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Why 3-15 Unit Buildings Offer the Best Returns for Investors

Chad Gallagher
4 min read
Why 3-15 Unit Buildings Offer the Best Returns for Investors

Investors need to work harder to find good deals than they did several years ago due to the more competitive real estate market. Our real estate company decided to use data and insights to figure out which investing class to target.

Our company manages over 2,500 units across central Pennsylvania. (We own 200, and the rest we manage for other owners.) We are able to use that data to make better decisions.

From our analysis, we found that the sweet spot to investing is the three- to 15-unit building due to lower purchase demand. One caveat to the analysis: We invest based on IRR over a 20-year period.

We aren’t flippers, and we aren’t trying to guess at highly appreciating markets. Each investment class has deals in it; we simply think that three- to 15-unit buildings are the easiest deals to find.

Related: 4 Tips to Find Your Niche in Real Estate (& Actually START Investing!)

Single Family Homes

Let’s start with single family homes (SFHs). SFH buying demand comes from two major buckets.

First, there is the obvious group of people who buy a SFH for their primary residence. The other major demand bucket is high net worth individuals who buy these as investment properties.

Doctors, lawyers, executives, etc. are looking for a place to invest some money. They typically aren’t experts in real estate. They are usually looking for a safe bet that won’t take too much of their scarce time. Also, they often want to acquire a property where they feel secure (both from crime and financial risk)—usually taking away low income housing as an option.  

We acquired our first couple of properties from this investment class. The returns have been OK (not great or horrible). They are also easier to manage and have less variance of evictions and maintenance costs. Typical cap rates in Pennsylvania range from 5 to 8 percent for class A and B SFH properties.

308 E New
This is the first property we bought: a single family house in Lancaster, Penn.

Multifamily Complexes

On the other end of the spectrum, 15-plus unit buildings are attractive to syndications and funds. Managers of big pools of money want to put their money to work in one major transaction. It’s simply not time efficient for them to acquire smaller properties, because they need to deploy major amounts of money.

Syndications have risen in popularity as seasoned investors raise money from individuals and deploy that money all at once to a multifamily complex. This growing demand, coupled with a revived economy, has pushed cap rates for these complexes much lower into the 5 to 7.5 percent cap rate range.  

Lofts at Savoy
This is the 49-unit complex bought as part of a syndication that we manage in Elizabethtown, Penn.

3-15 Unit Buildings

We believe the sweet spot for investing right now is the three- to 15-unit building space. The only demand for these properties are, for the most part, local real estate investors.

These properties are too time-consuming for the major national investment syndications and funds to acquire. The high net worth individual is typically not interested in the complexity of multi-unit buildings. Outside of a few house hackers out there, it also doesn’t work for people looking for a primary residence.  

We actually structured a syndication with the sole intention of splitting the gap of demand to acquire $10M in two- to 15-unit properties. The syndication investors invest into the syndication without knowing what specific properties will be acquired. But the upside is we are able to target 9 to 15 percent cap rate properties—significantly higher returns than a complex would offer.

This strategy requires a strong property management partner, because it’s much tougher to manage buildings spread out across a region.

To get even more specific, we believe the REAL sweet spot is five- to 15-unit buildings, because these buildings get commercial appraisals. If you use the BRRRR method (buy, rehab, rent, refinance, repeat) of buying properties, the appraisal is key to returns, as it dictates how much money you can pull out of the property. We have found commercial appraisals often appraise higher for strong cash-flowing properties, especially once you have the property leased out.

Chestnut Building
We acquired this 15-unit building in Harrisburg, Penn., as part of syndication.

Downside to 3-15 Unit Buildings

There are two major downsides to building out a portfolio of three- to 15-unit buildings. First, the acquisition of these mid-sized buildings is harder than buying one massive apartment complex. Negotiating terms of the deal, financing, closing, tenant communication, and initial property repairs can be much more time-consuming with three- to 15-unit buildings.  

Related: 5 Ways to Jump Up to Large-Scale Multifamily Investing

The other major downside to this approach is the property management time commitment. For an apartment complex, it simplifies things having all tenants in one location due to common property features and centralized geographic location.

On the other side, SFHs often attract higher rent tenants, who are usually easier to manage. Owning units across multiple three- to 15-unit buildings requires strong systems/partners to make sure rent is paid and maintenance costs stay low.

Final Thoughts

One important note is that there are a ton of caveats, and this was a very broad generalization. Investors can lose or make a lot of money in each investment class. It is just a lot easier to get high returns by targeting unsaturated markets.

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What’s your favorite real estate class to invest in—and why?

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Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.