Amid the Chaos, Is This Any Time to Invest in Real Estate?

September 21 2008   Bear Stearns!  Goldman Sachs!  Lehman Brothers!  AIG!  Fannie Mae!  Freddie Mac!  Wall Street bail-outs!  Every day a new sensational headline about the meltdown on Wall Street.  Just when we think it can’t get any worse, it does.  So what, exactly, does this mean for real estate investors and is this any time to get into – or out of – the market?

 

Before I answer that, let me share a secret.  It’s the secret to success in business and investing.  And I’m going to share it with you, just you, dear reader.  Ready?  Come close.  Lean into the computer.  Here it is… 

 

“Buy low and sell high.” 

 

That’s right.  Repeat it a few times.  Write it down, if necessary, so you don’t forget it.  All you have to do is invest when prices are low and sell when they’re high!  That’s all there is to it!  It’s that simple.  The only thing you have to figure out is when the prices are low and when they are high.  When you figure that out, let me know. 

 

I can’t tell you when prices are going to be high but I can tell you one thing, they’re low right now.  They might even get a little lower – but the fact of the matter is, they’re pretty darn low today.  And I can tell you one other thing – they will rise.  I can’t tell you exactly when, but I’m pretty sure that within five years they will have at least recovered to their pre-crash levels if not more. 

 

Without getting into the detail of it, real estate has, historically, consistently delivered some of the highest returns on investment over time.  Sure, there are ups and downs along the way and speculators have been known to get reckless and homeowners have suffered.  But those losses almost always occur when there’s a short-term time horizon and homeowners or speculators are banking on short-term gains.  Investors who endure and succeed are the ones who are in it for the long term. 

 

I learned that lesson the hard way with my first real estate investment.  I was looking for a quick buck from flipping a co-op in New York City in the mid 1980s and I lost when conditions in the neighborhood suddenly made it un-sellable.  (The city opened three welfare hotels immediately adjacent to the building.)  At the time, I felt like the first person ever to lose money in the go-go Manhattan real estate market – but I wasn’t the first, nor the last.  Those welfare hotels were gone two years later and the neighborhood quickly gentrified.  In fact, one of those “welfare hotels” became one of the first of the new wave of “hip” high-end hotels.  If I’d had the wisdom, wherewithal and resources to hold on, my $75,000 investment would have been worth at least $1.5 million today.  On top of that, I would have taken in nearly another million dollars in rental income by now.  The property would have been fully capitalized (paid for itself) after only seven years with the remaining fifteen years providing pure profit.  Even after expenses and taxes, that’s not so bad.  My partner in that deal did hold on and that co-op is one of the best performing assets in his investment portfolio today – and he’s a successful hedge fund manager.

 

I predict that five-to-ten years from now, many of the people we read about in the Wall Street Journal and on the Forbes 400 list will have made their fortunes building their real estate portfolios today. 

 

So back to today.  Prices are at historic lows.  Foreclosures are at an all-time high.  The rental market is red-hot with rents rising.  Inventories are at an all-time high making it as much a buyer’s market as it ever gets.  Here’s where two-plus-two equals five.  This is an unprecedented buying opportunity for investors.  A recent article in the New York Times (“Finding Profits in a Distressed Market” 9/14/08) quotes Gene Hacker of Century 21; “You’ll probably never see anything like this in your lifetime again.  With the rental market as strong as it is, and prices as low as they’ve been, this is as good as it gets.”

Here’s my advice.  Buying foreclosures and other well-priced distressed properties and running them as rental properties with a long-term time horizon of five years or more could be a very smart move right now.  That’s why I’m talking to my partners about investing our money in residential income properties – maybe even some commercial properties like small retail centers and coin laundries. 

But pick your markets carefully and, like anything, invest only in what you know and do your research.  For example, I only invest in Los Angeles where the booming entertainment industry sustains an economy insulated from the rest of the country and international jet-setters will always flock to the enduring cachet of Beverly Hills and Malibu.  (Read about sales trends in Beverly Hills here.)  Having worked in the entertainment industry, I understand these buyers.  I would not invest in markets that are shrinking or over-saturated – Phoenix, Las Vegas and Miami come to mind (although I have a friend doing okay with vacation rentals in Tucson – the poor-man’s Santa Fe.)   

 

Stay tuned and I’ll let you know how it goes.  And let me know what you’re doing out there.

