Tag: capitalization rate

10 Mistakes To Avoid When You Invest in Real Estate

I’ve been involved in real estate for more than 40 years, much of it teaching about real estate investing, answering questions online, and supporting folks who use my company’s investment analysis software —so I’ve gotten to see a lot about how people think (and sometimes don’t think). From that experience, I want to share my list of “greatest hits,” mistakes that can really trip you up:

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1. Admiring the King’s New Clothes

I see a lot of first-timers get wrapped up in the aesthetics of a property. Is it an attractive, solid building? Is it in a desirable location? Would I be proud to tell people that this my property? Unfortunately, for some new investors, that’s where their critical evaluation ends. They see only what they want to see.

It’s nice to feel good about the commitment you’re going to make, but that warm feeling will quickly turn cold if the property is a money-draining albatross. Start, at the very least, by estimating its initial cash flow—all the money that will come in for the first year minus all the money that will go out. If that number isn’t comfortably positive, reconsider.

 

2. Almost Doing Your Due Diligence

Most investors will check out the physical condition of the property. Most will also check out the rent data and verify at least some of the expenses. But have you actually read the leases? Are you going to get yourself locked into a dicey deal with below-market rents for a number of years; or maybe with a tenant’s right of first refusal if you want to sell, or even a tenant bail-out option?

 

3. Almost Doing Your Due Diligence, Part 2

OK, you did a good job vetting the property, its finances and its leases. So what did you forget? Maybe you forgot about the market. This property doesn’t live in a vacuum, so you absolutely need to be looking at the ecosystem around it.

What are other landlords getting for units in similar properties? What’s your competition for tenants? What is the prevailing cap rate for properties of this type? What’s the business climate—are companies moving in, moving out—is employment strong? As the anvil salesman says in The Music Man, “You gotta know the territory.”

4. Using the Wrong Lingo

Deals frequently unravel because the parties are not speaking the same language. Real estate investing, like other business professions, has a vocabulary all its own—terms whose meaning is agreed upon by those who buy, sell, broker, or finance property on a regular basis. I’ve seen things like “net operating income after debt service.” The rest of us probably call that “cash flow.” Who knew?

If you misuse standard terms, or if you use terms that don’t exist in nature, you’re either going to…

     … experience what I call the Cool Hand Luke Syndrome (“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”) and never reach a meeting of the minds, or

     …  paint yourself as someone who has never done a deal before, doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, and shouldn’t be taken seriously (and maybe should be taken advantage of).

 

5. Not Looking at the Deal from the Perspective of the Other Players

Whether you’re trying to buy, sell, finance, or raise equity, you have to recognize that your point of view isn’t the only one that matters. You need to put yourself in the shoes of the other interested parties.

Try to understand what are the sticking points, the potential deal killers from their perspective. Perhaps then you can come up with a solution. Do you have a property to sell, and does your potential buyer seem concerned about some vacant space? How about guaranteeing the rent for a period of time?

 

6. Can’t See the Forest… 

I notice this one with a lot with folks who are trying to vet their first income property. You can think of this as another “perspective” mistake—in this case you need to adopt the perspective not of a potential buyer but rather of someone who has already bought this property and now is trying to run it. It was nice that the seller or broker gave you a list of operating costs, and most of them were probably accurate, but is that list complete?

Go back to it and think about costs that nobody volunteered. Who gets rid of the snow, manicures the landscaping, vacuums the hallways, hauls the trash, services the HVAC? And often you’ll see no line item for property management (“Oh, I do that myself”), but you need to figure in an allowance for management even if no cash currently changes hands. An appraiser would routinely add management as an expense, and you should, too, because it will effect the estimate of value.

 

7. Thinking About Your Rental Property the Way You Think About Your Home

I usually ask my grad students how many own their own home. After a few proudly raise their hands, I tell them they’re at a disadvantage and need to try to forget what they think they know about real estate. Bummer.

The value of a personal residence is driven by economic factors—some national, most local. That’s why an appraiser will use the “comparable sales” approach when estimating the value of a home. If all your neighbors’ houses have sold for around $300k, then yours will probably sell for something like that as well.

But income-producing property is valued on its ability to produce net income. It’s not going to rise in value just because of the passage of time. Too many novice investors think their investment properties are going to “appreciate” on their own, over time, just because. Think again.

