There is much less than meets the eye in new Treasury Department rules aimed at tracking “secret buyers of luxury property,” as the New York Times put it this morning.
When you look at the new rules here, you see that it will fall to title insurance companies in two U.S. cities (Miami and New York) to report the beneficial ownership of corporate entities that pay more than $3 million in cash for a property.
This blog takes no position on whether there should be more vigilance about who is buying real estate in the U.S. What is clear is that these rules will do little to shed any light on the matter.
If I were a very rich person from Russia, China, Brazil or anywhere else, here are the obvious and inexpensive workarounds I would consider:
- Forgo title insurance. If you have $12 million to spend on a condo you will seldom visit, you will do without title insurance – a policy usually required by banks in exchange for taking your mortgage. Oligarchs need get mortgages. Any doubts about good title can be solved by a competent lawyer who can do the same work as the title searcher, minus underwriting the work with an insurance policy. In any case, many of the properties the government is targeting are new construction where title is much less of an issue.
- Set up a foreign holding company to control the U.S. company buying the property. Have a lawyer in the foreign jurisdiction control that foreign company as the beneficial owner. Once the sale of the U.S. property goes through, transfer the shares of the foreign company to a trust controlled by the rich foreigner. Even if title insurance reported the initial beneficial owner, they would not be able to track subsequent ownership changes overseas of the foreign holding company.
- Buy a place in Hawaii, Palm Beach, or Connecticut. The rules are backward looking. These people buying the properties are not. If they can buy with a corporation or LLC no questions asked somewhere other than New York or Miami, they will do so.
- Instead of buying a place for $4 million in Manhattan, buy two for $2 million. When you have millions and billions to spare, who cares about transaction costs of an extra conveyance?