Tag: discounted cash flow

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

New Short-Term Analysis Mode in REIA Pro

Today we are releasing build 1.07 for Windows and build 1.13 for Macintosh of our REIA Professional product to add a third “short term” analysis mode.  This is a free update for all those who have a license for REIA Pro v17.

Select the mode on the General Settings worksheet:

By making this selection, the software reveals a set of worksheets that are specific to a 24 month analysis.  In a typical short-term scenario, you plan to purchase a property, do some renovations, and then resell within two years.

With the addition of this feature, we can now say that REIA Pro has all the features that REIA Express has, plus many more.  See a feature comparison of the two REIA Products for more information.

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.

The Cash-on-Cash Conundrum – a Postscript

A while back, I posted a two-part series called “The Cash-on-Cash Conundrum.” In the first installment I explained the calculation and underlying logic of CoC, and in the second I discussed some of the pitfalls of overreliance on this particular measure.

big pile of dollars

I try to keep my ear to the ground by reading and sometimes contributing to investor forums, where I continue to see a good deal of discussion on the question of what is or what should be the metric of choice for real estate investors. My unofficial and unscientific gauge of the general sentiment is that most investors agree that cash flow is king. Although I would be reluctant to crown any single measure as the absolute be-all and end-all for property analysis, I agree that cash flow is indeed a critical measure of the health of an investment property.

So what’s the big deal? What concerns me is that I see a kind of tunnel vision on this topic. I frequently hear some variation of these two statements bundled together: “Cash-on-cash return is the only reliable metric and the only one I really need,” and “IRR and Discounted Cash Flow analysis are bogus – they’re a waste of time because you just can’t predict the future.” To put it simply, these folks are saying that they trust CoC because it looks at the here and now, and they distrust IRR/DCF because it tries to look into the future.

On the surface, that argument might seem reasonable enough. Cash-on-Cash return is the property’s expected first-year cash flow before taxes, divided by the amount of cash invested to make the purchase; it’s quick and easy to calculate, and it does indeed focus on a more-or-less tangible present. A strong CoC unarguably provides a good sign that your investment is off on the right foot.

Is that the end of the story – or should it be? I think this narrow focus can cause an investor to miss some vital issues.

By adopting the “can’t predict the future” argument, aren’t you ignoring what investing is all about? You don’t have a crystal ball, but still — isn’t investing about the future, and isn’t the ability to make sensible choices in an uncertain environment a key trait of the successful investor?

I find it difficult to accept the argument that I should make a decision to buy or not to buy an investment property based on its first-year cash flow alone and without regard to projections of future performance. Ironically, there is a hidden message in this point of view: If the first year performance data is sufficient, then apparently I should believe that such data will be representative of how well the property will perform all the time. In other words, it really is OK to predict the future, so long as I believe the future will always be like the present.

I would argue that it is in fact less speculative to make the kind of projections that you typically see in a Discounted Cash Flow analysis, where you look at the anticipated cash flow over a period of time and use those projections to estimate an Internal Rate of Return over the entire holding period.

With any given property, there may be items that you can forecast with a reasonable degree of confidence. For example, on the revenue side you may have commercial leases that specify the rent for five years, ten, or even more. You may even be able to anticipate a potential loss of revenue at a point in the future when a commercial lease expires and you need to deal with rollover vacancy, tenant improvements, and leasing commissions.

You could be looking at a double- or triple-net property where you are insulated from many or most of the uncertainties about future operating expenses like taxes, insurance and maintenance.

Or, with residential property, you may have a history of occupancy percentage and rent increases that permit a credible forecast of future revenue.

Then there is the more basic question, why are you analyzing this property at all? Why are you running the numbers and making this CoC calculation? Are you trying to establish a current market value, as a commercial appraiser might? Or are you trying to make a more personal decision, i.e., will this particular property possibly meet your investment goals? And what are those goals?

Seems like I just took a nice simple metric and wove it into a more complicated story. Sorry, but in your heart of hearts you know if investing really were that simple, then everyone with a pulse would be a huge success. At the same time, it doesn’t have to be so complicated either, so long as you approach it in a reasonable and orderly way.

That orderly approach begins with deciding what you are looking to get out of this investment. Maybe you want to hold it for a few years to get strong cash flow and then sell it, hopefully for a profit. Perhaps you intend to hold it long term, less concerned with immediate cash flow (so long it as it positive), and then sell the property much later to fund your children’s college costs or your own retirement. In either case, if your plan is to buy and hold then there is one thing you can’t ignore: the future.

This approach continues with projection of the revenue, expenses, potential resale, and rate-of-return metrics, running out to your intended investment horizon. Perhaps key here is the realization that you shouldn’t really expect to nail your projections with a single try. Consider several variations upon future performance: best-case, worst-case and somewhere in-between scenarios to give yourself a sense of the range of possible outcomes.

All this brings us back to the duel between the Cash-on-Cash metric and DCF/IRR. I believe if you rely only on the former, then you are not just saying, “You can’t predict the future.” You’re saying, “If the first year looks good, then that’s all I need to know.” This is, quite literally, a short-sighted investment strategy. The takeaway here is that there should be no duel between metrics at all; that prudent investors can use Cash-on-Cash to get an initial reading of the property’s immediate performance, but they should then extend their analysis to encompass the entire lifecycle of the investment. To quote the folks at NASA (who, after all, really are rocket scientists), “It takes more than one kind of telescope to see the light.”