You can create value in an income property by enhancing its cash flow. Very few investment vehicles give you this power, but you have to understand how it works if you want to take advantage of this wealth-building potential.

8. Being Nearsighted  

Current-year data is important, but I hear a lot of investors who insist that they will focus only on the current income and expenses when evaluating a potential investment property. They say that this data is concrete and verifiable, and any prediction about future performance is just an exercise in fortune telling.

Yes, an appraiser is going to look at the current revenue, expenses, and market cap rate to estimate value. But remember this: The appraiser’s job is to estimate value at a point in time. You, on the other hand, are almost certainly investing for a period that extends beyond the current moment, and should be interested in how you believe this property will perform over a number of years.

So, in addition to looking at current performance, you should be making several projections as to future performance—best case, worst case, and in-between scenarios. This is a topic for more detailed discussion, so stay tuned for that.

 

9. Missing the Obvious in Your Analysis

You’ve taken my advice to heart and done both short-term and long-term projections of cash flows. Now, get your head out of your spreadsheet and use your common sense. Ask yourself if the figures in your analysis actually make sense. Do they look reasonable?

Is that cash flow way less than you expected, is your IRR in the stratosphere, is your mortgage payment merely a pittance? If so, then chances are you’ve either messed up a formula or a cell reference, or entered data incorrectly. When I look at my students’ work, it’s not uncommon to see that some of them have entered the total monthly rent, when they really needed the annual amount. Or they’ve put too many decimal places in the mortgage rate. Don’t assume, just because you used a spreadsheet, that the results are correct. Garbage in…

 

10. Forgetting that Real Property is a Real Business

After all that hard work—property search, due diligence, financial analysis, negotiation, financing, closing—you are finally the owner/operator of an investment property. Perhaps this is the first business you have ever run. You need to treat it like a business.

The top line of your P&L—revenue—needs to be the top line of your to-do list. Is someone not paying the rent, giving you excuses? Don’t let it slide. Your chances of collecting decrease exponentially with the passage of time.

Keeping records on sticky notes? Poor record-keeping can be your undoing, especially at tax time. Invest in some bookkeeping software, such as Quickbooks, rather than relying on a DIY spreadsheet. And once you’ve got it, use it.

Keep your tenant applications, leases and other documents in an organized file. If you really want to be good, scan them and store them on a removable hard drive.

In short, if you want your real estate investment business to succeed, then treat it like a serious business.

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These are the ten real estate investor mistakes I’ve seen most often, but maybe you’ve seen (or committed!) some of your own. I invite you to share your cautionary tales and add them to our list – let’s call it Everything Else that Real Estate Investors Should Avoid.

 

—-Frank Gallinelli

 

Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Find out more at www.realdata.com.

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Copyright 2018,  Frank Gallinelli and 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 and blog posts that appear on realdata.com is provided as general information and 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.

 

New Version of our Income-Property Video Tutorial

Screenshot 2016-06-30 09.36.08We’ve just released an updated version of our video tutorial, How to Evaluate an Income Property Investment with REIA Pro. We’ve given the video a serious makeover — additional content, better audio and graphics, greater emphasis on how to use RealData’s REIA software to perform an analysis — and have added a seventh video that provides an overview of some of the software’s more advanced features.

•    You get access to the web-based video series on our new e-learning platform. Watch it online at your convenience — on your desktop or mobile device.
•    The property analysis is based on a sample case study of a mixed-use property.
•    The series uses our REIA Pro product to analyze the investment, but many of of the features portrayed in the videos are found in the REIA Express edition.
•    The series is presented by Frank Gallinelli, founder of RealData, Inc.
•    Includes seven videos with over 2 hours of instruction

If you’ve already purchased the original release of this series, you’ll receive an email with instructions on how to get the new version at no charge. If you haven’t purchased it before, we invite you to download the case study and view a lesson-by-lesson synopsis.

New Podcast: Investing in Income-Producing Real Estate

I had the privilege recently of recording a video podcast with REICLub, where we discussed investing in income-producing real estate: deciding what kind of property you should buy, how to begin the analysis process, understanding the income stream, estimating value or worth, dealing with long-term projections, recognizing common pitfalls, investing with partners.

