Business Management

The Investor’s Simple Guide to Excellent Real Estate Bookkeeping

Expertise: Real Estate Investing Basics, Personal Development, Business Management, Personal Finance
47 Articles Written
exp

The links to third-party products and services on this page are affiliate links, meaning that BiggerPockets may earn a commission (at no additional cost to you) if you click through and make a purchase.

Want more articles like this?

Create an account today to get BiggerPocket's best blog articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up for free

The Super Bowl crowd was on their feet. It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. You could feel the excitement in the air.

Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos was leading his team down the field. He dropped back to pass, heaved the ball into the air, and a diving receiver caught the ball in the back of the end zone with one hand!

It was an incredible play. The crowd went wild!

But then — nothing.  

Everyone looked to the scoreboard, but it was blank. There were no points added. Were the Broncos winning? Or were the Carolina Panthers? Did anyone really know?

Everyone watching on TV waited to see the statistics for the game. It seemed like the Broncos were playing better, but who had more yards? Who hard more turnovers? Who had more first downs? Who would eventually be crowned the Super Bowl Champion? Who was the MVP?

No one was tracking the key statistics of the game. The Broncos could brag about all of the great plays they made, but could they really PROVE that they won the game?

OK. I know this sounds ridiculous. But it reminds me of a lot of real estate investors I know.

Too many investors play the game of real estate with sloppy or bad bookkeeping. Bookkeeping is the system you use to organize and analyze all of your financial transactions. It’s how you track your key financial statistics. It’s how you know if you’re winning or not.

You can do an excellent job of finding deals, acquiring money, and generating cash flow. But if you forget or delay the detailed work of excellent bookkeeping, what’s the point? It’s like scoring a touchdown with no scoreboard.

This article is written to to help you improve or start keeping excellent books and records for your real estate business. The good news is that it’s not that complicated. Like cleaning your kitchen after a meal, it just requires a little hard work and a simple system of organization.

Related: The Top 10 Bookkeeping Mistakes Real Estate Investors Can’t Afford to Make

Let’s get started.

investor-bookkeeping

Why You Need Excellent Books in Real Estate Investing

Bookkeeping is not the game of real estate itself. It’s the scoreboard, the game film, and the organization of information related to the game of real estate.

But an organized, timely, and easy to use system of bookkeeping serves many practical purposes within your business. For example, it helps you to:

  • Keep track of key performance measurements like cash flow, profit/loss, and net worth
  • Compare your growth (or lack of growth) from year to year
  • Manage your cash so that you don’t run out
  • Know whether certain business strategies actually worked well or not
  • Analyze which rental properties perform better than others (so you can sell some and keep others)
  • Prepare for yearly tax returns without extra stress
  • Save money on tax preparation because your CPA or other professional doesn’t bill you for time spent getting your information organized correctly
  • Avoid extra time and stress digging up information in case of an IRS audit
  • Avoid potential IRS tax penalties or backed taxes because you can’t defend deductions you claimed
  • Pay all of your bills and financial obligations on time as agreed
  • Raise capital with lenders and partners using real data from past performance

I could go on and on with more practical uses of bookkeeping. In essence, good books allow you to meet your obligations to outside parties, and they allow you to make better decisions inside your business. The best business people I know see their business in numbers, and bookkeeping allows them to do that.

But if it’s so important, why don’t we do it better?

When my business partner and I first began investing, we found that bookkeeping was not as urgent or as exciting as other issues in our business. Putting together deals, finding money partners, managing a rehab, and selling or renting our properties were obviously very important. We always intended to do our bookkeeping right, but life and the weekly schedule got in the way.

It wasn’t until a year or two after starting that we really got serious about having an excellent system of bookkeeping. By then, the things we had done incorrectly or had ignored for too long became monster-like problems that required painful, late-night bookkeeping marathons to correct.

