The Proposed NYC “Pied-A-Terre Tax” Looks Catastrophic to NYC Real Estate

March 19, 2019 | 11:48 pm | Investigative |

An earlier version of this post appeared in my weekly Housing Notes, March 15, 2019 edition. I’ve since added more information and insights as the situation unfolds.

This proposed “pied-a-terre” tax law has a name that infers it concerns “pied-a-terres” when in fact that property type is but one part of the property types that are impacted. I’m sorry about the length of this piece but please read on.

The New York political zeitgeist was recently and suddenly tilted against luxury development in New York City. If this latest turn of events plays out as written, we’ll be able to look back at this era as a milestone where the supertanker began to turn in the wrong direction for the new development industry.

The White Paper That Started It All

The Fiscal Policy Institute proposed the tax in 2014, and it has been floating around Albany ever since. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the fiscally conservative Citizens Budget Commission described the tax as appealing but problematic:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office suggested last week that such a levy might reap $9 billion for the moribund Metropolitan Transportation Authority over the next decade and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie reiterated his chamber’s support proposal at a Crain’s breakfast forum days later. Mayor Bill de Blasio gave it his blessing as well.

In the original 2014 proposal by the Fiscal Policy Institute, the first item in the proposal is off to a bad start as they describe what happened in the market:

These owners bid up the price of NYC residential real estate, and since they don’t spend much time in these units, contribute little to the local economy compared to full-time residents.

Wrong. A large swath of high-end condo market activity of the past five years are non-primary residences which include pied-a-terres but most are investor purchases that are subsequently rented after the unit closes when construction was completed. The majority of new development units purchased as non-primary were rented out which is why the high-end rental market was crushed by all the new development condo sales by investors. Renters in these units do spend and help drive the local economy. Manhattan is about 75% rental by unit and New York City is about 2/3 rental by unit. It is therefore clear that renters drive a large swath of the NYC economy. Why would renters of high-end apartments be any different than all renters? They eat, sleep, work, and consume. FPI’s apparent belief that most of the high-end development sold ended up as empty pied-a-terres while wealthy buyers bid up the prices is incorrect. This position seems to be derived from one of only two references cited in the FPI white paper, a fun New York Magazine cover story by Andrew Rice. That article came out in 2014 right as the housing market was peaking. The strengthening dollar was cooling demand via international currency plays and the sight of cranes rising everywhere told buyers that an oversupply was here (that still exists today with over 6 years of excess new development product. I was one of the resources for Andrew Rice’s piece and here I explain what happened leading up to the 2014 condition which I later dubbed “Peak Luxury” and “Peak New Development”.

Much of this speculation is being driven by two factors: sparse supply, due to the absorption of the inventory left over from the last boom, and fast-rising prices. Manhattan saw a 30 percent price increase over the past year, on average, which market analyst Jonathan Miller attributes primarily to sales closing in ultraluxury buildings. The highest end of the market has seen stunning inflation.

In other words, the 30 percent price rise wasn’t a “bid up” by wealthy buyers; it was a massive shift in the type of housing stock that was being created and sold. New building materials and engineering enabled 100 story buildings instead of 50 story buildings. Landowners factored this into land prices since many buildings above the 50th floor had expansive open views and (not enough) buyers were willing to pay for it. Prices rose significantly in lower-priced segments (below $5 million) because supply was static and no match for a rising population and the city’s record job growth.

Developers are in the business of developing, and land prices remained high after the housing bubble burst a decade ago because of the large amount of money that was flooding into development. Central banks worldwide pressed rates to zero, creating an army of global investors chasing higher returns. To keep developing despite all this new capital, developers had to build what land prices required, high-end real estate. Developers would create affordable housing if it realized a higher return on the risk they take on. While it has always been difficult and expensive to build in New York City, the post-financial crisis was especially challenging with heavy competition for labor, materials, and land, exacerbated by free-flowing global capital in a low-interest-rate world.

Now the buyers of this real estate, who committed to New York City, are being punished by this new tax, the result of which will damage the city’s global brand that took 25 years to evolve. Why? Because a white paper with only two reference citations, one of which was a magazine article on a small niche of super-tall buildings, was the basis. I am also concerned that the paper did not address the change in consumer behavior when such taxes would be implemented. Why would they push to implement a new tax when it raises the probability that existing tax revenues will fall? To get specific here’s what happened after this article was written. The building known as One57 on the cover of the cited New York Magazine story – 5 years later and after 8 years on the market is 25% unsold and resale activity (the same unit purchased from the sponsor and then sold again) shows as much as a 30% drop in prices since this article was written.

This drop is why I think that the implementation of this new tax as written will be catastrophic to the market, potentially causing it to seize up. As a result, the city would see a significant drop in transfer tax and other associated revenues before considering the new tax. Hit a declining market with more than 6 years of excess supply with a new high tax out of the blue and watch what happens.

The Political Timeline

The shift in New York State and New York City government sentiment against real estate development began with the following recent events:

The proposed law is in each New York State Albany chamber right now and although they have different introduction dates of January 9, 2019 (Senate) and February 4, 2019 (Assembly) they look the same.

The New York State Assembly version: Assembly Bill A4540 or in this format.

The New York State Senate version: Senate Bill S44 or in this format.

