The New York Times was half right and half wrong when it reported that the boom in “trophy homes in the sky” is over. The right part: It turns out that there is not an inexhaustible supply of people willing to spend $50 million or more on a condominium they may rarely visit.
The wrong part of the story is that many of these apartments were anything but trophies: they were means to conceal the wealth of the apartment’s beneficial owner. Many were bought by limited liability companies with difficult-to-trace ownership, often using limited liability companies formed in Delaware.
In some cases, the demand for this real estate was the product of capital flight from overseas, but in others it was money from inside the United States.
In January of this year, federal authorities said they would more closely scrutinize large all-cash transactions in New York and Miami.
As we predicted at that time on our other blog The Ethical Investigator, in a post called Four Ways to Evade the New Rules on Luxury Property, the government’s extra scrutiny appears to have driven the buyers into some of the more than 3,000 remaining counties in the United States.
Nobody looking to hide $1 billion puts it all in one bank account. They spread it around to hedge their risk. In the days that I was a financial reporter interviewing private bankers in Hong Kong, they all had the same comment to questions about loyal customers. The clients usually claimed that all their money was with the banker being interviewed, but the bankers didn’t believe it.
As it goes with money in the bank it now goes with pricey real estate in New York. Why put $80 million into one apartment in one of only a dozen or so buildings when you have your pick of thousands of $2 million homes anywhere in the country?
We have been writing about tracking down real estate since this blog was founded, and nothing has changed since our original House Hunting: Tracking Down Real Estate in the U.S.
As we explained, figuring out the name of a shell company that holds real estate is a challenge that can sometimes be cracked, but all-cash transactions don’t have valuable information divulged in mortgages.
However, litigation does. Even very rich people fail to pay gardeners, movers and others who come back and sue them. Newspaper articles are useful too. If a Russian billionaire shows up in a well to do neighborhood, that’s often newsworthy. We can then work backwards from the address to find the name of the company that owns the property.