I’ve been involved in real estate for more than 40 years, much of it teaching about real estate investing, answering questions online, and supporting folks who use my company’s investment analysis software —so I’ve gotten to see a lot about how people think (and sometimes don’t think). From that experience, I want to share my list of “greatest hits,” mistakes that can really trip you up:
1. Admiring the King’s New Clothes
I see a lot of first-timers get wrapped up in the aesthetics of a property. Is it an attractive, solid building? Is it in a desirable location? Would I be proud to tell people that this my property? Unfortunately, for some new investors, that’s where their critical evaluation ends. They see only what they want to see.
It’s nice to feel good about the commitment you’re going to make, but that warm feeling will quickly turn cold if the property is a money-draining albatross. Start, at the very least, by estimating its initial cash flow—all the money that will come in for the first year minus all the money that will go out. If that number isn’t comfortably positive, reconsider.
2. Almost Doing Your Due Diligence
Most investors will check out the physical condition of the property. Most will also check out the rent data and verify at least some of the expenses. But have you actually read the leases? Are you going to get yourself locked into a dicey deal with below-market rents for a number of years; or maybe with a tenant’s right of first refusal if you want to sell, or even a tenant bail-out option?
3. Almost Doing Your Due Diligence, Part 2
OK, you did a good job vetting the property, its finances and its leases. So what did you forget? Maybe you forgot about the market. This property doesn’t live in a vacuum, so you absolutely need to be looking at the ecosystem around it.
What are other landlords getting for units in similar properties? What’s your competition for tenants? What is the prevailing cap rate for properties of this type? What’s the business climate—are companies moving in, moving out—is employment strong? As the anvil salesman says in The Music Man, “You gotta know the territory.”
4. Using the Wrong Lingo
Deals frequently unravel because the parties are not speaking the same language. Real estate investing, like other business professions, has a vocabulary all its own—terms whose meaning is agreed upon by those who buy, sell, broker, or finance property on a regular basis. I’ve seen things like “net operating income after debt service.” The rest of us probably call that “cash flow.” Who knew?
If you misuse standard terms, or if you use terms that don’t exist in nature, you’re either going to…
… experience what I call the Cool Hand Luke Syndrome (“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”) and never reach a meeting of the minds, or
… paint yourself as someone who has never done a deal before, doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, and shouldn’t be taken seriously (and maybe should be taken advantage of).
5. Not Looking at the Deal from the Perspective of the Other Players
Whether you’re trying to buy, sell, finance, or raise equity, you have to recognize that your point of view isn’t the only one that matters. You need to put yourself in the shoes of the other interested parties.
Try to understand what are the sticking points, the potential deal killers from their perspective. Perhaps then you can come up with a solution. Do you have a property to sell, and does your potential buyer seem concerned about some vacant space? How about guaranteeing the rent for a period of time?
6. Can’t See the Forest…
I notice this one with a lot with folks who are trying to vet their first income property. You can think of this as another “perspective” mistake—in this case you need to adopt the perspective not of a potential buyer but rather of someone who has already bought this property and now is trying to run it. It was nice that the seller or broker gave you a list of operating costs, and most of them were probably accurate, but is that list complete?
Go back to it and think about costs that nobody volunteered. Who gets rid of the snow, manicures the landscaping, vacuums the hallways, hauls the trash, services the HVAC? And often you’ll see no line item for property management (“Oh, I do that myself”), but you need to figure in an allowance for management even if no cash currently changes hands. An appraiser would routinely add management as an expense, and you should, too, because it will effect the estimate of value.
7. Thinking About Your Rental Property the Way You Think About Your Home
I usually ask my grad students how many own their own home. After a few proudly raise their hands, I tell them they’re at a disadvantage and need to try to forget what they think they know about real estate. Bummer.
The value of a personal residence is driven by economic factors—some national, most local. That’s why an appraiser will use the “comparable sales” approach when estimating the value of a home. If all your neighbors’ houses have sold for around $300k, then yours will probably sell for something like that as well.
But income-producing property is valued on its ability to produce net income. It’s not going to rise in value just because of the passage of time. Too many novice investors think their investment properties are going to “appreciate” on their own, over time, just because. Think again.
You can create value in an income property by enhancing its cash flow. Very few investment vehicles give you this power, but you have to understand how it works if you want to take advantage of this wealth-building potential.
8. Being Nearsighted
Current-year data is important, but I hear a lot of investors who insist that they will focus only on the current income and expenses when evaluating a potential investment property. They say that this data is concrete and verifiable, and any prediction about future performance is just an exercise in fortune telling.
Yes, an appraiser is going to look at the current revenue, expenses, and market cap rate to estimate value. But remember this: The appraiser’s job is to estimate value at a point in time. You, on the other hand, are almost certainly investing for a period that extends beyond the current moment, and should be interested in how you believe this property will perform over a number of years.
So, in addition to looking at current performance, you should be making several projections as to future performance—best case, worst case, and in-between scenarios. This is a topic for more detailed discussion, so stay tuned for that.
9. Missing the Obvious in Your Analysis
You’ve taken my advice to heart and done both short-term and long-term projections of cash flows. Now, get your head out of your spreadsheet and use your common sense. Ask yourself if the figures in your analysis actually make sense. Do they look reasonable?
Is that cash flow way less than you expected, is your IRR in the stratosphere, is your mortgage payment merely a pittance? If so, then chances are you’ve either messed up a formula or a cell reference, or entered data incorrectly. When I look at my students’ work, it’s not uncommon to see that some of them have entered the total monthly rent, when they really needed the annual amount. Or they’ve put too many decimal places in the mortgage rate. Don’t assume, just because you used a spreadsheet, that the results are correct. Garbage in…
10. Forgetting that Real Property is a Real Business
After all that hard work—property search, due diligence, financial analysis, negotiation, financing, closing—you are finally the owner/operator of an investment property. Perhaps this is the first business you have ever run. You need to treat it like a business.
The top line of your P&L—revenue—needs to be the top line of your to-do list. Is someone not paying the rent, giving you excuses? Don’t let it slide. Your chances of collecting decrease exponentially with the passage of time.
Keeping records on sticky notes? Poor record-keeping can be your undoing, especially at tax time. Invest in some bookkeeping software, such as Quickbooks, rather than relying on a DIY spreadsheet. And once you’ve got it, use it.
Keep your tenant applications, leases and other documents in an organized file. If you really want to be good, scan them and store them on a removable hard drive.
In short, if you want your real estate investment business to succeed, then treat it like a serious business.
These are the ten real estate investor mistakes I’ve seen most often, but maybe you’ve seen (or committed!) some of your own. I invite you to share your cautionary tales and add them to our list – let’s call it Everything Else that Real Estate Investors Should Avoid.
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