Can Investors & Landlords Own Real Estate Anonymously (Or is Privacy Dead)?

21

Just how dead is privacy? Princess Bride “only mostly dead” — or George Romero “ambulatory zombie dead”?

Real estate investors and landlords have more cause for concern than most over privacy and anonymity. People just love suing landlords — neighbors sue over spicy food. City councils sue landlords who lease to market tenants over Section 8 tenants. Tenants even sue their landlord over the house being haunted.

So let’s say you’re a real estate investor with a handful of rental properties, and you want to maximize your privacy and anonymity. But you don’t want to grow a scary beard and erect an off-the-grid compound out in Idaho with an arsenal of military-grade weapons.

What’s a well-adjusted rental investor with a healthy sense of privacy to do?

Download Your FREE guide to evicting a tenant!

We hope you never have to evict a tenant, but know it’s always wise to prepare for the worst. Navigating the legal and financial considerations of an eviction can be tricky, even for the most experienced landlords. Lucky for you, the experts at BiggerPockets have put together a FREE Guide to Evicting Tenants so you can protect your property and investments.

Click Here For Your Free Tenant Eviction Guide

The Easy Stuff: Personal Details

Don’t want tenants, neighbors, or do-gooder crusaders to know your real address or phone number? Easy enough.

Start with a P.O. box or a private mail service. Today’s mail services are far more advanced than the simple drop-boxes of yesteryear. Sure, they can physically forward mail to you wherever you are, but the benefits only improve from there.

They will sign for packages and certified deliveries for you, which is convenient to say the least. They can scan your unopened mail and post it (excuse the pun) to a secure website for you to decide what to do with it. You can have them shred it, physically forward it to you, or even open and scan the contents for you to view, download, and save digitally.

The best part? They’re pretty cheap too, starting around $10/month.

Landlords and investors can also use phone forwarding services to obtain a new, mostly anonymous phone number to give tenants and other real estate-related contacts. Many of these services (e.g. Google Voice) are free and provide another layer of anonymity.

Related: How to Avoid a Legal Catastrophe Caused by Tenant-Recorded Conversations

And, of course, anonymous email addresses are free and can be set to forward to your normal email.

property-management-contract

Property Management

Property managers provide another layer of insulation between landlords and an unsympathetic world. A good property manager will not list the owner or their contact information on any documents that the tenant sees. They can avoid disclosing information about the owner unless legally forced by subpoena.

Beyond anonymity, property managers also assume a certain degree of legal liability in all dealings with tenants. If the manager mishandles tenant screening and is accused of discrimination, for example, they have far more liability than the owner.

But there’s still a glaring problem for real estate owners worried about anonymity: public records.

Legal Entities & Anonymous Ownership

The common, sophomoric wisdom is that landlords should simply set up limited liability companies (LLCs) to own real estate with, and then everything is hunky-dory. While legal entities can offer some protection if done properly, it’s not cut and dry.

In most states, at least one founder of any legal entity is listed on online public records for anyone to check with a quick search. Ambulance-chasing attorneys can simply look up the owner and list them personally in any landlord lawsuit.

Sure, your defense attorney will try to object to you being personally named in the suit, but it’s anyone’s guess if the judge will agree. (For more business-friendly laws with much better anonymity, look into Nevada and Delaware, hint hint.)

With that being said, with plenty of money it’s easy to buy real estate anonymously. A privacy-minded buyer can set up an LLC in a “nominee’s” name and after settlement simply have their nominee assign the LLC ownership. The real buyer’s name appears nowhere on the contract of sale, articles of organization, or the settlement documents.

Jennifer Aniston once used this method to buy a high-end Manhattan condo in her dog’s name. Sort of. (It was really her business manager using a trust named after her dog, but never mind all that.)

But ongoing ownership is harder to hide, at least against determined attorneys out for blood.

Deterrence Through Difficulty

Most ambulance chasers want a quick win, an obvious target with plump, juicy assets to go after. You may not be able to completely hide your identity when owning real estate, but you can make it harder on litigators.

If your name appears nowhere on the public records, then the plaintiff’s attorney will need to subpoena the LLC’s resident agent in order to find out who you are. That’s some work for an attorney to just find out who they’re suing and whether they have assets worth pursuing.

