Why I’ll Never Fix and Flip Houses Again

by | BiggerPockets.com

Fixing and flipping houses looks cool on “reality” TV, but in actuality, many are finding that it isn’t nearly as profitable as what it is perceived to be.

House flipping TV shows have caused an epidemic. There are thousands of aspiring new investors out there, including my Uber driver, who are rushing to try their hand at it, after equipping themselves with a few episodes of a television series. Both the data and my personal experience seem to show that it isn’t nearly as profitable as many believe. In fact, it can be a highly risky venture.

Investors Are Losing Money on House Flips

One of the first things experienced investors will notice about these TV shows is that the rough numbers shown at the end don’t always appear to factor in a lot of the costs. That means even in these silver screen scenarios, the actors are typically pocketing a lot less than they are made out to be.

New data from ATTOM, the leading provider of real estate and property data, shows that many are losing money, too. The latest Home Flipping Report reveals that average house flip profits are declining. The number of flippers using cash has also dropped to an eight-year low. RealtyTrac says that 21% of transactions show a gross profit of less than 10%. That means once all numbers are added up, these deals likely lost money. That’s in addition to 8% of flips that sold for less than the property was purchased for.

Related: Breaking News: Newbie Flipper Makes Disturbing Discovery That It’s Not Like on TV

None of these numbers track the much larger pool of new investors who have bought properties, have gotten stuck on rehabs, or have over-improved—and are still sitting on these liabilities costing them money every month.

The Tax Issue

I have flipped properties in the past. Honestly, I enjoyed it. However, investors need to differentiate between getting into an expensive hobby and investing for a positive return.

One big flaw in the house flipping model is taxes. Uncle Sam takes a huge chunk of the profits in tax on flipped properties. It’s extreme. Most overlook the fact that they are going to have to give up 20% to 40% of their profits in taxes. If flippers have already spent the money by the time they get their tax bill, a vicious cash crunch cycle can kick in. Most won’t enjoy being chased down by the IRS for $50,000 or $500,00 in past taxes.

This is all in addition to the speculation involved in flipping houses. Even if you really know your property values and market, there are a lot of factors outside of your control. That includes neighboring foreclosures, natural disasters, interest rates, and the media. All of these can impact your ability to resell for more within a given window of time. Millions lost out on this strategy in 2008.

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Related: 7 Ways TV Flipping Shows Are Completely Fake (As Any REAL Investor Knows!)

Why I Like Buy & Hold

I like the buy and hold model. It means that when I renovate a property, I know I will get a tenant in it who is paying rent and providing me with income. That property can keep on generating cash profit regardless of property values and the market.

The income on long-term rental properties is taxed at a lower rate than you get with flipping, too. By using 1031 exchanges or self-directed IRAs, you can defer taxes or make returns tax-free.

For me, buy and hold also checks two of the most important boxes that people invest in real estate for in the first place. Those are time and location freedom, which come from the passive income provided by good property management. You just don’t get that if you are rehabbing houses and are trying to flip them yourself.

What’s your strategy of choice—buy and hold, fix and flip, or something else?

Feel free to defend flipping in the comments!

About Author

Sterling White

Sterling White started in the real estate industry at a early age back in 2009. The company he co-founded Holdfolio is a real estate crowdfunding platform based in the Indianapolis market. Before founding Holdfolio Sterling and partner Jacob Blackett were involved in the purchasing and selling of 100+ single family homes nationwide. In his free-time he trains for a World Record

46 Comments

  1. David Krulac

    Fine article, but you understated the income tax hit, ask me how I know that. The top Federal Income tax rate is 39.6%, plus the 3.8% healthcare tax, plus 15.3% Social security Tax, plus State Income Tax (13.3% in CA for example) plus local income taxes ( 1 to2%) adds up to:
    wait for it!
    74% income taxes.

    Buy and Hold reduces the Federal Income tax to 20% versus 43.4% right there and B&H is exempt from FICA, Social Security saving another 15.3%.

  2. Jerry Kisasonak

    What Dave said! If you are successful with a flip, after taxes, are you really? Not only does HGTV leave out most holding costs, transactional costs etc, they also don’t subtract out tax costs.

