Good Overview Of Real Estate Market

I thought this interview with Richard LeFrak had a lot of truth in it…

The take-aways are:

  • There’s a glut of single-family homes across the nation. Values are still 10 to 15% higher than they should be and are likely to continue to decline.
  • Rental properties are doing very well right now since people are afraid of being trapped in a bad investment if they buy, so they’re renting.
  • A lot depends on the City. If the City has job growth its real estate market is fine (e.g. Washington D.C.)
  • Commercial real may be going back into a bubble. Low interest rates are what’s spurring the investment.
  • New York City is doing pretty well.

Lower Mortgage Limits Coming September 30

MAJOR CORRECTION: I’m going to sticky this post for a few days. Max loans aren’t going down nearly as much as I thought they were. So the situation isn’t all that dire. It’s worse, but not all that much worse… Essentially the limits on conforming loans are going down just 15% after September 30. I’ve stricken the parts that were wrong, and put corrections in italics.

The big news today was that it seems there’s bipartisan support for lowering the loan limits for Fannie and Freddie in high cost areas like New York. Assuming it happens, it could have a rather profound effect on places like New York – and it will particularly affect Harlem townhouse shells where many of us depend on the higher loan limits to make the numbers work and the banks avoid the risk of renovation loans.

Right now in NYC, you can borrow up to $729,750 for a 1 family home without having to get a “jumbo” mortgage – that will drop to $417,000 $625,500. For a 2 family you can currently borrow up to $934,200 – that will drop to $533,850 $800,775. For a 3 family you can currently borrow $1,129,250, but that will drop to $645,300 $967,950. (And so on…)

What that means is that fewer people will be able to buy townhouses since they won’t be able to qualify for federally insured mortgages that cover enough of the costs. They will have to try to get mortgages from banks that will require much larger down payments, higher incomes, and overall much less risk for the banks. There already is no such thing as a jumbo renovation loan – so renovation loans will really dry up are less likely to cover the cost of renovation come this fall. Somewhat less demand means real estate prices will could drop slightly (because of this). Properties like shells that are particularly risky will probably see the biggest drops are the most likely to be affected.

This is major will have real effects on Harlem townhouses

Those of us who have already bought will could see the prices of our homes drop in value since there will be less competition among buyers slightly fewer buyers will be able to get the size of loans they need.

People who are buying will find it somewhat harder to get mortgages that cover all the expenses. A lot of people just won’t qualify. We wouldn’t qualify be able to do the renovation we want to do under the new rules. It doesn’t mean the buyers can’t afford the homes. Our place will actually be quite affordable once it’s all done. It’s just that the renovation process is a risk no bank wants to take on.

My advice to people who own shells that are on the market is SELL NOW! realize after September 30 the value of your place may go down even further. If you’re holding that property after September 30, you’re probably going to hold it for quite a while into the future and it will sell for substantially less money. Now is not the time to be greedy.

If you own a shell and haven’t closed on your rehab mortgage – do everything what you can to close the mortgage before September 30 – otherwise you may not be able to do as nice of a renovation.

If you’re in the market for a shell – that’s a tough one… After September 30 you may not be able to afford a townhouse at all. But closing on a rehab mortgage takes time. You need approved plans (which can take months to get), you need a contractor who’s ready to start, etc. And on top of it all it’s possible the place you buy could drop in value shortly after you buy it.

The same goes for renovated townhouses, but to a lesser degree – the situation won’t be quite as dire for livable places Renovated townhouse may not feel the hit much at all since jumbo mortgages will be available for them (just a little harder to get).

After September 30 cash will continue to be king (even more than it is now). You’ll need a large down payment PLUS pretty substantial income. It’s sorta sad really. The current crop of homeowners who are buying and renovating shells are often pretty regular Joes… A lot of them will just be priced out of the market.

I feel fortunate that we bought when we did and got our loan closed when we did. Yes, our place will most likely go down in value, but renovated places will fair better than shells since banks will be still be lending on regular, non-rehab mortgages. We’ve always taken a long-range view of the townhouse purchase. It will still be affordable for us after we get done. And I’m not sure any of this will matter in 15 or 20 years and we have every intention of living in our place for that long…

Hopefully something will happen to derail the support for these changes. It’s being implemented all wrong… They should take everyone down slowly. They way they’re proposing will hurt places like California and New York and not change anything for middle America. Hopefully common sense will prevail and none of this will come to reality. But from the sounds of it, it’s a done deal.


