When it comes to passive income, real estate is king. A small investment can be leveraged into a massive cash cow. This is the second in a series of posts on lessons learned. Some lessons in life come from clients or from watching clients deal with issues. With investment properties I pull from personal experience. Over the years I have owned over 100 single family homes, numerous duplexes, a few multi-unit buildings, a storage facility, commercial property, and farm land. The lessons I have learned buying, selling, and leasing real estate over the last 28 years should provide a few nuggets of wisdom you have not read before. This added wisdom hopefully flows to your bottom line.
Residential Real Estate
We will start with residential investment properties because I have more experience in this arena and most readers own/manage the same; I will address commercial property in a future post. The issues I raise are only a sampling of the issues I find most relevant; a full review of investment property issues is beyond the scope of one blog post. The best approach is to start from the beginning and move through the lifecycle of an investment property, from purchase, to renting, to eventual sale.
Buy Right: The first step is the most important. Buying the right property at the right price will determine the profitability of your investment property. This is a good time to research rent rates in the neighborhood. Many landlords use the 1% rule to determine if a property is worth buying; I use a different method.
The 1% rent rule simply states rents should be 1% per month of the purchase price/value of the property. This is a good starting point. Low interest rates today turn more properties cash flow positive under this rule.
My rule is a bit more involved, but provides more assurance you have a good property. First, I only use the current rents of the building. Sellers always point out the ability to raise rents. If rents should be higher the seller should have raised them. I also check rents in the area to affirm the current rent rate is sustainable. Once I feel comfortable with the rental income situation I look at expenses. I always assume a no-money-down deal even if I pay cash for the property. By assuming the property is leveraged to the hilt I can determine if the rent minus expenses supports the property’s value. My calculations always include a 3% miscellaneous expense to cover deferred expenses such as a roof, furnace, siding, flooring, or improvements unless a higher percentage is warranted due to the condition of the property. The formula looks something like this:
- Annual rent income, minus
- Mortgage payment as if 100% leverage used,
- Landlord paid utilities,
- Management fees, if any,
- 3% miscellaneous deferred maintenance
- Other known expenses
Once all known expenses are deducted from the annual expected rent you get a number that must be positive. A negative number is a money loser before you even start. If the number is above water you have a decision to make. It is enough? Remember, a breakeven number means your cash investment portion is earning what a mortgage would earn. That is why I assume 100% leverage. If I pay 100% cash I expect my money should earn at least what the bank charges in interest. Of course a cash deal will cash flow if you do not consider your cash investment as worth anything?
The real trick here is determining any special events. Road construction or other city improvements can cause cash flow problems down the road. Research before you sign.
Finding the Right Property: Many communities have properties where the rent does not justify the property’s value. Still, deals can crop up here and there even in tight markets. Buying right takes time. It is easy to lower your standards when ideal properties are scarce. Bad idea! I would rather miss a deal than buy the wrong property. Remember, there will come a day when you want to sell. Issues when you buy frequently stick around and bite you when you sell.
Here are a few ways I found a large quantity of prime properties. My first rental property was a two-unit townhouse on 833 E. North Street in Appleton, Wisconsin. The owner was a man in his young 30s. He died of an aneurism. The family did not want the property so the bank got it back. I made the bank whole by paying $50,000. The rent was $485 per unit. I made money on the deal. Two years later I sold for exactly $75,000. I think we can agree I had a wonderful introduction to the investment real estate world.
I found the above deal because I introduced myself to half the bankers in town. I tend to be a bit obsessive-compulsive when it comes to numbers. I talked with bankers every day. The North Street property turned a $10,000 down payment into a $25,000 capital gain and over $400 of positive cash flow per month. Nice. The only reason I got the sweetheart deal instead of someone else is because I was in the right place at the right time. I was in the banker’s office when the property came in.
My biggest source of reasonably priced properties was Veteran’s Affairs. Back in those days landlords could only get adjustable mortgages on rental properties and interest rates were close to 10%. The VA offered 7% fixed with only a small down payment. The buildings were also priced to move. The best news was I could buy the properties even though I was not a veteran. It was normal for us to buy 3-5 properties per month from the VA.
The only way to get the VA properties was through a real estate agent. My agent, in his infinite wisdom, bragged to the VA office in Milwaukee about my large profits. Within a few months the rules were changed. Now more money is needed down and only veterans need apply. The rules have probably changed again since those days, but it outlines how a great property source can be screwed away by an idiot.
There are many ways to find awesome properties. Always do the math. My own rule is: Never chase a property. It’s a rental; they will make more. No one property is worth chasing.
Saying No to Bad Deals: Pressure will be applied to convince you to buy. Real estate agents get paid when you open your wallet, not before. Sellers have a long line of BS to move their property. Learn to say no. Take your time in reviewing the property. A bad investment gets worse the longer you own it. A negative cash flow only increases your original investment in the inappropriate property. “No” is the most powerful work in the English language when it comes to investing in real estate. It is normal to review multiple properties before buying. As good as the VA repo deal was, we did not buy every property dangled before our eyes.
Sellers say a lot of things when it is not in writing. Get it in writing! And a property inspection is a must unless you are qualified to do the inspection yourself.
Determining Rent Rates: Before purchase you should have a good idea of the range of rents in the neighborhood and how they match the target property. Craigslist, newspapers, “You’re Renting” and similar magazines are a good place to start your review of local rents. The real estate agent is also a resource with one caveat: the agent may pump you full of it to make a sale. You have to determine if the agent is honest; most are.
