How to Know What Cap Rate to Shoot For on Any Given Rental Property

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This question comes up a lot when shopping for rental properties:

“What cap rate should I be looking for?”

Well, how about we first define a cap rate?

What is a Cap Rate?

Cap rate is short for capitalization rate, and what this number tells you is the relationship between the sales price of a property and the income it generates. It basically tells you if you are buying an investment property at a good price. The term originated with commercial properties and has now trickled into residential property analysis as well.

To figure out the cap rate, the equation is:

Annual NET Income / Purchase Price = Cap Rate

Some notes about this equation, and therefore what a cap rate includes or tells you (or doesn’t tell you):

  • Net income. Note that you must use the net income on a property, not the gross.  The net income is what you get after all expenses are taken out.
  • Mortgage payment. The cap rate does not include a mortgage payment. So don’t count that as one of your expenses when you are calculating your net income.
  • Adjusting purchase price. If you are buying a property needing rehab, your purchase price should be the total cost including the rehab. Whatever it takes to buy the property and for it be rentable, that’s the number you should use.

For additional information on cap rate calculations, and cash-on-cash calculations, which would include your mortgage, check out “A Definitive Guide to Understanding Cap Rates and Cash-on-Cash Returns.”

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Shopping for a Rental Property

Now it’s time to go shopping. You’re ready to buy a rental property, you have all your ducks in a row and your team in place to help you shop. How do you know what are you looking for?

The main thing you need to know before worrying about what cap rate to look for is:

Cap rates will vary between markets, property types, and other factors. So remember when you are analyzing cap rates, you have to compare apples to apples — not apples to tomatoes.

Related: The Investor’s Complete Guide to Calculating, Understanding & Using Cap Rates

Specific factors that can affect cap rates include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Your specific market. Just due to simple real estate economic variances between markets, the “going” cap rate of any market is likely to be different from that of another market.
  • The area within a given market. This pertains to different areas within a market. For example, more desirable areas compared to less desirable areas.
  • Property type. Generally, this would relate to single-family properties versus multifamily properties. Multifamily properties inherently come with more risk than single-family properties (mostly due to the tenants). Because they are typically higher risk, the cap rates are usually higher to make up for it. Because single-family properties are typically less risky, it wouldn’t make sense to buy a multifamily property that has a lower cap rate than a single-family property. (Note: this doesn’t include risk with such multifamily properties as high-end condos or anything like that — these statements refer to comparable properties in similar areas to each other.)
  • Property condition. It certainly wouldn’t make sense to buy a dumper that has the same cap rate as a freshly rehabbed, good condition property.
  • Risk factor. This includes risk associated with neighborhood, property type, and the property condition. Think of it in terms of a trade-off. Why would you buy something with greater risk that has the same cap rate as a property with lower risk? Your two biggest risks with any property will be with the property itself (think massive repair costs that break your bottom line) and the tenants who live in it (bad tenants are arguably the costliest thing to a rental property owner). One other major risk is vacancy, which is most directly affected by the neighborhood or market itself.
  • Economic cycles. The real estate economy of any market is not only dependent on the nationwide real estate economy, but on its own economy as well. The current place of a market in its economic cycle will have a major impact on the going cap rates at any particular time.

The point is cap rates vary with different property types in different locations, so when you are asking what a “good” cap rate is, you can only compare numbers in similar areas with similar property types.

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Examples of Varying Cap Rate Situations

Here are some different scenarios of varying cap rates, and with each, I explain why the cap rates differ.

  • A 5% cap rate would be considered fantastic in Los Angeles, but horrible in Kansas City. Reason: Market Differences
  • The cap rate on a cute little house in the quiet outskirts of a big city might be 8%, while a similar cute little house in the popular, desired area in the middle of the same big city may only get you 1% (if even that!). Reason: Neighborhood Differences
  • A multifamily property has a cap rate of 11%, while a single-family property in the same general area has a cap rate of only 8%. Reason: Multifamily vs. Single-Family
  • There are two nearly identical houses, and one is priced to offer a 9% cap rate, and the other offers a 14% cap rate. One of the houses is in “good as new” condition, and one needs an excessive amount of work. Which do you think is associated with which cap rate? Reason: Property Condition
  • A 7% cap rate for a single-family home in a nice stable neighborhood in the good part of Dallas would be excellent, but it would be horrible for a triplex in the more urban Section 8 areas of Chicago. Reason: Risk Factors — Neighborhoods, Property Types, and Tenant Pool
  • The going cap rate in Atlanta in 2011 was around 14%. Today in 2016, the going cap rate is 6-7%. Reason: Difference in Placement in the Economic/Growth Cycle

See how a lot of those trade-offs work and how they come into play when looking at cap rates?

I constantly see people asking, “What cap rate should I expect on a rental property?” The reality is that question just can’t be answered very easily. You might be able to get away with having a hard minimum, say 5%, but what if a proposed property was a run-down multifamily in a slightly sketchy neighborhood? Would you still accept a 5% cap rate on that property? Well, maybe I would if there was solid evidence that the sketchy neighborhood was about to be gentrified and it was nearby a city like Los Angeles that experiences big appreciation waves. But for a run-down multifamily in a slightly sktchy neighborhood in some small Midwestern city? No way!

And thinking of this whole concept in reverse, be sure you always consider that a higher advertised cap rate doesn’t always mean it’s a better deal. Remember, advertised or projected returns are just that — projected. What really matters is whether or not the number will hold true, and a lot of that depends on the quality of the location and property.

