When is Real Estate a Security?

Fee simple ownership of the “bricks and mortar” of real estate is not a securities transaction. “The offer of real estate as such, without any collateral arrangements with the seller or others, does not involve the offer of a security.” As you move further away from that model, you move closer and closer to the ownership a security than the ownership of real estate. The line between the two is not a bright line. One of the latest cases to address the difference is Salameh v. Tarsadia Hotels 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30375, on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

One of the seminal cases is SEC v. W.J. Howey Co., 328 U.S. 293 (1946). That case involved an offering of units of a citrus grove development, coupled with a contract for cultivating, marketing, and remitting the net proceeds to the investor. They held that it was an offering of an “investment contract” within the meaning of that term as used in the provision of § 2(1) of the Securities Act of 1933 defining “security” as including any “investment contract,” and was therefore subject to the registration requirements of the Securities Act.

Even though decades have passed, the line is bit a clearer, but still muddy as the Salameh case illustrates. The developer of the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego used a condominium- hotel ownership structure to help provide capital.  The purchase/investment turned out to be a bad one, so they sued the developer.

Their claim was that a series of documents, including the Purchase Contract, the Unit Maintenance and Operations Agreement, and the Rental Management Agreement turned the ownership into a “security” and not the mere ownership of real estate. Since the securities were not registered, they could seek rescission. In this case, the ownership and control issues were not just split into separate documents, some of the documents were entered into at significantly different times.

The issues are not that new. The Securities and Exchange Commission noted the problem as far back as 1973 when it issued Release No. 33-5347 which had guidelines on the applicability of federal securities laws to the sales of condominiums and units of real estate development.

The investors/purchaser lost the court case.  The court The case is now under appeal and there are numerous other issues involved in the case so we may not any new insight on when an investment in real estate becomes an investment in a security.

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