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Investing for Cash Flow or Appreciation – What’s the Difference?

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No doubt, the point of investing is to receive income.

Why else would you invest? You want to put your money into a property or a project or a stock or a thing or whatever will earn you some cash. It’s the whole reason for investing- to turn a smaller amount of money into a larger amount of money.

How does one do that? There are a few ways that earning money can happen with investing. The simplest to understand is interest. If you loan someone an amount of money and attach a set interest rate to it, that person will pay you that interest on top of what you originally lent.

Your investment income then is that interest they pay you. You get your initial investment back plus that interest and that is your return. Great money! The nice thing about earning interest is that it’s defined up front with no unknown variables. The only risk in loaning money like that is if the person stops paying on the loan.

Even if you take that person to court, it doesn’t guarantee you will see that money again because if the person truly doesn’t have the money to pay you, the best you can get is a lien put on them saying as soon as they do have the money they will pay you. From personal experience, don’t hold your breath waiting to see that payment show up on your front stoop.

What about earning returns in ways more specific to real estate investing? Like, by owning actual real estate. Flipping houses is very popular. If you flip a house, you buy a house cheap with your own money, fix it up, and resell it at a higher price than what you initially paid for it plus what you had to put into it for the rehab.

When you rehab a house, you force appreciation. It’s a cool play actually. What about straight rental properties though? Rental properties are a long-term hold model versus flipping which is shorter-term with forced appreciation (usually). Since nothing is being forced for a rental property, how do the returns work on it?

Two major things contribute to earning returns on a rental property: 1. Cash Flow and 2. Appreciation.

Buying for Cash Flow vs. Appreciation

When you set out to buy a rental property, you’re first thought should be- “how am I going to make money with this property?” You can make money in a few ways with rental properties: cash flow, appreciation, equity build, tax benefits… But let’s just focus on the first two since those are the big ones and those are the two that will (should) drive your decision of what property to buy.

1. Cash Flow

The most popular way to earn money on a rental property is with cash flow.

Cash flow refers to the profits you collect each month from the property. The way it works is you collect the rent from the tenant (a.k.a. gross income) and subtract your expenses (mortgage, taxes, insurance, repairs, management fees, vacancies, etc.) and that leaves you with your cash flow (a.k.a. net income).

Cash flow is exciting because it’s money in your pocket but also your financing and expenses are covered by your tenants’ rent rather than out of your own pocket.

The trick to buying for cash flow is to know how to properly calculate the returns that you should expect on a property. For details on calculating these returns, check out Rental Property Numbers So Easy You Can Calculate Them on a Napkin. But more generally, you need to understand price-to-rent ratios, as they pertain to rental properties.

The price-to-rent ratio will give you an idea, first and foremost, as to whether or not you can even get cash flow from a property. When could you not get cash flow from a property?

When the rent you can collect on a property is not high enough to cover the cost of buying the property. Higher purchase price + lower rent collected = bad price-to-rent ratio. There are few better examples than Los Angeles to demonstrate bad price-to-rent ratios. I used to rent a townhouse in Los Angeles for $2,250/month.

I know that the owner bought the townhouse for $460,000. Calculating the mortgage payment on that house, plus taxes, insurance and condo fees brings the monthly expenses to $2,525.50. See any problems there? The cost of owning that house, per month, isn’t covered fully by what I was paying in rent.

Related: How to Really Calculate Cash Flow on Your Next Rental Property

And that doesn’t even include expenses like maintenance and repairs; I only included the fixed expenses that can’t be avoided. Why not raise the rent, you ask? You can’t just raise rents to whatever you want them to be.

What you ask has to match market rents or you’ll never get it rented. So the price-to-rent ratio on that townhouse is bad for investment purposes because the owner is losing money every month.

If you are wondering, yes there are plenty of properties that have great price-to-rent ratios. The first investment property I bought in Atlanta had a great one. I bought the house for $55,000 and it rents for $975/month.

All of the expenses combined only total $650/month, so I’m profiting $325/month. See how much nicer that works out than the Los Angeles townhouse? It’s all because of the difference in the price-to-rent ratios.

Well why would anyone in the world ever buy a house with such a bad price-to-rent ratio that they lose money every month? Oh, it happens more than you think.

The majority of people who do that are those who just don’t know any better (good thing you have BiggerPockets, so you can know better!). There is another group of people though who happily take the monthly loss; those who are investing solely for appreciation.

2. Appreciation

Speaking of Los Angeles… where better to buy a rental property than if you are just hoping for appreciation?

California in general is huge for the appreciation play, and southern California especially ranks up there for one of the most popular areas for this game.

California has been one of the most widely-known states, if not the most widely-known, to experience drastic increases in real estate prices and a lot of investors have made a fortune from this. So are investors more likely to be totally fine with losing money every month on Los Angeles properties? Absolutely.

