An Investor's Guide to Buying an Apartment Building

No matter what seems to be happening with the state of the national economy, multifamily investing has remained a strong pillar of our nation, and countless real estate investors have grown their wealth exponentially by buying apartment buildings. Before they became successful investors, however, they all started as novices looking to purchase their first multifamily property. This article is for any investors who share that desire to begin their multifamily portfolio. The experts at Apartment.loans will guide you through all of the basics of apartment investing and provide you with all of the knowledge you'll need to know to begin your journey. The first lesson-- when it comes to investing in multifamily real estate, knowledge is power, so we don’t expect you to rely on this article alone; rather, it is for potential borrowers and novice investors to utilize as a knowledge base and reference point for all future multifamily investing.

This in-depth guide will cover:

  • Apartment Investing Pros and Cons
  • Apartment Investing Strategy
  • Value-Add Investing Strategies
  • Understanding the Importance of Location
  • Commercial Real Estate Brokers
  • Multifamily Loan Brokers
  • Multifamily Loan Qualifications and Eligibility Requirements
  • Multifamily Loan Types
  • Due Diligence
  • Cap Rates
  • Important Considerations
  • Syndication
  • Sale, Prepayment, and Taxes

Is Purchasing an Apartment Property a Good Investment?

It’s important when considering the purchase of an apartment complex to review the benefits and disadvantages of investing in multifamily properties. We’ll address this through traditional pros and cons, but a real savvy investor may find it equally effective to look at apartment investing through a different lens-- by analyzing its risks, benefits, and the required time commitment involved. A best practice to see apartment investing in a reasonable context is by comparing it to the alternate investments one could make, like purchasing stock in a well-known company.

For example, compare purchasing a 12-unit apartment complex for $2 million to purchasing $2 million worth of stock in a blue chip company. It goes without a doubt that between the two, there will be more time commitment, and potentially more risks involved with purchasing the apartment building. Even so, there’s also vast potential to make significantly more profit; especially when you factor in the detail that most apartment buildings are purchased with loans. With this perspective, instead of using $2 million to purchase an apartment building of the same value, that same $2 million could be used as a 25% down payment on a loan for an $8 million apartment building. Of course, stock in a company is only one of the many investing options available; investors can buy bonds, invest in a hedge fund, or even purchase single-family homes or industrial properties-- however, analyzing these comparisons is far beyond the scope of this article. With that said, we’ll get straight to the pros and cons:

Pros of Buying an Apartment Property

  • Greater diversification with less vacancy risk than investing in single family homes (one vacancy is typically not a huge deal for an apartment investor)
  • Apartment investing more often than not has a greater chance for higher returns than through "safer" means like stocks. It is important to remember that this completely depends on market conditions and investor choices
  • Investors can use a loan to purchase an apartment property, often with as little as a 25-30% down payment (sometimes even less)
  • Tax deductions and incentives, including:
    • Mortgage interest tax deductions
    • Accelerated depreciation via cost segregation studies sometimes allows investors to claim a large portion of their property’s value as depreciation within the first 5-10 years of ownership
    • 1031 exchanges allow investors to defer paying capital gains taxes by ‘exchanging’ one piece of multifamily or commercial real estate for another, so long as the new property is of equal or greater value to the previous property
  • Apartment owners have the opportunity to generate supplementary income through laundry machines, vending machines, additional parking spaces, pet fees, and/or renting space to commercial tenants

Cons of Buying an Apartment Property

  • Apartments in general can be notoriously difficult to manage, and this is particularly true for first time building owners. Many owners choose to instead utilize a third-party property management company, which can typically cost between 10-20% of rents (though flat fee arrangements are also often available)
  • Apartment owners have additional liability risks, especially for larger multistory complexes, and any properties amenities such as pools, gyms, and other areas where accidents may be more likely to occur
  • Safety inspections and legal compliance issues tend to be both expensive and time consuming (and are something single family home investors rarely have to deal with)
  • Unlike stock in Amazon or Tesla, apartment buildings are not liquid assets, and can be quite difficult to sell. Even in a seller’s market, it may still take a few months to locate a suitable buyer and close the deal. In a market where prices have fallen significantly, it is often be more desirable to hold on the property for a few years until prices rise again and a suitable profit can be made.

