When it comes to discussing real estate with clients, adviser Michael Martin is able to draw on his own hard-earned experience.

In 2001, Martin, principal and founder of Marius Wealth Management in New York, left a career at Smith Barney to spend what became a decade as a real estate investor, buying, rehabbing and selling properties in New York and Florida.

“I learned some valuable lessons, I can tell you that,” Martin says. Fortunately for his clients, they are lessons he is now able to impart to them.

"I learned some valuable lessons, I can tell you that," says Michael Martin of Marius Wealth Management. "Don't mortgage vacant lots ... which I did. Don't have your wife on the mortgage, too, which I did."
"I learned some valuable lessons, I can tell you that," says Michael Martin of Marius Wealth Management. "Don't mortgage vacant lots ... which I did. Don't have your wife on the mortgage, too, which I did."

The native New Yorker had some home runs renting, buying and selling properties in the Hamptons, the fashionable beach towns on Long Island.

“I knew what renters and buyers wanted in a Hamptons house, and where they wanted to be,” he says. “I knew how far a house could be from the train track, for example. And after seeing a house for the first time during the day and being initially sold on it, I would always go back at night or weekends to uncover any negative surprises, such as crazy neighbors, loud noises or unpleasant odors from, say, a nearby duck farm.”

But Martin didn’t fare as well in Florida.

In 2005, he overpaid for what appeared to be desirable vacant lots fronting a canal in Coral Gables, Florida. What Martin now owes on his mortgages is more than the fair market value of the lots. His waterfront properties are, in real estate lingo, now underwater.

Martin learned the hard way that “vacant lots do not produce rental income if the numbers turn against you at market highs, especially if you need to derive income while you wait for the market to improve.”

'DON'T HAVE YOUR WIFE ON THE MORTGAGE'
"Don’t mortgage vacant lots,” Martin says, “which I did. Don’t have your wife on the mortgage, too, which I did.”

Martin also warns against replicating two other mistakes he says he made: succumbing to FOMO — a fear of missing out — and being “persuaded and influenced by a commission-hungry salesman.”

“I realized I liked being an adviser better,” Martin says. He advises clients that "real estate is not for the faint of heart."
“I realized I liked being an adviser better,” Martin says. He advises clients that "real estate is not for the faint of heart."

Martin returned to the advisory business in 2012.

“I realized I liked being an adviser better,” he says. “Real estate was ultracompetitive, and it’s easier to differentiate yourself as an adviser.”

After two year at Wells Fargo Advisors, he started his own firm in 2014. When high-net-worth clients say they want to invest in real estate, excluding their primary residence, Martin doesn’t mince words.

“Real estate is not for the faint of heart,” he advises them. “It’s a very fickle market. You can’t be emotionally attached. And the lack of liquidity is a huge issue. You’re married to a property until you’re able to sell it, and the options for liquidity are far less than any other investment.”

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Biggest risk of real estate investments
Once you purchase real estate, you are married to it, says adviser Mike Martin.

Martin and other wealth managers stress the need for a detailed and candid conversation covering asset allocation, risk, tax liability, income needs and the consequences of owning an illiquid asset.

Advisers generally recommend that high- and ultrahigh-net-worth clients allocate anywhere from 5% to 30% of a portfolio to real estate as an asset class, with many caveats, of course.

Age and income needs are primary considerations. For older clients who will need income, Ross Fox, founding partner at Cardan Capital Partners in Denver, puts “a higher emphasis on cash flow versus total return. We want to have serial liquidity events in investments that mature over time.”

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"You can't be emotionally attached [to real estate]. And the lack of liquidity is a huge issue." Michael Martin, Marius Wealth Management

For HNW clients, Fox recommends allocating approximately 5% to 15% of assets into real estate investments outside their primary residence. For anything exceeding 15%, clients should “have an affinity with the space” — that is, be real estate professionals themselves.

