Sunday, January 14, 2007

Think Small: Getting Started as a Real Estate Investor

Even in a Sinking Market,
Carefully Buying and Managing
Properties Can Bring New Riches

January 10, 2007

The real-estate bubble has burst. Get over it. In areas that saw big home-price run-ups in the first half of the decade, prices are stagnant, or worse. New-home inventories are up; new-home builder stocks are down.

A kind of real-estate weariness has set in. Who's the cocktail-party boor? The guy still talking about making a killing on Miami Beach condos.

Smells like a buying opportunity. Probably not right away, because there's still plenty of froth in the markets that saw the biggest price increases. But soon, you'll see the real-estate investors -- property vultures who buy when prices are low and then ride property manias to their crest -- toeing the market again.

Even in today's uncertain climate, novice real-estate investors can make money, especially in smaller properties that are easy to acquire and manage.

Let's explore some options.

In-Law Units

The most basic form of property investment is a so-called in-law unit or guesthouse on the site of your home itself, sometimes attached to the main house, sometimes not. No one has ever gotten rich renting out such properties, but they can significantly reduce the cost of homeownership. Renting out an in-law unit for $400 a month and using that money every month to pay down principal on a $350,000 30-year mortgage will shave 10 years from the mortgage term and reduce total payments by more than $165,000. And you will be able to write off all your costs on your income taxes -- including depreciation on the unit -- up to your actual rental income.

Weekend or Vacation Homes

Just as with an in-law unit, renting out your weekend house is not a way to get rich. Many of the same numbers that applied to in-law units can be applied to your weekend home, although the tax situation is decidedly different.


Investing in real estate isn't the same as owning a house. Here's a look at the financial breakdown.First, the IRS gives second-home landlords a very nice little present in that it allows two weeks of tax-free rental income a year. Beyond that, however, the accounting can be irksome. The IRS doesn't want people buying second homes and disguising them as rental properties. It has two criteria to determine whether the property is a second home (bad) or a rental (good). It's a second home if you don't rent it out at all or if you personally use it at least two weeks a year or 10% of the number of days the place is available for rental, whichever is longer.

Single-Family Homes

Throughout much of the country, the market for single-family homes is seriously out of whack. As prices fall and inventories rise, that's changing. But, compared with rents, prices are still quite high, outstripping the ability of such properties to cover their mortgage and operating costs.

Avoid this segment of the market unless you have a chance to buy a property at a 30% or 40% discount from its previous price. Don't think this is out of the question. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the government liquidated the real-estate loan portfolios of bankrupt savings-and-loans, speculators picked up properties for just dimes on the dollar.

Managing a house that pays for itself is what it's all about. You can do it in one of two ways: Renting or "flipping." Renting is a "buy-and-hold" strategy, while flipping calls for quick turnarounds of fixer-uppers that can be spruced up and sold quickly.

But in the current environment renting is probably the more prudent path, although it can be very difficult to make a house pay for itself at today's prices. That's because if your house carries an 80% or 90% loan, the renter will have to pay more per month to rent the house than he would to buy it.

Look at it this way: There's a handsome three-bedroom, two-bath house in Tampa, Fla., for sale at an asking price of $199,900. If you bought it with 10% down and a 90% loan at 6%, your monthly payment will be about $1,550 (that's PITI -- principal, interest, taxes and insurance). As a landlord, at a minimum, you'll want to budget at least $200 a month in additional expenses. That puts your break-even point at almost $1,800 a month. That's far more than you can reasonably expect to earn where comparable properties in the same neighborhood can be rented for less than $1,300.

But it turns out that there's a similar house available less than a mile away. This other house is roughly the same size. The difference is this one's being taken over by its lender, and the house has a mortgage loan of $110,000.

A buyer with cash can drive a hard bargain and make out very well. And the worse the market, the better for the buyer. But don't get carried away. If you simply take over an existing 90% or 95% note, you won't make any money. Let the lender foreclose and take over the place. Then lowball the lender.

Multiple Units

A housing market that saw the price of single-family homes skyrocket was not quite so generous to smaller two-family or multifamily properties. Because the universe of home buyers expanded so much in the past 10 years, the universe of renters contracted, and the market for smaller rental properties contracted with them.

In Memphis, where two-bedroom apartments in better neighborhoods rent from $500 up to $800 a month, good two-family properties can still be bought for far less than a one bedroom condo on either of the coasts. Recent prices for 40-year-old two-family homes near the University of Memphis main campus ranged from $70,000 to $110,000. Monthly payments, including insurance and maintenance, on an $88,000 mortgage (20% down on the $110,000 property) come to only about $750 a month. So renting both units at the low end of the market would result in a positive after-tax cash flow of more than $100 a month. Upgrade the units, and you can charge top-of-the-market rents of $800 a month.

Good deals on smaller buildings can be found throughout the country, even in some of the hottest markets. In trendy Pasadena, Calif., where even modest homes can sell for $400 to $600 a square foot, two-, three- or four-unit rental buildings can be bought in the $250 to $350 range.