Getting Started in Residential Real Estate Investing

Residential real estate investing is a business activity that has waxed and waned in popularity dramatically over the last few years. Ironically, there always seem to be a lot of people jumping on board with investments like stock, gold, and real estate when the market's going up, and jumping OFF the wagon and pursuing other activities once the market's slumping. In a way that's human nature, but it also means a lot of real estate investors are leaving money on the table.

By understanding the dynamics of your residential real estate investment marketplace, and acting in opposition to the rest of the market, you can often make more money, as long as you also stick to the real estate investing fundamentals.

Real estate investing, whether you're buying residential or commercial property, is not a get-rich-quick scenario. Sure you can make some fast cash flipping houses, if that's your bag, but that is a full time business activity, not a passive, long term investment. The word "investment" implies that you are committed to the activity for the long haul. Often, that's just what it takes to make money in real estate.

So, while the pundits are crying about the residential real estate market slump, and the speculators are wondering if this is the bottom, let us return to the fundamentals of residential real estate investing, and learn how to make money investing in real estate for the long term, in good markets, as well as bad.

A Return To The Fundamentals of Residential Real Estate Investing

When real estate is going up, up, up, investing in real estate can seem easy. All ships rise with a rising tide, and even if you've bought a deal with no equity and no cash flow, you can still make money if you're in the right place at the right time.

However, it's hard to time the market without a lot of research and market knowledge. A better strategy is to make sure you understand the four profit centers for residential real estate investing, and make sure your next residential real estate investment deal takes ALL of these into account.

Cash Flow - How much money does the residential income property bring in every month, after expenses are paid? This seems like it should be easy to calculate if you know how much the rental income is and how much the mortgage payment is. However, once you factor in everything else that goes into taking care of a rental property - things like vacancy, expenses, repairs and maintenance, advertising, bookkeeping, legal fees and the like, it begins to really add up. I like to use a factor of about 40% of the NOI to estimate my property expenses. I use 50% of the NOI as my ballpark goal for debt service. That leaves 10% of the NOI as profit to me. If the deal doesn't meet those parameters, I am wary.
Appreciation - Having the property go up in value while you own it has historically been the most profitable part about owning real estate. However, as we've seen recently, real estate can also go DOWN in value, too. Leverage (your bank loan in this case) is a double-edged sword. It can increase your rate of return if you buy in an appreciating area, but it can also increase your rate of loss when your property goes down in value. For a realistic, low-risk property investment, plan to hold your residential real estate investment property for at least 5 years. This should give you the ability to weather the ups and downs in the market so you can see at a time when it makes sense, from a profit standpoint.
Debt Pay down - Each month when you make that mortgage payment to the bank, a tiny portion of it is going to reduce the balance of your loan. Because of the way mortgages are structured, a normally amortizing loan has a very small amount of debt pay down at the beginning, but if you do manage to keep the loan in place for a number of years, you'll see that as you get closer to the end of the loan term, more and more of your principle is being used to retire the debt. Of course, all this assumes that you have an amortizing loan in the first place. If you have an interest-only loan, your payments will be lower, but you won't benefit from any loan pay down. I find that if you are planning to hold the property for 5-7 years or less, it makes sense to look at an interest-only loan, since the debt pay down you'd accrue during this time is minimal, and it can help your cash flow to have an interest-only loan, as long as interest rate adjustments upward don't increase your payments sooner than you were expecting and ruin your cash flow. If you plan to hold onto the property long term, and/or you have a great interest rate, it makes sense to get an accruing loan that will eventually reduce the balance of your investment loan and make it go away. Make sure you run the numbers on your real estate investing strategy to see if it makes sense for you to get a fixed rate loan or an interest only loan. In some cases, it may make sense to refinance your property to increase your cash flow or your rate of return, rather than selling it.
Tax Write-Offs - For the right person, tax write-offs can be a big benefit of real estate investing. But they're not the panacea that they're sometimes made out to be. Individuals who are hit with the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax), who have a lot of properties but are not real estate professionals, or who are not actively involved in their real estate investments may find that they are cut off from some of the sweetest tax breaks provided by the IRS. Even worse, investors who focus on short-term real estate deals like flips, rehabs, etc. have their income treated like EARNED INCOME. The short term capital gains tax rate that they pay is just the same (high) they'd pay if they earned the income in a W-2 job. After a lot of investors got burned in the 1980's by the Tax Reform Act, a lot of people decided it was a bad idea to invest in real estate just for the tax breaks. If you qualify, they can be a great profit center, but in general, you should consider them the frosting on the cake, not the cake itself.

