How to Determine Residential and Commercial Property Values (and Why It Matters!)

by | BiggerPockets.com

When it comes to real-estate investing, there’s one thing that matters regardless of which type of property you’re investing in.

Property value.

Why does it matter?

Before I explain, there is one thing I need to clarify just so we are all on the same page: The value of a property only matters when you are buying it, selling it, or refinancing it.

Most of you probably know this already, but considering what I saw during the last real-estate crash, I feel like we could all use a hefty reminder. In the aftermath of the crash, I saw too many people panic when their house went “underwater.”  They immediately resorted to selling their property because of it’s new super-low value. Uhh, hello…you don’t have to take a loss on a property that you don’t sell!

Now, since we are talking about real-estate investing—and buying and selling is a critical part of this industry—let’s talk about the role property value plays in all of it.

The Key Importance of Property Value

Here it is—when investing in real estate, property value is where you make the majority of your money.

This is true in the following ways:

  • If you get a killer deal (purchasing a property for less than its value) you may stand to make a lot of money in the form of equity. On the other hand, if you overpay for a property, negative equity may be the first of several possible streams of income loss.
  • If you sell a property for more than you paid for it (and put into it), you profit. If you can’t sell a property for as much as you put into it, you lose money.
  • If the value of a property goes drastically up or down, very likely other income streams will be affected in the same way—exit strategy potential, cash flow, tenant quality, vacancy rates—all of these things affect your bottom line.

For example, if you’re flipping a house, it’s very obvious why property values matter—you need to buy below market value and then sell at, or above, the new market value. If at any time the value drops below what you expected it to be, you could face a loss.

If you buy a rental property solely for the cash flow, the property’s ability to sustain steady, positive income may decrease thanks to the same market conditions that cause a property’s value to decrease: decline in population, loss of jobs or industry, extreme vacancy, low tenant quality, and so on.


Maximizing Gains

Real-estate investing strategies allow investors to further maximize profits if they are smart about working with property values.

For example, forcing appreciation is a popular and strategic way to increase profits. In some cases, it may be the only way to make a profit. Forcing appreciation is done by buying a property at a certain price and then improving it, causing its value to skyrocket beyond the initial purchase price (plus however much money went in to improving it). Let’s say you buy a property for $50,000 (and it’s worth that amount) and you put in $25,000 worth of improvements: Suddenly the property is worth $100,000, rather than the $75,000 you spent on it. That’s forcing appreciation via improvements.

I’m going to talk more about forcing appreciation, but let’s first bring this back around to how residential and commercial properties are valued.

Related: Why the Wealthy Put Their Money Into Multifamily & Commercial Real Estate

How Residential and Commercial Property Values are Determined

It’s important to know how the value of a property is determined. As an investor, you’ll need to understand how to control your property’s value as best you can. When I say control the value, I don’t mean that you will always be able to fix a value depreciation. However, when you know how value is determined, you can make informed decisions early on that will help you achieve the highest possible value for your property.

Oftentimes, one of the first things a newer investor wonders is whether to invest in a residential property or a commercial property. There are quite a few factors that should go into deciding which type of property to invest in, but one of the first things to know is how value is determined.

As a reminder:

  • A residential property holds one to four units in which people live. Residential properties consist of single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes.
  • A commercial property is any building with five units or more. It can house people or businesses. Commercial properties include office buildings, restaurants, self-storage facilities, warehouses, and apartment buildings (remember, anything with more than four units is considered a commercial property).

Now, how are these property types valued?

  • The value of a residential property is dependent on the market—the real-estate market as a whole and/or the market in the area the property is located in. The condition of the property plays a role in the equation as well, but for the most part, the market determines the value of a residential property.
  • The value of a commercial property is dependent upon the income it brings in. A commercial property’s value will be determined in relation to how much money it produces. More on this shortly.

Pricing Residential Properties

Residential property values are often easier for most people to understand because residential markets are more familiar. Residential values will first be determined by the market itself, and then (secondarily) by the condition of that property within the market spectrum. Even a fully rehabbed, beautiful house in immaculate condition can only be priced as high as the market will allow—if seven similar houses nearby (in the exact same condition) are for sale at a certain price, you can’t magically sell yours for a significantly higher price than those seven properties. On the other hand, if you own a complete dumper of a house in an area that everyone wants to live in, you might be able to sell it quite high. Or—like we saw during our more-recent real-estate crash— when housing prices tank across the board, it doesn’t matter where a property is located and in what condition: it will lose value.

