4 questions to ask before buying a rental property

If you’re obsessed with HGTV, remodeling and regularly use phrases like “reclaimed wood” and “farmhouse feel,” you’ve probably kicked around the idea of buying investment property. The popular TV niche has given birth to a group of people who are motivated to improve their incomes with do-it-yourself projects and tenants in tow.

While it may seem simple and fulfilling on the small screen, buying rental property carries the same risks as purchasing your primary home. The following questions are some you’ll want to answer as you consider possible investment strategies.

1. What are your financial goals?

Are you hoping to earn extra monthly income, or do you view rental property as an attractive long-term investment? Being clear about your expectations is crucial to nailing down whether investment property is a wise choice. According to Mark Ferguson, Realtor, real estate investor and voice of InvestFourMore.com, many buyers fail to think beyond square footage.

“The biggest mistakes I see are investing in a property that loses money while hoping for appreciation, paying all cash for properties when you don’t have to and trying to manage (properties) yourself without skills or time,” Ferguson said.

It’s a good idea to make a list of short- and long-term goals as well as deal-breakers for any investment you choose. Creating rules will help you stay focused.

2. Can you afford extra expenses?

Maintaining rental property takes work and extra cash, and while it’s tempting to focus on the best-case scenario, you shouldn’t discount the hefty expense of rental property taxes, association dues, management, maintenance and repairs. It’s possible to cut expenses by taking on a few handy projects yourself, but it won’t eclipse the costs entirely.

It’s wise to build a reserve fund in anticipation of your property’s needs according to Scott Trench, real estate broker and vice president of operations at BiggerPockets.com. “If you have $10,000, or even $20,000-plus in a bank account set aside for reserves, you can buy your way out of many problems associated with small rental properties,” Trench said.

With that in mind, you may want to consider building an emergency fund for your business investments in addition to your personal savings account. Separating your expenses is necessary for tax purposes, and you’ll need two accounts to maintain personal and professional independence.

3. Which real estate market is right for you?

Although analysts predict a healthy rental market in 2017, value is still subjective, and you might consider looking outside your ZIP code to see if there are better buying options elsewhere.

“Certain metropolitan areas are most attractive to the country’s largest population groups—millennials and boomers — and are growing much faster than others,” said Alex Cohen, commercial specialist for CORE, a real estate brokerage firm based in New York City.

“Some of these markets have relatively low land and housing construction costs like Dallas and Houston. But other markets, particularly on the coasts, have much higher land and construction costs, which means less housing will be built in these metros,” Cohen said. “The flip side of this phenomenon is that in these housing-supply-constrained markets, values of homes and rents are likely to rise faster than in the rest of the country.”

While some experts suggest buying in up-and-coming locations, others swear that a good deal can lead to better returns and the ability to expand. “My 16 rentals have increased my net worth by over $1 million dollars through appreciation and buying cheap to begin with,” Ferguson said.

It’s a good idea to research all your options — from foreclosures to new construction — to determine which property could produce the best income and overall bang for your buck. Don’t be afraid to venture beyond your own backyard.

4. Are your finances & credit In good shape?

If you are a homeowner, you may feel like a pro when it comes to applying for a mortgage, closing the deal and upgrading your property. While you may have some valuable experience, buying investment property comes with its own set of rules. Unlike purchasing your primary home, most rental mortgages require a larger down payment with a few exceptions.

“The way to minimize the additional costs — particularly higher down payment requirements of an investment property — is to take out an FHA loan, for which a down payment of as low as 3.5% of the purchase price may be possible,” Cohen said. “FHA loans are available to investors in properties with up to four units, as long as the borrower’s primary residence will be one of the apartment units.”

Not familiar with the Federal Housing Administration? You can find our full explainer on FHA loans here.

If you don’t plan to live in the rental property, you’ll need to secure a standard mortgage loan with a host of federal requirements that include financial reserves based on property value and the number of rentals you own, assets required to close and creditworthiness.

The latter requirement is perhaps the most important factor in securing an affordable investment. A high score will help you find the best interest rates and save money long before you decide to buy a rental home. It’s a good idea to order free copies of your TransUnion, Experian and Equifax reports from AnnualCreditReport.com to review your information. Highlight any negative items or errors that may be affecting your scores and consult with an expert about the best way to take action. You can also view two of your credit scores for free, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

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