How to Avoid an Investment Property Scam

This article was first published in May 2006 as a warning to potential investors to take care when committing to property investments. Hundreds of investors actually signed up with us, and are taking part in a joint legal action, but many more, including many of the leading banks, some now in government hands, went on to get involved in hundreds more bad deals, and are counting the costs in millions!

For those of you that saw the Sunday Times front page article ‘Buy To Let Property Fraud Hits Thousands’ the week before Christmas 2008 will have seen the latest results of that misdemeanour, and the losses and heartaches this widely spread property fraud had on investors an f their families.

To many people, taking the plunge, and investing in property for their future is a major leap of faith. Imagine how they must feel, if their investment turns out to be an investment property Scam?

Is there a way out of any Investment Property Scam?

The first thing to realise is that if you do feel you have been conned, you are probably not the only one. It may feel like it, and you may feel alone, stupid, cheated, and angry or embarrassed – some of the common emotions felt at this time.

But, these are the emotions that developers with crooked minds will encourage you to think. They hope that you will feel ‘suckered’, and just don’t want to tell anybody. In fact, with a clever scam, there may seem to be nothing to tell anyway, apart from your gut instinct, until you start digging.

But inertia is just what these criminals (and they usually are criminals) want you to think. In these circumstances, you must not hold it all into yourself. You must try and find if other people have been duped into a similar situation. You never know, you may be one of ten, twenty or hundreds of similar souls, and if you can find, and become identified with such groups you will stand a far greater chance of getting retribution, believe me.

I got caught up in such an investment property scam about 18 months ago (I know – gasp – shock – horror – and I sell investment properties!). For some months, I thought I was going crazy, I could not understand why I could not get tenants in at anywhere near the prices I was expecting, or even get tenants at all. This was the first revelation, as I had been promised that the properties would have been fully tenanted on completion. Well, at least, that’s what the brochures said, as well as the sales manager at the presentation I attended. And I had bought a number of these ‘beauties’ each supposedly fully tenanted and making me around £500 each per month rental surplus.

Then I started to investigate the situation more thoroughly, and I soon identified the problem. It’s a down and out highly complex investment property Scam!

So how did I, an experienced property investor, and a reseller of investment properties – get involved in an investment property scam?

I’ll tell you how – perhaps Criminal Intent?

What I have done is to chronicle the events that actually took place with my investments, of which I have since found out there were well over 100 similar incidents.

Before I went into this investment, or even recommended them to others, which consisted of a number of refurbished houses converted into HMO’s for students (Houses of Multiple Occupation) I investigated the company thoroughly. (Note the company and location of these houses is not mentioned in this report for legal reasons). I checked out at least 6 of their property conversions, spoke to their rentals people, and spoke with several existing investors. I took my business partner at the time with me to check out my findings. I was also comforted by the fact that these people were spending (and still are spending) a lot of money in the big national newspapers (Sunday Times, Telegraph, and so forth), and had produced a whole range of glossy brochures backing up their claims.

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Some of their larger off-plan developments were also being featured in a two-page spread in one of the UK’s leading property magazines. Not only that, but they had (and still do have) very large exhibition stands at a number of the leading UK Property Shows.

Everything seemed to stack up, so I bought a number of them, and encouraged my friends, close family, and business colleagues to buy some also. I paid my reservation fees, and just settled down to wait for these to be completed, and to start generating some surplus cash every month.

The first event in the chain of things was that the houses were very late in being completed, so we were in danger of losing the student intake for autumn 2005, but the investment still seemed quite good, and anyway we had all exchanged contracts by then. And, of course, we all thought we had at least an 11% equity holding in each property, plus the usual growth of 4-6 % from last year. Also, when asked if we could inspect them prior to completion, we were told – “Sorry, as you have tenants in them, you have to give 48 hours or more notice”. Then when we did try for appointments nobody could find the keys… Where were my alarm bells I hear you ask – Obviously on Silent Mode!

But then the dirt really started to rise to the surface…

These houses were all sold under the premise of ‘All contacts for services under one roof for the investor – Use our Services for Sales, Recommended Solicitors, In-house Brokers, mortgages, Tenancy Management from our Own Company’ – you know, a really good packaged deal for the armchair investor.’

