Commercial Real Estate – Valuing The Cash Flow

Many investors don’t understand the power of commercial real estate. I too had reservations until I understood the power and safety commercial real estate can provide. Commercial real estate is similar to trucks. Trucks come in all sizes and all shapes – a Ford Ranger to an 18 wheeler. Commercial properties come in all sizes and shapes – a standalone building that houses a small restaurant to the Empire State Building. People read in the newspapers that commercial property prices are crashing. People notice the strip malls have a lot of vacancies and it scares them away. Let’s take a look at the power of commercial real estate and a quick note about market cycles. Commercial real estate is a business and is priced based on current cash flows. For simplicity sake, commercial property pricing is based on 10 x annual cash flow, not including debt service (loan). So a property that yields $10,000 in cash flow is worth $100,000. Regardless of the type of property, if you increase rents by 1% ($100) the value goes up a $1000. Decrease expenses by $100 and the value goes up $1000. So what? Let’s look at a simple apartment example.

A small apartment complex (10 units) has an annual cash flow of $50,000 and is for sale for $500,000. It has a lot of long-term tenants paying below market rents. You put down 20% or $100,000 (there are ways to make it someone else’s money). We’ll assume it is a positive cash flow property even with the debt service (loan payments). First a storage area is made into a laundry facility that provides $5000 on annual basis. You just increased the value $50,000. Next rents are raised the first year to market rents. Raising rents $50 per unit increases cash flow $6000. You just increased the value $60,000. That means you have doubled your original $100,000 in the first year and you get to keep the $11,000 cash flow. There are many more ways to increase the cash flow including: separate utilities and have tenants pay utilities, decrease vacancy, work out a deal with dish network and get paid, reduce maintenance costs, and more. Just by raising the rent $10 a year increases cash flow $1200 a year and increases the value $12,000. In three to five years you’ll have cash flows of $70,000 to $100,000 (less debt service which remains constant) and you can sell the property for $700,000 to $1,000,000. Now you see the power of commercial real estate.

Just like single family homes, not every property is a good deal. First you look for commercial properties in areas that have improving rents, increasing employment, and areas where the entire area is going through gentrification. Next you look for properties that have a value proposition – rents too low, poor management, ability to install laundry or some other measure to increase cash flow. You would be surprised how many buildings are poorly managed or have below market rents.

I’ve used an apartment as the example; however this same model works for office buildings, mobile home parks, strip malls and more. All types of real estate (all types of investment) go through cycles. When the economy is booming for example, the vacancy in office buildings goes down significantly (prices go up). Of course the opposite is true during an economic downturn. During economic downturns more people move to apartments, mobile homes and need storage facilities. By observing these cycles one can move in and out of various positions to minimize risk and increase portfolio value.