Gaithersburg, Maryland – “About eight years ago, I was going down the elevator of a hotel in Las Vegas with a friend of mine,” Arnaud Karsenti told me. “The elevator skipped the 13th floor. And my friend said to me, ‘How come there is no 13th floor? What a bunch of wasted space!’”
The lack of a 13th floor comes from the same fear that prevents people from walking under ladders or causes them to shiver when a black cat crosses their path. But Arnaud decided to make a business out of it. The idea is to find value where others fear to go.
Arnaud is the managing principal and co-founder of 13th Floor Investments. The firm manages the Florida Real Estate Value Fund, which, as the name implies, focuses on real estate value investing in Florida. Recently, while in South Beach, I tried to catch up with Arnaud, but our mutually jangled schedules couldn’t mesh. We talked later by phone a couple of times.
I want to share what Arnaud and 13th Floor are up to, because you’ll get a fascinating ground-floor view of what’s happening in real estate in the post-bust world. There is also much investing wisdom in what he shared. Finally, the Florida Real Estate Value Fund itself is a fine alternative investment idea. (Later in this letter, we’ll look at another opportunistic way to play distress in real estate.)
Arnaud and I started talking about how there can be a big gap between the big picture and the view on the ground.
“There’s been a lot of conflict in the data,” Arnaud told me. “Housing is a great area where you can take out the paper every day and read about pricing going down or unemployment pressures, yet the local data in Dade and Broward counties [in Florida] indicate a reverse trend. One challenge for us is to decide what we believe and try to cut through some of the noise of the big macro stuff to really understand what’s going on.”
To do this, Arnaud and his team rely on the good old spadework of due diligence. His business partner, Robert Suris, is a local developer and contractor with a keen sense of property value. Together, they meet with builders and bank presidents and dig into local markets.
This helps avoid the two big problems with the big-picture statistics: They are backward looking and tend to paint with too broad a brush. Still, Arnaud says there are unmistakable big-picture trends unfolding in real time that are worth paying attention to. He highlighted some important ones:
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