Just about everyone these days is looking to make a few extra bucks. But with the recent stock market turmoil (thanks loads, Brexit!) and paltry interest rates making savings accounts seem only slightly better than just stuffing cash underneath your Casper mattress for (lumpy) safekeeping, investors are on the prowl for the next lucrative investment.
Enter crowdfunding. It’s a concept that has been defined over the past decade mainly by money-raising schemes for offbeat, feel-good, or flat-out-weird ventures: documentary films, donations for disaster relief, headphones for cats, you name it. So what’s the allure for real estate, a booming business that generally doesn’t seem to need the help of contributions from mass groups? Simply put: It allows average folks to live the speculator’s dream—to pool together their money to invest in apartment complexes, office spaces, even commercial shopping centers.
Give the credit to a change in federal laws that kicked into effect in May. It opened up the concept of getting money back on crowdfunded investments—as opposed to, say, just a free T-shirt via Kickstarter—to the masses, rather than just the wealthy.
As a result, crowdfunding real estate companies have been popping up at a breakneck pace, allowing ordinary men and women to dream of becoming a real estate mogul. (Because real estate moguls are all the rage these days, in case you haven’t noticed.)
But are these types of projects a safe investment for those who don’t have billions (or maybe millions) in the bank like Donald Trump? The experts say: Probably not. After all, you’d be gambling on projects that may never get constructed or rake in profits.
“Crowdfunding can be insanely risky,” warns Sherwood Neiss, principal of Crowdfund Capital Advisors, a venture capital firm that invests in financial technology companies. “Your chances of losing your investment is greater in crowdfunding than [in many] other forms of investing.”
How does crowdfunded real estate work?
Here’s the idea: Instead of getting a token gift for your cash contribution, like you would on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, fledgling venture capitalists will get an agreed-upon amount of money back from their investments—or a percentage of the profits if the projects are successful. Note that little word: if. If they don’t actually get built or turn a profit, investors could say bye-bye to a chunk of cash.
Amateur financiers can now go to websites like Fundrise, iFunding, or CrowdStreet and plunk their money down on various real estate projects ranging from new hotels to shopping complexes. Different companies and endeavors require different minimum investments, charge a variety of fees, and deliver disparate returns.
Fundrise, for example, boasts 12% to 14% average returns on investments as small as $1,000 on its website. Neiss, the venture capitalist, says that if the projects are successful, investors can pocket returns ranging from 8% to 12% annually, or even higher over a span of severals. And CrowdStreet, which set up shop in 2013, delivered an average 14.6% return on investment in 2015, says co-founder Darren Powderly.
“We’ve been buying stocks online for 20 years,” Powderly says. “So why not be able to purchase private investment real estate online as well?”
There are now about 150 crowdfunded real estate platforms in the U.S. “It is exploding,” says Ian Ippolito, a retired entrepreneur and investor who edits The Real Estate Crowdfunding Review, a website with tools and advice for would-be crowdfunders.
Before the change in May, only accredited investors were allowed to put money into crowdfunded projects where money was expected to be returned. Accredited investors are folks who earn at least $200,000 a year ($300,000 if they’re married) or have a net worth of at least $1 million (not including their main home).
But the most recent part of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, or JOBS Act, a four-part law that was originally passed in 2012, opened the doors of crowdfunding to the other 99%. The investments are regulated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Now, those bringing home less than $100,000 a year can invest up to $2,000 annually. Or they can put down up to 5% of either their income or their net worth (whichever is less), according to the SEC. Those making more than $100,000 a year can plunk down up to 10% of their annual earnings or net worth, with a $100,000 cap on investments.
Invest with care
But would-be investors shouldn’t let the SEC’s oversight of the investments lull them into a false sense of security.
“The SEC is not vetting how good the [investment or] sponsor is,” says Paul Habibi, a real estate and finance professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The SEC is vetting for crooks.”
More cautious investors, financial experts suggest, should consider parking their money in debt instead of equity.
In plain English, debt typically refers to shorter-term loans, around three to five years or less, that developers use to fund the projects and are sometimes backed by the property itself, says Seth Oranburg, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Therefore, it’s generally a safer bet.
Equity is more like stock in the project and is therefore more risky if the development never gets off the ground or doesn’t turn a profit. The money can be tied up indefinitely and, in some cases, never returned.
But whether it’s debt or equity, crowdfunded real estate is “a new and risky area that people should only enter if they’re willing and able to risk losing their investment,” Oranburg says. Got that?
A safer alternative
Wannabe real estate magnates who don’t have the stomach to risk their piggy banks may want to consider real estate investment trusts instead, says Matthew Fronczke, a research director at kasina, an industry financial services advisory firm.
REITs are typically corporations that invest in real estate and mortgages, and public REITs are traded on the big financial exchanges like a stock. Typically, investors can sell their stock at any time instead of tying it up for years through crowdfunding.
Another REIT advantage: Much like mutual funds, they typically have skilled investment teams managing the money, vetting potential developers, and putting the deals together. Sure, crowdfunding platforms will often scrutinize the investments they offer. But it’s not always to the same degree.
And everyday folks, no matter how many books they read and online seminars they take, can’t be expected to analyze every project, every construction site, every location, and the demographics and economies of those areas.
They should, however, do their homework and look for local projects they can see go up with their own eyes.
“Be very wary of developers that have no track record, no history, haven’t raised any money, and have no experience of success,” Neiss says. “Look for the smaller investments that you know the community could actually use.”
Advantages of crowdfunded real estate
Despite the risk, there are some advantages to putting your money into these newfangled real estate investments.
Crowdfunding allows amateur financiers to pour their cash into a variety of projects located all over the map—including within their own communities. They’re also in the driver’s seat, choosing where their money goes instead of leaving it up to, say, the REIT.
Bottom line: Aspiring real estate magnates eager to take their chances shouldn’t put more than 10% or 15% of their investment portfolios into crowdfunding, says the Real Estate Crowdfunding Review’s Ippolito. Diversify, diversify, diversify!
“That way when the stock market is doing bad, real estate will probably be doing good and hopefully offsets it,” he says.