For a real estate investor looking for a tax shelter, it seemed like a great deal. Partnerships were being offered in a federally subsidized low-income housing project that promised tax write-offs of more than twice the amount of cash invested.
To anyone in the 50 percent income tax bracket, the tax advantages meant the Internal Revenue Service would actually give back more money than went into the project.
But when Washington tax shelter specialist Barry Goodman looked at the fine print, he warned his clients to stay away.
"It was rape, pure and simple, concluded Goodman, director of financial planning for Leoplod & Linowes, one of Washington's biggest independent accounting firms.
Like many accountants, Goodman analyzes prospective real estate investments for clients. For a fee that typically is lower than $1,000, he'll wade through an offering statement, scruitanize the fine print and crunch the numbers through a system he's personally programmed into the small computer incongruously perched atop his walnut desk.
In the write-off partnership, investors were to put more than $1 million into the low-rent housing project over six years. Of that, $80,000 would be used to pay off the mortgage and $9,-500 would pay interest on the loans. All the rest would go to the manager and promotor of the project or their affiliates for various fees and charges.
Among them were "construction supervision fee, construction supervision fee interest, repurchase commitment fee, completion financing commitment fee, initial administration fee, subordianted loan fee, rent-up fee, tax advice, organization fee, letter of credit fee, investor service fee, syndication fee," the offering statement said.
And that didn't include the managing partner's normal share of the profits in the project.
And it wasn't the worst real estate investment deal Goodman has looked at lately.
In city where real estate is everyone's favorite investment and the 50 percent tax bracket is ubiquitious as alligator shirts, a deal that combines real estate and beating the IRS is sure to draw in investor's money.
But too many investors taking a flier in real estate tax shelters are getting stuck, warns Goodman, who looks at better than a hundred such deals a year.
Even with the dramatic tax deductions that are typical of most real estate investments, many of the offers he reviews prove to be far less attractive than they first appear.
His printouts point out that what looks like an attractive investment in a single-family rental house may produce a return of only 3 percent to 5 percent over 20 years. A larger rental project yields a return on investment of about 8 percent, after you face up to paying taxes on the property when it's finally sold. In either case, he notes, government bonds would give a better return with a lot less risk.
Many real estate investors have achieved better returns during the boom years of the last decade because real estate prices have climbed at unprecidented rates, Goodman admits. But he warns his clients that appreciation is unlikely to maintain that pace -- not with the number of new families falling and the hight levels of interest rates on mortgages.
Goodman said he has found "ripoffs" in private-placement investments offered to only a few people by local real estate promotors and in nationally syndicated real estate ventures sold through major borkerage houses.
Most real estate investments are sold are partnerships, because partners in a venture get to claim their share of any tax deductions. In most corporations, the company rather than the stockholders get the tax benefits.
Nevertheless, many of the the partnership offerings are registered with and regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and are subject to federal securities fraud laws.
The two most important things to look at in most real estate investments, he said, are how much you have to pay the people who run the deal and how much you have to pay for the property.
"The general partner's fees and the valuation of the property," are where the pitfalls are most likely to be, he warned in a recent interview and an article in "The Journal of Investing," a $50-a-year publication he edits.
One Washington-area offering he analyzed recently involved the purchase of a suburban office building for $4 million. An affiliate of the firm that organized the deal had bought the building three weeks earlier for $2 million.
The general partner in that deal stood to make a 100 percent markup in less than a month, Goodman pointed out. "To add insult to injury, the IRS has been issuing rulings recently that might preclude the partnership from depreciating such property using $4 million as the basis for depreciation," he warned.
Both that deal and the one that gave more than 90 percent of the money invested to the general partner were offered to Washington investors and were sold by reputable real estate people. Goodman won't name names, saying he's willing to blow the whistle on bad deals, but not to burn people he has to work with.
Calling the two offers "outrageous," Goodman stressed that the benefits to the promotors were carefully spelled out in the offering statements, if potential investors bothered to read the fine print.
The investor who bought into the project with the 100 percent markup for the promotors told Goodman he was attracted to it because the deal was put together by a small group of business people and there was no real estate commission.
Small private partnerships often have more fees and expenses built into them than the widely syndicated arrangements, Goodman cautions. Most stock brokers won't touch the more outlandish deals because there are plenty of better ones that are easier to sell.
Goodman said the rule for investors to follow it that, "the general partner is entitled to make a reasonable return on his time and money, but no more," he said. "The only way to make sure he gets no more from you is the check the offering circular or prospectus or have a professional advisor do it for you."
The general partner, the promotor and their affiliates should collect no more than 20 percent of the investment in fees, commissions and other expenses, Goodman figures.
Another factor is to consider, Goodman added, is the commission the salesperson who offers you an investment will make on the deal.