Risk & Compliance

Feds Move to Curb Real Estate Secrecy

The anti-money laundering action means buyers of high-end property in Manhattan and Miami can no longer hide behind shell companies.
Katie Kuehner-HebertJanuary 13, 2016

In a move to curb money laundering, the U.S. government will temporarily bar buyers of high-end properties in New York City and Miami from hiding behind shell companies.

The Treasury Department’s financial crimes enforcement network, FinCEN, on Wednesday issued geographic targeting orders (GTOs) requiring title insurance companies to disclose the identity of “natural persons” who use shell companies to make all-cash purchases of residential properties in Manhattan and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

“We are seeking to understand the risk that corrupt foreign officials, or transnational criminals, may be using premium U.S. real estate to secretly invest millions in dirty money,” FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery said in a news release.

“Over the years, our rules have evolved to make the standard mortgage market more transparent and less hospitable to fraud and money laundering,” she noted. “But cash purchases present a more complex gap that we seek to address.”

The GTOs are temporary while federal officials seek to determine the extent of the problem. The rules take effect March 1 and will expire on Aug. 27.

“My belief is that [FinCEN] waited too long: This has been going on for a while,” Seth Kaplowitz, a finance lecturer at San Diego State University, told MarketWatch.

Kaplowitz said FinCEN likely chose New York because of its high prices and its standing as an international city, and Miami because of the influx of money from South American sources.

In Manhattan alone, 1,045 apartments and residences were sold for $3 million or more in the second half of 2015 for total sales of about $6.5 billion, according to property research website PropertyShark.

The question of whether FinCEN will expand the program to other cities depends on what they uncover, Kaplowitz said.

Nearly half of high-end residential U.S. properties are now purchased anonymously through shell companies, according to  the SellYourHome.com.

Kaplowitz told MarketWatch that money from Asia has fueled the all-cash real-estate boom, as investors look to get money out of China and Hong Kong. The number of all-cash sales of residential U.S. real estate to Chinese buyers has tripled since 2005.

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