Apartment Investing and Hold Period Strategies

One of the most important factors to consider when before the purchase of an apartment building is how long you plan to hold on to it. Most multifamily and commercial property investors generally choose one of two strategies: a shorter-term value-add or fix and flip strategy, or a much longer-term buy and hold strategy. Investors in the short term strategy typically hope to buy a property, make some improvements and/or upgrades that can increase the property’s net operating income (NOI), and then re-sell the property for a profit. This generally all takes place within 1-5 years. Alternatively, investors who choose the long term buy and hold strategy typically plan to keep the property for, say, 20-30 years, while benefitting from the income that it provides annually. At their discretion they may later sell the property, or, in some cases, pass it on to their heirs.

While even the best-made plans for holding periods can change in an instant based on investor preferences or market conditions, it’s still of great value to create a solid strategy before diving in. For instance, investors who know they’ll only be sitting on a property for the short-term must take into consideration things such as prepayment penalties (fees for paying off your loan early), and whether to take out a fixed-rate, adjustable-rate, or hybrid adjustable-rate loan. Long-term buy and hold investors, on the other hand, have no need to concern themselves with prepayment penalties, and, when possible, will seek out longer-term fixed-rate loans. Though both the short-term and long-term holding periods can be profitable, investing with one or more partners requires making sure that everyone’s on the same page about when the property should be sold. After all, an investor who wants to flip a property in 18 months probably shouldn’t be investing with a partner who wants their grandchildren to inherit their interest in the property.

Value-Add Strategies for Apartment Investing

As we briefly mentioned before, some first time apartment investors will want to seek out a property that needs significant improvement, whether in the form of tangible rehabilitation/upgrades or superior management. Regardless, all of these properties are generally referred to as “value-add.” An common real world example is an investor who wants to acquire an apartment property, replace the management company, upgrade the common areas, increase rents, and execute other strategies to cut costs and increase profitability.

When it comes to value add opportunities there are many worth considering. Some owners may wish to have tenants pay for their own cable (if it’s already being paid for by the building), and further still, some owners will require that their tenants pay a larger share of their utilities. Other viable value-add opportunities worth mentioning include finding new supplemental sources of income for your property, such as vending machines, storage sheds, or new parking spaces. For some of these less intensive value-add deals that only require minor amounts of capital, investors may find it more worthwhile to self-fund repairs. However, for larger value-add deals that require significant property repairs or rehabilitation, an investor may want to get additional financing when shopping for a loan product.

Choosing a Location

There is probably no real estate proverb more widely known than “location, location, location”. And for good reason, as it is equally as true for multifamily real estate as it is for a single-family home. No matter where you choose to invest in an apartment, it’s absolutely imperative that you are confident about the location you choose. Before deciding on a location, an investor should first familiarize themselves with pertinent area information, including:

  • Employment and economic data
  • Economic health of local employers (especially true for smaller markets)
  • Population and population growth trends
  • Crime and safety data

All of these factors help contribute to the profitability of an apartment property. Since appreciation over time is essential for a multifamily asset to become a profitable investment, investors should seek out markets where values are likely to grow significantly over the property’s expected holding period. For example, an investor with a 3-4 year holding strategy may be willing to pay more for an apartment property in an area where costs are currently rising. In contrast, an investor with a 20-year holding strategy may opt for a lower-priced property in an area that seems positioned for growth to start over the next 5-15 years. Bear in mind that while it’s impossible to predict the future, creating a series of educated market assumptions can help to thin the herd of likely possibilities. Over time, that translates to lower risks-- and higher potential profits.

Investing Near Your Home

It’s not necessary to purchase a multifamily property near your current home, and sometimes it isn't even ideal, however, doing so can have certain benefits. For starters, you’re already likely to be familiar with the local market, so you may have insights that other investors don’t, giving you a certain advantage. In addition to that, it’s easier to monitor your property in-person if you live nearby, making things much more convenient, especially if you handle your own property management.