So, the best practice is to learn and begin bookkeeping early before you get too big. Your future self will thank you!

tax-deductions

The Basics of an Excellent Bookkeeping System

We basically divide our own bookkeeping system into two separate buckets:

  1. The books: A paper or digital record of all financial transactions.
  2. The supporting documents: The paperwork that proves or supports all of the financial transactions.

Today, most investors use some sort of software like Excel or Quickbooks to handle the books. Our businesses currently use a combination of Quickbooks and a property management software called Buildium (to learn more about Buildium, click here). I’ll share how we use them in a later section.    

Most investors also keep their supporting documents in a physical file cabinet and/or a digital filing system. We have used a physical filing system for a long time, but we’re moving more and more towards paperless, cloud-based records using an online filing system called Evernote.

These two systems — books and supporting documents — are mirror images and work together with one another.

If you just have books without the paperwork, an IRS auditor may never believe the expenses you claimed to have. But if you just have paperwork without the records, you’ll never have a clear, easy to understand summary of what’s happening financially.

When you first start investing, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all of the fancy bookkeeping options.

In reality, simple or fancy options basically do the same thing. Early on, you should keep your bookkeeping system as simple as possible so that you can spend most of your time learning about the other important tasks like finding deals and finding money.

If I were to start over again and had zero or just a couple of properties, I’d quickly set up a system with two parts, like this:

Part 1: Books

  • Excel/Google Docs spreadsheet
  • Business bank account with online banking
  • Debit card

All money coming into or out of the business would use this bank account. Because everything is in one place, I could easily track every transaction by periodically downloading my bank transactions into the spreadsheet and organizing them. My spreadsheet might look something like this:

Basic Bookkeeping Spreadsheet For Real Estate Investors

In an “Account” column I’d categorize each transaction with labels like repairs, insurance, legal and professional fees, management fees, advertising, etc. To make your tax preparation easy, you can model your categories after the IRS Schedule E categories. Just create a separate tab on your spreadsheet with the list of all of these expense categories for reference.

I’d include a “Memo” column in order to describe in more detail what the transaction is. This is handy when you have to look back over transactions months or years later.

I’d also include a “Property” column so that I could separate transactions by property when needed.

This spreadsheet transaction list is very simple. You might argue it doesn’t do everything you need from a bookkeeping system. You’re right. At some point, you’ll probably want to switch to something a little more advanced (or at least add more spreadsheets).  

But when you first start, the most important habit is to track and categorize everything. If you effectively do this simple spreadsheet or something like it, you will have a firm foundation to build upon when you choose to get more advanced.

Related: Bookkeeping For Investors: How to Keep Your Records Straight (& Maximize Tax Savings)

real-estate-market-study

Part 2: Supporting Documents

  • Box of simple manilla folders (or free Google Drive account)
  • Small, portable file box or other filing cabinet (if using paper)
  • One folder per year for all proof of expenses (invoices, receipts, etc.)
  • One folder per year for all bank statements (and another for credit cards)
  • One folder per year for tax return documents
  • One folder per property for insurance docs, contracts, HUD-1 statements, leases, and any other non-financial property documents

The key habit here is to keep your supporting document system handy. It should take three seconds to open your file box and put a receipt in the proper folder (or scan and upload it). It should also take three seconds to find the folder if you need to pull a receipt out. I like having a portable system because you can file or access the paperwork anytime.  

Most bookkeeping systems break down because you have to go home and wait for quiet time to “do bookkeeping.” Instead, carry it with you (or on your smartphone) and do it all the time.

If you are beginning with a paperless system, you can use your smartphone to take pictures with scanning apps like Evernote, Google Drive, or other stand-alone apps. If you’re doing more volume of paper, I suggest getting a good scanner that can quickly process your documents. We went all out and got this expensive, super-charged scanner, but you can also do just fine with a less expensive portable scanner, like this.  

And as you can see, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to create a support document system that is useful and scalable.

