Moses Kagan on Real Estate

Archive for the ‘Income Property Benchmarks’ Category

We’re not charging enough

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One of the advantages we have in this business is that our units tend to command top-of-the-market rents.

The reason is pretty simple: We spend a ton of time and money making each unit we renovate into the kind of place that we, ourselves, would want to live in.

But I’ve been doing a lot of research on Craigslist for Silver Lake, Hollywood, Miracle Mile, etc. and I’ve come to the following conclusion: We’re not charging enough.

If you go online right now and start looking at two beds under $2500 in the aforementioned neighborhoods, your eyes will bleed. The units themselves are uniformly horrible – bad flooring, cabinets, window treatments, you name it. And, on top of that, the marketing is horrific… the pictures mostly look like the owners are actively trying to avoid leasing their apartments (bad lighting, no staging, weird angles, etc.)

I understand that not everyone is capitalized to do gut renovations of apartments. But I can’t, for the life of me, understand why anyone who is undertaking a renovation right now would use, for example, granite countertops or generic Home Depot cabinets. The cost difference to use good stuff is negligible (particularly when amortized over 10+ years) and the difference from the tenants’ perspective is massive.

So, given how terrible the competition is, I’m going to need to take a close look at our asking rents and see if there’s room to increase them.

Written by mjkagan

07/03/2014 at 4:40 am

When a foot isn’t a foot

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I’m mostly a price per sq foot buyer. Because I always renovate, I’m not very interested in the income of the building prior to acquisition. I am, however, extremely interests in the structure I am buying, since that structure is the raw material we will work with to produce the eventual product we are selling: Wonderfully renovated apartments.

I told the people who attended our seminar recently that I start to get interested around $200 / sq ft. But that brings us to the subject of today’s post: The fact that all square feet aren’t created equal.

Here are some examples of situations where a $200 price / sq ft still isn’t cheap:

1. Where you have wasted space. Picture a standard 1920s center hallway building. The center hallway is often 5′ wide. If the building is 100′ long, you’re wasting 5 x 100′ = 500 sq ft per level on hallways. No one pays rent for hallways, but, as a buyer you’re still paying for the space and, as a renovator, you’re still paying to fix it up. So, center hallway buildings need to be priced at a discount to $200 / sq to be interesting.

2. When you have huge units. The economics of our business are to a large extent determined by the achievable rent per sq ft. What kind of units generate the highest rent per sq ft? Studios. Think about it: A renovated 375 sq ft studio in Silver Lake can get $1300 all day – $3.47 / sq ft. A renovated 600 sq ft 1 bed / 1 bath gets $1700 – or $2.83 / sq ft. A 1300 sq ft 3 bed / 2 bath gets $3000 – $2.31. As you can see, the larger the unit, the lower the price / sq ft achievable.* Therefore, the return to the buyer of a building priced at a given $ / sq ft declines as the unit size increases. A building with lots of studios priced at $200 / sq is likely to be considerably more attractive than a building with lots of 3 beds priced at $200 / sq.

3. If there’s no land. Price per sq ft looks at the structure, but that’s not the only component of building value. For example: Look at our deal at 3212 Bellevue. We’re going to sell that thing at a price which will equate to $425 / sq ft or something. Sounds really high, right? But you have to consider that Bellevue is on 10,000 sq ft of land. That much land allows us to give all the units parking, storage, private outdoor spaces, decks, etc. The result: Very high rents / sq ft. And very high rent / sq ft imply a very high price / sq ft on exit. The opposite is also true: If you have a $200 / sq ft building with no space available for parking / outdoor space, then your rents are going to suffer, which means that $200 / sq ft may not work.

If you start to consider the above rules in reference to lots and lots of deals, you will find that there are all kinds of interesting interactions that take place when you combine buildings of varying configurations with  units of varying sizes with lots of varying sizes. Deals which don’t look great reveal themselves as almost certain winners. And deals which superficially look like winners end up looking very risky indeed.

*Incidentally, this is one of the reasons zoning limits the number of units on a given lot… otherwise, developers would build huge buildings full of lots of very small studios.

Written by mjkagan

05/19/2014 at 9:41 am

How following one dumb rule of thumb cost me thousands of dollars

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When I first started buying buildings, I needed a quick and dirty way to estimate operating expenses.

