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Phase I Due Diligence during Covid-19

Sep 10, 2020 8:15:00 AM / by David C Sulock posted in Phase I, Due Diligence, Phase I ESA

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Commercial Due Diligence includes performance of a Phase I ESA

Well how do you perform a Phase I ESA during Covid-19, when government offices are closed or minimally staffed delaying records request and you have settlement in 3 weeks?

Phase I ESA during Covid-19

Well how do you perform a Phase I ESA during Covid-19, when government offices are closed or minimally staffed -  delaying records request and you have settlement in 3 weeks?  In short you add this known delay into contract as buying real estate during Covid-19 is an unprecedented task.

Lets say you are buying a commercial building in New Jersey during Covid-19 and there are NJDEP (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) files that require review.  Of important note if any government environmental agency has records on the property you are purchasing you want those files reviewed.

You do due diligence not just to research current operations but what occurred at the property in the past.

Covid-19 Phase I ESA

Curren was performing a phase I for just such a situation and here is a quick summary of the obstacle faced with public records and Phase I ESA's.

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Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request was  submitted an OPRA records request to the NJDEP on July 1, 2020.

On July 14, 2020 Curren received a response from the NJDEP indicating that due to the COVID-19 restrictions indicting “the NJDEP is not able to fully respond to record requests within the prescribed timeframe under the Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A.47:1A-1 et seq (OPRA). The NJDEP work force has transitioned to work remotely from home, impacting the NJDEP's ability to access onsite and archived government records, conduct onsite inspections, and copy responsive records. In accordance with N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(i)(2), which states that the deadlines under OPRA, to grant or deny access to a government record shall not apply if no reasonable efforts are available based on the circumstances, and in maintaining consistency with the social distancing directives of the Governor, the NJDEP is not able to complete the search for responsive records and respond to this request. Once resources allow, the NJDEP will complete and issue the final Government Records Request Form response to this request. We apologize for this inconvenience.”.

On July 13, 2020 the NJDEP submitted a response indicating “At this time, your request is not able to be completed within the statutory time frame specified in OPRA”.

On July 20, 2020, Curren received another response from NJDEP indicating that “Based on this record request, responsive records have been identified and will be emailed to you within 5-business days”.

On August 6, 2020 Curren reached out to the NJDEP requesting information as to the status of the email. In response to this email the NJDEP requested that Curren recontact them if the information was not received by August 18, 2020.

On August 20, 2020, Curren again submitted a request regarding the status of the information and received a reply indicating that we should have the data by Monday August 24.

On August 21, 2020, Curren received an email from the NJDEP with pdf files regarding the site. 

So approximately 7 weeks after a request was submitted the public records were produced.  You can repeat this same story for Phase's performed in Pennsylvania and Delaware, where we have seen similar delays.

If you are buying a commercial property and you are completing a phase I ESA, you need to prepare for longer reporting time frames.

If there one aspect of the economy that has strong forward momentum it is residential and commercial real estate sales.  The boom in real estate transactions (transactions are limited based on availability of properties for sale) are driven by historically low interest rates and the economic blow of Covid-19 on businesses that are driving prices lower and creating a buying opportunity for strategic investors.   In short there are businesses that are closed and real estate is being listed for sale and sold.  This is occurring by both owner operators of property as well as owner/landlords that have lost rental income and are selling the properties. By strategic investors we are referencing a buyers that have near immediate plans for the properties being purchased.  The closure of restaurants and many small business due to Covid-19 has left a dramatically different real estate market

Commercial Due Diligence includes performance of a Phase I ESA.    A Phase I researches current and past operations and diligent inquiries encompass obtaining and reviewing available public records.  Anything submitted to a government agency by nature is subject to review under the Open Public Records Act or OPRA.   Having a Phase I without reviewing OPRA records leaves a gaping data gap in your due diligence.

Expert Due Diligence Advice

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Expert Due Diligence

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Why every home should have a tank sweep?