Take Your Bookkeeping to the Next Level

Don’t discount the value of a simple bookkeeping system like I just described. Some real estate investors go years using a spreadsheet and a small file cabinet to accurately track their entire real estate business.

But there are many benefits to getting a little more advanced with your system. Especially as your business gets more complicated with multiple properties, separate companies, and hundreds of transactions, bookkeeping software can make your life easier, either as a stand-alone version on your desktop or a portable, cloud based version.

Software can automate many of the functions you have to do manually, like downloading transactions from your bank. It can also take the raw data you give it and quickly produce very helpful reports on a variety of metrics within your business. Software can also integrate with other necessary business functions, like doing payroll, sending invoices, and issuing required 1099 forms to contractors each year.

Real estate investing also has a variety of more complicated bookkeeping entries that are just easier using software. For example, correctly entering a HUD-1 so that your balance sheet and basis in a real estate property is correct would be tedious for me in a spreadsheet. But with good software, the entry can be done fairly easily.

Software can help you with both of the major divisions of a rental property business:

  1. Managing properties
  2. Owning properties

If you hire third party property management, your management company will do all of the bookkeeping for property management. The management company will invoice tenants, collect unpaid rent, hold security deposits, and pay most of the contractors who do repairs to the property.

Then when you get your monthly owner’s check and a report, you take the data from the report and enter it into the books for your rental holding company. You can begin by making these entries yourself, but when you get enough volume, a bookkeeper is a great resource to do the tedious data entry.

If you self-manage, you’ll need to keep track of books for both property management and property ownership. Software can be a HUGE help in keeping both systems straight.

1031-exchange-rules

For years my business partner and I used Quickbooks to keep both the property management books and also the rental owner books.  Because these functions were done in separate companies, we just had a separate set of books for each one.

Related: 5 Smart Tips for Outsourcing & Delegating Work in Your Real Estate Business

Recently we switched the property management side of our bookkeeping to a cloud-based management software called Buildium. We made this move because it also helped us to handle many other functions outside of bookkeeping, like leasing, tenant qualification, work order tracking for maintenance, and more. We also have enough properties to justify the extra cost.

We still love Quickbooks for bookkeeping within our rental holding companies. We find it more versatile, and it can handle more complex entries, like installment sales, 1031 exchanges, and more.

Software solutions are constantly changing, and which one you choose will depend upon your personal business criteria. When you reach this stage, do your homework, ask around here on BiggerPockets.com, and choose one that works for you.

Confidence, Calm, and Power From Excellent Bookkeeping

We real estate investors don’t have crowds cheering for us like the stars of a Super Bowl. Our great plays don’t get replayed on scoreboards in front of 80,000 people or shown on ESPN Sportscenter.

But having an excellent set of books can give you the same confidence, calm, and power as a sports champion. When you know the key statistics of your business at all times, you also set up yourself up for growth and many years of all-star real estate performances in the future.

I still enjoy the popular parts of real estate, like negotiations or rehabbing an ugly house, but I also have found that keeping good books is equally satisfying.

When I print out a balance sheet for a property and see everything in its place, I get a deep sense of satisfaction. When I send my books to my CPA each year, I enjoy knowing that we can have substantive conversations about strategy and tax savings because the information is clear and well organized. When I share some of my books with a partner or a private lender, I take pride that they are confident in my future performance because I accurately tracked my past.

There are no perfect, one-size-fits all bookkeeping systems. But I hope this article inspires you to begin your own system or to improve the one you already have.

Even if you don’t enjoy it like I do, you’ll find your business getting better and better and your life getting easier and easier with an excellent set of books.

