6 Rules of Thumb for Every Real Estate Investor
By Frank Gallinelli
Life can be hard, especially as we try to climb out of the Great Recession. Real estate investing can be a challenge, as well; and while we surely won't presume to suggest how to deal with life's big issues, we can offer a few thoughts as to how you might maintain some equilibrium when you look at investment property.
Those of you who follow our content at RealData.com -- newsletters, books, articles and software -- know that we stress maximizing your chances for success through understanding the metrics of investment property. We don't tell you that you'll get rich by thinking positive thoughts, raising your self-confidence, and charging fearlessly into the fray. Instead we urge you to learn about the the financial dynamics that are at work in income-producing real estate. Whether you're scrutinizing a piece of property you already own, one you want to sell, or one you may choose to buy or develop, you need to master the metrics. The numbers always matter.
And so here are our "6 Rules of Thumb for Every Real Estate Investor."
1. Vacancy-- Let's begin with a simple one. What percentage of the property's total potential gross income is being lost to vacancy? Start off by collecting some market data, so you will know what is typical for that type of property in that particular location. Does the property you own or may buy differ very much from the norm? Obviously, much higher vacancy is not good news and you want to find out why. But if vacancy is far less than the market, that may mean the rents are too low. If you're the owner, this is an issue you need to deal with. If you're a potential buyer, this may signal an opportunity to acquire the property and then create value through higher rents.
2. Loan-to-Value Ratio (LTV)-- When the financial markets return to some semblance of normalcy, they will probably also return to their traditional standards for underwriting. One of those standards is the Loan-to-Value Ratio. The typical lender is generally willing to finance between 60% - 80% of the lesser of the property's purchase price or its appraised value. Conventional wisdom has always held that leverage is a good thing -- that it is smart to use "Other People's Money."
The caution here is to beware of too much of a good thing. The higher the LTV on a particular deal, the riskier the loan is. It doesn't take much imagination to recognize that in the post-meltdown era, the cost of a loan in terms of interest rate, points, fees, etc. may rise exponentially as the risk increases. Having more equity in the deal may be the best or perhaps the only way to secure reasonable financing. If you don't have sufficient cash to make a substantial down payment, then consider assembling a group of partners so you can acquire the property with a low LTV and therefore with optimal terms.
3. Debt Coverage Ratio (DCR)-- DCR is the ratio of a property's Net Operating Income (NOI) to its Annual Debt Service. NOI, as you will recall is your total potential income less vacancy and credit loss and less operating expenses. If your NOI is just enough to pay your mortgage, then your NOI and debt service are equal and so their ratio is 1.00. In real life, no responsible lender is likely to provide financing if it looks like the property will have just barely enough net income to cover its mortgage payments. You should assume that the property you want to finance must show a DCR of at least 1.20, which means your Net Operating Income must be at least 20% more than your debt service. For certain property types or in certain locations, the requirement may be even higher, but it is unlikely ever to be lower.
Not to preach, but planning a budget with a bit of breathing room might be a good principle for every government agency, financial institution and family to follow.
4. Capitalization Rate-- The Capitalization Rate expresses the ratio between a property's Net Operating Income and its value. Typically it is a market-driven percentage that represents what investors in a given market are achieving on their investment dollar for a particular type of property. In other words, it is the prevailing rate of return in that market. Appraisers use Cap Rates to estimate the value of an income property. If other investors are getting a 10% return, then at what value would a subject property yield a 10% return today?
Remember first that the Cap Rate is a market-driven rate so you need to interrogate some appraisers and commercial brokers to discover what rate is common today in your market for the type of property you're dealing with. But you also need to recognize that Cap Rates can change with market conditions. In our long and checkered careers we have seen rates go as low as 4-5% (corresponding to very high valuations) and as high as the mid-teens (very low valuations), with historical averages probably bunched closer to 8-10%. If you are investing for the long term, and if the cap rate in your market is presently pushing the top or the bottom of the range, then you need to consider the possibility that the rate won't stay there forever. Look at some historical data for your market and take that into account when you estimate the cap rate rate that a new buyer may expect ten years down the road.
5. Internal Rate of Return (IRR)-- IRR is the metric of choice for many real estate investors because it takes into account both the timing and the size of cash flows and sale proceeds. It can be a bit difficult to compute, you may want to use software or a financial calculator to make it easy. Once you have your estimated IRR for a given holding period, what should you make of it? No matter how talented you are at choosing and managing property, real estate investing has its risks -- and you should expect to earn a return that is commensurate with those risks. There is no magic number for a "good" IRR, but from our years of speaking with investors, we think that few would be happy with anything less than a double-digit IRR, and most would require something in the teens. At the same time, keep in mind the "too good to be true" principle. If you project an astoundingly strong IRR then you need to revisit your underlying data and your assumptions. Are the rents and operating expenses correct? Is the proposed financing possible?
6. Cash Flow-- Cash is King. If you can first project that your property will have a strong positive cash flow, then you can exhale and start to look at the other metrics to see if they suggest satisfactory long-term results.
Negative cash flow means reaching into your own pocket to make up the shortfall. There is no joy in finding that your income property fails to support you, but rather you have to support your property. On the other hand, if you do a have a strong positive cash flow, then you can usually ride out the ups and downs that may occur in any market. An unexpected vacancy or repair is far less likely to push you to the edge of default, and you can sit on the sideline during a market decline, waiting until the time is right to sell.
Overambitious financing tends to be a common cause of weak cash flow. Too much leverage, resulting in greater loan costs and higher debt service can mark the tipping point from a good cash flow to none at all. Revisit LTV and DCR, above.
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