The bills are short on details and are currently in committee, wide open for interpretation. As written, the bill is both sweeping and ominous to the real estate industry in New York City, and I expect it will result in less overall tax revenue to the city than currently enjoyed. I’ll get into that further on.

How this proposed S44/A4540 tax seems to work

I am not a tax advisor, and anything I say here should not be relied on, and you should seek appropriate counsel. Seriously. I am merely interpreting what I think are the critical issues established this proposed tax.

  • This tax directed is specifically at New York City because it is designated for cities in the state with populations of more than 1 million. As evidenced by the 2010 census data in Wikipedia, there is a significant population difference between New York City and Buffalo.

You probably think of the market value of your co-op or condo as the price you could sell it for on the open market. However, State law requires us to value residential cooperative and condominium buildings as if they were rental apartment buildings. This means that we look at the income and expense statements of rental buildings that have similar characteristics to determine your condo or co-op buildings market value.

  • It taxes residential properties valued at $5 million and above in NYC, most of which are in Manhattan.
    • And it is a marginal rate tax – only the amount above each threshold is taxed.


    • And it is a property tax which means it will be paid annually, not just upon sale like the Mansion tax. Here is how consumer behavior is impacted by the $1 million threshold of the New York State “Mansion” tax. I did this a while ago, and the pattern still exists. As an annual property tax, the dollar thresholds will be more firm.

  • The tax is not really about pied-a-terres. It is a tax on non-primary residences as written.

Therefore it should apply to investor units and LLCs.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to assume that the language of the bill infers that LLCs could be interpreted as “non-primary residences” even if they are used for primary residences since New York State defines LLCs: An LLC is an unincorporated business organization made up of one or more persons. That definition does not sound like a primary residence to me.

Although the working title of the proposed tax is “pied-a-terre” there is no mention of this particular use in the Senate or Assembly tax bills. They specifically refer to “non-primary residences” so that would include other uses like investor units and possibly LLCs (possibly even those used as primary residences). It’s all still up in the air at this point.

From the New York Times article of March 11, 2019: Lawmakers Support ‘Pied-à-Terre’ Tax on Multimillion-Dollar Second Homes

In 2017, New York City had 75,000 pieds-à-terre, up from 55,000 such units since 2014, according to the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey. The share of vacant apartments that are classified as pieds-à-terre has held steady during that time at about 30 percent.

From the New York Times article of October 26, 2014: Pied-à-Neighborhood

“If you said you are going to impose a special surcharge on apartments that are worth more than $20 million, that would be perfectly legal,” said Peter L. Faber, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery. “But the problem comes when you start imposing a special tax on nonresidents. That is unconstitutional under the interstate commerce clause.”
The current revenue estimation appears overstated by nearly a third

The bill’s sponsor, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman said:

There are only 5,400 units in New York above $5 million that are owned by non-residents.

For the year 2018 my ACRIS search yielded 952 residential single units sales (1-3 family, co-ops, condos) above the $5 million threshold (1,188 in 2016 and 1,173 in 2017).


I will assume that the Senator included all the apparent nuances within the 5,400 count for the entire NYC housing stock (pied-a-terres, investor units, LLC-owned primary and non-primary residences).

I projected this mix of sales as proportional to the 5,400 units impacted by the new law to break out the tax revenue calculations, understanding the 2018 sales included both primary and non-primary residential uses.


[click to expand]

From the New York Times article of March 11, 2019: Lawmakers Support ‘Pied-à-Terre’ Tax on Multimillion-Dollar Second Homes

It was not immediately clear how much money the tax would raise; the office of the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, estimated that a pied-à-terre tax would bring in a minimum of $650 million annually if enacted today. And based on the expected revenue stream, Mr. Cuomo estimated that the state could then raise $9 billion in bonds, backed by the expected taxes paid by pied-à-terre owners.

Based on my calculations, the tax-impacted housing stock would yield tax revenue of roughly $455,000,000 which is about 30% below the $650,000,000 estimate assuming this new tax would not impact any current consumer behavior of the wealthy who would be affected by the tax… which is a GIANT assumption that is patently not true.

Impact to Housing Prices

Using the median sales price of each price traunche set up in the bill, and assuming a 5% discount rate and the median tax for each traunche and a 10 year holding period, the adverse impact to value rises in each higher traunche.

I’ve added 20-year and 30-year holding period versions using the same variables. I started out using the 10-year as a placeholder for the brokerage industry’s default assumption of 7 years for homeownership but then added 3 more years to account for the current market slide. The 20 and 30-year holding periods assumptions might be more realistic given the long term view of investors after the decline in prices of the past several years and the phenomenon of capital preservation in this latest development frenzy since 2012. If that’s the case, properties valued at $25 million or higher might lose 30% of their value overnight…not factoring in a market pause or even collapse in sales until the terms are ironed out. That period of uncertainty starts now through July 1, 2020.


[click to expand]

More New Yorkers Will Leave The City

From the New York Times article of March 11, 2019: Lawmakers Support ‘Pied-à-Terre’ Tax on Multimillion-Dollar Second Homes

Moses Gates, a vice president at the Regional Plan Association, disputed the notion that New Yorkers would leave the city. The association believes that most wealthy pied-à-terre owners would pay the tax. If they chose to sell, then the property has the chance of being purchased by a full-time city resident, who would then be subject to income and sales tax.