Limited Supply of Manhattan Townhouses

I was looking through The Real Deal the other day and they have an article on Manhattan townhouses

Recession notwithstanding, the median sales price of a Manhattan townhouse jumped 13.2 percent between 2009 and 2010 … One reason for the jump is that, unlike condos, very few newly built townhouses have been added to the housing stock …

If you’re trying to choose between a condo and a townhouse the supply of each should be one of the things you take into consideration. Think twice about the fact that 1) it’s easy to find a condo or coop, but 2) difficult to find a townhouse. Limited supply = scarcity = higher prices. This will only become more true in the next 10 to 20 years as far more condos are built than townhouses.

The article goes on to explore why Manhattanites prefer new construction for their condos and old historic buildings for their townhouses…

In Manhattan, “new construction [townhouses are] not well received,” Miller concurred. “Gut rehabs are fine, but it’s got to have the bones and the façade.”

Failure to heed this preference can damage a house’s value.

“I’ve seen houses that had contemporary interiors linger on the market,” Desmond said. “One of the reasons people like houses is because they like the way they were built originally, with all the different kinds of woods for the floors and that kind of thing.”

When advising Manhattan homeowners who are renovating, he said, “I always tell people that you should keep as much of the original detail as you can … because that is what will sell the house.”

Well, we’re doing a contemporary interior inside a historic exterior – so not exactly following their advice. Then again we don’t have any original details and we don’t have the budget to recreate a high quality “original”(ish) look. I’d love to ask “Desmond” more details about his statement. Was the level of finish equivalent on the contemporary interiors? Were the contemporary interiors taste specific or dated in anyway?

One of my mantras in the design of our place was that the space not feel particularly dated in 10 years. We saw some (nice) townhouses on our search that were already feeling dated just 5 years after they were completed. There was on on 130th Street that had an “infinity” bathtub where the water came from the ceiling. A more classic bathtub with contemporary details wouldn’t have felt so dated.

There’s a difference between “dated” and “classic”. If you can manage to hit on something that becomes “classic” it won’t ever really feel “dated” – at least not in a negative way. Take Poliform / Varenna as an example. If you saw a kitchen they did 10 years ago, I’m guessing it would be difficult to tell it wasn’t done last year – they understand how to do a “classic minimalist” aesthetic.

The other way we looked at it was whether it’s easy to “freshen” up the space to make it more current. We wanted fixed elements to be classic and we’re OK with more replaceable elements being a bit more “on trend”. For example, I was worried about the design of our staircase until our architect proposed a staircase with removable panels. If the shape or materials we use become dated, we (or the new owner) can always replace them with something else without replacing the entire staircase. If the new owner doesn’t like the fact that we have open risers, they can fill in the space and have closed risers, etc. If the new owner doesn’t like our flush baseboards and lack of crown mouldings, they can add baseboards and crown mouldings over what we’ve done.

But I digress… The point of the article is that Manhattan is only so big and as the space in Manhattan becomes more valuable “extravagances” like townhouses will be come more and more rare. On top of that there’s a limited supply of historic townhouses in Manhattan and that leads to the prices of those townhouses increasing faster than other types of properties – especially when the interior feels historic as well as the exterior. Ergo, Manhattan townhouses are a good investment. I really do think Harlem will be the Manhattan neighborhood with the highest price increases over the next 20 years and I think the best investment within Harlem right now are townhouse shells. But that’s just my opinion – I’m a bit biased 🙂

How To Tell The Age Of An NYC Building

A lot of the information about the age of older NYC buildings is just wrong. Case and point are Harlem Brownstones. What we see around Harlem was mostly built over just a few decades – starting in the 1870s and continuing to about 1910. But if you look on places like Property Shark you’ll see dates like 1910 and 1920 on pretty much everything – that’s just wrong.

Our new expediter pointed out the way to figure out the age of our place, but you have to know how to interpret what you’re seeing. First, go to the DOB’s BIS (Building Information System). Find your building and at the bottom of the page there will be a link to “Actions”. Not all buildings have “actions”, if you have actions they’ll look like this…

actions for 168 West 123 - showing age of building
(Click pic to see it full size)

Notice the line with “New Building”. But also notice it says 1984. The BIS system apparently gets confused with dates in the 1800s, so it’s off by 100 years – the real date is 1884.

