Investing in Real Estate: How Much Analysis Do You Really Need?

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.

–Frank Gallinelli

Copyright 2012, RealData® Inc. All Rights Reserved

The information presented in this article represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of RealData® Inc. The material contained in blog posts and articles that appear on realdata.com is not intended to provide legal, tax or other professional advice or to substitute for proper professional advice and/or due diligence. We urge you to consult an attorney, CPA or other appropriate professional before taking any action in regard to matters discussed in any article or posting. The posting of any article and of any link back to the author and/or the author’s company does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation of the author’s products or services.

You may not reproduce, distribute, or transmit any of the materials at this site without the express written permission of RealData® Inc. or other copyright holders. The content of web sites displayed or linked from the realdata.com is the copyrighted material of those respective sites.

Real Estate, Healthcare, and Your 2013 Taxes – Some Surprises Waiting for You?

Champagne, funny hats, and the ball-drop in Times Square might not be the only significant events to mark the New Year in 2013. If you are a real estate investor or a home-seller, you could have a couple of surprises lurking in your federal taxes.

The Medicare Tax

One of those surprises found its way into the Health Care and Reconciliation Act of 2010 at the last minute. If, as the the National Association of Realtors® states, it was added to the legislation at the last minute, then one has to wonder just how carefully our elected officials studied this before passing it.

     What It Is Not

There has been a lot of talk and many email blasts, claiming that this is a sales tax on real estate. It is not. It doesn’t apply to every real estate transaction, and it doesn’t get tacked on at the point of sale, the way a sales tax would. That much is clear.

     What It Is, Sort Of

The details may seem a bit daunting, but let’s try to summarize:

  • It is a 3.8% surtax on “net investment income,” which appears to include rental income, capital gains on the sale of investments (and to a limited extent on the sale of a personal residence), interest, dividends, royalties, and annuities, all net of the expenses to achieve that income.
  • It does not apply to withdrawals from IRAs and 401ks, or from veterans benefit,  life-insurance proceeds and several other types of income. (For a further discussion, see this article in Forbes.)
  • But wait, it can actually get even more complicated. According to an article in SmartMoney, there is an exception for income from sources that come from business activities. Presumably this would mean that if you derive your livelihood solely from operating rental property or from flipping houses then your rental income or capital gain from those activities is business- and not investment-related; hence it doesn’t go into the bucket of items subject to the Medicare surtax. But that same article notes an “exception to the exception” if the income is from a “passive business activity.”
  • It will never apply (should we ever say never?) if your adjusted gross income is less than $200,000 as an individual or $250,000 for a married couple filing jointly. Fire up your spreadsheet now, because there is a further test: The tax applies to the lesser of your total net investment income or the excess of your Modified Adjusted Gross Income over the $200,000 (single) or $250,000 (joint return) thresholds. (MAGI is the same as AGI for most taxpayers.) Keep in mind a couple of potential “gotchas” in regard to these thresholds. Even though your conventional (not Roth) IRA or 401k withdrawal is not considered investment income for the purpose of this law, it’s still income and could potentially push you over the threshold. Likewise, the gain from the sale of an investment property could catapult you over the line.
  • If you are selling your personal residence, you will continue to get the $250,000 exclusion for individuals, or $500,000 for a married couples filing jointly, so it is only your gain over that amount that is in play. As before you still have to pay the capital gains tax on your profit in excess of those exclusions. More about capital gains in a moment.
  • Congress did not learn its lesson from the Alternative Minimum Tax debacle, because there does not appear to be any provision to index the threshold amounts for inflation, so the tax may affect more people as time goes on.

For more information about this tax, you can refer to the articles noted above as well as a PDF summary put out by the National Association of Realtors®. You’ll find a link to that PDF here.