Nov 18, 2019 9:15:00 AM / by david sulock posted in Due Diligence, underground oil tanks, tank sweep with gpr, tank sweeps with GPR, tank sweep, gpr tank swep

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Curren Environmental has been solving tank related issues for over 20 years.   Oil tanks were like cell phones, they were ubiquitous in homes in the Northeastern United States.  Oil was king as the graph shows:

 

Does my home have an oil tank?

Oil heat was more popular than natural gas up until 1980!

In 1950 43.9% of homes had oil heat

In 1960 62.9% of homes had oil heat

In 1970 52.6% of homes had oil heat

 

So in 2019, what are the odds the home your buying has or had an oil tank? Pretty high for sure.   

 

oil tank leak and remediation

 

Tank Scans with GPR = Buyer Due Diligence

 

Scan for oil tanks before you buy a home

 

A tank scan found this tank.  You can see from the many holes in the tank, that the tank leaked.   Thankfully the home buyer had a tank sweep completed and found the tank.  The homeowner had to remove and remediate the oil tank.   

 

Oil Tank sweep found a leaking oil tank

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                       Environmental Due Diligence

Jan 22, 2018 2:40:50 PM / by David C Sulock posted in Phase I, Due Diligence, Phase II

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If you are purchasing a commercial property, you will be advised to perform reasonable due diligence prior to acquisition.  The standard is performing an ASTM Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA).     A Phase I incorporates research of a site for the determination of past (historical) or current Recognized Environmental Conditions (RECs) that could affect the value of the property.  Banks typically will require a Phase I for high-risk sites or when loan amounts reach a certain threshold.  Banks typically have buyers pay for a Phase I to protect the bank, as the bank does not want to have a mortgagee be burdened with undue environmental remediation expenses that could in turn affect their ability to pay the mortgage.
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 Any purchaser of commercial real estate is performing Phase I due diligence to protect their interest, not is once again not typically fulfilling a requirement of the law.  Due diligence is a prudent practice to follow for any commercial purchaser.   Many buyers contact our office with little to no real knowledge of what a Phase I is and are being directed to perform one by their attorney or realtor.  Many people view a Phase I as getting their hand stamped and the quicker the better so the transaction can go to settlement.  The due diligence aspect is many times an afterthought.

We are going to cover the different scenarios when a Phase I is completed and when a Phase II or III is triggered and why that is a good thing.

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The best possible outcome for all parties after completing a Phase I, in the eyes of a buyer or seller is that the Phase I finds no issues with the site and accordingly there are no recommendations that any additional work is required such as a Phase II or Phase III.   This is not as common an outcome as many people think or expect.  Sellers do not want you to complete a Phase I as it delays the settlement and opens up the possibility that the Phase I may find an issue.   Buyers do not want a Phase I performed for the same reasons, citing the time it took to find the perfect site at the right price as well as monies already spent to date.  The Phase I is viewed as a necessary evil and one that at best could cost money and delay the sale from 2 to 6 weeks and at worst strike a crushing blow to the sale when a problem is uncovered that the owner was unaware of and unable or unwilling to address.

The odds that the Phase I will come back clean, meaning no RECs are found, is based on numerous factors including the date of site development and historical usage of the site.  We have found that some of the most innocuous appearing sites (upholstery and insurance office), have been found to have potential environmental concerns from PRIOR usage.

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A common Phase I situation is a client that is not required to perform a Phase I by the bank either because the loan amount is not triggering it or they are paying cash or there is a 1031 exchange.  These are rush hand stamped Phase I’s as there are already planned deadlines and the Phase I request is coming from the buyers attorney.  The rush part of the Phase I need is not based on anything pertinent relative to environmental conditions, but rather business or financial needs.   This is where hand stamping is most common.   Timing is relative and the sooner a decision is made on performing the Phase I the faster it will be completed.  In a perfect world a Phase I would be initiated by the seller prior to listing the property for sale.  In practice, it is one of the last things a buyer completes.