Finding a Commercial Real Estate Broker

Most people going through the process of purchasing a single-family home will do so with the help of a real estate agent; likewise, most investors looking to buy an apartment building will want to work with a commercial real estate broker. A good commercial real estate broker should be able to help you identify quality apartment properties in your area, should have a decent understanding of real estate investment fundamentals, and may even be able to help with negotiation on the sale price of a potential property. While utilizing a broker will generally facilitate the process of finding a building, it isn't the only way. You may also want to directly reach out to the owners of apartment buildings in your area to determine if the owner is interested in selling. This is more of a hit or miss process, but you may be able to find a hidden gem this way, especially in situations where the seller wants to get rid of the property quickly due to outside circumstances.

Finding an Apartment Loan Broker

If you’ll be using a loan to finance the purchase of your apartment building, you may want to work with a multifamily loan brokerage and/or advisory firm. While it’s the right of any individual investor whether they want to use a broker or go to a lender directly, we find that using an experienced intermediary can have a plethora of benefits, particularly for first-time borrowers. A good advisor can leverage their experience and relationships within the industry to help you find and select the best financing option for your unique situation and goals. They can also aid with the more onerous and confusing aspects of the commercial loan application process, such as documentation and third-party reports, in addition to shopping around a deal to multiple lenders in order to achieve the best terms for a borrower (all of which our intelligent portal can do for you from the comfort of wherever you are right now!).

This is especially true of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and HUD apartment loans, as these "agency" loans generally involve more complex documentation and a strenuous application process. Debt advisory firms typically charge between 0.75% and 2% of the total loan amount, which may seem like a lot at first, but, is generally a solid investment. (Of course, we may have a bit of bias since that's what we do, but, in truth, getting the right loan can save you a lot in interest payments, prepayment penalties, refinancing costs, and other fees over the life of your investment.)

Qualifying for an Apartment Loan

As we’ve mentioned before, most apartment building purchases are accomplished using loans. The reason for this (outside of not having a few million dollars lying around) is that debt increases leverage, which means the less money you need to put down, the more relative profit you’ll make out of the investment. To put it more simply: would you rather put in $5 and get $10 out later, or would you rather put in $2 and get out the same $10 later? Most savvy investors would choose the second option, as this means they could reinvest the other $3 into similarly profitable investments. Even though interest and fees can make apartment loans expensive (meaning that your $10 could be more like $8.50), with the right loan product, investors can make exponentially more profit off of an apartment property.

However, in order to get a multifamily loan, you would first need to get approved. Approval criteria varies with different lenders and loan types across programs, but in general, borrowers will need to have good credit (660+ is typically expected) and between 25-30% of the total loan amount as a down payment. Additionally, the property itself will need to have a debt service coverage ratio or DSCR, of 1.25-1.30x. This means that the building’s income will need to exceed its annual debt service by at least 25-30%. Skin in the game is equally important in most cases, but that does not mean first time investors are automatically overlooked.

Apartment Loan Application Documentation

Throughout the loan application process, borrowers will also need a significant amount of documentation, including an appraisal and other required third-party reports. Borrowers will typically be expected to pay for all of this themselves. The required documentation and reports generally include:

  • Appraisal: An appraisal attempts to denote the current market value of a property. Appraisals are typically required to be conducted by a professional appraiser currently licensed in the area in which the property is located. Appraisers will generally use a combination of methods, including:
    • The income approach, which estimates the value of a property based on its income.
    • The sales comparison approach, which estimates the value of a property based on recent sales of similar properties nearby.
    • The cost approach, which estimates the value of a property based on the estimated cost to rebuild it, plus the value of the land, and minus any depreciation.
  • Property Condition Report/Physical Needs Assessment/Engineering Report: This report observes the physical condition of an apartment property to determine when specific components will need to be repaired or replaced. The report is used to calculate required replacement reserves (funds set aside each year for expected future repair costs). These reports can be requested by a variety of apartment lenders, but are more commonly required for lenders originating HUD multifamily and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac multifamily loans.
  • Phase I Environmental Assessment: A Phase I Environmental Assessment (ESA) examines the area of a property for environmental issues, such as contamination, that could pose a threat to current/future residents or the surrounding community. This could possibly escalate to Phase II and Phase III ESAs if issues or evidence of contamination have been found in the initial Phase I assessment. Phase I ESAs are not always required by lenders, but in most cases are.
  • Title Report: Like with the purchase of a single-family home, a title report will make sure that there are no legal claims to a property’s title that could supersede your own.
  • Property Survey: A property survey records the boundaries of a property, as well as determining any easements and or other title issues that could impact the property’s use or profitability. This is not always a requirement by lenders, especially if a report is available from the past several years, however, it is more commonly required when potential title issues are found or even suspected.
  • Seismic Report: Reports generally only required in areas where earthquakes are common, such as Southern California.
  • Zoning Report: May sometimes be required when there are potential issues or confusion around the zoning status of a property.

