Real estate finance and investment education

A number of colleges and universities have been using my books as well as my company’s Real Estate Investment Analysis software for instructional purposes in their classes on real estate finance and investment (as have I at Columbia).

The “Express Edition” of the software dovetails nicely with my books, but some instructors recently asked for inclusion of a few of the features from its big brother, the Pro Edition. Happy to accommodate.

And so… we released a new version of REIA Express which does just that.

If you teach real estate finance or investment, note that we have an academic version of the software available for classroom use. Your students can use that to work through many of the problems and case studies in the books.

If you would like to find out more about academic use of this software, please contact me via our online contact form.

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.

Copyright 2010, 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 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.

Recovering from the Housing and Financial Crisis

Federal Reserve V.P. and senior policy advisor John Duca has just published an an exceptionally lucid article that discusses the four key “shocks” suffered by the U.S. economy during the financial crisis: As he states quite succinctly, “Home construction plunged, wealth fell, credit standards tightened and financial markets seized up.”

He discusses the relationship between home construction and GDP, housing’s wealth effect, and the availability of credit; and concludes with a balanced assessment of what may lie ahead for both the U.S. and global economies. He cites indicators that point to recovery, but tempers those with a discussion of the downside risks that remain.

There are enough stats and charts here to satisfy number crunchers like me, but the prose is clear and readable enough to stand on its own.

I think this is material that anyone in real estate, construction or mortgage finance should read, so we have posted it on our “Learn” page.

Six Rules of Thumb for Every Real Estate Investor

Life can be hard, especially as we try to climb out of the Great Recession. Real estate investing can be a challenge, as well; and while we surely won’t presume to suggest how to deal with life’s big issues, we can offer a few thoughts as to how you might maintain some equilibrium when you look at investment property.

Those of you who follow our content at RealData.com — newslettersbooksFacebook and software — know that we stress maximizing your chances for success through understanding the metrics of investment property. We don’t tell you that you’ll get rich by thinking positive thoughts, raising your self-confidence, and charging fearlessly into the fray. Instead we urge you to learn about the the financial dynamics that are at work in income-producing real estate. Whether you’re scrutinizing a piece of property you already own, one you want to sell, or one you may choose to buy or develop, you need to master the metrics. The numbers always matter.

And so here are our “6 Rules of Thumb for Every Real Estate Investor.”

1. Vacancy

— Let’s begin with a simple one. What percentage of the property’s total potential gross income is being lost to vacancy? Start off by collecting some market data, so you will know what is typical for that type of property in that particular location. Does the property you own or may buy differ very much from the norm? Obviously, much higher vacancy is not good news and you want to find out why. But if vacancy is far less than the market, that may mean the rents are too low. If you’re the owner, this is an issue you need to deal with. If you’re a potential buyer, this may signal an opportunity to acquire the property and then create value through higher rents.

2. Loan-to-Value Ratio (LTV)

— When the financial markets return to some semblance of normalcy, they will probably also return to their traditional standards for underwriting. One of those standards is the Loan-to-Value Ratio. The typical lender is generally willing to finance between 60% – 80% of the lesser of the property’s purchase price or its appraised value. Conventional wisdom has always held that leverage is a good thing — that it is smart to use “Other People’s Money.”

The caution here is to beware of too much of a good thing. The higher the LTV on a particular deal, the riskier the loan is. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that in the post-meltdown era, the cost of a loan in terms of interest rate, points, fees, etc. may rise exponentially as the risk increases. Having more equity in the deal may be the best or perhaps the only way to secure reasonable financing. If you don’t have sufficient cash to make a substantial down payment, then consider assembling a group of partners so you can acquire the property with a low LTV and therefore with optimal terms.

