Is It Better to Buy & Rehab or Purchase Turnkeys? A Look at the Pros & Cons
As I see turnkeys becoming more popular, I’m seeing more and more people wonder which route they should go when buying a rental property—turnkey or buy and rehab (BRRRR) the property themselves? It’s such a great question! I think the only true answer to the question is it depends.
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It depends on you.
What are you wanting to accomplish, what are your interests in an investment, what skills do you have, and what’s your risk tolerance? More generally, what is most important to you? Everyone is going to have a different answer. If you’ve read my blog posts before, you know I always buy turnkey. But I’m also the first person to say that turnkeys aren’t for everyone, and they shouldn’t be!
How do you know which route you should go if you’re on the fence about them? Well, I’m not going to tell you the answer to that question because I don’t know your personal situation, but I am going to lay out what I believe to the be the pros and cons of each method, and you are welcome to use that to help in deciding for yourself which route would be best suited for you.
You’ll probably notice that the pros and cons lists for each are essentially just the reverse of each other. The pros for BRRRR (buy, rehab, rent, refinance, repeat) happen to be the cons for turnkey—and vice versa. But I’ll explain each as I go.
The Pros & Cons of BRRRR Rental Properties
This is the biggie for BRRRR. It’s arguably the sole reason people go the BRRRR route—and arguably the sole reason a lot of people invest at all. Here’s what happens: You buy a cheap distressed property, you put in a certain amount of money to fix it up, and boom! The property is worth more than the total you put into it (initial purchase price + rehab costs).
This is truly what real estate investing is all about. Consider it the motherlode of REI perks, also known as “free money.” With that free equity, you can either hold it in the property or cash-out refinance the property and use that cash for anything you want. People often use it to buy more properties and do it again! You keep doing that over and over, and you are well on the path to becoming financially free.
Any time you do something yourself, you have the greatest chances of having the nicest quality of whatever it is you are working on. You are probably going to buy the nicer property, you are probably going to rehab it to a slightly higher standard, and it’s probably in a slightly nicer area. Unless you are a really experienced investor and only care about numbers, then maybe you don’t put so much love into the process.
But typically, doing everything yourself tends to happen in nicer locations with nicer properties and prettier rehabs.
Not too unrelated to quality, you are in control of everything (hence getting that better quality). You make the decisions, you make the choices, you have a hand in everything, and there’s a really good chance that you are sleeping pretty well at night because you are in control.
I’ve said in several of my articles that ultimately the only thing that matters in real estate investing is whether you are sleeping well at night or not—with whatever strategy you are using. Different people are comfortable with different things. I would actually sleep worse at night if I were rehabbing a property, because doing that stresses me out. But I know I’m the minority with that. Most people sleep better at night knowing they are in control of their investment, so I’m putting this one in this list.
I said the term “decision making” in the previous bullet, but with this bullet, I mean it in a slightly different context. I’ll expand more on this when I list it as a con for turnkeys, but in short, I believe that doing the work yourself encourages (or forces) you to put more effort and due diligence into your decisions. I think that when you are the only person doing something—and not listening to other people—you are more inclined to put an awful lot of thought into each move/step you take. This can be very beneficial.
Time & Effort
This method can take an atrocious amount of time and effort. Once you become very experienced and advanced with it, you can get systems in place to speed things along. But especially when you are just starting, you should expect this method to be one of the most time- and effort-intensive strategies. You can lessen the time and effort by buying something that doesn’t need a lot of work, but then you start risking some of that forced appreciation. This strategy can require you to find good distressed properties, rehab them, find tenants, and landlord the property. The latter is ongoing time and effort. The more skill you have, the less the time and effort, but you should plan to be very active and involved in this strategy.
You have to be the expert. If you've never rehabbed a house before, you have to rely on a contractor's expertise, and that can be treacherous. Or if you aren't skilled in finding good distressed properties, you have to figure out how to do that. How do you know if the property you are buying is a good candidate for BRRRR and how do you know where to buy? Potential layers of expertise you may need when you are doing everything on your own are: finding good distressed properties, negotiating, creative financing, rehabbing, and landlording. I would easily consider some of those to be advanced skills that are not inherent right off the bat.
