Does IRR Even Matter for Real Estate Investors?

Does IRR Even Matter for Real Estate Investors?

5 min read
Matt Faircloth

Matt Faircloth, co-founder and president of the DeRosa Group, is a seasoned real estate investor. The DeRosa Group, based in historic Trenton, N.J., is a developer and owner of commercial and residential property with a mission to “transform lives through real estate.” DeRosa creates partnerships to finance select real estate investments and has a proven track record of providing safe, profitable investment opportunities to their clients.

Matt, along with his wife Liz, started investing in real estate in 2004 with the purchase of a duplex outside of Philadelphia with a $30,000 private loan. They founded DeRosa Group in 2005 and have since grown the company to hundreds of units in residential and commercial assets throughout the East Coast. Under Matt’s leadership, DeRosa has completed tens of millions in real estate transactions involving private capital, including fix and flips, single family home rentals, mixed-use buildings, apartment buildings, and office buildings.

Matt is an active contributor to the BiggerPockets Blog and has been featured on the BiggerPockets Podcast three times (show #88, #203, and #289). He also regularly contributes to BiggerPockets’ Facebook Live sessions and teaches free educational webinars for the BiggerPockets Community.

Matt authored the Amazon Best Seller Raising Private Capital: Building Your Real Estate Empire Using Other People’s Money. The book is a comprehensive roadmap for investors looking to inject more private capital into their real estate investing business and is a must-read for anyone looking to grow their business by using private lenders and equity investors. Kirkus, the No. 1 trade review publication for books, had this to say about Raising Private Capital: “In this impressively accessible introduction to a complex subject, Faircloth covers every aspect of private funding, presuming little knowledge on the part of the reader.”

Matt and his wife Liz live in New Hope, Penn., with their two children.

Matt earned a B.S. in Industrial and Systems Engineering with a minor in Business from Virginia Tech. (Go, Hokies!)

DeRosa Group’s YouTube channel

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Here’s an interesting question I receive all the time: “How do I evaluate a real estate deal?”

There are so many different metrics out there like a cash-on-cash return, return on investment, capitalization rate, annualized rate of return, and internal rate of return. It’s easy to get confused, as these metrics are often blended, making it hard for the investor to understand what their actual returns will be.

Speaking from experience, the first question I most often receive when presenting a new offering on an apartment syndication is, “What’s the IRR?”

I rarely get a follow-up question regarding the IRR. It’s almost as if the investor has been conditioned to overlook other investment metrics in order just to focus on a large IRR number.

A dirty secret in the industry is that an IRR can be easily manipulated. I am going to show you some of the assumptions an operator can use to inflate the IRR. But for a more in-depth view of how IRRs can be manipulated, you have to check out Brian Burke’s recent BiggerPockets book The Hands-Off Investor: An Insiders Guide to Investing in Passive Real Estate Syndications. The book is a must-read for investors and new syndicators alike and is what inspired me to write this article.

Reading The Hands-Off Investor will help you ask the right questions. In fact, there are 72 questions to ask a potential sponsor included with the purchase of the book when you order it from BiggerPockets.  

What IRR Is Not

Repeat after me: “IRR is not a cap rate, nor is it cash-on-cash return, nor is it a return on investment.”

Believe it or not, people confuse the terms all the time. Here’s a quick definition of each:

  • Cap rate is a way to evaluate a property’s performance and market risk factors.
  • Cash-on-cash return is a rate of return often used in real estate transactions that calculates the cash income earned on the cash invested in a property. It’s also an input into the IRR formula, which I’ll discuss more below.
  • Return on investment is a means to evaluate the increase or decrease in an investment made over a set time (preferably a shorter period).

While these terms may seem like gibberish, it’s important as an investor to know the difference between them.

Related: 6 Metrics You Must Know to Identify Great Investments

What Is IRR?

An IRR is a culmination of all the cash flows throughout the life cycle of an investment. You sum up all those cash flows and divide the cash flow by the number of years you have held the investment to obtain your average IRR percentage.

