The numbers. In this industry, you must love the numbers. Love them like they are part of you. For good or for bad, ‘til death do you part, never leave the numbers.
One of the biggest questions I’m asked is how I go about evaluating a property once I find it. What do I do, what do I look at, how do I know if it’s “the one”? There are several things I do and look at with any new potential property, but the most important is the numbers. If the numbers aren’t good, I walk. Save yourself some time, and before you do anything else, run the numbers and see if they work. If they don’t, awesome—you didn’t waste time on other stuff.
What numbers do I run? Well, what should any investor care most about? Cash flow. What determines cash flow? Income and expenses. Simple. People make running numbers out to be so complicated sometimes, it’s a no wonder more people aren’t involved in real estate. In fact, the numbers can be one of the easiest parts of shopping for a property. Unless you are a trained psychic on the crystal ball, then predicting appreciation may be easier for you than estimating cash flow.
4 Steps to Calculate Your Rental Property Numbers (on a Napkin)
1. Figure out the monthly income (gross income).
This will either be rent the current tenants are paying, the asking rent (confirm this number is realistic), or if you have neither of those, you can talk to a local property manager or real estate agent who can give you a market rent value for the property.
Related: How to Use Price-to-Rent Ratio to Analyze a Location
2. Calculate the monthly expenses.
These include property taxes, insurance, property management fee (if applicable), mortgage or financing (if applicable), homeowner’s association fee a.k.a. HOA fees (if applicable), vacancy, and repairs. Don’t forget vacancy and repairs! They are a real part of any property investment, and they can drastically affect the cash flow. Still, so many people don’t think to include them in the expenses.
- Property Taxes: Look on Zillow or another online source for the most recent annual tax amount and divide by 12.
- Insurance: Get a quote from an insurance provider.
- Property Management Fee: Usually around 10% of the monthly rent.
- Mortgage: Use an online mortgage calculator, like the one here on BiggerPockets, to calculate the monthly payment. Confirm with your lender what your down payment and interest on the loan will be to ensure you are using accurate numbers for your calculations.
- HOA: This can be tough to find sometimes. The seller or agent may know the number already, but if not, you will have to call the HOA of the neighborhood. If you only know the annual fee, divide by 12. Don’t skip out on finding out what the actual HOA is! The HOA can absolutely kill a property’s cash flow.
- Vacancy: I conservatively estimate 10% of the monthly rent towards vacancy expenses. In situations where you have a rockstar property manager or your tenants are under a lease option, the actual percentage should be much less. I still use 10% no matter what just to be sure I have a conservative margin.
- Repairs: Again, this is an estimate, but it should not be left out. Just like with vacancy, I err on the side of conservative. If a house is a turnkey property or recently rehabbed and gets a good report from the inspector, I use 5% of the monthly rent. If the property is not in top shape, conservative could mean closer to 25%. Use your judgment on deciding what percentage to use for your estimate, but don’t overestimate the quality of your property and estimate too low.
3. Subtract the monthly expenses from the monthly rent (= net income).
This is your monthly cash flow. Yay! Hopefully it’s positive. If it’s not positive, run.
Related: The Top 8 Real Estate Calculations Every Investor Should Memorize
4. Calculate the returns.
This gives you an idea if you are buying the property at a good deal. It basically compares the return on investment (ROI) to the purchase price.
The cap rate equation:
Net Annual Income / Purchase Price = Cap Rate
NOTE: I don’t include the mortgage payment in this calculation.
The lowest cap rate I would ever want to see for any property, whether residential or commercial, is 6%. The lowest I would want to see on a residential rental property in this market is 8%, and even then, there better be a good reason it’s that low (property in a “sexy” market, highly desirable area, etc.). Anything over 8%, and you are doing well in my opinion.
This number is how much return you are getting on the money you invest. If you pay all cash for a property, this number will be the same as the cap rate. If you are financing, this number is the most accurate way to see the actual return you are getting on your cash-in and the leverage. Here is the equation (and remember to include the mortgage payment since this one is totally focused on financing):
Net Annual Income / Total Cash Invested = Cash-on-Cash Return
Understand the difference? One is a measure of how good of a deal you are getting on the purchase price, and the other tells you the exact return on your money you are getting. They are the same for an all-cash buy, but can be very different for a leveraged purchase.
Pro Tip: If you compare the cash-on-cash returns of an all-cash buy versus a financed buy, you may quickly see the benefit of leveraging! Way more bang for your buck! Try it out on a napkin sometime.
Practice Problem, on an Actual Napkin
Apply these steps to an actual property? On a real napkin? You got it. Even more fun, I’m going to use a property that I bought for myself in Atlanta.
What do you think? Good deal? Absolutely! I’m pocketing $358/month in cash flow (the actual number when there are no vacancies and repairs is $558!), the cap rate is 9.7%, and the cash-on-cash return is 17.97%. Not only are the returns great, but the tenants are under a three-year lease, and the property is in a great area. Score!
Running the numbers on a potential rental property purchase is easy. If you can remember what numbers you need to know, it will take you no time at all to do this for every property you look at. Jot down the list of expenses on a scrap sheet of paper, fill in the numbers, and calculate your cash flow. Done. I’ve done this on multiple napkins in the past. Write everything out, and look for positive cash flow. If it’s not there, ditch the property and move on to the next.
The only trick to this version of running numbers is that the calculation doesn’t include any expenses for rehabs or any work that may have to be put into a property once you purchase it. I usually only deal with turnkeys, which are fully rehabbed when I buy them, so this formula works because there is no work required on the houses.
At the end of the day, numbers are just that—numbers. The reality of a property after you buy it may give you far different numbers than what you initially calculated. For instance, Detroit. Oh, Detroit. On the surface, the numbers are out of this world. In reality, because of several key market factors, those initial numbers often turn out to be so far from reality (in a bad way). If you are a Detroit investor, rock on, and I wish you well. It’s just not my thing.
The point is, don’t ever just go off the numbers on a property, but the numbers are an important first step in evaluating a deal. If you don’t have solid reason to believe you will be getting positive cash flow consistently out of a property, don’t bother with it.
Any horror stories? If you initially calculated that a property would have great returns and then the reality was something totally different, what caused it?
Weigh in with a comment!