foregoing as a way to capitalize on the depressed real estate market while avoiding the intangibility of loan purchases consistently void of solid underlying collateral and absent of direct operational oversight at the entity level. Mr. Ehrman goes on to add that, "While this approach may not be as lucrative on exceptional assets, it enables us to significantly reduce an investments risk-coefficient and still attain market leading returns."

The acquisitions of Houston apartments and Austin apartments increase Post's collective holdings to over 6,200 units, 1,400 of which were acquired in the second half of 2009. Jason Post, President of Post comments, "The next two to three year period will provide multiple unique and opportunistic prospects for our company." He went on to emphasize the increased importance of developing strategic relationships with lending institutions and special servicers, stating, "The processes and protections Post employs from both an operational and transactional standpoint have enabled us to further access these entities and produce constructive conversations unthinkable in prior years".

About Post Investment Group, LLC

Post Investment Group is an opportunistic real estate investment firm focused on the acquisition of multi-family assets nationwide. The company specializes is both core plus and distressed investment opportunities capitalized through private and institutional investors.

07 November 2009

Why The Commercial Real Estate Bust Is Different

from Business Week

Unrealistic assumptions, layers of investors, sky-high prices, and possible fraud will make it hard to clean up the mess in commercial real estate

When Goldman Sachs (GS) sold complex bonds backed by the Arizona Grand Resort and other commercial properties in 2006, it suggested the returns would be strong. The 164-acre luxury Arizona Grand, set against the Sonoran Desert in Phoenix, boasted an award-winning golf course, deluxe spa, and several swank restaurants. The on-site water park was named one of the best in the country by the Travel Channel. With the resort's new owners planning to refurbish hotel rooms and common areas, Goldman told investors that the renovations would help boost cash flow.

As was so often the case during the real estate boom, the lofty projections didn't pan out. When the economy softened and business travel slumped, Arizona Grand's bookings slipped to 67%, from 80%. The resort defaulted on the $190 million underlying loan in 2009—a hit that alone could largely wipe out investors who bought the riskier pieces of the Goldman mortgage-backed securities deal.

"It's one of the largest losses we have forecasted for an individual loan," says Steve Kuritz, a senior vice-president at Realpoint, an independent credit-rating agency. The property, once valued at $246 million, is now worth just $93 million. A spokesman for Goldman says the pricing on the bonds was in line with market levels at the time and not above what investors could get on similar securities. Grossman Co. Properties, which owns Arizona Grand, didn't return calls for comment.

It would be easy to write off this blowup as just another casualty in the regular boom-and-bust cycle of the $6.4 trillion commercial real estate market. But the Goldman deal, with its unrealistic assumptions, multiple layers of investors, and stratospheric prices, helps illustrate why this downturn is more complicated than previous ones—and will turn out to be far costlier. Already, prices have plunged 41% from the peak in 2007, according to Moody's/REAL Commercial Property Price Index—worse than the 30.5% fall in the housing market from its 2006 apex. "We've never seen this extreme a correction as far back as the data go, which is the late 1960s," says Neal Elkin, president of Real Estate Analytics, the research firm that created the index. Adds billionaire investor Wilbur Ross: "Commercial real estate has gone from being highly liquid at sky-high prices to being extremely illiquid at distressed prices."

To appreciate why this bust is like no other, first consider the typical commercial real estate downturns that used to crop up every 5 or 10 years. The pattern was predictable: When prices for apartment complexes, office buildings, shopping malls, and other properties began to rise, developers sped up their projects to cash in on the bull market. Eventually, some of those developers, unable to fill all the new space, began to default on their loans, and lenders were stuck with the buildings they'd financed. The slump lasted no longer than the time it took for the property glut to be worked down.


But overbuilding isn't the culprit in this bust. An oversupply of money is what pushed commercial real estate over the edge.

It turns out the same excesses that drove the housing market's crazy rise and fall were present in commercial real estate, too—but they have largely gone unnoticed until now. Bankers, in their haste to make more and bigger loans, blindly accepted borrowers' wildest growth assumptions and readily overlooked other shortcomings on loan applications. They did so in part because they could easily sell their dubious loans to investors in the form of commercial mortgage-backed securities. As the market overheated, it became a breeding ground for fraud: A flurry of new court cases reveals the disturbing extent to which commercial mortgage borrowers may have doctored loan documents.