Capital Gains and the Fiscal Cliff

Another sobering New Year’s Day adventure is what is being called the “fiscal cliff.” Part of the wild ride into the abyss is the scheduled expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts on January 1, 2013. Here, in brief, is what it means for those of us in real estate:

  • If you sell your real estate investment property for a profit, that profit is taxed at the capital gains rate. Currently that capital gains tax rate is 15%, but if we go over the fiscal cliff on January 1, 2013, the rate will go to 20% with the potential to add the 3.8% Medicare tax to part of the gain.
  • If you sell your home for a profit and if you have a gain that exceeds the $250,000 or $500,000 exclusion (not an unrealistic possibility, especially for older homeowners who bought several decades ago – especially in what are now the more costly markets on the coasts like Fairfield County, Connecticut where I live) you may be faced with a similarly higher tax on that gain.

The Bottom Line

I believe the significance of the Medicare tax may be not so much the money it raises – probably not very much – but rather in the anti-investor mindset it reveals. The same would seem to underlie the proposals to raise the capital gains tax. Both taxes suggest to me a policy that puts investing and risk-taking in the crosshairs, that seeks to discourage rather than encourage the activities that are essential to making an economy grow.

This writer shares the opinion of many that higher tax rates on capital gains are a bad idea generally, and a terrible idea during a struggling economy. Existing businesses need capital to grow and startups need capital to launch. If our tax structure is changed to impose a disincentive to invest, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see our economy shrink even further. This WSJ article says it well.

Those who invest and who see investing as vital to our society need to keep careful watch on every new tax proposal and to keep ourselves in the conversation about those proposals. And as this Wall Street Journal article put it: “If you’re planning to sell rental real estate or other investment property, run, don’t walk, to a trusted tax expert.”

–Frank Gallinelli

Copyright 2012, RealData® Inc. All Rights Reserved

The information presented in this article represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of RealData® Inc. The material contained in blog posts and articles that appear on realdata.com is not intended to provide legal, tax or other professional advice or to substitute for proper professional advice and/or due diligence. We urge you to consult an attorney, CPA or other appropriate professional before taking any action in regard to matters discussed in any article or posting. The posting of any article and of any link back to the author and/or the author’s company does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation of the author’s products or services.

You may not reproduce, distribute, or transmit any of the materials at this site without the express written permission of RealData® Inc. or other copyright holders. The content of web sites displayed or linked from the realdata.com is the copyrighted material of those respective sites.

A book review with some insights for investors

Among the first rules you learn when you become an author are these:

  1. Don’t get upset when you get a bad review;
  2. Don’t get too excited or too full of yourself when you get a good review.

I believe I am about to sneak up to the very edge of violating rule #2.  That is because my book, What Every Real Estate Investor Needs to Know About Cash Flow…, recently received a customer review on Amazon that was not only lavish and humbling, but which also identified what I had hoped my readers would discover as the key “deliverables” in this book. I want to thank the reader — unknown to me, I promise, but who signs the review as “J. Newman” — for the kind words. I also want to reinforce some important observations made in that review; and so, please permit me a few quotes from the review along with my comments:

“If you think you can get rich investing in real estate in your spare time, with no money down– you are fooling yourself.”

FG: A basic premise of all my writing, and of this book in particular, is that real estate investing is really about building wealth over the long term, and about a realistic commitment of time, effort and resources.

“If you are already a pro– this book will hone your skills and refresh your memory on what is important.

But let me be clear— this is not just a book for the experts– it is a book that will teach a beginner, advance a professional…”

FG: Another bullseye. It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or an expert; there is always something more that you can learn, and I wrote the book with the intention of helping both novice and experienced investors. When I teach my grad students at Columbia, I am supposed to be the expert. Still, every year, without fail, I find that I learn something from them.

“Now– this is not brain surgery— but ANY investment— (stocks, bonds, real estate etc…) to be successful, requires thoughtful analysis on the front end. This book explains how to properly analyze a real estate investment. This is what all the pros do. This is what the successful guys do. This what the guys who fail do not know how to do.”

FG: This comment speaks for itself. There are no shortcuts. Success in any endeavor requires the mastery of certain critical skills.

