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How to Find a Rental Property in an Expensive Market


A while back, Zillow contacted me to see if they could write a guest article for Retire By 40. At the time, I was searching for a new rental property and I used Zillow almost every day. I also own Zillow stocks so you can see that I’m a big fan of the company. Anyway, I asked Tali to write an article about finding rental properties in an expensive market, so here it is. I hope this is helpful to new investors who are looking for an investment property.

*Here is something new – I’m going to give real estate crowdfunding a try this year. I opened an account at Realty Shares in January and invested $8,000 in a commercial property in Arizona. The ROI for this project is estimated to be 17% annually over 3 years. That’s amazing and I’m anxious to see if they can deliver. This ROI estimate is quite high. Check them out if you want to invest in real estate, but don’t want to be a landlord.

How to Find a Rental Property in an Expensive Market

By Tali Wee of Zillow

invest rental property expensive market

Many financially-minded individuals hope to invest in rental properties for long-term passive income. Although rental income can provide consistent passive income, investing in real estate can be risky. As the housing bubble has shown, investors can lose quite a bit of equity if they buy at the wrong time. First-time rental property investors should keep their day jobs while transitioning to real estate.

Begin by researching healthy markets and establishing realistic rent prices and estimated profits. It’s best to invest enough in the investment properties to generate positive cash flow so investors don’t have to spend their other income to keep the place running.

Compare Market Affordability

Currently, first-time homebuyers are unable to purchase properties because the most affordable inventory is locked in negative equity. Presently, 18.8 percent of U.S. mortgaged homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, making them unable to sell their properties without bringing cash to the closing table. This low inventory paired with expensive national rents, up 2.5 percent in the last year, forces families to rent at high costs.

The market is ideal for landlords, but rental property buyers face high purchase prices in popular areas as well. Median home values along the west coast are steep, including cities such as Portland ($306,300), Seattle ($472,300), Los Angeles ($531,400) and San Francisco ($999,400). Buyers need significant capital to compete with other investors in bidding wars.

Fortunately, these same areas are highly sought after by renters willing to pay for great locations. Portland renters pay $1,521 monthly, and Seattleites pay $2,074. If buyers can purchase rentals in Los Angeles, local renters pay steep rents of $2,392, and $3,667 in San Francisco. Ultimately, buyers should save capital to make smart purchases in areas where tenants are prevalent and rents are high.

Seek Moderate Pricing

Rental property buyers must invest heavily upfront, with the hopes of property appreciation over time and positive cash flow from rents. Though major metros are expensive, property appreciation is highly likely, making long-term investing paramount for profitability. Consider realistic returns by subtracting operating costs ranging from 35 to 45 percent of the total rent income, minus monthly mortgage payments.

For example, a 30-year fixed loan on a $500,000 property with 50 percent down ($250,000) and a 4 percent interest rate would cost about $2,000 monthly, including estimated property taxes and insurance. Imagine this 10 unit rental brought in $3,500 each month. After 35 percent operating expenses ($1,225) the monthly yield is $2,275. Subtract the mortgage payment and the owner yields $275 monthly.

Greater upfront investment equates lower mortgages and higher monthly returns. Without capital to purchase rentals with cash, buyers should either wait to purchase or invest in lower-priced buildings. Avoid prize properties and aim for working-class neighborhoods charging moderate rents for moderate conditions.

Joe> Investors tend to underestimate the operating expense of a rental property, so try to be as accurate as possible when calculating that. It’s fine to assume 35% when you’re searching for a property, but you really need to get the operating cost nailed down before you make an offer.

Budget Operation Expenses

Buyers should plan their property management strategies before purchasing rentals. Some rental property owners with handyman skills prefer to run their entire businesses from lease signing to tenant requests to emergency upgrades. Although this method effectively cuts out the middleman for higher profits, it’s not the best approach for all owners. If on-call management doesn’t suit owners’ lifestyles, they should consider hiring property management companies to run their rental business.

Begin Searching Early

Serious buyers start their rental property searches three to six months before they plan to purchase. The lengthy timeframe allows them to properly research markets and familiarize themselves with current values. Buyers search online for available multi-family properties, visit units and examine comparable sales. Most hire buyer’s agents to access properties and narrow down location, affordability and must-have property features.

zillow invest rental property multi unit duplex

Consider Onsite Living

One method of selecting rental properties is for buyers to look for the characteristics they might choose for their own homes. The same amenities that appeal to buyers attract renters, such as close proximity to local parks, groceries and simple commutes. Buyers who purchase rental properties they love and plan to live in are more likely to maintain them and stay committed to their investments. Onsite homeowners understand the experiences of living at the properties, making them more apt to make improvements that enhance tenant experiences. Additionally, buyers who plan to live onsite get the most affordable financing options on mortgages.