Speaking of skills being not inherent right off the bat, any time you are talking about needing to do something and not knowing exactly how to do it right, you are increasing your risk. If you’ve never rehabbed a house, your risk may be very high. If you don’t know how to tell what a good distressed property is and/or where is a good spot to buy it, you increase your risk dramatically with the potential of extra unexpected rehab costs and a poor quality of potential tenants. Your risk for delays is higher if you don’t exactly know what you are doing, your risk for getting bent over by contractors is higher, and you may even be at risk if you don’t know exactly all the laws pertaining to the property (more on the management side). Aside from skill set, it’s your money in this property until it gets settled and cash flowing, so if anything goes wrong, it’s your money that could be lost.
May Require More Cash Up Front
This one depends on your situation, but unless you can get a good hard money loan or short-term financing loan, you may need to use your own cash for the rehab. This may require substantially more capital than you have. I'm not familiar with hard money lending, so I don't know how hard it is to get, but if you are thinking of going the BRRRR route, make sure you know your financing options as compared to your available capital.
The Pros & Cons of Turnkey Rental Properties
Time & Effort
Turnkeys require minimal. Note that they are not 100 percent hands-off, though they are pretty dang close. The only time and effort you need to put into turnkeys is first with due diligence while you are buying and then with just keeping an eye on the property manager once you own it. I’ll say some things below in the cons section about due diligence, but I do encourage doing a good bit of that. But once that is over and you purchase the property, managing the manager is really pretty minimal effort.
Even when I’ve had bad years on my properties or some kind of drama with the property manager, I still didn’t spend more than a few hours the entire year dealing with it. The only property I’ve ever had to spend weeks on is my non-turnkey property (wasn’t even a BRRRR) when I had to manage a rehab on it. The turnkeys are already rehabbed, so anything that happens is usually more small-scale. But even with the worst of managers, the time and effort involvement has been minimal. If you have a good property manager, you might spend five minutes a year on your property.
Turnkey providers usually seriously lack in customer service expertise, but they tend to be great experts on everything else (the important stuff). Assuming you are working with a good turnkey provider, you are really getting a lot of expertise in your property. They know how to find the good distressed properties, they can negotiate well because they buy in bulk, they know how to rehab a house, they know how to screen and place tenants, and they know how to manage tenants.
Well, the latter isn’t their strongest suit usually, but they can do it well enough. Management is pretty easy to deal with; it’s the buying properties (quality and location) and rehabbing that’s really where someone else’s expertise makes a big difference. Those things are not easy or for the faint of heart—and definitely not something a clueless noob should take on. If you don’t have skill or interest in those things, let someone who does do them so your risk factor can be dramatically lowered.
Speaking of risk, this one is dependent. It’s actually dependent up in that pros list for BRRRR, too, but I didn’t think to mention it. The risk level with either method depends on your own skill set. In my case, my risk is dramatically lower with turnkeys than with BRRRR, because I haven’t the foggiest (nor care to have the foggiest) clue how to find the best properties and rehab a property. So if I let experts do it for me, my risk will be much lower than if I do it myself. If you know how to do all of those things yourself, turnkeys might be arguably riskier.
So it’s relative, but I do believe that when someone can contribute expertise in all of the necessary areas related to a successful rental property, your risk will be lowered. But! There is one aspect of risk that isn’t dependent and is lower with turnkeys. The turnkey provider is the one who has their money invested in the property before it is performing. You don’t buy it until it proves to be performing and up to the standard that it was advertised to be in.
So if the rehab takes longer than planned, or ends up more expensive than planned, or anything else goes wrong along the way, you aren’t responsible! That’s major risk mitigation. You are allowed the opportunity to verify everything before you sign on the dotted line. This is fantastic for minimizing risk. For anyone who will argue that turnkeys aren’t good quality so the risk is higher, first read the bullets below that I’m about to write, but also know that in no way, shape, or form do you have to close on a turnkey property that isn’t up to the standard it was advertised to be in when you put it under contract. If you put one under contract and then you find anything sketch about it or anything below par, you aren’t obligated to buy it.
