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Investment sales brokerage firm Apartment Realty Advisors, based in Atlanta, has formed a national Distressed Assets Solutions Group (DASG) to provide assistance to servicers and lenders who find themselves burdened with distressed multifamily assets. To lead the new division, the firm has tapped Chicago-based principal Debbie Corson.While ARA professionals have been providing valuation, workout and note sales services in various markets for years, the DASG formalizes the services under one structure. The team consists of 27 specialists who focus on conventional multifamily, land, student and seniors housing assets. Recently, GlobeSt.com spoke with Corson about market conditions, the formation of the DASG, its strategy and what to expect next year.

GlobeSt.com: Tell me a bit about why and how ARA formed the Distressed Asset Services Group.

Corson: Obviously the economy and the tight credit markets have taken a toll on people’s ability to get financing. We’re seeing a lot more distressed assets, not just in the markets that have had a lot of employment loss, but across the country. Many of us at ARA have been through this type of market in the past and have a lot of experience in dealing with distressed assets, so we felt the timing was right to set up a group to help the lenders and servicers with working through their assets.

GlobeSt.com: Have you closed any deals so far?

Corson: Yes, we have. Especially in some of the more distressed markets, we have gotten listings and sold assets for lenders. For us, it’s not just a process of getting and selling the listing, but acting as consultants. We want to help the customer as much as we can. Sometimes that means holding onto the property for a number of years. We know the deals that are going on in the market, what the rents are, where the distressed assets are. A lot of times, we’re helping these clients through the process of figuring out what the best avenue for the asset is. We expect to do a lot more of this business in the future, because you’re going to see a lot more of these deals in the future.

GlobeSt.com: Take me through a typical deal, from the moment it lands on your table to closing.

Corson: Typically, we first would find out a property in the market is distressed. Either the lender calls us, or we find out it’s in distress and then we call the lender or servicer. We may be in a position, right off the bat, where they might want us to find a management company for the property because they need to have a receiver appointed. We may need to go out and walk units to see the condition of a property. We may go and scope out the neighborhood and check the comps. A lot of times, these guys will call us and they won’t have had an opportunity to see the asset, so we can be their eyes and ears. In a lot of cases, we’ll turn around a report to them within 24 or 48 hours.

GlobeSt.com: Are your clients typically banks or other lending institutions?

Corson: Yes, they’re typically banks, lenders or special servicers. Sometimes they’re people who bought the notes on the properties. We have had owners who are in distress who have used us to market their properties, but in terms of this particular group, we expect the majority of the deals to be with lenders and servicers.

GlobeSt.com: Banks and other capital providers are typically not in the business of owning real estate. Is there a sense of urgency on the part of your clients to get these properties off their books, or are they apt to wait it out?

Corson: It depends on who you’re talking to, and the asset. You may have an asset where the conditions are such that your best option is to get rid of it now. There are willing and able buyers out there who can turn it around faster and at less expense, so it’s in your best interest to move it out the door right now.

That’s not always the case. What we’ve been finding is the special servicers, for the most part, are trying to be responsible for the clients and they don’t want to just dump the asset no matter what the cost. They’re looking for ways to recoup some of their losses, and they want to have people who can walk through the best strategy for the asset. And depending on what area it is, and where the market is at the time and how bad the asset it, it could be any number of strategies.

GlobeSt.com: When do you think you’ll see this business really pick up?

Corson: We’re just starting to see it pick up. Certainly, the credit market seized up in July or August 2007, so slowly, more of this started coming to a head. It’s really starting to gather steam and we’re going to see more of this in the next year.

GlobeSt.com: What’s the demand like on the buyer side? Who are the groups bidding for these assets?

Corson: There’s lots of demand for these assets. It’s really interesting to talk about who the buyers are because a lot of the groups who were traditional buyers of real estate have now entered the distressed asset game. You just have a lot of people who view this as an opportunity. Any time you have a lot of uncertainty and someone’s in distress, there are people who are ready and willing to take over, because they’re looking for opportunities. One of the things at ARA is we’re really good at finding those people because of the structure of our database. We have over 1,800 names in our system, and we survey them every year to find out what they’re looking for. So you could come into the ARA database and say, “I want to look at distressed assets in these areas, in this price range, and in this type or property.” We can sort through that database and come up with a huge number of people that meet those criteria immediately.

GlobeSt.com: What’s the standard size of the deals you work on?

Corson: We have private client groups who will, depending on the market, go down to 20 units all the way up to 1,000 units. You could have distressed deals that are still over $100,000 per unit, and you could have deals that need improvement that trade for as low as $5,000 a unit. The price range varies by market and by what’s happening with the asset.

GlobeSt.com: You said you expect to see more of these opportunities next year. Yet the uncertainty over the economy and the market has many players waiting on the sidelines. Do you think there will be more buyers come in the market next year?

Corson: We hope so. It depends on people’s perception of where the bottom is. You have a number of people sitting on the sidelines because they’re waiting to see where the bottom is, but in my experience, those who are waiting to see where the bottom is generally miss it. There are certainly a lot of people who have cash now and who will look at these distressed assets and make a deal for them, almost more so than the market-rate buyers.

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