 

For more information about investing in this tumultuous market, read “What Does the Wall Street Bail-Out Mean For You?”  And look for future postings here about how to find and buy foreclosed properties, evaluate a real estate investment including calculating the capitalization rate and rate of return.

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Architects! Who Needs ‘Em?

You do.  If you want superior results and the best return on your investment.

 

Architects are kinda like prostitutes.  They perform a service we could do by ourselves, if absolutely necessary, but the process goes a little more smoothly, and the results are far more satisfying with the aid of a professional.

 

Almost anyone with an ounce of taste and good sense can execute a remodel without an architect.  And for your average run-of-the-mill middle-market or down-market flip or rental property, that may be all you need – a slap of paint, whatever tile you can get on sale, some inexpensive fixtures from Home Depot and voila!  Job done. 

 

For more extensive remodels (moving walls, building additions, etc.) a good contractor can get your ideas drawn-up and signed-off by an engineer.  Some contractors consider themselves amateur designers or (unlicensed) architects – and some of them are pretty adequate at meeting the needs of their clients.  But if you’re dealing in the luxury market, or even want to get top-dollar for an ordinary house, get yourself a pro.

 

Design Integrity

Designer showcase houses where every room is done by a different designer may be fun to look at, but would you really want to live in it?  A good house calms the spirit and lifts the soul.  A poorly designed home creates visual chaos and subliminal stress.  Think about houses you’ve been in that please you versus those that confuse you.  Room flow, sight-lines, massing and proportion are vital – but they’re only the foundation.  The finishes, the hardware, the lighting, the colors and textures – they can make or break an otherwise good house.  It’s what I call “design integrity” and what one of my architects calls the “language” of the house. 

 

Here are some basic rules of design I’ve learned from working with architects:

1.  Be consistent with finishes:  Carrying the same cabinetry finishes and countertops throughout the kitchen and baths makes the house feel larger, calmer, and more “designed”.  Some designers even believe in using the same tile throughout all the bathrooms, but I sometimes like to vary tile color or shape to give a powder room or guest bath a different attitude than a master bath, while staying within the same family (glass, stone, ceramic, etc.)  When done right, this doesn’t result in a bland house, but in a house with a strong visual presence.

 

2.  Be consistent with your hardware and fixtures:  Doorknobs and drawer-pulls are called the “jewelry” of a house.  Like jewelry on a beautiful woman, it should all work together.  A well-dressed woman wouldn’t mix gold and silver jewelry and neither should your house.  Whether it’s polished chrome, satin nickel or oil-rubbed bronze, pick one finish and carry it throughout the house – everywhere – including window and door hardware, cabinetry knobs and drawer-pulls, plumbing fixtures, everything.  Mixing and matching confuses the observer and creates subliminal stress. 

 

3.  Be consistent with flooring:  A different floor in each room adds to the visual chaos and breaks up the spaces into separate smaller spaces.  Whether you’re using hardwood or tile, carry it through everywhere you have a solid floor surface and the house will feel more expansive.  When you do alter the flooring, use it to define different spaces – carpet in the bedroom or tile in an entry foyer, for example.  But try to limit it to no more than two or three flooring materials for your house and carry them throughout.  Using tile, slate or concrete indoors and continuing it out to a patio brings the outdoors in.  And blurring the line between indoors and out is what mid-century modern design is all about.

 

4.  It’s not just visual, it’s tactile.  Think about the things you touch most often in a house – doorknobs, drawer-pulls, faucets, etc.  These things should feel solid and rich and work with precision, this is not the area to go cheap to save money.  Think of the sound you get when you shut the door of a Bentley versus a Yugo.  You want your house to be the Bentley.

 

A good architect is certain to do a better job of this than you could do on your own.  The benefits may seem intangible but I assure you this will add real value by creating a house that stands apart from the rest.  And if done correctly, the added cost of engaging an architect will more than pay for itself in substantially higher returns. 

 

Remember, you are creating a product with lots of competition and it’s your job as the owner/builder (or “flipper”) to create a house with a competitive edge that people will remember – whether it’s in Beverly Hills or Compton. 

 

Read about how to find and hire a contractor here.  And look for other postings here about design and how to find, hire, and negotiate a contract with an architect as well as the option of working with a “design-build firm”.

