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Norma Walton Talks: Retail Real Estate Predictions

Over the past two years, I have watched with interest and some consternation as more major retailers than I have fingers and toes have gone into receivership or bankruptcy.  COVID has accelerated trends that were already happening in the marketplace.  Four of those trends bear highlighting.

Apparel retailers are in trouble.  Any apparel retailer with significant debt will fail in the next two years.  COVID has caused those stores to be completely closed for the past three months.  Now that they are permitted to re-open, the restrictions being placed upon them coupled with the general anxiety amongst a large portion of the population about venturing outside of their homes will work together to significantly reduce their sales.  This reduction in revenue will leave them unable to cover their debts.  That means receivership or bankruptcy.

Even those apparel retailers who don’t have a lot of debt will be forced to dramatically reduce their real estate footprint and significantly increase their online sales and web presence.  That trend is unstoppable.  Stores will be smaller and more reliant upon online sales in the future.  They will have to push their brand online and ensure their websites can accommodate and promote online sales.

That rolls into my third prediction, which is that warehousing space will become more expensive and warehouse fulfillment centres will boom over the next two years.  Any landlords who have warehouse space available will be able to ask more per square foot because as retailers reduce their real estate footprint, they will need a place to receive, store and ship out their clothing.   Warehouse fulfillment and distribution centres will be in demand given the shift to online shopping.

The final prediction concerns malls.  Malls will have to diversify their sources of income and their revenues to survive going forward.  They will not be able to rely solely upon retailers.  This trend has already started.  The Shops of Don Mills has ringed the mall with residential towers, providing built-in shoppers.  The retailers there still struggle but the restaurants, movie theatres, grocery stores and drug stores are thriving.  Bayview Village and Yorkdale malls are trying to replicate that trend, adding significant residential density to the mall and adding more restaurants and entertainment centres to service the residents they propose to move in.  Malls in Canada will need to move in that direction to survive.

Those are my four retail real estate predictions for Canada for the next two years.  I will continue to watch with interest to see what comes to pass.

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Norma Walton, Hockey is Life

My four children play hockey.

Considering their experience with the game, I realize how much it has given them thus far in their life.  Because of hockey:

  1. They are incredibly fit;
  2. They are tough;
  3. They have more friends and more acquaintances;
  4. They know the more they practice, the better they get;
  5. They have a healthy ego given their achievements;
  6. They are skilled at time management because they only have so much time to do their homework;
  7. Their coaches are mentors and friends; and
  8. They have developed a better sense of humour given all the repartee connected to the game.

Thus far Canada’s game has been very good to both my children and our family.  I hope the love affair continues.

hockey

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Norma Walton, Bad Things, Good People

My landlady is a lovely woman of Persian descent.

She has worked hard her whole life; has raised three good children who are now good adults; has been loyal to her husband; immigrated to Canada to create a better life for her family; and has always tried to help those who are less fortunate than she is.  She is now at an age where she expected to be travelling, enjoying her life, enjoying her children and grandchildren, and feeling good.

Instead, in the past three years, her daughter’s husband died within three months of the birth of his first and only child; her daughter suffered a terrible depression after her son-in-law’s death; my landlady contracted cancer which she has been fighting for the past three years; her son married an Iranian woman and moved back to Iran; and her husband spends much of his time in Iran running his business while trying to deal with an economy that is struggling.  This is not what she envisioned.

Why do bad things happen to good people?  An age old question.  Some people say that God only gives you what you can handle.  Others say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Others indicate that it is the devil trying to discourage you from your faith.  Others that life is random and nothing happens for any reason at all.  I don’t know the answer but the only one of the four prior answers that I believe is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Life is challenging and inexplicable.  Bad people become rulers of countries.  Bad people make fortunes and use the money for ill intent.  Bad people take advantage and abuse their employees, partners, spouses and friends.  Bad people succeed in many aspects of life.  It doesn’t seem right.

In speaking with my landlady, I was brought back to the reality that life is not fair.  All that we have is today.  So enjoy every moment without exception because you cannot count on tomorrow or plan for tomorrow with any degree of certainty.

Live in this moment; it is all that you have for certain.

bad things good people

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Norma Walton, Love what you do and the money will follow

Early in life I was told to find what you love to do and the money will follow.

Back then, I loved to play basketball and I was good at it…by London, Ontario standards anyways.  Nonetheless, not being male nor being blessed with the ability to dunk, the advice wasn’t readily useful.

women's basketball

Then I went to university and studied law, met and married my husband, and together we opened a law practice.  Along the way I met many wonderful clients and made steady money practicing law but I never loved it.  I understood by practicing why lawyers have one of the highest rates of alcoholism and are one of the most miserable of all professionals.

law

Third time lucky…I enrolled in business school and all of a sudden things became a little clearer.  With the financial skills I learned there my husband and I were able to determine that fixing problem properties was something I would enjoy and that may make us some real money.

