5 Ways to Win the Apartment Bidding War

Whether you are new to apartment syndication investing or an active investor expanding your portfolio, you will compete for deals. Other bidders may have more experience or higher offers. How do you win the seller and the contract? Let’s look at five ways to make your offer stand out.

Keep in mind that even in competitive markets, sellers don’t always take the highest bid. Sellers differ in their motivations, and the five tips below will help you craft the best possible offer for the deal you are pursuing.

1. Offer Hard Earnest Money

Hard earnest money is a non-refundable deposit. It is a good-faith move that shows the seller you are serious enough to leave money on the table should something go wrong. It also signals that you can afford to buy the property.

In a typical deal, the earnest money is refundable. You provide a deposit as soon as possible after signing the contract, preferably within three days. The amount is often about 1% of the total price. If you purchase commercial properties for $500,000, you pay the seller $5,000. If you or the seller cancel the contract, you receive your money back.

A bolder move is to make the earnest money non-refundable. Even if the contract is canceled or falls through, the seller keeps the deposit. Sellers are rightfully concerned about buyers tying up the property in contract and then backing out or losing funding. The buyer may find a better opportunity or walk for financial reasons. Meanwhile, the seller has effectively taken the property off the market. Backup buyers may lose interest, and the market could shift by the time the seller relists.

You can view a non-refundable deposit as compensation for the risk the seller assumes by entering a contract with you. First, you want to decide when the money goes hard. The most straightforward option is to make the deposit non-refundable from day one. Sellers find this attractive as they can keep the money no matter what.

However, it may be in your best interest to tie non-refundable earnest money to a contingency clause or other stipulation. You could require that the funds harden at the end of the due diligence period. Alternatively, you could make a portion of the deposit immediately non-refundable and include the remainder after meeting a condition.

Include Contingencies

Even if you harden your earnest money from day one, you still want to include contingencies for events beyond your control. This approach protects you against deal-breaker concerns such as severely failed property inspections or title issues. It still covers the seller in case you back out due to funding or other reasons within your control. If a seller demands a no-contingency hard deposit, consider this a red flag.

2. Shorten the Due Diligence Window

Another way to woo the seller is to shorten the time to closing. If an active investor, you can often shrink the time needed to close from a boilerplate period to a realistic estimate. Advantages to the seller include faster closing and the assurance that you are serious about owning the property. Sellers often have stakeholders in passive investing and are motivated to provide a smooth transaction. Buyers keeping their options open do not press for fast closing. In turn, assuming you have your financing in place, you obtain your investment faster.

The most effective way to shorten closing is to compress the due diligence window, which is when buyers discover most issues. Be aware that the due diligence period protects your right to cancel the contract and reclaim your deposit should you find problems. The average window is 30 days. If you invest in retail shopping centers or other commercial properties, you may need that time or more.

After the due diligence window closes, you can’t cancel the contract or get your earnest money back. This applies even if you find a related problem. To protect yourself, be realistic about the scope of work. Determine the time you will need to conduct all activities, such as inspections and title verification. Build in some cushion for repeat inspections, inclement weather, or other factors that could slow progress. Then see if you can save a week or more without jeopardizing your interests.

3. Sign an Access Agreement

Typically, your property access for due diligence begins after you and the seller sign the purchase sale agreement. An access agreement gives you limited rights to begin property inspections early. Sellers like this option because it shows you are serious and potentially willing to shorten the closing time.

In an early access scenario, you sign an access agreement once the seller accepts your letter of intent and agrees to move forward with your offer. A contract negotiating period follows, which can be brief or extended depending on the deal. An access agreement lets you begin due diligence early by allowing limited property access for inspections.

If all goes well, you can complete at least some of your due diligence before signing the purchase sales agreement. You can even tie the formal due diligence period to the access agreement by starting the clock then. For example, your due diligence window could expire ten days after contract signing. However, you want to be confident of the property and the deal before you shorten your protection under contract.

4. Use the Seller’s Purchase Agreement

Once the seller has accepted your letter of intent, you begin contract negotiations. When active investing, you often provide your version of the purchase sales agreement prepared by your attorney. The seller compares yours with their contract version, and your teams hash out the details until reaching an agreement. The agreement becomes the final contract that all parties sign.

This negotiation process may be fast and smooth on a smaller residential property or with a seller you have previously worked with. If your focus is larger commercial investing, such as in retail shopping centers, finalizing a contract will likely be more complex and lengthy. Backers who are passive investing may not realize that contracts sometimes collapse due to non-financial discrepancies. During negotiations, you risk the deal falling through due to disagreements over legal language or similar matters.

You can mitigate risk by using the seller’s purchase sales agreement instead of drafting your own. Take their documents and have your attorney mark them up with proposed changes. Submit the revised contract to the seller for review. This way, the seller quickly sees which changes you present instead of comparing your version with theirs. The process makes it easier to negotiate specific terms under contention and validate those that are not. You and the seller can reach a final contract more quickly and with less chance of a legal stalemate.

5. Guarantee a Closing Date

A strategy often used in residential purchases is to guarantee closing by a specific date. Sellers frequently have personal contingencies that make a hard close date very alluring. Commercial investing is more impersonal, but timing the close still offers advantages in certain situations.

One scenario is to help the seller secure a tax advantage. If the deal is near year-end, the seller may prefer to close either in the current year or in January. Active investing requires considering the capital needs of any other investors as well as complex financial requirements for short and long horizons. Further, some sellers may have a fiscal cycle that differs from the calendar year. As a motivated buyer seeking a win-win, try to learn the seller’s timing preferences.

Sometimes non-financial events trigger a desire to close before or after a specific date. Major elections, local laws taking effect, and other situations may spur a seller to choose the buyer who can guarantee a closing window. Most often, the seller seeks an early close, but sometimes not. Be clear on which timing scenarios you are willing to accommodate before engaging with the seller on this point. If they ask for a 90-day close when you were expecting 60 days, will it work for you?

Target the Deal

In addition to a favorable price, which strategy should you include in your offer? The answer depends on the deal. Though the market for apartment investing is competitive, your job is to focus on this particular deal. It’s the one you want.

To help you plan your offer, try to learn:

  • About other offers on the table. If they all include non-refundable earnest money, you want to offer more.
  • The seller’s motivations. This will help you understand whether a committed buyer, quick close, highest price, or other terms matter most.
  • Other factors important to the seller. Are there tax considerations driving a desired close date? Did a previous buyer walk, leaving a skittish seller who would appreciate a non-refundable deposit and access agreement?

Keep in mind that you can combine strategies to craft a top offer. An access agreement facilitates a shortened due diligence period, for example. If other buyers are going with hard earnest money, perhaps you can meet an earlier date or raise the amount. With perseverance and flexibility, you can be the dream buyer sellers want.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as an offer to buy or sell any securities or to make or consider any investment or course of action.

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Joe Fairless