For help deciphering different properties with different cap rates, check out “Battle of the Cap Rates.”

I have to be honest, though. Despite all this talk about cap rates, I have to tell you that I only explained all of that because it’s the question that keeps getting asked.

There is actually a calculation I like better than cap rate.

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

Cap Rates vs. Cash-on-Cash Returns

Calculating the cash-on-cash return is what I believe is the more important calculation if you are trying to figure out whether a return is “good” or not. Ultimately, a cap rate doesn’t tell you how much return you are making on your investment — unless you pay for the property in cash, in which case the cap rate and the cash-on-cash return are the same.

The cash-on-cash return estimates you the actual return on the money you invest, rather than just telling you the relationship between the purchase price and the income it brings in. Be sure to check out the earlier mentioned article for details on cash-on-cash returns and how they compare to cap rates.

But in short, the equation for calculating the cash-on-cash return is:

Annual NET Income (including mortgage payment)/Total Amount Invested = Cash-on-Cash Return

If you have a mortgage, the total amount invested would include the amount you put up for the down payment plus closing costs. And then if the property has to be rehabbed, include the amount for the rehab as well.

Whatever number you come up with for this calculation is how much return you will get on your money! To me, that is a lot more explicit than the cap rate. But whichever you want to use is fine.

How about you? What minimums for returns do you look for on properties and which calculations do you prefer to look at for determining those minimums?

Let’s talk in the comments section below!

About Author

Ali Boone

Ali Boone(G+) left her corporate job as an Aeronautical Engineer to work full-time in Real Estate Investing. She began as an investor in 2011 and managed to buy 5 properties in her first 18 months using only creative financing methods. Her focus is on rental properties, specifically turnkey rental properties, and has also invested out of the country in Nicaragua.

12 Comments

  1. Ronald Perich

    Always enjoy reading your blog posts.

    I do think saying multifamily is “riskier” is based on what the definition of “risk” is. I can buy a duplex and SFH for about the same in my areas and the duplex will cash flow better, have a better Cash on Cash return, and will have a higher Cap Rate than the SFH all day. The “risk” is that you will likely have more turnover and a few more headaches because you have neighbors who share a common wall. But a one-month vacancy on one side of the residence hurts a lot less than a one-month vacancy on a SFH.

    The other “risk” is being able to see the property at a future date. Certainly more of a challenge to see multi-family versus SFH.

    A risk with SFH is typically around the roof. Costs about the same to replace a SFH or a duplex. But only one rent to help cover the cost in a SFH. Replacing the roof on a four-plex can be the same or slightly higher, but the rents are significantly better.

    But you are wanting as few headaches as possible. So getting SFH is much easier and less risky for you.

  2. George Krischke

    Great explanation of the relationship between cap rate and risk. In my local market here in Honolulu, it is difficult and rare to find anything close to even a 5% cap rate. However, 5% cap rate is still possible with ‘condotel’ investments (condos zoned for hotel use, allowing short-term vacation rentals). These come with increased risk of tourism fluctuations due to recessions, geo-political events, and a host of other factors.
    I find it prudent to have a diversified real estate portfolio, some higher cap rate riskier rentals, but also to balance with solid low risk rentals that will stay rented during tough times with a mere adequate cap rate. You can’t have it all in just one property, high cap rate and low risk.
    Btw, in analyzing cap rates the key metric to scrutinize when buying are the real expenses. The income numbers might be realistic but the running maintenance expenses are often underestimated.

    • Chad Carson

      Well-said, George. I like the idea of a diversified portfolio of rentals with different cap rates and benefits.

      And also well-said about expenses. Cap rates are often misleading because few people calculate them correctly, especially the listing brokers. Do you own calculations before counting on that number.

  3. Kent Clothier

    Love this post, Ali! You’ve done a great job breaking down this common calculation into an easy-to-understand lesson that every investor should familiarize themselves with. And I completely agree with you that cash-on-cash return is often a more helpful calculation for investors. Thanks for this great contribution to the BP community!

  4. Very helpful explanation of these powerful but simple analysis tools. Thanks.

    This is a good way to evaluate a discussion that I’ve seen in several other threads here on BP, and that is whether or not to invest in low cost properties – specifically, those at around $30k or below.

    My strategy has been to stay in this range, specifically for the purpose of realizing higher cap rates and cash-on-cash returns. I’m in the Midwest, so there is a fairly good supply of properties in that range that are in relatively good condition, and don’t need a lot of work. My cap rate is averaging around 16%. My cash-on-cash is averaging around 45%. I do use property management, so based solely on these ratios, I think the low cost strategy proves out well for a hands-off investment vehicle with nice returns. I have not been doing this long enough to sell any properties yet, so we’ll see how that part goes. But the cash-on-cash returns will certainly offset any minor depreciation if that occurs.

  5. Al Bigonia

    Hi Ali,

    I like to use the cash-on-cash return, and I’m always looking for a lot better percent return than I could make in the Stock Market. I also use one that I’ve seen Brandon use a lot, and that’s a Net to me of $200/unit/ month. To me that one tells me I need to keep buying until I have 30 units to give me a reasonable retirement.

    • Steve Vaughan

      I was going to say something similar to Al. With the headache factor of rentals, my COC and CAP must beat comparable passive investments of secured lending or blue chip paper assets. Good points on how to know what your return actually is. Thanks!

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