Time necessary to complete a Phase I varies.  Most Phase I’s are completed within three weeks, some can take as long as 6 to 8 weeks.  The difference in timing is based on the presence of records at the State and local levels.  The presence of files for a site at an environmental agency is typically unknown until a Phase I is initiated and the agencies are contacted regarding any files.  If files are found, the review of reasonably ascertainable files is required.  There could be a multiple week wait to get access to these files as they may be in storage or the first available date the State gives is 4 weeks away.   The time to access environmental files at a State level is the under looked aspect of a Phase I.  The determination that no files exist allows the Phase I process to be expedited.  The presence of environmentally-associated records indicates that investigation/remediation work may have been initiated or completed.  Records must be reviewed by a person with the experience and knowledge of applicable regulations to confirm that investigations/remediation has been completed in accordance with the local, State and Federal regulations.  A recent Phase I had pertinent files that were at the State.  Based on ability to accumulate the records and schedule the first available review date, it took five weeks to just perform a cursory review.  The review found that the site was formerly a gas station and had gas tanks removed and properly closed though the State.  What the file review did not indicate was the presence of other tanks on the site that appeared to have been either removed or left in place.  The unknown tanks consisted of a heating oil, waste oil and kerosene tank.   This triggered the need for a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey of the site to search for the possible missing tanks.  In this case, the buyer was sure that all the tanks were removed and signed off by the State, unfortunately that was not the case.  In this case, the buyer did not buy the site and the owner had more work to complete including the removal of the tanks.

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When you start a Phase I, anticipate that a Phase II may be the necessary.  A Phase II is testing or further invasive evaluation of a suspected environmental concern.   Another Phase I performed found the need to complete soil borings on the site in areas where the operations of the site may have allowed historical seepage of oils and chemicals into the soil.  The Phase II did indeed find contamination in all the borings completed.   At this point the purchaser was into the property for over 20K, which including attorney’s fees, zoning applications, engineering and environmental.  The next step after finding an area of contamination is to determine the extent of contamination and the associated costs for remediation.  This added weeks upon weeks to the financial deal which could lead to the potential purchaser to look for another property weighed against the monies spent to date.  Most contracts allow the buyer or seller to back out of the transaction if repair expenses exceed a dollar amount or a time limit.   Usually at this point the buyer, thinking they were buying a clean site, is upset about monies thrown down the drain and when the end will occur.   Rarely does the purchaser weigh the fact that the Phase I did exactly what it was designed to do which is evaluate for potential environmental issues that could devalue the site.   Slightly less than $100,000.00, later and almost 7 months from the start of the Phase I was the property cleaned up.  The buyer dodged a remediation expense that surely would have been in their lap if the property was bought without a Phase I as the party they sell too would most likely not be as foolish to purchase without performing Due Diligence.

The photo below is a drum storage area, the floor below the wood was heavily stained.  It was flagged in the Phase I as an AOC and testing was recommended and the testing found contamination.

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Phase I cost sharing.  Due to the unexpected outcome of any Phase I’s in some instances the expense of the Phase I is shared between buyers and sellers.  The advantage for both parties it not just financial (50/50 split), but ownership of the report.  If the transaction falls apart for reasons other than environmental finds issues, the owner has possession of the report and can share same with the next prospective purchaser.

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Phase II cost sharing is more complicated.  The Phase II by definition involves physical examinations and in many cases testing.  Phases II expenses can dwarf the cost of a Phase II and due to the potential of finding an issue, many sellers would prefer the testing not be performed.  This is particularly common when the issues being investigated relate to potential conditions that predate the current owner.  This is a very common situation if the current owner purchased the site in the last 20 years and did not perform a Phase I.  Cost sharing is again valuable as the owner has rights to the report and data generated by the Phase II.   In most cases if the Phase II finds an issue that must be addressed or remediated (Phase III) the phase II has to be shared with the owner to document the findings.   Phase I cost sharing is far more common than in Phase II situation.

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