Any residential real estate investing deal that stands up under the scrutiny of this fundamentals-oriented lens, should keep your real estate portfolio and your pocketbook healthy, whether the residential real estate investing market goes up, down or sideways. However, if you can use the real estate market trends to give you a boost, that's fair, too. The key is not to rely on any one "strategy" to try to give you outsized gains. Be realistic with your expectations and stick to the fundamentals. Buy property you can afford and plan to stay invested for the long haul.

3 Things You Must Do to Succeed at Real Estate Investing

Here are three simple guidelines that must be followed if you plan to succeed at real estate investing. It's not everything, of course, but at the very least, you must be willing to commit to these things if you want to become a successful real estate investor.

Shall we get stared?

Acknowledge the Basics

Real estate investing involves acquisition, holding, and sale of rights in real property with the expectation of using cash inflows for potential future cash outflows and thereby generating a favorable rate of return on that investment.

More advantageous then stock investments (which usually require more investor equity) real estate investments offer the advantage to leverage a real estate property heavily. In other words, with an investment in real estate, you can use other people's money to magnify your rate of return and control a much larger investment than would be possible otherwise. Moreover, with rental property, you can virtually use other people's money to pay off your loan.

But aside from leverage, real estate investing provides other benefits to investors such as yields from annual after-tax cash flows, equity buildup through appreciation of the asset, and cash flow after tax upon sale. Plus, non-monetary returns such as pride of ownership, the security that you control ownership, and portfolio diversification.

Of course, capital is required, there are risks associated with investing in real estate, and real estate investment property can be management-intensive. Nonetheless, real estate investing is a source of wealth, and that should be enough motivation for us to want to get better at it.

Understand the Elements of Return

Real estate is not purchased, held, or sold on emotion. Real estate investing is not a love affair; it's about a return on investment. As such, prudent real estate investors always consider these four basic elements of return to determine the potential benefits of purchasing, holding on to, or selling an income property investment.

1. Cash Flow - The amount of money that comes in from rents and other income less what goes out for operating expenses and debt service (loan payment) determines a property's cash flow. Furthermore, real estate investing is all about the investment property's cash flow. You're purchasing a rental property's income stream, so be sure that the numbers you rely on later to calculate cash flow are truthful and correct.

2. Appreciation - This is the growth in value of a property over time, or future selling price minus original purchase price. The fundamental truth to understand about appreciation, however, is that real estate investors buy the income stream of investment property. It stands to reason, therefore, that the more income you can sell, the more you can expect your property to be worth. In other words, make a determination about the likelihood of an increase in income and throw it into your decision-making.

3. Loan Amortization - This means a periodic reduction of the loan over time leading to increased equity. Because lenders evaluate rental property based on income stream, when buying multifamily property, present lenders with clear and concise cash flow reports. Properties with income and expenses represented accurately to the lender increase the chances the investor will obtain a favorable financing.

4. Tax Shelter - This signifies a legal way to use real estate investment property to reduce annual or ultimate income taxes. No one-size-fits-all, though, and the prudent real estate investor should check with a tax expert to be sure what the current tax laws are for the investor in any particular year.

Do Your Homework

1. Form the correct attitude. Dispel the thought that investing in rental properties is like buying a home and develop the attitude that real estate investing is business. Look beyond curb appeal, exciting amenities, and desirable floor plans unless they contribute to the income. Focus on the numbers. "Only women are beautiful," an investor once told me. "What are the numbers?"

2. Develop a real estate investment goal with meaningful objectives. Have a plan with stated goals that best frames your investment strategy; it's one of the most important elements of successful investing. What do you want to achieve? By when do you want to achieve it? How much cash are you willing to invest comfortably, and what rate of return are you hoping to generate?

3. Research your market. Understanding as much as possible about the conditions of the real estate market surrounding the rental property you want to purchase is a necessary and prudent approach to real estate investing. Learn about property values, rents, and occupancy rates in your local area. You can turn to a qualified real estate professional or speak with the county tax assessor.