Recourse vs. Non-Recourse Apartment Loans

Before even considering individual loan programs, it’s extremely important to determine whether you want a loan that is recourse or non-recourse. With a recourse loan, a lender retains the right to repossess your personal assets in order to seek repayment for an unpaid debt. For example, in most states, residential mortgages are fully recourse. In contrast, many commercial real estate loans are non-recourse, which means that the lender is only able to legally repossess the specific collateral for the loan (i.e. an apartment building) and cannot lay claim to a borrower’s personal assets, such as their home or car, in order to pay off the unpaid loan balance. In the case of non-recourse loans, however, nearly all come with standard “bad boy” carve outs, which stipulate that if a borrower commits certain ‘bad boy’ acts, such as intentionally misleading the lender, the loan will revert into a full-recourse financial instrument.

Loan Types: HUD, Fannie and Freddie Loans, Banks and CMBS Financing

Bank Loans: Your First Option

Choosing a loan to finance your apartment complex purchase takes time and patience, since you’ll have quite a few options, each with their own unique advantages and disadvantages to consider. Visiting your local bank may be the first option that comes to mind, but, often times, they aren’t the best choice. These days, you're likely to see the average bank do a 70-75% LTV, full recourse loan with a 5-year adjustable-rate term and a 25-year amortization. While that bank loan might very well be just what the doctor ordered for some apartment investors, it simply isn’t the best option out there. That’s why we always recommend that investors explore beyond their local bank in order to learn of their other financing options.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Multifamily Financing

For Investors with good credit and a sufficient net worth (i.e. a net worth as large as the loan, with at least 10%-15% liquidity), agency loans from Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae are often the best option. Agency loans are almost always non-recourse, and offer competitively low interest rates, as well as LTVs up to 80% and amortizations up to 30 years. Loan amounts are much more flexible, too; for instance, Freddie Mac’s Small Balance Loan (SBL) program offers loans in amounts as low as $750,000 with fixed and adjustable-rate terms up to 10 years and 30-year amortizations.

HUD/FHA Multifamily Loans

While it can be even harder to qualify for than an agency loan, the HUD 223(f) loan is arguably the pièce de résistance of multifamily purchase loans. HUD definitely prefers more experienced borrowers, but they offer LTVs up to 85% and DSCRs as low as 1.18x for market-rate properties, with higher LTVs and lower DSCRs for affordable properties. If that isn't awesome enough, HUD offers its 221(d)(4) program for apartment construction and substantial rehabilitation, but they can be significantly more risky (in general, these types of projects may not always be ideal for first-time apartment investors). All HUD Apartment loans are non-recourse, fixed-rate, and fully amortizing over 35+ years, making them a fantastic option for longer-term buy and hold investors.

CMBS Loans for Apartment Properties

Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities (CMBS), can be a great source of debt for apartment investors. CMBS loans, sometimes referred to as conduit loans, typically provide low interest rates and some of the least stringent borrower requirements of all multifamily loan options. The minimum loan amount for CMBS loans is a little higher, generally starting at $2 million, though exceptions are sometimes made. As is the deal with many types of commercial loans, CMBS loans are pooled together and securitized, then sold to investors on the secondary market. These loans are not serviced by the original lender, rather, they are assigned to a separate servicing company. This transfer can sometimes create headaches for CMBS apartment loan borrowers. CMBS loans, like HUD multifamily and agency loans, are generally non-recourse.