“But beware…..the calculations can be done by machine— but you still have to understand how to interpret the answers. And you still need to understand what information to “plug” in—, where to find it and why its important.”

FG: Yes, my company provides software that can do a spectacular job of analyzing an income-property investment. But that doesn’t exempt you from understanding what kind of source data you need or how to interpret the results of an analysis. That’s why investor education is so important. It is a central part of our mission, and always will be.

“This book explains all of that– with wit and wisdom and in a way that makes it fun and understandable.”

FG: A book filled with formulas and numbers could turn out to be truly mind-numbing – then no reader would get anything out of it and the book would be a waste of glue, paper, and space. Fun is good; we should have more of it. I tried to make this book enjoyable to read, and I’m glad you found it so.

And again – thank you J. Newman for your comments and your insights.

—Frank Gallinelli

You can read the complete review here on Amazon.

“10 Commandments for Real Estate Investors” ebook is now free

Real estate investing is an excellent way to build wealth, but it can also be a snare for those who lack preparation, planning, and realistic expectations. In this brief series of essays called 10 Commandments for Real Estate Investors, I try to guide you through some investment principles you can live by. From cautionary tales about the process of due diligence and the hazards of self-styled “experts,” to discussion of identifying your investment objectives, I urge you to focus on best practices.

You can get this ebook free currently at Amazon for the Kindle e-reader and at iTunes for Apple-based platforms.

If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download one of Amazon’s free reading apps for your PC, phone or tablet.

Wishing you great success with your investing,

Frank Gallinelli

Ten Commandments for Real Estate Investors: Commandment #1

Recently I had the honor of being asked to speak at the BiggerPockets Real Estate Investment Summit in Denver. Although I tried to warn them that I was a graduate of the Fidel Castro School of Public Speaking and could talk for four hours from a three-by-five note card, my time was limited. My plan was to conclude with “Ten Commandments for Real Estate Investors,” which I did, but briefly. Thanks to the wonders of modern blog posting, however, I can now share the unabridged version.

Commandment #1: Thou shalt take nothing for granted.

There is a witticism attributed to American humorist Finley Peter Dunne, “You trust your mother but you cut the cards.” In real estate, of course, the parallel concept is due diligence. If you assume that things are as they appear and if you fail to vet your potential deals independently, you’re setting yourself up for unwelcome and expensive surprises.

The cast of characters you may encounter in a real estate deal is almost archetypal. First there is the liar. I still remember well the kindly grandmother who recited to me her property’s rent roll. When I uncovered her perfidy, she explained that she had been telling me how much her tenants should be paying.

Another character is one I call the alchemist. He wants you to look at lead paint and see gold leaf, so he tries to take uncomfortable information and give it a positive spin. “It’s not too small; it’s compact and requires less maintenance.”

Finally there is the person who simply doesn’t volunteer information. He’ll tell you the truth if you ask, but assumes – perhaps justifiably – that it’s not his responsibility to supply the right questions as well as the right answers.

If you have a plan for due diligence and stick to it then you won’t have to rely on information from parties whose interests may not be in concert with yours. That plan should involve both the property and the market in which it is located.

Start with a physical inspection of the property. Deferred maintenance can cut both ways. On the one hand, it represents an expense and may signal that tenants are unhappy.  On the other, it can be an opportunity to remedy a problem, increase revenue and create value. Also look for capital improvements, both completed and needed. Check for code and zoning compliance, and certainly don’t assume that the property’s current use is permitted.

Then consider the financial issues. Examine the leases and look for unusual provisions. Commercial leases in particular can harbor some exotic covenants.  If possible, require estoppel certificates where the tenants can tell you if the lease terms are true and accurate and if there are any outstanding issues or litigation with the landlord. Independently verify expenses like property taxes and assessments, insurance costs and utility expenses. Ask to see historical rent and expense data.

