Developers turn to crowdfunding to seed real estate deals


MIAMI – You can support entrepreneurs’ apps, gadgets, clothing creations, restaurants – you name it – through the exploding phenomenon of “crowdfunding.” But what can you show for your investment? A drawer full of T-shirts, tote bags and other tokens of appreciation.

Not the kind of rewards most serious investors are looking for.

For wealthy funders – so-called “accredited investors” – some crowdfunding platforms offer an ownership piece of the startup venture they are funding. If the concept becomes the next big thing rather than the next big flop, they could reap a giant return.

Increasingly, those wealthy crowdfunders are turning to a tried-and-true investment class they can see, feel and understand: real estate.

Until crowdfunding platforms came along, only a small fraction of the nine million U.S. accredited investors – those with a net worth of at least $1 million or $200,000 in annual income – had participated in private-investment opportunities, said Joanna Schwartz, chief executive of EarlyShares, a Miami crowdfunding platform aimed at those very investors. Typically, she said, “they didn’t have access to them unless they knew someone (in the deal), and this is especially true in real estate. This really is about giving direct access to investors in ways they never had before.”

Real Estate CrowdFunding: why it’s a big deal

Crowdfunding started with popular donation-based websites such as Kickstarter, where supporters can fund enterprises as disparate as a company that makes mermaid outfits and a film about Churchill’s Pub in Little Haiti. In the past few years, crowdfunding has become increasingly popular for nonprofit causes and microlending.

Equity-based crowdfunding is more complex – and more controversial.

Though the 2012 federal JOBS Act legalized crowdfunding as a means to raise funds for startups and other ventures, the rules governing such transactions have been released in waves. In September 2013, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission modified securities rules to allow advertising of such deals, which opened the door to crowdfunding platforms being used by more sophisticated, accredited investors. The final rules governing ordinary investors are expected later this year, but the SEC wouldn’t comment.

EarlyShares, founded in 2011, and dozens of other companies around the country took aim at accredited investors. By the end of last year, the company had launched its first online fundraising campaign for the Miami-based peer-to-peer boating company Boatsetter, which has already has raised more than $1 million on the platform and is seeking $2.25 million. A dozen more campaigns are underway for technology, film and entertainment companies and other firms around the country.

And now, real estate deals.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that dozens of real-estate crowdfunding sites have popped up in the past year, including FundRise and Realty Mogul. Already, these companies have raised more than $135 million in debt and equity for real-estate deals, according to The Journal’s calculations. While that is tiny compared with the more than $700 billion market value of publicly traded real-estate investment trusts, it is the fastest-growing category in the crowdfunding arena, according to Crowdnetic, a firm that tracks crowdfunding data.

That doesn’t surprise Schwartz. “Where else can investors go with a few clicks and get a potentially 7 or 9 percent return on a project that they understand? We’re not saying its riskless – nothing is riskless – but they get it,” Schwartz said. “Real estate is intuitively understood in a much different way than startup companies are. Investors are chasing yield.”

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