Adventures in Property Inspections

As a MAI designated commercial appraiser, over the past 10 years, I have conducted a couple of thousand commercial property inspections, and each inspection is as unique as the commercial property appraisal.  During an inspection I am typically accompanied by the owner or the owner’s agent.  Most times the inspections are uneventful, and the owner/agent is helpful in providing insightful property, neighborhood and market area information needed to complete a comprehensive appraisal of the subject property.  However, there have been occasions when the inspection becomes eventful –

The Helpful Owner

I do occasionally encounter owners who want to point out all the subject property’s current or planned amenities that they believe will significantly impact the value.  Earlier this year I appraised an office park complex located parallel to a major highway in central Ohio.  I was advised by the lender that the complex was fully leased and thus the income approach would be required.  During the inspection, the owner shared that he thought it was vital that I consider the fact that he could have a billboard on his property which would generate additional income.  Further, the owner spent a considerable amount of time sharing his marketing brochures to clearly demonstrate the type of tenants he would soon have in the complex.  At the time of the inspection, the owner was the only tenant in the office complex, while the lender thought the property was fully leased.

The Fearful Tenant

On another occasion I was engaged to complete an appraisal of a federally funded senior housing property in Pennsylvania.  This was my second time inspecting the property, my first inspection was for the completion of a capital needs assessment and was approximately 120 days prior.  Upon my arrival for the inspection I was notified by the property manager that one of the tenants (let’s call her Carol) was terribly concerned that I was there to take her dog.  As another tenant (let’s call her Diane) stated that during my first inspection she saw me taking notes and overheard me saying Carol’s dog was too big to live in the complex and would need to be removed from the premises.  Diane made sure she shared this erroneous information with Carol.  And apparently for 120 days Carol lived in horror that her beloved pet would be taken away.  I had to assure the property manager that the information Diane shared was not accurate and that was not the purpose of my inspection.  During the inspection, I found out that Carol and Diane have an on-going feud which I assume is still going strong.

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Eminent Domain: What Options Do Property Owners Have?

As a MAI designated appraiser who completes right-of-way, acquisition and disposition appraisals, I have encountered a variety of situations where property owners are unaware of the complex process involved in a full or partial taking of private property. During this process, the appraiser can in fact assist the property owner in making sure they achieve the best possible outcome when selling their property to a government agency.

For example, once a state agency has determined that property is needed for public use, the property owner does not have an option to simply refuse the sale of their property. However, the government is required to ensure they compensate the owner fairly and cannot place any undue burdens or hardships on the property owners during this process. Thus, when the state claims private property through eminent domain, the property owner can have an impact on getting the best deal possible.

Here are some ways that property owners can make sure they are justly compensated, in the case of a state claim to their property:

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Affordable Multifamily Housing

According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), today there is nowhere in the U.S. where a full-time, minimum wage worker can afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment.[i] Communities across the nation are reporting high levels of evictions, homelessness, and a lack of affordable housing.

So, let’s talk about affordable multifamily housing.

Affordable housing means different things depending on if you are an investor, property manager, tenant or government agency. For me, a commercial appraiser, affordable housing represents complex property types with a myriad of funding, ownership, and rental structures that require careful consideration to define property values, fair market rents, or physical conditions. Or put more simply, affordable housing can be very complicated!

And lining up the financing for affordable housing can seem more insurmountable than trying to convince your wife Valentine’s Day is a made-up holiday– what’s the point in even trying? There are several available sources of funding including bank loans, municipal loans, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), Community Development Block Grants, tax abatements, and other local subsidies or support provided by Community Development Corporations, and other specialized subsidies, tax credits and financing such as assistance by the USDA Rural Development Office (in rural areas).

While there are a lot of possible funding sources, there are often not enough to cover the development costs and it can be tricky to qualify or take a long time to get approved.

