Real Estate Switching Costs

Real estate has had a good run since 2010.

It can be tempting to cash in profits.

Financial Case Study

My neighbor is just about at the point where he can net $1,000,000 dollars on the sale of his house. He’s retired and this represents a very substantial sum for him. One million dollars is also kind of a magic number emotionally as he never expected to be a millionaire.

For him to net $1,000,000 he will need to sell his place for about $1,067,500 gross.

He bought the house many years ago so, even after his primary residence exclusion, he’s going to have a tax bill of $70,000.

There will be other costs (moving, cleaning, etc…) adding up to $2,500.

So his certain costs today are $67,500 + $70,000 + $2,500 => $140,000

Putting this into his personal context…

Having paid off his mortgage by the time he retired, he has the ability to live on $1,500 per month. So he’s looking at a certain bill that’s worth 7 3/4 years’ living expenses.

He’s also a young retiree, with parents still alive.

So he might be living another 30+ years.

Key Questions

How might the switch make things better? Whatever they are… they are uncertain benefits to be weighed against certain financial costs.

How will surplus cash be invested? Given the choice between prime residential real estate and an investment account… most retirees prefer the hidden volatility of real estate.

Do I want to leave my community? When I left Christchurch (NZ), I left behind a fantastic group of people. Community has a far stronger association with a meaningful life than cash in a bank account.

Certain types of people make new friends easily. I’m not one of those people! What type of person are you?

What Can Go Wrong

Bull Markets — Assume that you can only “move out of town” once. In our case, we lack the financial resources to repurchase our existing real estate at current market prices. If we sell, and prices rise, then we will be priced out of the market.

Neutral Markets — Real estate is expensive to transact. In the example above, the vendor is paying 13% of gross proceeds in commissions, taxes and expenses. In any new purchase I assume that I “lose” (on paper) 10% of the gross purchase value at completion. In other words, I am going to need a 10% market increase to get my money back.

Bear Markets — Can I afford to be locked into this market for many years? Vacation markets, cities reliant on a single industry (oil and gas) and secondary locations… buyers can be locked in for five plus years. Am I OK with that risk?

The Good Enough Portfolio

There’s a lot to be said for an attitude that an existing position is “good enough.”

Each time I make a choice, change or modification it’s an opportunity for expense and error.

 

High Finance

2016-09-24-10-14-55Keep your ears open this week. There will be a rare opportunity to learn about finance.

For my international friends, many of the American techniques (in the news) are available in your home countries. I have been applying finance, across four continents, for more than 25 years.

2016-09-25-18-48-42The overall financial system works great. However, when I try to explain certain shortcomings to my friends, their eyes glaze over and I lose them.

I wish I was more skillful.

Whether your favorite billionaire is a Cuban, a Koch, or a Buffett, we can learn a lot from insiders. A constant refrain from wealthy insiders is “complexity creates opportunity for the system to be gamed for economic benefit.”

Finance is a complex system. The system has been gamed extensively.

  • Offshore accounts (Panama Papers type stuff)
  • Thinly-capitalized investment vehicles, with lots of debt
  • Applying non-cash losses today, while deferring cash gains to tomorrow
  • Receiving preferential tax rates on gains associated with financial work
  • Using trusts to avoid estate and generation skipping taxes
  • Using special accounts to shelter income and gains across generations
  • Income reclassification to avoid income and payroll taxes

If the collective wants to run the system like that then I’ll bow to its will. However, I’m not sure the collective knows what’s up.

2016-09-28-10-43-49-1Like professional sports, my beef isn’t with the system. What irks me is the lack of integrity when insiders pretend the system is different than reality. The politics of the people I named above are different but their observations are often similar.

I’m grateful I can explain my personal reality without fear of banishment or loss.

Living a life you can disclose saves a lot of suffering.

Small, Negative Suprises

Sneaky SquirrelPart of being human is a tendency to over-react to small losses.

As this error has cost my family (big) money, I’m going to share a case study that illustrates the point.