Why? They assume their returns will come later once the property appreciates significantly and they collect on that appreciation.

Appreciation plays can award insanely high returns if done right. But what comes with higher returns, almost always? Higher risk. The problem with the appreciation play is appreciation isn’t guaranteed. Appreciation is based off of speculation.

There are smart ways to speculate of course, but none of it is guaranteed. If you don’t believe me, just ask any speculator in 2009 when the market crashed.

Of course, if your property doesn’t appreciate like you hoped you can keep hanging onto it and wait it out longer, but if all the while you are losing money each month, you could be hurting after not very long.

Which One to Choose?

It all depends on your goals.

Some people would never play the appreciation game because they say it is too risky. Some people say cash flow is stupid because you only get a couple hundred bucks a month which is next to nothing compared to what you can make from appreciation. You can be either one of those people and choose which one you like or feel more comfortable with.

Just realize, they are completely different plays. Investing for cash flow is less risky and built more on solid (known) fundamentals but it will give you your return in small amounts over a long period of time. Investing for appreciation is much more risky because appreciation isn’t guaranteed but if you play it right, you can end up with a fat wad of cash in your pocket later on.

There is a third option. This option falls more closely towards the cash flow end of the spectrum, but it still considers the appreciation play. That option is- invest for cash flow in markets that look promising for growth. Los Angeles won’t be one of them because it’s almost impossible to get cash flow.

It’s appreciation-only. Cleveland won’t be one of them because it’s not looking promising for appreciation anytime soon. It is a cash-flow market. But what about cities like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago- all of which are seeing substantial growth booms right now?

Related: 10 Real Estate Markets Where The “Buy and Hold” Strategy Actually Made Sense

If you buy a rental property in those markets, you won’t get as high of cash flow as you would in places like Cleveland or Detroit, but you also stand a much better chance of seeing some appreciation in the very near future and potentially a good bit of appreciation over the farther out future. You will never get as much appreciation in those cities as you would in say Los Angeles, but you stand room to get some.

So there is a spectrum of investing for cash flow or appreciation. You can invest for cash flow only, appreciation only or somewhere in the middle. The major difference you need to understand is the difference between the appreciation-only option and the other options.

The other options (cash flow only or in the middle) are giving you positive cash flow each month which is very important in the case that appreciation on the property doesn’t happen. If there is no appreciation, it’s okay because you are still profiting. The appreciation-only play is 100% dependent on the property seeing appreciation.

That is where the risk comes in and differentiates it from the other options. The appreciation-only play is that house that is losing money every month, like the Los Angeles townhouse. You have to lose money every month in hopes that the appreciation happens.

A lot of people do this and would invest no other way, but a lot of people out there have lost a lot of money doing this too so be very careful getting into it. If you do invest for appreciation though, and it has worked for you, consider me jealous and I’ll give you a high-5 next time I see you!

Where do you fall in the cash flow versus appreciation spectrum?

Be sure to leave your comments below!

About Author

Ali Boone(G+) recently left her corporate job as an Aeronautical Engineer to work full-time in Real Estate Investing. She began as an investor only two years ago but managed to buy 5 properties in just 18 months using only creative financing methods. Her focuses have been on rental properties and overseas investing in Nicaragua.

32 Comments

  1. I invest for mainly cash flow 4.5% COC, principal pay down 8% ( my kids will be happy!!), and no appreciation zero, NNN Walgreens rent stays same for upto 75 yrs, and building gets old!!!

  2. If you invest in a property with negative cash flow, you are not an investor, you are a fool. If you invest in a property for appreciation, you are a speculator.

    If you in vest in a multifamily property, with a 15%+ cash on cash return, in a C+ area, you will be rich soon.

  3. Ali, good post. I invest in RE: Can see it, won’t disappear over night like stocks, add amenities (value), rents keep up with inflation. Positive cash flow let me retire many years ago, appreciation is the Icing.

    Have a lot of hard working people working for me so I don’t have to, God bless each and every one of them.

  4. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION, has always been the mantra of real estate agents, investors, etc. Value is driven by Supply and Demand. Locations that are in demand, with little supply, drive up prices. Though southern California and other prime markets may have higher prices, it’s for a reason. There are usually strong broad based economies, local attractions or in the case of the coasts, we have beautiful beaches that people gravitate to. Though prices are high, in reality they probably will never be lower than they are right now. Sure, the market crashed and all properties lost value. However; most areas of the country still have not recovered, nor have local economies.