It is already happening. His assumption does not take into consideration the new federal tax law enacted on January 1, 2018, that was especially punishing the wealthy real estate property owners that were already considering moving their domicile to a low tax state like Florida. The wealthy who already were on the fence before the new law are now beginning to make their moves. You can see this happening in Florida right now. New Yorkers are the new foreign buyer there. This proposed pied-a-terre tax piles on to the fresh new federal taxes just served to wealthy property owners in NYC metro last year, and sales were already slowing.

Taxing Wealthy Property Owners Around the World

The trend of raising tax revenue on real estate of the wealthy is gaining momentum worldwide. New York City had the distinction of being one of the few major global cities that have not implemented taxes that are openly hostile to foreign buyers or investors. Here is what some countries are doing to tax these buyers and it is slowing sales.

From the New York Times article of February 9, 2019:

Large cities around the world have been grappling with how to make wealthy absentee property owners pay for the privilege of owning secondary residences, a recent report from the Real Estate Institute of British Columbia shows. Sydney, Paris, and London have all recently added or increased taxes on the purchase of secondary homes.

In Hong Kong, nonpermanent residents pay a 15 percent fee on the value of the home, and foreigners pay an additional 15 percent fee. Singapore has restrictions on the purchase of residential property by foreigners and a 15 percent tax. In Denmark, foreigners are required to obtain permission from the government to purchase secondary homes.

In Vancouver, where the greatest concentration of vacant properties is downtown, owners of empty residential properties are charged a 1 percent tax based on the assessed value.
Why Senate Bill S44/Assembly Bill A4540 Will Not Achieve Its Intended Goal As Found Money for MTA Improvements
  • This bill may obliterate future transfer tax revenue from real estate activity and could result in lower net receipts from the real estate sector in the aftermath. The 2014 whitepaper doesn’t consider this but instead presents the tax in a vacuum as if market forces don’t respond.
  • New York City is one of the last “international cities” that is not hostile to foreign buyers and real estate investors
  • The new tax is targeted to condo development since there are few co-op and townhouse non-primary units over $5M
  • The new tax will crush new development activity because land prices will take years, maybe even more than a decade to reset to levels that will support new affordable housing because landowners take long-term buy and hold positions
  • This tax could destroy any progress made with inclusionary zoning to create more affordable housing
  • This tax will not create more affordable housing
  • The idea of the building of “bank safety deposit boxes in the sky” and saying pied-a-terre owners don’t spend money in the city is misleading. Most of the taxed units have occupants that do just that. Many non-primary residences are occupied with renters and those occupants spend money on a daily basis. The actual pied-a-terre segment is a subset of non-primary residences
  • Aspects of this bill might be illegal such as the disconnect in valuation methods to calculate property taxes versus this new tax – state law requires co-op/condos to be valued as income properties and this new law wants the sales comparison approach
  • Luxury real estate buyers do not ignore new taxes as is commonly pontificated. That never happens and I’m not sure where that form of conventional wisdom came from. As such there will be substantial damage to high-end property values going forward, perhaps as much as 30% if not more than that. With the news of this new tax, we expose the market to a panic selloff as existing owners look to take their lumps and get out as new sales pause.
  • The damage to the housing market above the $5 million threshold will not be contained and will likely melt into the layers below it as market stigma expands.
  • The suburban markets, as key competitors to NYC in the immediate area, may actually benefit within their respective high-end markets as NYCs brand damage and new tax may incentivize city buyers to look closer at alternatives in NYC suburban metro as well low-cost areas such as Florida.
Pausing the Market While Politicking

At a bare minimum, the guaranteed uncertainty of the bill’s final form from April 1, 2019 when it is enacted and July 1, 2020 when it is implemented, will help “pause” sales starting now. Sales at the top of the market will slow further than they already have. This uncertainty will have a significant impact on market participants as they wait for Albany to sort this out and will play a significant roll in impacting transfer tax revenue as the market cools further.

There is a strong political appetite for this to be part of the budget. I can only imagine the heavy volume of lobbying and litigation activity to occur between now and July 1, 2020. There is a need/hunger for more revenue by the governor and the mayor for the MTA – which will include a lot of lobbying and litigation since everyone wants a piece of this. Unfortunately, the Real Estate Board of New York does not have clout in Albany political circles but they appear to be working hard to reduce the damage this bill will cause to new development (with a by-product of reducing the loss of existing tax revenues). Whatever happens to this bill, it will probably damage the credibility of the bill’s author, the Fiscal Policy Institute who will learn that market forces do matter and policy should never be considered in a vacuum.

On a positive note, present circumstances included, the impact of this tax bill is so over the top and disconnected from market forces that I would expect the lawsuits and negotiation to be significant and improve the odds this bill will be converted into something less catastrophic. The Senator who is sponsoring this has seemed to suggest this in interviews.

History Fades and so do Lessons Learned

Remember the 1970s version of New York City? The success the city is enjoying now was the result of 25 years of proactive management of city spending and branding efforts. Besides record tourism, real estate activity has been revitalized and that has brought billions of dollars to the city coffers. The introduction of this new tax law ignores human behavior and assumes the tax revenues will rise as if market forces don’t exist. The wealthy will not shrug off these heavy new costs. They will simply go elsewhere. New real estate taxes, especially significant ones, change consumer behavior almost immediately.