As a commercial appraiser, I understand the financial hurdles overcome by developers and providers of affordable housing and in my work, I strive to support the financial well-being of these developments in several ways:

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Small Business

Shortly after becoming a MAI designated appraiser, I founded FRG. The firm was built on a client base of strong regional financial institutions who needed quality commercial real estate appraisals for their loans and portfolio management. For a good three or four years that client base grew as banks provided loans to small businesses that were seeking to expand their own business. However, there has been a shift over the last twenty-four months, and I have noticed a flattening and decline of financial institution business lending.

I can’t say with 100% certainty the reason for the decline, as there is no one single reason for this shift. However, over the last couple of years I have observed some bank lending trends:

Shifting Geographic Focus to High Growth Markets
Several banks that previously held a strong presence in the Midwest have shifted their focus to higher growth areas on the east coast. One such bank is First National Bank of Pennsylvania; in 2015 and 2016 they stated that the Cleveland and Pittsburgh MSAs were focus areas for growth. However, as we moved into 2017 and 2018, their focus shifted to the mid-Atlantic and Southeast. First National Bank confirmed this shift in their 2017 Annual Report, stating that Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point, NC and Washington, DC joined Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland as the bank’s largest commercial regions .

Prioritizing Mid-Cap Companies over Small Businesses
Banks have been shifting their lending to mid-cap companies instead of lending to small businesses. A reason for this shift could be because it is more difficult to package loans under $1M into bonds that can be sold to a third party.

Bank Consolidation and Banks Getting Larger
In the past two years, there has been a great deal of bank consolidation. For example:

• The largest bank headquartered in Michigan, Chemical Financial Corporation acquired Talmer Bank, a less than 100 branch bank also headquartered in Michigan and recently announced a merger with Minnesota-based TCF Financial Corp resulting in the bank becoming one of the 50 largest banks in the country.
• The second largest originator of SBA loans for the state, Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington National Bank acquired First Merit Bank of Akron, Ohio

The Federal Reserve Bank’s Small Business Lending Survey reported that in the third quarter of 2018, there was 1.4% growth in large institution loans for commercial & industrial small business, while mid-sized and small banks decreased their loan activity by 4.2% and 1.5%, respectively. Smaller banks are more likely than large banks to lend to small businesses. Therefore, the consolidation of the banking industry, and the rising average size of lenders, might account for some of the shift away from providing small business credit. According to the Federal Reserve’s Small Business Lending Survey, small banks offer lower interest rates on fixed rate terms loans than large banks, meaning small businesses may be able to secure more favorable loan terms from a smaller bank as well.

These shifts in lending make it hard for a small business seeking funds to expand, buy equipment or secure a building to accomplish their goals. So where can these small businesses turn? Many businesses look to the federal and local government to secure loans when financing is unavailable or too expensive elsewhere.

One example of this is the SBA 7(a) loan program, which is the SBA’s flagship loan program.  Proceeds from 7(a) loans may be used to start a business or assist with operations, acquisition or expansion of an existing business. These loans can offer more “flexibility, longer terms and potentially lower down payments compared to other financing options.”[i]  The average 7(a) loan is ~$420,000. In 2015/2016 there was a peak in both the number of 7(a) loans and the dollar amount loaned to businesses nationwide and since 2016, the number of approved loans has declined across the US.

 

In the last six years in the Midwest, SBA loans have increased. However, these states diverge from the national trends with increasing dollars loaned since 2015. Ohio holds the lead in total dollars loaned, reaching over $930 million in loans approved for the FY2018.

 

Added barrier for small business success: 2019 Government Shutdown

For small business across the United States and particularly those located in the Midwest, SBA loans are critical to support business operations and growth. Unfortunately, the recent government shutdown resulted in many businesses unexpectedly losing out on funds or not being able to obtain the finances they need. For small businesses to succeed, they need to be able to plan for growth. This means being able to reliably pay for and invest in that growth. As a fellow small business owner, I understand how important access to capital can be – and as I have observed the shifts mentioned above in financing options for small businesses, it is more important than ever that political differences be put aside and we keep the government open to ensure needed funds can get into the hands of business owners.