Many investors neglect to go to the next important step, which is to scrutinize the market. What are the prevailing lease rates for properties of this type in this area? How much space like this is vacant in this market? What are the local cap rates for this type of property? What’s going on with employment and municipal budgets? You should know everything possible about the economics and politics of the area where you are buying property – or as I’ve told many investors, you should know where the cracks in the sidewalk are.

And so our first commandment is to take nothing for granted. Rely on your own independent research about the local market and about the particular property. Ronald Reagan may have said it best when negotiating a nuclear treaty with the former Soviet Union: “Trust, but verify.”

The complete “10 Commandments for Real Estate Investors” is available as an ebook on Kindle, Nook, and iBooks.

(c) Copyright 2012 Frank Gallinelli All Rights Reserved
All content in this blog is provided for entertainment and informational purposes only and with the understanding that the writers are not engaged in rendering, legal, professional, financial or investment advice. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site.

New for 2012: Real Estate Investment Analysis, Version 16

Thirty years of development time, and of listening carefully to what to our customers want.  All this comes together now in the latest version of our most popular and powerful software app for real estate investors: Real Estate Investment Analysis, Version 16

What’s New in Version 16?

    • The Decision Maker

      The centerpiece of v16 is a new module called “The Decision Maker.” Here is how it works: Enter data about the property — revenue, expenses, financing, etc. — as you normally would.  Then go to the new module. The top half of the page will display 12-18 of your key assumptions, like those shown here:

      snippet - input, Decision Maker
      snippet 1 from Decision Maker

      You can now toggle any or all of your assumptions up or down with the arrows, while watching the effect of each change as it displays instantly on the bottom half of the page.

      There you’ll see more than a dozen key metrics, such as cash flow and IRR. These will update in response to your clicking the arrows to raise or lower any of the basic assumptions; the data will display going out 20 years.

      snippet 2, Decision Maker
      snippet 2 from Decision Maker

      For example, toggle the purchase price or the cap rate up and down, and watch the effect on your IRR. Toggle the mortgage interest rate, watch the impact on your cash flow. What better way to decide how — or if — you can make this deal work. Hence the name: Decision Maker

    • Detailed Capital Improvements

      Many users have asked to be able to provide a detailed break-out of anticipated expenditures for capital improvements. Here it is. You can now choose to fill out a complete year-by-year schedule of improvements, or simply enter an annual total.

 

    • Detailed Closing Costs

      Likewise, the ability to itemize acquisition closing costs has been another common request. You now have two options: itemize or enter a single amount.

 

    • Improved Reports
      We really do pay attention when users call and say things like, “Why doesn’t the partnership presentation show cash-on-cash return?” We keep track of those requests, and you’ll find several now implemented in v16.

 

    • Import Data from Your Version 15 Analyses

      Here’s a big one: If you’re upgrading from v15 to v16 you can run a special function that will read all of the user entries from an analysis you did in v15 and transfer that information into the new version.  That’s no small trick, but our super-smart programmers did it.

 

Upgrade from Version 15

      If you’re currently a registered user of v15, keep your eye out for an email from us with an offer to upgrade at a nominal cost.

Frank Gallinelli to Speak at BiggerPockets Real Estate Investing Summit and Expo, March 23-24, 2012

BiggerPockets — an 85,000-member community of real estate investors — is having its first Real Estate Investing Summit in Denver, March 2012, and has invited Frank Gallinelli as a featured speaker. Frank is the founder of RealData Software and the author of What Every Real Estate Investor Needs to Know About Cash Flow… and Mastering Real Estate Investment. He will speak on, “Real Estate Investment Analysis, Methods and Mindset — What to Know, What to Do.”

According to BP founder Josh Dorkin, “BiggerPockets is planning on having dozens of expert investors, commentators and educators speak to an audience that is expected to include hundreds of attendees from around the country. Through lectures, roundtables, and other session formats, the event will cover topics including rehabbing, landlording, investing in notes & mortgages, real estate financing & capital raising, commercial investing, and much more.”

You can sign up to attend by following this link. Hope to see you there.

Refi Existing Investment Property to Purchase Another?