If the objective is to punish the high-end housing market and the development community, then this bill will do that. If the objective is to generate new tax revenue for MTA, it won’t. In fact, I believe it will cannibalize existing related tax revenue streams after all the mayhem it causes to the new development industry.

Let’s hope economically informed voices are able to make themselves heard during this process.

I’ll be providing additional insights on this important and developing issue in my weekly Housing Notes. You can sign up for free right here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Remember liar loans of a decade ago? Those same people want to do away with appraisers.

November 30, 2018 | 10:12 am | | Investigative |

My friend and appraisal colleague Ryan Lundquist and I authored a petition on change.org to point out the growing wreckless behavior that is enveloping the mortgage process.

There’s a proposal from the FDIC, Federal Reserve, and Treasury Department not to require appraisals for some mortgages under $400,000.

As we say in the petition, this change can impact several groups in particular: consumers, the taxpayers, the housing market and appraisers.

One group not explicitly mentioned in the petition but impacted down the road are real estate agents and brokers. Currently, 12% of mortgages that flow through the GSE (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac account for 78% of residential mortgages right now) will have their appraisals waived. Those are “PiW” loans or have a “Property Inspection Waiver.” My good friend and appraiser colleague Phil Crawford says on his radio show “Voice of Appraisal” says the acronym stands for “Pissing In Wind” which is more accurate. If the buyer realizes they overpaid for the property, the agents are now the professionals with the bullseye on their back. Liability insurers are already talking about a new target when things go south.

Years ago and again this morning, I heard a real estate agent say – what do we need you (appraisers) for? “The seller and the buyer determined the market value by agreeing on the price.” The problem with this logic is the buyer may not be fully informed (i.e., from an out of market area) and will also mortgage fraud supercharged. Ever heard of straw buyers? Agents must remember that they perceived as biased even with the best intentions and the best ethics because they are paid only if the deal closes. When something goes wrong, they are completely exposed.

The direction that was taken by regulators relies heavily on AVMs (Think Zillow’s Zestimate which is not within 4.3% of the actual value 50% of the time) and “hybrid appraisers” (which removes the appraiser from the actual inspection of properties) to develop a value opinion. The inspection of the property, when done, will rely on non-licensed individuals to fill out a checklist and give an appraiser at a desk the information without any standardization, direct contact or assurance the inspector knows what they are doing. I’ve heard of fees as low as $8 to do the inspection and $78 for the appraiser. As far as I can tell, a full appraisal (inspection and analysis) cost can represent as little as a hundredth of a percent of a purchase transaction.

This petition is for everyone to sign, not just appraisers. Please sign and help bring attention to a pattern we just lived through in the financial crisis. It’s happening again.

Please make your voice known, read about and hopefully sign the petition below:

PETITION: Remember liar loans of a decade ago? Those same people want to do away with appraisers.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


Bloomberg Markets TV: September 11, 2018, Looking back at 9/11 and the Financial Crisis

September 11, 2018 | 8:39 pm | | Milestones |


I had a nice reflective discussion with Scarlet Fu and Caroline Hyde, reflecting on two milestones in New York City – 9/11 and the financial crisis.

Miller Samuel CEO Says Credit Conditions Haven’t Normalized Since Lehman
September 11th, 2018, 3:48 PM EDT
Jonathan Miller, president and chief executive officer of Miller Samuel Inc., takes a look at the state of the U.S. housing market 10 years after the financial crisis of 2008. He speaks with Bloomberg’s Caroline Hyde and Scarlet Fu on “Bloomberg Markets: The Close.” (Source: Bloomberg)

Tags: , , , ,


[Media] Bloomberg Markets Interview January 11, 2018

January 11, 2018 | 11:07 pm | | Milestones |

So I was walking down Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan in the late morning after a meeting and got a call from Bloomberg TV. Apparently, two different stories that featured two of the market reports I author – published by Douglas Elliman – were the number one and two most emailed on the Bloomberg Terminals worldwide.  They wanted to talk about them.

So I took a left and walked over Bloomberg HQ.  Got to speak with Vonnie Quinn and Shery Ahn on set – who knew how to make an interview go well.

This is a 2-minute clip of the 5-minute interview, but you’ll get the gist. I’ll expand on this discussion tomorrow at 2 pm when my weekly Housing Note is released.

[click to view video]

Tags: , , ,


Bloomberg TV – Housing Related Issues in Final Version of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017

December 27, 2017 | 9:07 pm | | Investigative |

Today I joined Joe Weisenthal and Julie Hyman on Bloomberg TV’s “Bloomberg Markets” for a discussion on the impact to the U.S. Housing Market in the aftermath of the new Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 that was signed into law by the president on December 22, 2017.

Here are about 2 minutes of the 5-minute interview:

Back on December 14, 2017, I provided a summary of the proposed tax bill comparing the House and Senate versions. The bills were merged into committee and signed by the president into law on December 22, 2017, effective January 1, 2018.

You can download my housing summary regarding the final version of the new tax law [pdf].

Fun side note: Here’s the stock photo of me that Bloomberg uses whenever I appear on television or radio. In this case, its projected about 15′ tall for TV. It’s a picture Bloomberg took of me about 14 years ago – circa 2003. I look like I’m in high school. I guess that shows how long I’ve been a regular contributor.

UPDATE to fun side note Someone just shared my current bio photo on the Bloomberg Terminals taken about 20 years ago.