3. Debt Coverage Ratio (DCR)

— DCR is the ratio of a property’s Net Operating Income (NOI) to its Annual Debt Service. NOI, as you will recall is your total potential income less vacancy and credit loss and less operating expenses. If your NOI is just enough to pay your mortgage, then your NOI and debt service are equal and so their ratio is 1.00. In real life, no responsible lender is likely to provide financing if it looks like the property will have just barely enough net income to cover its mortgage payments. You should assume that the property you want to finance must show a DCR of at least 1.20, which means your Net Operating Income must be at least 20% more than your debt service. For certain property types or in certain locations, the requirement may be even higher, but it is unlikely ever to be lower.
Not to preach, but planning a budget with a bit of breathing room might be a good principle for every government agency, financial institution and family to follow.

4. Capitalization Rate

— The Capitalization Rate expresses the ratio between a property’s Net Operating Income and its value. Typically it is a market-driven percentage that represents what investors in a given market are achieving on their investment dollar for a particular type of property. In other words, it is the prevailing rate of return in that market. Appraisers use Cap Rates to estimate the value of an income property. If other investors are getting a 10% return, then at what value would a subject property yield a 10% return today?
Remember first that the Cap Rate is a market-driven rate so you need to interrogate some appraisers and commercial brokers to discover what rate is common today in your market for the type of property you’re dealing with. But you also need to recognize that Cap Rates can change with market conditions. In our long and checkered careers we have seen rates go as low as 4-5% (corresponding to very high valuations) and as high as the mid-teens (very low valuations), with historical averages probably bunched closer to 8-10%. If you are investing for the long term, and if the cap rate in your market is presently pushing the top or the bottom of the range, then you need to consider the possibility that the rate won’t stay there forever. Look at some historical data for your market and take that into account when you estimate the cap rate rate that a new buyer may expect ten years down the road.

5. Internal Rate of Return (IRR)

— IRR is the metric of choice for many real estate investors because it takes into account both the timing and the size of cash flows and sale proceeds. It can be a bit difficult to compute, you may want to use software or a financial calculator to make it easy. Once you have your estimated IRR for a given holding period, what should you make of it? No matter how talented you are at choosing and managing property, real estate investing has its risks — and you should expect to earn a return that is commensurate with those risks. There is no magic number for a “good” IRR, but from our years of speaking with investors, we think that few would be happy with anything less than a double-digit IRR, and most would require something in the teens. At the same time, keep in mind the “too good to be true” principle. If you project an astoundingly strong IRR then you need to revisit your underlying data and your assumptions. Are the rents and operating expenses correct? Is the proposed financing possible?

6. Cash Flow

— Cash is King. If you can first project that your property will have a strong positive cash flow, then you can exhale and start to look at the other metrics to see if they suggest satisfactory long-term results.

Negative cash flow means reaching into your own pocket to make up the shortfall. There is no joy in finding that your income property fails to support you, but rather you have to support your property. On the other hand, if you do a have a strong positive cash flow, then you can usually ride out the ups and downs that may occur in any market. An unexpected vacancy or repair is far less likely to push you to the edge of default, and you can sit on the sideline during a market decline, waiting until the time is right to sell.

Overambitious financing tends to be a common cause of weak cash flow. Too much leverage, resulting in greater loan costs and higher debt service can mark the tipping point from a good cash flow to none at all. Revisit LTV and DCR, above.

We’re all thumbs, so to speak, so if you found these rules helpful check out more of our booksarticlessoftware, Facebook page and other resources.

Copyright 2009, 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 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.

New Educational Videos

RealData founder Frank Gallinelli teaches real estate finance at the Columbia graduate school, as well as investment analysis in public and professional seminars. For the benefit of visitors to www.realdata.com we will be posting a series of video clips from some of his public classes. The first two clips cover due diligence (i.e., doing your homework before you make an offer) and basic real estate investment terminology, wrapping up with a discussion of the APOD form.

You can find these clips on the Learn page at realdata.com. Be sure to come back often to catch new clips as they become available.

If you would like to discuss having Frank address or teach a seminar to your group, contact him directly via email at seminar.realdata at gmail.com.

