Things to Consider Before You Buy That First Multifamily Building: Finding The Perfect Deal

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Purchasing a multifamily building or apartment isn’t as simple as buying a neat little home and renting it to a single person or family.

It can, however, be extremely more profitable when it’s done right.

Even if you’ve purchased single family structures in the past, this time your tenants are going to be living right alongside other people’s children, property, and animals — and that can create a whole new kind of mess to deal with if you’re not careful.

Not to mention, a mistake when dealing with a $100,000 home can be quite a painful lesson…but a mistake with a $1 million apartment can destroy you.

On the other hand, if you are careful, the benefits can be amazing — so let’s talk about how to maximize them and minimize the fuss.

Finding a Needle in a Haystack

If you’ve bought single-family investment properties before, the first difference to understand about buying a multi-family building is that it’s much harder to find deals. There are obviously significantly fewer multi-family buildings than single-family homes, which means there are fewer sellers and even fewer motivated sellers.

Secondly, there are a decent number of real estate agents that will work with an investor to find a single-family investment, but far fewer qualified agents willing to help find a multi-family investment.

Qualified is key, as most single-family agents will be like fish out of water when it comes to the multi-family market. Most of the qualified commercial real estate agents actually work for sellers, so getting them to find a buyer a deal is not likely to happen.

So, that usually leaves you the investor with a tougher challenge to find a multi-family deal compared to a single-family deal.

How can you address this challenge?

By networking with as many real estate agents that list the size of apartment buildings in the locations you want to target.

It’s also probably a good idea to do your own research on buildings in your target area that aren’t listed for sale and “beat” the agents to the seller. Start a mailing campaign to all the apartment owners in your target area to see if any are interested. Keep in mind that usually the smaller number of unit apartment buildings are probably owned by a single person or two, as opposed to a REIT or syndicate, making them statistically more likely to be a “motivated seller”.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Using Direct Mail Advertising to Grow Your Real Estate Business

The biggest opportunity maker for you is finding an apartment building where rents are below the market. There’s no easier way to find a deal than one that’s under-rented! The catch is to be sure you know all the reasons the rents are below market: absentee owner, “lazy” owner, poor management, too much deferred maintenance, wrong tenant population, units never redecorated, ineffective marketing, etc.

Before You Buy, Crunch ALL the Numbers

Before you consider making an offer, get a pen and paper out and work out whether or not this specific multifamily building is something of value to you. To do that you need to analyze the deal and make sure you cover everything.

The basic categories consist of these:

  • Property taxes – be sure you understand what changes to them may occur upon a sale to you
  • Insurance – quotes can be complicated, so find an experienced insurance agent that can estimate them accurately for you.
  • Management – always factor this in, even if you plan to do it yourself!
  • Maintenance – often underestimated, so be careful, especially with older buildings.
  • Deferred maintenance – we’ll cover this in our next installment of this series, but it’s very important.
  • Current rent versus target rent – this is tricky as the target rent isn’t a proven number, so be conservative.

NOTE: Be careful with numbers given by the seller or an agent. It’s in their best interests to underestimate expenses and overestimate income. Agents will often prepare a “proforma” analysis for marketing purposes that shouldn’t be trusted. Verify all numbers yourself.

RelatedBuilding a Pro Forma: an Essential Skill for Real Estate Investors

Once you have all of the core numbers, it’s a matter of wrangling them until they tell you what you want to know (we’re not going to get into Net Operating Income (NOI) and Capitalization formulas here, as there are plenty of other articles out there explaining these). When crunching your numbers, don’t forget about deferred maintenance and capital improvement costs.

Analyze the deferred maintenance & capital improvement issues and determine the replacement timeline of each. For instance, if you have to replace a roof, you may pick a timeline of 20 to 30 years before it has to be replaced again. Use these to figure out your monthly deferred maintenance & capital improvement costs.

Some costs to keep in mind: roofs, parking lots, sidewalks, pools, furnaces, hot water heaters, ac units, etc. How soon you’ll have to address each of these issues will definitely affect your cashflow and could easily cause financial havoc or ruin.

As it’s highly unlikely an apartment building will be consistently 100% occupied, don’t forget to include a vacancy factor in your calculations. The number will depend on the marketplace, but don’t underestimate this number. Keep in mind to either include lost rent from evictions in your vacancy factor or make it a separate category.

Another useful analysis is figuring out how many of units have to be rented in order to meet your monthly costs. If you’re in the 70% range, you’re doing well — if you’re approaching 100%, you’re looking at a pretty risky investment.

Come back for Parts II and III, and we’ll delve into additional details that make multi-family rental buildings significantly more complex and delicate than single-family rentals.

