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8:30 AM Monday, March 21, 2005: A real estate firm invited me to an all-day seminar Friday. I was invited as investor, not press. Hence I have to be deliberately vague. The firm and its partners buy commercial properties, typically large office buildings. They occasionally develop large projects, sometimes residential. The clear message: Prices and valuations have risen strongly in recent years and are, apparently continuing to rise. It's much harder to buy now. Everybody and their uncle is buying -- from institutions raising their real estate allocation to overseas buyers eyeing the cheapness of the U.S. dollar.

The big price growth in recent years has been in land. For large development projects this has been great. As the project progresses, the land value rises, allowing increasing borrowing -- necessary and useful to complete the project.

Two themes emerged:
+ "Buy it right. It's the only chance you'll get."
+ "There are opportunities, regardless of market characteristics."

Macro-trends happening in real estate:
+ Cities are going 24-hours. People are moving back to the CBD (central business district) and developing it. The suburbs have sprawled too far for many.
+ Microcities are exploding. They're 50,000 population areas, often on the outskirts of major cities. Residents live, work and play in these small, compact, clean, happy places.
+ In Florida, overseas buyers are buying one house for themselves for vacation and one for investment.
+ Turning rentals into condominiums is exploding in every area -- offices and residential. In Florida, they're even selling "racko-miniums" -- places to store your boat. As condo-izations take rental property off the market, eventually lease rates will rise. But right now, rentals are cheap. Often if the real estate doesn't work as rental, it's converted to a condominium.
+ There is large commercial development of houses in the suburbs. Big builders are expanding.
+ Everyone and their uncle is moving out of adjustable mortgages, locking in fixed rate mortgages. Eventually long-term interest rates will rise.
+ Construction costs have exploded, as the price of buildings materials has gone through the roof. Some contractors are guaranteeing prices for only two weeks. Predicted one speaker, "At some time, the music has to stop here."
+ Many investors are mining for real estate in the stock market. They're buying companies with lots of real estate on their books, e.g. K-Mart.
+ European investors in U.S. real estate investment have lost significantly as a result of the drop in value of the dollar.
+ In sharp contrast to the U.S., Canada is running a budget surplus and a trade surplus. Speakers were bullish on the Canadian dollar.

The five fastest-growing sectors of interest to real estate were:
1. Medicine and healthcare, which is now the largest industry in the country. There'll be a huge need for all sorts of specialty buildings -- from community medical centers to full-care retirement homes, etc.
2. Education. Schools are moving into normal buildings.
3. Government and nonprofits -- especially as they work together.
4. Facilities management. Outsourced companies are managing the real estate that big firms own, but usually manage poorly.
5. Recycling and rehabilitating major areas. Special rehabilitation subcodes are now coming into several communities, which reduce by 20% to 30% the cost of rehabbing older buildings.

Said one speaker, "There's nothing wrong with sitting a little on the sidelines. When things change, they will change fast. At present, there's too much throwing real estate partnerships together, with no real interest or experience in real estate. The partnerships often have no reserves. When something goes wrong, the partnerships will be in trouble. They could be our next turnarounds."

Here was a group of ultra-successful real estate professionals and entrepreneurs. None are predicting an early bust in real estate prices or a strong continuation. All have lived through many cycles -- from the ultra depressed times of the late 1980s-early 1990s to today's booming times. Their feeling: The industry changes; their strategies will change to accommodate the changing times. Said one speaker, "We don't have a crystal ball. We focus less on macro trends and more on running our own business." Today, they seem to be:

+ Selling properties and developments others can easily duplicate.
+ Holding real estate that can't be duplicated -- like prime, gorgeous waterfront land.
+ Locking in low, long-term rates.
+ Looking for opportunities in places others are not looking in -- especially difficult turnarounds or workouts.
+ Working harder.

A most impressive bunch of successful, gracious, wonderful, charitable people. They all talk about what they can, and do to "give back to their communities."

What do to when your industry dies: A friend called. He consulted for telecommunications. But it's collapsed. He was having trouble making a living. Could I find him some business in my old telecom field? My advice: "Get out. Go find an industry that can use your skills." He listened, agreed with me and then told me of a neat new telecom company he liked. I advised, "Give it up. Stop thinking your old love. You can't afford to starve in paradise." Hard advice. He won't listen.

Giving new meaning to gardening.
Remember this photo? A California friend is having his new garden planted.
I learned the tree costs between $2,000 and $3,000. And it will survive. The nursery guarantees it. If it dies, they bring their crane and replace it. Imagine what God could do, if only He had the money!

It was St. Patrick's Day last Thursday.
His wife had been killed in an accident and the police were questioning Finnegan.
"Did she say anything before she died?" asked the sergeant.
"She spoke without interruption for about forty years," said the Irishman.

The Doctor was puzzled "I'm very sorry but I can't diagnose your trouble, Mahoney. I think it must be drink. "
"Don't worry about it Dr. Kelley, I'll come back when you're sober."

"Hey Patrick, do I hear you spitting in the vase on the mantelpiece ?"
"No, Nora, but I'm getting closer all the time !"

Murphy told Quinn that his wife was driving him to drink.
Quinn thinks he's very lucky because his own wife makes him walk.

Mike lay dying on his bed when his wife Brigid came in to him and asked if there was anything he wanted.
Mike said "Brigid, what is that delicious smell coming from the kitchen?"
And Brigid replied "Oh Mike that is a ham I am baking ."
Mike thought, and said "Brigid, as my dying wish I would love to have some of that ham you're cooking."
Brigid said "Oh Mike, I can't give you any. I'm saving it for the wake."

An IRA man shows up at the pearly gates and St. Peter comes out to greet him. St. Peter takes one look and says "I don't think you can get in here.
The IRA man says "Who wants in? You've twenty minutes to get the *#!@ out!"

"Seamus do you understand French?"
" I do if it's spoken in Irish."

Paddy was walking through a graveyard when de came across a headstone with the inscription "Here lies a politician and an honest man."
"Faith now," exclaimed Paddy, "I wonder how they got the two of them in one grave."

Seamus was getting irate and shouted upstairs to his wife," Hurry up or we'll be late."
"Oh, be quiet," replied his wife. "Haven't I been telling you for the last hour that I'll be ready in a minute?"

Two lawyers standing before an Irish judge got into a fierce argument.
At last one lawyer lost his temper and shouted, "Sir you are the biggest fool that I have set eyes on."
"Order, order," said the Irish judge. "You seem to forget that I am in the room."

Incomprehensibly, the last coach of the train on a normal route kept getting smashed up by vandals. A porter came up with an idea.
"Why don't we leave the last coach off!"

Why does it take five Irishmen to change a lightbulb?
One to change the bulb. Four to remark about how grand the old bulb was.

"I hear Murphy died, " said Pat. "Was he in ill long?"
"No," said Mick. "He died in the best of health."

Harry Newton

This column is about my personal search for the perfect investment. I don't give investment advice. For that you have to be registered with regulatory authorities, which I am not. I am a reporter and an investor. I make my daily column -- Monday through Friday -- freely available for three reasons: Writing is good for sorting things out in my brain. Second, the column is research for a book I'm writing called "In Search of the Perfect Investment." Third, I encourage my readers to send me their ideas, concerns and experiences. That way we can all learn together. My email address is . You can't click on my email address. You have to re-type it . This protects me from software scanning the Internet for email addresses to spam. I have no role in choosing the Google ads. Thus I cannot endorse any, though some look mighty interesting. If you click on a link, Google may send me money. That money will help pay Claire's law school tuition. Read more about Google AdSense, click here and here.
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