By Tom Wilson, CEO of Wilson Investment Properties
There are so many reasons to get excited about owning a multifamily property that it can be easy to overlook one or more critical areas of due diligence. I’ve been investing in real estate for five decades, and I love multifamily products. My best performing asset is a multifamily that I purchased 17 years ago. And the worst deal I ever owned was also a multifamily asset.
Often deals look amazing with the proforma (projected returns with ideal conditions and assumptions) showing high cash flow and high IRR (Internal Rate of Return) projections. These returns are indeed the goal; however, you need to determine if they are just virtual (on paper) or if they can actually reach your pocket. I’ve seen the good and the bad, compiled my experiences, and would like to share the top ten things to consider before closing on your next multi-family deal to maximize your success.
1) LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION.
The metro and the sub market are critical. What is the traffic count? Visibility? Is it on the right side of the freeway, or in the path of progress for its city or town? What do its neighbors look like? Who is shopping in the local stores? Would you walk the streets at night?
The answers to these questions are going to be indicative of your experience if you purchase the property.
2) GREMLINS INSIDE?
Every property has surprises. Some good, mostly not. While a smart purchaser always includes contingency and reserve accounts, certain multifamily properties hold more surprises than others.
The foundation, age of chillers and boilers, environmental review, roofing and all deferred maintenance can be major red flags of potential deal-breaking capital expenditures. Make sure your team walks every unit, not just a sample. Twenty percent of the units can chew up 80% of your rehab capital. Also, who is actually living inside your potential property? Review every lease and check if they are really representative of the area. Did the seller fill up the property with low qualification residents just to show a high physical occupancy?
3) JOB & POPULATION GROWTH.
How good is the metro? Any multifamily property requires stable or growing rents and tenancy to be a successful investment. Good tenants have jobs and pay their rent on time. Look at individual job growth statistics. Is the city growing faster than the state or nation? What about in your sub market? Good job markets attract people, while bad markets see net negative population growth.
If your property’s market is stagnant or on the decline, chances are your occupancy rates will follow.
4) ONE HORSE TOWN?
So you like the metro, employment is good, and population increasing. Now ask yourself “why?”. A good metro has good employment diversification that will weather storms and booms of economic sectors and individual corporations, while singular economy metros are more vulnerable.
Remote military towns can be shut down overnight by congressional base closures. Large corporate offices or manufacturing plants can be relocated else-where or even overseas with mass layoffs in the local area. Natural resource boom towns are vulnerable to single commodity prices and competition.
Even government offices can be moved to newer, cheaper areas, which can leave a non-diversified metro in shambles and hurt your investment. I like growing metros over 1 million people with a broad economic base.
5) PARKING LOT TEST.
Another surefire way to take a litmus test of a property’s tenants is to drive the parking lots at different times of the day and week. Good tenants have jobs and are at work, and the number of cars during the day should be pretty scarce.
If you find a full parking lot during mid weekday, chances are there are many tenants on various levels of subsidized or governmental support, who tend to live with less of a financial buffer to pay rent and care for their unit. This could indicate a higher likelihood for turnover, make-ready costs, and lower occupancy. Park at the property at night and watch. Who is coming and going? A lot of traffic on site that are not occupants could indicate illegal operations or extra tenants who are not on the contract.
6) SELL STORY.
Why is the current owner selling? Have they been struggling for years to make it perform and have just given up? Did they not have enough capital to mitigate deferred maintenance or to attract higher rent tenants? Perhaps the neighborhood is rougher than the listing broker is making it out to be.
I’ve passed on what appeared on paper to be amazing investment opportunities, simply by asking,“Why couldn’t the existing owner do better, and what makes me think I can outperform the current owners?”. Sometimes the property is good but the nearby properties are better, and it would take too much capital to just come up to par with the competition. Remember, the seller knows more about the property than you, so it is important to fully discover the history and challenges.
7) MANAGEMENT & MAINTENANCE.
A critical way to control the tenant density environment, improve service to tenants, and reduce costs is to have full time on-site property management and maintenance.
This allows you to better control who lives in your property and get prospective tenants to sign leases before finding other options. It also allows you to quickly evict problem tenants, and to get maintenance and other problems fixed with minimal wait times and maximum tenant retention.
Typically, a multifamily has to have $40-50 thousand minimum income to afford to have on-site management and maintenance. Any less or a parttime solution with less effective service can hurt your property’s performance. That is why I avoid small multifamily properties.
8) WEAK ASSET IN A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD.
You can have a lot of control on improving a property, however, almost no control on fixing the neighborhood. I will look at C properties but almost always insist on a B- or better neighborhood.
You’ve heard one philosophy for buying houses to look for the ugliest house on the best block – the same can work for multifamily properties. Find a property for which added value and better management can take advantage of the lift from neighborhood. The sub market around you can help or hurt you. Choose it as carefully as you choose the property.
9) RECESSION REVIEW.
It’s easy to have a Midas complex in this bull market and start believing that everything anyone touches turns to gold. And it’s true, when the economy is on an up-swing, even mediocre properties with average management can be successful. This holds true until it doesn’t, and those who don’t plan accordingly will get hurt the most.
I look at the great recession performance years (2007-2010), and see how the product and sub-market performed then. How much did the occupancy drop? Did the NOI crater? How did the sub-market’s population and unemployment do?
These are good tests on how the property and area will do in the next recession. And all expansions end, we just don’t know when. Select a historically resilient market and plan on having enough reserves and low enough leverage so your property will survive the next recession.
10) FRIENDS AND FAMILY TEST.
Lastly, especially if you are responsible for other investors’ money to help fund acquisition, ask yourself “would I offer this investment to my friends and family?”.
If the answer is “no”, or even if you have to pause and think about it, you likely already know the answer and should listen to your subconscious and walk away while you can. That final “gut test” is useful in overriding our mind’s uncanny ability to talk ourselves into a bad decision even when we know deep down it’s likely higher risk than we feel comfortable with.
This is just a sampling of the many important things to look for during due diligence before closing or even making an offer on a multifamily property. One of my top observations is that sub-markets vary a lot from the average of the metro, and the sub-markets and surrounding areas can be as important as the property itself in determining likelihood of success.
And lastly, don’t reinvent the wheel. Ride on the coattails of experts and utilize the experience of others. Even though I have almost five decades and 4,000 unit transactions of experience, I never do a new deal without consulting an expert for every aspect of the investment, including the sub-market and the asset class. Use those trusted advisors around you that have honed their expertise and judgment and you’ll greatly increase your probability of having a successful multifamily asset.
To your financial success,
Tom K. Wilson
CEO Wilson Investment Properties