I invite you to view it here:

http://www.REIClub.com/FrankGallinelli

—Frank Gallinelli

Reserves for Replacement and Income-Property Investing

It may sound like a nit-picking detail: Where and how do you account for “reserves for replacement” when you try to value – and evaluate – a potential income-property investment? Isn’t this something your accountant sorts out when it’s time to do your tax return? Not really, and how you choose to handle it may have a meaningful impact on your investment decision-making process.


What are “Reserves for Replacement?”

Nothing lasts forever. While that observation may seem to be better suited to a discourse in philosophy, it also has practical application in regard to your property. Think HVAC system, roof, paving, elevator, etc. The question is simply when, not if, these and similar items will wear out.

A prudent investor may wish to put money away for the eventual rainy day (again, the roof comes to mind) when he or she will have to incur a significant capital expense. That investor may plan to move a certain amount of the property’s cash flow into a reserve account each year. Also, a lender may require the buyer of a property to fund a reserve account at the time of acquisition, particularly if there is an obvious need for capital improvements in the near future.

Such an account may go by a variety of names, the most common being “reserves for replacement,” “funded reserves,” or “capex (i.e., capital expenditures) reserves.”


Where do “Reserves for Replacement” Fit into Your Property Analysis?

This apparently simple concept gets tricky when we raise the question, “Where do we put these reserves in our property’s financial analysis?” More specifically, should these reserves be a part of the Net Operating Income calculation, or do they belong below the NOI line? Let’s take a look at examples of these two scenarios.

reserves for replacement, after NOI

Now let’s move the reserves above the NOI line.

reserves for replacement, befeore NOI

The math here is pretty basic. Clearly, the NOI is lower in the second case because we are subtracting an extra item. Notice that the cash flow stays the same because the reserves are above the cash flow line in both cases.


Which Approach is Correct?

There is, for want of a better term, a standard approach to the handling capital reserves, although it may not be the preferred choice in every situation.

That approach, which you will find in most real estate finance texts (including mine), in the CCIM courses on commercial real estate, and in our Real Estate Investment Analysis software, is to put the reserves below the NOI – in other words, not to treat reserves as having any effect on the Net Operating Income.

This makes sense, I believe, for a number of reasons. First, NOI by definition is equal to revenue minus operating expenses, and it would be a stretch to classify reserves as an operating expense. Operating expenses are costs incurred in the day-to-day operation of a property, costs such as property taxes, insurance, and maintenance. Reserves don’t fit that description, and in fact would not be treated as a deductible expense on your taxes.

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that we expect the money spent on an expense to leave our possession and be delivered to a third party who is providing some product or service. Funds placed in reserve are not money spent, but rather funds taken out of one pocket and put into another. It is still our money, unspent.


What Difference Does It Make?

Why do we care about the NOI at all? One reason is that it is common to apply a capitalization rate to the NOI in order to estimate the property’s value at a given point in time. The formula is familiar to most investors:

Value = Net Operating Income / Cap Rate

Let’s assume that we’re going to use a 7% market capitalization rate and apply it to the NOI. If reserves are below the NOI line, as in the first example above, then this is what we get:

Value = 55,000 / 0.07

Value = 785,712

Now let’s move the reserves above the NOI line, as in the second example.

Value = 45,000 / 0.07

Value = 642,855

With this presumably non-standard approach, we have a lower NOI, and when we capitalize it at the same 7% our estimate of value drops to $642,855. Changing how we account for these reserves has reduced our estimate of value by a significant amount, $142,857.


Is Correct Always Right?

I invite you now to go out and get an appraisal on a piece of commercial property. Examine it, and there is a very good chance you will find the property’s NOI has been reduced by a reserves-for-replacement allowance. Haven’t these people read my books?

The reality, of course, is that diminishing the NOI by an allowance for reserves is a more conservative approach to valuation. Given the financial meltdown of 2008 and its connection to real estate lending, it is not at all surprising that lenders and appraisers prefer an abundance of caution. Constraining the NOI not only has the potential to reduce valuation, but also makes it more difficult to satisfy a lender’s required Debt Coverage Ratio. Recall the formula:

Debt Coverage Ratio = Net Operating Income / Annual Debt Service

In the first case, with a NOI of $55,000, the DCR would equal 1.41. In the second, it would equal 1.15. If the lender required a DCR no less than 1.25 (a fairly common benchmark), the property would qualify in the first case, but not in the second.

