Flat hunting in Charm City

Want something better? Try real estate!

Yes, dear reader, we don’t care much for stocks or bonds. We don’t trust them. Because we can never get beyond the threshold question: if these were such good investments, why would they be offered to us?

That question comes from years of experience running a business of our own. As long as the business is doing well, we have no interest in offering to share it with perfect strangers. If and when we do ‘go public’ on the other hand – watch out!

But if you don’t trust stocks and bonds, what do you do? Bricks and mortar! Terra firma!

Yes, real estate has its troubles too. Leaky pipes and drafty windows, for example. But at least we understand what they are. We can see them with our own eyes. And we saw lots of them last week when we trotted over to an open house two blocks from our office in Baltimore.

An apartment building of 13 units is up for auction today. A couple of years ago, there would have been only one or two people at the open house. Last week, there were at least 15, maybe more. Interestingly, some were people we knew – long time real estate investors in the Baltimore area. Some were new. One couple was from India. Another man was Chinese.

How do quasi-slum tenements in Baltimore attract global investors? We don’t know. Maybe the proximity of Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Maybe investors are just looking for a better deal than they can get in major cities.

A few years ago, we coined the term, ‘brand name city’. The idea is simple. There are more and more people who are footloose… especially rich people. Often, they are semi-retired, running their businesses or investments via phone and internet. They can live wherever they want.

These people – many of them ‘nouveaux riches’ – drive brand name automobiles, and wear brand name clothes and watches. It makes sense that they would also want to live in brand name cities – those that attract the international elite. Then, at upmarket cocktail parties and weddings, they merely say they live in London or New York and they have something in common with many other guests. If they don’t have an apartment there, they know someone who does.

Top on the list of brand name cities are London, Hong Kong and Singapore. Paris, New York, Vancouver and many others are close behind.

In Paris, practically all expensive apartments that change hands are bought by foreigners. In central London, the story is much the same. Few ‘local’ people can afford to live in the most expensive areas. Overseas buyers push up property prices and change the character of the neighbourhoods.

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We lived in an apartment in London, for example, where almost all of our neighbours were Russian, Japanese, Chinese or Brazilian. Since most of the owners had other residences, sometimes several of them, the apartment building was as quiet as a library. We rarely saw anyone coming or going.

But Baltimore has yet to find its way into the ‘brand name cities’ category. No one buys real estate in Baltimore for prestige purposes. No one brags that he has a ‘little pied a terre’ in Charm City. And prices reflect it.

Here, investors have sharp pencils and short tolerance for spending money. The building I looked at last week had been ‘improved’ by the previous owners, but in a very low-budget way. Woodwork that should have been stripped down and fixed properly was caulked and painted over. Pipes that should have been removed and replaced were left running along walls and across ceilings. A huge, rough-sawn timber kept the staircase from falling down. ‘Sheet goods’ – rolled linoleum made to look like wood – covered the floor.

A real estate pro explained the deal to us: “Prices have gone up substantially. So, you’ve got to be careful. There’s a lot of money coming into the area. Landlords are going to have to compete for tenants. Margins are going to be squeezed.”

“Does this mean it’s no longer a good place to invest?” we asked.

“Well, I don’t think we’re going to see the kind of returns we saw a few years ago. We were getting 10% to 12% on some projects. We’d invest $1 million and get net annual return of $100,000. Now, prices are up. And mortgage rates are up. So maybe we’re only able to get a return of 7%… or 6%. That’s not great, but it’s not bad. And it beats gambling in the stock market.”

Meanwhile, another real estate pro in Florida has offered what appears to be an even better deal:

“I’m not able to find good deals in the best markets,” he began. “But there is still money to be made if you’re willing to go a little further out and work a little harder. I’m looking at an apartment building of 55 units. It’s 55 units and I think I can get it for about $1.8mm. The total budget including closing costs, improvements and reserves might be about $2.2mm. We fix it up. We get in good tenants. We would eventually seek a Fannie Mae cash out refi and could probably return 60% to 75% of our capital. We’re looking at an almost guaranteed return of 7.5%… probably a bit higher.”

Yep. Better than gambling on the stock market.

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