—-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.

The 50% Rule vs. Discounted Cash Flow Analysis

I like to read the discussions in a number of online real estate investment forums to see what issues are of interest to investors at all levels of experience. One topic that seems to excite a lot of commentary concerns the relative merits, or lack thereof, of projecting and analyzing the potential future cash flows from an investment property—call it Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) or pro forma analysis. Since I’ve spent a good part of my professional life teaching on this subject and providing software tools to accomplish such analyses, discussions like these jump out at me; and my last post promised a follow-up to my discourse on the income stream, so the saga continues.

I frequently see people lament that a cash flow pro forma is basically pointless.  You can’t predict the future; more specifically you can’t predict what a property’s revenue or expenses will be in any given year, so why bother trying? It’s a waste of time, so they say. I think this is an unnecessarily nihilistic take on investing, reducing attempts at thoughtful analysis to the level of palm reading and tarot cards.

The 50% Rule

Recently I have seen a lot of mention of a so-called “50% rule” as an alternative to DCF. If I understand it correctly, this rule says, “Take the gross rent and subtract 50%. That’s your Net Operating Income. Subtract your debt service and that’s your cash flow.”

So, 50% is supposed to account for your vacancy loss, operating expenses, reserves, and capital costs. Actually, these last two items aren’t part of NOI, but why quibble?

Somehow I can’t shake off the image of Michelangelo creating the Sistine Chapel ceiling with a paint roller.  Same level of precision.

Clearly, one set percentage—50% or anything else—could not possibly be appropriate for all property types, even in the same market. You would not expect your percentage of operating expenses for a triple-net-leased single-tenant building to be the same as that for an office building. Even within one property type, would you bet the farm on the expense percentage for a 100-unit apartment complex to be identical to that of a 6-unit multi-family house?

Let’s grant that a certain expense percentage might be typical for a given property type in a given location. Would you really be comfortable using that percentage to make a specific purchase decision?  It might work out if you were buying the entire market, but would you risk your investment capital on the assumption that the one property you want to buy is truly typical of the entire market?

Sadly, I find too many investors dismiss the importance of doing a Discounted Cash Flow Analysis and opt instead for this sort of very simplified—dare I say oversimplified—approach. Such a technique might suffice as a general guideline for smaller properties, but when one gets involved with true income properties—larger residential or just about any size commercial investment—I don’t see how you can commit a serious amount of cash without performing a DCF analysis as part of your decision-making process.

Due Diligence and DCF

I talk a lot in my books, articles, and podcasts about the importance of due diligence; and that process is really at the heart of making an intelligent and informed cash flow projection. You cannot know your future operating costs precisely, nor perhaps your revenue; but you can certainly make reasonable estimates that are not just global generalities but are specific to the investment you’re considering. Keep in mind that due diligence for a real estate investment has two distinct parts:

  • The property itself — What is the actual current revenue? Do the leases call for scheduled rent increases? What are the current, verified operating expenses, and what are reasonable estimates going forward? Does the physical condition of the property suggest capital expenditures will be needed during your expected holding period? Will you set aside reserves for those? What are the costs and terms of available financing for this property?
  • The market — Properties don’t live in a vacuum, so market data is crucial.  What are the prevailing rents for this type of property in this market (i.e., what is the competition)? What are the local vacancy levels, cap rates, and general economic trends?

Next, use that data to project current performance along with best-case, worst-case, and in-between scenarios of future performance. This is where you start to take the investment’s vital signs: Under what circumstances will the cash flow be adequate, is the debt coverage ratio strong enough to secure financing with a given down payment, what if a commercial tenant’s shaky business fails before their lease expires?

Use the projections not only to make a decision about an appropriate price and terms for the property, but also use the DCF to demonstrate (i.e., “sell”) your reasoning to the other parties involved in the transaction: to the seller if you’re the buyer, the buyer if you’re the seller; to the lender; or to your potential equity partners.

Investment is all about balancing risk and reward; and these, in turn, require a willingness to make investment decisions in an environment where you necessarily have to work with incomplete or imperfect information. If there were no uncertainties, then everyone would be a winner.

Uncertainties such as these, however, are in the context of the actual property and the actual market. They are not the random application of a universal constant that has no particular connection to the investment under consideration. Buying and operating an investment property involves commitment, and that should start with a thorough financial analysis. Projecting the potential future performance of an investment property, especially with multiple scenarios, is the best way to make an informed and intelligent decision.

— 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.

 

Refi Existing Investment Property to Purchase Another?

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

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

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The Good News

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

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

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

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

But Wait… Some Issues and Considerations

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

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

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

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

Frank Gallinelli

5 Mistakes Every Real Estate Investor Should Avoid

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

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


1. The Formula That Doesn’t Compute

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

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


2. The Modern Art Syndrome

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

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

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

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

Labels need to be unambiguous:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


4. What’s Wrong with This Picture?

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

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

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

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

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


5. What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You

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

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

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

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


The Bottom Line

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

Let me suggest three other important steps you can take:

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

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