Commercial Real Estate Financing — What to Do Now

An Interview with George Blackburne

We hear something like this from our customers almost every day: “It’s really a great time to buy property, and if I could get the financing I would certainly do more deals.”*

We hold ourselves out to know a few things about real estate finance, but we must confess that we don’t know where the treasure is buried. So we decided to ask an expert: George Blackburne, III , founder of C-Loans and Blackburne & Sons Realty Capital Corporation.

RD: George, we know you’ve been in commercial finance for decades. Give us your boots-on-the-ground assessment of where we are now.

GB: Clearly, it is much more difficult to finance commercial property than it has been in a very long time. But I don’t agree with the conventional wisdom that you simply can’t get a loan. It’s going to require a lot more digging, but if the deal is a good one then it’s not impossible.

RD: Who’s lending now?

GB: It’s pretty much the hard money lenders and the banks. Gone are the conduits, mortgage REITS and other players.

RD: But a lot of our customers say the banks they’ve always done business with don’t want to talk to them.

GB: They have to understand that it’s a whole new ballgame, a sea change. You can’t rely on your usual lenders anymore. Perhaps most important, you have to forget about visiting just two or three lenders and expecting to get a loan. Plan on submitting your deal to 30-50 lenders. That’s what it will probably take right now.

RD: 30-50?

GB: Yes. I know one guy who approached 112 lenders – but he got the loan and closed the deal.

RD: I want to ask you more in a minute about what borrowers should be doing when they approach these lenders – how they can improve their chances of success – but first I want to ask about terms and underwriting.

GB: Interest rates are still attractive. They depend very much on the deal, but probably somewhere in the 6.5% to 7.375% range. A term of 25 years with a 5-year balloon is typical. Also, expect to be asked for a personal guarantee.

RD: What about LTV and DCR?

GB: DCR is still around 1.25 for most property types, but loan-to-value is likely to be about 60%. Most banks will use whichever of these is more limiting.

RD: Are buyers willing and able to put down 40%?

GB: Sometimes, of course, a couple of investors pool resources. Another technique I’ve been seeing is this: The seller agrees to take a second on some other property that is owned by the buyer – not on the property being sold. That way the buyer gets his secondary financing, and the bank is still lending on a property that has 60% LTV.

RD: Getting back now to the topic I was on earlier: What does the borrower have to do to maximize his or her chances of getting the loan?

GB: There are several things you can do. One of the most important is to create an executive summary of your deal – property info, financial info, photos – and put it into a pdf file that you can submit as part of your loan request.

RD: George, you just gave a pretty good description of some of the reports we produce with our Real Estate Investment Analysis software. Thanks for the plug.

GB: That’s good, that’s the kind of stuff you need to send.

RD: What else can a borrower do to improve the chances of getting a loan?

GB: It seems to me that banks are much more interested than they were in the past in having a deposit relationship with the borrower. Go talk to the bank president or someone high enough up the food chain about bringing over some of your accounts – personal, business, IRAs. These can make a difference.

RD: So where should we be looking for these 30-50 banks to approach?

GB: In general, you have a better chance with banks that are local to the property being financed. Here’s a quick-and-easy: Go to maps.yahoo.com and put in the property address. Where it says, “Find a business on the map,” type in “bank” and click search. Then zoom out the map until you have a big enough radius to give you a nice list. You can click on “view results as a list” to print out your shopping list.

RD: Why didn’t I think of that? If you have a crystal ball, would you care to give any forward-looking advice?

GB: Sorry, no crystal ball, but I will say this: If you currently have a commercial loan that’s going to balloon in the next two years, don’t sit around. I would start looking now to stretch as long as possible.

RD: George, I really appreciate your sharing your expertise. Can you to tell us just a bit about C-Loans and how it might help our readers in their search for financing?

GB: C-Loans.com is a commercial mortgage lender databank, a portal where you can submit your commercial loan to 750 different banks and hard money lenders. It’s also free. Just go to c-loans.com.