Having a high mortgage on the property in question makes you a less tempting target, visibly having no equity to steal. But this sword cuts both ways: The mortgage is on public record, and your name is probably on it. Anonymity busted.

cash-on-cash-return-real-estate

Is Anonymity Practical, or Is Privacy Dead?

Just for fun, let’s try to invest in real estate as anonymously as possible.

Related: Can I (and Should I) Move My Property Into an LLC and Out of My Name?

Lucas is a successful investor who doesn’t want a deadbeat suing him for all he’s worth. An employee (Alfred) agrees to serve as his nominee and sets up a Delaware Series LLC, with a new series business name for each property. Alfred buys these with Lucas’s cash, then assigns them over to a Nevada corporation that Lucas owns.

The Nevada corporation uses a private mail service for its mailing address and an anonymous forwarded phone number and email. Rents could be physically mailed there, or if Lucas is a gambler, he could accept money electronically through bitcoin.

Alfred hires a property manager (who also serves as resident agent), without disclosing anything about Lucas. Alfred provides the anonymous mailing and email addresses to the property manager.

Lucas is pretty insulated, but there are still traceable weak points. Even if Alfred conceals his own contact information, a determined attorney can subpoena both the mail service and the property manager and eventually track down Lucas’s real identity.

All of this is starting to look like a lot of work and expense. Nominees, cash purchases, shell corporations? Unless you’re a billionaire mogul or celebrity trying to hide assets from your spouse, privacy in today’s world is just not very practical.

It may still moan and move like it’s alive, but for all but the ultra-rich, practical privacy is dead.

Let’s hear from attorneys and investors who have worked to build privacy! We all know lawyers don’t make zombie jokes, so clearly I wrote this article as an investor. It’s not legal advice, it’s not detail-oriented, but rather a broad foray into the world of real estate ownership and anonymity.

Leave your questions and comments below!

About Author

Brian Davis

Brian is a real estate investor and landlord with 15 rental properties, who writes fascinating articles for SparkRental.com. His rental management is almost completely automated by now, allowing him to travel the world frequently (if not always in style).

21 Comments

  1. Michael Dake

    An interesting idea: anonymous property ownership. Of course, there is an entire industry dedicated to identifying the natural person-owner of real estate and then selling that information to brokers, lenders, and other vendors. Co-Star even lists ownership as “Recorded Owner” and “True Owner” or words to that effect. So, it will be interesting to see how the market settles the question.

    I assume that much of the language of this post is tongue-in-cheek about tenant-initiated problems, but there are certainly valid, good-public-policy reasons that the human being responsible for and making decisions about a property must be knowable by the tenants, if not actually disclosed to them. IRRC, Ohio T-L law requires that leases contain the name and address of the owner. MD requires (or at least the larger counties do) an in-state agent for out-of-state ownership.

    Good information about the mail-handling services out there. I did not know that they had gotten that sophisticated.

    Thanks for writing this.

    • Brian Davis

      I approached the subject lightly, but I do think there’s something to be said for privacy in an era when so few people even realize how much less of it they have than they did even 20 years ago. Sometimes a sense of humor is the only way to keep perspective. I touched on resident agents (in-state agents), you’re right that they are certainly a weak point in any landlord’s anonymity strategy.
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, I always appreciate reading them!

  2. What’s the big deal with a tenent knowing where you live . This is paranoia on somebody’s part. Have owned over 2,000 properties and had hundreds of rentals. My name and address on every rental agreement I’ve ever done. If your concerned about a tenent knowing where you live you shouldn’t be renting to them, period. Earl Minnis

    • Brian Davis

      The article is partially tongue-in-cheek, but I have had tenants show up at my home before, and not alone. I think there are good reasons that some landlords don’t want everyone in the world to know who they are, and other landlords of course can be as public as they like.
      Thanks for reading, and best of luck!

