Tag: real estate investors

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.

Crowdfunding Real Estate Investments

Pooling of resources, passing the hat — call it what you will, but collaborative underwriting has probably been around for a couple of centuries. Never one to leave well enough alone, the internet has again risen to the role of game-changer, extending a global reach to individuals and companies looking for backers.

You have probably heard of the crowdfunder Kickstarter, which is a popular donation-based site, aimed primarily at creative projects. Backers who donate to such projects don’t become shareholders or expect any financial return. They may be more akin to patrons than to investors.

But investment-based crowdfunding sites have also emerged. I can’t say that I knew much about them, but I recently attended the annual Yale Alumni Real Estate Association’s National Conference where one of the sessions was devoted to this subject, with presentations by two of the top players in this field: Daniel Miller of Fundrise and Rodrigo Nino of Prodigy Network.

Although this method of funding real estate projects may be just a blip on the radar at present, it does appear that more and more real estate crowdfunding sites like these are cropping up and deals actually are getting funded. So just what is this all about and how is it supposed to work? I’ve tried to take what I learned at the Yale conference and have expanded on it a bit; and so, the following are a few observations from an interested outsider.

For the Project Developer Seeking Financing

Among the top arguments for crowdfunding a real estate project are these:

  • It offers an opportunity to get a project financed more quickly and easily than it would through more conventional channels.
  • By eliminating some of the middlemen usually involved, it can lower transaction costs.

The arguments seem credible, since most bank and institutional financing has become a test of endurance. Some crowdfunding sites offer both debt and equity investments, and most are quite specific as to the types of properties with which they deal. The process may not be entirely a walk in the park, because the typical site screens developers by taking them through a rigorous application and evaluation process.

For the Investor

One attraction for investors is that they typically don’t have to pony up a huge commitment to participate in a single project. Hence, they could spread smaller chunks of cash among several properties or even several developers, thus spreading their risk.

There would appear to be a few murky areas, however. Successful commercial real estate investors generally apply a laser focus on their due diligence. In a crowdfunded scenario one should expect that the developer will be doing that, carefully vetting the property and supplying detailed financial information and projections to the potential investor; but how much detail will they provide and can the investor independently verify that information? With the proliferation of crowdfunding sites, will there be consistency among them in the amount and quality of data they provide? A prudent investor must be certain at least to take a very careful look at the track record of the developer.

Investing through crowdfunding may have particular appeal to inexperienced investors. They should be particularly cautious, understanding that there is not likely to be any liquidity, that their cash could be tied up for a considerable time, and of course that there is no guarantee of an acceptable return or of recovering the initial investment. Sometimes deals simply fail.

How is Crowdfunding Even Possible?

It should come as no surprise that there are plenty of regulations that govern these investment offerings. It appears that most of the crowdfunding sites have been operating under SEC Regulation D, which limits general solicitation and restricts participation to “accredited investors.” These generally include investors with a net worth of at least $1 million (not including the value of their home) and income of $200,000 for the past two years, or $300,000 together with spouse.

One site, which at present seems to be unique, is Fundrise. They have been able to use an obscure SEC Regulation A that allows non-accredited investors to participate in community-based deals with investments as little as $100. There is apparently plenty of hoop-jumping for them to deal with, since this regulation also involves state approvals as well as a limit on capital that can be raised in a 12-month period.

In 2012, Congress passed the JOBS Act (Jumpstart Our Business Startups)  and in September 2013, Title II of that act became effective. Title II allows general solicitation, but only to accredited investors.

Title III of the JOBS Act is called the “Crowdfunding Exemption.” Expected to work its way through the SEC rule-making process sometime later this year, it would allow non-accredited investors to participate in equity offerings. The proponents of investment crowdfunding see this as the real game-changer.

Conclusion

Crowdfunding could revolutionize how real estate investments are financed, but not everyone is convinced that it is the Next Big Thing. A recent BusinessWire article cites a number of concerns, including one that this writer has seen elsewhere:  “Will crowdfunding expose innocent, small-time investors to fraudsters and scam artists?”

Both real estate crowdfunding itself and the regulatory environment that will govern it are in their infancy, so how this will all play out must be a matter of conjecture for now. On the one hand, the real estate industry — to put it as politely as possible — has a long history of being resistant to change. On the other, technology in the 21st century has had a habit of sweeping away things that we confidently viewed as permanent cultural fixtures. To be convinced, I need only to rummage in my basement to dig out my old rotary-dial wall phone and my case of incandescent lightbulbs.

Time will tell the story.

—- Frank Gallinelli

Read more in the recent press about real estate crowdfunding:

Crowdfunding’s Latest Invasion: Real Estate

How Crowdfunding Could Reshape Real Estate Investing

The Big Five in Real Estate Crowdfunding

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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.

How to Look at Reserves for Replacement When You Invest in Income-Property

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 incorporate 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.

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.

 

The One Key Concept All Real Estate Investors Should Understand

If there is one concept that lies at the heart of all investing, especially investment in income-producing real estate — aka “rental property” — then that concept is the income stream. I pound on this idea incessantly in my books, in my grad-school classes, in the check-out line at the supermarket — anywhere I think there is a chance that folks might listen.

The concept is straightforward enough. Each factor about a property that we might assume is crucial — its location, its physical condition, its tenancies — is indeed important, but only to the extent that it affects that property’s income stream. A good location, for example, increases the likelihood of a strong flow of income, especially when we want to resell. Poor physical condition may impair our ability to attract and keep good tenants and to maximize rents. So, the usual suspects notwithstanding, ultimately what really matters to us is the income stream that the property can produce.

