What is a Good Real Estate Investment?

A “good real estate investment” can mean different things to different people. For this article, the definition of a good real estate investment is:

A real estate ownership interest, whether a personal residence or rental property, that increases one’s net wealth by a fair rate of return on their invested cash equity; for the corresponding amount of risk they are taking by owning a relatively high risk asset.

What that means is that if you are going to put your invested cash equity into real estate, your net worth should improve by a greater amount than if you invested in a similarly risky asset. And “invested cash equity” isn’t the property price; it is how much cash you took from your bank account to acquire the property, which includes your down payment, plus closing costs, plus rehab costs.

Realize a lot of things can go wrong with real estate ownership, so you had better get a fairly high return on your invested cash equity for it to be a “good deal”. So you ask, how would one figure that out?

For investment properties

Your returns are part cash flows and part appreciation in value. For example, if your property rental income minus expenses produced $250 per month positive ($3,000 per year); and your invested cash equity was $50,000, that’s a cash on cash return of 6.00% ($3,000/$50,000). And that is a pretty darn good deal in real estate.

To add to that, let’s say you project net appreciation in value contributing an extra 1.0% or 2.0% return per year (after subtracting your projected estimated costs of capital repairs and improvements). Summing the cash flows and net appreciation could equal about a 8% to 10%+ projected return per year on a long term basis; and if you achieve those numbers….. that is a good real estate investment!

Some investment properties don’t cut it! Most fancy condos or beach houses, where the net rental income is very low compared to the purchase price, usually have projected negative cash on cash returns. So if you buy a fancy property with negative (4.0%) cash on cash returns, even if it appreciates 2.0% per year, you are typically at a 0.0%, or worse, return on your equity cash investment. And that isn’t a deal most experienced investors would take.

This past blog — “Investing in Real Estate – What is a “Good Deal?” has more information on the specific mechanics of projecting your returns.

For personal residences

You will also be putting down a large amount of cash equity and the calculations are really a little more complicated and difficult because you need to look at how much you are paying in housing expense versus how much that amount would be if you were just renting someone else’s property. So the overall question again is, “Is your wealth going to improve by owning the property?”

Some general guidance herein. As a general rule, if you are not planning to own it for at least five years you will most likely not be adding to your wealth. Any appreciation in value will not compensate for the 8.0% to 10.0% transaction costs on the buying and selling of your property. And even worse, the monthly ownership expense is usually higher than if you just rented a similar property. Therefore, if you don’t plan to own the property a long time, and the longer the better, you will probably do better renting and leaving the hassles and costs of ownership to a landlord.

So a good real estate investment is really one that will increase your net worth over time. The longer you own it, the better the chances for that appreciation in value and wealth building.

As proof positive on this, find someone who has owned real estate for 20, 30, 40 years and ask them what is a good real estate investment? It is generally easy to find them, they are retired, living comfortably, and usually happy to tell you about the properties they bought decades ago!

Leonard Baron, MBA, CPA, is a San Diego State University Lecturer, a Zillow Blogger, the author of several books including “Real Estate Ownership, Investment and Due Diligence 101 – A Smarter Way to Buy Real Estate”, and loves kicking the tires of a good piece of dirt! See more at ProfessorBaron.com.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.