Tags: , , , ,


How the GOP Tax Bill Might Impact U.S. Residential Real Estate

December 14, 2017 | 5:49 pm | Investigative |

[UPDATE: The impact of the tax bill changed after it came out of committee and became law on December 22nd, 2017. See an updated tax law impact summary here.]

Both houses of Congress have passed far-reaching tax bills with a lot of common ground between them. The U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives are in the process of merging their versions into a single bill that will be voted on, and if it gets out of committee, it will be submitted to the president for signing.

Unlike the 1986 tax reform bill, which took six months of public hearings and discussion on both sides of the aisle, this tax bill was worked on for a year by the GOP and was passed very quickly without most of the signers knowing what was actually in it. Therefore I anticipate an ongoing procession of additional insights that impact the housing market as more people read the bills or the eventual law.

This lack of transparency and vetting alone is not great news for housing, which is very dependant on an “uncertainty-free” environment. In addition, there is a “get it done before Christmas” deadline.

Here is what I mapped out but this is only what we think we know by reading many interpretations with source links presented at the bottom of the table below. Here’s the pdf version of the table.

Tags: , , , , , ,


The NYC Downtown Resurgence After 9/11

September 11, 2017 | 9:40 am | | Milestones |

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 16 years already since 9/11. The name of the attack is now referenced as a noun and every year I think about the events of that day – getting emails from out of state friends and colleagues asking if I was ok, with one asking if I was still alive; Watching the second tower fall; walking to Fifth Avenue and then to Sixth Avenue to see the towers in flames; No cell service; losing all access to public transportation; literally walking northward out of Midtown with throngs of others; getting a lift from my friend’s mom to Westchester county, then borrowing the car to get home to my family in CT; Debriefing with my neighbors who were standing outside like everyone else trying to learn what happened; learning that a parent of my of my son’s classmates was in the tower; hearing stories from neighbors who were talking to someone on the phone in the towers when a plane hit and the line went dead.

It seemed that everything I knew was going away and never coming back. Yet NYC showed me it never quits and I’m proud to be part of it.

Here is my interview with Tom Keene on Bloomberg TV this morning on the resurgence of downtown over the past 16 years.


UPDATE Immediately following the television spot, I walked over to their radio studios and spoke with Tom again as well as David Gura. My interview with Tom Keene and David Gura on Bloomberg Surveillance Radio so click on the graphic below and go to the 10-minute spot:



Tags: , , , , , ,


Declaring A Housing Recovery Using A Threshold Based on Fraud

November 30, 2016 | 3:16 pm | Charts |

S&P CoreLogic used it’s National Non-Seasonally Adjusted Housing Price Index to declare that the housing market has recovered. Even the ironies of this public relations effort have ironies. I’ll explain.

First, look at this classic Case-Shiller chart. Notice how the arrows don’t connect to the lines they are associated? I’m being petty but it looks like the chart was updated and rushed out the door.

csiclassicchart11-2016

Incidentally, who controls the Case-Shiller Indices brand these days? It used to be “S&P/Case-Shiller Indices.” Here are a couple of variations found in the first paragraph of the press release:

  • S&P Dow Jones Indices
  • S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Indices

but I digress

Since the financial crisis, I have spent a good deal of time explaining away the reliability of the Case Shiller Index.

To be clear, I greatly admire Robert Shiller, the Nobel Laureate and his pioneering work in economics. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with him on a number of occasions both publicly and privately. He and I were on stage together at Lincoln Center back during the housing bubble for a Real Deal event.

During the bubble I was the public face of a short lived Wall Street start-up that collapsed when the bubble burst. Like Case-Shiller it was built to enable the hedging of the housing market to mitigate risk using a different methodology, avoiding the repeat-sales method used in CS. The firm had annoyed Shiller by constantly citing the issues with the CS index and we got far more traction from Wall Street with our index that was (literally) built by rocket scientists. It got to the point where he mentioned me and the startup by name at a conference in frustration.

thhpodcastlogo

After I disconnected with the startup before it imploded, I reached out and we made up. In fact he did my Housing Helix podcast (link broken but hope to bring it back online soon for historical reference) at my office back when I was doing a podcast series of interviews with key people in housing). Also we’ve run into each other on the street in Manhattan a number of times. In fact when he learned of my love of sea kayaking he gave me the latitude and longitude coordinates of his island vacation home in case I was nearby. You can see that I feel a little guilty criticizing the use of the index since he is one of the nicest and smartest people I’ve ever had the honor to meet.

But I don’t like the way S&P, Dow Jones and/or CoreLogic have positioned Case-Shiller as a consumer benchmark. And especially yesterday’s announcement as a marker for the recovery of the U.S. housing market. I feel this is a low brow attempt by these institutions to leverage publicity without much thought applied to what is actually being said. Here are some thoughts on why it is inappropriate to use this moment as a marker for the housing recovery.

“The new peak set by the S&P Case-Shiller CoreLogic National Index will be seen as marking a shift from the housing recovery to the hoped-for start of a new advance” says David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Blitzer remains in the very awkward position of explain away the gap between the market 6 months ago and current condition as if there is no difference. He does this by using anecdotal commentary about metrics like supply that has nothing to do with the price index as well as making pithy remarks.