What exactly do we mean by “income stream?” Essentially we mean all the cash that comes in minus all that goes out between the time we acquire the property and the time we dispose of it. Not to be overlooked is the initial cash that we commit when we make the purchase. Then, as we own and operate the property, we will have recurring cash flows (revenue minus operating, financing and capital costs) — all positive cash flows, we hope. Finally, when we sell, we look to receive a nice chunk of net cash proceeds after paying off our mortgage and costs of sale.

Our income stream, therefore, is a series of cash flows that occur from the day we purchase until the day we sell. When we buy a rental property we may think we’re acquiring a building, but what we’re really buying is its income stream.

How much is that income stream worth? Is it merely the sum and difference of all the individual cash flows?  This is where experienced investors recognize that there is a time value of money. Put simply, the longer we have to wait to receive a cash flow, the less valuable it is to us. Why? Because we don’t have the use of that money to earn a return elsewhere.

When we look at the expected series of future cash flows from a property, including the cash from resale, we need to look not only at the amounts but also at the timing. How much do we expect to receive and when will we receive it? This is what investors call a discounted cash flow analysis (DCF), and it is key to making an informed decision about investing in an income property. We’ll talk more about DCF and other key investment metrics in future posts. Stay tuned.

— 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.

 

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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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.

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

More than once – in my writing, my teaching, talking in my sleep – I have been known to say that real estate investing is all about the numbers. There is, of course, great truth in that pithy statement, or so I believe; but there is perhaps more to the story that you should be careful not to overlook.

The data that you collect about an income-property – the current rental income and operating expenses, the financing options, and the resulting cash flows and potential resale– are all essential to making an informed analysis of a property’s value and its appeal as an investment. So too is an understanding of the key metrics. What are the expected Debt Coverage Ratio, Capitalization Rate and Internal Rate of Return, and what do they all mean?

A wise investor realizes that this information represents the foreground, but not the complete picture. There is a context, a background, in which these data reside, and you ignore it at your peril.

When I teach real estate investment analysis to my graduate students, I begin by telling them that they absolutely must learn how to run and interpret the numbers. But I also stress (sometimes to the point of becoming really annoying) that they have to look behind the numbers, to read the information about the property as if it were a story. The financial facts and figures about a property that you uncover today may be entirely accurate, but can you rely on them them to persist? What are the long-term risks and opportunities, the indirect factors, and how do they inform the numbers that you will plug into your projections?

For example, if you have commercial tenants, how strong are their businesses? One of the case studies I give my students is a mixed-use property with retail tenants whose business models are on the decline. Those tenants have leases with options to renew, but if their customer bases are shrinking, isn’t it more prudent to suspect that they may not choose to renew? Shouldn’t you also consider what could happen to your cash flow in a worst-case scenario, where they go bankrupt before their current leases are up?

Rather than simply assuming an ongoing revenue stream from the current leases, perhaps, as I tell my students, you need to look beyond the current numbers. If you see some significant risk going forward, maybe you should build rollover vacancy, leasing commissions and tenant improvements into your projections of future performance. You’re still going to run the numbers, and they still matter; but now, taking a broader view may alter your perspective on possible future cash flows.

One way to widen your field of vision is to go beyond the specific property and take into account some intangibles, both local and global. Real estate, like politics, is very much a local game. How strong is the local economy? Is unemployment a problem? What is the trend in the absorption of space – are vacancies growing or declining? Where is your city or town’s budget heading? Are there bond issues on the horizon that could materially affect your property taxes? The answers to questions like these will connect directly to the kinds of assumptions you make concerning the risk of future vacancy loss, and the rate of growth, if any, in your rents.

Then there’s the global view. You want to look at how the overall economy might affect your property. For example, it is typically the case that in times of tight credit, or in a miserable economy such as we’ve seen for the past several years, demand for apartments tends to increase. There is nothing surprising in this. Folks can’t get mortgages because their incomes have dropped and perhaps because banks aren’t lending freely. People who would otherwise be prospective homebuyers or who would be able to stay in their current homes are now renting apartments, thus reducing vacancy and often pushing rents upward.

The same causes – a wounded economy and lack of credit – might lead to an opposite effect on office and retail space, where businesses have to downsize because their customers have less money to spend.

So, if you find yourself rolling into a particular economic cycle, then you will want to adjust your projections for the future accordingly. In the example above, you would begin with whatever revenue stream you find in place; then, in the case of apartments, you would probably project declining vacancy loss and increasing rental rates for a few years, but you would probably do the opposite for retail and office. Same starting point, but different paths into the future.

What is our takeaway here? First, that real estate investing really is about the numbers. You’re going to scrutinize every lease, every operating expense, every financing option to understand how you believe the property will function on the day you acquire it. There is no substitute for crunching these numbers, and no reason to dismiss what they tell you.

But then you’ll pause to recognize that you’re probably going to own the property well beyond that first day. That’s when you need to look up from your spreadsheet. You need to look both at and beyond the current data and metrics, to visualize the property and your expectations for it in the context of its larger environment. The numbers truly matter, but so does the sometimes dicey, not-so-tidy real world in which they dwell.

–Frank Gallinelli

Copyright 2012, RealData® Inc. All Rights Reserved

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Ten Commandments for Real Estate Investors: Commandment #1

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

Commandment #1: Thou shalt take nothing for granted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Copyright 2012 Frank Gallinelli All Rights Reserved
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