So don’t buy it. Simple as that. Move onto the next one and try again. You get to figure all of this out with no money out of your pocket.
This is by far the major downfall of turnkeys. Turnkeys typically sell around market value, and because they are already fully rehabbed, there isn’t usually a way to improve anything to force appreciation. You can increase your chances of gaining appreciation. For example, if you buy in the most infant stage of a market’s growth cycle, you should see appreciation over the next couple or few years.
I did this when Atlanta was in its infancy stage a few years ago, and all of my properties appreciated about $40,000 in two to three years. That $40,000 per property was now free money available to me to do whatever I wanted with. For the most part, you buy turnkeys for the monthly cash flow. Appreciation can certainly still happen (and most likely will) but in smaller amounts and not right off the bat like you could get by BRRRR-ing. No contest, this is the deal-breaker for a lot of people.
Because someone else is doing all of the work and they are doing a large number of properties at the same time, plus they draw on investor profit numbers and not emotions or looks, you probably won’t end up with the cutest property in the nicest area. A good turnkey provider won’t buy or sell you in a bad neighborhood, but it probably won’t be quite as pretty as if you bought yourself. It could be, but remember that turnkey providers work hard and fast and cater to advanced investors who only care about numbers, so where they buy isn’t necessarily going to be the prettiest. It’s going to be the areas that are the best combinations of cash flow, sustainability of cash flow, and exit strategy.
A good turnkey provider also won’t do a poor quality rehab job, but they probably won’t use quite as pretty of carpet as you might have chosen. They will use the best rental-grade carpet. Remember with rental properties, things like carpet and paint and all that often have to be changed out, so it does make sense to use the most practical versus the prettiest. But if you’re into higher quality, you are more likely to see that if you do it yourself.
In talking about doing it yourself on the rehabs and buying, someone else is doing all of that with turnkeys. You aren’t doing it. Some people just can’t stomach the idea of leaving the control to someone else. As I said before, if you will lose sleep because other people are managing your investment, in whatever capacity, it’s not worth it even if the numbers are much better. Don’t think you don’t have any control with turnkeys—because you do. You control who manages your property (you can hire and fire), and you can approve and disapprove anything you want. You just aren’t controlling the day-to-day operations, whether on the buying/rehab side or the management side. You are trusting other people.
Now an important one. People do have a tendency to go into turnkeys thinking the whole point of them is to trust other people. The flip side to getting comfortable trusting other people to run your investment property is trusting everything! I don’t think you should trust everything. You should do due diligence on each piece of the puzzle, just as if you were doing everything yourself.
Turnkeys, I believe, tempt people to really short out on confirming each piece of the puzzle. So much so, I wrote a previous article detailing this problem that I see as being so rampant with turnkeys (and consequently giving turnkeys an unjust bad name). Check out “The Downside About Turnkey Rental Properties That No One Tells You.” Read the details there, but in short, turnkeys make skimping on due diligence very tempting. Because I don’t think due diligence should ever be skimped on, I highly consider this to be a con of turnkeys.
There are my lists. Now, if I were to shorten them down dramatically and tell you the most notable single pros and cons to each method, I would say they are:
- Forcing appreciation. Serious money in yo’ pocket!
- Time and effort. Put your gloves on, grab your hammer, and start swinging.
- Time and effort. So little required. It’s possibly one’s definition of heaven.
- Forcing appreciation. Or lack thereof.
Knowing everything I told you, now it’s time to decide which method is the better fit to your lifestyle and/or your skill set and/or your interests. If you have skills that match what is required for BRRRR and you live in an area conducive to that kind of investing, I absolutely think you should do it over buying turnkeys. But if you aren’t in a cash-flowing area and you work however many hours a week and have a family or you travel or whatever else you may do that swinging hammers wouldn’t fit very well into, think about turnkeys.
Which one falls more in line with your current lifestyle, or desired lifestyle, and interests?
Weigh in with a comment below!