10/11/15: Ask The Guys – Markets, Condos, Deflation and the Future of Money

The future of money, inflation, and deflation are just a few of the recent questions topics we’ve received from you, our listeners. So many great questions piled up in our email grab bag, Walter could barely carry them into the studio.  Of course, Walter’s got those skinny little bird legs… So, let’s dive into your questions on real estate markets, condos, deflation, the future of money and how it affects you as an investor.The Real Estate Guys email grab bag

In the studio behind the silver microphones of The Real Estate Guys™ radio show:

  • Your intrepid educator and host, Robert Helms
  • His inept communicator and co-host, Russell Gray
  • The ageless Godfather of Real Estate, Bob Helms

Choosing a Good Real Estate Market

It’s no secret that real estate prices have risen in many markets.  And because of this, investors are looking for places where properties are more affordable.

Long time listeners know we think all things being equal…affordable markets will be a safer place to be in the next decade or so.

To find the best market, it's important to compare two or three.BUT…all things aren’t equal in all markets.

So when a young listener asks our opinion of Detroit as a real estate investment market, we had to take a step back and discuss what makes one market preferable to another.
After all, “good” has to be answered in the context of, “Compared to what?”

So tip #1 is…pick at least two markets to compare.  Not seventeen.  Just two or three.

Next, look for economic drivers.

What makes that market tick economically?  There should be several things.  If there aren’t, then you need to move on.

Look at population and migration trends.Population growth and migration trends are two factors to consider when evaluating a real estate market for potential investment

More people equals more demand for real estate.  Growing population and people moving in means upward pressure on rents and prices….and vice versa.

Look at infrastructure.

Schools, transportation, healthcare and retail are biggies.  The more and better of these essential “bones” that exist in a market, the more likely people and businesses will want to move there…or stay.

Consider the financial health of the government.

The financial health of local government can have an impact on the quality of life, the value of real estate and burden of taxes on businesses and residents.Is it able to provide essential services, improve infrastructure and maintain an environment conducive to economic growth?

A municipality that can’t afford to pay its police or maintain its roads, parks, etc…is likely to impose higher taxes now or in the future.  That chases away businesses and people.

You get the idea.

Of course, with that said, because of the inherent inefficiencies in trading real estate, it’s always possible to find a deal that makes sense.

We just think fighting the local market trends isn’t worth it.  As much as a hassle as investing out of area is, it’s easier than swimming upstream against a declining market.

“Live where you want to live, but invest where the numbers make sense.” – Robert Helms

Condo Conundrum

Another listener is considering investing in a residential condominium.  Like any product type, there are pros and cons.

One of the positives about condos is they tend to be more affordable than single-family homes.  So you potentially get more bang for your investment buck.

You also have the power of the group.  Depending on the size and configuration of a complex, you can have common amenities like a pool, fitness center, tennis courts, green areas, etc.

These are things many tenants would find attractive, but the costs are shared by all owners.Condos present some unique challenges for real estate investors.

On the downside, there are some things every condo investor should be aware of.

First and foremost is the financial condition of the Homeowner’s Association or HOA.

If the HOA isn’t collecting its membership dues or not collecting enough, then all those fancy amenities fall into disrepair.  Or worse, essential things like roofs, driveways and landscaping can deteriorate.

When these major expenses come up and the condo association can’t pay the bill, the owners could end up getting a “special assessment”, which is essentially a cash call.

And if you don’t pay, the HOA can place a lien on your property, impeding your ability to sell the property…or worse, the HOA can initiate a foreclosure to satisfy its lien. Yikes!

Also, on the subject of HOA’s…

Be sure to look over the HOA’s meeting minutes to see if any major issues of concern are being discussed.  If there’s trouble brewing, you probably want to know about it BEFORE you buy.  You can’t expect that the seller or the seller’s agent have read them…much less disclosed anything problematic.  Check it yourself.

It’s also important to pay attention to the percentage of renters in any given complex.

