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Cashing out

Bitcoin’s young investors put their digital currency to work in the physical world

In August 2014, a secret buyer contacted the realty arm of Martis Camp, a luxury real estate community in North Lake Tahoe in California, with an unorthodox deal: a purchase of land for 2,739 bitcoins. At the time, the cryptocurrency that recently turned the Brothers Winklevoss into a pair of bitcoin billionaires was worth about $580 per coin. Multiply that 2,739 times over, and the buyer paid $1.6 million for a 1.4-acre piece of land.

“Many of our buyers are in the tech sector and are early adopters of bitcoin. We understand the importance of adapting to cutting-edge purchasing methods,” said Martis Camp sales director Brian Hull, who described the buyer only as a “Silicon Valley entrepreneur.”

That bitcoin-financed real estate transaction was one of the largest, but it was not the first. Five months earlier, in March 2014, another secret buyer purchased a villa in Bali for 800 bitcoins, or roughly the equivalent of $500,000. Two months later, a suburban home in Kansas City, Missouri, sold for the same amount. Last September, a buyer—identified only as working in the tech industry—bought a single-family home in Austin, Texas.

Most of these transactions involved the buyer converting bitcoin into U.S. dollars to make the purchase—a liquidation of assets, much in the same way a first-time homebuyer might use investment dollars to afford a down payment.

Then, in late December, what was considered to be the first bitcoin-only real estate deal went down when Ivan “Paychecks” Pacheco, co-founder of cryptocurrency website Bits to Freedom, transferred 17.741 bitcoins ($275,000) to a seller to buy a two-bedroom condo in Miami. In early February, bitcoin investor Michael Komaransky sold his Miami mansion in a deal where the buyer—again, anonymous—paid the $6 million listing price almost entirely in bitcoins (455, to be exact).

“I really believe it’s a big, intricate part of the future. We think in five years it will hit 25 to 30 percent of our sales,” says Stephan Burke, a listing agent with the luxury brokerage firm Brown Harris Stevens, which shepherded both of the Miami transactions.

Today, listings from one coast to another tout bitcoin as a way to make a property transaction. A new collection of haute residences in Hollywood with Los Angeles skyline views go for $1.21 million or its bitcoin equivalent; in Washington, D.C., two-bedroom condos are on the market for between 36 and 84 bitcoins. In Austin, the seller of one ranch is offering a “signficant discount” if the buyer pays with bitcoin.

These sellers and their realtors believe they will find buyers, particularly among a subset of people in their 20s and 30s: tech-savvy men with decent jobs and maybe a libertarian bent who, by getting into cryptocurrency early, now command significant digital capital. Disillusioned or spurned by the burst of the housing bubble in 2008, younger investors who bought into bitcoin, an unregulated currency that functions outside the grips of traditional financial institutions, are now interested in putting their digital currency to work in the physical world.

With blockchain technology, realtors and buyers envision a more seamless, more secure way to record and transfer property titles, one that doesn’t require a trip to a clerk’s office to fetch a piece of paper. But the real estate industry’s interest in bitcoin has yet to translate to seamless bitcoin-only transactions. While there are laws in Arizona and Vermont that allow blockchain technology to play key parts in property sales and proving property ownership, in most states, aspects of the process still involve traditional financial institutions—and bitcoin as a currency isn’t necessarily a safe enough bet for the relatively risk-averse world of real estate.

“There are some aspects of the transactions that have to be traditional, that have to be in cash,” Burke says. “You still need to use a title company, a real estate attorney.”

In these early days of cryptocurrency-enabled property transactions, there appear to be two types of realtors throwing their arms around bitcoin: the true believers and the ones interested in getting more foot traffic at an open house.

“Any time a trend changes in real estate, there are some people who are quietly part of the trend, the enthusiasts behind the scenes. But then you have others who are acting like players or are really just trying to get eyeballs on a property,” says Ryan Lundquist, a property appraiser in the Sacramento area. “And it certainly works, but does that reflect the market?”

