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Twenty-eight questions you must ask

February 25th, 2020

Clay Sparkman

I first wrote and published this piece in its original form in September of 2009. I am of the firm belief that the key to success (defined as: having fun and maximizing your return, two closely correlated phenomena), is rigorous and comprehensive vetting of the loan proposal. If you do this right, the rest tends to follow. With that in mind, a quick review of this list tells me that not much has changed in this regard, in spite of going through the greatest economic depression since the great depression. So I see it fit to publish this again, with a few slight variations and several rather important changes (the three new items). You can never overthink and over-analyze the vetting process. So here you go:

I’m going to make a list today of twenty-eight important questions that I believe an investor must ask prior to funding any private money loan transaction. I’m not going to elaborate much on each particular item here, but will drill down on each of the individual items in future posts. For the sake of simplifying this discussion to a reasonable level, I’d like to start with several assumptions: (1) we are only talking about loans secured by real property, (2) we are only talking about first position loans, and (3) we are not talking about land development or raw land loans. (Each of these exceptions, if removed, would be good for another whole list of special questions; we’ll save those particular scenarios for future discussion.)

(1) What is the Loan-to-Value (LTV) ratio of the loan you are considering and how does that fit with your own risk limits regarding this particular loan and property type?

(2) If this is a value-added loan (construction, rehab, or development), what is the front-end LTV?  Font-end LTV refers to the LTV immediately after the close of escrow but prior to any construction/development or disbursement of construction hold-back funds. (I generally reference this as FLTV, and it is understood that LTV, for a project, actually refers to the LTV upon completion of the construction/development and full disbursement of any/all hold-back funds.)

(3) How confident are you of the value?  The “L” part in LTV is easy.  It is the “V” part that can be quite difficult to accurately determine, and in fact it must be understood that any such determination (no matter how good) is only an estimate. (I.e., It must by definition be an estimate.)

(4) What are the recent market trends for the area in which the property is located? Given the real estate market of the past two years, this question is particularly relevant.

(5) How is the borrower’s credit? What is the mid-score, what are the issues, if any, and what is the trend?

(6) If the loan is a refi: how is the borrower’s pay history on the existing loan?

(7) How much “skin” will the borrower have in the game at the close of escrow? In other words, how much cash or additional collateral is the borrower bringing to the table?

(8) If this is a real estate development or investment loan or a loan to a business owner occupying his own property: what is the relevant experience and background of this borrower?

(9) What is the purpose of the loan and how will the funds be utilized?

(10) What is the term of the loan?

(11) Can the borrower afford to make payments OR does the loan scenario otherwise involve an adequate interest reserve?

(12) What is the borrower’s plan/exit strategy, and–upon careful evaluation of the project/plan–how likely is the borrower’s likelihood of success?

(13) What is the borrower’s net worth and how liquid are the borrower’s assets?

(14) If there are one or more structures on the property, will you be listed as loss payee on a hazard insurance policy or a builder’s risk policy at the close of escrow (or prior to the beginning of construction if new construction is being funded)?

(15) If there is a construction hold-back, who is administering this and do you trust them to do so effectively?

(16) Have you reviewed the operative preliminary title insurance policy and approved any liens that your title insurance policy will be listing as exceptions to your position?

(17) Is your loan compliant with all state and federal disclosure and usury laws?

(18) Will all property taxes be paid current at closing?

(19) What is the likelihood that there are any serious hazardous waste issues associated with the property?

(20) What is the likelihood that there are any wetland issues associated with the property?

(21) If relevant: what is the status of all required permits, entitlements, and/or other government approvals?

(22) What is the likelihood of one or more construction labor/materials liens taking precedent over your lien position?

(23) Does the loan size/amount, location, type etc. allow you to obtain optimal diversification?

(24) What is your plan for servicing the loan?

(25) If the loan involves a fractional interest, how comfortable are you joining with the other lenders involved in the loan?

(26) Is the property in or near a major city? Keep in mind that if values fall, the fall tends to begin in rural areas, and the fall tends to be more dramatic in such areas over time.