That’s because when the percentage gets too high, the condo becomes “unwarrantable”.  This is lending lingo for saying that conventional lenders won’t loan on it.

Now you might not care when you buy or own, but when you get ready to sell, if your potential buyers can’t get a loan, it limits your options for getting out.  This means a lower price…if you can sell it at all.

So it’s certainly possible to make money in residential condo investing…and many people do…it’s very important to do your homework BEFORE you pull the trigger.

Inflation or Deflation?

We got a great question from a long term listener wants to, know, “Is inflation or deflation coming?

Investments must be structured so you profit and are protected whether there's inflation or deflationThe short answer is yes.  In fact, they’re both already here.

The bigger answer is more complicated, but worth delving into because it’s very relevant to real estate investors.

Inflation and deflation affect everything from interest rates, to wages and rents, to property values...and more.

In an effort to keep it simple, we get inside what causes prices to rise or fall.

The factors which drive prices UP include appreciation, leverage and inflation.  And they are all different.

Factors driving prices down are the inverse:  depreciation, de-leverage and deflation.

Here are the quick definitions:

Appreciation is when more demand is out weighing supply.  Depreciation is when supply is out weighting demand.

Remember, an economy is just one big auction with bidders and sellers.  The more people who “appreciate” an item and bid for it…especially against a static or shrinking supply…the higher the price will rise.

Of course, if supply increases relative to demand, the sellers lower the price to attract buyers, and prices fall.

It’s true for stocks, houses, labor, commodities and pretty much everything.

But there’s more…

Inside “demand” is “capacity to pay“.  After all, if you can’t afford something, it doesn’t matter how much you demand it.

This is where “leverage” comes in.  And leverage dramatically affects “capacity to pay”.

When people who want something they can’t afford today with the money they already have, financing allows them to bring future earnings into the present.  Those funds are used to bid UP the price.

A big part of the explosive rise in the cost of college has come from the explosion in student debt.  A lot of money from the future came into the present and bid up the cost of college.

The same thing happened in housing over the decades following the Depression.

If you can find someone really old, ask them about home loans in the 40’s.  They were maybe 5 or 10 years.  Today, they’re 30 years.  In Japan, they can be 100 years!

That’s a lot of future money (leverage) coming into the present to bid up prices.

Of course, when people can no longer afford to go into debt…or are unwilling to…then all that purchasing power goes away.

And LESS leverage means downward pressure on prices.

The third component of price change is the supply of currency (not debt, just cash) that is in circulation.

The MORE money being circulated, the more can be used to purchase things.

And if the amount of things doesn’t change, the net result is it costs MORE to buy the SAME things.  This is inflation.

Of course, the reverse is true.  But since the central banks control the printing presses and are committed to INFLATION, the probability of true deflation is unlikely.

But that doesn’t mean prices won’t fall. Just take a look at oil.

Because the SUPPLY of oil exploded with the fracking industry, while the DEMAND for oil didn’t grow as quickly, the price of oil dropped.

Meanwhile, because the DEMAND for properties to rent has grown (U.S. home ownership is at the lowest level since 1967) relative to SUPPLY of units available to rent (builders haven’t added as many new units as there are people wanting them)...rents have gone UP.

So for those who call rising prices “inflation” and falling prices “deflation”, BOTH are happening at the same time.

Of course, now you know there’s a lot more to rising and falling prices than just inflation and deflation.

The art is to look at anything you’re investing in and ask how ALL the factors are most likely to affect it.  And then invest accordingly.

Yes, we wish it was simpler too.  But it is what it is…which is why we study all the time.

Could the Yuan replace the Dollar? How would that impact the future of money?China has been pushing for the yuan...aka the renminbi...to replace the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency

Another topic we study is currency and the future of money.

Because most of the world transacts most of its business in…or based on…the dollar, we pay attention to it.

Lately, China’s been making moves to push its currency (the yuan or renminbi) to be on par with the U.S. dollar, the British pound and the Japanese yen.