Issue 1 was that the houses were not fully tenanted on completion, and in a lot of cases, the tenants seemed to ‘melt away’ after contracts had been signed. So much for the promises made in the developers’ glossies that tenants would be in place before completion, with cross-guarantees so that there would be virtually no void periods, no issues with rent, as if one tenant failed to pay, the cross guarantees meant that the other tenants would be liable.

Also, in some cases, (not with mine luckily) no renovation work had been carried out at all, and the developers then had the cheek to ask for £3,000 per property to fix those that had not been done. Then, major issues with the building work started to surface. Basements would flood, not due to rain, (although this did happen on a number of occasions where the basements had not been ‘tanked’ correctly), but due to faulty plumbing, But if course we had a 12 month warranty contract – Right? Wrong?

Even after constant phone calls and emails, the management company failed to send us proper records, and they did not keep us informed of maintenance issues, tenants leaving, tenants not paying rent on time – all the sort of standard things one was used to expect from a ‘proper’ management company that charged 10% of the rent as fees.

And the hassle I had moving the management agreements to another company is another story for another day when it can be told.

Ok, so, this just seemed like rogue building work and an outright total lack of proper management by the department handling the tenancies. Not the sort of service to be expected from a firm carrying out so much nationwide marketing, but of course, being of such a high profile firm, you would have thought they would have fixed the issues. Right? Wrong!

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So because of all these issues, I had by now started to do some very intensive investigation into this company, and the methods being used to package the sale of these houses.

It then transpired that most of these houses had been bought by the developer some three to four months prior to selling them, some the previous morning, for about £90,000 – in the developers words – derelict houses that were totally gutted; 3 bed properties that had basements opened out, and or roof conversions done, so adding as many as 2, 3 or even 4 more bedrooms, and supposedly converted to the highest of standards for HMO purposes, and these were sold to us for around £249,950 up to £325,000 and higher.

Ding Ding Ding – Alarm Bells…

Why were we quite happy to purchase them – because they all came with RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors) valuations on the property value and the anticipated rental incomes.

All of which matched the developer’s claims.

But when we noticed that several investors from other groups were having some of these similar houses repossessed – as they were not getting the rent, and consequently could not afford the mortgage, and the valuations were all coming in at around £80,000 to £100,000 BELOW THE MORTGAGE VALUE!

Our own investigations then uncovered that many of these properties had been valued by the same firm, and for comparison, they had used properties by the same developer on the valuation form.

We have come across instances where the mortgages that were granted they :-

· Were not valid for multiple occupancy homes – so why was a loan granted?

· Would not have been granted had the banks known the properties were already tenanted, and not sold as vacant possession. So why was a mortgage granted?

· Would not have been granted if the valuation rental assessment was not realistic. So loans were granted on incorrect information. If the investor had put the rental figures in, they would have probably been done for mortgage fraud.

· Would not have granted a loan (especially interest only) if the true valuation figure had been known.

· Would not have granted 85% of the assumed value had they known a Gifted Deposit was being paid (along with legal and other fees by the developer). The solicitor was aware, as was the broker, so how come the lender was not informed?

Now, as I like to think of myself as a ‘savvy investor’, knowing that gifted deposits, cash backs etc happen and quite often jump start the property market on the move, I had told my solicitor(s) what the side deal was, the broker told me what the deal was, so no problem right?

Wrong… I then find out that neither the solicitor(s) nor the broker had informed the lender.

Somewhere along the lines, something was wrong here.

The question is – Was it the fault of:-

· The Developer?

· The Solicitor?

· The Broker?

· The Investor?

In a society where regulations covering solicitors, brokers, mortgage loans, and valuers seem quite strict, I must say I think something is awry here, where the hapless individual investor can walk into such an unregulated trap!

If you feel you have been involved in such an investment property scam, and would like to see if there are others in the same boat, please visit my blog where you can voice your opinion, and even add your name to a structured list if you want so we can build up a database of like events that could be easily analysed to spot trends, or passed to ‘Watchdog’ for instance.


by Geoff Morris