The Impact of Tax Reform on Real Estate

Cushman & Wakefield have posted The Great Tax Race: How the World’s Fastest Tax Reform Package Could Impact Commercial Real Estate. There is a lot of interesting insights in the report, notwithstanding the fact that ultimate fate of the Republicans’ tax reform is still a bit up in the air. Indeed, C&W estimates that there is a 1 in 5 chance that a bill will not pass this year.

Commercial Real Estate

C&W states that history

suggests that tax law changes by themselves are often not key drivers for transactions or for investment performance. However, there is likely to be a period of transition and market flux as investors restructure to optimize tax outcomes with implications for the underlying asset classes. Corporations are likely to separate the real estate aspects of their businesses. (2)

The commercial real estate industry is largely exempt from the biggest changes contained in the House and Senate bills. 1031 exchanges, for instance, have not been touched. C&W sees corporations being big beneficiaries, with a net tax cut of $400 billion over the next 10 years; however, they “anticipate that the tax cut will be preferentially used to return capital to shareholders or reduce debt, rather than to increase corporate spending.” (2)

Residential Real Estate

C&W sees a different effect in the residential real estate sector, with a short-term drag on home values in areas with high SALT (state and local tax) deductions, including California, NY and NJ:

The drag on home values is likely to be largest in areas with high property taxes and medium-to-high home values. There is also likely to be a larger impact in parts of the country where incomes are higher and where a disproportionate proportion of taxpayers itemize. Both versions of the tax reform limit property tax deductibility to $10,000. While only 9.2% of households nationally report property taxes above this threshold, this figure rises to as high as 46% in Long Island, 34% in Newark and 20% in San Francisco according to Trulia data.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) estimates that 22% of mortgages in the U.S. have balances over $500,000, with most of these concentrated in high costs areas such as Washington, DC and Hawaii—where more than 40% of home purchase loans originated last year exceeded $500,000. This is followed by California at 27%, and New York and Massachusetts at 16%. (6)

C&W also evaluated tax reform’s impact on housing market liquidity and buy v. rent economics:

The median length of time people had owned their homes was 8.7 years in 2016—more than double what it had been 10 years earlier. Now that interest rates have begun to tick upward from their historic lows, the housing market may face a problem called the “lock-in” effect, where homeowners are reluctant to move, since moving might entail taking out a new mortgage at a higher rate. This leads to the possibility of decreasing housing market liquidity in high-priced markets.

All things considered, the doubling of the standard deduction and the cap on the property tax deduction is likely to have the largest impact on the buy vs. rent incentive, especially as it seems likely that there will be minimal changes to the mortgage interest deduction in any final tax reform bill. (7-8)

Obamas Buy Their Rental

2011 portrait by Pete Souza of the Obama family

Realtor.com quoted me in Former President Obama Finally Buys the DC Home He’s Renting: 6 Smart Reasons Why. It reads, in part,

Former President Barack Obama has decided that buying beats renting. The former first family have surprised many by purchasing the Washington, DC, house they’ve been leasing and living in since January, coughing up $8.1 million to call the place their own.

After vacating the White House, the Obamas had moved into the 6,441-square-foot, nine-bedroom, 8.5-bath mansion, located at 2446 Belmont Road NW in the tony neighborhood of Kalorama. The neighborhood has since become the place for the new political elite, with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump moving into a luxe rental a couple of blocks away, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson snapping up a $5.6 million Colonial Revival down the street.

The reason the Obamas decided to stick around DC in the first place was so their younger daughter, Sasha, then a freshman at posh Sidwell Friends, could finish up high school there. With only three years to go, renting seemed to make sense so that the Obamas could easily pick up and move once she’s done.

But apparently, there’s been a big change of heart. Why?

On its surface, their decision seems a bit puzzling, given Sasha now has only twoand-a-half years to go. In real estate, the general rule is that it makes sense to buy a home only if you plan to stay put for five years, because this allows time for your house to appreciate, which helps you recoup hefty closing costs.

“People who sell after a year or two of ownership will often find that they have lost money on their purchase,” explains David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.

Nonetheless, real estate agents and other experts we spoke to say there could be plenty of reasons it’s smarter for the Obamas to buy rather than rent, even for this short span of time. Here are a few possibilities to ponder.

Reason No. 1: They’re making a commitment to DC

As presidential spokesman Kevin Lewis explained in a statement, “Given that President and Mrs. Obama will be in Washington for at least another two and a half years, it made sense for them to buy a home rather than continuing to rent property.”

