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Maverick Real Estate InvestingThe Art of Buying and Selling Properties Like Trump, Zell, Simon, and the World's Greatest Land Owners
By Steve Bergsman
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-46879-7
Chapter OneMake a Good Deal
Finding the right location and lining up good lenders are some of the easier aspects to buying real estate. What's tricky is negotiating a good deal. Patience is a virtue in the pursuit of getting what you want. But research, due diligence, planning, and flexibility are just as important.
When it comes right down to it, the best advice for real estate investors is to practice patience. Though there are many instances when it is necessary to act quickly, patience is a virtue even in situations where time is of the essence.
As one case in point, right after the dust cleared from Equity Office Properties' initial public offering in 1997, the real estate investment trust's chairman, Sam Zell, began planning a major expansion. Caught in his crosshairs was another real estate investment trust (REIT), Cornerstone Properties, which he wanted to own.
Zell knew that although Cornerstone had managed to quickly grow its portfolio of properties, the New York-based REIT was smaller and would have trouble gaining access to the capital markets. It took three years, but Zell finally snared his prey, buying the company for $4.6 billion.
The key to this deal was persuading a Dutch pension fund, which owned about 30 percentof Cornerstone, to sell. Although Zell clearly coveted the company's 15 million square feet of office space, much of which was located in the same cities where Equity Office Properties already had a presence, he took his time with the pension fund. "After three years, the timing was right," Zell said.
Convincing the fund to sell was only the first part of the deal. The bigger challenges were ahead. Zell wanted the transaction to take place on his terms, plus he had to convince a group of banks to do the funding. A notoriously tough bargainer, Zell eventually agreed to pay $18 per share in stock and cash in what amounted to adding a 20 percent premium to the stock price at that time.
Equity Office Properties assumed $1.83 billion in Cornerstone debt, but the total price tag amounted to the equivalent of Cornerstone's net asset value-no more, no less.
Since the investment banks were happy to finance the deal, Zell wrangled additional financing, including a $1 billion bridge loan, a $1 billion revolving credit facility, and a $500 million bond offering.
Patience and slow, deliberate negotiations produced for Equity Office Properties a huge addition to its portfolio, along with plenty of capital leeway for anything else Zell might stumble across.
If three years seems like a long time, in the real estate business, it's really not. Hamid Moghadam, president and chief executive officer of San Francisco-based AMB Property Corporation, tells of pursuing a deal for two Kennedy International Airport cargo facilities for two and a half years before nailing down the properties. For Moghadam, it was also a matter of slowly and deliberately convincing the seller to come to the table.
TAKE IT SLOW
There are generally three parts to a real estate deal of any magnitude: coming to a conclusion with the seller, arranging capital from lenders, and-if there are partners-making sure everyone is headed in the same direction. There is no trick to successful negotiating. What works best is knowledge, persistence, and a clear understanding of what everyone wants to accomplish before signing on the dotted line.
Where novices often trip up, even if they find the right real estate in the right location, is falling in love with the property. Pursuit becomes too ardent and clearheadedness disappears. As noted in the Sam Zell and Hamid Moghadam transactions, both were intent on getting their acquisition targets, but neither was compelled to rush into a transaction that was not in his favor.
Most real estate deals eventually collapse when investors spot a potential target-perhaps in a very good location-and feel the need to jump into negotiations under the assumption that someone else might come in to compete in the bidding.
"The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it," says Donald Trump, one of the most celebrated and successful real estate deal makers of them all. "That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you're dead."
This kind of situation puts the buyer entirely at the mercy of the seller, who has his or her own goals and price points in mind. Generally, the seller's goals will infringe on you attaining your goals. And if you don't have strategic goals other than ownership in mind, sometimes it is best to stay out of the market in the first place.
What's also interesting to note about the Zell and Moghadam examples is that the target portfolio and properties weren't for sale until the potential acquirers made inquiries. That is, there was no for-sale sign hung on the front window. In all likelihood, the sellers were not initially happy to see they were the targets of such aggressive buyers. But once they both agreed, everyone got what they wanted.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
The discovery of potential targets usually comes about through a combination of industry knowledge and careful due diligence on prospective properties. That is the first step in deal making-either you know the market, you have researched the market, you have performed due diligence on the individual property, or you have done all three.
Angling for the upper hand in any deal requires knowledge, because in real estate looks can be deceiving. Let's say a three-year-old office building that is 95 percent occupied comes on the market. The handsome property is located in a very hot, suburban real estate market. While it certainly fits a strategic goal, is it really as good as it looks? Suppose three new office buildings are scheduled to come online in the next year, or that one of the lead tenants is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, or that the existing tenants have relatively low leases and, with higher vacancies in surrounding buildings, the likelihood of substantially raising rents remains low. Once you dig deeper and discover these factors, you might conclude that what seems like a good deal is really no bargain at all.
CAREFULLY CRUNCH THE NUMBERS
There is an old negotiating axiom that in a buy-and-sell situation, you shouldn't be the first to state a price. In reality, a workable price will be decided no matter who opens negotiations. The more important point is to decide what form the payment will take and over what period of time before entering into discussions about what you will pay for a property. In addition, if the price being offered is a number that is considerably lower than the seller expects, be able to back up your reasoning for the low bid (the property has serious maintenance issues, competition is rushing to build, etc.).
Donald Trump twists this important point to form a crucial corollary: "Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself." As Trump notes, he always goes into a deal anticipating the worst. Then, if he can live with the worst-case scenario, the upside should become apparent. That is especially true when calculating financial risk. You have to know whether you will be able to remain standing if the unexpected happens.
It is also important to have a good handle on your financing options before negotiations conclude. Once the seller accepts your bid, you don't want to be scrambling to find capital, which is time-consuming and could endanger the transaction. Although a deal might take weeks or even months to arrange, once everyone is in agreement, it needs to be concluded quickly.