But even that doesn’t work sometimes… Notice what it says for our sister/twin townhouse down the street…

Actions for 158 West 123 - showing age of building

Notice the date on the New Building line is 1918, but then see the line has NB 997-1884 – so the date is in the code number. Notice also that because they were all put up at once our building has the same code as the other townhouse since it was one big project – only the code on ours just has 84, instead of 1884. So it’s the code in the “number” column that’s most important.

Not all buildings have New Building actions. So you may need to look at the records for all the ‘twin’ buildings that were built at the same time. Of the 7 townhouses identical to ours, only the two shown above have New Building actions.

One other thing of note is that townhouses with mansard roofs are generally a bit older than the standard Harlem brownstones. For example the 3 remaining townhouses with mansard roofs on our block were built in 1880 – 4 years before ours. What’s a little odd is that 1880 was 7 years after the heyday of mansard roofs.

Our House’s Sordid History

Last night I started looking through ACRIS at our house’s history. I had looked at some of it before, but not really tried to fully understand it. It’s had a pretty rough life, though the records only go back to the mid-70s (when NYC was going bankrupt)…

1884 -Our house was built along with 6 others that are adjacent to it. We really don’t know anything about it’s early history.

1884 was also the year The Dakota was built at 72nd and CPW and about the same time that Thomas Crapper popularized the indoor flush toilet (we’re not sure whether our place had an indoor toilet initially or not). 1884 was also a mere 19 years after the end of the Civil War.

March 1966 – The building was given a vacate order because it had been vacant for over 6 months…

adm code above premises has been vacant and untenanted except for caretaker for 60 days or more, and cannot be reoccupied until a new certificate of occupancy has been obtained. premises has been vacant since aug 26 1965.

That vacate order still has not been cleared. What this means is that our building has been a troubled building for longer than I’ve been alive – pretty amazing, when you think about it…

April 1968 – Following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., a race riot raged around our place with major disturbances along 125th Street in the vicinity of 8th Avenue (FDB), 7th Avenue (ACP) and Lenox Avenue. Mayor Lindsay was almost overtaken by an angry mob just a few blocks north of our place at 127th Street and 7th Avenue. Many stores were looted on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. This riot was the last straw for many shop keepers who closed their stores permanently – deciding it wasn’t worth the risk to do business in Harlem. The next 10 to 20 years was the darkest time in Harlem’s history.

October 1975 – The City of New York went bankrupt. The fiscal problems that followed hit Harlem very hard.

November 1976 – Joseph Monroe (who lived in the apartment building next door) put a mechanic’s lien on the building.

July 1977 – Harlem was in chaos for two days during a city-wide blackout. While police protected most white neighborhoods, in Harlem there was widespread looting. Following the blackout Harlem looked like a bomb-out, war-torn city. More and more residents moved out of Harlem and landlords found it difficult to get enough rental income to maintain the buildings, which only made things worse. Ed Koch leveraged the blackout to get elected mayor a few months later. He put severe austerity measures into place that brought the City back to life fiscally, but those austerity measures cut vital programs in Harlem and made Harlem’s situation even worse.

July 1978 – Joesph Monroe wins his mechanic’s lien case and is given title to the building to settle the case. What’s most interesting is that it wasn’t clear at the time of the court order who owned the building. 4 owners were named (Kilroy Jones, Catherine Quillinan, Peter Quillinan, Percival E. Vasquez), but then there were a whole bunch of John and Jane Does listed. The fact that they didn’t quite know who owned the building says it was already a troubled building.

The tax photo from 1980 shows that the ground floor was in use as “The Happy Game Room” and the storefront had not been added yet. So apparently Joseph Monroe fixed up the building somewhat and had it operating reasonably well. It was a good thing the building had a caretaker during this time – considering how Harlem was hitting rock bottom during these years.

March 1988 – Joseph Monroe died and the building was sold by his estate to Zion Temple Church, Inc. for $40,000. What’s odd is the deed said $125,000 but someone crossed out $125K and wrote in $40K. How can you make an $85,000 adjustment to the price after you type up the paperwork for the sale? Something was off or shady about that transaction… [It’s also worth noting that Zion Temple Church, Inc. was just incorporated a few months before – in December of ’87. What legitimate church buys townhouses 3 months after coming into existence?]

