Tag Archives: Cash flow

Should You Be a Passive Apartment Investor?

Many people today are unhappy with the returns they’re getting from their current investments and are looking for alternatives. Of course CDs and savings accounts don’t return enough to keep up with inflation and the stock market is such a roller coaster that it’s hard to feel comfortable putting your entire retirement nest egg there.

With so many homes in foreclosure, some folks have tried buying a house to fix up and resell. If you know what you’re doing you may be able to work on it for a few months and sell at a profit. This strategy does come with obvious risks, but with proper training, mentorship and a good team, you can make a tidy sum on each property. However, unless you want to make a career of it, doing fix and flips requires a lot of time away from your regular job.

If you’ve been looking for alternative investments you’ve probably read about the opportunities in commercial real estate. One way to get in on these investments is through a Real Estate Investment Trust, or REIT. Investing in a REIT is a lot like buying a mutual fund, but the managers are acquiring portfolios of apartments, office buildings or shopping malls instead of stocks. You can get quarterly distributions based on the cash flow produced and are a part owner of the properties.

In today’s economic environment, both offices and retail centers are dealing with high vacancies. Since all real estate is cyclical, these property types should rebound sometime in the future, but apartments are doing well now, since everyone needs a place to live.

One reason investors favor apartments right now is the continued growth in the 18-34 year old age group, which makes up the bulk of apartment residents. In addition, houses are no longer viewed as the great investment people thought they were a decade ago. Not only have thousands lost their home during the economic downturn, but the banks have tightened up the lending requirements so much that even people with decent jobs are having trouble qualifying for a loan.

Even if you believe apartments may be a good place to invest, you may not be attracted to the returns and control of a REIT. Unless you’re very wealthy, it’s not practical to buy an apartment building yourself. Is there another way to participate safely and wisely in this current boom without having to deal with tenants and toilets?

As a matter of fact there is. You could pool your money with other investors to buy, manage and sell an apartment property. But what if you don’t personally have the knowledge, experience and team to pull this off? Now what?

You may be lucky enough to have a friend or family member who does these kind of deals who can offer you a spot in one of their syndications. A syndication is a group of investors who go in together on a project that none could pull off by themselves. Hollywood movies are often the result of a syndication, but they can be assembled for many purposes, including the purchase of commercial real estate.

Before putting your money into Uncle Bill’s syndicate, there are several things to consider. First of all, do you already believe in commercial real estate as an investment tool? Specifically, do you think the need for affordable housing will continue to grow? Have you seen that new construction has not been able to match the current demand, leading to lower vacancy rates and rising rents? I’d suggest that you don’t let anyone fast-talk you into this model if you don’t already believe in it yourself.

Once past this hurdle, there are several more to go. First of all, do you feel comfortable with the promoter/sponsor of the deal? You will be partners for several years, so you absolutely must not only trust, but actually like, this person. You will be putting some substantial cash into their hands, so pay attention to your gut feelings. Sometimes the best deal you ever do will be the one you avoided. At the same time, they will be judging if they want to be tied to you for the length of the project. If you’re hard to get along with, or are a micro-manager, they may well decide it’s not a good match to have you in the group.

You also want to consider the sponsor’s experience with this type of project. If they’ve done similar deals and they’ve worked out well for the investors, that’s all a plus. Everyone has to do a first deal, so if that’s the case, you need to feel that their experience in smaller real estate endeavors has prepared them for this specific offering. If they’ve owned and operated several fourplexes, you may feel comfortable trusting them to pull off a smaller apartment complex, but maybe not one of several hundred units. It’s your call.

Make sure they have a professional team in place. No one does this alone, so they should let you know about their real estate attorney, securities attorney, management company, commercial broker, accountant and title company. Feel free to call them as a reference.

Consider your timeline for this type and size of investment. Most apartment projects will need you to commit your funds for several years. If you think you may need your cash back sooner than the projected holding period, this is not a good investment for you.

Once you feel good about all these considerations, it’s time to get more information about the specific offering being presented to you.

If you are looking for current cash flow, make sure the property is throwing off enough cash to provide your required return. The sponsor will probably provide you with a spreadsheet that projects expected gross income, less all the operating expenses. This number is the net operating income, or NOI, and it’s the basis for figuring the value of the property. After that, the mortgage payments are subtracted and the result is the before tax cash flow. This should be greater than what has been promised to the investors so that you can feel comfortable that even if things don’t go exactly as planned, you will still get your promised return.

The group of investors will most likely be promised a percentage of ownership in the deal. You will collect your pro-rata share of this once the property is sold. The combined result of distributions from ongoing cash flows, plus the chunk you receive at the end is called the Internal Rate of Return, or IRR. You’ll want to make sure this number is substantially higher than what you are getting with your current investments.

Even though apartments seem to be a great investment today, all investments come with some risks involved. Don’t invest any money you can’t afford to lose, and whatever you do, don’t take out a loan to put into any investment, including the “can’t fail” deal Uncle Bill has for you.

Before you send in your check, be sure to read any and all legal documents the sponsor provides. Most apartments are purchased via a Limited Liability Company, or LLC. You will be a member of the LLC and will actually own a membership in the LLC, not a portion of the real estate itself. Be sure to read and understand the LLC’s Operating Agreement, as it spells out in great detail how the project will be run from start to finish. I recommend you have your accountant, attorney or financial advisor review it and answer any questions you have. If you’re not comfortable with the risks and benefits, don’t do the deal.

If you go to a luncheon put on by a promoter, or are otherwise introduced to one you don’t know personally, proceed with caution. Most likely putting a group purchase together creates a security, so SEC regulations must be followed to the letter. They require the sponsor to have a substantial personal or business relationship with you before presenting you with an offer to invest, so make sure you’ve had enough time to get to know them and their history, and they know enough about you to feel good about your ability to participate in this kind of opportunity.