Clearing a Difficult Permit – How To Survive the City Planning Department

The first thing you have to understand in dealing with the city is that the Planning Department is a vast conspiracy out to make the process as confusing as possible.  Inspectors put in their ten or twenty years toying with our emotions and testing our patience with the sole objective of guaranteeing themselves a second, far more lucrative career in retirement as consultants, helping us navigate the Kafkaesque labyrinth that they, themselves, created.  A trip to the Planning Department makes the DMV look as efficient as the German railroad.

 

Normally you wouldn’t have to put yourself through this agony – it’s your architect’s or contractor’s job.  But if you’re “G.C.ing” the job yourself (serving as your own designer and general contractor), then this is one of the prices you’ll have to pay. 

 

There is another reason you might find yourself going to the Planning Department.  If your job is complicated and your architect and/or contractor  – or even a hired consultant – is hitting a snag, it can be beneficial for the homeowner to try and do it.  The clerks at the planning department can be competitive and cranky with professionals who they know don’t have a personal stake in the endless run-around.  And they all have a shared financial stake in perpetuating the system.  But when confronted with an actual homeowner who, as a taxpayer, is directly paying their salary, they tend to be far more deferential and helpful.

Actual photo of the City Planning Department

Actual photo of the City Planning Department

 
If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of going to the Planning Department yourself to push along a sticky permit (also known as the tenth circle of Hell), here are ten important tips:
 
 

 

1.  Go alone.  Letting them see you getting coached from your architect or contractor waiting in the wings will appear manipulative.  If your architect or contractor does go with you, have them wait out-of-sight in the cafeteria.

 

2.  Play dumb.  Be helpless.  You don’t know anything.  You’re just a know-nothing homeowner, not a professional in the home building or renovation business.  You have no pre-conceived notions as to how the process works, you’re just a citizen bumbling your way through it.  The less you know, the more helpful they’ll be.

 

I know nutink!

I know nutink!

3.  Give as little information as possible.  Do not volunteer any information that is not asked in that specific encounter.  If you know why there’s a problem, do not bring it up.  You know nothing.  See if this clerk catches it himself.  If they don’t, you may glide through without a problem.  And if they do catch it, act surprised – even bewildered – and they may find a work-around right there on the spot.

 

4.  Be nice!  Be nicer than you’ve ever been in your life.  Nice, polite, patronizing and empathetic.  The first time I tried to handle a problem permit myself, I stormed in with my contractor in tow, pounding my fists on the counter, demanding to see someone in charge and refusing to leave until I got my way.  Believe it or not – this didn’t work!  The planning supervisor simply dug his heels in deeper (and threatened to call the police to have me carried out.)  I’ve had much greater success channeling Mr. Rogers and being as sweet as a box of chocolates.  While waiting for your number to be called, watch the clerks at the counter and wait for the nicest one.  Once approaching the desk, compliment him or her on how smart and efficient they seem compared to their colleagues.  Better yet, say that everyone told you to see them, specifically, because they have the reputation as being the best at what they do.  Then listen caringly as they complain to you about their co-workers.  Compliment them on their tie, earrings, hair, whatever.  If you overheard them talking to a colleague about their recent vacation, then tell them how rested and refreshed they look – did they just return from vacation?  If you see pictures of children on their desk, gush about how they are the most beautiful children you’ve ever seen in your life.  I think you get the idea.
 
5.  Listen.  And care.  I’ve sat for nearly an hour listening sympathetically to a clerk talk about her sciatica, her no-good ex fiancé, and her recent vacation before we ever got to the business at hand.  By the time we did, we were not only best friends but kindred souls.  She became my advocate throughout the rest of the process.  I expect we’ll be exchanging Christmas cards this year.
 

 

 

6.  Be patient.  Even if you’ve followed my advice so far, this could still be a lengthy endeavor.  You can either be miserable or you can make a game of it and have fun.  Clear your calendar for a couple weeks ahead.  Pretend you’re on a scavenger hunt.  Clap your hands with glee and say “oh goodie!” with every new hurdle they put in your way.  I’ve spent weeks, six-seven hours a day filing a case.  With a case file as thick as a stack of New York City phone books, every day my clerk would find one more thing that was needed.  Then every time she reviewed it with her supervisor, he’d find reasons to have me re-write everything again.  But you are there to do whatever it takes for your case to sail through smoothly without getting kicked-back with comments or modifications – so welcome every new wrinkle.

 

7.  Be respectful.  Try to pretend you’re NOT dealing with Patty and Selma from the Simpsons and that you are dealing with a smart, capable person who will become your newest most cherished best friend.  These clerks do not get any respect from anyone else, so showing them the littlest amount will go a long way.

