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Real Estate Prompts Radically Divergent Responses

By Thomas Coyle June 2, 2017

Real estate is a tricky asset. It’s notoriously illiquid, subject to boom-and-bust cycles, and — especially in its role as dwelling place — emotionally fraught at the best of times.

And the asset class is especially fraught for wealth managers. It means different things to different clients, depending on where they live, what they do and how much money they have. In turn, these variances call for different – sometimes radically different – approaches to real estate by financial advisors.

For San Francisco-based clients of Summit Trail Advisors, for example, the watchword for real estate is “caution,” says Tom Palecek, a San Francisco-based partner with the New York wealth firm, which manages more than $3 billion.

With real estate prices in the San Francisco Bay area up around 70% since 2011, property doesn’t figure as a go-to investment for Summit Trail’s clients, according to Palecek. On the other hand, with these clients generally worth $15 million to $20 million, the need for downsizing to fit retirement budgets isn’t pushing them into real estate deals they don’t want to make, he adds.

Where real estate does come into focus at Summit Trail, other than as a vital balance-sheet consideration, is in niche plays the firm views as in-house specialties.

“We’re finding value working with private equity firms that are aggregating real estate for charter schools,” says Palecek. In this niche, capitalization rates — the expected return on a property — average 11.5% versus 4.5% for a REIT focused on Manhattan holdings, he adds.

Investing in this area calls for expertise in determining whether a given school is a thriving concern. But it boasts the definitional advantage of having pre-existing tenants, says Palecek. Additionally, in the 13 states that back charter schools, owners are guaranteed payment.

In another specialty gambit, Summit Trail introduces clients to private equity opportunities in recreational marinas.

“We’re partnered with roughly 50 of them,” says Palecek. These investments boast a cap rate of about 11%, and provide the additional incentive of geographic dispersal to keep local slumps from denting broad returns too deeply, he adds.

Matthew Papazian

“They’re all over the country,” says Palecek. “On the coasts, definitely, but also on freshwater.”

Meanwhile, for clients of Cardan Capital Partners in Cherry Creek, Colo., a suburb of Denver, real estate is often more personal, as it can have a direct impact on retirement strategies.

Denver’s attractions as a business and cultural center with a good climate and beautiful scenery have made it a magnet for technology startups – many of them priced out of traditional tech hubs like San Francisco. This gives the advantage to sellers, says Cardan’s Matt Papazian. And it colors retirement plans for clients who may have raised families in large homes on the city’s outskirts and now want to scale back in the name of savings by moving closer to downtown.

Put simply, rising prices in Denver mean these imagined savings don’t always materialize.

“You have to take real estate into account in the entire financial picture, including carrying costs, insurance and taxes,” says Papazian, whose firm manages about $630 million. For local “retirees downsizing and moving closer to the city, a smaller place could cost as much as what they had or more.”

In this context, Papazian’s advice to some clients is pretty succinct. “If they can wait” to downsize in Denver, “it may make sense to wait,” he says.

And for those new to the area — even if they’re from go-go markets like San Francisco and New York that make Denver real estate look cheap — the best option “might be renting until they decide on an exact place,” says Papazian. “They may come focused on one area, and find they get better value in the suburbs.”

The tiny Hamptons region of New York’s Long Island may be too far from the Big Apple to qualify as a commuter suburb. But it’s another example of how an exurb’s real estate market can differ from that of its metropolis.

“As an affluent resort community, the Hamptons is kind of its own animal with respect to Manhattan,” says Andy Stern, co-managing director of YorkBridge Wealth Partners. “Real estate in the Hamptons was impacted by the financial crisis but it was pretty short-lived. In New York it really froze, and it stayed that way longer.”

Another difference centered on real estate between New York proper and the far reaches of Long Island, where Stern heads an office for Manhattan-based YorkBridge, is emphasis, according to Stern.

Where real estate in the city is largely a byproduct or enabler of other industries, “real estate is the main industry out here in the Hamptons,” says Stern, whose firm manages more than $700 million.

In turn, an understanding of real estate’s role as the economic lifeblood of the Hamptons is vital to YorkBridge. “Our clients aren’t hedge fund guys with seasonal homes,” says Stern. “They’re the agents and architects and builders and tradespeople who live here year round, and real estate is what puts food on the table.”

And, adds Stern, when these clients consider investments they often look first to local real estate, principally in terms of property they can rent to vacationers or farmland they can rent until they can sell at a profit to builders.

This means YorkBridge’s Hamptons clients tend to be long on real-estate savvy but sometimes short on an appreciation of diversification, says Stern.

Mainly, some clients need nudges to remember that real estate, like any financial market, isn’t immune to downturns.

“Some of them put a lot of faith into the idea that property only goes up in value,” says Stern. “We work to help them understand the importance of liquidity, and how, with illiquid investments, economic shocks can impact the speed at which property can sell.”