The world of real estate, more than anything, craves assurance—despite (or maybe because of) the subprime mortgage-fueled economic crash of last decade. Over the course of December 2016 to December 2017, the price of bitcoin rose from roughly $978 to nearly $20,000—before plunging nearly 40 percent since the start of the new year. Last week, Google announced that it would no longer allow ads related to cryptocurrencies, sending the price of bitcoin down further.

The same forces of volatility that have made some in real estate so enthusiastic about the possibilities of bitcoin in property transactions make other realtors more skeptical—not only about the nature of bitcoin-only property purchases, but also about a possible future world where greenbacks aren’t needed at any point in a typical real estate deal.

“There are people all over the world who have this currency and would love to put it into real property. Maybe if they wanted to buy a couple kilos of heroin, it would work fine,” says Patrick Carlisle, VP of business development at Paragon Real Estate Group in San Francisco. “But if you want to buy real property in San Francisco, it’s got to be in dollars.”

Bitcoin first entered the language in 2008, when Satoshi Nakamoto published a vision for what the internet could be. Titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” the paper described a way for electronic money to go from person to person without relying on any financial institution to process those payments. Several months after that, the first bitcoins made their way into the world.

If bitcoin is similar to U.S. dollars, it’s only insofar that it’s worth something because we think so. In fact, as Sue Halpern, writing in the New York Review of Books, notes: “Its value derives entirely from people’s perception of what it is worth.” Otherwise bitcoin is just encrypted code, stored as an address in online software. As it’s transacted, it travels on a decentralized network of computers that operates as a ledger to record and authenticate transactions—the blockchain.

The way bitcoin moves over the blockchain makes it safe. Owners use a private key, known only to them, to buy in bitcoin or cash it out. The blockchain matches the key to the address, and if those two components don’t match up, the transaction is rejected. A bad actor interested in disrupting that process would have to steal someone’s private key, which is easier said than done.

“There are more possibilities in the private key in bitcoin than there are atoms in the universe. Even with all the computational power in the world, it would take 300 years to guess your private key,” says Jacob Bryan, a bitcoin consultant. “The easiest way to hack it would be through your phone, but people have hardware wallets: The keys live on the device, and you have to press a button and enter a pin and a password to get the private key.”

Already, in South Burlington, Vermont, a pilot project is underway to use the blockchain to record property transactions. Propy, a blockchain startup in San Francisco, is providing the software for blockchain-enabled smart contracts as part of the pilot. While smart contracts aren’t bulletproof to cyber threats, security is regularly touted as a feature of a blockchain-built future. In early March, Propy announced that the first-ever real estate deed had been recorded on the blockchain.

“When we finish the pilot with Vermont, adapting it to different states will be quite easy,” says Alex Voloshyn, Propy’s chief technology officer.

How a property transaction is financed with bitcoin in the mix will change depending on several variables—as well as whether the deal to make a piece of property change hands is done in bitcoin, or whether a buyer is just converting their bitcoin assets to cash to come up with the purchase price.

From a technical standpoint, an all-bitcoin deal isn’t complicated: It works like an all-cash purchase, except bitcoins are exchanged from the buyer’s digital wallet to the seller’s digital wallet. In a deal where the buyer is interested in converting their bitcoins to fiat to hit the purchase price, they’ll use a service like BitPay to convert digital currency into physical dollars. That’s how the land in North Lake Tahoe was acquired.

In either case, a real estate transaction in the U.S. still requires some cash to take care of the details. To start, anyone trading bitcoin who has held the cryptocurrency for more than a year gets hit with a capital gains tax. That’s because the U.S. government recognizes bitcoin as property, not currency, which means all purchases made in bitcoin have to be reported on a person’s taxes.

Next, add closing costs to the mix. “Most states, including Florida, do require some cash at closing,” says Burke. At closing time, buyers and sellers have to work through myriad particulars: title searches, lien searches, attorneys’ fees, assessors’ fees, appraisal fees, brokerage commissions, any kind of existing mortgage still on the property.