    Here in Orange County, CA there are high valued properties. Howver; the prices are still not where they were pre crash. We also have an unemployment rate of 4-5%, a very broad based economy, well educated work force, high income wage earners, and several universities and medical centers, etc. In addition, we have every type of amusement park, zoo, cultural, athletic, offering imaginable, plus perfect year round weather. Add to that, every major airline services the area. THAT is why there is strong demand, and solid appreciation. People live here, come here on business and flock here from around the world. Coastal areas will ALWAYS be in demand. In many of the areas YOY appreciation is 20%.. Areas around here get top dollar in rents, and sales prices. Vacation rentals in some of the top areas make a phenomenal return.

    Sure, you can go to battle zones and find “deals” . In some of those areas they could give you real estate for free and you still couldn’t turn a profit due to the turnover, lack of qualified tenants, etc.

    When investing, dig deep into the details of the area where you are spending your money, and make sure you are looking at the big, long term picture. Cheaper isn’t necessarily better, even though it may provide cash flow.

    I’ll take a brand new house, condo, commercial building in Orange County any day over a low priced, low cash flow deal in a depressed area any day. Sorry.

    • Ali Boone

      No sorry at all Karen. As I said, there is no right or wrong, it’s always preference for each investor. I think you have a great thing going on down there! I agree with your perception (not the right word I don’t think…) about the OC. I know if I were to buy for appreciation, the OC would definitely rank up there. The areas are amazing and I can definitely see perks to buying there over low-end rentals.

  5. @ali boone I don’t think you understand
    1. appreciation
    2. cash flow
    3. price to rent ratios
    4. real estate investing
    5. risk
    6. MARKET FORCES
    7. Profit
    8. cap rates
    A lot of newbies here like you are in the same boat. I would be happy to discuss any of these to help you and others on the BP forum benefit from my and others years of experience and education..

  6. Hey Ali, I think you’re doing great & well on your way. You give great info for the people just starting out. I invest in Atlanta too(from Canada). Everything is going great, and I’ve got great cash flow and the last 18 months have brought huge appreciation. Keep up the good work!!

    • Ali Boone

      That they have Kent! I haven’t done much in Atlanta lately but when I was there hot and heavy right at 18 months ago, I literally watched the prices drive up about 20% in what seemed like overnight. It’s mellowed out there more now, but it was a nice jump there for a bit! Still more to be seen I think, just not quite as fast.

  7. Ali, as usual, you have provided excellent advice here for the beginning investor!

    The market is more important than the property.

    Personally, I am cash-flow centric, while buying those same cash-flowing properties in markets that also have good prospects for appreciation due to:

    – Supply > Demand coupled with Capacity To Pay
    – Existing Critical Infrastructure
    – Job Growth
    – In-Migration > Out-Migration
    – A vibrant Energy sector, which ties jobs specifically to that geographic location
    – “Landlord-Friendly” Law and Practice

    Anchorage, Alaska and Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas are my favorite markets as they check many of the above criteria: “Live where you want to live and invest where the numbers make sense.”

    Alaska has the entire continent’s largest oil field. Texas is remarkably business-friendly.

    As you have eluded to, Ali, it isn’t just beginners, but there are a lot of experienced investors that would benefit from reading your well-written column.

    • Ali Boone

      Thanks Keith! I appreciate the positive feedback and I too invest using the same thoughts that you share here. Marco would be pleased to see his quote on here 😉

  8. Great third option, Ali!

    For me personally, the 3rd option worked. Having cash flow and appreciation in high growth markets helped me to build up more cash when I liquidated my portfolio and entered my niche. From there, the knowledge I gained from experience only propelled my level to success.

    I always enjoy your articles, great thoughts and perspectives! :)

    • Ali Boone

      Thanks Rachel! I always love your comments as well, very well-written. Super cool you’ve been able to liquidate a portfolio once already! Very exciting. Congrats :)

  9. Sharon Vornholt

    Nice post Ali –

    When a person decides to invest in real estate, they have to be clear on their goals and also on the lifestyle they are trying to create. There are a lot of things to take into consideration. If you decide to invest in another city, that is a whole different matter.

    This business is not as simple as buying a few houses is it?

    Sharon

    • Ali Boone

      Haha…definitely not Sharon! And I agree, everyone needs to be clear on their goals and make their investing decisions based off of those. There is no right or wrong, just all in personal preferences.

  10. Gloria D. Wilson on

    This is a great primer for me – cash flow is an absolute goal and necessity – I’m in a totally different market area now – but am totally familiar with Orange County, LA, Beverly Hills, etc. Used to be an appraiser in California – even did some reconstructive appraisals after those great infamous mud slides. And there is some merit to owning brand new properties in certain areas, where brand identity is driving the market – everybody wants to come to sunny California – but, like New York, I find the prices way over inflated – and the amount of work that needs to be done to get someone to drink the kool aid is better spent in less saturated, more people pocket friendly areas – to my mind. Thanks for the insight – I’m going to re read this article and the commentaries as well.

