An interesting discussion unfolded on the Forums last week, when Mindy Jensen started a thread called “What do you like to read about on the BiggerPockets blog?” As the conversation took shape, it became clear that many folks want more actionable and specific advice from seasoned investors and less generic fluff. Furthermore, one comment indicated that series of articles is an engaging way to address different aspects of a strategy, allowing in-depth exploration of multiple aspects more so than a single post permits. I tend to agree. After all, a series of articles allows tracking of one theme or investment over a period of time, thus providing a well-rounded perspective that is not static. In the past three years, I’ve written several series. One series focuses on issues of buying cheap housing in the Midwest (I call them “pigs”). Another series traces the process of acquisition and re-positioning of a multi-unit, and it is this series that I’d like to add to today. The Symphony Deal The original article can be found here. The Symphony deal is a 10-unit comprised of two buildings each containing five apartments. The structures are two-story, and the units are all town homes. Built in 1980, the buildings sit on slab foundations, are covered with simple 6/12 pitch gable shingled roofs, and are wrapped with vinyl siding. The unit mix consists four 2/1.5 units and six 2/1 units. The buildings are all electric. Units are individually metered for electricity and water. Sewer and trash are on one bill. The HVAC setup includes electric baseboard heat and through-the-wall AC. The location is residential, with the vast majority of dwellings being single family residences. It is economically a “B” location, where all of the homes were built around 1980. What makes this location interesting, and what drives it toward B- rather than C, is that while property taxes are being assessed as per Lima City, this subdivision actually belongs to a Elida school district, which a lot of folks in town deem desirable. What this means, therefore, is that people can get into a reasonably newer home in a school district they deem desirable without spending a fortune–the definition of desirability to a lot of folks! I bought the buildings in February of 2013 for $373,500. The financing package included a portfolio note in first position and a private note in second. The cumulative debt with both mortgages together was about $355,000 or so. After pro-rations and credits, I brought to closing $5,300–the building was 98.5% financed. True Leybovich style. 🙂 Strategy My inspection of the leases indicated that rents were about $50 under market and that the owner was paying for the tenant’s water. The bad debt, turnover costs, and vacancy were the three big economic loss issues. My inspection of the premises revealed about $25,000 of deferred CapEx. The roof on one of the buildings had to go immediately. A few of the water heaters were leaking. A few of the AC units were not cooling. Flooring was old in most of the units. Countertops in most of the kitchens needed love. A fair number of appliances needed upgrading. Finally, some general electrical and plumbing work was needed. In short, the physical structures needed a few bucks’ worth of help since the owner wasn’t making enough cash flow to put back into the building. But the main issue was the tenant base. While a very nice guy indeed, the owner was sort of a nervous guy who, if you ask me, was ill-equipped for the rigors of the biz. This resulted in him letting anyone with some cash in hand into the building. Thus, I knew that most of the re-positioning was going to be a function of the tenant base, not the physical structures. While the buildings surely needed some love, the tenant base was the big problem, and I knew that in addition to $25,000 of CapEx, I’d be sustaining serious economic vacancy. Having said this, I assumed (very, very wrongly) that this process would take 24-36 months and that I was going to be able to upgrade the tenant base gradually, and as I did that, also gradually upgrade the units. This was my plan going in, and this would have allowed me to re-invest money out of the cash flow gradually as I went. Related: Why I Only Pay As Much For Property As My IRR Allows Me The Reality of 2013 Check out this post. Mine was a good plan. It lasted for all of one month. As history books (and my tax returns) show, however, the first eviction started in the first full month of my ownership in March. Subsequently, six out of the 10 units turned over in the 11 months of 2013. As the result, all of those upgrades that I thought I could stretch over 24+ months (and that I thought could be funded out of the cash flow) happened within the first 11 months. Indeed, I raided my floats to fund Symphony in 2013. That year was not a happy time for me. I called Brandon Turner many times to tell him that I hated real estate, and I did–I freaking hated real estate in 2013! The lesson from 2013 is that I relied on my strategy too much and accounted for Murphy’s Law too little. Food for Thought: I find it difficult to find deals, and a lot of people give me a hard time for that. Folks, especially brokers,tell me that my underwriting is ridiculous and I’ll never buy anything at this rate. I am not in the business of doing deals, folks. I don’t get tingly sensations in my spine from putting buildings under contract. I get those tingly sensations from MS, reminding me not to work too hard. Ownership of real estate is not a privilege, and I only do it if there is a clear payoff. And I’ve seen enough to know what a deal with real payoff looks like. My underwriting assumes that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Symphony makes great money today, but in the first 11 months, there was 60% turnover. Try that with 150 units. This is why I underwrite the way I underwrite, and I suggest you be more conservative than you think is prudent as well! And don’t listen to the doubters. Stay absolutely true to your underwriting at all times. Long story short, in the 11 months of 2013, Symphony cash accounting earnings were a whopping $3,000. Think of it this way: All of my CapEx investment came back to me in 2013, plus an additional $3,000. On a cash basis, considering that down-payment of $5,300, this investment was still $2,300 in the hole on December 31, 2013. On a positive note, $3,000 of profit meant that the building paid me back everything I put in at the start. And more importantly, I was upgrading the units and attracting a better class of tenants at higher rents. So, hard and frustrating as it was, I was moving Symphony in the right direction. Symphony