RD: Thanks again.

You can contact George Blackburne at

C-Loans, Inc., Blackburne & Sons, and Realty Capital Corp.
Plymouth, IN 46563
(574) 360-2486 Cell (Best)
(574) 936-6387 Office
george@blackburne.com

Give us your comments. What’s your take on the present and future of commercial financing?

Copyright 2010, RealData® Inc. All Rights Reserved
* See related interview from Realty Times with 2010 CCIM President Richard Juge, where he says “…for the first time in many years our members, our own CCIM members, are saying, “This is the time to buy.””
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 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 Partnerships and Preferred Return

Q. Can you explain more about how preferred return works in a real estate partnership? Does it always have to go only to the limited partner or non-managing partner?

A. The first point to make about real estate partnerships – whether limited, general or LLC – is that there is certainly no single, pre-defined structure used by all investors. In fact, you may be hard pressed to find two partnership agreements whose provisions are exactly the same.

Not all partnerships include a preferred return but, in those that do, its purpose is to counterbalance the risk associated with investing capital in the deal. Typically, the investor is promised that he or she will get first crack at the partnership’s profit and receive at least a X% return, to the extent that the partnership generates enough cash to pay it. In most partnership structures, the cash flow is allocated first to return the invested capital to all partners. The preferred return is paid next, before the General Partner or Managing Member receives any profit.

There are some variations as to exactly how the preferred return might be set up. If the partnership does not earn enough in a given year to cover the preferred return, the typical arrangement is to carry the shortfall forward and pay it when cash becomes available. If necessary it is carried forward until the property is sold, at which time the partners receive their accumulated preferred return before the rest of the sale proceeds are divided. Again, that assumes that the sale proceeds are in fact sufficient to pay the preferred return. If not, the limited partners have to settle for whatever cash is available.

The return may also be compounded or non-compounded. In other words, if part or all of the amount due in a given year can’t be paid and has to be carried forward, the amount brought forward may or may not earn an additional return (similar to compound vs. simple interest). The usual method is for it to be non-compounded. Hence the unpaid amount carried forward does not earn an additional return, but remains a static amount until paid.

An alternative but less common approach is to wipe the slate clean each year. If there isn’t enough cash to pay the preferred return, then the partnership pays out whatever cash is available and starts over from zero next year.

Real estate partnerships will typically define percentage splits between General (i.e., managing) and Limited (i.e., non-managing) partners for profit and sales proceeds. These splits do not come into play until the obligation to pay the preferred return has been met.

For example, let’s say that a limited partner invests $100,000. She is promised a 5% preferred return (non-compounded), 90% of cash flow after the return of capital and payment of preferred return, and 70% of sale proceeds. In the first five years, the partnership generates just enough cash to return the invested capital to all partners. Hence, all future cash flows represent profit. The partnership has a $16,000 cash flow the sixth year, a $20,000 cash flow the seventh year and also sells the property at the end of the seventh year with total proceeds of sale of $150,000. Here is what happens:

year 6 and 7 distributions to LP

The Limited Partner should receive a preferred return of $5,000 per year (5% of her $100,000 investment). By the end of year 6 she hasn’t received any of this return so she is owed $30,000. In the sixth year the partnership cash flow is only $16,000, so that is all she gets; the balance due is carried forward to year 7. In that year the partnership cash flow of $20,000 is sufficient to pay the $14,000 owed from year 6, the $5,000 from year 7 and still leave enough ($1,000) to split 90/10 with the General Partner. Finally, the property is sold at the end of year 7 with $150,000 proceeds to split 70/30 with the General Partner.

Regarding the question, “To whom does the preferred return go?” it is of course possible to structure a partnership so that it goes either to the General or the Limited partner or to Donald Duck if you think that’s a good plan. The presumed purpose of the preferred return is to encourage non-controlling investors to risk their capital in your project; and that encouragement often takes the form of a conditional promise of a minimum return, the “preferred return.” It seems to me that you would have a difficult time raising money from investors if your underlying message were, “This deal is so shaky that I need full control plus first dibs on the cash flow. If there’s anything left, you can have some.”

