Among humorist Will Rogers' many memorable quotes is this little ditty: "Buy land. They ain't making any more of the stuff."
That said, real estate investing seems to come in two different flavors. One involves acquiring a parcel of land with a building on it for the purpose of living in it or collecting rent. This effort is deemed a respectable, if not relatively safe, investment. The other way is to purchase a chunk of raw land, which is viewed by some as occupying the riskier fringe of the alternative investment space.
Real estate as a whole took it on the chin during the recession (no surprise, given that it helped spark the conflagration), and there are numerous land parcels out there that are empty reminders of planned developments that never got off the ground. But people who buy these properties and ready them for development say that these are the very reasons why now's the time to get in before the inevitable economic recovery.
"All of our research and acquisition focus since the housing bubble burst has been on the U.S.," says Rob Leinbach, chief operating officer at Walton International Group (USA) in Scottsdale, Ariz. "We view the current environment for acquiring land here as an incredible buying opportunity. We're all cash buyers, so we typically come out of these economic downturns stronger because that's when we accumulate our assets."
Walton's Calgary, Alberta-based parent company focuses on predevelopment land asset management, and until recently, most of that involved properties in Alberta. The company typically works through broker-dealers to find accredited investors to put money in limited partnerships, buying either specific properties or blind pools. Walton entered the U.S. market in 2006 and recently rolled out a new product for the registered investment advisor channel.
As of March 17, 2009 (the date of Walton's most recent track record audit), the simple annualized rate of return for the 31 Alberta properties the company had fully exited (i.e., bought, arranged entitlements for and ultimately sold to developers) was 25.48%. The company hasn't yet fully exited properties in other states and provinces where it does business--Ontario, Arizona, Georgia and Texas.
There are numerous private-equity funds that buy distressed properties and raw land, but evidently only a few companies are reaching out to the advisory market to find investors. Walton is one of them. Another is the Shopoff Group, an Irvine, Calif.-based real estate investment firm that includes a real estate investment trust and a related broker-dealer. The company currently owns properties in Arizona, California and Hawaii.
"Our experience is that working with financial advisors is a long dating process," says William Shopoff, the company's president and chief executive. "We talk to some for two to three years for them to understand our product and how it fits with clients. Only a subset of financial advisors participate in the alternative universe."
From 2006 through 2008, Shopoff says, his company sold $28.8 million in properties where it had $10 million invested. That resulted in a 32% annualized sales profit.
"This isn't a hope business where we buy property and hope it goes up," Shopoff says. "We actively work with municipalities to enhance value during our holding period so that when we liquidate we get an above-average payback."