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Opening comments:  More at the end.
 


Globe & Mail May 31 2000, Wed. by John Barber

Best financing rates in town offered by Ontario Realty

TORONTO How low does "low, low, interest financing" go on the car and furniture

deals that keep blaring out of the radio? Is it 2 per cent? One point nine? I never pay attention.

And how long can you go before paying any part of what you owe? This time last year, as I recall, you could buy a Ford without making a single payment "till the next century."

Pretty good deals, I suppose -- but nothing compared to what you can get on a nice chunk of farmland from the Ontario government.

The Ontario Realty Corp. doesn't advertise on radio, but it is a motivated vendor, as they say in the real-estate business. Armed with strict orders from head office, it relies on every gimmick in its desperate campaign to blow more "units" -- your property -- out the door.

Such as 14 hectares at the northwest corner of Highway 407 and McCowan Road in Markham, which it sold to Mario Romano of Castlepoint Developments two years ago for $4.78-million.

As an inducement to purchase the land, which the Town of Markham had designated for medium-density residential development, the ORC agreed to take back a $4-million mortgage on the property.

As an added inducement, we taxpayers agreed not to charge Castlepoint any interest on the loan.

As an extra inducement, we declined to ask the developer to make any payments on the loan for three years -- until March 31, 2001.

I wish I could tell you why we did this, but have yet to receive any word on the matter from our obedient servants at the real-estate branch. But in Mr. Romano's view at least, there was nothing unusual about the arrangement. "It's very common in land development," he said on the phone from his Thornhill office. "The one-, two-year interest-free deal is common." When developers sell serviced lots to individual builders, he added, interest-free loans "are as common as apple pie." And they are not unheard of in the sale of large parcels of vacant land.

"It's all subject to negotiation," he said.

There was a time in the local market, not long after the great real-estate crash of the early 1990s, when enterprising survivors could actually buy valuable land for nothing. Toronto was full of lenders and court-appointed receivers desperate to liquidate the holdings of such bankrupt behemoths as Bramalea. In some cases they were willing to pay anyone who could help turn land into money by actually developing it.

So a few enterprising vultures earned fees developing land that had been given to them free -- in return for a share of the eventual proceeds, of course. No one could afford to get involved without favourable terms.

But times have changed. Those vultures are now heavy hitters. The last one I talked to, a few weeks ago, was on his way to an auction in a judge's chambers with a certified cheque for more than $5-million in his pocket. Buying land the normal way in a boom market.

The real-estate market may not have been booming in 1998, when we taxpayers extended our largesse Castlepoint's way, but by that time the crash was ancient history. Especially in the 905 belt, where houses never really stopped selling anyway.

If Castlepoint had signed a normal mortgage from the kind of financial institution that you and I embrace so enthusiastically, it would have paid about 8 per cent a year on the deal -- $320,000 over four years, $1.28-million in total between March, 1998, and March, 2001.

That's the cost of one inducement we used to snare this buyer. The fact that we waived any requirement that he make payments on the principal for four years could prove even more costly, however.

The market was clearly rising when Mr. Romano tied up this land. Still, there would be no grounds for complaint if he had actually bought it with his own money, then sat back and watched its value magically increase in a rising market. The complaint is this: He bought the land largely with our money, and he's riding the market upward on our backs.

Even if Castlepoint sells the land raw tomorrow, it will realize a gain. For a $750,000 investment, it stands to earn whatever profits a $4.7-million asset can generate.

Good for the developer; it's a clever deal. Bad for us, as usual.


[COMMENTS BY DON B. -  ]



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