“In the course of buying or selling real estate, most transactions come in searching title or obtaining title insurance. That’s usually done through several major title agencies,” says Andrew Hinkes, an adjunct professor of law at New York University. “To my knowledge, none accept cryptocurrency as payment.”

In some cases, buyers and sellers will skip the title process. In the two bitcoin deals Burke and brokerage partner Carol Cassis helped close, U.S. dollars were needed to deal with certain elements of each transaction. (They declined to say which elements specifically, citing a lack of permission from the buyers and sellers.) And in the first deal, with buyer “Paychecks” Pacheco—who seemed open to a conversation with Curbed after he replied “yo yo” to a request over Facebook Messenger, but then stopped responding—the seller, a drone racer named Frank Mainade Jr., had a mortgage on the property.

Burke says that a bitcoin transaction where a seller has a mortgage on the property “becomes much more difficult, but not impossible,” although he declined to go into specifics, noting that he and Cassis “don’t want serious competition to get too much information” because they’re trying to be leaders in the bitcoin-for-property field.

However, it’s simple enough to figure out why a mortgage would complicate the transaction: Banks currently aren’t counting people’s bitcoins.

“What complicates it in real estate is lenders are involved,” says Lundquist. “If someone would have accepted a bitcoin transaction one year ago, in only bitcoin, then that lender would be sitting on a property where they were paid but they have half as much. We can’t ignore that.”

Again, in a real property deal using cryptocurrency, it’s a question of volatility. A home’s purchase price might not change too much from month to month. But it’s not as if a seller lists a home for 17 bitcoins; a seller lists a home at a purchase price in U.S. dollars, and if both the buyer and seller are amenable to the exchange, that price can be covered in an all-bitcoin deal. Who potentially gets shortchanged in that deal depends on the cryptocurrency’s conversion rate.

“The area of real estate really loves and needs certainty,” says Daniel Gershburg, a real estate lawyer based in Manhattan. “Now you’re just throwing fire on this thing because you have no idea how much bitcoin is going to be worth in 20 minutes, let alone two months from now.”

Gershburg and I first spoke in December, when the value of bitcoin vis-a-vis that of one U.S. dollar was doing gangbusters. In recent weeks, as the U.S. stock market wavered, the value collapsed. In March, the price of bitcoin continued to drop. (As of this writing, one bitcoin is worth approximately $8,430.) The investment arm of Europe’s biggest insurer, certain that the bitcoin bubble will eventually pop, called the cryptocurrency worthless. And the International Monetary Fund said cryptocurrencies are not only a potential tool for money laundering and financing global terrorism, but also a threat to “financial stability,” singling out specifically “the extreme volatility in their traded prices.”

“The only way bitcoin can be a tool and a means of large-scale purchasing is for this product to get a lot less volatile,” says Justin Slaughter, former chief policy adviser at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. “But the reason its value has largely gone up is because it’s volatile and traders are using it as a trading device. So it’s a chicken-and-the-egg problem.”

Negotiating a contract with a volatile financial instrument could put a buyer or seller in a poor position. If the value of bitcoin drops, the seller loses money. If the price of bitcoin soars, the buyer probably walks away from the deal. It’s why, even in deals where bitcoin is accepted, there is always a U.S. dollar figure hovering in the background as a baseline.

“No seller is going to negotiate a price in bitcoin and then tie himself to that price if bitcoin plunges,” says Paragon’s Carlisle.

The nuance isn’t lost on a listing agent like Burke, an investor in bitcoin who says he got into the cryptocurrency when it was still about 80 cents. In a bitcoin-heavy deal, contracts are drawn up in such a way that the onus is placed on the property buyer.

“The contract’s done in U.S. dollars, so that price is respected all throughout the transaction. On the closing, that price never changes. If the cryptocurrency escalated or deflated, that’s the responsibility of the buyer,” he says. “Let’s call it a chance. It’s like a stock—you assume responsibility when you lock in a price.”

