Commercial Real Estate

6 Commercial Investments Most Investors Don’t Consider

Expertise: Personal Development, Commercial Real Estate, Real Estate News & Commentary, Landlording & Rental Properties
90 Articles Written
Storage facilities with blue doors. Interior units. 3d rendering

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If so, you should probably start by knowing how commercial real estate is defined. I didn't for years. You could say I was narrow-minded.

What Is Commercial Real Estate?

What do you think of when you hear the words “commercial real estate?”

For years I thought of shopping centers, malls, and skyscrapers. I also pictured industrial complexes like warehouses or factories. I doubt I ever thought of apartment buildings, cell towers, or mobile home parks.

But my narrow definitions would have been incomplete.

Even the definitions online are misleading, in my opinion. Investopedia says, “Commercial real estate (CRE) is property used exclusively for business purposes or to provide a workspace rather than a living space. Most often, commercial real estate is leased to tenants to conduct business. This category of real estate ranges from a single gas station to a huge shopping center. Commercial real estate includes retailers of all kinds, office space, hotels, strip malls, restaurants, and convenience stores.

“Commercial real estate along with residential real estate comprises the two primary categories of property. Residential includes structures reserved for human habitation and not for commercial or industrial use. As its name implies, commercial real estate is used in commerce.”

I didn’t say this is wrong, just misleading.

Commercial real estate can include many assets that some consider residential and more. For the purposes of this discussion, and not at all as a definition, I propose that we segregate residential and commercial real estate as follows:

  • Residential real estate is valued based on comparable prices. Comps. The other houses on the street.
  • Commercial real estate valuation is based on math. And we all love math. Or at least we would if we understood this math.

commercial-property

You may fancy yourself as Chip and Joanna Gaines Jr. You may buy a home for $200,000 that needs a lot of work. You fix what’s broken and beautify it to the nth degree. You build out the basement and the attic. You add a large addition and the finest landscaping in the neighborhood. At the end of the day, you’ve got $500,000 in this flip home.

Now if this home is in a $250,000 neighborhood, it's likely you're going to have a big problem. Because when the appraiser comes, they won't be able to find comparable properties to support your price. You could easily lose a lot of money.

This happened to me once on a much smaller scale. My son and I over-beautified a flip home in Roanoke, Virginia. Thankfully we found a cash buyer who fell in love with the home and could see the value of the upgrades we had made. I’m proud of it, even if we only squeaked out a small profit.

Related: 6 Reasons Investing in Commercial Property Might Be a Bad Idea

Commercial real estate is entirely different. Commercial real estate valuation is based on a value formula. That formula is Value = Income ÷ Rate of Return. More specifically, it is Value = Net Operating Income ÷ Capitalization Rate.

I’ve covered this in detail elsewhere, but suffice it to say that it’s this math, I believe, that motivates the vast majority of the world’s wealthiest people to invest in commercial real estate.

Commercial real estate investors have the wonderful ability to "force appreciation" by increasing the net operating income. And if they're clever enough, or fortunate enough, a shrinkage in the capitalization rate (cap rate) will multiply their value even further. Leverage just sweetens it more.

So commercial real estate, for the purpose of this article, is real estate that is valued based on math rather than comps. This includes industrial, retail, hotels, office, restaurants, and more.

Often-Overlooked Commercial Investments

Multifamily

I don’t think I ever considered apartments as commercial real estate before I got into the business. I’m not sure why. Maybe because they aren’t used for commerce (see Investopedia definition above).

There are two classes of apartments: residential multifamily and commercial multifamily. Residential multifamily is financed using a residential loan and the values are based on comps. This is generally buildings with two to four units.

Commercial multifamily is financed through a commercial loan. Many people make another division between small commercial multifamily and large, based on the size needed to hire an onsite staff. This is typically 40 or 50 units in an urban setting or about 70 to 80 units in a typical suburban apartment complex.

Cap rates, the measure of value per unit of income, have been very compressed for multifamily for years since the financial crisis. This means these assets are very pricey (lower cap rate = higher price, since that is the numerator in our value equation). Cap rates in the range of 4% to 6% are common.

Self-Storage

I didn’t think much about this over years past, and apparently the big commercial rating groups didn’t either since there has not been a separate classification for this category in most past reports.

But there are almost 54,000 self-storage facilities in the U.S., which is about the number of McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Subway restaurants combined. Self-storage has become quite popular in the past decade and the cap rates have shrunk from around 10% or so to the 5% to 7% range (expensive).

Related: Why Self-Storage Investing Is Red Hot

Mobile Home Parks

I just never thought about this as a valid commercial real estate class—or a good investment. But I was so very wrong. Sam Zell, America’s top commercial real estate investor, got in on this trend early. He owns over 150,000 mobile home park sites. Warren Buffett also got in early and owns the largest manufacturer of mobile homes (Clayton) as well as one of the most aggressive lenders (21st Mortgage) and Berkadia (a large lender that finances mobile home parks and more).