Pricing Commercial Properties

Commercial properties are a little more mysterious to many of us. To explain valuing commercial properties, I’m going to use two different examples that will lead back to the same idea: a fast-food restaurant and a self-storage facility.

If you were to invest in a fast-food restaurant as a real-estate investor (not opening up a fast-food franchise), you would buy the building that the restaurant is housed in. That fast-food restaurant would then pay you to rent the space. If you were to invest in a self-storage facility, however, you’d basically be buying a business rather than just the structure that houses the business. In this scenario, your tenants are the people renting storage from you. In the case of the fast-food restaurant, a separate business (that you’re not involved with) will be your tenant.

Either way, you recieve income from a tenant of some sort, which determines the value of the property.

Understanding Cap Rates

If you decide to sell a commercial property, the list price will be dependent upon the income it pulls in. The market may have some sway in the matter (because the market can directly affect a business’s income), but prices for commercial properties are not directly market dependent like those of residential properties.

If you deal in commercial properties, you’ll need to understand the concept of capitalization rates. I won’t go into too much detail here about cap rates. The cap rate compares a property’s income to the price at which it’s being sold. The equation is, in its most basic form, annual income divided by purchase price. A positive cap rate means the property is bringing in positive income. A negative cap rate means it’s losing cash. Typically, positive cap rates average around 5-8%.

Let’s say the standard cap rate is 7% and your commercial property brings in $80,000 per year. To check your property value, you’d plug those two numbers into the cap-rate equation: $80,000/PRICE=0.07. To get a 7% cap rate, you’d have to price the property at roughly $1,140,000. Follow? If the property’s income increases or decreases from $80,000, the value of the property will have to change in order to maintain a 7% cap rate.

Here’s another way to look at it: If you are evaluating a property listed at $2 million, and it only brings in $80,000 per year, you know you’re looking at a cap rate that’s significantly lower than 7%. Do the math and you’ll see that the cap rate sinks to 4%. While not completely terrible, the cap rate is a bit low and you may want to think twice about buying the property for $2 million.

You can play around with those numbers a little bit. But remember—the value of a residential property depends on the market, and the value of a commercial property depends on the income it produces.

Why does this matter and how can knowing this help you with your investments?

Related: 12 Creative Ways to Add Major Value to Apartment Buildings

How to Increase Your Property Value

Here’s where the fun begins.

In order to understand how real estate works, it’s important to know how property values are determined. But where this information gets really crucial is when you try to increase the value of an investment property to boost your bottom line. This is why differentiating between residential and commercial properties is critical—if you don’t understand how each property type is valued, you won’t know how to affect their values.

Here’s how to increase the value of residential and commercial properties:

  • Residential properties: Buy in an appreciating market or wait for the market to appreciate; Improve the condition of the property
  • Commercial properties: Increase the property’s income

Of course there are limitations with residential properties, but there is a ton of potential if you buy right. No matter how much you improve a residential property, the market will cap the value potential at some point. If the market improves on it’s own, you will reap the rewards without effort. Of course you can’t control the market, but you can increase your chances of property appreciation by buying in solid-growth markets (and not selling your property during a real-estate downturn!). Buy in a growth market and then wait until the growth peak to sell.

Increasing the value of a commercial property is more straightforward: just increase its income somehow. If you own an apartment building, slightly raising a tenant’s rent can dramatically increase the property’s income, thus increasing its value. If the market won’t allow for unjustified rent increases, improve the property to to justify higher rents. Perhaps you add additional units to the building. Who knows. But the value will continue to be dependent on the income, so if you want to increase the value, increase the income.

There you have it! A little information on property values and how they are determined can help generate major profit potential with your investment properties!

Experienced investors, what are the most creative ways you’ve added value to your investment properties? Which ones were most effective? Did any backfire?

Be sure to let me know in the comments!

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.

11 Comments

  1. Cindy Larsen

    Very nice post Ali. good explaination of the bottom line concepts without confusing the issues by doing a deep dive into the details. Of course, those details are absolutely essential, but they have been posted about, in detail already. Nice reminder to keep the forest in view, not just the bark on the trees you are looking at 🙂

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