(27) How is the area performing currently? What does the price trend look like over the past few years?

(28) And perhaps most importantly: What are the leading indicators of potential future value changes telling you? Keep in mind that price trend is a trailing indicator. You cannot assume that because values have gone up 10% per year in a given area for the past two years, that this gives you any reasonable indication of what to expect in the two years which follow. If we learned anything over the past 13 years (and oh … how we learned it), it is this. You must look at leading indicators if you want to get any kind of real handle on where values might be going. I recently published two blog entries on this subject, If you haven’t read them , please do. They are at Three potentially useful indicators of the likely movement of property values and Leading real estate value indicators.

I may well have left out some important items, so please provide feedback as to which items you agree with, which ones you don’t. Surely we can get this list up to 30!

— Clay (clay@privatemoneysource.com)

Clay is Vice President of Fairfield Financial, a primary source for private money loans since 1964.  Fairfield works with a broad range of private money investors, in a broker capacity, finding, underwriting, presenting, closing, servicing, and when necessary, assisting in the workout of difficult loans.

Climate change and the real estate market

January 31st, 2020

S. Clay Sparkman

One thing that nearly all investors surely have on their minds right now is the possible economic impacts of climate change. Certainly, any progressive and significant trend toward global warming should concern anyone who invests either directly or indirectly in real estate markets. If you ask any climate change scientist what effect climate change will have on the value of you home in the next ten years, the first question they will ask is, “Where do you live?” Climate change is global, but climate change will present itself regionally.

I am presenting you with a (somewhat) recent article which takes a first look at this issue. (It is certainly an article that any real estate investor should want to read. The article is “How climate change creates a ‘new abnormal’ for the real estate market,” written by Patrick Sisson, and published by Curbed, October 29, 2019.

Please read it! If you haven’t been thinking about climate change as it relates to your investments, then perhaps now is the time to start. I suspect that you’ll find value in this piece.

Best, Clay Sparkman, CEO

– Clay (clay@privatemoneysource.com, 503-476-2909)

Clay is Vice President of Fairfield Financial, a primary source for private money loans since 1964. Fairfield works with a broad range of private money investors, in a broker capacity, finding, underwriting, presenting, closing, servicing, and when necessary, assisting in the workout of difficult loans.

Hang Tight

November 6th, 2019

Clay Sparkman

As you all know, these have been difficult times for private money investors. Competition is up, rates are down, and solid opportunities are getting harder to find. The following article: Three Challenges Faced by Today’s Private Money Lenders and How to Weather Them, by Noah Brocious at Forbes, is a a very straightforward and sensible meditation on this matter. I recommend that you all take a moment to read it.

You might want to read the final paragraph twice anyway. And then keep it as your mantra for smart investing.

“The best advice I can give newer private lending institutions is this: When competition increases and you’re tempted to bend your underwriting standards to make more aggressive, higher loan-to-value loans in order to maintain market share, stick to your plan. As enticing as an instant gain in business might be, companies that stick to their guns and stay conservative will be in a much better spot when a real estate correction hits. These are the groups that will have a much better chance of making it.”

Best, Clay Sparkman, CEO

– Clay (clay@privatemoneysource.com, 503-476-2909)

Clay is Vice President of Fairfield Financial, a primary source for private money loans since 1964. Fairfield works with a broad range of private money investors, in a broker capacity, finding, underwriting, presenting, closing, servicing, and when necessary, assisting in the workout of difficult loans.

Information for investors

August 22nd, 2019

Clay Sparkman

Here is our *Information for Investors* section. It is direct and to the point. It tells you what you can expect of us and what we will expect to you, in a broker-relationship.


Best, Clay Sparkman, CEO

– Clay (clay@privatemoneysource.com, 503-476-2909)

Clay is Vice President of Fairfield Financial, a primary source for private money loans since 1964. Fairfield works with a broad range of private money investors, in a broker capacity, finding, underwriting, presenting, closing, servicing, and when necessary, assisting in the workout of difficult loans.