Buy Properties in Quality Condition

When buyers compare properties, they should opt for rentals in the best possible conditions. Always invest in a property inspection before closing on a home. If properties require upgrades, buyers should estimate the costs of improvements before purchasing. Negotiate credits from sellers or require fixes prior to purchase. After closing, owners should rapidly complete remaining upgrades to ensure property safety, attract more applicants immediately and avoid countless, costly quick-fixes in the future.

Complete Due Diligence

When purchasing rental properties, buyers should carefully review the profitability of the operations. What are sellers charging for rent? How much are property repairs and insurance fees? Do sellers pay for onsite management? How frequent is tenant turnover? Are properties cash-flow positive? If local properties are charging higher rents, consider raising rents. Watch for property disclosures signifying damages or potential for expensive repairs in the future. Consider marketable factors of each property and weigh against the disadvantages.

Above all, think long-term. Find neighborhoods with histories of expensive rents and high populations. Avoid college towns where tenants commit to one-year leases instead of lengthy stays. Opt for family-friendly communities where renters plan to settle down for years. Even though the real estate market is prime for investors and big cities are secure investment locations, buyers should wait until they’re financially prepared for high purchase prices.

Joe> Thank you, Zillow, for this article. I think 2014 is the sweet spot for buying multiple-unit rentals. The price of single family homes has gone up a lot, but the multi-unit rentals are lagging behind. I saw this when I sold our 4-plex and during our search for a replacement property. If the housing market continues to heat up for the next few years, I’m sure multi-family residences will rise sharply. Or maybe we’ll see another housing market correction. I don’t think that’s likely in the next few years, though.

Are you looking for a rental property? What do you think? 

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Joe started Retire by 40 in 2010 to figure out how to retire early. He spent 16 years working in computer design and enjoyed the technical work immensely. However, the job became too stressful and Joe retired from his engineering career to become a stay-at-home dad/blogger at 38. Today, he blogs about financial independence, early retirement, investing, and living a frugal lifestyle.

Passive income is the key to early retirement. This year, Joe is increasing his investment in real estate with CrowdStreet. He can invest in projects across the U.S. and diversify his real estate portfolio. There are many interesting projects available so sign up and check them out.

Joe also highly recommends Personal Capital for DIY investors. He logs on to Personal Capital almost daily to check his cash flow and net worth. They have many useful tools that will help DIY investors analyze their portfolio and plan for retirement.

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • peter August 6, 2014, 10:05 am

    I am convinced the dumbing down of our education system is evident in the real-estate business when I read Talli’s “owner yields $275 monthly”

    So the owner makes $275/m or $3,300/year on a $250,000 down payment. Fantastic! 1.3% yield!
    Who is their right minds that can count (and I realize that there are very many that cannot) would lay out 250k for 3300/year return on an illiquid piece whose direction/timing you can only speculate?

    • Tom August 7, 2014, 8:18 am

      That is exactly what I was thinking. The ROI is horrible considering you could probably get that rate (and then some) with a CD, which is a lot less stressful and risky.

    • retirebyforty August 7, 2014, 10:26 am

      $275/month really isn’t very good. It’s tough in expensive market, though. Most property won’t cash flow in the big cities on the west coast.

  • No Nonsense Landlord August 5, 2014, 9:00 pm

    I just passed up one that the owner and I had already agreed on price. Then, when he discussed it with his partner, he decided that it was too cheap. I passed on going higher. If you do not buy right, you will never be ahead of the game.

  • so August 5, 2014, 7:28 am

    We’re pulling back and de-leveraging. Too many newbies jumping at everything, prices are not conducive to cash flow unless you get lucky with a private sale.

  • [email protected] August 4, 2014, 1:32 pm

    I’ve recently begun researching about investing in rental property and am definitely interested. I live in an expensive market (NYC) and do not think I’d invest here because the properties won’t cash flow…they may appreciate though but I don’t have the money to take that risk without the cash flow. I have been thinking about investing in areas with an inexpensive market…but then it’ll be long distance which also has risks.

  • Jon August 4, 2014, 6:03 am

    I have a rental currently – my old home that is underwater – and I am looking to add another property later this year. I’ve started my homework now and have a spreadsheet that holds all of my calculations to tell me when a property is worth looking into. Here is a tip – most aren’t. Good properties that bring in cash right away aren’t readily available. You have to do your homework. The best tip I can suggest is after you run your numbers, show them to a trusted friend. Get their take. Some times, in the heat of the moment, we underestimate something or forget about a cost which will completely change the numbers.

  • canadianbudgetbinder August 4, 2014, 4:19 am

    Now that we no longer have a mortgage my wife and I were talking about buying a rental. There is so much to consider but with both of our parents owning many rental homes over the years we’ve been privileged to learn what to do and what not to do. The key is education here. You point out many important tips. We live in a University town where homes are snatched up in an instant and rented to students. These homeowners make a fortune but like you point out the pitfall will be those short 1 year leases.

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