Granted, you can read a whole lot into that “at least” if you want. After all, as Atlanta Realtor® Bruce Ailion explains, “Many buyers think they will only be in a property for two to three years and end up living there three to seven years. That is common.”

And it might be an indicator that our former commander in chief isn’t ready to shed the political life quite yet.

“Perhaps they want to keep a foothold in Washington, DC, for other reasons with regard to political advocacy and involvement,” says Florida Realtor Cara Ameer.

Reason No. 2: In certain markets, 2.5 years is long enough to make a profit

While 2.5 years might not be long enough to profit on a home in general, that rule varies widely by neighborhood, based on rent levels, home prices—and how quickly both are going up. And this is one hot neighborhood.

It isn’t known exactly what the Obamas were paying in monthly rent, but estimates hover at around $22,000. It’s entirely possible that the former first couple did the math and determined that buying made far more financial sense, and that mortgage payments would be less of a monthly nut. (To find out what’s best for you, you can crunch the numbers in an online rent vs. buy calculator.)

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Reason No. 5: This home will sell for a premium—he’s a former president, after all!

“It was always a little perplexing why the Obamas would ever rent if they planned to stay for anything longer than a year,” contends Washington, DC, real estate agent Rachel Valentino.

Her reason: “While they’re buying at market value, they can eventually financially benefit on the back end, where a buyer will pay significantly more for the celebrity factor. We aren’t Southern California, where every house has that star appeal. So, I can only imagine what a buyer will eventually pay to own a piece of history.”

Reason No. 6: Profits aren’t everything

“One lesson we can draw from this story is that buying a home should not always be seen as a financial transaction,” says Reiss. “Sometimes we buy a home because it’s best for our family at a particular time. Sometimes we buy a home because we fall in love with it. And sometimes those are the best reasons of all to buy a home, profits be damned.”

Gen Z Eying Real Estate Trends

photo by Thomas Tolkien

The Washington Post along with its content partner National Association of Realtors quoted me in Eye on the Future. It reads, in part,

The suburbs as we know them are in flux. Many of the country’s bedroom communities have traditionally been known for their single-family homes and a lack of walkable public spaces. That’s changing as condos, sprawling townhome complexes and apartment buildings now dot areas where single-family homes would have been built.  Developers are building walkable public spaces to accommodate young families leaving cities but still seeking urban-like amenities.

 Another wave of change is expected in the next five to 10 years. That’s when members of Generation Z-those born on the heels of millennials-will become homeowners. Experts say they’ll transform areas that are sandwiched between major cities and suburbs into districts with an urban feel and amenities, without the hefty price tags major metros demand.

That transformation is already starting to happen. “Many of our ‘suburbs’ are actually neighborhoods in Los Angeles, particularly the San Fernando Valley,” said Kathryn Bishop, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in Studio City, Calif. and member of the National Association of Realtors. “In the Valley, many neighborhoods have become mini ‘cores.’ Sherman Oaks, Encino and Woodland Hills have office towers, good restaurants and night-life business creating their own city areas.”

It’s no surprise that the younger generation needs to find an alternative to the sky-high costs of urban living. The Economic Policy Institute noted in 2016 that folks who live in San Francisco face a cost of living that’s 52.9 percent above the national average. For New Yorkers, living costs were 49.4 percent higher. The country’s least-affordable place to live was Washington D.C., where residents faced costs 63.5 percent higher than the national average.

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“Since the financial crisis there has been an increase in multigenerational households, driven in large part by financial limitations and insecurity as well as by marital status and educational attainment,” said David Reiss, professor of law and research director at he Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.  “Young adults are more likely to live at their parent’s home in recent years than they have been for more than a century.”

Who’s a Predatory Lender?

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

US News & World Report quoted me in 5 Clues That You’re Dealing with a Predatory Lender.  It opens,

Consumers are often told to stay away from predatory lenders, but the problem with that advice is a predatory lender doesn’t advertise itself as such.

Fortunately, if you’re on guard, you should be able to spot the signs that will let you know a loan is bad news. If you’re afraid you’re about to sign your life away on a dotted line, watch for these clues first.

You’re being offered credit, even though your credit score and history are terrible. This is probably the biggest red flag there is, according to John Breyault, the vice president for public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, a private nonprofit advocacy group in the District of Columbia.