  • The Case-Shiller National Index is being touted for reaching the record set in the housing bubble a decade ago despite the record being set back then by artificial aka systemic mortgage fraud. However their 20 city index has been pushed as the key housing benchmark for more than a decade, not the national index. And they are using the non-seasonally adjusted national index to proclaim the record beaten despite their long time preference of presenting seasonally adjusted indices (the seasonally adjusted national index has not broken the housing bubble record yet).

  • The credit bubble got us to the 2006 peak, not anything fundamental.

cshpitablefrompeak11-2016

  • In my thirty years of valuation experience, I have learned that sales transactions, not prices, should be the benchmark for a housing market’s health.

  • The 0% markets that reached the 2006 peak are super frothy – created by rapidly expanding economies and an inelastic housing supply. Income growth doesn’t always justify their price growth. Click on table below for the markets shaded in turquoise.

csnsazero

Some important background points on the Case Shiller Home Price Index (CS) – that most of its users are unaware of:

  • CS was never intended for consumer use! It was built for Wall Street to trade derivatives to hedge housing market risk much like hedging risk for weather, insurance, non-fat dry milk and cheddar cheese.

  • CS never caught on because housing is a slow and lumbering asset class, unlike a stock which has much more liquidity. The flaw during this bubble period was the way Wall Street and most real estate market participants considered housing as liquid as a stock and how financial engineering had enabled that liquidity.

  • As access to public housing data has become more ubiquitous, the index has been more easily gamed by companies like Zillow, who have been able to accurately predict the index results much sooner rendering the index as useless for hedging.

  • CS lags the actual “meeting of the minds” between by buyers and sellers – when they agree on the price and general terms – by 5-7 months. The November report just released was based on the 3 month moving average of closed sales from July, August and September. If we say that contract to close period is an average of 60 days, then the contracts signed in this batch of data represent May, June and July. And the time between the “meeting of the minds” and the signed contracts can be a couple of weeks, so the results in yesterday’s lease of the Case-Shiller index represents the period around Memorial Day weekend as summer was getting started.

  • CS only represents single family homes (although they have an index for condos).

  • CS excludes new development.

  • There is little if any seasonality in the CS methodology (even though there is a seasonally adjusted version).

  • Geographic areas in the 10 and 20 city CS indices are incredibly broad. For example, the “New York” index includes New York City, Long Island, Hamptons, Fairfield County, Westchester County, a bunch of counties in northern NJ and a county in Pennsylvania. Yet this index is often represented as a proxy for the Manhattan housing market by national news outlets. Manhattan residential sales have about a 1% market share of single family homes.

In other words, the CS index is a great academic tool to trend single family home prices at a 30,000 foot view for research but not to measure the current state of your local market.

Tags: , , , , ,


Housing and the Election Aftermath

November 9, 2016 | 9:56 pm | Milestones |

With any significant unexpected and historic event, the initial impact to housing can be seen in the form of a “pause” until buyers have enough time to process it. I first wrote about my “milestone” theory more than a decade ago. There was a New York Times cover story a month after Lehman collapsed in 2008 that used our data to mark such a milestone. A “pause” can be measured in days or months and market reaction can ultimately go against conventional wisdom.

Back in August of 2011, after S&P downgraded U.S. debt ratings, it was thought to be catastrophic to the U.S. economy yet the world’s investors flooded into U.S. treasuries for safety, pushing interest rates to the floor, ultimately giving a boost to housing.

I may not know much, but I do believe this: potential changes in government social policies should be kept separate from potential changes in economic policies, otherwise it is impossible to take action on anything in your life. This probably includes making decisions about whether to buy or sell a home. This U.S. election campaign has been brutal and at this point we don’t know how much of what was said about social policy will be enacted. This uncertainty may keep some buyers on the sidelines longer than others, but otherwise I’m not sure any of that matters to the housing market. On the margin, I am hearing that a few buyers have placed their purchases on hold. This is a normal reaction after a significant historic event but eventually many of those participants wade back into the pool when they are more comfortable.

Stock futures were down significantly overnight but the financial markets moved higher after initially falling. With a quickly rebounding stock market, I’m don’t think home buyers will take very long to decide whether to rejoin the housing market.

2016electiondjiachart

In addition, the odds of a December interest rate increase by the Federal Reserve dropped sharply despite yesterday’s view of a rate hike as nearly a sure thing. The president elect’s economic platform, which was not widely discussed during the campaign, proposes a large tax cut and investment in infrastructure which are either favorable or neutral to the housing market.

bbcmefutureselectionday

Before the election, the housing market was generally softest at the top over the 18 U.S. markets we cover. I believe inventory will continue to be more readily available at the higher end than for other segments. In New York, the slow down in sales was assumed to caused by the pull back of foreign buyers. However this decline was equally matched by domestic buyers over the same period, so the foreign buyer decline has been a false narrative. The sales share of international buyers has remained stable for for nearly 3 years. I am speaking at the The Real Deal conference in Shanghai next week and will look to understand sentiment towards further U.S. real estate investment.

3q16internationalshare

Rather than the international buyer narrative, I attribute the New York sales slow down to the visceral view of new residential towers rising from empty lots. Construction lending nearly dried up at the beginning of the year so the pipeline will slow quite a bit over the next two years.

With world economies generally falling or remaining weaker than the U.S. economy and the continuation of near record low interest rates, I don’t see much impact from the U.S. election results after the short term jitters pass.