Being caught at the wrong end of an economic cycle is a major risk, cautions Derek Newcomer, director of investment research at Beacon Pointe Advisors in Newport Beach, California.

Derek Newcomer, director of investment research at Beacon Pinte Advisors, suggests that clients can mitigate risks by diversifying their holdings with multiple assets in different geographic areas.
Derek Newcomer, director of investment research at Beacon Pinte Advisors, suggests that clients can mitigate risks by diversifying their holdings with multiple assets in different geographic areas.

Property location is another critical variable. “If you have a real estate asset in Houston, and the energy business takes a dive, you’re left very exposed,” Newcomer explains. One way to mitigate the risk, he advises clients, is to diversify their holdings with multiple assets in different geographic areas.

WHEN NOT TO RECOMMEND REAL ESTATE
Clients should closely scrutinize maintenance costs, Fox notes. They must analyze tax obligations. And while real estate investments can provide tax relief in some cases, Fox and other advisers say this should not be a primary reason to buy property.

“You can certainly receive favorable tax treatment for some investments, but clients can get too cute by half by trying to [minimize] their taxes,” Fox says.

Lois Basil, principal of the Basil Financial Group in Chicago, says her real estate advice doesn’t vary much, no matter what her client’s tax bracket. “I think there’s a place for real estate in every portfolio, whether mass affluent or high-net-worth,” Basil says. “Leveraged real estate is an excellent hedge against inflation, and tax efficient. Our goal is to have our clients’ net worth divided one-third interest-earning, one-third equities and one-third real estate.”

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How real estate investments benefit clients
Retirees can use real estate investments as additional income, says adviser Mike Martin.

Only after risks have been discussed and understood can the potential benefits of real estate investments be presented to clients, advisers say. Indeed, it’s imperative.

For wealthy clients, real estate is simply “too big to ignore,” says Alex Stimpson, founding partner and co-CIO of Corient Capital Partners in Newport Beach, California. “Real estate plays an important role as part of overall asset allocation in their portfolios,” he says. “It provides risk diversification because it has a low correlation to the stock market.”

“If you have a real estate asset in Houston, and the energy business takes a dive, you’re left very exposed,” Newcomer says.
“If you have a real estate asset in Houston, and the energy business takes a dive, you’re left very exposed,” Newcomer says.

Real estate is also a good source of income diversification, he adds. While corporate bonds are yielding around 3%, real estate investors should be rewarded with a higher yield — an additional 2% to 5%, Stimpson says — in exchange for taking on lower liquidity.

THE ILLIQUIDITY PREMIUM
This “illiquidity premium” is a key concept when discussing real estate with clients, says Marty Bicknell, chief executive of Leawood, Kansas-based Mariner Wealth Advisors.

Just as clients need to know the risks associated with an investment that isn’t publicly traded, clients “with the patience to ride out economic cycles” can also benefit from illiquidity, Bicknell says, although the premium he seeks is less generous than Stimpson’s.

“The illiquidity premium should be around a 2% to 3% increase over more liquid alternatives,” he says. “If not, it wouldn’t make sense to tie up the capital.”

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"Being caught at the wrong end of an economic cycle is a major risk." Derek Newcomer, Beacon Pointe Advisors

A leading way clients can invest in real estate is through publicly traded REITs. But with yields at historic lows (the Vanguard REIT Index Fund yields a little over 4%), advisers interviewed did not recommend REITs as an optimal real estate strategy.

Direct investments or investments in a private fund were preferred real estate vehicles, and investors can benefit greatly from the capitalization rate, say Stimpson and other wealth managers.

“The cap rate is a powerful predictor of future return and future risks,” Stimpson says. “What you see is usually what you get.”

What are some of the common and not-so-common real estate strategies wealth managers are employing for clients? Please see: Airbnb? Charter Schools? Unusual real estate strategies.

Charles Paikert

Charles Paikert

Charles Paikert is a senior editor at Financial Planning. Follow him on Twitter at @paikert.