One of our Facebook fans, Tony Margiotta, posed this question, which I’m happy to try my hand at answering here:

“Could you talk about refinancing an income property in order to purchase a second income property? I’m trying to understand the refinance process and how you can use it to your advantage in order to build a real estate portfolio. Thanks Frank!”

=============================================================

The Good News

Your plan – to extract some of the equity from an investment property you already own and use that cash as down payment to purchase another – is fundamentally sound. In fact, that’s exactly what I did when I started investing back in the ‘70s, so to me at least, it seems like a brilliant idea.

Of course, you need to have enough equity in your current property. How much is enough? That will depend on the Loan-to-Value Ratio required by your lender. The refi loan has to be small enough to satisfy the LTV required on the current property, but big enough to give you sufficient cash to use as the down payment on the new property.

For example, let’s say your bank will loan 70% of the value of your strip shopping center, which is appraised at $1 million. So, you expect to obtain a $700,000 mortgage. Your current loan is $550,000, which would leave you with $150,000 to use as a down payment on another property.

Given the same 70% LTV, $150,000 would be a sufficient down payment for a $500,000 property, i.e. 70% of $500,000 = $350,000 mortgage plus $150,000 cash.

But Wait… Some Issues and Considerations

Unfortunately, it’s not the ’70s or even ’07 anymore, so while the plan is sound, the execution may present a few challenges. Best to be prepared, so here are some issues to consider:

    • In the current lending environment, financing can be hard to find, and the terms may be more restrictive than what you experienced in the past. Notice that I used a 70% LTV in the example above. You might even encounter 60-65% today, while a few years ago it could have been 75-80%.  In order to obtain the loan, you might also have to show a higher Debt Coverage Ratio than you would have in the past – perhaps 1.25 or higher, compared to the 1.20 that was common before.
    • How long have you had the mortgage on the current property?  Some lenders will not let you refinance if the mortgage isn’t “seasoned” for a year or even longer.
    • How long have you owned the property? A track record of stable or growing NOIs over time will support your request for a new loan.  You need to make a clear and effective presentation to the lender showing that the refi makes sense, especially in a tight lending environment.
    • You need to run your numbers and not take anything for granted. For example, will your current property have a cash flow sufficient to cover the increased debt?
    • Keep in mind that you’re adding more debt to the first property, so the return on the new property has to be strong enough to justify the diminution of the return on the first.
    • Have you compared the overall return you would achieve from the two properties using the refi plan as opposed to the return you might get if you brought in some equity partners to help you buy the new property?

In a nutshell, refinancing an existing income property to purchase another is a time-honored and proven technique, but it in a challenging lending environment be certain you do your due diligence and run your numbers with care.

Of course I never miss an opportunity to promote my company’s software, so consider using that not only to analyze the deal and its variations, but also to build the presentations that will optimize your chances of obtaining the financing and/or the equity investors.

Frank Gallinelli

5 Mistakes Every Real Estate Investor Should Avoid

In my nearly 30 years of providing analysis software to real estate investors, and almost a decade of writing books and teaching real estate finance at Columbia University, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with thousands of people who were analyzing potential real estate investments. Some of these people were seasoned professionals, many were beginners or students, but just about all were highly motivated to analyze their deals to gain the maximum advantage.

I’ve seen some tremendous creativity in their analyses, but I’ve also seen some huge missteps. Here are some of the pitfalls you will want to be sure to avoid.


1. The Formula That Doesn’t Compute

If you are attempting any kind of financial analysis, then a full-featured spreadsheet program like Excel is almost certainly your tool of choice. You might opt for professionally built models, like my company’s RealData software, or you could attempt to construct your own.