I hadn’t owned any buildings long enough to have historical data upon which to base assumptions.

At the time, I was using an accountant who knew just enough about real estate to be truly dangerous. I asked him if he had a good rule of thumb. He told me to estimate that operating expenses would be approximately 35% of rents.

That sounded reasonable, so I proceeded to underwrite a whole bunch of deals using that 35% expense margin to calculate the yield I would be able to achieve by buying and renovating apartment buildings. Keep in mind this was 2009, when things were very, very cheap and I was trying to leg into 8% unlevered yields (that was my threshold for whether to do a deal or not).

Do you know why it is really stupid to use a blanket 35% expense margin to estimate NOI for a repositioned building in CA?

  1. When you buy a cheap building and renovate it to raise the rents, your property taxes are going to remain pegged to the acquisition price. Since you will presumably add a lot of value to the deal, your property taxes should comprise a lower portion of the expense mix than they would if you acquired the renovated building for fair market value. Treating the renovated building the way you would the acquired building will lead you to over-estimate property tax on the renovated building;
  2. There is no difference in the expense an owner bears when renting out a $1500 1 bed / 1 bath vs. an $1800 1 bed / 1 bath. Both units will use  the same amount of water, generate the same amount of trash, break things at roughly the same rate, etc.. If you blindly estimate 35% expense margins, you will be charging yourself 35% of that $300 difference in rents, $105 / month, for no reason. $105 x 12 = $1260 in annual NOI. If you put a 7% cap rate on that, it means you’re stupidly vaporizing $18,000 in value. Spread over, say, 6 units, that could be the difference between doing the deal or not.
  3. When you replace all of the plumbing and electric and all of the appliances, as we do on almost every building, you’re going to have lower maintenance bills because **NEWS FLASH** everything is new.

As a result of my stupid reliance on the 35% rule, I systematically over-estimated expenses on every deal I underwrote.

The good news is that the deals we actually did turned out to be 9-10% yields, instead of 8%.

The bad news? I passed on probably 5 deals that I desperately wish I had done. I conservatively estimate the lost earnings to me personally in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars. All because I relied upon a short-cut without actually taking the time to think through the implication.

Do you know what I should have done? Taken the time necessary to get some reasonably accurate estimates for the annual operating cost per unit and applied those to my pro forma stabilized (eg post-renovation) rent roll. That’s what I do now.

Written by mjkagan

04/02/2014 at 5:44 am

What is a good NOI?

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I see what people search on Google that brings them to my blog. This was a question yesterday that I thought begged for an answer.

First, let’s review what “NOI” is. It’s “Net Operating Income”, or what’s left over after you take in your rents and pay out all of your expenses, including property taxes, but not including mortgage payments or income taxes.

For example: Say you have a duplex where each unit brings in $2k / month. Let’s say the property taxes are $6k / year and the other expenses (property insurance, maintenance, utilities, etc.) are $10k / year. The rent is $2k x 2 = $4k / month x 12 = $48k / year. The expenses are $6k + $10k = $16k. So, the NOI is $48k – $16k = $32k / year.

Sounds good, right? Well, knowing the NOI number without know the price of the asset is kind of meaningless, and that’s the problem with the question that is the title of this piece.

Imagine you paid $5MM for an apartment building, all cash (so there’s no mortgage payment). If the NOI is $32k / year, the return on your $5M investment is $32k / $5M = 0.6%. 0.6% / year is a horrific return. [Note: Regular readers probably recognize this calculation as a CAP rate, which is NOI divided by price.]

Now imagine you paid $350k for that same asset. Now you’re making $32k on a $350k investment, or $32k / $350k = 9.1%. Getting to a 9.1% cash-on-cash return is pretty incredible!

Bottom line: Knowing the NOI alone is somewhat meaningless. You need to know what someone is asking you to pay for that NOI to figure out if you want to own it.

Written by mjkagan

08/26/2013 at 4:41 am

Why every last dollar of rent matters

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Sometimes people question why it’s so important to get that last dollar of rent.

On a $2800 apartment, does an extra $100/month matter? After all, $100 is only 3.6% of $2800… no a big deal, right?