3 Cash Flow Buckets

The first cash flow bucket is—you guessed it—cash flow. Typically, after you receive your rent and pay your operating expenses and debt service, what’s left over is your net cash flow. When you distribute that cash flow, the distribution is the cash-on-cash return. When calculating the IRR, the cash-on-cash return is the first (and maybe most important) metric to look at—this is the money you will be receiving throughout the life of the investment regardless if the property is sold or not.

The second cash flow bucket is the principal reduction of the debt tied to the property. For example, the initial mortgage had a $5,000,000 balance. But when the property is sold, the balance was only $4,000,000. So, a difference of $1,000,000 is your principal reduction.

It’s important to note that the cash flow received from this bucket largely depends on the debt service product used. This cash flow bucket may be small if an interest-only loan is used. However, in those situations, your cash-on-cash return is typically higher throughout the investment since you’re paying less in debt service during your interest-only period.

The third cash flow bucket is the capital gains received when selling the property. This is just the difference between what you bought the property for and what you sold the property for.  To calculate the IRR percentage, you add up all three cash flow buckets and pay back your original investment. Then, you divide the remaining amount by the years the property is held for. This amount is your average IRR.

This is why IRR doesn’t kick in until your capital is returned. This is also why an early refinance can have a tremendous impact on an investment’s IRR.

Related: A Guide to Internal Rate of Return & Other Must-Know Financial Metrics


Does IRR Even Matter?

Now that you know about the cash flow buckets, you can see why an investor should dig deeper into the IRR percentage and not just accept it at face value.

Just the other day, I received a marketing package on a new deal with only the following information:

  • What the deal was
  • What the IRR was
  • How to contact them

I was left scratching my head. How would an educated investor be able to decide if this investment might be right for them?

Imagine how disappointed an investor who relies on distributions would be if the project had little or no cash-on-cash return. That same investor would have been better off investing in a project with a lower annualized IRR but greater cash-on-cash return.

IRR’s importance will also depend on the type of investment you analyze. While IRR can be used to analyze almost any type of investment, IRR’s significance can become quickly diminished when analyzing a smaller, more active asset.

I sometimes get asked to help determine the IRR for a single-family rental or a small duplex. While it may be a good exercise to calculate, your investment decision will probably depend on other factors like location, property management, and financing. Compare this to a larger, more passive investment, where those variables are handled by the operator before you ever see the offering. This leaves the investor with fewer variables to worry about, increasing the importance of what the IRR will be.

Related: Cap Rate: How to Best Evaluate & Interpret a Property’s Numbers

Dirty Secrets of IRR

IRR calculations are most accurate in hindsight. It’s easy to calculate your actual returns after the fact. But during the time of the initial investment, you have to make assumptions.

Here are some things to consider:

  • What will the cap rate be in the future?
  • What will the cash flow be in the future?
  • What will the mortgage rates be like if you were to refinance the property year 3?

A sponsor needs to make assumptions on all these things. This is why it is so easy to manipulate IRR. A deal with poor cash-on-cash return can be easily offset with an aggressive cap rate projection because the profits on the backend will make up for it.

The only cash flow bucket we might know for sure is the principal reduction. But again, depending on a refinance, that may not be the case. When an operator talks about being conservative in their underwriting, they are usually referring to the assumptions they are making. However, one or two incorrect assumptions can quickly derail a deal. This is why if you only base your investment decision on just IRR, you can be in for a world of hurt when those assumptions don’t pan out. 

The Bottom Line

IRR does matter. It just shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal above all other metrics. The truth is when presented a deal, an investor should take note of what the IRR is on the project. More importantly, he or she should make sure that the cash flow buckets are in line with what they prioritize and their risk tolerance.

Beware of an IRR outlier since this might be a warning that the deal’s risk level is high. As a famous Warren Buffet saying goes: “Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1.”

By reading The Hands-Off Investor: An Insiders Guide to Investing in Passive Real Estate Syndications by Brian Burke and understanding how your next deal’s IRR breakdown works, you can avoid losing money.

Watch the video above for a deeper dive!

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