More than once – in my writing, my teaching, talking in my sleep – I have been known to say that real estate investing is all about the numbers. There is, of course, great truth in that pithy statement, or so I believe; but there is perhaps more to the story that you should be careful not to overlook.
The data that you collect about an income-property – the current rental income and operating expenses, the financing options, and the resulting cash flows and potential resale– are all essential to making an informed analysis of a property’s value and its appeal as an investment. So too is an understanding of the key metrics. What are the expected Debt Coverage Ratio, Capitalization Rate and Internal Rate of Return, and what do they all mean?
A wise investor realizes that this information represents the foreground, but not the complete picture. There is a context, a background, in which these data reside, and you ignore it at your peril.
When I teach real estate investment analysis to my graduate students, I begin by telling them that they absolutely must learn how to run and interpret the numbers. But I also stress (sometimes to the point of becoming really annoying) that they have to look behind the numbers, to read the information about the property as if it were a story. The financial facts and figures about a property that you uncover today may be entirely accurate, but can you rely on them them to persist? What are the long-term risks and opportunities, the indirect factors, and how do they inform the numbers that you will plug into your projections?
For example, if you have commercial tenants, how strong are their businesses? One of the case studies I give my students is a mixed-use property with retail tenants whose business models are on the decline. Those tenants have leases with options to renew, but if their customer bases are shrinking, isn’t it more prudent to suspect that they may not choose to renew? Shouldn’t you also consider what could happen to your cash flow in a worst-case scenario, where they go bankrupt before their current leases are up?
Rather than simply assuming an ongoing revenue stream from the current leases, perhaps, as I tell my students, you need to look beyond the current numbers. If you see some significant risk going forward, maybe you should build rollover vacancy, leasing commissions and tenant improvements into your projections of future performance. You’re still going to run the numbers, and they still matter; but now, taking a broader view may alter your perspective on possible future cash flows.
One way to widen your field of vision is to go beyond the specific property and take into account some intangibles, both local and global. Real estate, like politics, is very much a local game. How strong is the local economy? Is unemployment a problem? What is the trend in the absorption of space – are vacancies growing or declining? Where is your city or town’s budget heading? Are there bond issues on the horizon that could materially affect your property taxes? The answers to questions like these will connect directly to the kinds of assumptions you make concerning the risk of future vacancy loss, and the rate of growth, if any, in your rents.
Then there’s the global view. You want to look at how the overall economy might affect your property. For example, it is typically the case that in times of tight credit, or in a miserable economy such as we’ve seen for the past several years, demand for apartments tends to increase. There is nothing surprising in this. Folks can’t get mortgages because their incomes have dropped and perhaps because banks aren’t lending freely. People who would otherwise be prospective homebuyers or who would be able to stay in their current homes are now renting apartments, thus reducing vacancy and often pushing rents upward.
The same causes – a wounded economy and lack of credit – might lead to an opposite effect on office and retail space, where businesses have to downsize because their customers have less money to spend.
So, if you find yourself rolling into a particular economic cycle, then you will want to adjust your projections for the future accordingly. In the example above, you would begin with whatever revenue stream you find in place; then, in the case of apartments, you would probably project declining vacancy loss and increasing rental rates for a few years, but you would probably do the opposite for retail and office. Same starting point, but different paths into the future.
What is our takeaway here? First, that real estate investing really is about the numbers. You’re going to scrutinize every lease, every operating expense, every financing option to understand how you believe the property will function on the day you acquire it. There is no substitute for crunching these numbers, and no reason to dismiss what they tell you.
But then you’ll pause to recognize that you’re probably going to own the property well beyond that first day. That’s when you need to look up from your spreadsheet. You need to look both at and beyond the current data and metrics, to visualize the property and your expectations for it in the context of its larger environment. The numbers truly matter, but so does the sometimes dicey, not-so-tidy real world in which they dwell.
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