  • One of the most common problems I see in do-it-yourself models is the basic formula error. A robust financial analysis involves the interaction of many elements, and it is really easy to make any of several errors that are hard to detect. The simplest of these is an incorrect reference.  You entered your purchase price in cell C12 and meant to refer to it in a formula, but you typed C11 in that formula by mistake. You may (or perhaps may not) notice that your evaluation of the property doesn’t look right, but it can be difficult for you to find the source of the problem.
  • You used to have a formula in a particular cell, but you accidentally overwrote that formula by typing a number in its place. The calculation is gone from the current analysis, and if you re-use the model, you’ll always be using that number you typed in, not the calculated value you expect.
  • Cutting and pasting numbers seems innocent enough, but it can scramble your model’s logic by displacing references. Simple rule: Never cut and paste in a spreadsheet.
  • Perhaps the most insidious is the formula that doesn’t do what you thought it did. Let’s say you have three values that you enter in cells A1, B1, and C1. You want to write a formula that adds the first two numbers and divides the result by the third. It’s easy to say this in plain English: “I want A1 plus B1, divided by C1.” So you write the formula as =A1+B1/C1. Wrong. Division and multiplication take precedence, so the division happens first and that result gets added to A1. Not what you expected. The formula that does what you intended would be =(A1+B1)/C1, where the sum of A1 and B1 is treated as a single value, divided by C1.


2. The Modern Art Syndrome

Even if you get all of your formulas correct, your job is only half done. I harangue my grad students constantly with this pearl of wisdom: Sometimes you create a pro forma analysis of a property strictly for your own interest. You will never show it to anyone else. Most of the time, however, successful completion of a real estate investment deal means you have to “sell” your point of view to one or more third parties:

  • You may be the buyer, trying to convince the seller that your offer is reasonable;
  • You may need to convince the lender that the deal should be financed; or
  • You may need to show an equity partner that his or her participation would be profitable.

Most of the homebrew presentations that I see look to me like a Jackson Pollock painting with numbers superimposed. The layout usually has a logic that I can’t discern, and I find myself hunting for the key pieces of information that the presenter should have designed to jump off the page.

The layout needs to be orderly and logical: revenue before expenses and both before debt service.

Labels need to be unambiguous:

  • If you mention capital expenditures, are they actual costs or reserves for replacement?
  • Is the debt service amortized or interest only?
  • When you label a number as “Price,” are you talking about the stated asking price, or your presumed offer? Be clear.

Lenders and experienced equity investors will be looking for several key pieces of information before they scrutinize the entire pro forma, items like Net Operating Income, Debt Coverage Ratio, Cash Flow and Internal Rate of Return.  If these items don’t stand out, or if the presentation is disorganized, you might as well add a cover page that says, “ I’m Just an Amateur Who Probably Can’t Pull This Deal Off.”


3. Errors, We Get Errors, Stack and Stacks of Errors

You may be too young to know Perry Como’s theme song (by the way, it was “letters,” not “errors”), but the tune goes through my head when I look at some investors’ spreadsheets.

  • The #NUM error can appear when you try to perform a mathematically impossible calculation, like division by zero, or also when attempting an IRR calculation that can’t resolve.
  • #VALUE usually occurs when you type something non-numeric (and that can include a blank space, letters, punctuation, etc.) into a numeric data-entry cell. If there are formulas in your model that are trying to perform some kind of math using the contents of that cell, those formulas will fail. In other words, if you try to multiply a number times a plain-text word, you’re violating a law of nature and Excel is going to call down a serious punishment on your head, a sort of high-tech scarlet letter.

It can get really ugly really fast because every calculation that refers to the cell with the first #NUM or #VALUE will also display the error message, so the problem tends to cascade throughout the entire model. Unfortunately, I often see investors who then go right ahead and print out their reports with these errors displayed and deliver the reports to clients or lenders.

Your objective in giving a report to a third party is typically to try to convince the recipient to accept your point of view. You will not accomplish that if your report has uncorrected errors.


4. What’s Wrong with This Picture?

It’s the errors you overlook – the ones that don’t have nice, big, upper-case alerts like #VALUE – that can cause the greatest mischief of all; and these can be troublesome even if the analysis is for your eyes only.

It may be an unwanted and unintended side effect of the computer age that we tend to accept calculated reports at face value. Be honest: How often do you sit at a restaurant with a calculator and verify the addition on your dinner check?