Real estate syndications can be a great way for a sophisticated or accredited investor to participate safely and profitably in a commercial real estate deal. If you understand and follow the suggestions put forth here, you’re well on your way to a successful investment.

Deeper Analysis of a Potential Apartment Purchase

After using a property’s annual income and expense data, combined with the local cap rate to determine value, most offerings will be set aside as the unrealistic dreams of a deluded seller. Occasionally, however, a property will pass our first scan and deserve a second look. So what are the next steps to determine if we’ve really found a keeper?

The first step is to dig more deeply into the financial reports released by the seller. The critical thing to watch for here is to separate the actual figures from the pro forma numbers. Every seller, with the help of their broker, will attempt to paint the rosiest picture possible. You’ll do the same when it’s time for you to sell.

As an example, I’ll use information pulled from the most recent offer to cross my desk via Loopnet, a 28-unit C class apartment in Colorado Springs, offered at $1.3 million.

The Annual Property Operating Data (APOD) is a one-page summary of income and expenses. It calculates the Net Operating Income (NOI) as well as the cash flow before taxes. This particular APOD shows a cap rate of 8.79%, certainly within the current range of 8-9% expected for this class of apartment in this town in this year. It also lists the cash flow as $114,280 per year, or just over $9,500 per month. Assuming you paid the asking price of $1.3 million and put down 25%, or $325,000, the cash-on-cash return would be 114,280/325,000 or 35.2% So far, the numbers look promising.

But let’s look a little deeper. One of the easiest tricks to play is to merely leave some lines of the APOD blank. It’s easy to overlook something that is not even there. On this APOD there is a line for Management Services, but there is no number next to it. Even if you choose to manage it yourself, you should put a value on your time and effort. As it turns out, last year $8,300 went to this line item, which represents a 7.2% charge, reasonable in this market for this size property. Of course, underestimating your expenses, in this case by leaving one out, has the effect of increasing the NOI, which drives up the property value.

The other sin of omission occurs here by neglecting to include the annual debt service. Using the broker’s assumptions of 25% down and a 4.5% interest rate, the total mortgage payment is $60,800 per year. This is subtracted from the NOI to get the actual before-tax cash flow, which now drops to $53,480. This makes the actual cash-on-cash return 16.5%, definitely decent but less than half of what was shown on the APOD. Leaving out the management fee and the debt service has the effect of making this deal look much better than it actually is.

Now let’s look more closely at the income assumptions. The APOD has a note indicating that the current market rent for one-bedroom apartments is $495 per month. Since all the units in this apartment are one-beds, it’s easy to calculate the Potential Rental Income as $166,320 per year (495x28x12). However, in another part of the sales package labeled Income Summary, we find that less than $110,000 was actually collected in rent last year. Why the huge difference? Well, the current rent roll shows that 17 of the 28 units are paying $425 or less per month and only 2 are paying the full $495. What gives? Is the current owner asleep at the wheel, or is there something lacking in this property that prevents him from getting market rent? This is definitely something a potential buyer needs to explore in some depth. In fact, using actual numbers from last year, the cap rate at the asking price is only 4.7%!

Moving on from the financial analysis, we need to envision all the ways we can add value to the property. One of the easiest and most obvious ways is to improve the curb appeal. Potential renters won’t even slow down if the place looks like the owner fell asleep in the 70s and never woke up. A new top coat on the parking lot, well-trimmed and manicured landscaping and perhaps a new exterior paint job can make an apartment look like new almost overnight. Of course if the property has been a low-vacancy eyesore for a few years, changing the name and putting up new signage lets people know a new owner who actually cares for the property is now in charge.

Once you get a prospect inside, they will compare the perceived value to that of other apartments they’ve looked at. This is where your personal market research comes in. What amenities do other properties in your rental range have? Will you need new kitchen cabinets or will a paint job and new hardware be sufficient? Will you opt for new carpet or will you try the linoleum that looks like a hardwood floor? New lights in the kitchen and bathroom can add pizazz for very little cost.

Windows are a controversial topic among owners. If the residents are paying for utilities, it doesn’t directly help the owner to put in new ones, which is why you see so many older buildings with original windows in place. On the other hand, new double pane energy-efficient windows, along with uniform new blinds, can instantly improve the curb appeal. You can also tell prospects that their utility bills will be lower and their apartment quieter and more comfortable. It’s also one more thing the person who buys from you won’t have to pay to replace. In addition, there may be utility rebates available that lower your net cost if you choose to install them. Needless to say, all these expenses must be accurately estimated and still have all the numbers work. If a property has a lot of deferred maintenance, you must factor that into your offer or it’s not worth buying.

The bottom line for all this is how much can you raise the rents? Can you raise them enough to justify these expenditures? Can you buy it cheaply enough to allow these upgrades? You’ll definitely want an experienced member of your team to help you make these decisions when you’re first getting into this.

Finally, you need to look at the operating expenses to see if there are ways to reduce them. Running a more efficient, smarter operation can lower expenses. Do you need a full-time employee or can you outsource many of the operations? Can you charge back your residents for common area water, gas and electricity? Are they being charged for their share of trash pickup? Your market may put limits on how much of this you can do. You might also experiment with a lower rent plus these utility chargebacks versus a higher, all-inclusive rental figure to see which is more enticing to your prospects.

Once you’ve done your quick 5-minute evaluation of the numbers, most properties will be revealed as the duds they are. The ones that pass that first screening are ready for this more in-depth analysis. Once they pass this, it’s time to submit a Letter of Intent and let the negotiations begin. Have fun and good luck!