How we value apartment buildings (part 2)


In my last post, I talked about how our approach to valuing apartment buildings derives from my experience as an investment banker trying to value media and technology companies.

Simply put: When you’re trying to get a sense for the value of an asset in an illiquid market, you want to use all of the tools available to you.

For apartment buildings, here’s what we do:

1. Consider the property as a straight buy-and-hold / yield deal

This one is pretty simple. We assume the buyer of the property will be a rational investor looking to achieve a reasonable yield on the cash she will use to acquire the property.

We build a model of the property incorporating the rents it commands, reasonable estimates of the expenses, and appropriate financing structure(s). Then, we input a range of potential valuations, which results in the model outputting a range of potential yields an acquirer could expect to achieve.

Since we’re working with loads of buyers at all times (and buying for ourselves as well), we have a good sense for the yields buyers demand in the areas in which we’re active. One good way to think about valuation is to select the price at which a buyer would achieve the minimum yield which we have found buyers willing to accept.

2. If 2-4 units, consider as owner-occupier deal

Ah, but not all deals are acquired by rational investors. For certain properties, usually 2-4 units with at least one unit desirable, 2+ bedroom unit delivered vacant, an owner occupier will sometimes be willing to pay more than a rational investor would.

Why is this? People are irrationally excited to own their own homes. All the proof you need is right there in the sales data for single family homes. In Southern California, you can easily rent a home for $4,000 / month which would sell for $1,000,000. At 20% down and $800k borrowed at 4.5%, the owner’s monthly out of pocket expense is something like $5,500 / month. One way to think about the difference between the $4,000 and $5,500 numbers is that this is the premium people are willing to pay to be an owner rather than a renter.

So, when we are asked to value an income property which might appeal to an owner-user, we try to price in an ownership premium for the owner’s unit… in other words, we can confidently consider valuations for the building which result in the new owner paying more out-of-pocket each month than the unit would rent for.

3. Evaluate as re-positioning opportunity

There is a big category of deals that just don’t make sense as buy-and-hold / yield deals. These are typically properties with tenants paying far under-market rents. At a certain point, the rents are so low that a price derived from applying a standard yield to the expected cashflow would result in a ridiculously low price / sq ft or price / unit.

These are the deals we love to buy. So, we know the economics better than anyone.

By working backwards from the new rents possible in the property and incorporating an estimate of the profit a new owner would want to achieve for doing the hard work of repositioning the building, we can get at the maximum price this kind of buyer would be willing to pay for the property.

4. Evaluate as a development deal

You would be amazed at how few brokers think to check the zoning of properties they are valuing for sale. This is usually not a huge deal, because pretty often the existing structures are built pretty much to the maximum density that the lot allows. But, every so often, there are major, major exceptions.

I’ll give you one from my own career: I bought a 15 unit (with 1 additional, non-conforming unit) in 2009. Without stopping to consider the zoning, I totally rehabbed the building and re-tenanted it. Then, sometime later, I realized that the property was zoned for 26 units. I might have been better-off tearing down the building and building 26 units in its place.

Anyway, whenever we are valuing a property, we consider what a developer would do with the lot. We look at how many units can be built, how much it would cost to build them, what the resulting building would be worth, and how much profit a developer could expect.

Usually, the valuation resulting from this method is lower than from the other methods (after all, it implicitly values the existing structure at zero). But, every once in a while, it turns out that the land is more valuable for development than in its existing configuration.

Pulling it all together

The result of the above valuation methodology is to clarify what prices different kinds of buyers can afford to deliver for a property. This gives us (and the owner) a sense for the highest price likely to be achieved in a sale.

And, very importantly, it lets us know how best to market the property. For example: If what you really have is a land deal, it does no good to spend a bunch of time and money on staging and taking pics for the MLS, since the likely buyer is going to tear the place down, anyway. On the other hand, if you have a property that will work owner-user, then you want to spend some time and money really marketing that owner unit, because that’s how you’re going to get the best price.

Are you considering selling? Want to make sure your sale process is run in an intelligent manner? Get in touch and we’ll come run the numbers for you and discuss the right strategy for extracting maximum value.