The head of the International Monetary Fund has already publicly stated it’s not a question of if, but a matter of when this will happen.

One listener wonders what to make of all this.

Join the crowd.  We spend quite a bit of time contemplating this very thing.  In fact, one of the major discussion topics on our next Investor Summit at Sea™ will be “The Future of Money”.

At this stage, the trend for the demand of the dollar as a currency (medium of exchange) is actually going down.

At the same time, the supply of dollars has gone up…thanks to trillions of dollars injected into the economic system through multiple doses of quantitative easing by the Fed.

Based on that alone, you’d think the value of the dollar would FALL.  After all, less demand and more supply means a falling price.

So then WHY has the dollar been so strong? And how will that impact the future of money?

Because people are using it not just as a currency, but as a store of value.  So while demand for the dollar as a currency has fallen, demand as a store of value (a safe haven) has increased.

So back to the listener’s question…what happens if the yuan becomes a reserve currency?

Is the Yuan eventually going to overtake the dollar as the world's reserve currency and the future of money?If the yuan becomes a reserve currency, it legitimizes its role not just as a medium of exchange, but also as a store of value.

And if China backs the yuan…even partially…by gold (in addition to its substantial reserves and robust manufacturing economy)…it’s conceivable that many investors would dump dollars and buy yuan.

Consider that Britain is issuing the world’s first yuan denominated bonds.  It’s just a clue that the yuan is moving ever closer to becoming a serious player on the world stage.

So if demand for the dollar falls against the backdrop of the trillions printed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, then the value of the dollar could fall SUBSTANTIALLY.

Worse for dollar holders, is that once the world begins to lose faith in the dollar as a store of value, the rush for the exits begins.  And this exacerbates the fall of the dollar.  It’s an ugly downward spiral.

What does that mean to you as a Main Street real estate investor?

The first and most likely impact will be a rapid rise in interest rates and in the dollar denominated value of anything real.

If you own real assets, like real estate and precious metals, then you’ll preserve your relative position.

The dollar value of those things will go up, but it won’t mean anything because the dollars won’t be worth as much.

It’s like that $50,000 3 bedroom house from 1970 that’s now worth $500,000.

The house didn’t get bigger or more useful.  The dollar just fell, so now it takes more of them to buy the same real value.

But even though you aren’t richer in real terms, you’re better off than if you didn’t own the house.  So owning anything real when a currency is losing value is a safer place to be.

Next, if you’ve used low fixed rate financing, as interest rates rise, you’re not affected.When a currency collapses, owing real assets is far safer than owning paper assets.

In fact, you have a competitive edge because anyone trying to buy when interest rates are high will have to charge much higher rents in order to cover their costs.

So you can offer low relative prices to your tenants in a time of economic weakness and still be positive cash flow.

Your tenants will probably be very grateful and loyal, so you’ll have less vacancy and less hassles.

All this to say…the more you understand what’s happening, why it’s happening, how it affects you and what you can do about it…the less scary all of these changes are.

Because change is coming whether you’re ready or not…and whether you do anything or not.  Obviously, it’s probably a good idea to pay attention and take appropriate action.

We’ll be here watching, reporting and commenting on the future of money and other topic.  So stay tuned to The Real Estate Guys™ radio show.  And if you really want to compress your learning curve, take the big leap and join us on our next Investor Summit at Sea™.

Meanwhile, listen into this enlightening edition of Ask The Guys!

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3/7/10: Using Real Estate to Fund College – Making Good Choices in Today’s Market

How to pay for college can be as important and difficult a decision as selecting which school to attend. With all the changes in the market, can real estate still help?

To school us on this important topic, plus provide a timely warning about an old law that has taken on new relevance in one of the largest real estate markets, we dialed up (for those old enough to remember a dial) one of the smartest attorneys we know!

