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In the first article in this series, we explored how "replacement cost" analysis suggests that single family homes in Phoenix are undervalued, and why they are much more likley to go up in value in coming years, rather than moving down.

In this article, we explore a second, independent, strong signal that single family housing in some areas is undervalued. For this article, we will switch to inland Southern California rather than Phoenix, since I know the rental economics better in this area.

Single Family Rental Economics

Below is a home (click to enlarge images) about an hour from Los Angeles that was purchased for a little over $100,000 in early 2010.

The buyers of this home are a father and son team who have purchased about 100 homes in the same area in the past two years. They have sold about sixty homes after rehabilitating them, and they have held onto the other 40 homes to create rental income.

They spent about $13,000 rehabilitating this property, so their total cost basis is about $115,000. Today, the house is rented for $1,450 per month. Assuming one month of vacancy each year, rental income is about $16,000 per year. Operating expenses are about $5,000 per year. Net income is about $11,000 per year. On their cost basis, the owners are getting about a 9.6% cash-on-cash return ($11,000/$115,000).

If they bought a similar home today, in need of repairs, direct from a bank, the market is more competitive and they would pay more--probably $130,000 instead of $100,000. Even so, they would still have well over a 7% cash on cash return. Once rehabbed, the property would be worth in the high $100s. This property is appraised at a retail value of $195,000 today.

A Quick Look At Multifamily Rental Economics

Let's compare the single family home "fix-and-rent" strategy with buying apartments.

If one were to buy a 100 unit "Class B" apartment building in the same area as this home, it would trade at a capitalization rate of about 6.5%. That is, the income before debt service would represent a yield of about 6.5% as compared to the purchase price.

Given today's low interest rates on multifamily properties courtesy of Fannie Mae (currently under 5% for a 10-year maturity), the cash-on-cash return would be okay from the apartment property--probably about 5% after accounting for principal payments required by the mortgage, reserves and other factors.

However, if interest rates go up, or Fannie Mae stops subsidizing the apartment market by providing such low rates for apartment owners, the value of such assets could easily drop. Investors look at their cash-on-cash returns after debt service, and apartment values have been driven up by very low interest rates for apartment loans. If these rates were to go higher, apartment values would drop, just like bond values.

The Risk Of Buying Apartments Today

The bottom line for apartment investors is, they can enjoy low single digit cash-on-cash returns. However, in my view, there is a substantial chance of capital loss, even if rents keep going up, because higher interest rates will lead to higher capitalization rates which means lower values.

For example, suppose we have a change in cap rates from 6.5% to 7.5% (which is historically a more typical cap rate for Class B apartments in secondary markets). A property with annual cash flow before debt service of $300,000 drops in value from $4.6 million to $4.0 million--a 13% drop in value. Now suppose that the property has a loan of $2.3 million. The $600,000 drop in value now equates to a reduction in equity from $2.3 million to $1.7 million, or a 26% drop in equity.

Apartments are currently a favorite asset class for real estate investors, but as the numbers show, there is real risk for apartment buyers when cap rates are at historic lows, as they are now.

Apartments vs. Single Family Home Rentals

If, instead of buying a 100 unit apartment building, one were to purchase, say, 60 homes in the same area, there would be certain advantages and disadvantages.

The apartments would be much easier to manage, since they are all grouped together and there are economies of scale. Also, it is easy to get financing to buy apartments, while financing to buy single family homes as an investment is difficult to find and expensive.

The single family homes have the advantage that the current yield (cap rate) is a little higher than the current yield on apartments. Say, 8% vs. 6.5%. They also have one other important advantage. The homes can be sold individually, and if they are purchased from a bank by an experienced operator, they can be bought at "wholesale" prices.

As a result, a home bought for $130,000 and rehabbed for $15,000, for a total cost basis of $145,000, might be worth $185,000 once it is fixed up, because it can then be purchased by a family and once fixed up, the home will qualify for Fannie Mae or HUD financing (which increases the affordability for families substantially). After accounting for broker fees, there is still maybe $25,000 or $30,000 of equity created in the home, by virtue of a favorable purchase and an efficient rehabilitation, both of which create real value.

By contrast, there is almost no way to purchase apartments at "wholesale cost", at least not within an hour's drive of Los Angeles. Anything worth owning will become a competitive auction led by the large number of opportunistic investors who have been trying to buy apartments since the downturn began. The most common complaint from these savvy investors is that there is too much competition, and not enough product available to buy.

Conclusion

Most members of the Seeking Alpha community have no interest in being landlords, let alone being landlords for a portfolio of single family homes. The point of this article is two-fold:

  1. The attractive economics of the "fix-and-rent" market today, as compared with the apartment investment market, suggests that home values are near a floor in the most beaten down areas of the Southwestern U.S. It is hard to see values falling much further when already the numbers are compelling for investors to purchase these properties at current prices, given current rents; and
  2. The "fix-and-rent" strategy outlined in this article can be accessed by passive investors as well, but only if they know the right people. The key is to find trustworthy operators with a demonstrated track record, and to be able to structure a mutually favorable program to deliver cash flow and a portion of any equity created to the investors. And to insist that the operators have real "skin in the game" in the form of capital alongside the non-operator investors.

The Best Of Times For Single Family Home Investors Who Can Execute

For those seeking to gain exposure to real estate intelligently, "small is beatiful." In other words, unglamorous investments like a portfolio of single family homes in a blue collar neighborhood trumps "trophy properties" like pricy Manhattan office buildings--if one is looking for current cash flow and solid risk-adjusted returns.

Several years from now, many investors will look back at the investments that are being made today by obscure but hard-working teams like the father and son team that bought the property pictured above, and they might ask themselves, "why didn't I put some money into that?"

The answer is, this is a truly contrarian strategy and it is non-scalable, so you won't hear about it from any mainstream firms who need to invest on a large scale.

Disclosure: The author does not currently invest in the "fix-and-rent" strategy described in this article. However, the author does manage a portfolio of short term real estate loans and intends to invest in the "fix-and-rent" strategy in the near future.

Source: The Case for Single Family Homes (Part 2)