The fiscal uncertainty playing out in Congress last month played out closer to home on Martha’s Vineyard with a flurry of year-end real estate sales and estate transfers.
Spurred by potential changes to capital gains and estate taxes, dozens of Island properties were gifted within family estates and an array of homes were sold on the open market, with 286 real estate transactions recorded in the last two weeks of 2012. The burst of activity was a boon for the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, which took in more than $2 million in revenues during the last two weeks of the year.
The land bank collects a two per cent transfer fee on most real estate transactions, with the money used to buy public conservation land.
Between Dec. 14 and Dec. 21, the land bank posted revenues of $1.09 million, with 117 total real estate transactions for the week. The following week, the land bank collected $682,318, while total transactions for the week increased to 133. On the last day of the year, Dec. 31, the land bank collected $405,500 on 36 transactions.
But in an indication of the kind of activities taking place, 224 of the 286 transactions were not arm’s length sales and did not qualify for land bank fees.
The list of Island real estate activities includes the names of well-known people and longstanding Island families, though the rush was not simply a Martha’s Vineyard phenomenon: The New York Times reported an increase in Manhattan home sales in the last three months of the year as sellers tried to avoid the impending new tax laws for 2013. And on Nantucket, the Inquirer and Mirror reported a near-record number of property transfers for December.
Island lawyers and real estate professionals worked overtime to keep up with the activity. “We were really busy,” said Edgartown attorney Ronald H. Rappaport, a partner with Reynolds, Rappaport, Hackney and Kaplan.
“There were two things that happened at the end of the year that drove a tremendous burst of activity,” he said. The first was a potential change in estate tax law, which led to “a lot of gifting and transfers.”
The second factor increased home purchases and sales, Mr. Rappaport said: “A fear of change in capital gains laws drove sellers to want to sell before capital gains went up.”
The end result, he said, was a “rush of activity that we haven’t seen in years. It was overwhelming, frankly, in terms of volume.”
The increase in activity was not unprecedented, though. Mr. Rappaport said there was a similar rush just before the land bank went into effect (in the 1980s), as people tried to get sales completed before the two per cent surcharge took effect. Fear of a capital gains increase has also increased activity in the past.
At the Dukes County Registry of Deeds in the Edgartown courthouse, Paulo DeOliveira said the end of 2012 went beyond the usual year-end rush.
“It was exceptionally busy the last couple of weeks, just because of the whole financial situation,” he said. “People doing planning, real-estate planning.”
In the end, capital gains and estate tax rates did go up, but not as much as anticipated. According to the Wall Street Journal, rates increased on long-term capital gains and dividends for top-bracket taxpayers, and estate and gift tax exemptions will remain at $5 million, indexed for inflation, though the top tax rate will increase from 35 per cent to 40 per cent on amounts above the exemption.
Debra Taylor Blair, the president of LINK, a real estate multiple listing service for Martha’s Vineyard, said she, too, noticed “an amazing amount of activity” as the year came to a close.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the year end, kind of last round of sales,” she said, attributing it to a combination of concern about tax rates and “a realization that inventory is low and prices are rebounding, so now is a really good time to buy.”
She said sales have been from all sectors of the market. “It seems to be pretty balanced — with some expensive sales, some mid-priced, and some entry level.”
Most of all, it was a profitable end to an otherwise flat year for the land bank. October saw a week with no revenue for the commission, and the week ending Dec. 14 saw revenue of $182,333, a far more typical weekly number.
Land bank executive director James Lengyel said the $2 million in revenue that came in during the last two weeks of the year, though a “welcome cushion” that puts the land bank on track to make or exceed its yearly goal, is being viewed as an anomaly.
“I don’t think it’s going to change the land bank’s outlook on its operations, because the land bank will see it as
anomalous,” Mr. Lengyel said. “The land bank will be interested to see what happens the next six months.”
The burst of activity brought the land bank close to its goal for fiscal year 2013. The organization is projected to collect $7 million in revenue for the fiscal year which ends June 30, and revenues now stand at more than $5.8 million.
Ordinarily, Mr. Lengyel said, the land bank has collected 55 per cent of its revenue by the end of December. This year it was at 83 per cent.
“Now we’ll watch the next six months to see what happens,” he said.
The spike was an exception to otherwise flat revenues and anticipations, Mr. Lengyel said. Revenue per transaction had been consistent for the last two years, he said, calling it “utterly flat.” For six-month periods starting in January 2011, land bank revenue per transaction consistently averaged $17,500.
But for the last six months of 2012, and “thanks to the last three weeks,” Mr. Lengyel said, the average revenue per transaction jumped 30 per cent to $23,100.
He said while it’s impossible to imagine what would have happened in the last six months without the end of the year rush, the increase “speaks to how anomalous the last three weeks were and why the land bank has to treat it as an anomaly.”
Additionally, the last six months saw an increase in the number of transactions in the upper third of the market, sales over $1 million. Since June 2012, 29 per cent of transactions were in that segment, compared to a prior average of 24 per cent.
Looking back at 2012, Mr. Lengyel said: “It was a year of completing projects. Each of the major acquisitions was a completion of another project the land bank had been working on for years.”
In the last few weeks of the year, the land bank continued that trend, purchasing 4.9 acres of land near West Basin Road in Aquinnah for $40,000, near where the land bank has purchased other lots for its Menemsha Neck Preserve.
And despite the end of the year spike, Mr. Lengyel said 2013 will find the land bank “reserved in looking at property, and open as always to attractively-priced properties, open to finishing projects its already begun. It’s very challenging for the land bank to consider fresh new properties.”