4. Learn the terms and returns and how to compute them. Get familiar with the nuances of real estate investing and learn the terms, formulas, and calculations. There are sites online that provide free information.

5. Consider investing in real estate investment software. Having the ability to create your own rental property analysis gives you more control about how the cash flow numbers are presented and a better understanding about a property's profitability. There are software providers online.

6. Create a relationship with a real estate professional that knows the local real estate market and understands rental property. It won't advance your investment objectives to spend time with an agent unless that person knows about investment property and is adequately prepared to help you correctly procure it. Work with a real estate investment specialist.

There you have it. As concise an insight into real estate investing as I could provide without boring you to death. Just take them to heart with a dash of common sense and you'll do just fine. Here's to your investing success.

Resolving the Real Estate Investing Fear Factor

If you're a new real estate investor who has thought about real estate investing but have been due to a nagging feeling that you are certain the market will collapse once you step in and you will lose all your money; guess what, you're not alone.

Fear grips every new investor; and no one successfully investing in real estate today would state otherwise. It's common for potential real estate investors to miss out on incredible opportunities for no other reason but an overwhelming sense of fear.

Okay, so let's address some of the most common fears and see whether we can help you to become less anxious, and maybe take the plunge into real estate investing after all.

Negative Cash Flow

Hey, the idea behind investing in real estate is to make enough money to cover operating expenses and loan payment with some left over to deposit in the bank. Having to feed a property won't cut it; no investor wants to feed a rental property.

Believe it or not, this fear one might be the easiest to manage because it's straightforward: simply run the numbers before you buy. Obtain the property's last twelve months income and operating expenses, calculate a mortgage payment, and plug the results into a spreadsheet or real estate investment software program to determine cash flow. If the cash flow is negative, so be it, otherwise dispel the concern and move ahead.

Just be sure to use realistic rents, a vacancy rate (even if the owner claims full occupancy), operating expenses (don't forget replacement reserves), and a loan payment to compute your annual cash flow.

Also, never walk away merely because the property indicates a negative cash flow. Dig a little deeper and look for ways to manage the cash flow. Many rental income properties simply go negative because of poor property management; you might have a probability of raising rents and cutting operating expenses. Who knows, you may even discover a real opportunity overlooked by the current owner.

This Isn't the Right Time

Yes, for any number of national or international events, potential investors often feel it would be advantageous to wait for better times before making an investment in real estate.

But real estate investment has little to do with the economic climate at the time you buy. Foremost, consider the long haul. Economic depressions come and go, but how will the investment property impact your future rate of return? That's what counts.

If it helps, bear in mind that unlike the fluctuating stock market real estate has a profound record for steadily appreciating. Perhaps not overnight, and not without an occasional bump, but historically, real estate value does go up over time.

Losing Your Money

Of course, you wouldn't want to tap into your savings to make maybe the largest financial investment of your life only to wind up losing it all.

The key, however, is to study and research. Learn about the property you want to invest in, and the area where you plan to invest. Look for sources of information like seminars, college courses, real estate software, and real estate investing books. Get an expert appraisal of the property from an investment real estate professional or property appraiser. There's always some risk when real estate investing, but developing a plan with knowledge will negate most of your uncertainties.

Tenant and Management Hassles

Okay, it's true. No one wants the headache of having to repair a refrigerator or to fuss with an unruly tenant; and its understandable why that concern does prevent many people from becoming real estate investors. But life is always a series of trade offs, and trading off an occasional migraine for potential future wealth is generally worth it.

However, it's also true that in time you will learn to deal with and manage most issues in your sleep. If not, you can always hire the services of a reliable property management company to deal with it for you. For about ten percent of the rental income, a property manager will do all the dirty work; the advantage being that it will relieve you of the time and stress of having to deal with tenants and repairs and in turn puts matters like late rents into the hands of experts.

Lack of Real Estate Experience

Just because you have not yet purchased an investment property should not keep you from real estate investing. In this case, locate a real estate agent who specializes in investment property to assist you.

When it actually comes time to buy a rental income property, you'll be surprised to discover that it's not as insidious as it looks, and tapping into the mind of an expert will increase your comfort level significantly. But the keyword here is investment property specialist. A real estate agent who just sells houses won't benefit you; you want a real estate professional with true real estate investment experience.