This presumption of accuracy can be dangerous when you are evaluating a big-ticket item like a potential real estate investment. As I discussed earlier, you could have bogus formulas that give you inaccurate results. But even if you use a professionally created tool like RealData’s Real Estate Investment Analysis software, you are still not immune to the classic “garbage in, garbage out” syndrome.

The mistake that I see far too often is a failure to apply common sense. For example:

  • “Gee, this investment looks like it will have a 175% Internal Rate of Return. Looks good to me.”  (Reality: You entered the purchase price as $1,000,000 instead of $10,000,000. You should have been saying to yourself, 175% can’t be right; what did I do wrong?)
  • “Wow, this property shows a terrific cash flow.” (Reality: You entered the mortgage interest rate as 0.07% instead of 7%.) Again, results outside the norm, either much better or much worse than you would reasonably expect, are your tip-off that a mistake is lurking somewhere. It is essential that you develop the habit of examining every financial work-up – those you create, and also those that are presented to you – very closely to see if the calculations appear reasonable.


5. What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You

The final item in our list of big-time mistakes goes beyond the mechanics of spreadsheets and formulas and into the realm of fundamentals. You can be the most proficient creator of spreadsheet models on the planet, but if you don’t really understand the essential financial concepts that underlie real estate investment analysis, then you will neither be able to create nor interpret an analysis of such property.

The examples that I’ve seen are numerous – I can’t possibly list more than a few here – but they all revolve around the same issue:  A lack of understanding of basic financial concepts as they apply to real estate.  Some of the most important:

  • Net Operating Income – This is a key real estate metric, and calculating it incorrectly can play havoc with your estimation of a property’s value. Basically, NOI is Gross Operating Income less the sum of all operating expenses, but I have frequently seen all kinds of things subtracted when they should not be. These have included mortgage interest or the entire annual debt service, depreciation, loan points, closing costs, capital improvements, reserves for replacement, and leasing commissions. None of these items belongs in the NOI calculation.
  • Cash flow – I have seen NOI incorrectly labeled as “cash flow,” and have seen cash flow miscalculated with depreciation, a non-cash item, subtracted.
  • Capitalization rate – Cap rate is another key real estate metric and is the ratio of NOI to value. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered some folks who have used cash flow instead of NOI when attempting to figure the cap rate and have ended up with a completely erroneous result – not only for the cap rate itself, but then also for the value of the property.

Clearly, there are two vital problems with these kinds of basic errors. First, is that they completely derail any meaningful analysis. If your NOI is not really the correct NOI and your cap rate is not really the correct cap rate, then nothing else about your evaluation of the property can possibly be correct. And second, if you give this misinformation to a well-informed investor or lender, your credibility will evaporate.


The Bottom Line

What is our take-away from these five disasters waiting to happen? You could avoid many of these errors by using the best, professionally developed analysis models – but then, of course, you would expect me to say that because that’s what we do for a living.

Let me suggest three other important steps you can take:

  • Understand that there is no substitute for careful scrutiny of any financial presentation, whether it is someone else’s or your own. Be diligent always and  apply the test of reasonableness.
  • Recognize that any real estate analysis you create is likely to be a representation to a third party of the quality of your thinking and professional competence. You wouldn’t be careless or casual with a resume; you should give the same care to your real estate presentations.
  • Finally, recognize that you need to make a commitment to mastering the fundamental concepts and vocabulary of real estate investing. There is no substitute for knowledge.

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For Real Estate Investors: A Lesson in Clarity

Recently, I was conducting the last class in my course on real estate investment analysis that I teach in Columbia’s MSRED program.  I had assigned my 55 students a series of case studies (much like those in my book, Mastering Real Estate Investment) and told them to build financial pro forms and discuss the reasoning behind their analyses. After reading and commenting on all those analyses, I felt there was one overarching theme on which I wanted to focus my final remarks to the troops: The theme was “clarity.”