“A lender is in business because they think they’re going to get paid back,” Breyault says. “So if they aren’t checking to see if you have the ability to pay them back, by doing a credit check, then they’re planning on getting their bank through a different way, like offering a high fee for the loan and setting it up in a way that locks you into a cycle of debt that is very difficult to get out of.”

But, of course, as big of a clue as this is to stay away, it can be hard to listen to your inner voice of reason. After all, if nowhere else will give you a loan, you may decide to work with the predatory lender anyway. That’s why many industry experts feel that even if a bad loan is transparent about how bad it is, it probably shouldn’t exist. After all, only consumers who are desperate for cash are likely to take a gamble that they can pay back a loan with 200 percent interest – and get through it unscathed.

Your loan has an insanely high interest rate. Most states have usury laws preventing interest rates from going into that 200 APR territory, but the laws are generally weak, industry experts say, and lenders get around them all the time. So you can’t assume an interest rate that seems really high is considered normal or even within the parameters of the law. After all, attorney generals successfully sue payday loan services and other lending companies fairly frequently. For instance, in January of this year, it was announced that after the District of Columbia attorney general sued the lending company CashCall, they settled for millions of dollars. According to media reports, CashCall was accused of offering loans with interest rates around 300 percent annually.

The lender is making promises that seem too good to be true. If you’re asking questions and getting answers that are making you sigh with relief, that could be a problem.

Nobody’s suggesting you be a cynic and assume everybody’s out to get you, but you should scrutinize your paperwork, says David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

“Often predators will make all sorts of oral promises, but when it comes time to sign on the dotted line, their documents don’t match the promises,” Reiss says.

And if they aren’t in sync, assume the documentation is correct. Do not go with what the lender told you.

“Courts will, in all likelihood, hold you to the promises you made in the signed documents, and your testimony about oral promises probably won’t hold that much water,” Reiss says. ” Read what you are signing and make sure it matches up with your understanding of the transaction.”

Urban Income Inequality

photo by sonyblockbuster

The union-affiliated Economic Policy Institute has released a report, Income Inequality in the U.S. by State, Metropolitan Area, and County. The report finds that

The rise in inequality in the United States, which began in the late 1970s, continues in the post–Great Recession era. This rising inequality is not just a story of those in the financial sector in the greater New York City metropolitan area reaping outsized rewards from speculation in financial markets. It affects every state, and extends to the nation’s metro areas and counties, many of which are more unequal than the country as a whole. In fact, the unequal income growth since the late 1970s has pushed the top 1 percent’s share of all income above 24 percent (the 1928 national peak share) in five states, 22 metro areas, and 75 counties. It is a problem when CEOs and financial-sector executives at the commanding heights of the private economy appropriate more than their fair share of the nation’s expanding economic pie. We can fix the problem with policies that return the economy to full employment and return bargaining power to U.S. workers.

The specific findings are very interesting. They include,

  • Overall in the U.S. the top 1 percent took home 20.1 percent of all income in 2013. (4)
  • To be in the top 1 percent nationally, a family needs an income of $389,436. Twelve states, 109 metro areas, and 339 counties have thresholds above that level. (2)
  • Between 2009 and 2013, the top 1 percent captured 85.1 percent of total income growth in the United States. Over this period, the average income of the top 1 percent grew 17.4 percent, about 25 times as much as the average income of the bottom 99 percent, which grew 0.7 percent. (3)
  • Between 1979 and 2013, the top 1 percent’s share of income doubled nationally, increasing from 10 percent to 20.1 percent. (4)
  • The share of income held by the top 1 percent declined in every state but one between 1928 and 1979. (4)
  • From 1979 to 2007 the share of income held by the top 1 percent increased in every state and the District of Columbia. (4)
  • Nine states had gaps wider than the national gap. In the most unequal states—New York, Connecticut, and Wyoming—the top 1 percent earned average incomes more than 40 times those of the bottom 99 percent. (2)
  • For states the highest thresholds are in Connecticut ($659,979), the District of Columbia ($554,719), New Jersey ($547,737), Massachusetts ($539,055), and New York ($517,557). Thresholds above $1 million can be found in four metro areas (Jackson, Wyoming-Idaho; Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut; Summit Park, Utah; and Williston, North Dakota) and 12 counties. (3)

The income threshold of the top 1% for individual counties is also interesting.  For example, New York County (Manhattan) comes in second, at $1,424,582 (following Teton, WY at $2,216,883) and San Francisco County comes in 24th at $894,792. (18, Table 6)

Income inequality is a fact of life for big cities and affects so many aspects of American life — housing, healthcare, education, to name a few important ones. The Economic Policy Institute focuses on union-movement responses to income inequality, but urbanists could also consider how to respond systematically to income inequality in the design of urban systems like those for healthcare, transportation and education. If the federal government is not ready to do anything about income inequality itself, states and local governments can make some progress dealing with its consequences. That is a far better route than acting as if income inequality is just some kind unexpected aspect of modern urban life and then bemoaning its visible manifestations, such as homelessness.

