Single Family Homes vs. Multi-Unit Apartments: Which Investment is Right for You?

by | BiggerPockets.com

Just the other day, I had lunch with my investor buddy, who worked for years as a CPA, watching his clients make money from numerous commercial real estate deals. Eventually, he decided to enter the world of multi-unit apartment investing himself, and he’s been very successful. In recent years, he has bought and sold more than 1,000 apartment units valued at over $30 million.

It seems clear, though, that my friend’s prior experience helped him immensely, especially when it came to understanding the commercial side of real estate investing. Most new investors don’t have that level of experience or access to capital right out of the gate, so they start out in real estate by investing in single-family residences (SFRs) in order to learn the basics.

It may also be the case that investing in SFRs aligns better with the investor’s goals. After all, no one said that you have to transition into multi-unit apartment investing. It’s not always the right move for everyone nor is it the best strategy for every situation.

So, what are the differences between these two strategies? How do you determine which is right for you? Let’s take a look.

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Investing in Multi-Unit Apartments: Pros & Cons

With multi-unit apartments, especially those over four units, many of the advantages have to do with scalability and growth potential.

Pro #1: Easier to Raise Rents All At Once

By adding amenities or making improvements to your complex, you can raise the rent on all of your units. Appraisals and future values are also based on net operating income, as opposed to comps nearby, which is a common consideration when valuing residential properties.

If you were looking to raise rent on all of your SFRs, you would have to drive out and make improvements to each property separately.

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Pro #2: On-Site Property Management & Maintenance

A rule of thumb is that if you own at least 100 units, it may be more affordable to hire a property manager and on-site maintenance. This would free up some of your time as well, allowing you to focus more on the growth of your portfolio.

Related: Single Family Vs. Multifamily Rentals: Which Investment is Right for YOU?

Pro #3: Possibility of Non-Recourse, More Flexible Financing

If you have a certain number of units (i.e. greater than 70-100 units), you may even qualify for a non-recourse loan, which would not require you as the owner to personally sign.

Financing can be flexible in some ways. For example, the buyer’s lender may allow the seller to carry a second mortgage. You may also raise private equity or borrow private money to fund the deal.

Con #1: Rates & Terms Sometimes Less Favorable

Commercial financing can also, at times, be more strict than residential. Not only is a larger percentage of capital needed to fund the deal, but the term is typically shorter, interest rates are sometimes higher, and there’s the possibility that the loan will be recast in 5-7 years.

Con #2: More at Risk

Operating on a larger scale and purchasing more expensive, multi-unit properties, whether you’re using OPM (other people’s money) or not, may require a higher level of risk-tolerance. There’s more at stake, and your risk is not spread out amongst cheaper properties.

Investing in Single Family Residences: Pros & Cons

When compared to multi-unit apartments, a portfolio of SFRs has less economy of scale, but it isn’t without its benefits.

Pro #1: Less Expensive with Better Financing Options

Of course, SFRs are often less expensive than multi-unit apartment complexes, but another big advantage of this investment type is the eligibility for more favorable financing.

For example, there are several programs with very low down payments for first-time homebuyers, which may be perfect for you if you’re just starting out. Owner-occupants also receive more favorable terms, allowing investors to build their portfolios by buying intentionally and living in each property for at least a year and a day. Of course, the bank may cut you off once you own a certain amount of properties in your name.

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Pro #2: Fewer Expenses

Another advantage is that you may also have fewer expenses, as tenants in SFRs typically cover more utilities and stay longer than they do in apartments, resulting in a lower vacancy rate. There are usually fewer common areas, so you would likely save on maintenance costs as well.

Con #1: Property Management Spread Out Over a Wider Area

In a portfolio of multiple SFRs, maintenance work is usually spread out among multiple properties in different locations.

Which Do I Prefer?

When I started out, I invested primarily in SFRs, but today I invest in both.

At my stage of the game, I’ve had enough aggravation when it comes to managing properties, and I’m looking for something more passive with less management and maintenance.

Related: Should You Invest in a Small or Mid-Sized Multifamily Deal? Get the Pros & Cons Here!

If I’m looking to invest in less than 100 units, I would just do SFR deals, as the tenant would be more involved in the upkeep of the property, and I wouldn’t need to pay for on-site property management or maintenance.

When it comes to multi-unit buildings, my focus would be on purchasing those that have at least 100 units, as this makes property management and maintenance more affordable. Plus, I would likely be eligible for a non-recourse loan, where I wouldn’t need to personally sign.

So, both of these strategies align with my goal of investing more passively. That said, my goals have definitely shifted over the years, and what’s right for me now may not have been right 30 years ago.

I’m interested to hear from some fellow real estate investors on BiggerPockets. Which investment type aligns with your goals? Have you ever considered investing in both?

Let me know with a comment!

About Author

Dave Van Horn

Dave Van Horn is President at PPR The Note Co. - an operating entity that manages several funds that buy/sell/hold residential mortgages, both performing and delinquent. Dave has been in the Real Estate business for over 25 years, starting out as a Realtor and contractor and moving onto everything from fix and flips to Raising Private Money.

11 Comments

  1. John Daley

    There can certainly be more upside to commercial investing, but most individual investors to not have the resources to jump in to commercial from the start. I started out investing in SFR and small multi-family duplexes almost 10 years ago and have watched my equity increase over time. Financing with good terms was easy to obtain, cash flow decent, and the experience invaluable. There is not the big payoff that you can get with commercial, but after 10 years I have enough equity pay down by my tenants (along with appreciation) that I can now refinance and pull out enough cash to start considering commercial investments.

    Great article and I like the balanced approach you recommend. Residential investing can be a great stepping stone to more hands off commercial investing and both have their advantages. One day I may transition to all commercial investments as that seems to be the natural progression of most successful real estate investors looking to simplify their portfolio, but I will always appreciate the fact that it was residential investing that got me there.

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