This is when things start getting really interesting… In the mid to late 1990s, when the building was owned by Zion Temple Church, our building was a drug house. So clearly Zion Temple Church was at best neglectful, and at worse they were slumlords who were OK with the drug activity in the building.

March 1994 – The second vacate order was issued.

December 1997 – The third vacate order was issued. We guess it was around this time that a neglected child was found in one of the closets in our house. That alone would be grounds to get everyone out of the building.

July 1998 – The fourth vacate order was issued. We know there was a fire in the building around ’97/’98. We suspect this is when the fire happened and it was at this point that people stopped “living” (doing drugs) in the building.

What’s really sorta disgusting is that all of that happened while a church owned our building. Talk about “missions start at home” – if they were real Christians they should have started practicing their religion at the buildings they owned.

Curiously, one guy from down the block stopped by just after we bought the building and said he used to live in the building. Then he hesitated and said “well, I sorta lived there”. Given what “living” in our building meant back then – I’m just glad he’s alive and appears to be doing OK…

February 1999 – After owning the building for 11 years Zion Temple Church sells the property to “168 West 123rd St. Realty Corp” but the address is “c/o Maywood Capital” in Paramus, NJ. The sale was for $0. Maywood Capital was convicted for fraud in 2005… Quoting the Attorney General of NJ…

The defendants placed newspaper ads offering interests in “safe” mortgages. Joseph Greenblatt solicited investors in the states of California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, among others, to invest in residential properties in New York City that were in need of repair. The ads claimed the investments were ideal for IRAs, Keoghs, pensions and personal portfolios.

Corporations formed by the individual defendants would allegedly purchase properties for renovation and/or resale through Maywood Capital. Investor funds were purportedly invested in the entity owning the property and secured by mortgage interests in the property. In reality, many of the properties controlled by the defendants were over-mortgaged and did not produce the unrealistic profits promised to investors. In many cases, investors’ mortgage interests were never recorded or were extinguished without their knowledge so that new investments could be secured by mortgages on the buildings in question. In certain cases, the defendants did not even own the properties that they mortgaged to investors.

There was $42M in fraud and our place was in the center of it all since it was one of the buildings Maywood was telling it’s investors it was fixing up.

The fact that Zion Temple Church owned a crack house and sold the property for $0 to someone who was engaged in fraud makes Zion Temple Church appear to be party to the fraud. But honestly I don’t know what their role was – I’d like to learn more…

August 2002 – While the Attorney General of NJ hadn’t won his case yet, other things were happening with the building legally. I don’t know the particulars, but there was a court order and somehow Beulah Church of God In Christ Jesus, Inc. got our building along with 12 others in similar condition. If I had to guess I’d say they must have invested in Maywood and they got some of the collateral in return for their lost investment in the fraudulent scheme. But again, I don’t know what happened. I do know that one of the lawyers going after Maywood (James E. Hurley) was their lawyer and he helped them sell the buildings a couple years later…

November 2004 – Clearly Beulah didn’t want to actually own the buildings, so they sold them pretty quickly. The buyer of our building was “148 West 121st Street Associates LLC” which was c/o Tahl Properties (a big Harlem landlord). As you might guess from the name of the buyer Beulah sold both our building and 148 W 121 at the same time. The purchase price for both buildings was $1,130,434. That means the value of our building at that time was roughly half that.

July 2005 – Tahl Propp actually bought all of Beulah Church of God in Christ Jesus’ townhouses – they just bought them in several small transactions. Once all the legal issues were resolved Tahl Propp transferred ownership of all of the buildings under one LLC – TPE Townhouses Harlem.

Tahl Propp took out big rehab mortgages, but as a big developer the money just went into their operating budget. They started getting plans done on some of the buildings (including ours). They even pulled permits in 2007 to convert our building to two family and add a floor to the building. They did demolition, then stopped.

Then the market crashed in 2008 and Tahl Propp put all but two of the townhouses on the market.

March 2010 – We bought the place.

Apparently 168 (our house number) is supposed to be a lucky number in Chinese, but so far our building hasn’t had much luck. Since Dan’s Chinese maybe it takes a Chinese person buying a place to make 168 give you good luck… Then again maybe not – in talking to an expediter yesterday she said it sounded like we had been “particularly unlucky” in our dealings with the DOB. I’m hoping the building’s luck will change in the near future…

Construction is starting today! Later this afternoon I’ll go down to see the new construction fence… 🙂