Wrong. Here’s how we think about rent in our business:

So, if you ask me to take $100 / month less in rent, you’re asking me to light $14,400 on fire. Which I’m probably not going to do.

A final note: Implicit in the above calculation is the idea that you are going to sell the building. If you’re not, then getting that last dollar is a bit less important. After all, charging a bit less rent reduces turn-over (because your units are a bit under what the tenant can find somewhere else). So, particularly in a non-rent control building, it’s not unreasonable to take a bit less, once you factor in the costs of turning units over (maintenance, lost rent while its vacant, leasing commission to refill it).

Written by mjkagan

07/29/2013 at 11:36 am

How not to act in a rising interest rate environment

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We’re living in a world of rising interest rates, which are already fundamentally changing the real estate market.

As discussed yesterday, as interest rates rise, prices should fall, all other things being equal. That’s because more expensive debt means reduced cashflow and lower returns at a given price.

But, all things are not equal. In general, assuming a normal economy, interest rates should only rise when things are improving. Why? Interest rates are effectively the price of borrowing money. When the economy is bad, and there is not much opportunity, no one wants to invest in new opportunities, so the demand for money is low and the price (the interest rate) falls.

On the other hand, when the economy is promising, everyone wants to borrow to expand their businesses, buy assets, fund consumption (cars, boats, etc.) So, demand for money increases and interest rates rise.

The fact that interest rates are going up isn’t necessarily such a terrible thing. It is, in fact, a strong signal that the economy is improving.

The trick for real estate investors is to figure out how to benefit from an improving economy without being hurt unduly by the rising rates.

Here’s an example of what not to do:

  • Pay a high price (say, over 11x) for a rent controlled property with tenants at below market rents
  • Use a 3- or 5-year fixed rate loan for a very large portion of the purchase price (say, 75%)

Why is that a bad play?

  • You paid a high price, so your cashflow is pretty slim to begin with;
  • Your tenants aren’t leaving, so you’re limited to increasing the rent by the city-mandated 3% / year, meaning that you’re not really benefitting that much from improvements in the economy;
  • Interest rates go up in the interim, maybe to 6-7% (they were that high as recently as 2008);
  • After 3 or 5 years, your rate comes unlocked and your debt payments increase, eating up most/all of your slim cashflow;
  • When you go to refinance, depending upon how much multiples have dropped as a result of the increased interest rates, you may find that you lack the equity necessary to refinance and are therefore stuck with whatever rate your loan has adjusted to.

The above is pretty obvious to me, and yet I see poorly advised investors buying exactly this type of deal all the time.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about some better strategies for investing in a rising interest rate environment.

Written by mjkagan

07/11/2013 at 12:25 pm

Whole lotta building going on…

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In our areas (Silver Lake / Echo Park / etc.), there are tons of small lot subdivision projects in the works.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four projects going in right now, and there are definitely more that I’m forgetting.

So, the question for all of us apartment people, is: What will be the effect on rents in our neighborhoods from the coming wave of for-sale single family homes on tiny lots?

To answer that question, we need to be able to compare the monthly expense of renting to owning.

From speaking with a lot of developers of this kind of product, the pricing developers expect is generally in the $650k+ range for a 1500 sq ft home ($433 / sq ft). At 4.5% interest, the monthly payment required for a $520,000 mortgage (80% of $650k) is around $2,634. Property tax is around $680. Insurance is probably $150. And there are probably home owners’ association dues of $50. That’s a total of around $3,500 / month.

It’s important to remember that almost all of that is pre-tax money (since both mortgage interest and property tax are tax deductible) – so that $3500 is equivalent to paying something like $2000 in after tax money.

If you know our area at all, you know that renting a 1500 sq ft home in very good condition is likely to be $3,000+ / month in after-tax money (since rent is not tax deductible).

That means there’s roughly $1,000 / month in after tax savings if you buy. That’s $12,000 / year on your downpayment of $130k (20% of $650k), or 9%.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for a large place, you’re probably going to be better-off buying rather than renting, assuming you have the dough and the credit. So all of us in the apartment business need to be considering whether the rents we are getting on larger units are sustainable.

Written by mjkagan

07/02/2013 at 5:01 am

University Park Rent Survery

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Today, we’re looking at rents in the USC University Park area. It’s an older neighborhood, centered on the University, with loads of old Victorian and Craftsmen homes in various states of repair.

