Securities in Real Estate – A Beginner’s Guide!

Over the past few decades, real estate investing has seen a dramatic shift from individual private investors to syndications of commercial, multifamily and development projects. This has contributed to the substantial growth of the global real estate securities markets. This shift has been largely due to the increasing adoption of the modern real estate syndication structures amid growing investor demand for passive income. 

Real estate developments and multifamily opportunities generally require enormous resources and large amounts of capital for acquisitions of and operations. Investors get excited for real estate investing when they expect above-stock-market returns through passive income investing. The passive income can come from rental operations and capital gains on sale. Such investments are generally securities, which are regulated by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and State securities regulators.  

Private securities may take the form corporate shares, bonds, or futures/derivatives, and even promissory notes with private lenders may be categorized as securities. To make things even more confusing, some real estate investments are considered securities and others are not. 

At a high level, the test for whether an investment contract is a security is referred to as the Howey Test and it considers whether the investment structure includes: 

  • Investment of cash or assets 
  • From a group (i.e., more than 1) of similar-interest passive investors 
  • With an expectation of profits  
  • From the efforts of others (e.g., management) 

All securities are investments but not all investments are securities. 

When should you care? 

The starting point for analyzing whether securities law governs an investment real estate transaction is applying the “economic realities” test originally described by the US Supreme Court in the 1936 case SEC v. W.J. Howey. To apply this test, summarized above, it is important to consider if multiple people will put resources into a venture with an assumption that benefit will be procured through the efforts of another person.  

Since a joint land venture might have different levels of investors, lenders, and stake holders, the Howey Test should be applied independently for each stake holder. As an example, there may be a first lien lender, a second position lien lender at materially different interest terms, a preferred investor that receives a designated rate of return, and common investors that receive the profit.  

In the example above, the lenders would not be investing in securities because there is no commonality between them. It’s a similar evaluation of the preferred investor, assuming there is only one. Common investors expecting to receive profit would be purchasing securities and the sponsor would be responsible for complying with securities regulations (e.g., qualifying for an exemption from registration yet) for this group. 

However, we can tweak one variable and each transaction can be considered a separate securities transaction. If there are multiple lenders sharing the same position loan or multiple preferred investors, then those are separate securities transactions similar to the common interest investors.  

Let’s give illustration of how a single transaction may actually be BOTH a securities transaction and a non-securities investment. Let’s use an example of private loan for the acquisition of real estate. If it is a single source loan (one lender on note), the receipt of loan proceeds by the property owner would not be construed as a securities transaction. However, if the lender pooled together funds from multiple private lenders or investors for the purposes of making the loan, then the pooling of funds would still be considered a securities transaction. The property owner would have no obligations to maintain the securities exemption but the lender who is pooling investors would. 

To put it in layman’s terms, whether a real estate venture is a regulated security depends on whether the investors depend on another’s efforts to earn a return. Unfortunately, since the application of the Howey Test actually depends on numerous guidelines and regulatory interpretations, court decisions frequently neglect to offer significant guidance. Likewise, the SEC will issue “no action letters,” which is the SEC’s response when asked for guidance on whether they would take action given a set of circumstances. There are thousands of these letters to consider, but they are also very fact-dependent, and therefore don’t always provide as clear a beacon as we would like. 

This leaves the investment sponsor with few alternatives:  

  • Hope they don’t get caught and accept investments without guidance 
  • Hire an experienced securities attorney (e.g., Crowdfunding Lawyers) to evaluate and assist in the development of the investment program 

Difference between a non-securities real estate transaction and a securities offering  

Real estate investments are often not securities when evaluated under the Howey Test for a variety of reasons.  

Owners of a condo association are not purchasing securities although each member may have a similar passive interest in the building. Condo association members are generally expecting to reside at the property or rent out their portion rather than seeking profit from the activities of the leaders of the association. 

The acquisition of rental properties is generally not a security when acquired by an individual since there is not commonality with other investors. However, if two or more investors acquire the property together, they may be purchasing a security if pooling their money to be managed by someone else.  

When it comes to multifamily acquisitions, most often there are securities being offered to a multitude of qualified investors on similar terms, with the investment being managed by the investment’s sponsor. These syndications are securities and require either securities registration or exemption from registration under the appropriate securities exemption. Regulation D of the Securities Act of 1933 is the most commonly relied upon securities registration exemption but there are other exemptions from registration that should be considered when developing a capitalization plan.  

Another common securities structure includes tenants in common (TIC) investment opportunities, which are often promoted in connection with 1031 tax-deferred exchanges. A straight-forward analysis of TIC investments includes: direct property owners with a non-divisible interest in a property along with other owners, a manager responsible for daily operations, and a TIC agreement binding the property owners’ activities to certain voting approvals.  

Many people ask if having an investment opportunity with fewer than 35, 10, 5, or even 2 individuals is not a security. However, there is no specific number of financial backers that disqualify an investment from being a security as long as all prongs of the Howey Test are met. Even a solitary piece of venture property, deeded to two individuals, can be categorized as a securities offering if the conditions bring it inside the applicable lawful definitions under government or state law. 

Compliance, Avoidance and Hope 

Although conforming to securities requirements has become simpler and there has been a recent broadening of exemptions available to securities issuers, it continues to be a highly technical area of the law. Some investment sponsors seek to avoid securities requirements by giving every investor critical autonomy and control. In some cases of joint ventures, franchises, or general partnerships which generally require active participation and unlimited liability to the investors. There are some reliable strategies to structure an opportunity so that it is not a security, but a cost/benefit analysis is important to determine if, as an investor or promoter, the benefits are worth the risks.  

When an offering structure is within the gray area between security and non-security, regulatory agencies can and often will step in with an investigation or audit to ensure compliance. Hence, investment offerings designed to avoid securities requirements by shifting independence and control to investors may undermine the project’s success and create unnecessary scrutiny for the participants. 

For all these reasons, we strongly recommend working with a securities attorney whether at Crowdfunding Lawyers or elsewhere to ensure that your business and investors are protected throughout the investment process.

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