Cap rates in this asset class have compressed from the 10% to 14% range down to 6% to 8% or so. Green Street Advisors recently referred to mobile home parks as the darling of all commercial real estate. And in the midst of the COVID-19 stock market meltdown in late February, a Wall Street Journal article trumpeted the power of investing in mobile home parks and an MHP stock that has increased by 4,100% since the housing crash.

Caravan and camping, static home aerial view. Porthmadog holiday

Cell Towers

Investing in cell towers was actually my first failed commercial investment. It was late 2000 and I was bored. I located a cell tower company and asked them where they needed better coverage in my region, and they told me about a rural dead spot they wanted to fill.

I found five acres for sale by owner in that area and acquired it quickly for about $18,000. Within months I was under a conditional contract with the cell tower company. I was already thinking about what I'd do with that hefty monthly check. And also, where I'd find my next deal.

They had a year for due diligence and 9/11 hit right in the middle of that time period. The tower company closed its office and I never heard from them again. Years later I tried to restart that strategy and after months of location work, I abandoned it again. It wasn't as easy as it looked.

But cell towers are still a great investment. In exchange for a quarter of an acre of land and a deeded easement for access, investors can earn a steady income for decades. Another way to accomplish this is to buy out someone else’s existing income stream for a cash payout from you. Or to invest with someone who does.

This sector has obviously grown a lot during COVID-19, and I think it will continue to do so. Speaking of sectors that have grown during COVID-19…

Data Centers

Data centers have exploded in the past several years. Just as retail’s demise is accelerating during COVID-19, data center demand has gone up. Zoom and other online meeting platforms have taxed the limits of the existing infrastructure. Emerging technologies like the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, 5G wireless, augmented reality, and autonomous cars will stretch demand to new heights.

Most BP investors haven’t thought about investing in this sector. It seems to be at a higher level, and unlike self-storage and mobile home parks, there are no mom-and-pop operators to cherry-pick. You could certainly invest passively through a real estate investment trust.

Senior Living

Multifamily is largely overheated. Even though fundamentals remain strong, many syndicators are looking to dial in on a specific type of multifamily to obtain a better yield. Senior living fits that bill for some.

I’m not talking about skilled nursing facilities specifically, though this sector may include that. I’m talking about independent living communities that are becoming increasingly popular. Two of my investor friends have pursued this sector and are experiencing great results.

Summary

There must be a reason that almost everyone in the Forbes 400 (the wealthiest of the wealthy) invests in commercial real estate. Maybe it’s time for you to check it out, too!

Are you investing in commercial real estate? Where?

Tell us your preferred sector in the comments.