The rents for my buildings were always on my mind. A good tenant may face fewer and smaller rent increases. Tenants that pay on time and keep the place well maintained are a bonus for landlords. Bad tenants did not face larger rent increases; instead, I refused to renew their lease.
Finding the Right Tenants: I was picky when I rented my properties. I did a background check and verified income. Compared to the banks before the financial crisis in 2008, I was a tough nut. The alternative is more damages, unpaid rent, evictions, and court costs. My time was worth too much. An investment in time now paid off later a hundred fold.
Evictions: Late rent is never tolerated. Follow the laws of your state/city when involved in an eviction. Whatever the law allowed I used. The longer a bad tenant stays in your property the greater the damage. In some cases you may need an attorney. When you owned as many investment properties as I have there are eviction stories to tell. I will leave them for another day.
Regulations: Local governments have rules regarding landlords. Smoke alarms and lead paint in older building are all considerations. Your local apartment association is a great resource into the rules in your market.
Property Managers: Property managers should handle the regulation issues. Verify your manager is screening prospective tenants adequately without discriminating. Owning properties in outside markets requires a local manager. Income properties are considered passive income for tax purposes, but any landlord can tell you the work involved is anything but passive.
Hiring a property manager eliminates most time issues with your property. The manager should screen prospective tenants, collect rent, evict when necessary, pay the mortgage and other bills, and submit the remainder to you monthly. There are times when you will need to cover a major expense like a roof or furnace out of pocket.
I used several managers at a time. When you own over 100 properties across a metropolitan area you will need help. I screened and reviewed my managers on a regular basis. Most were good, but a few were not. Investing time up-front before you hire a manager cannot be understated. Property mangers usually have contracts locking you in for a period of time. It is a relationship. Make sure you want to be in the relationship before you make a commitment.
Maintenance: Money is saved when you handle maintenance on your own. To actually save money you need to know your limitations. Roofing was my favorite work; flooring was a disaster. I installed carpet once and realized it would be easier, faster and cheaper to hire a professional. I am okay at drywall and painting. A large portfolio of real estate will require an army of contractors. I spent as much time checking prospective contractors as I did researching a property prior to purchase. Every job was in writing.
Major maintenance issues are reduced when handled before they become large. A roof replaced when shingles were thin beat waiting a few more years and then replacing roof boards, too. Regular painting keeps properties looking nice and rents where they belong. My properties were always improved. Buyers of my properties received nicer looking buildings than what I originally bought. I also had better rents, better tenants, and a better sale price. Maintenance does pay for itself.
Selling Right: Selling is buying in reverse. Before listing or offering a property for sale you need to research your market. Pricing a property for maximum gain without a long duration on the market takes legwork prior to listing. Review other properties in the neighborhood. A real estate agent can help. Today, online resources are numerous. Realtor.com, MLS, Zillow, Homefinder, and Trulia are good research tools in determining a good selling price. These are the same tools used in your property purchase search.
A realtor is a valuable asset in selling your property; they also have a fee, normally a percentage of the sale price. Selling on your own is more work, but you save the fee. The choice is personal.
Debt Issues: Debt was a tool when I owned a pile of real estate. I rarely came to a purchase closing with money. The bank covered the entire amount, using equity in other properties, so closing went faster. Then we paid down the mortgages fast, building equity. I understand investors want to juice their percentage return with leverage, but leverage also brings risks. Investment property should have at least 20% equity from day one. Once you own the property for a few years equity should be larger than debt. Also, debt-free rentals really cash flow. A cushion shields you from unforeseen market forces and vacancies. Real estate is a great source of passive income as long as you are not mortgaged to the hilt non-stop. High debt is an accident waiting to happen. The winners of the housing crisis a decade ago were the people with cash ready to buy when opportunities presented.
Partnerships: Yikes! I owned income property in a partnership with my dad and brother. I knew going in I would do 99% of the work. The partnership worked, but that is the exception to the rule. Most partnerships are woefully lopsided. The one doing all the work get grumpy when the other partners want an equal share without doing the work. Partnerships can work, but remember you are married to your partners and divorce is messy.
Entity Selection: Real estate should never be held inside an S-corporation; only rarely inside a regular corporation. Liability protection, tax advantages, and ease of transfer are available with a LLC. Due to local laws and regulations a real estate attorney should be engaged. Real estate held in an LLC does not require preparation of an additional tax return; a box is checked in the tax software informing the IRS the property is held in a single-member LLC as a disregarded entity. In the future I will address entity issues in greater detail as they pertain to real estate.
Training Courses: The Wealthy Accountant is a lucky guy. He gets to see all the crazy stuff floating around. Expensive investment real estate courses are all the rage. Many of these programs sucker you, ahem, cost $25,000 or more to teach you how to make a killing flipping real estate. All I can say is “don’t.” There might be a good program out there, but the ones I have seen are junk. Worse, they turn you tax work into a nightmare. I’m busy enough. No more free seminars offering a free meal, guys. They cost too much.
Clean Up Crew: I did my best to stay brief, but investment properties have too many issues. I will break down the issues into small, more easily digestible bites, in future posts. Commercial property, farm land, and land held for development are different creatures from residential investment property. Most readers here are interested in residential property so I stayed on point.
Real estate investing has great opportunities for wealth creation and steady passive income if proper planning takes place prior to investment.