How to make rock-solid investment decisions in a shaky real estate market Featured

9:01pm EDT October 31, 2011
How to make rock-solid investment decisions in a shaky real estate market

Historically, commercial real estate afforded investors predictable and favorable returns. In fact, many of the richest Americans on Forbes infamous annual list attribute all or a portion of their hard-earned fortunes to a bevy of sound real estate investments.

But commercial real estate prices plunged nationwide by 73 percent at the start of the recession and, though values have started to rebound in some cities and sub-markets, generous returns are no longer guaranteed. Going forward, investors need to anticipate every possible scenario and run numerous pro-forma models in order to forecast a realistic return.

“You can’t make sound investment decisions in commercial real estate by relying on gut instinct,” says Dr. Tammie Simmons Mosley, associate professor of Finance, California State University, East Bay. “You have to factor-in market uncertainly, review data and employ rigorous decision-making to validate your assumptions.”

Smart Business spoke with Simmons Mosley about the due diligence that leads to sound investments in commercial real estate.

How should investors approach decision-making?

Engage a team of professionals from the outset, including a realtor and an investment analyst, so you can tap their expertise through the various stages in the process.

1) Set goals. You won’t be successful if you try to hit a moving target. Establish how much money you’re willing to risk in addition to your desired rate of return and investment timeline before creating an investment profile and searching for a suitable property. This includes knowing the specific property capitalization rate for that locality.

2) Acquire financing. Whether you plan to use equity, debt or a combination of both to consummate a purchase, line up your financing in advance so you know the parameters and can negotiate with confidence.

3) Understand local laws and taxes. Local taxes, fees and even zoning and signage regulations can impact the success of a commercial building, so be sure to research and understand the local laws and regulations before you make a purchase.

4) Evaluate the tenant base. Assess the ability of current and prospective tenants to garner customers, because the efficacy of the local trade area will determine whether tenants can meet current or future rent obligations. Then use that information to create various scenarios and estimate a realistic return during the financial modeling process.

What constitutes a viable investment strategy?

Start by examining the area’s macro trends and assessing the impact on existing commercial properties to determine the best way to spend your time and money. For example, if local incomes are dropping and unemployment is high, it may not be wise to invest in a boutique retail center until the economy improves. While an influx of new office buildings may lure tenants away from mature projects and force landlords to grant temporary rent concessions, especially if available space exceeds demand. Include a demographic analysis of the average household size, age and income, and then look at how the property has fared over the last five years and the pipeline of future projects to realistically estimate the investment’s performance over the entire holding period. Finally, link your strategy to your goals in order to create a profile of your ideal investment so your realtor can suggest properties that match your appetite for risk and desired return.

What should investors review and consider as part of their market analysis?

Consider the purchasing power of the local market area as part of your analysis. How many demographically desirable customers reside within a two-minute or three-minute drive and can they use public transportation to reach the location? Next, consider the specific site and environmental factors. Will you incur heavy environmental clean-up costs or zoning roadblocks if you want to remodel an industrial property for another use? Will property setbacks keep you from expanding a shopping center or parking lot? Review data and human intelligence to conduct a thorough market analysis.

Which pro-forma statement models help investors estimate an accurate return?

First, run a broad pro-forma statement model or financial statement that estimates the property’s annual return over the entire holding period. Then, run a monthly model for the first and second year, because equity and debt investors will want to see a more precise cash-flow estimate during the risky start-up period. Then, repeat the process using a variety of assumptions to see how the investment performs under a variety of scenarios. Run the absolute worst case scenario, the most optimistic scenario and the expected scenario to see how uncertainty impacts your rate of return. Finally, calculate your expected internal rate of return by assigning a probability weight to each model while making sure that the total weight adds up to one.

Do you have any other tips or best practices for prospective investors?

Prevent bad investments by having an in-depth understanding of the commercial real estate market, because you won’t succeed in today’s environment with superficial knowledge. Use realistic assumptions and data from reliable sources to create multiple scenarios and pro-forma statement models, otherwise, its garbage in, garbage out. Be sure to check the math in your software program or financial model, because a bad formula can misconstrue an investment’s risk and estimated return. Finally, understand the current capital tax gains treatment so you can retain every possible dollar after exercising extreme due diligence and rigorous decision-making during the investment process.

Dr. Tammie Simmons Mosley is an associate professor of finance at California State University, East Bay. Reach her at (510) 885-3316 or tammie.mosley@csueastbay.edu.