In the classroom for College Funding with Real Estate 102:
•    The Professor of Profit and Your Host, Robert Helms
•    Teacher’s Aid and Co-Host, Russell Gray
•    Professor Emeritus and the Godfather of Real Estate, Bob Helms
•    The Dean of Decision Making, Attorney Jeff Lerman

After a quick stop at the campus coffee shop for some pre-class caffeination, we slid into our school desks behind the golden microphones and Professor Robert Helms calls the class to order.

Like many topics in school, the first thing we discuss is why this topic is relevant.  Not everyone has children or wants to send them to college – or maybe all of that is in your rearview mirror.  But we soon discover that this type of real estate investing is just a niche like any other – and there’s money to be made!

College is expensive and getting more so every day.  And in a soft economy, finding creative ways to pay for some or all of it is more important than ever!  As entrepreneurs, we get excited when there’s a problem like this in the market that we can solve – and this one is no different.

Since Jeff Lerman is an “A” student, while the rest of us are…well, not as smart as Jeff…we have him lead our study group.  And like a typical “A” student, he starts talking about math and homework. Yes, there’s homework involved!  But asking the right questions and doing the math is one of the secrets to success.  Jeff takes us through his own real life analysis and the questions and answers he’s finding as he goes through this process himself.

Jeff explains how he uses the cost of on-campus housing as his baseline for doing the investment analysis.  How can he get more value for the same cash flow? Great question!

This leads to a discussion about which advisors he calls on to help him.  Yes, even advisors have advisors.  We discuss who you need and how to work with them.

The very important topic of single family homes versus condominiums comes up, which opens up the door for a lively classroom discussion.  Jeff reveals how his initial idea was contradicted when he got into the math.  See? It’s true!  Do the math and the math will tell you what to do!  Of course, you have to do the right math – which includes accounting for all the variables.  So we talk through all of this.  Good stuff!

As we wind up the discussion of funding college with real estate, Jeff throws in some extra credit work – and tells us what every investor must know about the California Home Equity Sales Contract Act.

Never heard of it?  Neither had we.  But it poses some real risks to active real estate investors looking to cash in on today’s distressed property bonanza.  And even if you’re not actively investing in California, you’d be wise to be aware of this legislation – because often times other states follow California’s lead on consumer protection.  This is especially true in the currently distressed property market.

Before we knew it class was over.  But as always, we learned a lot and had some fun.  Many thanks to Jeff for another enlightening appearance on the show!

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Problem or Opportunity?

Sorry – not a particularly catchy title for this post – but it’s still an important concept that merits reinforcement.  In Equity Happens, we talk about how real estate investing is a business of fundamentals.  When you master the fundamentals, then you master the business.  In this case, the fundamental we’re talking about is one’s attitude towards “adversity”.

Watchers, victims, people who are waiting for “someone” (like the government) to do “something” see adversity as a problem.  “Oh my gosh. There’s a big problem. Someone needs to do something!”

Doers, entrepreneurs, capitalists (you know, the people the government likes to take money from to fix the problem while often blaming them for causing it – oops, didn’t mean to let that slip out) look at adversity and say, “WOW! What a great opportunity!  Everyone is crying in their soup, brain-locked with fear and unwilling to act.  All I have to do is be creative and bold, and I can convert this adversity into an opportunity!”

Case in point:  Today, the Wall Street Journal reports that real estate developer Young Woo is planning to convert the top 40 floors of AIG’s 66-story building into luxury condominiums.  The Journal reports that Woo bought the distressed building (though actually, it was the OWNER that was distressed, not the property) for $150 million or $105 per square foot.  If you don’t know, that’s cheap.  He couldn’t build it for that.

After conversion, Woo hopes to sell the condos for close to $2,000 per square foot.  Even after all his expenses, he could realize a profit of $500 per square foot or roughly $600,000 per condo!  Not too shabby.

Of course, the plan looks good on paper and Woo has to actually execute the plan in order to realize his profit.  But that’s what America and real estate is all about.

You may not be ready to take on a 66 story conversion project, but the principals apply at any level.  The marketplace is full of distress and adversity right now.  That means there are lots of opportunities IF you can see them, and IF you have the courage to lead.