Don’t put all your egg baskets in one egg truck

August 1st, 2019

Clay Sparkman

Colloquialisms are funny things.  We use them pretty much every day in our speech and in our writing and yet most of us, I suspect, though we know the meanings of the expressions, frequently don’t know why the individual words have come to mean what they mean.  Take for example: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”  I must have been in my forties before I looked up one day, scratching my head, and mumbled to myself, “What the heck does that really mean?”  I remember asking my Dad about it. Having grown up on a farm he was able to explain to me without hesitation that it was a little like what tire kicking is to automobiles.  So, there you go.  It all makes sense–if you know something about farms and horses, that is.  And while we’re on that topic, does anybody really do that: kick tires I mean?  I have purchased maybe ten cars in my life, and I’m pretty sure I never actually kicked the tires on any of them out on the showroom floor.  And still, it is a great image.  I wish I were that kind of guy who could pull it off.

So with regard to investing, the egg analogies are kind of funny.  First of all, there is “the nest egg,” which seems to refer to one’s entire savings or investments.  It is singular however you will note.  You don’t have nest eggs.  You have a nest egg.  But given the fate of Humpty Dumpty and the fragility of eggs as such, we almost can’t bear the thought of our entire fortune being so fragile.  (And yet, if we don’t invest intelligently, maybe it is.)

And so of course to that end, we attempt to diversify our investments—and pretty much everyone is familiar with the expression, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” which immediately makes sense as an analogy—that is until you stop to think about it.  Follow me here: if each egg represents a single investment, then perhaps each egg basket in the analogy represents an investment type or sector, and if you think about it, you still don’t have a secure investment strategy here.  Say you have ten baskets, each with a handful of eggs in them.  Are you going to keep those baskets stored all in one place, and how are you going to transport them?  Surely you must never put them all in the same egg truck!  I would like to propose thus a revised version of the expression.  Can we all get on board with “Don’t put all your egg baskets in one egg truck?”

So then what is your point, you ask?  Well I do have one, and it is about diversification as it relates to trust deed investing.  Most investors—dare I say—view trust deed investing as a single egg truck and put many of their egg baskets (but certainly not all) in their “trust deed” egg truck.  And this is where we need to get really specific about this whole issue of egg security.  Almost all the investors I have worked with over the years have been quite certain that they didn’t want to put all of their trust deed money into one single trust deed investment.  That is practically a given.  Typically, an investor with say, one million to invest in trust deeds will look to put that into somewhere in the range of 5-10 separate trust deed investments.  So, we are all agreed that a dedicated “trust deed” egg truck is needed.

However, I would go a step further and suggest that if you are seriously involved in trust deed investing, you may want to deploy a small fleet of egg trucks just for trust deed investing.  And how does one do this?  Well, I used to think that this could be accomplished nicely by putting some into subdivision projects, some into home construction projects, and some in standing homes and commercial buildings.  But now I’m not so sure: when the real estate market for residential property tanked, residential subdivisions, residential construction, and finished homes all began to merge into one big thing.  Yes, they were all at different stages of the production process, but ultimately, they all became one thing: residential homes.  And those homes all had to be sold or refinanced ultimately at the level of the individual homes.  (The residential river flows in one direction, and always comes to the same point where the river meets the sea.)  And in retrospect, commercial vs. residential didn’t provide as much real diversification as I would have hoped.  Though residential property was the first to fall, commercial seems to have more or less followed along (lemming-like) on its heels, and really not so far behind.  So: perhaps this type of versification was more like putting different types of egg baskets in the same “trust deed” egg truck (as opposed to deploying multiple “trust deed” egg trucks).

I would suggest that perhaps the best way to obtain effective diversification in trust deed investments is to invest in multiple geographic locals.  And in particular, I am thinking on a state by state basis.  For many investors, this goes against their fundamental instincts because they feel safer investing close to home, where they know something about values and where they can deal more effectively (they feel) with the property if they have to take it back.  Those are valid issues and such instincts should not be ignored, but it is important to weigh against them the fact that the massive depreciation in home prices which continues to occur nationwide, happened at widely varying times and to vastly different magnitudes in varying states across this nation.