It is worth keeping in mind that the estimate of value that is achieved by capitalizing the NOI depends, of course, on the cap rate that is used. Typically it is the so-called “market cap rate,” i.e., the rate at which similar properties in the same market have sold. It is essential to know the source of this cap rate data. Has it been based on NOIs that incorporate an allowance for reserves, or on the more standard approach, where the NOI is independent of reserves?

Obviously, there has to be consistency. If one chooses to reduce the NOI by the reserves, then one must use a market cap rate that is based on that same approach. If the source of market cap rate data is the community of brokers handling commercial transactions, then the odds are strong that the NOI used to build that market data did not encorporate reserves. It is likely that the brokers were trained to put reserves below the NOI line; in addition, they would have little incentive to look for ways to diminish the NOI and hence the estimate of market value.


The Bottom Line – One Investor’s Opinion

What I have described as the standard approach – where reserves are not a part of NOI – has stood for a very long time, and I would be loath to discard it. Doing so would seem to unravel the basic concept that Net Operating Income equals revenue net of operating expenses. It would also leave unanswered the question of what happens to the money placed in reserves. If it wasn’t spent then it still belongs to us, so how do we account for it?

At the same time, it would be foolish to ignore the reality that capital expenditures are likely to occur in the future, whether for improvements, replacement of equipment, or leasing costs.

For investors, perhaps the resolution is to recognize that, unlike an appraiser, we are not strictly concerned with nailing down a market valuation at a single point in time. Our interests extend beyond the closing and so perhaps we should broaden our field of vision. We should be more focused on the long term, the entire expected holding period of our investment – how will it perform, and does the price we pay justify the overall return we achieve?

Rather than a simple cap rate calculation, we may be better served by a Discounted Cash Flow analysis, where we can view that longer term, taking into account our financing costs, our funding of reserves, our utilization of those funds when needed, and the eventual recovery of unused reserves upon sale of the property.

In short, as investors, we may want not just to ask, “What is the market value today, based on capitalized NOI?” but rather, “What price makes sense in order to achieve the kind of return over time that we’re seeking?”

How do you treat reserves when you evaluate an income-property investment?

—-Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

Copyright 2014,  Frank Gallinelli and 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.

Podcast: “Learn the key principles to effectively analyzing and evaluating your real estate deals”

I had the pleasure of recording a podcast recently with real estate entrepreneur Kevin Bupp. We discussed what I feel are some of the key principles that every real estate investor ought to understand — and so, I invite you to listen to that podcast here.

Using Cap Rate to Estimate the Value of an Investment Property

In recent posts I’ve been revisiting some key real estate investment metrics. Last time I discussed the finer points of Net Operating Income, and that topic should serve as an appropriate run-up to the subject of capitalization rates (aka cap rates). What are they and how do you use them?

Income capitalization is the technique typically used by commercial appraisers, and is a part of the decision-making process for most real estate investors as well. I invite you to jog over to an article I’ve written on the subject:

Estimating the Value of a Real Estate Investment Using Cap Rate

In addition, you can download Chapter 10 of my book, Mastering Real Estate Investment, which discusses cap rates and gives you several examples you can work through.

—Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

Copyright 2014,  Frank Gallinelli and 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.

Understanding Net Operating Income

My recent discussions here of cash flow, DCF, pro formas and the like have prompted some readers to ask for a review of the key metrics that underlie a good and thorough income-property analysis.

One of the downsides of hanging around in business too long — we’re closing in on our 33rd anniversary — is that some of our best material is now lurking off in the archives.  So, after digging around in our virtual attic, I’ve found several topics that go to the heart of the matter, and that attracted quite a few readers when they first appeared.

Topping that list is our article about Net Operating Income. Here is a trailer of sorts, with a link to the complete article:

Understanding Net Operating Income

In a recent article, we discussed the use of capitalization rates to estimate the value of a piece of income-producing real estate. Our discussion concerned the relationship among three variables: Capitalization Rate, Present Value and Net Operating Income.

We may have gotten a bit ahead of ourselves, since some of our readers were unclear on the precise meaning of Net Operating Income. NOI, as it is often called, is a concept that is critical to the understanding of investment real estate, so we are going to backtrack a bit and review that subject here.

Everyone in business or finance has encountered the term, “net income” and understands its general meaning, i.e., what is left over after expenses are deducted from revenue.