    As Robert Kiyosaki says, the real game of the wealthy is about debt and taxes. In short, it’s about how to use debt/leverage and the tax code to your advantage.

  3. Curt Smith

    Hi David, Thanks for chiming in with in the extreme case numbers, CA + Dealer status+top tax bracket.

    I feel Dealer status for flipping AND wholesaling is the gorrila in the room. I wonder how many CPAs and self filers voluntarily fill out taxes based on being a “Dealer”? How many just do taxes as not being a Dealer and should be?

    Guess we’ll never know this answer. My guess is that under reporting as a Dealer happens until one gets audited, gets dinged as a Dealer and pays lots of fines.

    I’m well plugged into REI legal networks and all the Attorney talks on the Dealer status topic says there is not bright line number one uses to get tagged as a dealer. I wonder if the local CPA authors here have posted about any case law and general practices the CPA world uses??? Huge tax implications of NOT assuming Dealer status.

      • Chris Soignier

        Sterling, 3 full-on rehabs was all it took. I still do light rehabs for rentals and seller finance, but everything I invest in is aimed at producing recurring cash flows vs. 1 time profits. I had thefts at 2 of them, contractor issues at all of them. Budget and time variances were never favorable!

        I have friends who enjoy and profit handsomely from flips, but they’re not my cup of tea.

        • I do both. Love the monthly income from one market and getting into some larger projects. One of our rehabbing markets warrants additions to maximize profits and has been saturating as of late. Still looking for some small ones but buy and hold seems to be big picture for us.

  4. I think of all of my rehab to rentals as long term flips. Few properties will be held forever and you should re-evaluate your portfolio and shift into other properties for various reasons (age, location, value has reached a certain level, etc.).

    After a year, you are at long term gains. If you want to trade up you can increase the quality of a property and/or get into a better location with a 1031 with no tax. More properties is not always as good as having fewer high quality properties, provided the numbers work and you stay close to the fat part of the rental curve in your market.

    Yes, I agree that a short term flip does not make sense for my investing style and long term plans.

      • Yes, I have. Not too hard to do, but lining up possible replacement properties can be a challenge.

        I really wish the rules were simplified. The Gov’t has a way of complicating pretty much any issue. The QI rule may have spawned a nice business model for lawyers, but if you can prove your transactions meet the requirements, that should be the end of it. No reason I can see that an investor should be able to receive the proceeds of a sale, and then conduct a purchase transaction.

        • Yes, unfortunately due to IRS rules, you have to use a QI to have a valid 1031 exchange. The owner can never actually receive the proceeds from the sale.

        • Christopher Smith

          You can do a 1031 without a QI, I’ve structured my own in the past and they have always passed muster (or at least have never been challenged). For most folks a natural 1031 is likely not a very practical alternative, but in those cases where it can be done I have saved quite a bit in administration costs by doing it without a QI.

  5. Christopher Smith

    Interesting article. I’ve always been strictly a buy and hold investor focusing on newer upper middle income properties in very good neighborhoods all with professional Mgmt.

    In the early years all I ever heard was how I was missing out on all the really big fun and profits of flipping and landlord slummin it. Now I am sure there are a few that have done well in those endeavors, but the more I hear about the true results being achieved in those “fun and profitable” activities the more I am glad I did exactly what I did.

      • Christopher Smith

        Hello Sterling

        I bought heavily into the Far East Bay area of San Francisco 2011-2013 (no where near the city, about 50 miles East). It was like shooting fish in a barrel then, 2 to 4 year old homes selling at 35% to 40% of their previous new home sale price. Everything I hold from those acquisitions is at least 2x what I bought it for and still has good cash flow based upon my original cost. The only issue I have is whether I should cash out and reinvest for more income elsewhere. Probably won’t because of continued appreciation potential here, positive cash flow, and taxes and transaction costs.

        When I got priced out of the Far East Bay Area I started buying in the general Springboro Ohio locale where I had lived years ago and already had 1 rental in place. Prices had only moved up modestly by 2015 and cash flow was very solid. Bought my last one there in June 2016, now that market has really caught fire and I am nearly priced out of it now.