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One of my jobs is to manage a small portfolio of local real estate. From time-to-time items come up that need to be sorted. Each of those items represents a small dose of unexpected pain.

In most years, there will be a dozen items that require action. Total cost of these items is on the order of one-month’s living expenses.

To give an idea on scale of the “pain”, the portfolio is worth ten-year’s living expenses and, annually, it generates cash equivalent to seven-month’s living expenses.

Combining the above, you could calculate that the portfolio has a cash yield of ~5% on net realizable value.

When compared to all of the alternatives, this investment is one of the best places to invest.

But the random, little bits of pain hurt — jammed sewer lines, flooded basements, six-foot high marijuana plants, missing tenants, leaking toilets… none of this is unusual, or unexpected.

The small doses of pain hurt so much I’ve been considering selling the portfolio and switching into a less attractive investment.

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To escape the small and random pain, I am willing to accept certain, large and immediate pain! A discount on market value and payment of significant tax liabilities. The total cost would be more than two-year’s living expenses.

In a fantastic investment, with less attractive alternatives, I’m willing to pay 25x more than the cost of the pain to make it go away.

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Rather than pay two-years living expenses to make the pain go away, I’ve hired a property management company to insulate me from the pain.

Annual cost is 0.6% of net realizable value and less than a month’s living expenses.

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Beware of quick reactions triggered by small, negative surprises.

They are often irrational.

 

 

Wealth Habits: Capitalizing Luxuries and Time

IMG_4160Over the last year, I’ve sold two paintings and a piece of jewelry. My family had owned these items for a long time and they have given us a lot of pleasure. However, each September, an insurance bill arrived and gave me a fair amount of pain.

So now the items are gone and last week my insurance bill arrived. I noticed that my insurance savings are enough to take my wife to visit any museum in the world, annually, forever.

By getting through the pain of change (the sale)… I created a situation where we could share experiences together (future trips).

The cost of the status quo is often hidden.

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Similar story.

I’ve been thinking about buying a boat, a sprinter van and/or a truck.

Despite evidence to the contrary, at some level, I think these assets will make it easier to spend time with my kids.

These assets are expensive to own, depreciate and require time to maintain.

How to counter the urge to purchase?

Assume depreciable assets are free to own, lease, keep receipts and track total time/spending in a year.

Cat SailAn example for the boat:

  1. As a teenager, I spent many summers working on the water. In those years, what was the total number of days that I would spend on the water? My peak days were 60 per annum. This year was closer to 25 days.
  2. Based on my rental history for the last two years, what’s the average cost per day of renting, rather than owning? Let’s assume it is $1,000 per day.

Based on actual days on the water, how many years expenditure would I capitalize with a purchase? In my case, it is 10-25 years of expenditure based on how you slice the numbers and the size of vessel. Also, worth noting that I was on seven different vessels in 2015.

The above analysis is essential before you buy a vacation home, consider becoming a ski-family or purchase a large depreciable asset.

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Think back one decade, or two… have your preferences changed? Mine have changed tremendously and I have discovered that I am a lousy judge of what I’ll want in ten years’ time!

How might a large capital purchase impact the freedom you have to allocate your time?

By staying variable in the family budget, I can:

  1. free significant time in my daily schedule
  2. finance childcare
  3. budget for shared experiences
  4. immediately ratchet down spending, when required

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2015-09-20 17.53.02The final step is to pay attention when you are enjoying a “luxury” expenditure.

Notice the changes (if any) with your inner experience.

My benchmark is the way I feeling during a walk in the forest that’s ten minutes away from my desk.

Live where you don’t need to leave.

Real Estate – Should I buy or sell?

2015-09-14 13.55.37

In May 2014, I shared a template for reviewing your real estate. Let’s revisit that property – (prior values in parenthesis).

  • Today’s Zillow value $1.2 million ($850,000, +26%)
  • Recent Assessment value $1.05 million ($830,000, +27%)

Zillow and the county assessor have revised values up by more than 25%. You’re wondering if there is a bubble. You receive an offer of $1.1 million, should you sell?

