Thursday, January 10, 2008

Lennar's New Homes Fetch 60% Less as U.S. Market Slump Deepens

By Bob Ivry

Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Lennar Corp.'s November sale of 11,000 properties in eight states set a price that may mark the bottom for the U.S. housing market: 40 cents on the dollar.

That's how much Morgan Stanley Real Estate paid for an 80 percent stake in the 32 communities, 60 percent less than the price at which the properties were valued just two months earlier. That's also what some investors say they would pay for distressed land, condominiums, homes and whole developments, whether it's now or later this year.

``If you're an opportunistic buyer with enough cash and credit, it will be one of the best opportunities for acquiring property in our lifetime,'' said Jack McCabe, whose McCabe Research & Consulting LLC in Deerfield Beach, Florida, advises hedge funds and other investors on real estate sales.

As the U.S. housing slump drags into its third year, sellers will start cutting prices as much as it takes to find buyers, said Marcel Arsenault, a self-described ``vulture investor.'' Properties will be available to buyers with the financial strength to ride out the slide. Now that a price has been set, all that's left is the waiting.

Arsenault, based in Broomfield, Colorado, bought real estate during the savings-and-loan collapse of the early 1990s. He said he has put together a $200 million fund he expects to expand to $800 million this year to buy distressed condos.

`Eroding by the Minute'

``We're watching Denver, Phoenix, Austin and Tucson, but South Florida is our principal focus,'' said Arsenault, 60. ``If you're a vulture, Florida has more carrion. This stuff is lying on the ground. It's lost life. Some of the stuff in Phoenix is still breathing. Perhaps not for long.''

Arsenault said he and his three partners may buy a block of about 50 new, unsold condominiums in Orlando, Florida. They have a price in mind and they're willing to wait until they get it: 40 cents on the dollar.

``There's a risk to buying too early in the downturn, but buying too expensive is our biggest pitfall,'' he said.

Companies such as Miami-based Lennar, the biggest U.S. homebuilder by revenue, need to generate cash to make up for slowing home sales, especially this time of year, said Vicki Bryan, a Friendswood, Texas-based senior high-yield debt analyst for Gimme Credit LLC.

``They sold land at 40 cents on the dollar and they're happy to get it,'' Bryan said. ``The value of land is eroding by the minute.''

$10,000 an Acre

New-home sales fell to a 12-year low in November as rising foreclosures, increased credit restrictions and a swelling inventory of unsold houses have persuaded potential buyers to wait.

More than half of all U.S. home sales occur in April, May and June, according to Frank Nothaft, chief economist at McLean, Virginia-based Freddie Mac, the No. 2 U.S. mortgage buyer.

About 150 so-called real estate opportunity funds have been formed to buy distressed properties and other assets, a 21 percent increase over the number this time last year and an all- time high, according to Real Estate Alert, a trade publication based in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Fort Worth, Texas-based D.R. Horton Inc., the biggest U.S. homebuilder by market value, sold 20,000 lots on 6,884 acres outside Phoenix to Wolff Co., a closely held real estate investment and development company based in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Langley Properties of Gilbert, Arizona, in November.

The price, $70 million, or about $10,000 an acre, was lower than the sale price for the same land that Horton had in escrow six months ago, said Wolff Co-President Tim Wolff.

Land Inventory

``We are going to wait for as long as it takes the market to recover and figure it out from there,'' Wolff said.

The sale reduced the amount of time D.R. Horton calculates it would take to sell off all its land by about six months, to five years, Chief Executive Officer Donald Tomnitz said in a November conference call with analysts.

``We're going to be looking to sell land opportunistically,'' Stacey Dwyer, the company's executive vice president and treasurer, said in the call.

Standard Pacific Corp., the worst-performing of the 15 companies in the Standard & Poor's Supercomposite Index of Homebuilders last year, sold more than 2,500 home lots, some ready for building and some raw, in the San Antonio area earlier this week.

``Standard Pacific is reviewing a number of ways to adjust our business to changing market conditions,'' the company said in an e-mailed statement. ``As a part of our plan, we sold most of our excess land in San Antonio and will continue to explore ways to optimize our business, while continuing to provide our customers with high quality homes at an excellent value.''

`Aggressive Right Now'

The buyers were Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises Inc. and closely held Covington Capital Corp. The price wasn't disclosed.

``We're very aggressive right now because the homebuilders are in survival mode,'' said Ken Sheer, chief executive officer of Santa Monica, California-based Covington. ``Like any other business group that has some softness, everybody is scrambling to survive. The guys left standing are the guys who are going to be kings of the hill.''

Lawrence Gottesdiener, chairman of Northland Investment Corp. in Newton, Massachusetts, pounced last week when New York- based Tarragon Corp. offered five apartment complexes in Florida and another in South Carolina for $156 million.

``I could say I bought for 50 cents on the dollar of last year's price, because I did, but I think that's a little bit of hyperbole because last year's price was last year,'' Gottesdiener said.

`Portfolio Optimization'

Orleans Homebuilders Inc. of Bensalem, Pennsylvania, sold 1,400 lots to nine different buyers in December for $32 million. The book value of the properties was $86 million, the company said in a statement. Orleans also anticipates receiving about $20 million to $25 million in federal income tax refunds as a result of the sales, the statement said.

Most of the lots, which represented about 18 percent of the land the company owned, were in weaker performing communities in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, said Garry Herdler, the company's executive vice president and chief financial officer. Orleans is keeping properties in the Northeast and the Carolinas, areas where prices have held up well on a relative basis, he said.

``We call this strategy portfolio optimization,'' Herdler said in an interview. ``These sales provided cash to repay bank debt, reduced operational costs and allowed us anticipated significant federal tax refunds.''

John Levy, a real estate investment banker in Richmond, Virginia, said he's passed up opportunities in the past to join forces with homebuilding companies. Now he said he's planning a joint venture with a national builder to buy communities abandoned by bankrupt developers in the middle of construction.

``That's where you can buy at the biggest discount,'' Levy said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bob Ivry in New York at bivry@bloomberg.net .

Last Updated: January 10, 2008 00:24 EST

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