in 2014 Read this. The cash basis cash flow in 2014 was just about $12,000. You should know that my initial underwriting indicated a minimum cash flow of $100/door/month. Symphony achieved this in 2014. However, this was the bare minimum, and the reason I had bought this project was because I saw stabilized cash flow much higher than that. I didn’t buy Symphony for $12,000 of cash flow. I bought it because I thought there was room to hit $16,000 or even $18,000. So, while a bit disappointed that after two years all that I’d been able to do was to come up for air and hit a bare minimum target, this was nonetheless progress in the right direction. In so far as I was looking at my T12 very carefully, I knew which units were causing issues and why, and I had a plan going forward. Symphony in 2015 As of today, the cash basis T10 cash flow sits at $18,777. That’s almost $1,900/month! Unless something very dramatic happens at Symphony in the next two months, I think that $20,000+ of cash flow in 2015 sounds reasonable. 🙂 Refinance In 2015 I was ready to refinance. The private note on Symphony, which was cross-collateralized on another building as well, was the last balloon in my portfolio–I wanted it out of the way, and I knew that my private lender would appreciate closing the loop on his IRR for this deal. I still had five years left on the note, by the way. Symphony appraised at $450,000 on current financials at 10% Cap. I refinanced at 75% LTV on a fully amortized 20-year note. If you do the numbers, 75% LTV on $450,000 value is $337,000–this was a few bucks short of being able to wrap about $350,000 of outstanding debt. So, I had the bank do a blanket note on two assets: Symphony and a six-plex I own. This bank was already sitting in first position on that six-plex anyhow, so now they have first and second on the six-plex, and first on Symphony. Summary of Key Events Bought Symphony in 2013 for $373.500 Closed Symphony with $5,300 out of pocket. Starting debt of about $354,000. Cash basis CF in 2013: $3,000. Very heavy turnover and re-positioning. Cash basis CF in 2014: $12,000. Beginning to stabilize. Refinance in 2015. Appraised value of $450,000 at 10 Cap. Cash basis CF T10: $18,777. Should hit over $20,000 in 2015. So, I guess my initial instinct was right. A hundred per door was the minimum, but Symphony is indeed capable of more when well-managed. And let’s not forget, this thing was basically 100% financed! Rate of Return The schedule of annualized cash flows have been as follows: Acquisition: – $5,300 Want more articles like this? Create an account today to get BiggerPocket's best blog articles delivered to your inbox Sign up for free 2013: + $3,000 2014: + $12,000 2015: +$18,777 (These numbers do not include some finance charges) As you can see, I’ve obviously been well paid for the initial investment of $5,300. The initial CapEx is included into the 2013 CF number, which is why it was so low. In terms of CCR, the analysis would be sorta pointless since I’ve got no money in the deal anymore–not since I recouped the original investment of $5,300 three months into 2014. So, cash on cash analysis is just silly in this case. If I were to represent these cash flows as IRR, I would need to close the loop with the final cash flow event from the sale of the property. I am not about to sell 10 units, which generates $20,000/annum, because I don’t specifically have anything to roll the capital into that would throw off better returns. But let’s just say I hold for two more years, and cash flow $15,000 each year ($5,000 less than 2015), at which point I sell for $425,000 ($25,000 under current appraised value): As you can see, the projected IRR in this case would seem to be 157%. Even if I were to discount the IRR by 3% cost of inflation via MIRR, the returns are still out there. What is driving the IRR more than anything else is the no money down nature of this deal. If you read my comments on the Forums, I say quite often the CCR is not a great way to analyze returns. There are several reasons, but most important is the notion that by definition, in order to underwrite to IRR, we must project the exit in order to project the distributable capital upon that exit (the last cash flow event). This is not merely useful from the standpoint of underwriting the ROI, but more importantly this requires us to think far ahead into the future in terms of strategy and to underwrite a plan to mitigate all kinds of things that could potentially take place. It has become common on BiggerPockets to view a long term hold as just that–long term hold. As in, who cares when and how you exit… you are buying for the cash flow. That line of thinking is especially prevalent among TK providers–understandably. I could tell you that money in real estate is made at the time of purchase, and I would be right. But there is a more profound argument here: It’s All About Safety Safety of any investment is personified by 2 elements: Ability to hold forever and thus out-wait the market cycles, and Ability to exit at a moment’s notice if need be. While TK guys (and others) are right in that you are ultimately buying a positively cash flowing asset (we hope), and this gives you peace of mind of being able to hold for as long as necessary, this is only one half of the “safety equation.” Related: A Real Life Example That Proves the Importance of Underwriting Multifamily Numbers An ability to exit at any time without a loss, and preferrably with a profit, is a function of value add and not over-paying on the purchase. Regrettably, while I could exit Symphony at any time, it is not so with some of the junk I bought early on. You see, I used to think that since I am buying for CF, all I care about is the CF. Not at all! Conclusion Was Symphony “no money down”? Well, the acquisition might as well have been. And I was paid back entirely in less than 18 months. However, I deployed roughly $40,000 between now and then, and while all of it came out of the cash flow in 2014 and on, in 2013 I needed to fund the initial deployment of about $25,000. Is no money down possible? I think so. But I wouldn’t advise you to go for anything bigger than a duplex or triplex unless you have access to some larger floats. When will I buy another one? When I find one that’s worth my time and my investor’s capital! P.S. Aside for the links herein, there were other articles in which I made references to Symphony. But for those of you who want less generic, more actionable content, with less fluff, is this what you had in mind? Have any questions about this deal? Would you have done anything differently? Leave your comments and questions below!