Trouble for investors south of the border?

For luxury-home developers and brokers in Miami and Manhattan who are already contending with slumping prices and slowing demand, the U.S. government’s decision to start scrutinizing all-cash buyers was more bad news.

The Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network said Wednesday that it will seek out the identity of individuals behind limited-liability companies that pay cash for high-end residential real estate in Manhattan and Miami-Dade County. Starting in March, title insurers will be required to name the true “beneficial owner” behind the anonymous entities, FinCen said in a statement.

FinCen is concerned that such opaque deals -- used by wealthy investors seeking to avoid the public gawking that comes with buying expensive property -- may also be made by people attempting to hide assets and launder money, according to the statement. By casting such a wide net, the new disclosure rules may discourage legitimate purchases and further damp interest in high-end sales in the two markets, which are already bracing for a slowdown.

“Part of the large swath of people who purchase under LLCs do it for privacy -- celebrities, the wealthy -- and are not doing something illegal,” said Jonathan Miller, president of New York-based appraiser Miller Samuel Inc. “I’m not downplaying that there aren’t people who are using ill-gotten gains to purchase apartments, but it stereotypes the whole segment and it seems to be some kind of overreach by the federal government. In a cooling market, it certainly isn’t helpful.”


Prices Slipping

Demand for Manhattan’s most-expensive homes is slipping while apartments from a high-end construction boom aimed at wealthy investors pile up on the market. Resale prices for the top 20 percent of the market peaked in February and have fallen every month since then, according to an analysis through October by listings website StreetEasy.

In Miami-Dade County, the stronger dollar is turning away Latin American buyers while 36,000 new units are in the construction pipeline, according to an estimate by South Florida development tracker CraneSpotters.com. The U.S. government measure will hurt sales and may drive investors to other locations such as Panama, said Peter Zalewski, owner of CraneSpotters. Their disappearance may lead to price declines in the market because overseas buyers, seeking a haven from the financial turmoil of their home countries, are often willing to pay more, Zalewski said.

“It’s a killer for Miami -- not because we’re afraid of drug buyers,” said Related Group of Florida Chief Executive Officer Jorge Perez, the billionaire developer known as the state’s “Condo King.” “You have to remember that a lot of wealthy people, particularly in South America, are very, very shy about disclosing their wealth.”


One57 Penthouse

Many deals at New York’s ultra-luxury towers are made by LLCs, including the first to close at 432 Park Ave., the tallest completed residential building in the Western Hemisphere. The 35th-floor condominium was purchased in December for $18.1 million, according to city property records made public last week. The most expensive closed sale of an apartment in New York City, the $100.5 million purchase of a penthouse atop Extell Development Co.’s One57, was to a buyer known only as P89-90 LLC.

“Just hearing that it’s going to be scrutinized by the United States government is going to give people pause on certain high-end purchases,” said Keith Pattiz, head of the real estate group at New York law firm McDermott Will & Emery, who has helped overseas buyers acquire property in some of Manhattan’s glitziest new condo developments. “People just don’t want everyone to know that they’re buying a $50 million apartment.”

Wealthy and foreign buyers might choose to keep their names hidden because of concerns about their personal security or a desire for privacy, said Leonard Steinberg, president of New York brokerage Compass.


‘Crazy Paparazzi’

“I challenge them to walk one day in the shoes of a really famous person to know what it feels like to be hounded like an animal,” Steinberg said of the government. “I’ve seen crazy paparazzi driving the wrong way down a one-way street just to get one stupid picture. Famous and rich people have children, too, and there’s a level of protection that should be provided for these people.”

The New York Times last year examined the increasing use of anonymous shell companies by global buyers seeking havens for cash. Among the findings were that 64 percent of condos at Manhattan’s Time Warner Center were owned by shell companies, and that at least 16 foreigners who have owned in the building have been targeted by government investigations. Secret buyers included former Russian senators, a Greek businessman who was arrested as part of a corruption sweep in his home country and a financier linked to the prime minister of Malaysia, according to the paper. Nationwide, almost half of the most-expensive homes are bought through shell companies, the Times reported.

The disclosure rules will take effect on March 1 and expire on Aug. 27, according to the statement from FinCen, the part of the Treasury Department that collects and analyzes data to safeguard the financial system from illicit use and combat money laundering.


Developer Scrutiny

The scrutiny may not be able to go beyond what some developers already apply to their buyers, said Kevin Maloney, principal and founder of Property Markets Group, which builds condos in both New York and Miami. As many as 60 percent of his firm’s sales are to buyers making their deals through LLCs, he said.

“For us, we meet and we talk and we get to know at some level the face of the LLC,” said Maloney, whose projects include a 1,400-foot (427-meter) tower under construction on Manhattan’s West 57th Street and the 190-unit Echo Aventura outside of Miami.

“We have turned away people who we think have unsavory pasts, so we do as much due diligence as possible.” Maloney said. “But if you want to put a guy up front and have him be the financial face of the LLC, there’s not much you can do.”
 
Perez of the Related Group, which has 10 condo towers under construction in South Florida, said the Treasury Department should find a way to make sure buyers “tell the truth about where their money is coming from” without forcing them to make a public disclosure.

“Remember, in their countries, they are afraid of being kidnapped, they are afraid of being killed, so privacy is a huge thing,” Perez said. “They don’t want the press to say in Colombia, ‘This guy buys $20 million condos.”’


Oshrat Carmiel, Prashant Gopal and Bill Faries
Bloomberg News

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