It's not clear how long Florida may take to come back from the depths of the housing market crash the state has experienced. If recovery does come soon, however, one builder who will be well positioned is Miami-based Lennar Corporation. In February, Lennar picked up 2,700 home lots formerly owned by bankrupt builder TOUSA, Inc., according to this report in the Tampa Bay Business Journal ("In deal with Starwood Land Ventures, Lennar buys TOUSA lots”). Starwood Land Ventures is a Florida real estate investment firm backed by the Greenwich, Connecticut, investment fund Starwood Capital Group Global. Starwood acquired $81 million worth of TOUSA's former land holdings at a February auction, reports the Sarasota Herald-Tribune ("Lakewood Ranch firm buys lots ... $81 million worth," by Kevin McQuaid). "The Starwood lots are in 36 communities statewide, including in Tampa and Orlando," the Herald-Tribune reports. "Of the nearly 5,500 home sites, all but 900 are 'finished,' meaning they have necessary infrastructure such as lighting and sewer and water hookups." The Starwood/Lennar deal stands out as a record-setting land play. But Lennar and Starwood are not the only companies stepping into land purchases in the current economy, notes the Palm Beach Post (" Sign of better times? Builders buying land again").
"In recent weeks, a number of heavyweight builders have been buying undeveloped home sites in partly finished single-family communities," the Post reports. Among the deals: Pennsylvania-based Toll recently picked up 85 home sites in Azura, west of Boca Raton; Sunrise-based GL Homes acquired 71 lots in the 280-lot Equus community west of Boynton Beach; and New Jersey-based K. Hovnanian Homes bought the unfinished Tivoli Isles community west of Delray Beach. In each case, the seller was a bank that had acquired the properties through foreclosure or builder bankruptcy. One key to the deals: the bank's willingness to take a bath on the transaction. "Analysts say banks finally have dropped their pricing to the point where builders are comfortable about parting with their cash," writes the Post. But another factor in the big-builder land-buying spree may be the cash windfall that many heavyweight builders are reaping as a result of recent changes in the U.S. tax code. The Associated Press reports that many otherwise money-losing corporate homebuilders are raking in more than $2 billion in cash this year from refunds of taxes that they paid in previous, profitable years, after Congress changed the law to allow a "loss carryback" against earlier years' tax returns (" Tax Gains Drive Profits for Homebuilders," by Alex Veiga).
Writes Veiga, "In recent weeks, builders have reported quarterly results that include the gains they expect to receive from tax refunds. Among those to post a profit were KB Home, Lennar, Hovnanian, D.R. Horton Inc., Beazer Homes USA Inc., Ryland Group Inc. and Meritage Homes Corp." Interestingly, the tax losses builders can post in current years include "impairments," or write-downs, of the value of land they hold on their own books. So for the builders who had enough cash or enough access to credit to survive the recent downturn, their paper losses on their own land portfolios may be the key to a tax-refund gain, in cash, that now allows them to increase the acreage they hold, and at cut-rate prices — and to emerge from the recession in a stronger competitive position than ever.