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.”
(c) Copyright 2012 Frank Gallinelli All Rights Reserved
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