  3. Ashley Pimsner

    Hi Brian,
    I enjoyed your article but disagree with your conclusion that only the ultra rich can afford privacy.
    You neglected to mention land trusts which are not only affordable, but combined with an LLC can provide great privacy for real estate investors and also provide a myriad of other benefits.
    Many BP investors don’t care about their privacy and are more concerned with having proper insurance to cover them in case of lawsuits etc. so they simply carry an umbrella policy which is affordable and protects them is most instances.
    Please refer to link about land trusts and there many benefits.
    http://www.dealmakerlibrary.com/10-Reasons-to-Use-Land-Trusts-to-Buy-Real-Estate.aspx

    • Brian Davis

      Thanks for mentioning land trusts, yeah there are a lot of deeper strategies out there than what I outlined, was trying not to get too deep in legal waters. My old boss set up an irrevocable trust with his wife as the beneficiary, for example. Trusts get complicated quickly though.
      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Chris Billington

    Great Article Brian really enjoyed it!

    Interested in your take on one of the previous comments regarding landlords relying on large umbrella policies for their rentals. I agree that if a good attorney has a good case, then he/she will find a way to locate the identity of the owner. Is it me or does everyone have a different opinion on the issue you presented??!! Talk to three different attorneys and you get three different answers on how you should hold your property.

    • Brian Davis

      Thanks Chris!
      I don’t trust insurance companies to pay out seven figure litigation claims – just a personal skepticism, not based on experience. Insurance policies are filled with loopholes, and it’s all too easy to imagine the response when you file a claim for litigation losses: “We regret to inform you that, due to your negligence in XYZ, we will be unable to fund your claim.”
      You are absolutely right that everyone has a different opinion on how to hold property. I bought most of mine under LLCs, only to later discover just how little protection they afford me. My advice: either do it right and sit down with an asset protection attorney, or just wash your hands of the whole question and just buy them in your personal name. At least then you don’t have to pay the LLC renewal fees and the extra accounting costs.

    • Brian Davis

      I’ve been named personally in lawsuits, despite owning the property in an LLC. That aside, most attorneys and investors that I’ve discussed the issue with have agreed that a sole proprietor LLC with the original and only member showing up right on public records has very little protection (at least in Maryland).
      In more business-friendly states, it appears that legal entities can provide much better protections, but once again I’m not an attorney. These issues get complicated quickly, so I’d recommend speaking to an attorney in your state who specializes in real estate law and/or asset protection.

  5. I really started learning from a Pro many years ago….he said keep your business private, no one should be able to testify in court as to what you own except you- and the level at which you do needs to meet your comfort level- no one else’s. This article has some valuable ideas …New Mexico LLc’s do not require any owners names to be public, using it lets say in Texas to only “hold” real estate nothing more – with a good general liability insurance policy and another LLC owning nothing and acting as the manager- your pretty good shape. Property Trusts are anonymous in Texas and the trust docs are not ever filed anywhere- couple that with the LLC and a good insurance policy and its another way to remain out of sight….. As a retired cop I say …being low profile is the best way to avoid Robbery, Blackmail, lawsuits, Kidnapping, etc

  6. Tim Denker

    Missouri, like New Mexico, also allows investors to keep their names off public record with regards to the LLC ownership. Plus, if I form the LLC for them as their attorney and am then retained to act as their registered agent, the only name someone would find connected is my name or my company’s name. Missouri also recognizes Series LLCs. I am an attorney, and do recommend using Series LLCs or at least properly setting up multiple LLCs to maximize your protections afforded by the law. If you run them properly you will not have any personal liability, whether you are listed in the law suit or not. And if you run them properly, then you can limit the number of properties that would be subject to judgment in such a law suit. I tell all of my clients, you can never entirely prevent someone from suing you, but you can at least reduce those chances and limit your liability if they do.

    • Sounds like a”standard operating procedure” comment from a self serving attorney. Again have bought and sold well over 2,000 properties and had literally hundreds of rentals. Always in my personal name and never been sued. There is no reason to complicate you life with one LLC let alone with numerous. Maybe if your a Russian spy or running from the law this would be a good idea. Earl Minnis

  7. Gerald Demers

    I preface my comment with this: We have all heard of the slime ball that shouts “go ahead and sue me; I don’t own anything.” Unfortunately, many of the strategies used to be a slime ball and legitimately protect yourself from others are the same. If we do something wrong, we intend to take responsibility for it and fix it. We have the resources and insurance if required. We also know we have to protect ourselves from people that want to make their stupidity our responsibility and I won’t tolerate that.