The first problem property we were looking at was owned by a fellow who was having challenges.  He had tried to sever the properties but hadn’t completed the severance.  He wasn’t paying his mortgagee/partner.  His wife and he had separated and she was suing him for child and spousal support and was about to seize his assets.  In the face of all that, he was still difficult to deal with as a vendor despite his desperation.  He ultimately ended up fleeing to Florida where he had another property and where he would ultimately be charged with arson because he allegedly tried to torch that property for the insurance money.

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The properties we were looking at were completely vacant…of humans anyway although there were definitely creatures living inside.  They were 13,700 square feet in size over two buildings.  They were connected by a Soviet era bunker/tunnel whereby you could move from the front building to the back without going outside or being seen.  It rained indoors.  The carpets were mouldy; the walls were peeling off; everything was stained and dirty.  They were both in a glaring state of neglect and disrepair.  Long before, they had been owned by Peter Monk’s company and had bullet proof glass in parts of them.

Our realtor asked us a number of times if we actually wanted to purchase the properties they were such a mess.  He wondered why two lawyers who had a law practice making a bit of money, very limited experience in real estate, and seemingly not a lot of resources would want this money pit.

In hindsight, the answer was simple:

  1. LOCATION:  The properties were on Hazelton Avenue in the heart of Yorkville in Toronto, a top drawer location – you couldn’t get much better
  2. SCOPE:  The properties comprised enough square footage that if successful, they could really create a ton of equity upon completion of renovation;
  3. FINANCING TERMS:  The financial terms we negotiated permitted us to purchase with a minimal down payment and put the remaining money we had towards renovation; and
  4. CHALLENGE:  The properties presented just enough of a challenge that I thought we could successfully renovate them…assuming we were frugal and got a bit lucky…and refinance them in the planned amount of time.

That was the why.  We were also younger and childless and more willing to roll the dice.

Hence we bought the properties for $2.3 million with $200,000 down, a first mortgage from Community Trust of $1.3 million at 8% and a second vendor take back mortgage of $800,000 at 11%.  The plan was to renovate as quickly and cost effectively as possible.

We hired a crew of guys and a contractor who became and still is a great friend.  We directly supervised them in ripping out everything that was damaged and replacing it with anything we could find on sale.

The front building was to be renovated first.  Once partially done, we moved our tiny little law firm into this huge front building.  We then created two residential units, one above and one below the law firm, that occupied quickly.  The residential tenant downstairs was a smoker – although she claimed to be a non-smoker when we rented to her – and the smoke infiltrated the entire building, making working difficult.  We had to kick her out and replace her, which we did in time.

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When we tackled the back building, we went high end residential rental with whatever nice products we could find on kijiji, craigslist, the side of the road, carpet ends, end run tiles, paint on sale, kitchen items on sale, and surplus bathroom items.  Money was tight and it was a necessity that we were frugal and smart with our money.  We had more time than money, so we spent time finding bargain renovation items.

We completed and filled one suite at a time in the back building and we had some very interesting tenants over the years.  One was a professional baseball player who changed his home number every three weeks to avoid his wife meeting the parade of call girls and women for hire that frequented the place when she and the kids weren’t there.  We had a Buffalo Bill who refused to live in Buffalo and took a limo every day from our place to Buffalo and back.  We had a fellow who made a fortune in the high tech industry in Europe, became a pilot, and brought his former stripper partner back to Toronto with him.  He had babies with her while continuing to frequent strip clubs here.  Those were just three of the very interesting clientele we met and got to know.

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Within a year of purchase, we had renovated, severed, and rented out enough of the buildings to justify an increase in value to $3.5 million collectively.  When we were done, the Russian Embassy came knocking because they loved the location, the underground tunnel and the bulletproof glass, but no offer was forthcoming.  We thus refinanced each of the properties with traditional lenders at much lower rates.  Due to the increase in value, we were able to withdraw our initial down payment of $200,000 along with most of our $300,000 in renovation costs, giving us the money to do it again.

That was our start in the world of fixing problem real estate.  We bought in June 2001 and finished in June 2002.  For that project, it was definitely accurate that when I found what I loved, the money followed.

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Norma Walton, Baffled by Stocks

I have never understood the stock market.

My brother is a savvy investor who makes money in the market.  One of my best girlfriends worked on Wall Street and Bay Street and makes money in the markets.  Her spouse is a portfolio manager turned investment writer and he makes money in the markets.

I, on the other hand, have always lost money in the markets. Every time!  I have always felt more comfortable with the thought of controlling my own money.  That has meant in the past buying real estate, generally problem real estate, then fixing it.  I still love to do that when I have the opportunity.

Everyone has their abilities.  The key is figuring out which of your abilities will make you some money.

Words to live by…

#normawaltonWTLB

cartoon

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Good Character

Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than in bad company.

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Over the past decade I have learned this firsthand.

I had a business partner who was at his core a very bad person.  Like a lot of nefarious people, it wasn’t apparent to me until far too late in the relationship that his character was evil and that associating with him would destroy a large portion of my life.

Now older and wiser, I choose my friends carefully and my enemies even more carefully.

Those are words for me to live by.

#normawaltonWTLB