 

8.  Know that there’s no single solution to your problem.  You will get a different answer from everyone you ask – be they permit consultants or even Planning Department staff members.  I once had a case that turned from a simple over-the-counter permit to an 8-month variance to a 6-week “zoning adjustment”.  Go figure.

 

9.  Go early!  Get there in the morning – between 8 and 10AM is best while they day is fresh and planners are in a good mood.  By 11 they’re thinking about lunch so they don’t want to deal with any difficult cases that might take too long, and by afternoon, they’ve had their fill of angry applicants and difficult cases so they’re tired and cranky.

 

10.  Did I mention be nice?  If you’re like me, it will take every ounce of will-power you have not to have a complete meltdown.  I can’t say I’ve always succeeded in avoiding that.  Run out of the building and find a private place to scream at the top of your lungs, if you need to.  Just don’t unleash on the dimwits behind the counter.  (Oops!  Did I say that out loud?)

 

Read all about working with a permit expediter here.

 

What you want to build

What you want to build

 
What the city will approve

What the city will approve

Vintage Furniture – Real or Fake? Eames Lounge Chair & Ottoman

The Real McCoy - Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671)

The Real McCoy - Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671)

In this installment of “Real or Fake?” we’ll discuss the ever-popular and often imitated Eames Lounge Chair and ottoman, officially known as the Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671). Designed by the remarkable and prolific husband and wife team of modernist architects and designers, Charles and Ray Eames in 1956, this chair was introduced to the public on NBC’s morning show, the Arlene Francis Home Show (which later became The Today Show) and was an instant hit. (Don’t miss the extraordinary 2-part video here.) It’s been in constant production ever since by U.S. licensee Herman Miller of Zeeland Michigan and European licensee Vitra.

 

It’s also one of the most popularly copied pieces and I defy anyone to find a furniture store anywhere in the world that doesn’t sell a version of this chair. Some copies even have their own fans – an unlicensed knockoff from Plycraft by George Mulhauser is considered by many to be superior in both quality and comfort to the real thing and can be had at substantial savings. It’s said to be more ergonomic for today’s larger American frames.

 

So if you’re in the market for an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, how do you know if you’re getting the real thing? If you’re buying new, it’s easy. Buy from a Herman Miller dealer or look for the Herman Miller label on the underside of the chair shell. Prices start at about $3,500 for the cherry or walnut versions. A 50th anniversary chair in santos palisander rosewood starts at about $4,500. Authentic vintage chairs get that much or more, and an earlier limited edition model in rosewood has been known to fetch as much as $7,000 at auction. (UPDATE: A vintage rosewood chair and ottoman just got $3,120 at the October 7, 2008 Modern Design auction at Wright Auctions of Chicago. Pre-auction estimates put it at $3,000 to $4,000 – obviously a sign of the times given the world economic crisis. Read about it here.)

 

But if you’re buying vintage, first look for the label on the underside which looks like this:

 

If there’s no visible label, how do you know you’re getting the real thing? Here’s some other visual cues to look for:

  • Shell of cherry, walnut, santos palisander or rosewood. Any others are likely fakes.
  • Look for six-inch thick urethane foam cushions with soft leather upholstery.
  • The chair will have a five-legged base (“five-star”) and the ottoman four. Legs rise at a slight angle – they are not flat nor do they rise too steeply creating a “cone” effect.
  • Look for die-cast aluminum back braces – not square tubular aluminum.
  • The bases are also die-cast and painted black with polished aluminum trim.
  • Some copies have a loose cap over the base to hide rough welds or bolts where the legs meet the post.
  • Natural rubber shock mounts and adjustable stainless steel glides.
  • Armrests are curved, not flat.
  • Look at the leather upholstery on the armrest. Fakes often have a single piece of leather wrapped around the edge. Authentic models have a separate piece of leather welting wrapped around the edge.
  • The ottoman is the exact same size as the seat of the chair. In fact, the cushions are interchangeable.
  • Most copies recline, an authentic chair does not.
  • There should be absolutely no visible screws or bolts. None.

 

 

 

This fake has a five-legged ottoman and the legs of both chair and ottoman rise at too steep an angle. Otherwise it’s pretty darn close.

 

This copy has a four-legged chair, flat legs, flat armrests and a smaller ottoman.

 

Visible screws are an instant dead give-away. This one is a cheap copy.

 

Flat arms with a single piece of leather wrapped around the edges instead of a second piece of welting is a no-no.

