Investing in Real Estate – Should You Buy Residential Or Commercial Property?

We hear this often from real estate investors: “What’s the smarter move? Residential or commercial investment property?” It should come as no surprise that there isn’t a one-word answer to this question. You’ll arrive at your best choice — the one that maximizes your chances for success — by working through a decision process that includes some “global” issues, some local and some that are entirely personal.

Definitions

Let’s start with some terminology. For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll define as residential any property that derives all or nearly all of its income from dwelling units. Single-family homes, multi-families, apartment buildings, condos, co-ops are all residential. (FYI, the tax code classifies any property in which 80% or more of the gross income comes from dwelling units as residential, so many mixed-use properties can be classified as residential for tax purposes.)

For commercial property, we’ll use a typical layman’s definition: property that derives its income from non-residential sources, such as offices, retail space and industrial tenants.

Why do I say that this is the layman’s definition? Because appraisers and lenders would consider large (>4 unit) apartment buildings to be commercial investment property since they are bought and sold strictly for their ability to produce income and not as a potential personal residence for the owner/investor. However, it will suit our discussion better to treat all apartment buildings as residential properties.

Global Issues

What are the global issues that should affect your choice to buy residential or commercial property? The state of the U.S. economy certainly tops the list. If you believe we are in or are on the brink of a recession, then it makes sense to be cautious regarding commercial property. You will have to rely on businesses to occupy your commercial space, and if they’re struggling to survive or simply deferring their plans to expand, then rental rates may soften and demand for space decline. Replacing a lost tenant — especially one lost unexpectedly (in the middle of a lease, or the middle of the night) because of a weak economy — can take longer than it might in unstressed economic times. When the economy and employment are strong, of course, you are likely to see the opposite. Service businesses need more space, retailers open more stores, distributors need more warehouses.

Another issue is the cost and availability of financing. Interest rates are always important to investors, but there is one situation that may strike you as counter-intuitive. When home loans are readily available and mortgage rates drop, it’s not uncommon to see an increase in apartment vacancies, making apartment buildings less desirable as investments. The reason? Low mortgage rates and easy credit often mean that individuals can own a home at a monthly cost that is the same — or less, after taxes — than renting. So part of your potential tenant pool may be lost to home ownership.

Local Issues

In the real world, each of these global issues comes with a “however” attached. You need to stay on top of your local market because that market may contradict the national trend. For example, highly restrictive zoning regulations can mean that commercial space is always in short supply in a particular location, recession notwithstanding. And the cost of single-family homes in your community may be so high that there will always be a strong demand for rentals. Think globally but act locally (with apologies to environmentalists for borrowing their slogan).

Personal Issues

You could buy a property and then insulate yourself from it by turning over every aspect of its operation to a management company. But if you’ve never operated a property yourself, how would you know if the management firm is doing an acceptable job? Most investors begin as hands-on managers and your chances of success will be greater if you choose a type of property that you’re comfortable with.

So, at the personal level, will residential or commercial suit you better?

Unless you were raised in the woods by wolves, there is a very good chance that you’ve spent most of your life in a residential dwelling unit: a single-family house, a condo or an apartment. You have a first-hand understanding of the rights, obligations and appropriate behavior of a residential occupant. If you were a tenant, you probably also know something about the roles and responsibilities of both tenant and landlord. It is for this reason that first-time investors often lean toward buying a small residential building. You may not know the fine points of leasing and landlording, but you understand the basic ground rules. This is familiar and comfortable territory.

Of course, some novice investors come to real estate with a background in business and perhaps as a commercial tenant. If that description fits you, then becoming a commercial landlord may be an easy transition. You already have firsthand knowledge of how commercial lease deals come together, and what the parties typically expect of each other.

The Pros and the Cons

Like any of your investment choices, each type of property has its pros and cons. For example:

Residential Pros:

1. Residential units are generally easy to rent. Turnover in housing is high, so your pool of potential tenants tends to be large.
2. Leases are generally short, especially for apartments, so you can keep pace with the rental market. This means cash flow tends to be fairly strong with a multi-unit residential property.
3. Financing residential property is usually fairly straightforward. For smaller properties, the process is similar to financing a home.
4. The cost per unit tends to be lower for residential than commercial. The more units you have, the less likely it is that a vacancy will severely impact your cash flow.
5. You could live in one of the units of a multi-family property. Obviously it’s easier to keep an eye on the property if your eye is actually there.