        The only thing that I would have done differently is to have borrowed a whole bunch of money. At the time I put probably about 70% of my total net worth into the California stuff which seemed terribly aggressive by my standards. However, looking back I should have borrowed a couple mil of additional funds, Ah the would of’s and could of’s. In any event, it has worked out really well, I’m up about 2M after 5 years or so (plus about 100k in rental income) and for a pip squeak like me I can’t complain about that.

        • Paul Merriwether

          Great job on East Bay property purchases!!! Use a future calculator to determine what those properties could be worth in 5, 10, 30 yr’s! You can use the history of older properties in the area to determine past appreciation. It should range between 4% & 8% it could be higher!

  6. Patrick Liska

    Good article Sterling, even as a General Contractor, i do not like the flipping side too many variables can go wrong and i have been doing renovation work for 30 years, i am a buy and hold myself. I did one flip recently because i knew i could make some good money out of it, 40k in repairs, 50k profit after all expenses/ holding costs except taxes, find that out soon 🙁 . I did a flip as a partial investor and contractor for someone recently as well, needless to say, i made the most money on that one, the initial investor says he made some, but not a lot, but with my rough calculations i do not think they made anything. Running your numbers and getting your properties rented is key, a good steady income that pays all your expenses and gives you some extra cash will grow your net worth. even if a property does not appreciate much, your making money, the tenants are paying down your mortgage dept and giving you equity. That’s money for your retirement or your kids future being built up.

    • Paul Merriwether

      As a contractor what area are you working? Have you ever considered the room addition consideration? EX: In the Bay Area we have many 2 bd room homes built 60, 70 yr’s ago. Some neighbors have done room additions taking their 1100 sqft 2 bd, 1 bth home to a 3 or 4 bd, 2 bth to a 2000 sqft home. With valuations of $400/sqft adding 900 sqft more really pumps up the value. Crossing to the other side of the Bay with similar homes the value jumps to 600 – $700/sqft. Lumber costs are the same on this side vs that side!!!

      • Patrick Liska

        Paul,
        I’m on the East coast, New Jersey, You can add a lot of value to a property by adding bedrooms, but you need to know the area, going bigger doesn’t always mean be better. what is the market looking for there ? do they want 2 bedrooms, 3 or 4 ? If most of the market is looking for 3 bedrooms, having 4 may not be a good thing, but adding 1 to a 2 bedroom would be good. you also do not want to put more into a house and over price it for the area.

  7. Blake Stevens

    This article points out some of the difficulties of fixing and flipping, and rightly so. Sterling White you are comparing apples and oranges. Are you really trading fix and flip active business income and instead just living off of passive buy and hold rental income? If so congrats. But I doubt it. Fixing and Flipping is an active business / self employed job, most people have to work a job to support themselves and their family and generate savings that they can then invest in rentals. Looks like you are no different. The title should read Why I moved from Fix and Flipping to Running a Crowd Funding Business. This is probably a good decision for you as I agree that the wealth is made on the rental side and it is probably easier to work full time raising money and partnering on a rental portfolio than working full time flipping to pay taxes and then invest the net profits in rentals. But the article is misleading you didn’t quit flipping and just buy and hold rentals, you formed some sort of SEC filing and went to work raising money and synidcating deals. The correct comparison should be national stats on house flippers vs syndicators. I’m sure you would find a similar percentage of synidcations that didn’t make money or made very little as well.

  8. Naveen Desai

    While the fix/flip business is not great anymore, I started in Real estate just doing that, by buying properties off auction, fix/flip. The formula worked well between 2009/2012 and profits started to diminish for the work. Then I started to do buy-hold. I might have lost a lot due to taxes, however with little start money I had, unless I did rotation i wouldn’t make any. So I had to do what I had to do then, but wont do fix/flips now unless someone gave away a property to me to deal with and they walk away. 🙂 .

    • Cora Kemp-Epps on

      Hi Naveen. When you were flipping, did you find your properties from realtors foreclosure listings, or did you search upcoming sheriff sales and reach out directly to sellers before their homes were auctioned. I’m keeping hope alive to be able to flip some homes to begin to build a business. Thank you, Cora.

