Tax relief may work against real estate vultures
BY MATTHEW HAGGMAN
For two years Magdiel Guillemi watched the condominium towers go up across South Florida and waited for his chance to buy in. Now the 25-year-old aluminum company executive thinks his time has arrived.
With the housing market stuck in slow motion, more and more condos nearing completion, and many jittery preconstruction buyers wanting out as closing day approaches, Guillemi's betting he'll be able to buy at steep discounts. Then he hopes to sell for a profit, just as flippers did when the market was on the way up a few years ago.
Call it the contrarian view of real estate investing. While the market appears stone-cold to many individual buyers and sellers, others -- the so-called vulture investors -- see opportunity.
Guillemi says he's already finding bargains but he wants to act fast: The Florida Legislature starts a special session this week to consider lowering property taxes -- a move he thinks could spur renewed buying activity and endanger the low-cost deals he's scouting.
''If they cut taxes that will motivate individual buyers,'' said Guillemi, who plans to start buying in the next few weeks. ``And I want to get in before they do. I don't want to be left with the crumbs.''
Large investor groups and hedge funds are also scouring the region for bulk deals at bargain prices.
At the height of the 2001-2005 housing boom, it seemed everyone was getting into real estate, hoping for fat profits. But a separate class of speculators sat out during those frenetic days, betting the market would be bid to unsustainable heights yet still hold long-term value.
Their gambit: Buy on the dip and ride the market up.
The question for these investors is when to buy. Many observers say the market hasn't yet hit bottom, others say the time is right.
But for the vulture investors, who have pooled cash and waited for their big chance to score from a market correction, this week's special session brings a twist. It's spurring some like Guillemi to accelerate their plans and others are hoping legislators don't accomplish much.
Peter Zalewski, a former journalist who a year ago started condovultures.com -- a company that helps buyers find bargains in a downturn, said he fears decisive action in Tallahassee will provide a jolt that could potentially undermine his plans.
''There is an urgency that is being created by the legislative issue,'' Zalewski said. ``If they resolve the property tax issue, the market will get some medical attention. We don't want that, we want to bleed out the market some more.''
Of course, few will feel badly if vulture investors' prospects evaporate. Home builders, brokers and many homeowners hope Zalewski's thinking that a cut in property taxes will give the region's anemic housing market a shot in the arm is right. The Latin Builders Association and Builders Association of South Florida are both pressuring leaders in Tallahassee for sharp cuts.
But not everyone is convinced a property tax cut in Tallahassee will cure the housing markets ills. Among the other issues the market must work through are:
â€¢ A giant oversupply of homes: more than 76,000 were listed for sale in April in Broward and Miami-Dade counties compared to some 50,000 a year ago. Over the next 18 months about 20,000 new condo units are expected to come onto the market in Miami-Dade County alone, possibly spiking unsold inventory as those units are put back on the market for resale.
â€¢ Insurance rates have not come down. Condo associations and individual homeowners are still grappling with hefty premiums.
Analyst Jack McCabe, who is advising large vulture investors on bulk deals, said big investment groups aren't as worried about tax rates as individuals -- saying such costs can be spread out across big buyers' portfolios.
Last week McCabe announced the completion of the first market-corrected deal he's worked on since the slowdown began. While short on specifics, McCabe said a multibillion-dollar private investment fund bought a substantial block of newly built condominiums from a publicly-held home builder in Florida. His investor client, he said, was chosen because of its ``ability to close quickly in an all-cash transaction, noncontingent on financing.''
Currently, he said the market is too sick to recover from a tax reduction alone. A big property tax cut may reignite buying now, he said, but would effectively create a false bottom.
''Meaningful reduction will slow down the correction cycle but the correction is still inevitable,'' said the Deerfield Beach analyst, who has warned for some time about too much construction going up too fast. ''The market is so sick it will take a while to cure this,'' he said. ``This is not a head cold, it is more like pneumonia.''
But such doomsayers also believe the market is poised for brighter days ahead. McCabe says that barring calamitous hurricanes, the market will have righted itself by 2010 -- just as the first baby boomers turn 65.
''No one is more bullish on Florida long-term than me,'' McCabe said.
It's such thinking that prompted corporate raider Carl Icahn to announce last week that he would continue efforts to buy Bonita Springs-based WCI Communities. And Zalewski spent last week showing property in South Florida and Central Florida to two investor groups, one from Michigan and another from Colorado.
Guillemi, meanwhile, is focusing on a unit at the Brickell on the River condo in Miami. He said the owner bought it for $341,000 and is trying to sell for $280,000.
''The seller has two other properties under foreclosure and is having trouble making mortgage payments,'' said Guillemi, operations director of FDS Aluminum in Pompano Beach. ``I'm trying to pick it up for $260,000.''
So with an eye on the special session in Tallahassee, he's ready to move now. ''With tax reform you will have two things pushing people into the market: lower prices and lower taxes,'' Guillemi said. ``I'm not going to wait. Of course, you have to be smart about it. There is a lot out there and you can't get married to the first girl you see.''