Residential Cons:

1. Residential properties usually require a lot of hands-on management.
2. Residential properties usually require a lot of hands-on management. (That’s not a typo. I said it twice.)
3. With a single-family home, one lost tenant equals 100% lost rent.
4. Multi-family houses tend to be older and therefore may require more repairs and maintenance.
5. Residential tenants don’t keep office hours, so you can get a call or complaint at any time of day or night.
6. Larger multi-unit properties generally have a lot of traffic in common areas and will require greater upkeep.
7. Did I mention that residential properties usually require a lot of hands-on management?

Dealing with commercial tenants is quite different. Ideally, it’s business, not personal. You may require a personal guarantee on a lease, but you should expect to have more of a business-to-business relationship.

Commercial Pros:

1. Typically leases are longer, with built-in rent escalations. Five years, with options to renew is not universal but certainly quite common. Except perhaps for small offices, few businesses would be willing to go to the expense of becoming established in a particular location without a guarantee of more than just one year.

2. Many commercial leases pass through to the tenant a pro-rata share of certain expenses (or a pro-rata share of the increase in certain expenses, over a base). For example, the tenant may be obligated to pay its pro-rata share of property taxes and common-area maintenance. This helps stabilize the cash flow for the landlord and makes that cash flow more predictable.

3. Management is less hands-on than with residential. Renewals are less frequent. Many commercial leases are written to include the requirement that the tenant be responsible for interior repairs, HVAC maintenance, glass breakage, etc.

4. Depending on the type of space (i.e. more common with retail and high-end office), the tenant may fit-up the space to suit itself. The landlord may give a one-time fit-up allowance or a period of free rent, but the interior finish then becomes the tenant’s responsibility to maintain.

5. Because the property’s value is strictly a function of its income stream, you have the opportunity to create value by enhancing that income stream. In other words, you don’t need to rely on general market “appreciation” to increase the value of your property, but can take steps to do so yourself.

Commercial Cons:

1. Trying to purchase a commercial property on a shoestring may not be a realistic plan. Lenders are generally tougher underwriting commercial loans, especially if you have no experience operating commercial property. Down-payment requirements tend to be higher, as do interest rates. Loans are for shorter terms and often have a “balloon” requirement (i.e., must be refinanced before the nominal end of the term). The property will have to pass muster in terms of its projected cash flows and debt coverage ratio.

2. Leasing a commercial space can take much longer than leasing a residential unit. After a tenant is identified and basic terms agreed upon, it is usually necessary for attorneys for both sides to negotiate the language of the lease. The complexity and cost of this process can vary greatly, depending on whether you are dealing with a local or a national tenant.

3. Filling a vacancy can take much longer than with a residential unit. Commercial leases will typically require that a tenant exercise an option to renew well before the lease expires — perhaps six to as much as twelve months prior — so that the landlord can have ample time to look for a new tenant.

4. Financing commercial property can be more complex than with residential. You’ll need to demonstrate to the lender that the property will perform at a level that can can cover the debt service with room to spare.

5. If you don’t have experience being a commercial tenant, then becoming a commercial landlord may require that you get familiar with some concepts and skills that are particular to the commercial world. You’ll want to learn about “tenant mix” if you own retail space, about commercial insurance and about the billing and reconciliation of pass-through expenses.

While there is certainly no right answer to the question, “Residential or commercial?” there is probably a best answer for you. Do you want the hand-on involvement of residential? Do you have the resources for commercial? Do you want the potential for higher cash flow, and with it the possibility of greater risk? Do you prefer a more modest but more predictable return? Consider your objectives and preferences carefully, and evaluate your resources — time, money, skills — realistically. With a bit of luck, the answer should jump off the page.

Residential Vs Commercial Property Investments

Before purchasing a new investment property, you should always consider the differences between residential and commercial real estate investments. Depending on your financial means, expectations and investment plan, you will have to decide which one can be more profitable for you. Most people will invest in residential properties, as this seems to be a safer endeavour requiring less money, however, if you have the means, commercial properties can be highly profitable. You should also consider that while traditional residential property investments might not have very high returns on your investment, repossessed or foreclosed properties, can bring you a net yield of up to 12-15%.

