Niche properties CCIM Feature

Unsinkable Investments?

Marinas require extensive due diligence to stay afloat.

Even in today's real estate environment, specialty properties such as marinas hold a particular attraction in select markets and appeal to certain investors. But purchasing a marina is not like buying a retail strip center or a self-storage facility. While careful due diligence is necessary for all properties, it is vital for a property that is half-submerged in water. In this case, what you can't see can sink the entire investment.

Performing due diligence assessments for the acquisition of marina properties is very different from other types of commercial real estate projects. Each marina is unique with respect to its location, design, market, amenities, and operation. Since the majority of a marina is water-based, these properties are more susceptible than other real estate to damage caused by the coastal/marine environment. Therefore, it is essential to perform proper due diligence prior to investing in a marina property, regardless of the type and quality of information the seller provides.

In addition, properly performed due diligence equips investors with valuable knowledge that can be used to their advantage. For example, knowing any design flaws or structural damages can serve as a negotiating tool with sellers to reduce the sales price. Likewise, having a permanent record of the facility's condition can be advantageous in case of future insurance claims or property sales. Being aware of any permit restrictions as well as large capital costs or potential limitations associated with expansion reduces the investment's risk and provides a means to validate the venture's profitability. A due diligence assessment can also serve as a guide for future maintenance and capital improvements.

Due Diligence Checklist

A proper due diligence assessment covers all of the engineering, environmental, regulatory, and economic aspects of the marina. The assessment should be performed by a team of knowledgeable, experienced consultants with marina-specific expertise in the engineering design, regulatory environment, and economics of the industry.

Since the purpose of due diligence is to confirm the property's economic viability, the investor needs to know the property's probable expenses and income. Understanding the following can help to predict expenses and income:

  • capital costs required to make upgrades to the facility or to meet the investor's intended vision;
  • repair and maintenance costs associated with maintaining the facility such as maintenance dredging and periodic inspections of the structures;
  • operating and management costs for running the day-to-day business;
  • predicted income generated from slip rates;
  • slip mix occupancy and any seasonal fluctuations;
  • absorption; and
  • other services or products offered.

Engineering Assessment

Just because a marina exists at the location doesn't mean that it should be there or that it was designed correctly when built. One of the most important design aspects of a marina is the ability to protect the docks and vessels berthed at the facility from wind-driven waves, swell, vessel wake, ice, debris, and strong current.

To confirm that the facility is adequately protected, a coastal engineer should perform an initial site analysis. Analyzing wind, wave, and water-level data provides the information necessary to evaluate whether the docks and wave attenuators are designed for the correct wave heights and oriented for optimum vessel maneuverability.

After reviewing any available information provided by the owner, the engineers conduct a walk-through survey. The purpose of this inspection is to identify and document the condition of the structures, estimate the extent of damage and deterioration, make recommendations and cost estimates for required repairs and maintenance, estimate the expected remaining service life of the structures, and make recommendations for the type and frequency of future inspections.

The typical components found at a marina property include both water-based and land-based structures and systems. When evaluating the water-based structures, the inspection should be performed at low tide, since the corrosion rate is much higher in the intertidal and splash zones. An underwater dive inspection should also be considered.

The marina's layout can pose limitations on the size and type of vessels that can enter and berth at the facility and dictate future expansion opportunities. The expansion potential is influenced by engineering and design and environmental/regulatory conditions that directly impact the economics. The extent of these limitations should be evaluated even if the investor intends to maintain the marina as-is. Owning a marina that has opportunities for growth and expansion is more valuable than owning a marina that poses limitations for future investors.

Environmental/Regulatory Assessment

Environmental/regulatory due diligence assessment involves evaluating any potential or currently existing environmental liabilities associated with owning the marina property and knowing whether local or federal environmental or regulatory restrictions prevent future improvements to the marina facilities. Typical standards followed include the ISO 14015 and ASTM 1528.

The environmental components include water quality, sedimentation, wetland impacts, protected species, protected vegetation, and contamination of soils and/or marine sediments. For example, soil contamination is often found in boat service yards near buildings that house or that previously housed dry cleaning services.

The regulatory aspects include the evaluation of land and water (submerged land) property surveys, planning and zoning regulations, regulatory permits, required licenses, contracts, easements and restrictions, and navigation setbacks.

Economic Assessment

A market overview should be conducted for the marina facility by a marina consultant, even if the property appears to be profitable and there are no plans to make any changes or expansions. The investor who envisions making any changes to the existing slip mix and/or upland facilities should perform a more-detailed market analysis to confirm whether there is a market need.

The construction costs associated with building a small-craft marina are expensive and increase considerably when involving mega yachts. Boats larger than 98 feet require deeper water, wider fairways and entrance channels, greater loads, bigger piles, and higher-capacity utility service. To estimate expansion or redevelopment costs, the consultant must first develop conceptual layouts that are based on the ideal slip mix for the current market.

Buyers should know the estimated capital costs for improvements, along with slip rates and operational costs, prior to purchasing a facility. These values should be entered into a financial pro forma to model the total profit or losses to understand the return on investment.

The operations portion of the evaluation includes analyzing the way the facility is managed and the associated costs. Management issues to consider include the following:

  • What security measures are currently in place at the facility with respect to restricted entry and protection of the boats from vandalism and theft?
  • Have there been any previous incidents of theft and vandalism at the facility?
  • Is the lighting adequate?
  • What are the current operational costs for the marina facility?
  • What costs could increase in the future?
  • How will costs change if the marina layout is redeveloped and/or new staff is hired?

These due diligence assessments apply to both freshwater and saltwater marinas and should be performed by consultants familiar with a specific location. In addition, potential marina buyers should also investigate legal and insurance issues before proceeding.

Kelly Rutkowski Hubbard is an associate at International Waterfront Consultants LLC in Jacksonville, Fla. Contact her at krutkowski@iwcllc.com.

Kelly Rutkowski Hubbard

Marina Basics Similar to hotels, marinas are labor-intensive investments, dependent on rental income and ancillary sales of fuel, food and beverages, and boat services for revenue. The U.S. has about 12,000 marinas and boatyards, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. About 70 percent are individually and privately owned, and the typical marina has between 50 and 100 slips. While marinas have suffered from the economic downturn, interest in boating remains strong. From 2009 to 2010, boat registration numbers decreased by only 2.2 percent, indicating that boat owners are managing to stay afloat despite difficult economic conditions. In a 2011 survey by Marina Dock Age, 38 percent of marinas reported a decline in slip rental fees over the last three years, while 36 percent reported an increase. Still, marinas have not been immune from the recession. In Florida, for example, destination marinas, "dockominiums," and those with condo developments — popular investments prior to 2008 — have succumbed to decreased rentals and cash flow and landed in foreclosure, according to a Miami Today report. But given the waterfront locations, these properties are not languishing on the market: Ten Miami River marina properties have been sold in the last five years, and local real estate professionals predict sales to continue as the economy improves.

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