  11. Frankie Woods

    Great article Ali! I agree, the double play is the best move IMHO! I see that as a type of diversification…having your cake and eating it too :). Unfortunately, I have not found this in my “local” market :/

  12. Matt R.

    Ali, I think if you can follow up with what that LA townhouse is worth today and what it rents for today that would be helpful to fully understand what the real difference might be investing for CF vs Appreciation. If that LA home is worth $660k and rents for 3K (36 months later) that kind of changes the whole bottom line numbers picture. Fundamental elements to REI seem to be overlooked if a snap shot comparison is made.
    Shout out if you get those numbers as I am curious….
    thanks!

    • Ali Boone

      Sorry Matt, I’m not in touch with that owner anymore to know what she is renting it for or what it is worth.

      I’d argue that my comparison here is more of a look at fundamentals versus a snap shot. The focus was not to compare which method is going to earn an investor more money, but rather to explain the difference in options on what to focus on when going into a property. Some people want cash flow, some go for appreciation. The difference in those methods is the fundamental information, not the numbers.

      • Matt R.

        Understood. Perhaps look up the address on zillow for some rounded numbers. Your math is sound it is just the above LA townhouse part of the story is incomplete because it is a one month snap shot. We don’t own homes for only one month. The example you submit could be a great learning case study except for it is missing the critical bigger picture info.

        Heck, are you not curious too?
        I am sure your readers will appreciate the transparency and meaningful follow up.

        Thanks!

  13. Ali Boone

    For me to be fully transparent on the math, I would have to include a lot more than a snapshot of what the Zillow value on the property is right now. As you said, it’s only a one month snap shot. If I look it up and tell someone it is higher than it was when it was $460k (which I don’t even know what year/month that was to be accurate about it), that may encourage someone to run out and buy something in hopes of pocketing appreciation, with no other education behind it. A lot more education is needed, in my opinion, than knowing a value in one month and a value in one other month. Maybe not, but I don’t invest for appreciation so I am not qualified to say. You are welcome to take a case study of an LA property, and since apparently you invest for appreciation I assume you know a good bit more about it than I do, and present it to the crowd in a different thread. It’s not my field, so I’m not digging more into it. It’s not an issue of transparency. My “transparency” is my claim that I don’t know more about it to say more than I already did, and the point of the article is not to sell one method over the other.

  14. Matt R.

    Well ok. It appears more effort has been made to deflect rather than educate. When the agenda gets in the way of research we end up with nothing useful. I seriously doubt anyone is going to invest 700k in LA because they read on a blog one well located townhouse appreciated..it happens everyday as is. I was just suggesting something that would make it educational.

    Being 100% transparent is what is required when we honestly discuss investments, whatever the data suggests is the part up for intrepretation. A snap shot look at investments is not useful for buy and hold investors. I will suggest to the readers don’t be afraid of more information, dig as deep as you can to discover what the realistic value of any investment actually is. If important facts are intentionally hidden even when you ask for more clarification that could indicate something is not right that investment.

    Thanks!

    • Ali Boone

      Matt, I appreciate your looking our for people and looking for transparency. As I said before, I’m not giving more information because I know absolutely nothing about the fundamentals of investing for appreciation, so therefore any information I give more than I already did above would be misleading because I’d have no idea what I’m talking about. As I said before too, this article is not intended to sway anyone one way or another as to what they should invest in, it was a simple explanation that there is a difference between the two methods. I’m truly sorry you feel that I am hiding something or have otherwise intentions.

      As I also said before, I encourage you to do a case study if you are so interested and post it on the forums. I’m sure a lot of people would really like to look at it, it would be educational, and it can provide a view of the “realistic value” you are wanting people to see. I can provide “realistic value” for cash flow investments, because that is what I specialize in, but I cannot provide that for appreciation investments because I know nothing about them. This is where you come in– help the rest of us out and inform us, rather than spend your time telling everyone what we aren’t providing.

  15. Amir Kabiri

    Thank you for the informative post, Ali. For myself, and other Los Angeles investors, do you know if it is possible at all to find cash flow deals in the LA market? And if so, any areas you recommend to start looking at? Thanks!

    • Ali Boone

      Hey Amir! You’re welcome! I personally don’t know of anything around LA that cash flows for sure. I know some people have headed up towards Bakersfield, some people talk about the IE, and some talk about Palmdale. If any of those do cash flow though, and still not positive they all do, it is likely going to be pretty minimal and I wouldn’t label the areas as that desirable that I’d want to buy there (for appreciation potential and risk for tenant issues). If you do find cash flow around LA, remember that CA is extremely tenant-friendly too, which can make it extremely expensive and difficult to get rid of bad tenants, so always weigh that issue into your go/no-go decision.

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