Keep in mind that banks, agencies, HUD, and conduit lenders aren’t the only types of apartment lenders available, but they’re generally the only types of lenders suitable for a first time apartment buyer. Some options for more experienced multifamily investors include life companies, which offer long, fixed-rate terms at super low rates (but typically only want highly experienced investors), and hard money loans, which typically have extremely high interest rates, but are some of the only financing vehicles accessible to borrowers with credit or legal issues. For investors who want additional leverage on larger deals, borrowers are sometimes able to layer a CMBS or bank loan with an additional, second-position loan. This is known as a mezzanine loan, though this too is also not generally ideal for first time investors.

Due Diligence for Apartment Purchases

While lenders usually require a ton of documentation about an apartment building before providing you a loan, it’s critical that you conduct your own due diligence, too. Before seriously considering purchasing a multifamily property, an investor should:

  • Familiarize themselves with a property’s rent roll and T12 (trailing 12 months) financial statements. A rent roll is, just as it sounds, a list of all current rental income received by a property owner. A T12 financial statement details the property’s income and expenses over the previous 12 month period. Any good investor knows that both of these documents may be somewhat exaggerated to make a property look more profitable than it really is, so it’s essential to look at these critically and carefully, and verify any information that appears inaccurate, suspicious, or confusing.
  • Have a professional inspect the property. While an inspection is generally only needed if you’re very serious about purchasing a property, doing so early can help investors identify potential issues, saving a lot of time and money in the long run. Keep in mind, it may not be necessary to have every unit inspected. In many cases, a sampling of every second or third unit will be sufficient.
  • Consult with veteran investors and/or other financial advisors. One of the most important things to remember throughout the entire apartment buying process is that there is no shame in getting a second, third, or fourth opinion on an apartment building purchase. This can make a huge difference, especially if it’s coming from an investor with significantly more skin in the game. You may also want to attend events with a local real estate investing organization, or investment groups with a similar multifamily focus. If these aren’t available in your area, you could always try to seek out advice through online real estate investing forums or educational sites like ours! Just be sure to take advice from ALL strangers with a grain of salt, unless you’re absolutely sure that they have significant experience and a solid reputation.

Cap Rate Considerations for Apartment Investors

Capitalization rate, known in the industry as "cap rate" is one of the most important metrics in commercial and multifamily real estate investing. Calculating a multifamily property’s cap rate is one of the most trusted ways to determine your potential annual return. The formula for determining cap rate is as follows:

Net Operating Income (NOI) / Market Value (or Purchase Price)

For example, a property with a market value of $800,000, and an NOI of $65,000 would have a cap rate of 8.1%. The general rule of thumb is that higher cap rates are better; so, if you find yourself having to choose between two similar investment properties, one with a cap rate of 6%, and one with a cap rate of 8%, it would typically be best to choose the second. Also understand that for newer apartment properties located in better areas, cap rates are generally lower, as these properties usually have lower maintenance costs and may also have higher potential rent growth.

Other Important Considerations for First Time Apartment Investors

Finally, when determining whether to purchase an apartment property, the following additional considerations are some worth being mindful of:

  • Utility Billing: Many buildings, especially older ones, have a shared utility billing setup. This can be a real burden for owners, especially as tenants tend to overuse utilities if they are not paying the bill themselves, which can greatly increase your expenses. However, owners have devised a solution to this issue by implementing a ratio utility billing system (RUBS), which divides all monthly utility expenses by the number of units in a building (with unit bills being prorated based on the size of a unit, the number of bedrooms/bathrooms, and other factors).
  • Contaminants/Health Risks: Older apartment complexes, in addition to having shared utilities, may contain contaminants such as asbestos or lead paint. These issues will need to be remediated by a new owner, which can be very costly. Again, ordering an inspection early on in the decision-making process can help you determine whether a building has these issues, and, if so, how serious they are. Knowing beforehand can save you a pretty penny and a ton of headaches.
  • Plumbing Issues: Plumbing can be yet another highly expensive issue faced by the owners of older apartment buildings. Repairs are known to be expensive, and additional contamination issues may arise if the building has lead pipes.
  • Roofing: While a vast majority of apartment buildings have flat roofs, these can present certain issues, typically with leaks. A flat-roof is unlikely to be a deal-killer, but it’s still something to keep in mind.
  • Wooden Building Elements: Though more and more rare, apartment buildings with significant amount of wooden framing, sometimes referred to as “all frame” buildings, can be significantly more expensive to maintain than buildings with brick or concrete exteriors. Potential issues include termites, rot (especially in warmer, more humid climates), and increased fire risk (particularly in drier areas).
  • Insurance Costs: Older buildings, as well as those in run-down or rural areas will generally be more expensive for investors when it comes to insurance costs. Potential buyers should always make sure to determine current insurance costs, as well as to inquire with other insurers to determine if the current owner is under or overpaying.