Of course, I was wrong about the election.

Tags:


Miller Samuel at 30, A Short Story

October 4, 2016 | 11:14 pm | | Milestones |

matrixswimmingpools

It’s hard to believe that thirty years have passed since my family and I began our Miller Samuel appraiser journey. Here’s a little bit about the experience which reminds me of that old joke about marriage:

“We’ve been married for 30 years and it only seemed like five minutes…under water.” (boom)

It all began in 1986 when my parents, wife, sister, former brother-in-law and I got the idea to form an appraisal company after we had actually raised a substantial amount of money to launch a real estate brokerage firm. My wife and sister were already appraisers. A lawyer that I sold a condo to in 1985 (yes, I was a real estate agent in NYC for a brief stint) found a group of Japanese investors willing to back us. When it came down to it, we just couldn’t sign on the dotted line because we didn’t want to become real estate brokers. Our family’s collective real estate background was mixed, including brokerage, appraisal, management, development, rentals, sales, but most importantly, a lot of analytics and a fascination with technology. We seemed to be different from our competitors, creating our own software (there was no appraisal software), going with the Mac as a platform over PC and collecting any data we could re-use. I remember that we were the first New York appraisal firm to have two fax machines, with a hunt and search two line setup, allowing us to give out only one fax number (LOL). We cold called banks and hand delivered our appraisal reports to better connect with our clients (Who had heard of email?)

It’s a leap of faith to start a new business and in our first month, we received two bank appraisals for a total of $600. Even with the high cost of three couples living in Manhattan, those two appraisal orders felt like $1 billion – and they remain best feeling of validation I ever experienced in my professional career. Within a few months of our launch, our volume snowballed and a year later we nearly tripled in size to 17 employees and lots of personnel challenges.

The October 1987 stock market crash caused appraisal volume to implode. We laid off more than half of the firm shortly thereafter and stuck with an 8-employee line up for the ensuing decade. From this experience we learned a valuable lesson – we were far more profitable with a smaller nimble firm that focused on quality over volume. In addition we were able to do what we loved rather than be mired in personnel issues. Manhattan was our turf and we loved and walked every inch of it.

By 1989, appraisal licensing came on the scene after the S&L crisis. While I had already taken appraisal courses, continuing education became a mandatory requirement for the upcoming licensing law. On a whim, I remember flying on a Trump Air helicopter from Manhattan to Atlantic City for $75 to take an appraisal course for my license – who knew appraising was so exciting? As a self proclaimed cool geek, I felt very out of place standing on the heliport near the Javitz Convention Center waiting with the Atlantic City heavy hitters wearing white polyester blazers, gold chains and white patent leather loafers, ready for a weekend of gambling.

The subsequent years brought us through a recession where the New York region was hit far harder than the rest of the country and distressed real estate was the next wave. Remember the division of the FDIC known as The Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC)? By 1990, 50% of our practice involved co-op foreclosures, a byproduct of the high velocity rental to co-op conversions and a tremendous amount of investor activity that overheated the market – eventually the music stops in any housing boom. Renters were flipping their insider rights to outsiders for their retirement nest eggs.

Other appraisal firms arose in the early to mid-1990s that pushed out many of the “out of area” firms with token representation in Manhattan. Indirectly, these large new competitors ended up being helpful to us as they worked very closely with mortgage brokers and were hyper focused on high volume. We were focused on quality and low to moderate volume. From the beginning, we had worked hard to reduce our dependence on mortgage related work. Mortgage brokers, who were paid only when the loan closed, got to pick the appraisers. That conflict of interest was always mind boggling to me. The mortgage brokerage industry generally did not pay for appraisal reports until they reviewed the value to confirm whether it was adequate to make the deal work. By that point the appraiser had been officially converted from valuation professional to deal enabler. We weren’t very popular with mortgage brokers since we required payment before we would release the value.

By the late 1990s the Dot-com boom was in full force and the irrational exuberance we experienced in the 1980s returned, carrying all the way through the housing bubble. Our firm did not fair very well during the bubble from 2003-2008 because we weren’t morally flexible to work in this new world where risk was assumed to be managed away so reckless behavior was the standard – conflict of interest was the standard. We saw appraiser competitors’ volume explode to the point where they dwarfed us in size. Their commissioned staff were able to do as many as 40 appraisals per week, which included taking the order information, making the appointment for the inspection, getting information from the managing agent, searching for comps, calling agents to confirm condition and other comp information, writing up the report and fixing edits from the reviewer, following up with calls after the client received the report, etc. I should mention that Manhattan still doesn’t have a traditional MLS and sales were not public record until 2006, 20 years after we began. Our firm was based on salaried staff to control quality and maintain professionalism but maxed out at about 8 appraisals per appraiser per week. I never understood the math for the high volume process unless virtually all quality corners were cut. Our appraisal staff is still salaried with benefits today. Back then, those types of “crank it out” firms thrived at the expense of the dwindling pool of ethical appraisers. It was a frustrating period in our history because we could have tripled our volume overnight if we sold our souls. We just couldn’t.