So not to pick on anyone in particular, but If you think about it: when sub-prime hit the fan in 2007, if your only “trust deed” egg truck was a sixteen wheeler with “SoCal” printed in large letters on the sides, you and your egg baskets were in for a long, rough, treacherous ride down the mountain-side.

— Clay (clay@privatemoneysource.com)

The Round Table, with King Arthur

March 27th, 2019

S. Clay Sparkman

I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I must say, we’ve seen good times and some bad. I’ve been involved in several thousand private money loans. Certainly, I’ve experienced a full cross section of the private money lender perspective. One might wonder, how can a long-term private money lender expect to do over the long haul, through good times and bad? In order to speak of this more effectively, I would like to introduce you to one of my all-time favorite private money lenders. His nom de querre is King Arthur, and he has been lending with me for the better part of 24 years now, straight through and into real-time.

When I told him that I was going to write this piece, he reminded me of how we got started. He was looking for some money to help his son-in-law get going in business, and he called me. When I quoted our rates, he said: “I don’t think I can afford a loan from you, but do you work with lenders?” I said, “sure!” So, he decided to lend the money directly to his son-in-law, who is now a multi-millionaire, and he met with me to talk about the full-range of issues involved with investing in secured private money loans. Thus, began my adventures as a friend and associate to King Arthur.

Let me start by saying that King Arthur loves private money lending. He loves not only the returns and the security involved (risk/reward ratio), but he actually loves the process as well. For him, it is a bit like chess: he loves to play, and he is good at it. And yes, there is a Guinevere. She is a lovely person. She doesn’t get directly involved in the day to day process of making these loans, but she knows plenty about what is going down, and she is involved in any critical decisions that must be made. I am proud to say that both the King and the Queen are among my closest friends.

Let’s talk for a moment about King Arthur’s own specific investment strategy. First of all, he has spent many years in the business of buying, renovating, and renting out real estate properties, so he is comfortable with assessing a particular property, a borrower, and the potential borrower’s proposal. He also recognizes that he is playing a game of probabilities. He looks for loans that have a high chance of being trouble free, and which are also likely to offer him high odds of full recovery if the borrower drops the ball. With this in mind, he diversifies to the full extent reasonably possible. He makes small (average, $30k) fractional share investments in each of a number of loans, and he attempts to ensure that these loans are well diversified regionally, and in terms of property types, loan types, and borrowers. Thus, for example, he avoids getting into many loans with any single investor, no matter how reliable they have proven to be.

King Arthur tells me that he has been involved in over 200 loans since he started with us. At any given time, he might be holding 20-30 loans of $30k each. He and I went down memory lane together, as I was writing this. He reminded me that until 2007, he had never lost a dime of principal. (He even remembers specifically the sordid details of the first loan where we didn’t manage to recover all of his principal.)

Beyond 2007, he had some bigger losses, but he also had some greater-than-expected gains, and he is proud to say that an analysis of his first 24 years of private money lending in the aggregate shows that he has ultimately not lost any principal, and in fact he has ended up earning approximately 8-9% on these investments, and all that through the entire period of the second greatest recession in American history.

Clay: “So how have you done overall?

King Arthur: “Between the beginning and now, we are ahead by over a million.” He says. And he continues, “Part of our success is our persistence. There will always be some loans going bad. When that happens, we beat on them until the cows come home.”

Clay: “I can attest to that. You have been amazingly active investor. I will never be able to thank you enough for all the personal initiative that you took with the recovery process on these loans. As you know, the recession period was tough, and most investors need and expect more assistance. We are a tiny company, and you not only saved yourself and your fellow investors, but you greatly contributed to our salvation. Thank you!”

King Arthur: That’s what we do mate. They don’t call me King Arthur for nothing.

Clay: I bow to the king. Viva King Arthur!

