Your Complete Guide to Crowdfunded Real Estate Investing

Here's what you need to know before getting started with this new and exciting type of real estate investment.

Real estate crowdfunding is a new way to invest in commercial real estate, and it has exploded in popularity in recent years. Crowdfunding can be a lucrative type of real estate investment, but it isn't right for everyone. With that in mind, here's a beginner's guide to investing in crowdfunded real estate deals that can help you determine if it's a good fit for your risk tolerance and investment goals.

What is real estate crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding refers to a group of people who pool their money together in order to achieve a common goal. Some crowdfunding activities are charitable in nature -- for example, if a person is facing medical bills they can't afford, they may attempt to crowdfund the expenses. Crowdfunding can also apply to investment situations, and real estate is one of the latest applications that has gained popularity.

Real estate crowdfunding involves a group of investors who each contribute money to a specific real estate deal. For example, if an experienced real estate investor identifies a lucrative opportunity to renovate an apartment building and then sell it at a profit but doesn't have the necessary capital, they might turn the investment into a crowdfunding opportunity and attempt to raise the rest of the necessary funding from investors like you.

How does real estate crowdfunding work?

The general idea behind real estate crowdfunding is that when a developer or experienced real estate professional identifies an investment opportunity, they don't always have the ability (or desire) to completely fund the investment on their own. So, they'll allow individual investors to contribute some of the project's capital in order to raise enough money to execute their plan.

There are three key players in any crowdfunded real estate investment opportunity.

First, the sponsor is the individual or company that identifies, plans, and oversees the investment itself. The deal's sponsor will facilitate the purchase of the asset, arrange for any contractors or other needed work, arrange financing, and take responsibility for the eventual sale of the property. Deal sponsors generally contribute some of the project's funding themselves and are also entitled to a certain share of any profits they earn for the deal's investors.

Second, the crowdfunding platform is where the sponsor finds investors to raise the necessary capital for a project. Think of the platform as the middleman between investors and sponsors. The platform will ensure a deal meets certain standards, advertise deals to potential investors, guarantee that investors meet the requirements for investment, and deal with regulatory issues. The platform will also collect investors' funds on behalf of the sponsor.

Finally, the investor (that's where you come in) contributes some of the deal's required capital in exchange for a share of any profits the deal produces. An investor may get some sort of income distributions and/or be entitled to a proportional payout from an eventual profitable sale.

Here's a simplified example of how this might work: Let's say that an experienced real estate developer -- the sponsor -- identifies an office building that is outdated and lacking modern amenities -- and is only 50% occupied -- for sale at a price of $5 million. After a thorough analysis, the sponsor determines that they can invest $3 million in renovations and improvements, lease up the vacant space, and triple the property's rental income. Not only that, but once occupancy is stabilized in three or four years, the building will also have a market value of $12 million, at which time the sponsor will sell the property.

However, although the opportunity requires $8 million in capital between the purchase and the renovations, the sponsor can only obtain bank financing for $5 million, and only has $1 million of their own capital to contribute. So, they choose to list the deal on a crowdfunding platform and offer the other $2 million as equity in the project to investors like you.

Why has real estate crowdfunding become so popular?

The short answer is that there is a lot of money to be made on successful crowdfunding deals. As I'm writing this, there are five single-asset investment opportunities listed on popular platform CrowdStreet, all of which are targeting annualized internal rate of return (IRR) ranging from 12.7% to 18%.

To be sure, we don't have a ton of data on actual investor returns because the industry is so young, but the numbers so far look quite promising. As of July 2019, CrowdStreet had published 352 crowdfunded investment opportunities throughout its five-year history, and just 17 of them had been "realized," or fully completed, meaning that the property in question has been sold or investors have otherwise cashed out.

Of those 17 realized investments, only one has lost money for investors. The majority have met or exceeded their target returns, and 14 of the 17 (82%) have generated IRR in excess of 14%. With returns like that, it's no wonder that real estate crowdfunding has attracted the attention of many investors.