In the article from May 2014, the “owner’s value” was $925,000. This offer is ~20% higher. Seems straightforward to sell, but pause to consider…

  1. How has the investment changed over time?
  2. What are you going to do with the money?
  3. What are the tax consequences of selling?

2015-09-11 15.25.11Investment Review

The big story in Denver/Boulder real estate has been increasing rents. The current rental income for the property is ~$60,000 per annum. Taxes, insurance and repairs cost $10,000, so the net cash flow is $50,000 per annum.

Previously, cash flow before interest and depreciation was closer to $25,000 per annum. So there has been a near doubling in the annual cash flow from this investment, but pause to consider…

Is the cash flow sustainable?

In this case, the cash flow is not sustainable. Houses wear out, roofs need replacing, plumbing needs repair and appliances break down. So let’s adjust the $50,000 per annum to $40,000 to reflect sustainable cash flow.

The offer is $1.1 million to buy $40,000 of sustainable cash flow. That is an implied yield of 3.6%.

How does that stack up?

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Alternative Uses of Funds

US Treasury Yields

  • 5 year, 1.6%
  • 10 year, 2.3%
  • 30 year, 3.1%

Vanguard Select Fund Yields

  • VTSAX (US Equity) – 2.0%
  • VBTLX (US Bond) – 2.2%

If you are the seller then you should ask yourself “What am I going to do with the sales proceeds?”

If you sell real estate that yields 3.6% to buy bonds that yield 2-3% then the value of your investment is likely to be eroded over time. Most obviously, because rental income tends to increase over time, while interest payments are set for the duration of the bond.

High-quality assets with growing income streams are attractive.

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Taxes

If you sell at $1,100,000 (to a buyer without an agent) then what’s your net realizable value?

Using numbers consistent with the May 2014 article, you would net about $1,025,000 (before any mortgage pay off).

You’d also want to adjust the sustainable cash flow from the property to reflect taxes you pay on the income. To make things simple, let’s assume a sustainable cash flow after taxes of $32,500 (yielding ~3.2% after tax).

The above numbers would change, possibly significantly, based on the size of mortgage payoff and your personal tax position.

It’s worth having a professional walk you through the detail.

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Overall

When I look at the above, I see a market that has increased 25% in value. Seems like a lot.

  1. Rental growth is in line with the increase in value.
  2. Alternative investments are yielding less than this asset.
  3. The asset is located in a zip code with real-economic growth that is higher than the US average.

So the market seems fairly priced – at least to me, today.

What should the buyer and seller do? In these market conditions, they are likely fine either way.

What’s going to happen to future rents and prices? I would be suspicious of anyone that claims to know.

How To Make Money At Real Estate

taxiEffective last month, my family owns a house in North Boulder for a net cash cost of US$100,000. It took me a decade to get that deal done. I did a similar one in New Zealand in 2001.

When I buy, I look for a good asset, at a fair price, with built-in options that can create upside.

If you’re going to make superior returns then it will be due to an option embedded in the deal.

For example:

  • Excess land gives the option to subdivide (Boulder 2010)
  • Buying outside my “home” currency of US dollars gives the ability for international arbitrage (New Zealand 2001)
  • Buy homes for less than their cost to build (Tucson 2010)

The goal is not having a property that you would be proud to show off to your friends. Until recently, I owned a “pride” property. A 6,000 sq. ft home that earned my family nothing for the time we lived in it. Truly fantastic house, mediocre investment.

Likewise, the option should not be created by using a ton of leverage. High leverage is appropriate only when you’re using other people’s money in a non-recourse vehicle. More here.

When should you buy?

#1 – Buy when you need the asset. You rarely need the asset! Be patient.

#2 – Buy when the cost to own is FAR less than the cost to rentsee my free ebook for how to do this calculation.