King Arthur: “Yeah, yeah … hey Remember the loan in Kaiser, Oregon? This just came back to us, so I figure it is a good example of why investors must persist. If you recall, the borrower really wanted to own a rental house. We tagged the rental home and his own residence (as a second). After a year he quit paying us and quit paying water and garbage on the rental. That pissed off the tenants and they moved out. We cleaned it up and sold our share to one of the partners. We took a loss on it, but it wasn’t terrible. I kept thinking of ways to get something going on the 2nd we still had on the borrower’s home. I had my title company run a title report on the property (at the cost of 90 bucks).  I almost choked when I saw it. Lo and behold we were now in first place on his home. Damn the bad luck, eh? He had done a refi and somehow his refi came up in second place.  We went after him and settled for 50k, but they were really angry with us. All I can say is, ‘Boohoo!’”

Clay: “Advantage Arthur! I’m so glad to hear it. You know, we could go on all day.”

King Arthur: “Now we must go. We have to find Excalibur before my uncle does!”

Clay: “I don’t know if we’ll have enough time!”

Arthur: “We have to! We cannot fail.”

— Clay (clay@privatemoneysource.com, 503.476.2909)

Real estate values – what’s next?

February 4th, 2019

S. Clay Sparkman

It has been quite a challenge this past dozen years predicting the movement of real estate market values. Values spike. values crash, values spike again, and then … maybe get a little squishy. Also, note the strange happenings in the national political machinery. It might be perilous to ignore this entirely.

For anyone who has been paying attention, I believe it would be hard to make a confident projection at this point.

In reading through some of the analysts and prognosticators, I felt that the following item by Caroline Feeney at Forbes did a nice job of identifying some of the factors and trends at work and codifying a reasonable scenario going forward.

Her column is at:

Real Estate Markets Cooling Across the Country, And It’s Not Just The Winter Effect

If anyone out there has any thoughts on this one way or another, please give us your thoughts.


Clay Sparkman (503.476.2909, clay@privatemoneysource.com)

Private money – whole loans vs fractional share loans

November 29th, 2018

S. Clay Sparkman

This issue nearly always comes up in early conversations with new potential investors. Working with private money investors, we are able to fund loans in two different ways.

(1)  Single loan/single investor – This is probably most common. It is quite simple. A potential investor evaluates a loan, and if she chooses to do the loan, then she (or her trust) funds the entire loan and is secured by 100% share of the beneficial interest in the loan.

(2)  Fractional loan – This scenario involves a single loan and more than one lender. In this case, several potential investors evaluate a loan and those who choose to participate, each fund some portion of the loan and are secured by an appropriate share of the beneficial interest. In this scenario, if there are issues to be decided throughout the life of the loan, and there is not full agreement, then a vote is taken, with each lender’s voting power equal to their proportionate share of interest in the loan. By way of example: Consider a $200,000 loan where each of four lenders commit $50,000 to the loan. Then each would have a 25% share of the beneficial interest in that loan.

Note: For an investor to participate in a fractional loan (for reasons I won’t go into here), the investor must sign a document indicating that he is an accredited investor. (An accredited investor is: An individual who: (a) either alone or with a spouse, beneficially owns financial assets having an aggregate realizable value that before taxes, but net of any related liabilities, exceeds $1,000,000; or (b) an individual whose net income before taxes exceeded $200,000 in each of the two most recent calendar years or whose net income before taxes combined with that of a spouse exceeded $300,000 in each of the two most recent calendar years and who, in either case, reasonably expects to exceed that net income level in the current calendar year.

Advantages/disadvantages to consider

  1. The primary disadvantage of a fractional loan is that an investor may want to secure full control of the loan and decisions made regarding the loan. That said, some investors lend 50% or more to ensure that they have full control over the decision making.
  2. There are several advantages to investing in fractional loans. One is that investors who don’t have a very large amount of money to work with, may make loans of $50,000 or more. Most non-fractional loans generally require at least $150,000 or more.
  3. Investors may diversify their funds over a greater number of loans by lending fractionally.
  4. Investors may keep their money close to fully invested with fractional loans, because the money is able to go back out much faster into a new loan or loans when an existing loan pays off.
  5. Some investors take comfort in knowing that the loan has been evaluated and approved of by several other investors, as well.