It's Time to Get Started

Granted, the hardest part about jumping into real estate investing is getting started. We're great at making excuses, and there are always numerous reasons to put off starting something new.

Yes, we want to be cautious. It's better to put the breaks on and approach real estate with adequate knowledge. So if you're struggling, here's my suggestion: learn, research, and plan. Educate yourself about real estate investing, learn about real estate in general and more specifically about your specific real estate market, and develop a road map about the financial security you hope to achieve.

Afterward, pick out that first rental property, make a purchase, and then take over as manager. If you've stuck to your investment plan goals, calculated the numbers, did your due diligence correctly, and work diligently to increase income and control expenses, in time you'll be able to move on to bigger and better properties.

After all, that is the nature of real estate investing.

How to Start Real Estate Investing and Hit the Ground Running

We want to discuss six real estate investing tips intended to help anyone just getting started in real estate investment to successfully launch an investment real estate business and hit the ground running.

1. Develop the Correct Attitude

Foremost, if you are to succeed at real estate investing, you must understand that real estate investment is a business, and you become the CEO of that business.

It's crucial, then, as your first order of business, to develop the correct mind-set about investment real estate and be able to make the following distinction between buying a home and investing in real estate:

"You buy a home to live and raise a family; you buy investment property to pay for the home, live comfortably, and raise your family in style"

As one investor put it, "Only women are beautiful, what are the numbers?"

In other words, to invest in real estate successfully you must acknowledge that it's not curb appeal, amenities, floor plan, or neighborhood that should turn you on or off to the investment opportunity; that what counts most is the property's financial performance.

2. Develop Meaningful Objectives

A meaningful set of objectives that frames your investment strategy is one of the most important elements of successful investing. Stay realistic. Yes, we all desire to make millions of dollars from our real estate investment property, but fantasy is not the same as expressing specific goals and a method on how to achieve it.

Here are some suggestions:

How much cash can you invest comfortably? What rate of return are you hoping to generate? Are you expecting instant cash flow, looking to make your money when the property is resold, or merely looking to achieve tax shelter benefits? How long do you plan to own the property? What amount of your own effort can you afford to contribute to the day-to-day operation of running the property? What future net worth are you hoping to achieve by investing, and by when? What type of income property do you feel most comfortable owning, residential or commercial, or does it matter?

3. Develop Market Research

As a novice to real estate investing, you probably know little about income property in your local market. So, do market research to learn as much as you can about income property values, rents, and occupancy rates in your area. The better prepared you are, the more likely you are to recognize a good (or bad) deal when you see it.

Here are some resources to check out:

(a) The local newspaper,
(b) A local appraiser,
(c) The county tax assessor,
(d) A qualified local real estate professional,
(e) A local property management company

4. Run the Numbers

Calculating the property's cash flow, rate of return, and profitability is crucial to a successful real estate investment business. As the CEO you've got to know what you're buying, especially if you're trying to determine which of several investment opportunities would be the most profitable.

You have two options:

Invest in real estate investment software. This will enable you to discover for yourself the rental property's cash flow and rates of return, and create your own analysis reports. Plus, by running the numbers yourself, you gain a broader understanding of real estate investing nuances, and in turn might be less likely to fall victim to the wiles of someone with little concern about how you spend your money.
Work with someone who owns real estate investment software and can run, present, and discuss those numbers with you.


5. Develop a Relationship with a Real Estate Professional that's Qualified

Getting to know a qualified professional is a great way for beginners to get started with investment property because an astute professional can acquaint you with local market conditions, recommend a property that meets your investing objectives, and discuss strengths and weaknesses about specific property performance.

Just be certain, however, to work with a real estate person who understands real estate investment property.

Be sure the agent has a firm grip on key financial measures inherent to real estate investing, knows how to measure profitability and rate of return, has the ability to present the data you need to make wise investment decisions, and, most importantly, shows a genuine interest in how you spend your money. The last thing you want to do is to get involved with an agent that would throw you under the bus just to make a commission.

Here's a good way to interview for an agent. Ask about cap rate, cash-on-cash return, and then request an APOD or Proforma Income Statement. If they stand there looking at you like a deer into the headlights of a car in response to even these basics, find another agent.

6. Start Investing

That's it, it's time for you to get started. Here's to your real estate investing success.