Run the numbers, but think beyond them. A good partnership is one where all the parties can enjoy a reasonable expectation of success.

Copyright 2009, 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 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.

Managing for Value – A Guide for the First-Time Landlord

Most of our articles have dealt with the analysis, development and acquisition of income property. It is easy to get wrapped up in the metrics of this process and to forget that eventually you’ll have to engage in the human and sometimes demanding business of actually managing the property you buy.

How you fulfill that task can go a long way toward determining the financial success of your investment. Property management is a complex subject, but if you observe some basic principles you can maximize your long-term profit and minimize some of the burden.

It’s business, nothing personal

Existing tenants will naturally harbor some suspicion about a new owner. Ignore it. Eventually you won’t be the New Guy or they won’t be the tenants, so it doesn’t really matter. Conduct yourself in a businesslike manner starting on day one. Treat your lease agreements like the business contracts they really are. Don’t simply ask a new tenant to sign the lease. Explain the terms and translate the legalese. Doing so establishes the fact that the lease terms matter and you expect both sides to observe them.

The Aretha Franklin Principle

In more than 30 years of owning rental property (and watching others do the same), I have found one principle that has proved consistently valid: Don’t expect your tenants to treat your property with respect unless you treat it with respect. As I urge in my book, Insider Secrets…, “If something is broken, fix it. If something is dirty, clean it up. If something is dangerous, make it safe. You can be certain that very few tenants will put forward any special effort to take care of the property if your attitude is one of neglect.” The converse of this principle is also true. If you behave like a slumlord, you’ll get what you deserve.

Not only does this principle occupy the ethical high ground, it also makes very good business sense. Deferred maintenance is ultimately more expensive than aggressive maintenance and it will eat away at your investment return from several sides. The postponed repair will typically ring up a larger bill later. Consider the small plumbing leak you ignore today versus the additional damage you must repair when you finally fix the leak a few months hence.

A property with deferred maintenance also diminishes the amount of rent you can expect to collect. First, because few tenants will pay top dollar to occupy a poorly maintained property. And second because those who do, but feel they are not getting what they bargained for, are more likely to default in their payments.

Finally, on what should be your big payday – the day you sell the property for a handsome profit – you’ll find yourself making price concessions because of the property’s poor condition and its below-market revenue stream. By operating on the cheap you’ve bought your way into a lose-lose-lose trifecta.

Managing for Maximum Return

Buy Right

Your goal should be to manage the property for the greatest long-term gain. If you’ve read some of our earlier articles about Net Operating Income, capitalization rates and Internal Rate of Return, you understand that an income-property’s value is directly related to its income stream. Hence, your best chance to maximize that gain is to grow the property’s Net Operating Income. Doing so translates into at least two benefits: It’s likely to help your year-to-year cash flow, but even more important, NOI is fundamental to the valuation of the property. Hence, by increasing the NOI you create equity.

One way to optimize the growth of the property’s NOI is to buy it right. That’s not code for “look for properties you can steal.” It is not at all uncommon to find properties that earn below-market rents. This may happen because they have the kind of deferred maintenance discussed above, but it can also occur because the owner has simply not kept pace with the current market. Some landlords, especially those for whom real estate is a sideline, find it easier to renew the leases of good tenants at a nominal increase rather than demand market rents and take on the work and risk of finding new tenants.

When you locate such a property, you must not lose sight of the fact that you should purchase only if you can do so at a price that is very close to what its current income justifies. The seller will tell you that it should rent for more and therefore it is worth more. You could rephrase the seller’s position as, “Do my job and assume my risk, but pay me as if I had done it myself.” If you purchase a property with below-market rents at a price consistent with those rents and then proceed to bring them up to market, you will almost always create additional equity.