— Clay (clay@privatemoneysource.com)

Clay is Vice President of Fairfield Financial, a primary source for private money since 1964.  Fairfield is currently targeting loans in OR, WA, AK, CA, CO, ID, FL, GA, ID, MT, NV, NY, OK and TX.  To submit a loan to Fairfield for consideration: http://www.privatemoneysource.com/loanproposal.php

Will Amazon’s HQ2 sink Seattle’s housing market?

November 13th, 2018

S. Clay Sparkman

Will Amazon’s HQ2 sink Seattle’s housing market?


Probably not much, but it should pump up the markets in NYC and DC even furthur.



– Clay (clay@privatemoneysource.com, 503-476-2909)

Clay is Vice President of Fairfield Financial, a primary source for private money loans since 1964. Fairfield works with a broad range of private money investors, in a broker capacity, finding, underwriting, presenting, closing, servicing, and when necessary, assisting in the workout of difficult loans.

Sample loan

November 5th, 2018

Clay Sparkman

Here is an example of a loan that we recently placed. We like to show samples from time to time, so investors can see the kinds of loans that we are placing AND the format we use for the executive summary.

Kristopher Gillmore

Fairfield Financial Services, Inc

3327 SE 50th St, Portland, OR 97006

Phone (503) 319-7294 / Fax (503) 419-4219 / E-mail: gillmore@privatemoneysource.com



Purchase and rehab of Single-family residence in xxxxxx, OR

Loan Details

  1. Loan Amount: $240,000
  2. Term: 1 year
  3. Interest Rate: 11%
  4. Monthly Payments: $2,200 Interest Only
  5. Security:  Deed of Trust in 1st Position security interest in real property located at xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  6. Projected Value of property by Borrower’s estimate based on recent comps:  $360-$375,000
  7. Projected LTV by Borrower’s estimate based on recent comps: 64% – 67%

Loan Overview

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx are purchasing this property through their LLC, xxxxxxxxxxxxxx, LLC, and are requesting this loan for the purchase and rehab of the property.  xxxxxxx is an experienced realtor, and she and her husband xxxxxxx are experienced real estate investors.  xxxxxxx is a realtor that I’ve used personally, and I’ve referred her to several of our borrowers and lenders to sell their houses.  In addition, Fairfield has used xxxxxxx for valuations on a number of properties that were used as collateral for our loans. After the renovation, they intend to rent this house for $1,500/month. They will be putting approx. 43,000 down toward this purchase, and 30K will be held back for the renovations.

Eventually, they plan to build a 700sf ADU on site, and rent that out for an additional $1,500/month.  They intend to use their HELOC for the construction funds on the ADU; that would not be a part of this loan.  Ultimately, they plan to refi this property and hold it as a rental.  However, they are prepared to sell the property should they be unable to refi.


The property has a 924sf home with a large shop on approx .1/3 acre.  It is a 2-bedroom, one-bathroom home, and photos of the property have been provided in the packet for your review. The listing can also be viewed here: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. The listing can also be viewed in the packet as part of the comps that have been provided by the borrower.

A construction budget has also been provided in the packet.  xxxxxxx and xxxxxxx plan to do as much of this work as possible.  Xxxxxxxx is in the process of getting her General Contractor’s license, and plans to get that prior to building the ADU.  They have also included a resume of relevant experience.


xxxxxxx has provided a CMA as well as a written Comp value Analysis explaining the logic used in her valuation. This has been provided in the packet for your review. Ultimately, they estimate the projected value of the property to be in the range of $360,000-$375,000


A Commercial application has been provided by the borrower with both xxxxxxx and xxxxxxx’x financials, as they will be personally guaranteeing the loan.  They report a combined income of $190,899, and a net worth of $513,918.


The borrowers have also provided their own credit reports, which are included in the packet. xxxxxxx has a mid-credit score of 697, and xxxxxxx has a mid-credit score of 619.  These reports have been provided in the packet for your review.

— Clay (clay@privatemoneysource.com, 503-476-2909)

Clay is Vice President of Fairfield Financial, a primary source for private money loans since 1964. Fairfield works with a broad range of private money investors, in a broker capacity, finding, underwriting, presenting, closing, servicing, and when necessary, assisting in the workout of difficult loans.