About Author

Drew Sygit

While in the mortgage business, Drew rose to a VP position at the first broker he worked for and then started his own company. In the pursuit of excellence, he obtained several mortgage designations and joined mortgage & several affiliate association Boards. He also did WebX presentations and public speaking. It was during this time he started personally investing in single-family rentals, leading him to also start Royal Rose Property Management with two partners. He also joined the Board of a local real estate investors association, eventually becoming its President. The real estate crash led to an offer from the banking industry to manage a Michigan bank’s failed bank assets they acquired from the FDIC. The bank acquired four failed banks from the FDIC, increasing from $100M in assets to over $2B while he was there. After that, he took over as President of Royal Rose Property Management. Today, he speaks at national property management conventions and does WebX presentations.


  1. “Start a mailing campaign to all the apartment owners in your target area to see if any are interested.”

    How do you get the addresses of the apartment owners?? Most small multifamily buildings don’t have an office or anything like that and the people living there are tenants.

    • We have done periodic mailings to multi-family owners over the last year. I would suggest starting with the county auditor/assessor website for your market. In our market (Cincinnati) the website allows you to screen by property type (single family, 2-family, 3-family or 4-19 family). The owner and their address is listed for each property. You have to go through a few steps to get all the data for a mailing but it is doable. I agree with all the points in this post about the difficulty of finding “motivated” multi-family sellers and absolutely think working with a realtor who understands multi-family (and hopefully invests themselves) is a key to success.

  2. Drew Sygit

    Jason, you can get the addresses in several ways:

    1) Drive around the areas you’re interested in and write down the addresses. Then lookup mailing addresses in public records.

    2) Go to local municipality office (city or county) as many will give you a list of properties that meet basic parameters such as multi-unit residential properties. It’s public information and you may have to pay for it and/or file a Freedom of Information Act request.

    3) Get access to your local MLS which usually allows access to Public Record Data and search for nonowner-occupied, multi-family residential properties. You can often export this as a CVS file and then sort it in Excel or GoogleDocs. Hint: if you can’t select nonowner occupied search criteria, you can compare mailing address to property address to determine it manually or with a macro. Real estate agents & title companies may be able to assist with this.

    4) Use Google to search for mailing list companies and find one that can tailor a list to your criteria.

    Hope this answers your question!

  3. Brian Levredge on

    I would include having a plan to exit before you buy. In other words (even if it’s a long term hold) there should be good reason to get into the investment other than just the desire to do so. Furthermore, as part of that strategy you may want to develop a property improvement plan that will act as a development guide and help you to budget accordingly.

  4. I have two multi unit properties in Orange County, California. I did a broad set of analysis ranging from the cap rate analysis to more subjective analysis such as neighborhood and renter demographics. Below is a link to the analysis excel results that I did before purchasing my last property last year. If people find it helpful, let me know and perhaps I can contribute an article to this topic as well!

  5. Mehran Kamari on

    Great article, I’m looking to learn more about M/F acquisitions and I this information is golden. I like the idea of knowing how many units need to be filled to keep yourself above water. Thanks for sharing the 70% metric to compare our deals with.

  6. Hi there,

    Great article with lots of points to consider when looking for the right property. I am looking for that first property now and have been taking my time with both search for potential properties and doing due diligence in analyzing any potential/or almost potential investments. One thing that you mentioned confused me, though:

    “Another useful analysis is figuring out how many of units have to be rented in order to meet your monthly costs. If you’re in the 70% range, you’re doing well — if you’re approaching 100%, you’re looking at a pretty risky investment.”

    I’m interested in a 3 unit/owner occupied for the first year under an FHA loan. After that I intend to move on to another unit and rent all three units on my first property. Does this mean that since I’ll depend on two units to be able sustain my cash flow while living in the third that I am expecting 100% occupancy and therefore taking a risk?

    For example if I found a for 3 unit for 150,000 in my area I would need to expect to rent just one unit out at 1,500/ mo to meet that 70% rule? Since those rents are not possible in this area especially for a cheap 3 unit property, I am assuming that you are not referring to owner occupied properties here. Could you please clarify how this rule would apply to a situation like mine? Maybe I misunderstood the premises of your comment.

    Thank you!

  7. Drew Sygit

    @BURGUNDY: Your confusion makes sense! In the context this article was written in, a multifamily building is 5+ units. The market actually defines single-family properties as 1-4 units as that is what you can get a residential mortgage on, such as your FHA loan you are looking at.

    You should still figure out how many units of the three unit you are looking at wil need to be rented to cover your mortgage and all other expenses. Hopefully, the two other units will cover all expenses so you can live free for the year FHA requires you to owner-occupy the property and then when you rent out that third unit it is all “profit”.

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