Real estate investing in general, and single-family real estate investing in particular, is very different from buying stocks, commodities or most other investments. Real estate is a leveraged investment that has the potential for delivering excellent returns because the cash down payment is a fraction of the retail value, yet it is also a hands-on venture where you make more decisions that affect your returns.
On the other hand, stocks and other investments increase or decrease in value solely based on market conditions, and the only decision you make that affects your returns is when to buy or sell. While tax law treats real estate as a passive investment, it is really more of a business venture. Both short and long-term returns on your real estate assets are directly affected by your knowledge and the choices you make.
Consequently, it is critical that you approach single-family real estate investments with a clear understanding of what it takes to be successful. You must evaluate your purchase options and make a selection based on criteria that have proven through the years to increase the odds of success.
Key Considerations As You Plan Your Purchase
When considering your first (or next) single-family real estate investment, keep these seven pointers in mind:
1. Don’t let emotion cloud your decision making.
If most or all of your real estate experience to date has been buying and selling your personal residences, keep in mind that you were purchasing for a different purpose with a different set of criteria in those instances. Buying a home for yourself and your family is an inherently emotional endeavor. You “love” the large kitchen, your spouse is “wild about” the main floor master bedroom, the kids are “so excited” about the pool.
With investment real estate, it’s all about the numbers. If the combination of the purchase price, estimated renovation costs, expected rental income and market conditions support a purchase decision, you can feel comfortable moving forward.
2. Buy based on current returns, not future appreciation.
Will the property have a positive cash flow the day the renters move in? That’s the evaluation criteria you must use. Trusting that area rents and home values will increase over time and that that is where you’ll get your return is a recipe for disappointment, if not disaster. Optimism is an excellent personality trait, but in single-family real estate investment, it can lead to big losses. The best deals make money from day one, and long-term appreciation is a bonus.
3. Budget realistically.
As a property owner and landlord, there are expenses you will incur in order to maintain the value of your asset, so you must plan accordingly. The most obvious of these expenses is the upkeep on the property. However, there are other costs you should budget for. One that is often overlooked is vacancy expense.
In a perfect world, your property would be rented continuously with no gaps. However, the reality is that you may lose a tenant on short notice and have to pay the mortgage for a month or two before a new tenant has moved in. If you have not budgeted for vacancy expense, this interruption in your cash flow can come as an unwelcome surprise and a hit to your financial planning.
4. Know your sub-markets/neighborhoods.
Choosing to make a single-family rental investment in a particular metropolitan area simply because a national article states the market, in general, is positive can backfire if you don’t get the details on the specific sub-market or neighborhood where you intend to buy. While the key financial indicators for a city such as job growth, population growth and others may be on the rise overall, that doesn’t guarantee that the specific community you are interested in is enjoying the same kind of upswing. In fact, one sub-market may be growing because businesses are moving there from the area you have in mind. Be sure you have an in-depth understanding of all the forces at work. The key to success in real estate has always been location, location, location.
5. Learn about local regulations and federal laws.
All forms of investing are governed by regulations. However, with stocks and commodities, understanding those regulations is your broker’s job. In real estate investing, the responsibility for understanding everything from local annual registration and inspection requirements to federal fair housing laws falls to you. The time to learn about these legal issues is before you make your purchase. Failing to understand your obligations until after you’ve missed a deadline or violated an ordinance can be very costly.
6. Build a relationship with a local handyman or contractor.
Every rental property will need repairs and maintenance — if not immediately, then certainly over time. Before you complete your purchase, you should invest some effort in researching and connecting with experts in the area that you can call on as needed. Waiting until a pipe bursts to find a plumber can increase both your stress level and your repair costs.
7. Set aside funds for capital expenses.
As a property owner, you will have a variety of smaller, ongoing operating expenses, everything from fixing dripping faucets to making minor repairs. But items such as rooves, HVAC units and driveways eventually wear out. These things have longer lives and higher price tags and are known as capital expenditures or “capex.” These kinds of expenses can run from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, so it is important to budget and set money aside on a regular basis to cover them.
Preparation: The Key To Investing With Confidence
Investing in single-family rental properties can be intimidating, especially if you are new to the process. The key to forging ahead confidently as you identify, vet, purchase, update and operate a rental is having done all your homework in advance. The considerations above are a great start.