While the housing crisis seems to be easing, the commercial storm is still gathering strength. Between now and 2012, more than $1.4 trillion worth of commercial real estate loans will come due, according to real estate investment firm ING Clarion Partners. Analysts at Deutsche Bank (DB) estimate that borrowers will have trouble rolling over as many as three-quarters of the loans they took out in 2007, the most toxic vintage.

For the banks and investors whose money fuels the economy, this presents major problems. Their losses will likely cast a shadow over lending—and, by extension, the overall economy—for years. The market won't fully recover until 2020, says Kenneth P. Riggs Jr., CEO of Real Estate Research, and in cases where "values were over the top...maybe never."

In the short term, toxic securities are creating a new problem weighing on the market: a tangle of interconnected investors fighting over the remains of the properties they own. In the past the damage was limited to a handful of lenders who invested directly in any given project. Now there can be dozens of groups of investors, each with its own agenda. The April bankruptcy of shopping mall owner General Growth, one of the largest real-estate-related bankruptcies ever, affected hundreds of parties—an unprecedented slicing and dicing of assets. These investors won't soon forget the bust and aren't likely to dive back into the market as aggressively as they once did.

And yet the securities are only a secondary problem. The main driver of the commercial real estate bust is the underlying loans. How frothy did the market get? In one notable example, New York investment fund Sterling American Property and real estate company Hines paid $281 million in 2007 for the 42-floor office building at 333 Bush St. in San Francisco. That worked out to $518 a square foot, far higher than today's price, according to Real Capital Analytics, a research firm. Less than two years later, the building's primary tenant, law firm Heller Ehrman, filed for bankruptcy and stopped making rent payments. According to Real Capital Analytics, the building's owners did not make a recent loan payment, and the lender is expected to begin foreclosure proceedings. Says a spokesman for Sterling and Hines: "[We] continue to own and operate the property."

What's striking is how quickly some big commercial deals have gone south. In April 2007, Charney FPG, a New York real estate partnership, paid about $180 million to buy a 22-story office building in Manhattan's Times Square district. It borrowed $202 million to pay for the purchase, renovations, and incidentals—111% financing. Because the rental income didn't cover the debt payments, Comfort's lenders, Wachovia and RBS Greenwich Capital, required the firm to set aside $10 million in reserves to keep the project afloat until it got more paying tenants. Those occupants never materialized, and by July the owners had exhausted 95% of their reserves. The building is now in jeopardy of being seized by the bankers, says Real Capital Analytics' head of research, Dan Fasulo. "Everyone knows Judgment Day is coming." Says a Charney spokesman: "The owners are in the midst of restructuring the debt." Wachovia and RBS declined to comment.

Commercial lending mirrored mortgage lending in another way: Loans were made based on an unshakable belief that the market would never go down. An analysis by research firm REIS of mortgage securities created between 2005 and 2008 found that income projections for properties exceeded their historical performances by an average of 15%. "It was all based on assumption of cash flow," says Howard S. Landsberg of New York-based consultant Weiser Realty Advisors. "If you couldn't afford to pay the bank back now, in three years you could count on another $20 a square foot" in rent. When the numbers didn't add up, some lenders got imaginative. Says a banker at a large Wall Street firm: "If the cash flow wasn't there, you had to ignore it or find ways to create it."

Some lenders may have drummed up business for themselves, enticing borrowers with more money than they needed. Consider Credit Suisse's (CS) $375 million loan to the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Mont., one of the starkest examples of poor underwriting in recent memory. Opened in 1999 by Timothy L. Blixseth, a welfare kid turned timber magnate, the private ski and golf club catered to the ultra-wealthy crowd. Microsoft (MSFT) founder Bill Gates and Tour de France champion Greg LeMond built multimillion-dollar vacation homes there. In 2005 a Credit Suisse banker approached Blixseth about a loan, which the banker compared to "a home equity loan," according to bankruptcy court documents. Blixseth initially turned down the offer. But after several calls and a personal visit to Blixseth's home near Palm Springs, Calif., the banker persuaded Blixseth to borrow $375 million in the name of the club. According to court papers, the two decided the transaction fee by coin flip; Blixseth won, agreeing to pay 2%.


