The new wave of condos on the drawing boards for Miami are as varied as the tiny studios at MyBrickell downtown and the palatial 7,000-square-foot penthouses at The Grove at Grand Bay. But most of them share a common financing strategy.
It’s called OPM — other people’s money.
After Florida’s worst real-estate collapse, banks are mostly still balking at lending for condominium construction, though much of the glut from the last debacle has been absorbed sooner than predicted.
So developers — eager to strike quickly in the face of fresh demand — are persuading cash-rich buyers, mostly foreigners, to plunk down big deposits on pre-construction deals for cutting-edge towers that are touted as nothing less than transformational for Miami.
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New projects boast come-ons such as automated parking; rooftop pools with private cabanas; maid, butler and chef services in smart, green buildings, designed to make the existing new towers look so last week.
“As long as you offer value versus the perceived value of the units, you’re going to get buyers willing to finance the construction and wait to get the property,” said Carlos Rosso, condo division president at The Related Group, which has led the charge on such buyer-financed projects. “I think this is a lot healthier market. Buyers are going to be a lot more wary about what they are buying and who they’re giving their money to.”
Under the new model, condo buyers are agreeing to put up as much as 80 percent in a series of down payments during construction. Ten percent of each deposit is kept safe in an account the developer doesn’t touch, as required by state law. The rest is available for construction.
That shift of risk to the buyer is a stark change from the past, when buyers typically put up 20 percent for pre-construction projects in Miami, with 10 percent set aside in escrow and 10 percent at risk for construction. The balance was due at closing when they got the keys.
Now, it is the buyers, not the banks, who are in danger of big losses if a project goes south. And when it comes to recovering their lost money, buyers are behind most other creditors.
“This is a handshake. If you have a reputable developer who lives up to his obligation, you won’t have to talk to me or anyone else,’’ said Thomas Lehman, a bankruptcy attorney with Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman in Miami. “You’re putting a lot of money at risk with a developer on a promise to complete the project. You’re not getting a mortgage You’re not getting collateral. You’re getting a promise.”
Still, there are a fair number of takers for the new cash-heavy deals, which are similar to the financing model in South America.
At least nine projects are already in the works in Miami using the new financing model, according to data from Miami-based Condo Vultures LLC, a real estate consultancy that closely monitors the South Florida market. Latin Americans, Europeans and Canadians, in particular, have been ready to ante up cash and wait for a unit to materialize in a couple of years.
“It’s a really new model we haven’t seen before in South Florida,” said Peter Zalewski, a principal at Condo Vultures, which has assembled a list of more than 50 potential projects in some stage of planning in South Florida — though many may never materialize.
Patricia Musa, an agent with Elite International in Miami, is selling a lot of pre-construction units to Brazilians, and signed up for two units herself — one at 400 Sunny Isles and another at Brickell House downtown. Latin Americans, she said, are comfortable with big deposits, which are customary back home. In Miami, she said, “You put little by little [as the project advances.] You have time to rest, to breathe a little between payments.’’
Alejo Reimann, a 37-year-old Argentine who lives in Miami Beach, is buying two units in Brickell House as rentals. All told, he will put down 70 percent before closing on the condos two years from now. “I saw a very good investment opportunity,” said Reimann, who was contacted through the developer. “I see Miami long term as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.”
Miami-based Related, which is pouring concrete for the 10th floor of its MyBrickell project at 30 SE Sixth Street, has contracts on 95 percent of the 192 units planned for the 25-story project, according to Rosso. More deposit installments are due as the project hits benchmarks, for a total of 80 percent before closing.
In September, Related plans to begin construction of Millecento, a 42-story tower with 382 units at 1100 South Miami Avenue and already has 90 percent of the units under contract with 20 percent down, he said.
The project requires buyers to make a series of deposits totaling 50 percent of the price (15 percent is due when construction begins and 15 percent when the building is topped off) with the other 50 percent due at closing.
Harvey Hernandez’s Newgard Development Group is developing BrickellHouse, a 46-story, 374-unit tower at 1300 Brickell Bay Drive, largely with buyer deposits.
Developers say the new approach weeds out speculators, who upended projects in the last boom. When prices cratered, droves of buyers walked away from 20 percent deposits and refused to close on new units, leaving developers unable to pay their banks.
“The supply of buyers is less, but they’re more real. They’re not relying on debt,” said David Martin, president and chief operating officer at Terra Group, which plans two high-end buildings on the Grand Bay site with sweeping 12-foot ceilings and just two or three units per floor, a total of 96 residences, designed by hip Danish “starchitect’’ Bjarke Ingels Group. Terra Group requires 50 percent deposits prior to starting construction and the balance at closing and says it is getting local as well as international buyers.
“When we start construction, we are going to be fully funded,’’ said Martin.
The interest-free deposits provide cheap financing that developers say enables them to sell units at lower prices. But a deposit is not unlike an unsecured loan. If a project goes sour, other creditors have priority over unit buyers. Any bank that lends to a developer is certain to require collateral. Construction companies also usually have priority rights to get paid.
If things go sideways, there might not be much left for unit buyers.
Banks lending for construction typically track a project’s progress before disbursing each stage of funding. But with the new model, buyers are placing more trust in the developer. “Who is looking [how funds are spent]? No one really is doing that,” said William P. Sklar, a real-estate attorney at Akerman Senterfitt and condominium law expert who teaches at the University of Miami.
The key, say experts, is to choose a developer with a solid record. Even so, sales contracts typically limit developers’ liability should things go wrong.
Related Group’s MyBrickell project is typical.
Jorge Perez, Related’s CEO, has built more condos than just about anyone. But the contract isn’t with Jorge Perez or the Related Group. It’s with a newly created entity called TRG Brickell Station Ltd, a limited partnership.
According to the prospectus, “The developer is a relatively newly formed entity, and as such, has no prior experience in condominium or other real estate development.”
The disclosure papers name Rosso, Related’s condo-division president, as the point person who will be directing the creation and sale, citing his 20-year record in development. But they go on to say his information is provided to comply with state law and is “not intended to create or suggest any personal liability on the part of Mr. Rosso.”
Such limited-liability structures are standard in new condo sales agreements. Each project typically has its own equity investors, such as individuals, private equity funds, REITs and the like.
“That’s the legalese of the attorneys,” said Rosso, noting Related and Perez are named in all marketing materials and brochures. “Related stands behind every project.” He added that the key for buyers is to pick a solid developer.
“I would want to be with a so-called reputable, quality developer,” said Ralph Bekkevold, a Greenberg Traurig attorney who teaches real estate law at the University of Miami. “But even using that standard isn’t a guarantee. All these developers, it used to be they wouldn’t walk away from a project, but now people will walk away and regroup.”