    We purchase our properties directly into a land trust. All you or any attorney will see publicly is the name of the land trust and the trustee (an associate’s LLC). AND, our trustee understands Land Trust law so an attorney screaming at him demanding to know who owns the property won’t do any good. Even the insurance policy is in the trustee’s name.

    Behind the scenes, 100% beneficial interest (BI) in the land trust is owned by a personal property trust. 100% BI of the personal property trust is owned by our LLC. If the attorney is successful in forcing the trustee to divulge the owner of the trust, they will just get the personal property trust and many more layers can be added after that.

    AGAIN, if we do something wrong, we will fix it. If you do something wrong, good luck trying to attach to us.

    • Gerald Demers

      Hmmm, you can’t edit a comment after leaving it. I ended with “If you do something wrong, good luck trying to attach to us.”

      I am not saying you can’t, but it’s going to be real hard to do. Since an attorney’s initial asset search will reveal nothing, he/she would most likely not be so confident in taking the case on a contingency basis and I suspect most who want to make their stupidity my responsibility won’t be too keen on shelling out several thousand as a retainer just to get the owner’s name.

  8. Earl….this thread of comments is one of the best I have ever seen on Bigger Pockets, again its all up to your personal level of comfort….its like a weapon….my sister chooses not to own one…she may live her entire life and never need it ….I choose to be prepared, my Police career has taught me bad things happen to good people- I think we all respect your right to hold your properties in your name , the same way we would respect your right to keep a thousand in your wallet, your right to drive the speed limit in bad weather and your right to leave your front door open at night when you sleep or smoke cigarettes- not saying you do….it is your right however…..to the rest of us…it costs very little to take a couple steps to “lock the door” on bad people.

  9. Stephanie Hardy

    Wow, this is great stuff, I’m the article and the comments! I just bought our first investment property in my & my husband’s name with the intention of just transferring it to an llc, but see that won’t provide me with much protection or anonymity. Land trusts seem like a great way to do it for our next purchase. I guess I need to speak with an asset protection attorney now and see what they advise me to do. Thanks to everyone for their inputs.

    • Steph, maybe an easier way is just join the CIA. Your so rediculus with all this crap. Unless your doing something wrong there is no need to want to hide in the shadows. Earl Minnis – forty years in the biz , hundreds and hundreds of rentals. It’s incredible what you are worried about.

      • Earl, im sure there are many millionaires like you that spit in the face of danger, laugh at legal tornadoes, scoff at a fire being attributed to owners negligence, but…..im sorry to tell you…the MAJORITY of people take prudent steps that cost almost nothing to be safe…its like taking your vitamin C in he morning….the cost versus the potential problem is nothing. Steph , anonymous land trusts are “OK” but any judge if he thinks its a cloaking device to avoid litigation can authorize ” notification by publication” which means the attorneys run adds in the local papers to serve an anonymous trust- Earl is way ahead on this one, they know immediately who he is…what Earl fails to see is SOME landlords, or their workers do shoddy work, or live dangerously….fooling around with married tenants, failing to fix scary hazards after being notified in writing, not changing door locks when Tenants move out s the old Tenant can come back and get in….if you think your system of running rentals is perfect, that all your techs keep their insurance up to date then put it all in your name…….I prefer to cover my behind like most landlords…..CIA in this case means Coordinate with your lawyer, Insure your properties and techs and ACT quick to fix issues.

        • Stephanie Hardy

          Dave, thank you for your helpful reply. So, I guess I’m just confused on what kind of lawyer I should be speaking with then. There are so many different kinds for real estate (asset protection, real estate attorney, etc). I guess I should be speaking with a real estate attorney, then? I am planning on being an honest, tentative landlord, but want to make sure I am protected against the money/power/sue hungry people, for the most part. Having insurance is great, but their primary interest is not paying out. Having something on my side, like how my business is set up, is a protection I’d like to have additionally.

Leave A Reply

Pair a profile with your post!

Create a Free Account

Or,


Log In Here

css.php