#3 – Buy when banks are foreclosing – banks, governments and trustees often sell for less than fair value.

#4 – Buy when the local debt market has collapsed – a cash buyer in a liquidity crisis will receive favorable terms.

Note, these tips apply to every asset and you’re going to need substantial liquid assets to take advantage.

All of the above, imply that you should study your target market for a decade before you buy. I also recommend that you limit your equity investment to 15% of your family’s balance sheet.

Right now, we’re in a bull market and you probably feel like you will never get another chance to buy at distressed prices.

You’re wrong.

In my working life, I remember bear markets in 1990 (UK), 1997 (Asia), 2000 (US) and 2009 (Global).

Take your time and remember you don’t need to do the deal.

Once a decade, the patient investor will be sent a fat pitch.

 

Intro To Margin Finance

snow_mtnBDC asked for an example for my post How Leverage Kills.

If you don’t understand debt then assume that the only time it might make sense to borrow is when your 30-year fixed-rate mortgage payment (including taxes & insurance) is less than your cost to rent. Assume that all other forms of debt will hold you back, prolong being a wage slave and reduce your retirement income.

The people that take issue with the generalizations above are probably trying to sell you something, and working on commission.

My family’s only borrowing is a 30-year fixed rate mortgage. Our mortgage payment is 60% of what it would cost us to rent. I made a calculated bet that our mortgage debt would provide a hedge against rental inflation.

Homeownership isn’t necessary for financial freedom. I bought the house because:

  • I have a young family
  • Don’t mind being geographically restricted
  • Live in a great public school district
  • My youngest won’t graduate high school until 2030
  • Our city is likely to experience above average real economic growth
  • I’m in a better part of town

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Let’s assume our investor has $100,000 and owns an asset that yields 2% after expenses ($2,000 net income).

  • Along comes her investment adviser and offers a portfolio loan – rates are low right now so the loan will cost her 3% per annum.
  • Our investor decides to borrow $50,000 and purchase more of the same type of asset.
  • Now she has $150,000 of assets, still yielding 2%, so $3,000 of income each year.
  • The loan is interest only and costs her $1,500 per annum (3% of $50,000).

Where things get wonky is if the asset’s yield disappears — for example if a rental property is vacant — OR — if the capital value drops significantly — for example if a portfolio of stocks falls 50% in a bear market.

Let’s look at the 50% asset value decline.

  • The value of the asset falls from $150,000 to $75,000.
  • The value of the debt stays the same $50,000.
  • Therefore the net equity value falls to $25,000.
  • The net cash flows stay the same $3,000 from the asset, $1,500 interest to pay, $1,500 net after interest.

If you generate enough cash to pay your interest then you can ride out the bear market and wait for asset values to return to pre-crash highs.

However… a common feature of margin lending is the bank can ask for their money back… ….and they have a habit of asking at the worst time.

Sometimes, they don’t ask, under the terms of your loan they have rights to sell you out of your position.

Let’s have a look at what happens if the bank asks for their money back at the bottom of the market.

In that case, you crystallize a 75% equity loss ($100,000 to $25,000). You are left with $25,000, which will be worth $50,000 (earning $1,000 per annum) when the market recovers to pre-crash levels.

If you didn’t borrow, you earn your 2% per annum through the bear market and end up with $100,000 (earning $2,000 per annum) when the market recovers.

Market Moves

The chart shows major bull and bear markets.

Using your own money, a habit of margin finance could wipe your investment out every 10-25 years.

Some risks aren’t worth taking, especially with money that you can’t afford to lose.


So Why Borrow?

In a bull market, it’s tempting to borrow a much higher percentage of the total investment. Hedge funds, and investment banks, can get over 90% leveraged, against shareholders funds (also known as other people’s money).

When you guess right with other people’s money, the “house” will get rich quick. I worked in a business that received 20% of the profits generated.

When you guess wrong, the clients take the losses.

More on leverage in Part Four of my free eBook Live Long & Prosper – specifically pages 46 to 51.