Are Land Investments Frozen or Liquid? Do the FEDS Know What Land is Worth Now?


Are Land Investments Frozen or Liquid?

Do the FEDS Know What Land is Worth Now?

By James R. MacCrate, MAI, CRE, ASA

Turbulent times are affecting real estate values as the value of homes, apartment buildings, retail facilities, and office buildings fall in most markets.  I wonder if the auditors, lenders and investors are going to value development projects correctly.

Land gets hit the hardest, but most lenders and developers do not see it that way.  In the real estate market, developers use the three factors of production, land, labor, and capital in order to make a profit.  Developers provide the fourth factor in production, coordination.

In the current environment, the cost of raw materials has escalated, cost of capital is increasing, the value of the finished product, i.e., an office building, condominium units, single family homes, is falling.  In addition, risk takers or developers want a higher return on their equity capital and coordination.  Something must give, and that is land value.  In classic economic theory, land has the last claim to the residual income.

Developers have reported that when analyzing land, they determine the appropriate product that the site can support, given the location, development regulations, and market conditions, and then estimate the probable price that will be paid for the final product.  Deductions are then made for construction costs, profit and overhead, site improvement costs and, if necessary, cost of approval, to arrive at the price per lot of the site with road and utilities to the property line.  Any additional offsite costs to bring the property to that state (extending roads or utilities, or making township contributions) must then be deducted as well.  The resulting figure is the residual land value.

Historical Trends

Because real estate traditionally competes within capital markets for funds, we compared the historical expected returns from investments in land found by surveys completed by MacCrate Associates LLC, Price Waterhouse LLP, and the Korpacz Real Estate Investor Survey to alternative investments, including: residential mortgages, Baa Rated Bonds, and the ten-year treasury.


The chart clearly indicates that returns on land investments began to fall before 9-11 and spiked back up after 9-11 and, then, trended downward as demand for real estate increased because of very favorable financing.  But, the returns prior to 1997 were relatively constant at just over 20%.  It is reasonable to assume that investors will, again, require average returns in excess of 20% for speculative transactions.   In fact, back in the early 1990’s many investors wanted a 25% to 40% return or more to invest in vacant land.  The spreads between the expected land investment return and the ten-year treasury narrowed during the last few years but will probably widen as land as land investments become frozen or illiquid at any price.

Back in the 1990’s

The following chart, from Price Waterhouse LLP, summarizes the expected return by residential developers from 1990 through 1998. Average expected return declined from 27% in 1990 to 20% in 1998.

By 2002, the expected returns were back above 20% briefly, but declined to lower levels that were expected in the mid-1980s when the market was very strong.  Currently the Korpacz Real Estate Investor Survey indicates an average of 17.5%.  That won’t last long.

We Can Only Hope …….

The folks in Washington D.C. who are proposing to buy all these mortgages and closing lending institutions that may be in financial trouble must price the assets correctly to reflect the true risk and return that we deserve as taxpayers and investors.  Proper valuations require an appraisal which would include a market analysis to ensure that the risks are captured in the discounting process to estimate value and unfreeze the land investments that have been made.

A simple hypothetical example can see the impact that the current crisis is having on the value of land for apartment projects:

During periods of weakness, vacancies increase.  In addition, the cost of utilities has been rising.  But, this calculation has not taken into consideration the following:

  • Time value of money
  • Increase in interest carry
  • Time to lease up
  • Increase in marketing costs
  • Real estate taxes, theoretically, could be increasing while the value is declining
  • Possible increase in construction costs, besides interest carry
  • Increased entrepreneurial incentive.

What if the returns regress back to the 1990 returns on vacant land?  What if the highest and best use was as condominium project before?  What happened to the land value when the condominium unit prices are cut in half?  Next time!

For current information, see Apartment Glut Deepens in 2009.

Rick Wincott, MAI, CRE and Jim MacCrate, MAI, CRE with the assistance of Scott Koenig, wrote an article on Land Valuation and Purchase Price Decisions.  You can obtain a copy from Rick Wincott or Jim MacCrate. Originally posted on Soapbox.


About Jim MacCrate

Real estate appraiser and valuation consultant for more than 30 years specializing in reviewing real estate appraisals, risk management and quality control.
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