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Carlton Launches $300 Million First Mortgage Fund

While commercial mortgage loans have become something of an endangered species, owners of fundamentally strong assets can still ferret out capital sources. This week, for example, Carlton Strategic Ventures LLC, the transaction arm of the international real estate investment banking firm the Carlton Group, launched a $300 million joint venture, CSV Mortgage Capital, with an unnamed institutional real estate investor to originate first mortgage loans for what the firm calls “transitional” properties.

“No one’s lending [right now],” says Dax Scharfstein, managing director and general counsel with Carlton Strategic Ventures. “This is the perfect opportunity for us to get a lot of market share and get capital flowing again.”

The move comes as $376 billion in commercial mortgage-backed securities loans alone are expected to reach maturity in 2009, according to research from J.P. Morgan, while commercial real estate lending activity has slowed to a trickle.

The fund will target loans for properties that are partially vacant, but located in otherwise strong markets. It also will seek properties that need additional funds to cover re-leasing and tenant improvement expenses and properties whose owners are in a position to buy out an existing mortgage from the original lender at a discount. Properties with strong fundamentals but whose owners have had trouble in securing refinancing are also on the list.

The fund will cover all commercial asset classes, except land. As a rule, CSV Mortgage Capital will focus on metropolitan markets with a population of at least 1 million, but in exceptional cases, the venture will consider assets in tertiary markets as well.

CSV Mortgage Capital loans will feature loan to equity ratios of up to 65%; debt service coverage ratios of at least 1.0 and interest rates that will start at 11% and rise to approximately 15%. No recourse will be required for properties with strong underlying fundamentals, but owners of weaker assets might have to agree to partial recourse, according to the company.

The loans will range from $20 million to $100 million and will in most cases feature a two-year term with a one-year extension option. Five-year, fixed-rate loans will also be considered. On mortgages that will be closer to the $100 million mark, CSV will require that its borrowers have net worth equal to or exceeding the loan amount and will look closely at past credit history and bankruptcy risk.

According to Scharfstein, however, the firm plans to remain flexible both on the properties and the terms of the loans. “If there is a good story for the property and it’s in a fantastic market — for example, Manhattan — and it’s 50% leased, we may still lend if we believe the borrower has a good chance of re-leasing,” he notes.

Carlton executives declined to discuss the economics of the deal. The firm and its joint venture partner are currently looking at several possible transactions, but CSV Mortgage Capital has yet to close its first mortgage.

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