Misplaced Improvements in Real Estate

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Every so often I'll say something about misplaced improvements. You may be wondering what a misplaced improvement is.



Simply put, it's something that stands out above the surrounding properties so far that they pull it down. Like having a mansion in a neighborhood of shanties. Yes, it's still a gorgeous house and yes, the functionality is exactly the same, but as soon as your walk out the front door you feel like you're in a third world country.



Repeat after me: Real Estate is only worth whatever I can get someone to pay for it. Real Estate is only worth whatever I can get someone to pay for it. One more time, with feeling: Real Estate is only worth whatever I can get someone to pay for it.



Got that? Good. Now ask yourself, would you be willing to pay more for a beautiful mansion surrounded by other beautiful mansions, or would you be willing to pay more for a beautiful mansion surrounded by cardboard boxes? The vast majority of the people out there want to look out of their beautiful mansion and see other beautiful mansions. I understand that even in the areas of the world where most folks live in shanties, the mansions of the wealthy are clustered together.



Probably the most egregious example of a misplaced improvement I've ever seen was this turkey. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a Realtor really is making fun of a property. Beautiful brand new 2000 square foot home - actually an entire development of about 30 of them - less than a quarter mile off the departure end of the main use runway at a busy general aviation airport. That airport is open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, and it has to by the terms of the land grant. I love small planes, and I couldn't have lived there. Plus you have to drive through a white trash neighborhood to get there, and there's a freeway being built that will come within about 75 yards. I have zero idea how the developer sold most of them. There shouldn't have been a housing development there at all. If they had to put something in, they should have run a road in off the other side and put in an industrial park or something, but I know of at least two crashes in the field where this development used to be. A travel trailer hook up would have been a misplaced improvement.



Now misplaced improvements aren't always that much of a waste. Matter of fact, if a buyer isn't looking at a property for its investment value, but rather for something like housing five or six kids as cheaply as practical, they can be a good way to find a property that meets your needs less expensively than comparable properties. Why? Because everything around it drags it down, where most like properties are surrounded by other properties of comparable features. You never want to buy the best house on the block if investment is your criterion - but you might want to if you're just trying to find housing for a family of seven and you don't make two million dollars per year.



For instance, about six months ago I found a gorgeous 5 bedroom 3 bathroom property in a sixty year old business route neighborhood, surrounded by trailer parks and older offices and apartments. Some nincompoop had wasted at least $60,000 fixing it up to look like some big executive's entertainment house - but the chance of some big executive buying the property was nil. Across the street was an old office building with chunks out of the stairs, the neighbors all look lower middle class, and there's a trailer park entrance at the end of the block. So I can guarantee that the target market wasn't interested, which is too bad, because it really was a nice place. The guy was asking $80,000 above what I thought the market might actually support, and he eventually lost the property because he couldn't afford the payments on a vacant property and nobody was willing to pay what he wanted. But if he had asked what the neighborhood would support, it would have sold quick to some working family who needed somewhere for their kids to sleep. But the brand new kitchen and travertine floors were just wasted money on the owner's part. Before you improve a property, if selling for a profit is your intention, always look around at the rest of your neighborhood to see if there's anybody else with that level of improvements. If not, you're wasting your money. Don't waste your money, because I guarantee you that potential buyers are going to look around before they make an offer.



Some misplaced improvements aren't as extreme. Just a couple of weeks ago, I found a beautiful property for a couple of my clients that was nonetheless a misplaced improvement. This was beautifully refurbished 3 bedroom 1.75 bathroom home in a neighborhood where those go for $450-460 thousand. The ask was a little over 550, and let me tell you, it was gorgeous. It might have been the nicest kitchen I'd ever seen in a property of that price range, the public areas were beautiful and open, and had a nice mountain view. The bathrooms were new and extremely attractive, not to mention a downright cozy place to take baths, and the bedrooms were great, too. Everything was just wonderfully laid out, and it even had an atrium that lit up the middle of the house. The owners did everything right except one: They didn't consider the neighborhood, which really was a pretty good neighborhood, but houses in this configuration and with this square footage just weren't selling for anything like 550. I consulted an appraiser, who said that if everything was as I described, they might have been able to justify as much as 510 on the appraisal. My clients were looking for a nice place to live and entertain for the rest of their lives, and they had a down payment, so the fact that it wouldn't appraise for 100% of purchase price was not an insurmountable obstacle, like it would be to someone without much of a down payment - which is to say 90% of everyone out there looking. Furthermore, it had sat vacant for seven months with no action (typical for misplaced improvements). We put an offer in, trying to jaw it down to something not too hugely above the neighborhood, and despite all of the evidence I cited, the owners blew us off. I understand that nobody likes to take a loss, but it's not the buyer's problem if you do, just like it's none of their concern how much you might be making. Residential properties are only worth what they are worth, and whereas this one didn't have many of the usual mandatory deductions, there really is no way to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. The neighborhood is the neighborhood, and this one wasn't Rancho Santa Fe.



Misplaced improvements can be frustrating as anything to sell. Even if you do get an offer for $550,000, when the appraisal comes in at $490,000, that's all the lender will loan on. In fact, the vast majority of lenders won't fund if the total encumbrances are more than the appraisal, so even if you are in a position to offer a seller carryback for part of the price, it's just not going to work unless the down payment is at least equal to the difference between the appraisal and purchase price. How many people do you think want to put down $60,000 of their own money just so they can go through the hassle of obtaining 100% financing, breaking the loan into a first and a second or paying PMI? How many people are even going to have $60,000 to put down if they wanted to? Vanishingly few right now. What happens to most accepted offers is they waste 30 to 60 days in "pending," and then they fall out of escrow and you are back to square one. It's just a cold hard fact that if the proposed down payment won't at least cover the difference, you almost certainly don't have a transaction.



The way appraisers find comps is not by going out five, ten, or fifteen miles to find the comparable properties. Comps almost always have to be within one mile, and lenders prefer with half a mile. Further out, the appraiser is going to have to justify picking those properties as opposed to closer ones. The character of the neighborhood has to be very similar as well as the characteristics of the properties.



Often, in the case of misplaced improvements, someone suggests appraisal fraud. By some strange coincidence, this is almost always the owner, the listing agent, or both. Find an accommodating appraiser. Except that appraisal fraud is, well, fraud. Not to mention a violation of fiduciary duty, unless the buyer is stupid enough to choose to be unrepresented, and even there a good case can be made in law that this nasty seller and their agent took advantage of this poor ignorant buyer. No. Thank. You. There are reasons why there are limits to the lengths good agents will go to to make a transaction happen, and this is one of those cases where those limits are short, sharp, and crystal clear.



So we have seem that misplaced improvements are a disaster for the seller, while being a limited opportunity for a certain class of buyer, but they are tough transactions to make happen for a listing agent, and there is no glory in them. The seller is not going to be happy with the sales price, and it's almost certainly going to take longer than everything else around it to sell. I'm brutally frank with owners of misplaced improvements, because if they don't want to listen to what I tell them, they're not going to price the property appropriately or negotiate in the proper frame of mind, both of which are elements of a failed listing. Failed listings don't do anything good for anyone, and I prefer not to be a part of them. I'm not going to get paid, and everybody's going to end up angry at everyone else, which means it's likely to cost me some future clients also. I'd rather walk away before it gets started.



Caveat Emptor


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on April 20, 2007 10:01 AM.

Hot Bargain Property April 19, 2007 was the previous entry in this blog.

What Type of Real Estate Listing Agent to Choose is the next entry in this blog.

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