 

 

If you’ve got Taittinger taste on a Schlitz budget, look for a knock-off from Plycraft. They generally start at around $1,200 and with a steady demand for them, they’ll hold their value almost as well as the authentic Herman Miller version. You might even find it to be more comfortable. (But don’t tell anyone I said that!)

 

Read about the latest auction results for a vintage Eames Lounge Chair 670 and Ottoman 671 here.

 

Don’t miss my postings on how to tell a real from a fake Le Corbusier LC series chair, a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair and a Noguchi coffee table. See recent auction results and trends on vintage furniture from Eames and other designers here.  You can also learn the smart way to buy quality furniture whether you’re staging a house for sale or collecting for your own home here.

 

What Is a Permit Expediter and Do I Need One?

The permit process can be pretty straightforward if you’re doing a simple remodel.  But try to do anything out of the ordinary (like everything I do), and it can be a frustrating, time-consuming, and expensive proposition.  The city Planning Department is a fun-house hall of mirrors and the people who work there like it that way.

 

The Planning Department is a vast conspiracy whose primary mission is to make the process as confusing as possible in order to guarantee every retiring staff member a lucrative second career as permit consultants where they make more money than they ever could have working behind a counter.

 

These consultants are often called “expediters”, but that term is misleading and often misused.  The only people who can really expedite a permit process are one of the downtown law firms who hire former planning department staff members and even retired city council members and charge fees starting at $50,000 and up.  These expediters are hired by large developers or superrich celebrities trying to get around the rules with as little fuss as possible.

 

For the rest of us mere mortals, there are a variety of consultants who can help us navigate the system with as few mistakes and delays as possible.  Only by avoiding delays are they “expediting” anything.  They cannot circumvent the process or make anything move faster.  The most they can do is ensure that an eight-month process actually takes eight months – not ten.  But these consultants aren’t cheap either and usually won’t touch a project unless they can charge at least $10-20,000 in fees.

 

What many people call “expediters” are what I call “runners” or “bag-carriers”.  For $40-50 per hour, they will carry your plans through Plan Check and other planning counters.  Some of them will help you research and prepare your case – others won’t.  Some others only do the research, not the trafficking.  You’ll see these runners around the planning office, often pulling file crates on wheels loaded-up with plans and paperwork for multiple clients.  I’ve seen two types: 1) older men and women who recently retired from the Planning Departments and are still on close terms with everyone behind the counter, and 2) young, leggy women who wear the highest heels, the shortest skirts and the lowest-cut blouses you’ve ever seen and know how to flirt.  In both cases, you’ll see them wave and blow kisses to everyone as they enter the floor.  They’ll stop and chat with everyone they see and spend more time talking with staff members about family, vacations and office gossip than they do conducting business.  All this while you sit seething, waiting for your number to be called, feeling like the outcast at a party where everyone else knows each other.

 

So back to you – do you need a runner, a permit consultant or an actual expediter?  It depends on how complicated your permit issues are and what your budget can afford.  You don’t need any of these if your project is fairly simple and your architect or contractor doesn’t hit any snags.  But if you do encounter a problem, it’s going to be up to you which strategy to pursue since you’re the one paying the bills.  In separate postings I’ll talk about how to find the help you need, and how to handle the process yourself.  Or contact me directly through this site and I’ll see if I can steer you in the right direction.

 

Read more about clearing a difficult permit here.

Fannie and Freddie Fallout

From my mortgage broker on September 8 2008:

“Mortgage rates are dropping significantly due to yesterday’s announcement that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will come under control of the government. This announcement came as the government felt both these institutions will no longer be able to meet their mission statement, which is to provide liquidity, stability and affordability in the housing markets.

In summary, the problems in the mortgage industry of late have made it difficult for Fannie and Freddie to issue new Bonds, and thus meet the capital requirements to pay off maturing Bonds. The Treasury stepped in to guarantee the payments on these new Bonds, which will make Mortgage Backed Securities more attractive to investors; these Bonds will have higher yields than Treasuries, with the same government-backed guarantee.

This action by the government will have two major effects. First, rates will drop significantly, possibly around 100 bps (from 6.250% to 5.250%), which will make mortgages more affordable for more borrowers. Secondly, this action will make credit easier to obtain, allowing for more borrowers to obtain home loans. Both effects will help slow, and possibly stop, the housing value downturn the country has experienced these last 18 months.”