Friday 19 July 2019

Fields of dreams: But now spuds grow on the Bertie Bowl site

Those who chase properties seized by the banks in the US are known as "bottom feeders". They are the hard-nosed people who can scent distress and drive a hard bargain. And, it seems, there are a fair few of them in Ireland these days.

They are among the 10,000 people who rushed to download the list of 850 properties NAMA has taken from bust developers and investors and which are now up for sale. They include everything from bedsits to half-built apartment blocks, quarries to commercial premises, golf courses and green fields. They are just some of the debris from the property crash which can all be bought for a song.

"Everything on the NAMA list is for sale, unless it is rented," says receiver Ken Fennell of Kavanagh Fennell. And everything on that list is cheap. "The guide prices are realistic. There have been some offers slightly below these levels but the prices being sought have been set very low," he adds.

A month after the list was published, receivers and auctioneers who are handling these sales are reporting a reasonable level of interest from individuals who still have a few bob, or who can at least still get a bank loan to buy property.

Of particular interest are the 24 land banks on the list, described as agricultural land, in almost every county in the country. None are believed to be farms repossessed by banks. Indeed, receivers generally advise that there is no point in trying to sell a repossessed farm at an auction because nothing more than €1 is likely to be offered where there is hostility and bad feeling about what has happened to the land owners.

But there doesn't seem to be any resentment about buying the agricultural land or other sites now being sold. As far as NAMA is concerned, there are deals to be done, and the quicker the better.

The agency paid €6bn for the loans taken out for the land banks that are now on its books, which is a massive discount to the price it was worth at the height of the property boom. The agency has valued some empty sites as agricultural land rather than development land, which means they believe it is worth as much as 97pc less than the owner bought it for. This suggests there is no hope that one day something will be built there that could turn a profit.

But it remains viable for farming and farmers are coming forward to reclaim it. "That wouldn't be surprising," says Michael McAteer of Grant Thornton, the firm handling a large number of the NAMA properties. "The farmer who sold is often the obvious and only person who can buy it back because in many cases the sites are landlocked and there may be no right of way, making it difficult to sell to anyone else," he adds.

In all cases NAMA has told the receivers to draw up a business plan to show how to get the best price for each parcel of land and once these have been finalised there will be agreement to either "sell", "develop" or "hold" it.

"If an asset can be sold today and has value then there is a hurry to sell it," Mr McAteer reveals.

Another receiver, Michael Cotter of Ernst & Young, is optimistic that much of the land will be sold in the near term. He is mostly dealing with plots of land where "development has commenced", in other words a site with a half-built apartment or retail unit abandoned by a broke developer. And, as unattractive as this might seem, Mr Cotter says there are a few buyers who are bidding for them.

TYPICALLY this will be purchased by a local builder who can buy the site at a good price, finish it off and sell the completed properties. Or could this be an opportunity for the developer who lost a fortune to ultimately get it back at a knock-down price?

Sites put on the market by NAMA require the purchaser to provide a letter stating they have no links to the owner, Mr Cotter says. "If, down the line, it turns out that they do have a connection with them I am not sure what they can do. All we can do is take all reasonable precautions when making the sale."

NAMA says it has the legal powers to prevent this from happening and there are processes in place to stop it from occurring.

Valuing a site where there are incomplete structures isn't straightforward. Mr Cotter explains they have to estimate how much money it will cost the buyer to finish building it and the price these apartments or houses might eventually sell for.

"They may have to go back for retention," he says of sites where the planning permission has expired, for example.

NAMA has said that some of the half-finished properties may be demolished to make the land attractive to a buyer, but experts believe the agency will be reluctant to do this, mainly because of the costs involved. There are a few golf courses up for sale as well that may also be turned back into farmland. This may be the best way for NAMA to get value for the taxpayer. So your putting green could very well be turned into a silage field.

All of the properties NAMA has passed on to the receivers will be sold by estate agents as part of its efforts to reassure the public these sales are above board. A receiver can't negotiate directly with a prospective buyer. They have to deal with the auctioneer.

One estate agent who specialises in the farm sector said the vast amount of lands now being sold by NAMA have the potential to flood the market. "It is going to be difficult to shift all of the land," he says, much of which he describes as "mixed" quality.

Ken Fennell says that good land and properties in good areas will be sold at bargain basement prices. The bottom feeders will find their bargains there. It's the poor sites that are not even suitable for agriculture that could be left on NAMA's books for some time.

Irish Independent

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