Property Types for Residential and Commercial Investments

Houses of four units or less, to rent to private tenants are usually considered residential properties. You can invest in buy-to-let residential properties, which means that you’ll get the rental yields every month, or purchase the property solely for future resale. Residential property investments vary from more traditional buy-to-let investments somewhere near your own home to investments in overseas real estate, below market value properties or foreclosed houses. Commercial properties are for businesses, and include a variety of properties, from apartment blocks and office buildings to hotels, restaurants, warehouses and industrial buildings, just to name a few. Managing a relatively small residential property is obviously simpler than managing commercial properties, where you will often need a professional real estate management company to assist you.

Researching the Real Estate Market

While you will always need some knowledge of the property market and current conditions to make a successful investment, residential properties are simpler to research and value. It is relatively easy to compare different residential properties, their prices and investment potential in a given area. Commercial properties, however, are often unique and require specialised knowledge to value accurately and to establish an investment plan.

Risks & Yields

Residential properties are generally regarded as low-risk investments. They also tend to cost much less than commercial properties and will thus be more affordable, especially if you’ve just started building up your investment portfolio. The relatively low risks and the low purchase price, however will also mean that your profits are lower, and your return on investment will come mainly from increases in capital value.

Commercial properties, on the other hand have higher risks, but also higher potential returns. The significantly higher prices will also mean, that for personal investors, only collective investment schemes are affordable for larger commercial property investments. The relative unpredictability of the commercial property market will also bring more risks. While residential property prices generally double every 10 years, this is not true for commercial properties. You can expect a net yield of up to 7-10% on commercial properties, which is higher than the net yield from traditional residential property investments, and a large part of your return on investment will be in the form of rental income.

Rental Properties

A successful investment plan for both commercial and residential properties is to rent them out. Residential leases tend to be much shorter, usually around one year, and private tenants are often considered less reliable than businesses. Landlords will be liable to pay for repairs, which might incur unexpected additional costs. Commercial properties, on the other hand, are leased out for a longer time, 5-10 years is not uncommon, and the yearly increase in rental yields will be more significant. Businesses are also often considered to be more reliable tenants and commercial tenants are generally required to pay for repairs. You should also consider that while commercial properties can bring you a secure and high rental income, it is also much more difficult to find commercial tenants.

Exit Strategy for Residential and Commercial Properties

One investment plan is to rent out your property as detailed above. However, property flipping, or future resale can also be a profitable strategy with both kinds of investments. Residential property can be sold quite simply to another investor or somebody who intends to occupy the house, and as long as the property is in a good condition and in a well-chosen location, you should generally be able to sell it at a significantly higher price than its original purchase value. Commercial properties can bring huge profits, but the process of resale is more complicated. The property must be sold to another investor or investor group, and it should have a successful and profitable record, to be attractive to the buyer for investment purposes.

Getting the Best Mortgage Rate

Buying a home is an expensive endeavor so getting the best possible mortgage rate should be one of your main priorities. By deciding to get the best mortgage rate possible you will be making a positive decision to help you for many years to come. However, just deciding to get the best mortgage rate available is not going to get you the best mortgage rate available. Instead, you will need to learn the tips and tricks for negotiating with your mortgage lender in order to receive the best possible mortgage rate for your personal situation.

Mortgage Rate Tip #1 Origination Fee

Your mortgage rate might be low in your mind, but you must take the origination fee into account as well because this can increase your APR. Lenders frequently charge 1%, but you can always negotiate the mortgage rate origination fee lower. Also, if the origination fee is much higher than 1% you need to either negotiate it down, or find another lender with a more favorable overall mortgage rate.

Mortgage Rate Tip #2 Lock in the Rate

When negotiating your mortgage rate, make sure your lender is prepared to lock in your rate for at least 30-60 days. This way you will be guaranteed a particular rate even if rates skyrocket the next day. Another not trick many individuals are not aware of is to include a clause that also will allow you to take a lower rate if rates fall during this period. This is a great mortgage rate tip because you get your mortgage rate locked in so it can’t go any higher, but if the average mortgage rate goes lower you receive the lower rate.

Mortgage Rate Tip #3 Fight

If the mortgage rate drops significantly and you have already signed a deal locking in a particular mortgage rate and don’t have a clause that ensures you will receive the lower rate, then you need to fight. You simply need to call your lender and say that while you signed the lock in agreement you want the lower rate. This will take some negotiating, but your lender wants you business and might be willing to negotiate the mortgage rate with you.