Now it’s your turn. What kind of bookkeeping system do you use? Spreadsheets, software, or old-fashioned paper ledgers? How do you organize and track all of your paper supporting documents? Are there other benefits to keeping excellent books that I missed here?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Chad Carson is an entrepreneur, writer, and teacher who used real estate investing to reach financial independence before the age of 37. He wrote an Amazon bestselling book
Read more
    Lucas Holcomb
    Replied over 2 years ago
    I use Excel currently but I am looking to change. I have three excel spreadsheets, one is my expenses and mileage, and I use tabs for each property. Expenses are broken into the IRS recognized items (de minimus safe harbor, repairs, supplies etc). Another rental spreadsheet tracks rent paid and where it is sourced from (cash, check, dss, etc). It is also organized per by tabs per property. Finally I have my income/loss spreadsheet which pulls data from both of these spreadsheets to create my expenses for each property, and my rents for each property. The reason I want to change, I want easier data input. I don’t like clicking the mouse! I want to have all of the most common options (e.g. supplies, repairs, legal fees, etc) available, like a checkbox layout. Same goes for entering expense dates, I want the software to show me all of the months and all of the days, without me clicking some button to open a calendar, and then clicking to the month I want, etc. Don’t even bring up typing in the data, switching from keyboard to mouse and back is tedious. So if anyone knows of software that does this please share! I tried Rentec, and Buildum. This might seem like nitpicking, but think about efficiency, I hate paperwork and I bet you do too. If you have to enter 100 expenses/rents a month and it takes 16 mouse clicks each, that is 1600 mouse clicks! I want that cut down to like 6 mouse clicks per entry, which is only 600 mouse clicks! Sit there and click your mouse a thousand times, you will understand why data entry sucks.
    Lucas Holcomb
    Replied over 2 years ago
    I have tried, buildum, simplifyem, quicken (bought it), and rentec. I did not like any of these. They track what I need, but it is just as easy to do it on a spreadsheet. I am a software engineer full-time so I started using VBA to create a nice input interface for expenses in a spreadsheet. It is so much more efficient, now I want to do the same for rent inputs, leases, etc. I can enter expenses with out using the mouse at all. It is about 5 seconds for data input per entry now and another 10-15seconds to scan an item. I still have to scan items separately since I could not get scan to work from Excel. Once scanned though my data entry in excel automatically renames and moves that scan into an appropriate folder. If I can find the time I am thinking about making a database and turning this into full-blown software using Java so that it can be done from PC or Android. If I can do that it should be about 10 seconds total for entering an expense including putting the receipts into organized folders, adding date, price, property, owner, type, and reason. Currently I would estimate doing all of that takes 45seconds.
    Michael Andrews from Eau Claire, Wisconsin
    Replied over 2 years ago
    Lucas, I am also a software engineer and I have been thinking about doing exactly what you’ve described and much more. I would love to see not only a financial tool that is designed specifically for investors, but a system that helps investors do the numbers on potential investments (like the BP calculator) using a wholistic approach to the life of that asset. Imagine you want to compare a 5/1 arm initial financing with two refinances at year 5 and 10, upgrades done in year 2 and 10 showing new ARV and equity estimates, and an exit strategy built into year 15. Or another scenario on the same property showing a single 30 year fixed rate initial financing, upgrades done on tenant turnaround, and an exit strategy at year 25. Then when you purchase a property you can choose one of your scenarios and see how the life of that asset will lay itself out, and how you can appropriately manage it. Once you acquire the property it would serve as a book keeping, property management (or integrate with other PM softwares), maintenance tracking system, and mobile mileage tracking app. Shoot me a message if you’re interested in chatting!
    Jim MacBean from Long Island City, New York
    Replied about 2 years ago
    I’d just like to say if you guys build this, I would be 1st in line to subscribe! I am currently using 3 systems to track rental income and expenses, duplicating much of the same data, and I currently don’t see any way out. It seems there’s a sizable market for a one-stop shop, designed-for-investors and landlords type of application like what you guys are describing.
    John Dawson Rental Property Investor from Los Angeles, CA
    Replied about 2 years ago