After graduating with an engineering degree and then an MBA from Ohio State, Paul entered the management development track at Ford Motor Company in Detroit. After five years, he departed to start a...
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    William Moses from NYC
    Replied 29 days ago
    Enjoyed the article Paul. I have been in Cell Tower , Rooftop Lease acquisitions for 15 years.
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 26 days ago
    William, That is great to hear and I am a little jealous. :-)
    Mary White Rental Property Investor from Klamath Falls, OR
    Replied 28 days ago
    Thanks for the article. I'm buying a commercial mixed use property in a highly desirable location. It has a single family house, and 8 commercial lots. The plan is to lease out some of the lots for parking to the city and hold some for mere appreciation. The great part is that the parking lot can be developed later into something else and the location is really great. For me, commercial is more exciting and intellectually stimulating than standard 1-4 unit purchases. Commercial allows for creativity and there are often hidden gems of income that were untapped before. Mobile Home Parks are also very high on my priority list. I'm considering selling out of my remaining small multi-families and scaling into a mobile home park...if I can find a good one.
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 26 days ago
    Hey Mary. That sounds like a great plan! I am happy that you were able to locate this property and hope that it goes as planned or better. I agree with you... after years in residential, I'm loving commercial! Coming up on a decade now since I switched.
    Yosef Katz New to Real Estate from Brooklyn NY
    Replied 28 days ago
    @paulmoore where can I read more about assisted living?
    Romeo Danais
    Replied 28 days ago
    Yosef; Go to Amazon and look up books oder that title! RD
    Joseph Horab
    Replied 28 days ago
    how do I buy a Data Center.....where do I look? thx
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 26 days ago
    Joseph, Unless you have significant financial resources, you should consider investing in a Data Center REIT. If you have enough capital to buy one, or want to do a 1031 Exchange into one, I know someone who may be able to help. Reach out to me and I can introduce you.
    Lowell "Champ" Crawford Real Estate Agent from Atlanta, GA
    Replied 28 days ago
    I’m looking for storage units. BP help me find some please
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 26 days ago
    Lowell. You should reach out to Tim Henderson - he is a BP member and has a list of off-market deals. You can also reach out to Scott Meyers who has a mastermind of investors with many deals.
    Robert McDowell
    Replied 28 days ago
    My best ROI and ability to force appreciation was small 8-12 room Motels. You can buy them with Seller financing and you can market virtually with Booking.com and Air B&B. The prices for an older one are less than a house ($250k) and with good marketing you can gross $220k a year with operating costs below $80k. Factor in the NOI with a any cap rate and you can create a $700k to $1M value and sell the cash flow after just 2 years of operations. I've bought 2 this way in Arizona. Also bought a 51 unit self-storage for $20k and sold for $120k in 9 months to cash-on-cash Buyer. I'll NEVER go back to flipping houses for peanut money and no monthly income.
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 26 days ago
    Wow Robert, this is the first time I've heard of this strategy. That is really great and I think you are certainly onto something. Thanks for sharing on this forum.
    Frederic Depuydt Flipper/Rehabber from jacksonville, fl
    Replied 27 days ago
    Hey Robert. really love to connect with you about a motel room business seems very interesting Frederic
    Valerie Winrow Rental Property Investor from Georgia
    Replied 28 days ago
    Hi Robert, would love to get your insights on how a newbie can get started with Seller Financed 8 - 12 room motels.
    Pat Schwerman
    Replied 28 days ago
    I have one multi office building: one warehouse with showroom; one medical office: one 6000 sq ft office with warehouse or manufacturing area; and one Christmas Tree Plantation. Hopefully I’m well diversified. 100% occupied with a waiting list.
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 26 days ago
    Pat: Wow, this is a great portfolio! Happy for you and wish you the best in the potentially difficult economy we are facing.
    William Hamrick Real Estate Investor from Scottsboro, Alabama
    Replied 28 days ago
    Hi Pat, I don't think you could be any more diversified.
    Alan DeRossett Investor from Thousand Oaks, CA
    Replied 28 days ago
    Good Article, i had some roof Rights for wireless Antennas in the 2000s in Los Angeles. Before building owners knew they could charge us, extra as we were existing Colocation Tenants.
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 26 days ago
    Thanks for sharing, Alan. That must have been a nice run for you 'till you were discovered.
    Duynne Jones Investor from Providence, RI
    Replied 28 days ago
    I am presently pursuing mobile parts. Also. I going look into Senior Living because of reading your article. Thank you!
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 26 days ago
    Duynne, Thanks for sharing. These is a winning combination!
    Gina Nicolas
    Replied 27 days ago
    Cell towers sound interested, does anyone really has any input on how to start. With Senior living, it looks like you will have to hire a lot of people to make it work from people to help with daily activities, someone to cook for the seniors, someone to help them with their medications. I always want to know more about senior living but I feel like it will be more like a job then an investment, I might be wrong
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 26 days ago
    Gina, So the type of senior living that my friend, Mike Osterhoff does is not that way. This is not assisted living. It is more like apartments just for seniors and there is no assistance. If the tenants need more care they can move to a nearby assisted living facility or a nursing home if it's more serious. You are very smart to be differentiating (in advance) between investments and jobs!
    GUY LE MONNIER Rental Property Investor from Vancouver Island BC, Canada
    Replied 26 days ago
    Hello Paul, Great post! Like many, I am a residential investor, but have been thinking to go more into "commercial". I live in Canada, and I know of an area where I live and invest that, I believe, needs a better coverage for cell and internet. Who did you approach? What kind of company? Thanks. Guy Le Monnier
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 25 days ago
    Hi Guy, I approached the largest tower builder, American Tower Corp. There are many others, and some may be based in your region. Good luck!
    Kris Canaday New to Real Estate from Greater New Orleans area
    Replied 25 days ago
    Great article Paul! All of my focus is on commercial investing at this point.
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 25 days ago
    Thanks Kris! More power to you my friend.
    Andrew Ellis
    Replied 25 days ago
    Great article. Any tips on where to look first to get Into the cell tower business?
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 25 days ago
    I would look for a local or regional cell tower builder, or a national one like American Tower Corp. That is what I did, and I know others have succeeded that way.
    Kevin McGuire Rental Property Investor from Seattle, WA
    Replied 25 days ago
    Paul, very informative article, as always. I love how you’re able to connect folks here who are interested in each of these sub categories, apparently you know your stuff! :)
    Paul Moore Investor from Lynchburg, VA
    Replied 23 days ago
    Ahh Kevin, thanks!
    Kao Nou Xiong
    Replied 2 days ago
    In the OK Tulsa area, which of the 6 Commercial Investments would best to choose from? Best to worst? Any insights is fully appreciated. Thanks.