But not all of the funds were earmarked for the club. The deal allowed Blixseth to use up to $209 million of the proceeds "for his own personal benefit," according to the bankruptcy court papers. In a civil lawsuit filed by Yellowstone investors and homeowners, the plaintiffs say Blixseth used some of that money to fund a lavish lifestyle, including the purchases of a 20-seat Gulfstream corporate jet, two Rolls-Royce Phantoms, and three Land Rovers. His ex-wife, Edra Denise Blixseth, may have benefited from Credit Suisse's largesse, too. In a legal declaration filed in a Montana court, Timothy Blixseth notes her "wild, out-of-control spending." Among her extravagances, he alleges, was a "divorce celebration party" with "a voodoo doll game whereby the guests could poke pins in a life-size doll in my image to inflict pain on my various body parts." Timothy Blixseth's attorney says his client used the "vast majority" of the funds for business purposes. Blixseth, the attorney says, plowed money into an international expansion plan, including the purchase of "golf and resort properties in Mexico, the Caribbean, and elsewhere," as well as the Gulfstream jet. Edra Blixseth could not be reached for comment.

While Blixseth was busy spending the money, Yellowstone was struggling under the weight of its debt. Vendors often went unpaid for three months or longer, according to bankruptcy court testimony. In November 2008, Yellowstone filed for bankruptcy protection. "The only plausible explanation for Credit Suisse's action is that it was simply driven by the fees it was extracting from the loans it was selling and letting the chips fall where they may," said Ralph B. Kirscher, a federal bankruptcy judge in Helena, in a May court decision. Timothy Blixseth's attorney says the bankruptcy was prompted by his client's divorce proceedings. A spokesman for Credit Suisse says: "We worked on behalf of the institutions that held this loan." (The judge vacated his decision after the bank agreed to settle with Yellowstone's new owners, which include money manager Cross Harbor Capital Partners.)


The banks were hardly the only freewheeling players during the credit boom. The fast-and-easy lending environment was fertile territory for alleged fraudsters. In 2007 Prudential Financial lent $13.9 million to Namir A. Faidi, a Houston developer who planned to use the money to pay off construction loans on Piazza Blanca, a Mediterranean-themed shopping complex in Galveston, Tex. Faidi dipped into the project's reserve fund to make the first loan payment but failed to make any more. After that, Prudential concluded that some of the leases he'd submitted weren't legitimate. According to a civil suit filed in federal court by Prudential, Faidi's loan papers included a signed lease from time-share giant Bluegreen, a purported tenant that would occupy 26% of the space. But when Prudential contacted Bluegreen after the default, it learned it had backed out of talks and never signed a rental agreement.

In court proceedings, a Bluegreen employee said the signatures on the documents weren't his. Another supposed tenant, Mia Group, said in court filings that the lease on file for the restaurant company was invalid because it was signed by a business associate who didn't have authority to do so. "He was a few leases short of what he needed to get the loan," says Andrew F. Spalding, a Houston attorney who is representing Prudential. "I'm sure his thinking was just like that of most other developers: Even if the tenants were fake, he figured he could still fill that space in no time with someone else."

An attorney for Faidi, Robert A. Axelrad, says the disputed lease for Bluegreen was arranged by an outside broker. He acknowledges that the loan application included future rent payments from Bluegreen, but he says the figures were meant to be "pro forma" estimates based on the possibility of Bluegreen occupying the space. "My client says he never saw the lease and never represented there was a lease," says Axelrad. Faidi filed for personal bankruptcy in September. The civil case is ongoing.

Glaring problems that normally would have raised red flags seemed to be in plain sight of loan officers during the credit boom. Phoenix entrepreneur John J. Wanek appeared to have the right credentials when he applied for a $6.5 million loan from Merrill Lynch to buy the Ashberry Village Apartments in 2002. The sprawling ranch-style complex in Columbus, Ohio, would be the latest addition to his small, Midwestern real estate empire. He had never missed a payment on a half-dozen similar properties. And the rent rolls Wanek provided showed that more than 90% of Ashberry's units were occupied. After Wanek defaulted within six months, Merrill concluded that it had been duped. It claimed in a civil suit filed in a Franklin County (Ohio) court that Wanek had altered the rent-roll numbers to make the complex look more profitable. Merrill, which is now owned by Bank of America (BAC), contends that the complex was nearly one-third vacant at the time, and that Wanek had "grossly understated" the operating expenses. According to the suit, Wanek had inflated the numbers to get a bigger-than-necessary loan and used the extra money to cover back payments on other apartment buildings.