Implement Management Improvements

Unless the property you buy is a text-book case of managerial perfection, you can almost enhance it revenue stream (and therefore its value) by making management improvements. Not to beat a fallen horse further, start by cleaning up the previous owner’s deferred maintenance. After that, begin looking for ways to make the property more appealing to your pool of potential tenants. For example…

Common Area – For apartment and office properties, make sure the hallways and stairways are clean and well-lighted. Some artwork on the walls and furniture or other decorative items in the halls creates a more welcoming and less institutional atmosphere. They convey that the owner cares about creating a quality environment.

Security – For better or worse, we’ve become a very security-conscious society. Don’t take that concern for granted, but rather deal with it in a way that distinguishes your property from other with which it competes. The appropriate level of security varies a great deal from one type property of to another, but look for ways to improve whatever you have now. Exterior lighting, higher quality doors and door locks, controlled access to parking, and monitored fire and smoke detectors are just a few of the steps you can take.

Amenities – What do tenants really want? Can you wire the building for high-speed Internet access? Provide pooled secretarial and reception services for small office tenants? Pay for a series of newspaper ads promoting the businesses in your strip shopping center? Your goal is to maximum your income stream and to do so you need to distinguish yourself and your property from your competition. The numbers will add up quickly. Do the math:

Value = Net Operating Income / Capitalization Rate

Let’s say that, in your market, the prevailing cap rate is 10% (that is, if investors are buying properties for 10 times the NOI). You purchase such a property, make some of the management improvements suggested here and increase the Net Operating Income by $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year.

Increase in Value = 12,000 / 0.10 = $120,000

By making management improvements, you created $120,000 in additional equity. Did you spend some time accomplishing this? Yes. Did you spend some money to make those improvements? Certainly. Did you spend $120,000? Not likely, probably not even close.

People who buy single-family homes with intention of “flipping” them quickly for a profit in a hot market are relying on economic forces beyond their control to create that profit. Those who invest in equities are also relying on outside economic forces as well as the competence and integrity of company management.

The bottom line with income-producing real estate is this: If you manage your property intelligently, ethically and responsibly with an eye toward providing the kind of quality environment that can command optimal rent, you can do something that you could never accomplish with a stock or bond investment or even with a flip. You can use your own initiative and skill to create value. In the most literal of terms, you can make money.

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Continuing Ed.: Is an Investment Class Right for You?

From time to time I teach a series of continuing education classes for Connecticut brokers and agents.  The courses are entitled “Understanding Real Estate Investments” — there is a Level 1 (introductory) and Level 2 (intermediate), each for 3 credit hours as electives. I’ll be doing so again from late March to mid-May, 2010.

Something I often hear is, “Oh, I’m a residential agent so I guess that’s not for me.” Of course I have just the opposite in mind. The residential agent or broker is the ideal candidate for these classes. 

To explain why, I’d like to share a few observations I make to my students before I get into the meat and potatoes of my classes’ subject matter: What are these courses about? Why do I teach them?  And, why should you even care?

Making the best seller list at realtor.org

To my surprise and delight, when I opened my Twitter account this morning (twitter.com/fgallinelli) I found news of one of my books making the 12/31/09 best seller list at Realtor® Magazine.  There will be no living with me today!

What Every Real Estate Investor Needs to Know About Cash Flow… was released by McGraw-Hill six years ago, and in a second edition last fall.  It covers what I believe are the key concepts and calculations that every real estate investor ought to understand when making a decision to buy or sell.

I tried to make the book accessible and useful to beginners, students, and experienced investors alike.  It works well for me when I teach my continuing ed classes and my grad-school course in real estate finance at Columbia.  I hope it has been or can be helpful to you as well.

Many thanks to Realtor® Mag for the plug!

Frank Gallinelli

P.S. Speaking of plugs, I have a sequel: Mastering Real Estate Investment