With regard to investment real estate, however, the term, “Net Operating Income” is a minor variation on this theme and has a very specific meaning. …

read the rest of the article here—>>

—Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

Copyright 2014,  Frank Gallinelli and 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.

Real Estate Investing: Time to Remember the Lessons of History

As the summer 2013 begins to cool off, many real estate markets are finally starting to heat up. For a lot of folks, who have slogged through five of the worst economic years in memory, it feels a bit like we’ve just been released from the locked trunk of a car.

The temptation now is to celebrate our release from investing confinement by jumping back into the market with both feet. Before we do so, however, it would be wise to reflect on a few of the lessons of recent history.

There were many reasons for the financial meltdown, but one of the biggest surely was the belief that real estate inexorably increases in value over time. To many people, that looked like a law of nature. The reality turned out to be different, and now, as property values start to rise, we have to resist the temptation to start believing this all over again. If not, we will simply create another bubble and repeat the cycle.

Another cause of that meltdown was the tendency to dismiss or completely ignore investment fundamentals.  Real estate simply couldn’t fail to do well (after all, they’re not making any more of it), and we didn’t really need to think too hard about our investments because, surely, they would work out happily in the end.

Savvy investors always knew that this wasn’t necessarily true; they knew that income-producing real estate could go up, down, or sideways.  Time, all by itself, does not create value; the ability of a property to produce income is what creates value, and so the prudent investor would take nothing for granted and always carefully weigh a property’s prospects for generating income today and in the future.

The beginnings of a general economic recoveryand, in particular, a real estate recovery may signal that we can and should get back into the game, but it doesn’t mean that we can return to pre-2008 thinking and disregard the fundamentals that ought to guide our investment decisions:  For example:

Due Diligence: This is just as important in good times as in bad. We need to examine thoroughly and critically all of the financial data we can get our hands on about a potential investment property.  Are the rents really as represented? Are the operating expenses as portrayed by the seller reasonable and complete? Have we done a thorough assessment of the property’s physical condition?

It is essential to remember that a property doesn’t live in a vaccum, so our due diligence needs to extend beyond the individual property and include the local market as well.  What is the prevailing capitalization rate for properties of this type in this market? What kind of rents are similar buildings actually getting, and what are the asking rents in properties that may be in competition with us for tenants? What is the current vacancy rate in this market, and has it been rising or falling? What is the general business climate, and in what direction is it headed?

Cash Flow:    We always need to make hard-headed projections about the prospects for current and future cash flow. Too often we see investors, motivated to make a purchase and get on the presumed gravy train, put together the numbers they want to see.  They ignore the potential for vacancy and credit loss. They ignore setting some of their potential cash flow aside each year as a reserve to pay for that new roof or new HVAC system a few years down the road. We should make best-case, worst-case, and in-between projections to give ourselves a sense of the range of possible outcomes.

It is important to be realistic about cash flow projections. Excessive leverage may seem like a great advantage on the day you close the purchase, but the high debt service may also result in very weak or even negative cash flow. Are you really prepared to support your property out of your own pocket, to absorb unexpected expenses or loss of revenue?

The Long View: We seldom buy an income property with the expectation of flipping it for short-term profit. Rather, our plan is probably to buy and hold so we can derive an annual cash flow plus a long-term gain when we sell. If that is indeed our plan, then we need to forecast the property’s performance not just for one year, but for a likely holding period—perhaps five, seven or ten years—and to compute an Internal Rate of Return for that holding period. Doing so can be especially valuable when we are looking at more than one property that we might purchase.  Which one appears likely to give us the best overall return within our investment horizon?

The Last Word: Investing in real estate can be a profitable move in just about any economic climate if we proceed wisely, so to answer our initial question: Yes—if we’ve been on the sidelines, then this is a fine time to get back in.  But as with any other kind of investment, we can just as easily lose money as make it if we charge ahead without doing our homework and without going through the kind of fundamental analysis and projection that is essential to smart investing. Success in real estate investing, as in most endeavors, doesn’t just happen by good luck or chance. We have to work at it and have our head in the game. The luck will follow.

— Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

 

Copyright 2013,  Frank Gallinelli and 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.

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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Want to learn more?

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

Get some clarity, as well as accurate calculations and industry-standard reports. Use RealData’s Real Estate Investment Analysis, a market leader for almost 30 years, to run your numbers and create your presentations.