    Totally agree, Lucas. I’m also a software engineer by day, RE investor by night. I’ve been using Google Sheets since I started investing a few years ago – simply for the purpose of property analysis, income/expenses, and portfolio tracking. Since I use out-of-state PM firms, I don’t need all the complexity that buildium, appfolio, propertyware, etc. provide; I simply need the bookkeeping features, so that I can effectively manage the managers. My Google Sheets has grown to push the bounds of what could/should be done with Sheets. And at 40+ SFHs and growing, I need a rock-solid application that won’t break when I add another property, extend a column, or accidentally step on a lookup function. With my Google Sheets in hand as my POC, I’ve just started porting this into a web application, which I think has a lot of potential. Still in the early stages, though… and would love to get insights from other developers/investors. Feel free to PM me if you wanna connect/partner up on this effort.
    Colleen Hurd from Chesapeake, VA
    Replied about 2 years ago
    Michael and Lucas, I love your ideas on creating the software! My VBA skills are not engineer level but I do systems analysis and testing and would be interested in beta testing for this. I have advanced Excel skills and have been using Quickbooks for over 20 years – would love to have something that better suits the needs of REI.
    Lucas Holcomb
    Replied about 2 years ago
    Lucas here again, sorry about the delay in responding been busy 🙂 Tax season and I had to do corporate accounting for the first time ever. I like the idea of making some software. my spreadsheet is working awesome but software/website would definitely be better. If anyone is serious send me a message, maybe we could do something via SVN and make some shared software. Might take us awhile to make since we probably all work full time, but over time we could get it done. We could probably actually find some other developers to work on it too. Obviously we probably all know some Engineers. The most important part I think would be getting a mobile App that makes it super easy to enter receipts, and PC software, ideally a website. The one thing I don’t know super well is security connecting to SQL databases and such from the web.
    Murari Appan Real Estate Investor from Plano, Texas
    Replied over 1 year ago
    Great article! Cannot stress enough for good bookkeeping and the hassles you can avoid for tax season. You don’t need to get an extension every year! This is for a customer of mine. They bought land and are about to start their land development/infrastructure and building construction. They are looking for software (100% paperless) that has mobile support for scanning, recording expenses etc. They are expecting a lot of invoices from different vendors (foundation, electricity, plumbing etc) and they need to pay and track who has given a release of lien as well. Of course, they would need to keep track of profit at every home that is being built with a report that can be run at a individual home. Can you please advise on software that can do this? I did look at QuickBooks etc.
    Lewis Christman Financial Advisor from Macungie, PA
    Replied about 1 year ago
    I’m very frustrated with quicken – lack of instructions and support for real estate in my opinion. It’s not the expenses, it’s the rent. What if rent is 600 and they pay 300 today and 300 in a week? How does that get entered? Multiple payments or allocating it correctly is my challenge.
    Chris Gray Rental Property Investor from Orlando, FL
    Replied about 1 year ago
    Great post! We just implemented Stessa ourself and it’s the first software that I’ve used that’s actually fun to work with.
    Dominik
    Replied 11 months ago
    Generally I do not read post on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to check out and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, quite nice article.
    newspaper
    Replied 11 months ago
    Simply want to say your article is as amazing. The clarity to your post is simply nice and that i could assume you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grasp your RSS feed to stay up to date with imminent post. Thanks 1,000,000 and please keep up the gratifying work.
    918kiss new version apk
    Replied 11 months ago
    These pages offers her a free special report in exchange for her name and email address. The first date is the time when you are going to meet anybody for the first time. https://casinoapps.sitey.me/
    Benjamin Davies
    Replied 9 months ago
    Super interesting! I used to use old fashioned paper ledgers (as that is what I was taught), but then I came across a newer product called Acct Fusion (www.acctfusion.com). I guess they are geared towards real estate brokers and can track commissions and all that, but their accounting side is very easy to use, up to date, and includes everything I need. Plus it is cheap, so can't beat it! Looking forward to more posts!