One of Boston’s old-school landlords says he’s cashing in his chips. Again.
James Batmasian, a South Florida real estate mogul who launched his empire in 1970 by purchasing a Cambridge three-decker, recently put his 33 Boston-area buildings up for sale. They house 444 apartments, in properties ranging from two-families in Watertown to a shuttered motel in Revere to an elegant 75-unit building on the Riverway in Mission Hill.
It can all be yours, for $166 million.
This sort of move — putting an entire portfolio of properties on the market at once — is rare in Boston, where real estate empires are amassed over generations and usually remain in the same hands.
Batmasian’s decision to sell could be a sign of the market nearing its peak, a chance for him to cash out at top dollar. Some rivals suspect he might just be fishing for a buyer at a too-high price, but happy to keep holding if no one bites. As for Batmasian himself, he says it’s simple: He left town decades ago and is finally ready to close the book on Boston.
“I’m approaching 70,” he said. “I started in Boston when I was 21, and I’d like not to wait until I’m in a wheelchair to cash out.”
Batmasian, who has lived in Boca Raton, Fla., since 1983, said he gets to Boston for only a few days a year and wants to focus on a charitable foundation he recently started.
Before he was one of the biggest real estate owners in the ritzy Florida city, Batmasian was a lawyer in Boston, having graduated from Harvard Law School. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he and his wife, Marta, began accumulating rental properties in Arlington, Cambridge, and Somerville. Their firm, Investments Limited, still manages them from a small storefront on Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge.
After leaving Boston, Batmasian became one of the most colorful characters on South Florida’s real estate scene. Using the same buy-and-hold strategies he honed here, he accumulated a property empire worth more than $1 billion. He also earned a felony conviction in 2008 for tax evasion and served a brief stint in federal prison. He weathered the most recent real estate crash, as well as of sexual harassment lawsuits by former employees. All the while, Batmasian has been collecting rent checks from a few dozen small buildings around Greater Boston.
Now, though, Batmasian is fully focused fully on Florida, he said, and too old to have to worry about his scattered portfolio far to the north.
But some would-be buyers who have dealt with Batmasian aren’t convinced he’s really exiting the Boston market. They say that several times over the past few decades Batmasian has listed his holdings for sale and has gone relatively far down the road in negotiations before pulling out of deals. It's just his way of testing the market, said Carl Valeri, president of Hamilton Co. one of Boston’s largest privately owned landlords.
“I’ve just seen this story so many times,” Valeri said. “He’s probably done this five times in the last 25 years. I wouldn’t expect a sale to go off, in the end.”
Robert Eisen, a spokesman for Batmasian, acknowledged the portfolio has been up for sale before, and that there have been negotiations with suitors. But, he said, no prospective buyer ever agreed to Batmasian’s asking price. This time, Eisen said in an e-mail to the Globe, his client is “very serious” about selling.
Either way, he’s likely to receive healthy offers, said Travis D’Amato, a broker in Boston for the real estate firm JLL who specializes in apartment building sales. Rents are surging on lower-priced apartments, he said, especially for in-demand markets such as Cambridge and Somerville. Some of Batmasian’s smaller buildings could be converted to condominiums and sold. Larger buildings might be spruced up to capture higher rents. There’s a lot of demand from big investors who want a piece of Boston’s housing market.
“I think he’d do very well,” D’Amato said. “Guys like him don’t sell in a bad market.”
Indeed, Batmasian notes, there’s nothing happening in the market that’s pushing him to sell. It’s just that the timing is right for him, he said.
And the timing may also be right for a buyer. Batmasian said he’s received 40 calls in the first three days after putting his holdings up for sale.