Think and DO is better than Wait and See.

Start with education.  Learn the fundamentals.  Watch other investors.  Learn from their successes and mistakes.  Build relationships with experts you can call on when you’re in the middle of a deal.  It’s always good to get lots of brains on the problem.  But remember, it’s YOUR money and YOUR opportunity, so do NOT wait for someone else to empower you or assure your success.  When you’ve done your homework and you see your opportunity, then YOU make the call – and go make equity happen for you.

Reality or Mirage?

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that MGM Mirage is cutting the price of  the condominiums in its spectacular City Center project in Las Vegas, Nevada.  How big a cut?  Thirty percent!  We’re not sure what their margin is, but that’s probably all of it and then some. Ouch.

Worse, it’s probably still not enough. But only time will tell.  The cuts are a little surprising to us, but clearly they’re the result of a major reality check for MGM Mirage.  And this post isn’t really about Las Vegas, MGM or City Center.  It’s about the LESSONS available in this situation for all of us.

Lesson #1 – The market sets the price. Whatever MGM needs to cover its cost is interesting, but only to MGM.  The market decides what its willing to pay.  In this case, MGM is hoping it’s just 30% off.  Before it’s all done the market may want more.

Lesson #2 – The market is fickle. Three years ago people were willing to pay more. That’s why MGM sold so many.  People had equity, unemployment was half what it is today, financing was readily available for almost anything related to real estate  – even condo-hotels.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the closing table.  Okay, not so funny.  But the stream of foreign money through Wall Street into mortgage backed securities got shut off almost over night, taking with it equity and working capital.  A market heavily driven by momentum did an abrupt 180.  Whether you’re rehabbing a fixer upper or building a skyscraper, if your success requires you to find a ready,willing and able buyer (or in MGM’s case, thousands of them), you better get to market fast – because things can change.

Lesson #3 – Have a Plan B. Donald Trump’s Plan A was to sell the condos in his Las Vegas project, just like MGM and every other developer participating in the Las Vegas rush for real estate gold.  When Plan A bit the dust, he converted the project into a hotel.  Still a tough gig, but the goal is to get some cash flow to hold the property until things improve.  Rich Dad Advisor and Robert & Kim Kiyosaki’s investment partner Ken McElroy says they only do deals they can afford to stay in for 10 years.  Plan A may be to build or fix up for quick sale, but Plan B is to structure the deal so it still makes sense if they have to hold.  Plan A is a win and so is Plan B.

Lesson #4 – Understand the other party’s needs, wants and desires. When you’re in a deal that’s going sideways, whether for reasons under your control or those not (certainly MGM could not predict, much less control the mortgage meltdown), it’s easy to fixate on your own pain.  If buyers aren’t willing to close on City Center, should it be assumed they are unwilling because of the price?  Could they be unable because of lack of financing?  Could they be afraid of reduced rents on their units due to the soft economy?  Until you know what the issue are for the other party (again, in MGM’s case, thousands of them), you might give up or give away profit unnecessarily.

Lesson #5 – Use Creativity to Protect Profits (or minimize losses). Certainly we don’t know all the considerations for MGM, and presumably these are extremely smart people, but we know many investors who are in contract for units in City Center and we haven’t heard any discussion of owner financing.  We know that condo-hotel pricing has all but disappeared. For many buyers getting a conventional third party loan is an impossibility.  But what if City Center carried back the financing?  It doesn’t get cash, but it gets an asset (a mortgage). For those buyers who need income to service the mortgage, couldn’t MGM as the hotel operator, steer more guests into the unit? After all, they still get their operator’s share of revenue, plus they get the mortgage payment.  The owner may need to kick in a little cash flow to feed the mortgage, but better than losing one’s deposit. After all, it’s still one of the premier properties in the country.  Where do you think values will be in 20 years?

You may not be a Big Time Operator like MGM.  But real estate is real estate and when you watch what’s happening for the BTO’s, many of the lessons will apply to you.