By 2005 it became apparent that the end of the bubble was coming and I still needed an effective way to get the word out – that something was wrong with the mortgage process – not that anyone would listen since they were making too much money. U.S. banks began closing their in-house review appraisal groups as “cost centers,” and loan officers began to call and demand higher values or cut us off and mortgage brokers were dominating the market even more. So I started blogging about it. I figured I had nothing to lose by going public. And thankfully the feedback came quickly. My first blog post on Matrix (I had start writing on my appraisal blog Soapbox the previous month and later merged them) was in the summer of 2005 based on an APM Marketplace radio interview. Later, CNBC came to my office to talk about “real estate’s dirty little secret”…where I said on national television that “75% of bank appraisals weren’t worth the paper they were written on.”

I knew we would be out of business in three years (by 2008) if we didn’t change our business model. So we fired all our national bank clients (before they could fire us) as they went to the appraisal management company model that essentially removed all local market knowledge from inhouse. The onslaught of dumb questions from AMCs made the decision easier (i.e. sample AMC review question: “What does a doorman do in a co-op or condo building?”) We proceeded to focus on the underserved private and legal work – our ability to adequate serve these clients had been hampered from the mind numbing clerical tasks that appraisers were required to do. And it worked! Our new focus on clients that actually wanted to know what the value was and were willing to pay a fair fee for paid off.

When Lehman collapsed in September 2008 almost simultaneously with the bailout of the GSEs and AIG, mortgage appraisal work nearly came to a halt. Thankfully we had already inverted our business model away from retail bank appraisal work in the prior year, around the time that Bear Stearns had collapsed. Our new business model was very contrarian to the state of the market. The change to our business and new revenue streams were inspiring and liberating. Our firm has experienced record sales nearly every year since 2008 but only because we have stayed away from retail mortgage appraisal work. Aside from the very low fees, AMCs that issued appraisal orders for banks kept expanding clerical requests to justify getting half of the appraisal fee. Since the Lehman moment, most of my competitors have gone under and most of the principals either no longer have their licenses or have left the business. Unfortunately for mortgage lenders (even though they don’t realize it) is that most of the “best” appraisers in each housing market have either left the business or moved on to more lucrative market rate work.

The false appraisal shortage narrative being perpetuated by the AMC industry is disturbing since it is really about the shortage of people willing to work for up to half the market rate. There is no shortage of appraisers. Over thirty years of measuring housing markets and valuing property has taught my firm that appraisers, like housing markets, are subject to supply and demand. The current mortgage lending environment is stuck with a solution that ignores that basic fact, so good firms like us move on to greener pastures. As a result, Miller Samuel is not looking to return to generic retail mortgage appraisal work anytime soon. That is a shame because we have 30 years of market experience to share with those banks to help them make informed lending decisions on their collateral.

As the incoming president of RAC, a group comprised of the best residential appraisers in the U.S., I observed that many of our members moved out of the mortgage appraisal business as we did to land higher quality work. This mass exodus of the best appraisers in each market presents an incredible loss to the collective knowledgebase of the mortgage lending industry. Perhaps because of the federal backstop employed at the “Lehman” moment in 2008, the mortgage industry still thinks they have risk management under control. They don’t.

Hopefully at some point in the not too distant future, regulators, taxpayers, government employees and other assorted stakeholders will come to realize that it is for the greater financial good of the taxpayer/consumer to have a mortgage appraisal industry exist that is:

  • competent through education and mentoring
  • allowed to provide a neutral opinion of value without fear of retribution
  • adequately and fairly represented in the mortgage process

These elements do not currently exist. In order for the current disconnect between mortgage lending and collateral valuation to be fixed, it must be understood that:

  • a real estate appraisal is not a commodity, nor is the appraiser
  • real estate appraising is a professional service
  • real estate appraisers are the most essential element of understanding collateral values in order to make informed lending decisions
  • without adequate representation, appraisers will continue to be overrun with scope creep
  • appraisers are subject to the laws of supply and demand like any industry
  • cutting the pay of appraisers by half has an adverse impact on the reliability of the valuation result

It’s been quite a journey for our firm.

Miller Samuel is going to continue to do what it does best, provide neutral valuation opinions on collateral to enable our clients to make informed decisions.

And yes, these past thirty years have felt like holding our breath for five minutes underwater, but it was worth it.

Tags:


[Video] Providing the right context for Manhattan and Miami housing markets

April 2, 2016 | 11:48 am | | Favorites |

I really enjoyed my interview over at Yahoo! Finance this week discussing the release of the Elliman Report: Manhattan Sales 1Q 2016. Love their longer interview format.

Note the “two comma” reference taken from the HBO show Silicon Valley:

Miller also rejects the thesis that Manhattan’s two-comma real estate prices were being fueled solely by foreign money and are now jeopardized by global uncertainty and a stronger dollar versus emerging market currencies.

Additional insights on the report shared on the recent edition of Housing Notes. Sign up here.

Tags: ,


Miller Samuel turned 29 today

October 1, 2015 | 2:43 pm | | Milestones |

MSIlogo

Hard to believe we’ve been around so long.

I personally feel about 29 years old (maturity of a 19 year old, obviously) yet after we published our Manhattan report today that cited 26 year record highs, the math places me a bit older than 29. My birthday was yesterday (I’m still milking that day for all I can) and our company’s birthday is today. We launched in 1986, working in our apartments and communicating via fax machines, buying Macintosh Plus computers, creating our own appraisal software, using bar code scanners, Scantron readers, tape measures, measuring wheels, sonic measuring devices, laser measuring devices and beepers. It’s been a surprisingly fun but difficult journey.