Even if the allegations are true, Merrill should have seen the warning signs. According to the suit, after applying for the loan, Wanek told Merrill he would transcribe data from the previous owner's supposedly illegible rent rolls into easier-to-read spreadsheets. In the process, he boosted many figures to suspiciously round numbers. Wanek also overstated his equity in the real estate he posted as collateral and listed some of his parents' assets as his own.

An attorney for Wanek, Mark C. Collins, says his client recreated the rent rolls—with Merrill's approval—only because his office had been burglarized and many records stolen 10 days before closing. "He prepared those numbers as best he could off the top of his memory," says Collins. "The proper due diligence wasn't done by anyone, but they want to make the buyer the scapegoat." Wanek, who filed for bankruptcy shortly before he lost the civil case in January 2006, now faces criminal fraud charges from the Franklin County prosecutor.

All told, Merrill and the lenders on Wanek's other properties have lost $38 million. His parents, two retired schoolteachers, had to file for bankruptcy as well. "Lenders were willing to underwrite on his record and the revenue stream of the property," says David D. Ferguson, an attorney who represented Merrill. "But it was a scheme doomed for failure."

04 November 2009

Administration Issues Guidlines For Commercial Loan Restructuring

DS News

Federal banking regulators issued guidelines Friday to encourage “prudent commercial real estate (CRE) loan workouts.”

In a statement from the FDIC, officials acknowledged that CRE borrowers are dealing with diminished cash flows, depreciated collateral values, and prolonged delays in selling or renting commercial properties – all factors to that some fear could ignite another economic tailspin.

The new rules offer explicit details on how banks should address commercial loan restructuring, as was promised in mid-October by the regulators, which include the FDIC, Federal Reserve, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, among others. According to the Wall Street Journal, banks in recent months have inundated the agencies with questions about commercial loan modifications as the number of problem loans has soared.

The newly issued 33-page guidance for commercial loan restructuring essentially sanctions extending troubled CRE mortgages upon maturity. Regulators said renewing and restructuring CRE loans should be consistent with safe and sound lending practices and should include a thorough analysis of the borrower’s ability to repay, overall financial condition, operational cash flow, and any market conditions that could hamper repayment potential. The guidelines include several examples of hypothetical modifications, that regulators said “illustrate a prudent workout process.”

According to a recent study by the global commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, 55 percent of the lenders surveyed said they plan to offer borrowers one- to six-month extensions on their maturing commercial real estate loans. Forty-five percent said the biggest factor in determining loan extensions was a requirement for borrowers to pay down some of the principal, and nearly 30 percent said they have begun offering forbearances to commercial borrowers ranging from six to 12 months.

Some economists and cautionary market watchers have criticized such actions – so-called “extend and pretend” agreements – as simply delaying the inevitable commercial real estate crash. In their statement outlining loan restructurings, federal regulators warned lenders about being too lenient and only deferring recognition of ensuing losses. Nevertheless, government officials are encouraging banks to rework troubled CRE mortgages rather than foreclose – a sentiment reminiscent of the government’s push for the industry to retool problem residential mortgages.

The demise of many of the 100-plus banks to go under since the financial crisis began has been the result of portfolios with large concentrations of commercial property loans – namely troublesome construction and development loans.

FDIC data shows that commercial mortgages totaled almost $1.1 trillion at the end of June, representing 14 percent of all loans and leases, and recent projections put expected commercial real estate losses as high as $300 billion.

“Financial institutions that implement prudent loan workout arrangements after performing comprehensive reviews of borrowers’ financial conditions will not be subject to criticism for engaging in these efforts, even if the restructured loans have weaknesses that result in adverse credit classifications,” the FDIC said upon issuance of its workout guidelines.