Situated between downtown and South Los Angeles, there is easy access to the 110 and 10 freeways and the Expo Metro line.

Given the proximity to campus, much of the rental housing is geared towards students, pushing rents higher than usual for an area where the median income is under $20,000. Unlike many of the other neighborhoods surveyed recently, there is quite a bit of inventory, albeit at much higher prices.

Here are the highlights of our survey:

  • Median asking rent for one bed / one bath units was $1395 / month
  • Median asking rent for two bed units was $1900 / month.
  • Median asking for three bed /on bath units was $2,200 (the sole 3/3 unit was listed for $3,000)

Aspiring landlords in the area ought to remember that renting to students is not like being a normal landlord. You end up dealing with turn-over every year, loads of wear-and-tear on the assets, and rent collection issues. My strong advice if you’re thinking of becoming a student housing landlord is to get the parents to co-sign all leases and collect very large security deposits. Consider yourself warned!

The fine print: For our rent survey, we looked at apartments for rent in the area defined as USC University Park by the LA Times neighborhood mapping project. Here’s the raw data: University Park Rent Survey 3-12 (1) 

Written by mjkagan

03/14/2013 at 9:32 am

Silver Lake income property numbers from Q4 2012

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Small apartment building pricing in Silver Lake continues to be very strong, driven by continued gentrification-driven demand, low supply and historically low interest rates.

We ran the numbers on deals for 2-4 unit buildings in Silver Lake (as defined by the LA Times) that closed between September 1 and December 31, 2012, are here’s what we found:

1. 17 deals closed. That’s an active quarter, but not a crazy one. 

2. Sale prices came in at 99% of list. There were very few instances where buyers got real bargains; mostly, sellers got what they asked for.

3. Median price per square foot was $286. This one was influenced by REOs and at least one property that is a tear-down and sold for land value only.

4. Median gross rent multiple of 15.2x. Unbelievable. There’s little to no return on the cash used for a downpayment if you pay 15x. So these buyers are basically betting on appreciation. Not a crazy bet, but why not just buy a house and save yourself the hassle of dealing with tenants?

If you own one of these properties, now would be a good time to think about investing to see if you can capture higher rents and, thereby, increase the value. But we’re not quite at the point in the cycle where I would advise selling, unless you’re a pro looking to crystalize profits you’ve already created.

The fine print: This data came from a search of closed deals on themls.com, augmented by my estimates of rents for units which were vacant at closing. Here is the underlying data: Silver Lake 2-4 Unit Sales Q4 2012.

Written by mjkagan

01/11/2013 at 3:58 am

Checking in on the East Hollywood income property market

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I’m on the record repeatedly extolling the virtues of owning in East Hollywood. I generally think owners there underestimate the achievable rents and that buyers can therefore occasionally find deals that makes sense, even at today’s inflated prices.

Today, I figured I’d check in on the income properties on the market in East Hollywood to see what I can see. Note that, for the purposes of this piece, I am using the LA Times neighborhood map for East Hollywood but excluding the area to the west and south of the 101. Why? Because I don’t think those areas have the same appeal to tenants as the areas closer to Silver Lake.

Here’s a map of the area under consideration:

As of November 25, here are the numbers on 2-4 unit income properties in the area:

  • 12 total properties (excluding what is technically a duplex on Sunset but which is being used as a commercial property currently)
  • Median price per square foot of $249
  • Median gross rent multiple of 14.6 (ludicrously high, in my opinion)
So, what’s going on here? A few thoughts:
  • Some of these properties have been sitting on the market for a while (for obvious reasons)
  • Because these are 2-4 unit deals, its conceivable the sellers / brokers are hoping that an owner occupier will come along and over-pay because they fall in love with the property (don’t be this kind of sap, please!!)
  • Brokers and owners may be becoming aware of what is possible rent-wise, but don’t have the means or the energy to remove their rent controlled tenants. So they are pricing the properties without regard for the rent control and hoping a buyer stupid enough to ignore the rent control will come along (this happens, believe me).

Big picture: If landlords in East Hollywood are going to ask Silver Lake prices, so might as well just buy in Silver Lake.

Written by mjkagan

11/27/2012 at 4:18 am