Major deal makers in real estate are generally of like mind when it comes to "squeezing the deal," that is, getting as much as possible from either the seller or lenders. Their collective advice: Don't do it. If your general financial requirements are being met, there is no point in creating hard feelings by trying to get more, because at some point in the future, you could be working with the same folks again on another transaction. This is particularly true if you plan to invest in a number of properties, and especially applies to your dealings with banks (which have very good memories).
"You need to approach every deal as if it is your last," adds Douglas Shorenstein of the Shorenstein Company. "You shouldn't be looking to squeeze the lender, squeeze the broker, squeeze the seller. You may be dealing with most of those people again on another property. You must have a reputation for knowing what you are doing."
John Kukral, president and chief executive officer of Blackstone Real Estate Advisors, a New York-based real estate opportunity fund, claims he spends a lot of time keeping a very good relationship with lenders, trying to understand their business, and learning how he can make their business better for them.
"If I have a transaction that is going to be a clear moneymaker, I don't need to get the last 50 basis points [0.5 percent] out of a loan," he says. "I'm not going to beat up the lender. If this is a great deal, let's get it done quickly. I don't want to spend months negotiating with the lender."
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
What is interesting about the Zell and Moghadam deals we examined earlier in this chapter is that the sellers did not originally intend to unload their properties. But in most transactions, the seller is motivated, though the motivations are not always clear. Therefore, you should ask the following question: Why does the seller want to unload this particular property or portfolio? Generally, it's not anything sinister. It may be nothing more than the seller needing money to buy another property. Even in situations of desperation, properties for sale are rarely relinquished at highly discounted prices. That is why it's helpful to know the circumstances behind a willing sale. Often a little homework will reveal a bargaining chip that you can use to your advantage.
"What I try to do is work more than anybody so I can understand the asset better," says Blackstone's Kukral. "You have to dig deeper to find something that other people do not know about the asset."
Trump also espouses the concept of "knowing your market," but he claims he doesn't rely on number-crunching researchers. Instead he does his own research on the street because, as he likes to boast, he has the instinct and prefers to draw his own conclusions.
PLAN AHEAD, YET REMAIN FLEXIBLE
After patience and research, the third important part of successful deal making is planning. Deals can be simple or very complicated with a lot of moving parts. The deal should be sketched out from start to finish, including what will happen to the property if your bid is accepted.
Obviously, there are many twists, turns, and bargaining ploys involved in a deal that cannot be planned in advance. Nevertheless, it is important to stay focused on the process and the outcome. There are some intuitive deal makers who can sense the next turn before it happens. The rest of us have to compensate for our lack of intuition by being organized, well planned, anticipatory, and focused.
One of Trump's axioms is to "think big" when approaching a deal. One of the keys to thinking big is "total focus."
By being focused and organized, it is more difficult to fall prey to that must-win-at-all-costs emotion, which generally leads to bad deals. One has to know going in that there are limits to any bid, mostly based on one's liquidity and-for income properties-the ability to recoup the cost through the asset's cash flow. No deal is worth taking on more risk than whatever limits you have initially established-either on paper or through your own intuitiveness.
It is also important to ready a flexible response to the odd twists that sometimes spring up unexpectedly. When Trump was shopping around for property to build his first casino in Atlantic City, he suddenly discovered that Holiday Inn was knocking at his door, wanting to be a partner. Trump didn't feel he needed the big hotel company, nor did he want a partner, but Holiday Inn offered him a deal that was too good to pass up. They would reimburse Trump for the money he had in the transaction, finance all construction, and guarantee him against loss for five years. Instead of owning 100 percent of the project and accepting all the risk, he opted to take 50 percent of the deal without any cost at all. As for the partnership, a few years later Trump bought out Holiday Inn's shares.
Trump, a serial deal maker, says he protects himself by being flexible. "I never get attached to one deal or one approach. I keep a lot of balls in the air because most deals fall out no matter how promising they seem at first."
Trump is also not afraid to drop a deal that is not unfolding to his expectations.
One of his best transactions ever was one in which he seemingly ended up on the losing side. In 1987, Trump set his sights on acquiring Resorts International, an Atlantic City, New Jersey-based hotel and casino owner. His initial move was to acquire $96 million worth of Resorts International Class B stock for $80 million. While this netted him just 12 percent of the company's equity, it gave him 90 percent of the shareholder votes. His intention was to eventually buy the rest of shares and take the company private.
Merv Griffin, the former singer and talk-show host, started playing entrepreneur after his fledging entertainment career cooled down. Seeing a chance to outtrump the Donald, Griffin bid $35 a share for Resorts International, a 60 percent premium over the $22 a share Trump was willing to spend.
Trump knew he couldn't outbid the interloper and negotiated the best bargain he could, selling his shares to Griffin. That netted Trump $12 million. He also got the then-unfinished Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City as part of the deal.
As for Griffin, he overspent by a wide margin for Resorts International. By 1989, Resorts International's debt service was cruising along at $133 million, but the company's estimated cash flow was under $30 million. Resorts International quickly fell into Chapter 11.
Even Trump knows his financial limitations. He initially let Griffin get the best of him on the Resorts International acquisition. But he was flexible enough to negotiate something out of the transaction, which turned out to be the winning hand in an eventually messy outcome.
It is also important to remember that sometimes you get a second chance. Many deals fall apart for one reason or another. When that happens, sellers and their brokers turn to the next buyer in line. Even deals that come to fruition sometimes go awry for the buyer, meaning the property could turn up on the market again at a better price point down the line.
Excerpted from Maverick Real Estate Investing by Steve Bergsman Excerpted by permission.
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