FRG wins contract with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District

Feasibility Research Group (FRG) has been selected to provide Appraisal Services for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

University Heights, OH (January 4, 2019) — FEASIBILITY RESEARCH GROUP (FRG) a real estate appraisal, market research and consulting firm based in Northeast Ohio, has been selected for Appraisal Services with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD), requires professional appraisal services to support its property acquisition activities.  The NEORSD programs that FRG will support include the development of various tunnel, collection sewers, plant upgrades, and green infrastructure components, which will result in a variety of real estate and property impacts.

“FRG looks forward to supporting the development of critical infrastructure with NEORSD” said Gregory Williams FRG‘s Managing Director. “Accurate and timely real estate transactions or valuations from FRG can assist NEORSD in providing superior service to Northeast Ohio residents.”

Appraisal consultants with NEORSD are selected to provide property appraisal, appraisal review, and expert witness services, depending on the needs of each individual project. As an appraisal firm experienced in working with Right of Way projects for public entities, FRG’s managing director is pre-qualified with the Ohio Department of Transportation for acquisition services specifically for value analysis, appraisal, appraisal review and title research.  FRG understands the unique challenges or potential issues that may arise during the public right-of-way acquisition process and will ensure NEORSD complies with the most current regulations and procedures.

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Growth on the Lake: The Power of Green Technology

Over the last couple of years Cleveland has really done a lot to change outsiders’ perception of the city. No longer is the city referred to as the ‘Mistake on the Lake’. In fact, recently I was on an Amtrak train traveling from Washington DC to Baltimore, and in the seat pocket was “The National”, Amtrak’s onboard magazine. And on the front cover of the National was a gorgeous plate of food and the caption “Next Stop: Cleveland – A booming food scene is helping this postindustrial city shake off the rust”. The six-page cover story featured Cleveland’s hippest neighborhoods, celebrity chefs and their restaurants.

After reading the article, I thought to myself, Cleveland really has a lot going for it – exceptional museums, cool neighborhoods, world class healthcare, it has the 2nd largest theater district in the country, stellar higher educational institutions, home of big budget film productions and a championship sports team. And on top of all that, Cleveland is becoming known for making real advances in green technology.

Lake Erie TurbineCleveland, like most metropolitan cities has its environmental issues, whether that be runoff from urban fields or commercial sites contaminated by prior use or contaminated sediments at the bottom of Lake Erie. Cleveland is starting to find unique solutions for these issues.

One of the region’s greatest assets is the Great Lakes, which provide freshwater for drinking, transportation, power and recreation. And 21% of the world’s supply of freshwater comes from the Great Lakes.

So, I am happy that the U.S Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) and the Ohio EPA are working together to find a better solution for where to put the sediment dredged from Lake Erie, a solution that does not include dumping the sediment back into Lake Erie. Recently, it was reported that they are exploring the solution that the Port of Cleveland is using to re-purpose sediment. The Port contracts with a supplier that recycles the dredged sediment and uses some to restore wetlands near the harbors being dredged and sells some of the clean sediment to construction companies to use on their sites. Re-purposing prevented the need to build a containment dike, thus saving the Port of Cleveland $150 million.

Another green technology project in development is the placing of six (6) 3.45-megawatt wind turbines eight miles off the shore of Lake Erie. The goal of putting wind turbines in Lake Erie is to funnel renewable energy into Cleveland’s Public Power infrastructure, enough to generate energy to power 7,000 homes.

Initiatives like these are exciting to see as they build on Cleveland’s strong science and technology competency and continues to diversify the area’s economy. A diversified economy attracts diverse talent from all over the world. The need for more talent can help to increase the area’s population and ultimately increases the need for housing, retail and infrastructure development. All of which are things needed for a thriving city. It’s nice to see ‘Growth on the Lake’.