Evidently, it’s a chance more and more people are willing to take. Eric Fernandez, owner of Sol/Mar Real Estate in South Florida, recently listed a $3.5 million penthouse condo in Miami Beach, a property he says the owners are willing to sell in exchange for bitcoins or the cryptocurrency Ethereum.

It comes as no surprise that cryptocurrency property deals in South Florida have found a ready home. Miami plays host to the North American Bitcoin Conference, in addition to its being a luxury real estate market. Buyers who can afford something like a $3.5 million condo could also be the ones who have that sort of money precisely because they’re holding bitcoins. Hinkes says he’s been getting “a lot of calls” from people looking to list properties in bitcoins, even with the idiosyncrasy baked into Miami’s real estate market.

Real estate transactions in the U.S. are governed by “good funds” laws, meaning a buyer can’t just show up with a duffel bag packed with cash. But in Miami, there’s a further wrinkle, as the city is subject to a GTO, or Geographic Targeting Order. It requires title companies to report on the source of funding for a high-end real estate deal if that source isn’t traditional bank financing. GTOs are used to ferret out people interested in hiding money in American real estate—return to Carlisle’s quip about bitcoins being the preferred currency of heroin traffickers—and while they don’t specifically target people buying property with bitcoin, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network within the U.S. Treasury Department is keeping a watchful eye on the cryptocurrency.

If the market for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies grows, then the real estate field, lenders included, “would be foolish” not to pay attention and adapt, Lundquist says. But how popular bitcoin-based property transactions become over the next five to 10 years depends on how well the cryptocurrency permeates society.

“For the most part, most people don’t know about bitcoin. They just know it as magical internet money,” says coin consultant Bryan.

As of now, bitcoin is largely being used as a speculative tool, in some cases luring starry-eyed investors thinking riches will come quick if they can just get their hands on some digital dough. Such an idea has been panned. Consider the very last line of David Gerard’s 2017 book Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain: “Everything to do with cryptocurrencies and blockchains is the domain of fast-talking conmen.” Just this month, bitcoin, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies in general were given the John Oliver treatment.

Still, Fernandez, a self-described believer in bitcoin, thinks there will be more movement of cryptocurrency in real estate deals.

“The sellers who believe in this space, this is a great entrypoint for them. They think this is just the beginning,” he says. “And they understand bitcoin is volatile, but they think the price is going to be steadily growing for years.”

At least one analyst predicts the price of bitcoin will soar in 2018. As MarketWatch reported, Tom Lee, managing partner and head of research at Fundstrat Global Advisors, thinks the value will spike again to $20,000 by the middle of this year. According to the model Lee uses for valuing bitcoin, one unit of the cryptocurrency will be equivalent to $91,000 by 2020.

Whether volatility is a source of worry for those in real estate appears to be more of an academic question. Realtors who want to get into the market pay no mind.

“Not one bit,” says William Tzeng, executive director of the Alliance Realty Corporation, when asked if he’s worried about the drop bitcoin’s value has weathered since last December. “There is no doubt in our minds that bitcoin and the cryptocurrency market will recover and exceed expectations in 2018.”

Tzeng’s firm is the commercial and residential real estate group behind the new single-family, four-story Hollywood residences on the market for $1.21 million. The company helps clients convert their bitcoins to dollars using third-party services, like BitPay, but also accepts bitcoin directly—and is considering accepting other cryptocurrencies, although Alliance Realty hasn’t released details on which ones just yet.

As Tzeng tells it, it’s the very volatility in the value of bitcoin that is driving the cryptocurrency’s acceptance in the real estate industry.

“Due to the surge in cryptocurrency prices in the last few years, many early adopters have seen explosive gains in their net worth,” he says. “And with recent volatility in the cryptocurrency market, these same people have been looking to reduce their risk exposure with more stable investments.”

For many early investors in bitcoin, that has led them to return to a more traditional route—trading some digital property for a physical one.

Andrew Zaleski, a journalist based near Washington, D.C., writes frequently about business, science, and technology.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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