 

 

Walkers in the City

photo by Derrick Coetzee

The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at The George Washington School of Business has released Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros for 2016. The Executive Summary opens,

The end of sprawl is in sight. The nation’s largest metropolitan areas are focusing on building walkable urban development.

For perhaps the first time in 60 years, walkable urban places (WalkUPs) in all 30 of the largest metros are gaining market share over their drivable sub-urban competition—and showing substantially higher rental premiums.

This research shows that metros with the highest levels of walkable urbanism are also the most educated and wealthy (as measured by GDP per capita)— and, surprisingly, the most socially equitable. (4)

This strikes me as a somewhat over-optimistic take on sprawl, but I certainly welcome the increase in walkable urban places over a broad swath of metropolitan areas. The report’s specific findings are that

There are 619 regionally significant, walkable urban places—referred to as WalkUPs—in the 30 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. These 30 metros represent 46 percent of the national population (145 million of the 314 million national population) and 54 percent of the national GDP.

The 30 metros are ranked on the current percentage of occupied walkable urban office, retail, and multi-family rental square feet in their WalkUPs, compared to the balance of occupied square footage in the metro area. The six metros with the most walkable urban space in WalkUPs are, in rank order, New York City, Washington, DC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Economic Performance: There are substantial and growing rental rate premiums for walkable urban office (90 percent), retail (71 percent), and rental multi-family (66 percent) over drivable sub-urban products. Combined, these three product types have a 74 percent rental premium over drivable sub-urban.

Walkable urban market share growth in office and multi-family rental has increased in all 30 of the largest metros between 2010-2015, while drivable sub-urban locations have lost market share. The market share growth for 27 of the 30 metros is two times their market share in 2010. This is of the same or greater magnitude as the market share gains of drivable sub-urban development during its boom years in the 1980s, but in the reverse direction.

Indicators of potential future WalkUP performance show that many of the metros ranked highest for current walkable urbanism are also found at the top of our Development Momentum Ranking—namely, the metros of New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Washington, DC. This indicates that these metros will continue to build on their already high WalkUP market shares and rent premiums.

There are also some surprising metros in this top tier of Development Momentum rankings, including Detroit, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

The most walkable urban metro areas have a substantially greater educated workforce, as measured by college graduates over 25 years of age, and substantially higher GDP per capita. These relationships are correlations, and determining the causal relationships requires further research to prove.

Walkable urban development describes trends resulting from both revitalization of the central city and urbanization of the suburbs. For nearly all metros, the future urbanization of the suburbs holds the greatest opportunity; metro Washington, DC, serves as a model, splitting its WalkUPs relatively evenly between its central city (53 percent) and its suburbs (47 percent).

Social Equity Performance: The national concern about social equity has been exacerbated by the very rent premiums highlighted above, referred to as gentrification. Counter-intuitively, measurement of moderate-income household (80 percent of AMI) spending on housing and transportation, as well as access to employment, shows that the most walkable urban metros are also the most socially equitable. The reason for this is that low cost transportation costs and better access to employment offset the higher costs of housing. This finding underscores for the need for continued, and aggressive, development of attainable housing solutions. (4, footnote omitted)

There is a lot of import here. Is there more than a correlation between walkability and the educational level of the workforce and, if so, why? Why don’t more housing affordability studies take into account transportation costs when evaluating the affordability of a given community? What is the trend line of this new direction toward urbanism and how far can it go in the face of decades of investment in car-based communities? This annual study will help us answer those questions, over time.

Washington’s Farewell

President Washington had this to say in his farewell address:

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

We should heed these words as much today as in Washington’s own time. And while they should guide us in many areas, I would focus on what they mean in the context of housing finance reform.

Democrats and Republicans have not found common ground on the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And yet the nation is likely to be made worse off by leaving them in limbo for so long, with a variety of crises lurking just over the horizon. I hope Congress can hear Washington’s advice to his fellow citizens and commit to placing the reform of these two gargantuan financial institutions at the top of its agenda for the coming year. Seems like a good way to truly commemorate his contribution to our country.