When Location Isn't King: How to Choose Income Rental Property

We've all heard the expression many times: "When it comes to making a home-buying decision, the three most important considerations are location, location, location." But does that same rule apply to rental properties as an investment? Not necessarily. To illustrate, I'll provide an example from my storied past — in this case, the recent past.

About five years ago I spent time looking at rental properties along the New Jersey shore. Over time I narrowed my focus to two neighboring towns — let's call them "Poshtown" and "Middleville." Poshtown is a beautiful upscale community with quaint shops, large lots, and manicured lawns. Next door, Middleville is more of a mixed bag, with some very attractive sections, but also other areas crowded with seasonal rental properties often in need of some TLC.

Next, I crunched the numbers. I gathered estimates of rental income and expenses for dozens of multi-family units listed for sale in both towns. Then I ranked each property from best to worst based on its monthly cash flow. Properties with the most positive monthly cash flow after all expenses rose to the top of the list. The following chart shows the highest ranked property in each town based on its estimated monthly cash flow:


Why Cash Flow Is King

As you can see, the winner by far was a Middleville property with positive cash flow of $640 per month. By contrast, estimated cash flow for the highest ranked property in Poshtown was negative $1,365 per month. Adding to the rout, there were eight additional properties in Middleville with higher rankings (more positive monthly cash flow) than the highest ranked property in Poshtown.

Why were the numbers stacked so heavily against Poshtown? The town's exclusivity added such a high premium to its home prices that rents couldn't make up the difference. Poshtown was a better location, but Middleville was a better investment.

The lesson? For rental properties it's all about cash flow, cash flow, cash flow!

Other Factors Worth Considering

Alright, but surely "location" must be the second most important consideration, right? Sorry to disappoint, but in my experience the answer is still no. That honor goes to…condition, condition, condition. Here's why: If two properties have the same monthly cash flow at the time of purchase, but one requires tens of thousands of dollars in repairs while the other doesn't, then repair costs for the run-down property translate to more negative cash flow. Again, it gets back to the cash flow.

Of course, there are other factors to seriously consider when looking into rental properties, and some of them aren't financial. For example, are you handy with repairs and making sure they're done in a timely manner? Are you willing to interrupt your evenings and weekends, even vacations, in order to address property issues? Perhaps most importantly, do you think you could effectively choose tenants and deal with them on a regular basis? If not, then becoming a landlord might not work for you.

Before leaving this topic, I'd like to make one more point to illustrate the value of crunching the numbers prior to making a rental property purchase decision. This will require taking a look at two other properties, a $250,000 two-family house and a $150,000 condominium. I learned this lesson years ago when we purchased our first condo rental.

In the example above, monthly cash flow at the time of purchase for the two-family is slightly negative and would flip to a positive $1,000 after paying off the mortgage. But notice how negative the condo's cash flow is. It loses $650 per month. Even after paying off the mortgage, which would free up $645, the best you could hope for is break-even cash flow. That's a red flag. I wouldn't buy it.

This comparison illustrates the importance of two "all other things equal" factors in determining the attractiveness of rental properties. First, all other things equal, properties with fixed monthly association and/or maintenance fees are more challenging to turn into positive cash flow than those without. Condos, townhomes, and other properties governed by an association typically charge homeowners in the community such fees. These often add up to hundreds of dollars a month, every month.

The second factor is, all other things equal, more rental units in a property is better than fewer. You are more likely to achieve positive monthly cash flow with a two-family than a one-family. And a three-family will usually do better than a two-family. Why? Because each additional unit brings in additional income, but not proportionately higher expenses. For example, the price of a three-family (and therefore its monthly mortgage payment) is rarely three times higher than that of a single family on the same lot. Also, property taxes and insurance won't be three times higher for a three-family than a one-family. Nor would monthly maintenance and repair costs.

As you can see, rental properties have a different set of rules than those for a single family property used as your primary residence. And the most important of these rules is — you guessed it: cash flow, cash flow, cash flow!

Have you considered investing in rental property?

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Guest's picture

Best article I've read in this forum in a while.