The Three Immutable Laws of Real Estate Investing
Ask a room full of active real estate investors what they think is the most important factor that makes for a successful investment and a significant portion will respond with “it’s all about location, location, location.” The market in which you invest is one of the most impactful decisions you will make.
Or is it…?
Real estate investors have made money in every market across the country, and more recently the world, at every point in time since the first person purchased a piece of real estate for investment purposes. So, how can two investors investing in the same market see totally different results, with one thriving and one failing?
The answer is quite simply: the actual market means nothing if the investor cannot execute on the business plan properly.
This doesn’t mean that you can blindly invest in any real estate market. To maximize your chances of success, you should always evaluate a market before investing. However, from my experience scaling from a handful of single family rentals to controlling over $400 million in apartments, and from interviewing thousands of active, successful real estate professionals on my podcast, I identified a pattern.
I discovered that there are three laws that, when followed, result in a real estate investors ability to thrive in any market at any time in the market cycle. These Three Immutable Laws of Real Estate Investing are 1) buy for cash flow, 2) secure long-term, low leveraged debt and 3) have adequate cash reserves.
Law #1 – Buy for Cash Flow
The first of these three laws is buy for cash flow. The opposite of buying for cash flow is buying to appreciation. And in particular, natural appreciation. Natural appreciation is completely out of your control because it fluctuates up and down based on the overall real estate market and economy. Whereas forced appreciation is the bread and butter of value-add investors. Forced appreciation involves making improvements to the asset that either decreases expenses or increases income, which in turn, increases the overall property value.
Many investors, past and present, buy for natural appreciation instead of cash flow, and it is a gamble. Eventually, they all get burned – unless they’re extremely lucky. Buying for natural appreciation is like thinking you’ll get rich at the casino by playing roulette and only betting on black. Yeah, maybe you can double up a few times, but sooner or later the ball lands on red or – even worse – green, and you lose it all.
That’s why you should never buy for natural appreciation. Instead, buy for cash flow. Because when you buy for cash flow (and as long as you have a large supply of renters), you don’t care what the market is doing. In fact, if the market takes a dip, the demand for rentals will likely increase!
Law #2 – Secure Long-Term, Low Leveraged Debt
The second law is to secure long-term, low leveraged debt. The leverage that comes from financing is one of the main benefits of investing in real estate. Let’s say you have $100,000 to invest. If you decide to invest all of that money into a stock, you would control $100,000 worth of that stock (you can leverage a stock by investing in options contracts, but there is significantly more risk). On the other hand, if you wanted to invest all of that money in real estate, you could spend $100,000 on a down payment at 80% loan-to-value and control $500,000 worth of real estate. That’s the power of leverage from financing.
But there’s also a catch. With leverage comes a mortgage, which you must continue to pay each month. If you fail to make a payment or cannot sell/refinance once the loan comes due, the bank will take the property.
The less money put into a deal – or more specifically, the less equity you have in a deal – the more over-leveraged you are. Consequently, the higher your mortgage payments will be. In a hot market, over-leveraging may seem like a brilliant idea, but what happens when property value or rental rates start to drop? Well, if you purchase a property with less than 20% equity at close and the market drops by 5%, 10% or 20% (which has happened in the past) by the end of your loan term, you are forced to sell the property at a lower than projected price (maybe even at a loss) or you are forced to give the property back to the bank.
My advice? Secure a loan with a term that is longer than your projected hold period and have 20% equity in an apartment deal at minimum. You shouldn’t run into this problem if you are getting a commercial loan from a bank, as they will typically offer loan terms of 5, 7, 10, or 12 years and require at least 20% to 30% down. However, if you are pursuing a creative financing strategy, you may have the opportunity to purchase an apartment with a significantly less than 20% down and the length of the loan is completely negotiable. Don’t be tempted. Similarly, a bridge loan (a loan usually used to cover the purchase price and renovation costs before securing permanent longer-term financing) may offer a higher loan-to-value ratio and are generally 6 months to 3 years in length. In these cases, have 20% of the total cost (purchase price plus renovations) in the deal and make sure you have the ability to purchase enough extensions on the bridge loan to cover the entire hold period.
Technically, you will be able to secure a loan with a term that is shorter than your projected hold period and with less than 20% equity. But doing so will expose you and your investors to more risk. Although securing long-term, low leveraged debt, in tandem with committing to buy for cash flow, will allow you to continue covering your mortgage payments, avoid having negative equity in the event of a downturn and avoid being forced to sell/give the property to the bank.
Law #3 – Have Adequate Cash Reserves
The final law is to have adequate cash reserves.
When you don’t have adequate cash reserves, you won’t have funds to cover an unexpected expense that occurs during operations. When you cannot cover an unexpected expense, you’ll need to either do a capital call, which will reduce your investors’ returns, or sell the property at a loss or give the property back to the bank if these expenses pile up.
To mitigate these risks, I recommend having an ongoing operating budget of at least $250 per unit per year in reserves. Additionally, to cover unexpected expenses that occur in the first year, create an upfront operating account fund equal to 1% to 5% of the purchase price.
By sticking to these Three Immutable Laws of Real Estate Investing, don’t buy for appreciation, don’t over-leverage and don’t get forced to sell, your investment portfolio will not just survive, but thrive in any real estate market and in any economic condition.
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