  9. Jerry W.

    While I am a buy and hold guy, when the opportunity has presented itself I have flipped properties almost immediately. I did NOT do major rehab so they were almost wholesaling. I have only done 2 of them and both were in the last 4 years. While I would have made a lot of money by holding and renting, the quick profit allowed me to turn buying one rental property into flipping one and buying 2. The profit just allowed me to get a large chunk of the money for another down payment.

  10. Dante Pirouz

    Great article Sterling! And you are spot on…it is nice to have the flip option in case you can’t turn a good property into a buy and hold rental (as an example we bought a HUD foreclosure intending to use it as a rental but it happened to be on the side of the street where the city had designated no rentals allowed…so we flipped it for $30K profit which was great!). But to solely depend on flipping is as good as a bad job…waiting for the property to sell is an agonizing position to be in and the taxes are a real issue. But flipping does have its place in an investor’s arsenal of tools!

  11. William Marchiani

    So in reference to the after tax profits, if you show a profit you can knock down uncle Sam from 40 percent to about 17.5% if you do it the right way. I’d hope if we have been somewhat successful in flipping you take advantage of the tax benefits. First to start is say you have made 150k in profits on all of your flips in a year, you can write of 53k right off the top, by putting 53k into a solo 401k, then if anyone of you have kids, take a picture with them, advertise it on your website, business card or other choices, then you have the ability to write them off as models of your business, who make less then the poverty level of 18k. GET WHERE I AM GOING HERE!!! If you have a S “Corp and your business, you do not pay capital gains as long as you reinvest some of the profit into another flip, you can write offor mileage to and from the flip, any dinners out with your family. LLC’s are great for buy and holds, or rentals, but an S Corp let’s you write off everything. Talk to your CPA to find out more but in profits last year along I make 321k, and was only taxed on 102k.

  12. Chris Harjes

    Nice article! I’ve been rabidly building a buy-and-hold portfolio based on a few decent deals and a lot of 1099 money- and have now run out of money- so yes, the buy-and-holds are awesome, especially in the current rising market- but had I mixed in judicious flips here and there, I’d have more money for the next good buy-and-hold.
    I also think market dynamics are a huge factor- specifically the ratio of retail value to rental value, which may actually change while you are rehabbing. I even sometimes put a finished rehab on both rental and sales markets to see which one is hungrier 🙂
    Cash-flow rentals are hard to come by these days in Asheville, but flips, if you can ever find one before the hordes of sharks overbid it, can be quite profitable.
    My current plan is to flip primarily for a year or two while the market either settles out or implodes, then start holding again when the numbers work in that direction again.

  13. Celia Rudder

    Once again I think that we are taking our individual experience and making it a rule for everyone to follow. A lot of people seem to do that on Bigger Pockets. The numbers you state: 21% and 8% add up to 29%. Do I understand then that 70% of flippers are making gross profits of more than 10%? If I purchase a property for 25K , put 15K in it, including holding costs, and sell for 65K is this a failure? I have made 18K which I understand is nothing to lots of high end flippers. If I do this 4 times a year or 8 times a year or 16 times a year, the profits start to add up. There are places all across America where this is being done and and can be done. It is just that we as a culture like big profits, scaling and quick returns and these are what’re touted as examples of success. We really need to write these articles as examples as what has worked for us individually and stop making them prescriptions for all to follow.

  14. Mike Dymski

    Live in flips and flips rented for a year to achieve capital gains treatment are some ways around the tax problem for part-time flippers. I have a friend who uses cost segregation on some apartment complexes to reduce his active business taxable income (flips and other). Pay yourself a reasonable salary and avoid self-employment tax on the rest of the profit. Make very large contributions to retirement accounts and conduct future flipping out of them. Just throwing out many of the tax planning strategies for flippers. I’ve done the live in flips and flips rented for a year to make the tax burden negligible and I love the full tax benefits of buy and hold, as you mention.

  15. James W.

    Interesting.

    I havent read the comments above yet.

    Ofcourse what you’re saying gets the flippers’ attention.

    I am in the middle of two flips right now – buy fix and sell. One should be closed out next month and a half.
    And I just bought another one yesterday.

    It seems fine so far and I expect to make a sizable dough.

    I hope to, and this is the first time i will see the sell side of a flip.

    Will see what comes out of them, and probably add here.

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