Five More Rules of Thumb for Real Estate Investors

In a previous article – Six Rules of Thumb for Every Real Estate Investor – I offered some guidance that might reasonably be held dear by every income-property investor. Woe to him or to her who doesn’t take a property’s vital signs, such as Debt Coverage Ratio, Loan-to-Value, or Cap Rate, to heart before making an investment decision.

Hidden below these very objective measures, however, is a sub-stratum of more subjective issues to consider when you invest. It would be a stretch to suggest that these considerations apply to every investor or to every situation. Your mileage may vary. Still, these are issues that should be worthy of your attention whenever you invest in real estate.

Small Property or Large?

By “small” and “large” I am referring to the number of rental units, not to the physical size of the property. I often hear from people who are investing in real estate for the first time and are choosing to buy a single-family home to use as a rental property. I suspect that these folks have not taken a pencil to paper (or even better, used one of RealData’s investment analysis programs) to see if they could reasonably expect to enjoy a positive cash flow from that property.

Although it’s possible to get a good cash flow from a one-family house, it is certainly not something you should take for granted. Whether you’re purchasing a single-family house or a 40-unit apartment building, that structure is going to sit on a single piece of land; and typically, the land cost-per-unit is likely to be higher – perhaps much higher – with a single-family house.

The more you pay per unit for the land, the more rental revenue per unit you will need to generate to cover your costs. In short, generating a positive cash flow in this scenario could prove to be a challenge. The deck may be stacked against you, so run your cash flow projections before you buy. Add up the cost of your mortgage payment, property taxes, insurance, maintenance and miscellaneous expenses. Will your rent be greater than the total of these costs?

Another perilous characteristic of the single-family as a rental property concerns vacancy. Simply put, if you lose one tenant, then 100% of your property is vacant. Consider again that 40-unit apartment building: Lose one tenant there and you lose just 2.5% of your revenue.

Finally, there is the issue of what drives value. A single-family house’s value is customarily based on market data, i.e., comparable sales, while the so-called commercial property (generally defined as one having more than four rental units), is valued based on its ability to produce income. This difference is important to you as an investor because you have the opportunity to create value by enhancing the commercial property’s income stream, an opportunity you will not have with that single-family.

All this is fine and makes good sense, but you may just not be built for starting off your investment career on a large scale. If thatss the case, then consider a multi-family house – ideally one with more than four units, but even smaller if you must – as your starter investment. Learn from that, then move on to bigger things.

Residential or Commercial?

I used the term “commercial” above to refer to properties with more than four units. Such properties are commercial in the sense that they are bought and sold for their ability to produce income. In more common parlance, however, the term “commercial” is often used to describe real estate that is occupied for business purposes and not as dwellings for families or individuals.

In a separate full-length article, I discuss in some detail the pros and cons of investing in each property type, but for our discussion here let’s just consider a few key points. If you’re a first-time investor, the most basic issue is that of comfort level. It is very likely that you have a good deal of personal familiarity with residential property. Chances are that you already know something about residential rent, leases, security deposits, utility bills, and the like. If you have never had similar experience with commercial property – renting your own office or retail space, for example – then you may feel more comfortable dealing with a property type that is more familiar to you.

There are plenty of potential advantages to owning commercial property, such as longer-term leases with built-in escalations, and tenant responsibility for certain operating expenses. Once you have expanded your comfort zone by owning and operating investment property, commercial real estate can be a very good long-term strategy.

Local Market vs. Hot Market

It seems like everyone is telling you that the demand for real estate is running wild in Last Ditch, Wyoming. Should you head, checkbook in hand, straight for the Ditch or stay close to home? Keep in mind an old axiom that applies to all kinds of investing: By the time you or I hear of a great deal, all the money that’s going to be made already has been made by someone else.

I have no doubt that you can find investors who have made a killing in some remote real estate market. You can probably also find someone who has won the Irish Sweepstakes. An important part of your strategy should be to optimize your chances of success, and you will do that best by staying close to home – perhaps very close.

I usually tell new investors that they should choose a location where they know every crack in the sidewalk. Information that you may take for granted can prove to be truly priceless. You probably know how well local businesses are doing, if the city needs to spend money soon on new schools or infrastructure, if a major employer is thinking of moving in or out of town, if a new transportation hub is nearing the final stages of approval, or if the local college is increasing its enrollment. In short, you know the likely trends that will drive demand for residential and commercial space, and you have a sense of where local property taxes are headed. You’re plugged in to your market, and nothing is more valuable to an investor.

Equity Partner vs. Debt Partners

Unless you have the resources to buy property for all cash, you have partners. When you finance an investment property, the bank (or whoever is lending you money) is your “debt partner.” They will very definitely get a piece of the action. In fact, they will expect their piece even if there is no action – no cash flow – at all.

In the current economy and with the state of the financial markets as it has been, we see an increasing number of experienced investors looking for more equity partners and less financing. It may not be as romantic as going entirely on your own, but it can be more successful. Financing has been difficult to obtain of late; the less you ask for in relation to the value of the property, the better your chances of securing it and the better the terms are likely to be. With less financing, you improve your chances of achieving a positive cash flow, even if you have to share it with your partners. Partnering up may be a good strategy for the times.

Professional Management vs. Do-It-Yourself

The question of whether or not to hire a professional property manager is one that you need to answer on a case-by-case basis. There may be no better way to learn how rental property works than to roll up your sleeves and run it, personally, like a business. But as with any business, you need to weigh the risks of on-the-job training.

For example, it may be prudent for you to use an experienced agent to find tenants and to check their references. That can be time-consuming work, and signing up a troublesome tenant can prove costly and consume even more of your time.

On the other hand, getting involved directly in overseeing maintenance, repairs and general management can help you recognize if your property is a good and desirable product in the marketplace. What is the appeal of your property, compared to others that compete for tenants in the same market? Your tenants will probably let you know if you work with them directly.

In addition, I have always believed that most tenants will not respect your property unless you do. You are more likely to sign up and retain responsible tenants if they see that you care about keeping the property in top shape and that you will respond to reasonable requests for maintenance or repair. As in any business, when you are directly involved in setting the tone and the standards, you have best chance of seeing those standards met. Eventually, as you build your real estate empire, you may have too many units for this hands-on approach to be practical; but if you are just starting out, this can be an effective way to develop your set of expectations for whoever will manage in your name in the future.

The Bottom Line?

True confession: These five rules are not really set-in-stone rules at all, but options that every real estate investor needs to weigh on his or her personal balance scale. Unlike a nice metric such as Debt Coverage Ratio, there is not really an unambiguous choice for any of these. You must take into account your own personal skills, experience and resources, your available time, and the nature of the property in which you are investing – and then choose wisely.

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