Crowdfunded Real Estate Investing: Is Due Diligence by Individual Investors Even Possible?

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A surprising takeaway from peer-to-peer lending through Prosper and LendingClub was that the borrowers who most strongly promised to pay you back (e.g. “I promise I will pay you back, so help me God, thank you so much”) turned out to also be the most likely to default. If you extend that to crowdsourced real estate investing, this is probably the analogous statement:

“We exclusively work with leading sponsors on commercial real estate offerings that meet our strict marketplace requirements.”

Reading this WSJ article Missing Millions and a Rabbinical Arbitrator: Real-Estate Deal Gone Bad Hits Popular Crowd Funder (gift article, should bypass paywall) about CrowdStreet, you get more of a peek behind the curtain. The strange title? Apparently one of their sour deals has resulted in $63 million of “missing” investor funds while also stipulating that any disputes be settled by a rabbinical court rather than the US legal system. Now that’s a new thing to look for in the fine print.

There is much more information in the full article, but here are a few quotes on Crowdstreet returns:

The Journal analyzed data on expected and realized returns of 104 completed deals from the sale of property or investor redemptions, which the company posted from 2013 to August 2022.

The Journal analysis found that more than half of those investments promoted on CrowdStreet’s platform failed to meet their target returns. Hundreds of CrowdStreet users lost some $34 million on 19 deals that underperformed as of this July, according to the Journal’s analysis. A dozen of those deals lost nearly 100% of investor funds.

CrowdStreet also hosted successful deals. More than 20 deals outperformed projected return rates by at least 10 percentage points. Hundreds of others are still outstanding. It often takes at least three years before investors can realize a return on their investments.

Some of the deals did well, some did awful. You can see their completed deals here. Many of their complete losses were hotel-related (“The 100% loss shown simply represents absolute total loss of capital incurred by investors”, ouch). Houston Red Lion Hotel. Cloverleaf Suites Overland Park. Intellistay Courtyard Tulsa. Four Points Sheraton Little Rock, Arkansas. That sounds like some poor deal structuring if your downside is so extreme.

The stated aim of all these real estate start-ups is to make commercial real estate investing more accessible to individual investors. Unfortunately, in my opinion it has been shown that individual investors simply aren’t given enough information to judge whether the deals are good or not. I would look up property addresses, learn about neighborhoods, try to look up the history of the borrowing groups, read through the comparables, appraisals, and contracts, but in the end, you are trusting the platform to perform most of the due diligence. There are no audited financial reports for me to read. There are no ratings agencies. How can one tell the difference between skill and luck? I have managed positive overall returns with my specific investments with PeerStreet, RealtyShares, Fundrise, Patch of Land, and others, but I had the most faith in PeerStreet’s model and they are likely to end up my worst performer.

The problem is the platform is strongly incentivized to do what is necessarily to maintain a high rate of deal flow and transactions, so they can make fees. When you are “exclusive” and “strict”, you don’t get deal flow now that the boom times have ended. Once the deal flow stops, they are dead in the water. This adds pressure to allow marginal borrowers and questionable deal terms.

I’ve only put relatively small amounts of “play account” funds into these sites, but as I don’t feel I can properly judge the individual deals nor properly judge the deal brokers, it’s probably time for me to avoid this asset class altogether.

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  1. This is an incredibly timed post.

    I had been toying with the idea of using one of these services, looking into their platforms, deals and offerings.

    This is making me want to avoid it altogether.

    There are a number of multi family apartments going up around me and are all sold out. There’s pent up demand for affordable (somewhat) luxury in apartments. I need to look into somehow getting in on the ground floor of these.

  2. Great post! I decided to pull my funds out of Fundrise and Groundfloor earlier this month too, despite decent returns the past few years, for very similar reasons, especially after seeing the collapse of Crowdstreet.

  3. HI Jonathan, let me know if you would like to discuss this on my podcast.

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