Syndication: Inviting New Investors into the Deal

While you may want to invest in a property by yourself or maybe even with a partner, some people decide they want to pool money from a larger group of investors in order to purchase a larger building, thus increasing potential profits. This is a process known as apartment syndication, and, while it’s not for everyone, it can be an excellent way to raise capital for more expensive real estate investments. The syndicator or syndicators act in the capacity of general partners (GPs), taking on a greater degree of risk and liability, while the other investors take a passive role as limited partners (LPs). As a function of their increased risk exposure, the GP or GPs are generally expected to receive a higher level of returns above a certain amount (called a preferred return), and are many times awarded additional sponsor fees as "compensation" for the time and effort taken to arrange the deal and manage the investment over time. Syndications are typically executed by more seasoned investors, but if you have real estate experience, and are willing to take the time to forge relationships with investors, it may be a worthwhile endeavor.

Sale, Prepayment, and Tax Considerations

Unless you plan to hold onto your apartment building over the long term, and pass it on to your heirs, you will most likely want to sell it at some point. As we mentioned earlier in this guide, investors should generally plan out their estimated holding period well in advance. If you own the building outright, this is your decision to make alone, but, if you’ve invested with one or more partners, you’ll have to take their opinions into account, too.

If you’ve used a loan to finance the purchase of your apartment building, and you’re still paying it off, you may be responsible for paying a prepayment penalty in order to sell the property. Prepayment penalty fees compensate your lender for the interest payments they will lose out on as a result of your paying off the loan before its term comes to an end. Many apartment loans, however, are assumable, meaning that the new owner of the building can actually take on, or ‘assume’ your loan, given that they’re approved by the lender. While a small fee, typically 1%, is usually involved, having a new borrower assume your loan is significantly less expensive than paying a prepayment penalty.

Finally, it’s important to understand the tax implications of selling an apartment property. If you’ve realized a profit as a result of the sale of your property, you’ll be required to pay capital gains taxes, rather than regular income taxes. However, if you’ve taken depreciation deductions against your income taxes, you’ll often only be expected to pay your regular (typically higher) income tax rate on those gains. This is a process referred to as depreciation recapture. Investors wanting to avoid paying capital gains taxes when selling a property, sometimes choose to engage in a 1031 exchange. This allows investors/owners to ‘exchange’ one commercial or multifamily property for another of equal or greater value, deferring the payment of their capital gains taxes until the sale of the new property.

Generally speaking, in our humble opinion, all apartment investors should hire a professional real estate accounting firm through the duration of their holding period. A trustworthy, professional third party will help ensure that the sale and tax payment process goes off without a hitch. Investors looking to execute 1031 exchanges will need to hire a 1031 exchange company, and, for certain types of exchanges, an exchange accommodation titleholder.

Apartment Buying in Conclusion

Investing in your first apartment complex can be an incredibly exciting endeavor-- but it takes a lot of hard work, time, and attention to detail. Luckily, the more research and preparation done upfront, the less work and unexpected issues you’ll be forced to endure when you actually purchase your property. This article, as long as it was, is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the information you’ll need to know to be a successful apartment building owner. We say it all the time, and have literally modeled our sites on the premise-- when it comes to real estate investing, knowledge is power. So keep studying, surround yourself with like-minded peers and mentors, and, when you’ve decided that you're really ready, take the dive and buy your first multifamily property.

We'll be here for you!