Trying to reduce a course to a single word might seem unrealistic (because it is), but I really had more than one angle on the notion of clarity in mind. Even combined, those notions would not replace the real content of a course in investment analysis, but they might express some essential principles that are sine qua non — “without which, nothing” — for investors.

Be Clear About Your Objectives

Before you fire up your spreadsheet program or sharpen your pencil, you need to be very clear about your objective (or objectives) in analyzing the property. For example:

  • Are you a potential buyer, trying to establish a reasonable offer on a particular property?
  • Are you seller or broker trying to justify your asking price?
  • Are you a buyer or broker, trying to demonstrate to a seller that his or her price and terms would not be acceptable to a reasonable and prudent investor?
  • Are you seeking financing, or refinancing and need to demonstrate to a lender that this loan will meet their underwriting expectations?
  • Are you assembling a partnership and trying to show potential equity investors that this deal will make economic sense to them?

You are not trying to create alternate realities, but you might be harboring more than one objective in a given situation. For example, for your private use you might want to look at a range of possible offers by creating best-case, worst-case and in-between scenarios; but in making a presentation to the seller, you would surely not begin by volunteering what you believe to be the highest price at which the investment might have a chance of success.

In making a presentation to a lender, your focus must be to ensure that your presentation includes items like debt coverage ratio, allowance for possible vacancy, and projected cash flows — items that will have an immediate impact on an underwriting decision. For equity partners, you want to be sure that you can demonstrate not only that the property itself makes sense, but that the particular investor, considering allocations and preferred return, can expect an acceptable rate of return on cash invested.

You are typically trying either to make a personal decision about a property or to “sell” your point of view to a third party. Being clear in your own mind about the purpose of your pro forma allows you to focus on how you analyze the property and what information is of greatest importance to your intended audience.

Be Clear About Your Use of Terminology

Real estate, like most businesses and professions, has its own language – terms that carry very specific meaning. The misuse of real estate investment terminology can have several possible consequences, all of them bad.

  • You can substantially skew the results of an analysis by not being clear in your understanding of important terms. Some of the more egregious examples I have seen include:
    • Not understanding the real-estate-specific definitions of terms like “operating expense” and “Net Operating Income.”  I have often seen investors try to include mortgage payments, capital improvements, or reserves for replacement as operating expenses. This mistake can drastically affect your estimate of a property’s worth.
    •  Not understanding an important term like “capitalization rate.” I have seen investors try to estimate value by applying a cap rate to the property’s cash flow instead of its Net Operating Income. Big mistake.
  • You can bring a dialog or negotiation to a grinding halt by being unclear and offhand in your use of what should be unambiguous terms.  Yes, “price” is a legitimate English word. But if you use it as part of an analysis or presentation, you will leave your reader stumped.  Do you mean the seller’s asking price, the buyer’s offered price, the actual closed selling price?  You can tell me that a building has 20,000 square feet, but do you mean usable square feet or rentable square feet?  It makes a difference.
  • You can establish your identity as a rank amateur. Nothing will earn you a sandwich board with the word “newbie” on it quicker than misusing terms or lapsing into incomprehensibly vague language. Credibility matters — just ask your lender or your equity partners.  Be clear. Be precise.

Be Clear When You Build Your Pro Forma or Presentation

If you insist on being a do-it-yourselfer, and you plan to give your pro forma or presentation to a third party, keep in mind that nothing will unsell your argument faster than a jumbled pile of numbers.  Your information should flow and be segmented in a logical order (e.g., don’t show someone the income after the expenses, or the debt service after the cash flows). The reader should be able to apprehend the key metrics with a quick scan of the page, then go back and fill in the details. If your report turns  into a scavenger hunt for vital information, then you will fail to deliver your message. No loan, no partner, no deal.

Your success as a real estate investor requires serious number crunching, but it doesn’t stop there. You must be able to convey your analysis of a property in terms that are unambiguous, accurate, and relevant to your audience. Clarity is what you need.

–Frank Gallinelli

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