Advantages of crowdfunded real estate investing

Like any investment opportunity, real estate crowdfunding isn't a perfect fit for everyone. There are several potential pros and cons of real estate crowdfunding that should be taken into account before deciding whether it's right for you. We'll start with the reasons you may want to consider an investment in a crowdfunding deal:

  • First, there's the potential for higher returns than you'd get from any other major asset class. I mentioned in the last section that most crowdfunded deals that have completed have produced annualized returns in excess of 14%. It isn't uncommon to see an IRR of 20% or even more from a successful deal.
  • Crowdfunded real estate investing can provide an element of diversification to your portfolio. This is especially true if most of your assets are currently invested in stocks and bonds, as these don't generally move in a correlated manner with real estate.
  • Crowdfunding allows you to benefit from the potential of single-property investments without the headaches of actually becoming a landlord or dealing with renovations.
  • Crowdfunded real estate allows you to invest in assets that may otherwise be inaccessible to you. Could you really go out and buy an office tower or high-rise apartment building? Even if you could, would you know how to go about adding value to the property in a cost-effective manner? Crowdfunding allows you to leverage the expertise of others in assets that have historically been the realm of wealthy developers.
  • Most crowdfunding deals focus on a specific property, as opposed to real estate investment trusts (REITs), which typically own a portfolio of many properties.
  • Crowdfunded real estate investments often have an income component as well as a targeted lump-sum return at the end of the investment timeframe.

Potential drawbacks of crowdfunded real estate investing

As I said, there's no such thing as a perfect investment. It's always important to weigh the pros and cons before making any investment decision, so here's what you should consider before deciding whether crowdfunded real estate investing is right for you.

  • No investment that is capable of double-digit rates of return is without risk, and crowdfunded real estate is certainly no exception. To be perfectly clear, this is a high-risk, high-reward type of investment. There's a lot of execution risk involved with most crowdfunding deals, and there's also the inherent risk that comes with investing in a single real estate asset (as opposed to a portfolio of properties).
  • Crowdfunded real estate investments are highly illiquid. Once you put your money in, you're pretty much committed for the duration. Unlike when you own an investment property, you can't just decide to sell your investment whenever you want.

How to find crowdfunded real estate opportunities

I mentioned earlier that the crowdfunding platform serves as the middleman between deal sponsors and real estate investors. One of the major functions of the crowdfunding platform is vetting deals before posting them to its site for investors. So, it's fair to say that it's extremely important to use a reputable platform that takes appropriate measures when it comes to evaluating the opportunities it is willing to present to investors.

Make sure you understand the platforms vetting process, both for the developers it allows to sponsor deals on its platform, and how it vets those deals before they are allowed in its marketplace. The top real estate crowdfunding platforms all apply a high level of due diligence at both the sponsor and deal level. Additionally, make sure you understand where your investment dollars actually go. In most cases, you’ll invest directly in the real estate asset, or in a legal entity (such as an LLC or limited partnership) that owns a stake in the property, something that can protect your assets if the platform were to fail. If your money is an investment in the platform itself, not the real estate asset, then your investment is at a much higher risk if the platform has financial trouble.

Lastly, look for a platform with the kinds of real estate investments you’re interested in, whether it’s individual properties, a handful of properties, or a highly-diversified fund that owns a stake in dozens of properties. If you plan to pick individual properties and choose how much to invest in each one, then a platform that only offers funds doesn’t make sense, and vice-versa.

How to evaluate crowdfunded real estate investments

I've written a thorough guide that can help you evaluate crowdfunded real estate investment opportunities, but here's a rundown of some of the key things to look at:

How risky is the project?

It's rare to find a crowdfunded real estate opportunity that could be considered a "low-risk" investment. However, different types of commercial real estate projects come with different levels of risk.

There are a few factors to consider when evaluating risk. Just to name some of the most significant:

  • How cyclical is the property type? If you invest in a fully occupied Class A office property and a recession hits, the damage probably won't be catastrophic. Most office tenants are on long-term leases, and businesses need space to operate from. On the other hand, if you invest in a hotel and a recession hits, profitability could plunge.
  • How much execution risk is there? Most crowdfunding investments have some type of value-adding strategy. Now, this can be as simple as refinancing an existing loan in order to save money on interest expenses. Or, it could be as complex as effectively tearing down the existing property and building a new one.
  • How much of investor returns is dependent on the sale of the property? A property that has a great income stream from Day One can be a much lower-risk investment than one whose investor return is mostly dependent on the sponsor's ability to sell the property at a profit.

What is the investment category?

For the most part, when we're discussing real estate crowdfunding, we're talking about equity investments. In other words, you contribute some of your money and in exchange, you own an interest in the profits generated by the property.

However, there are two other possible types of crowdfunding investment structures -- debt investments and preferred equity. If you choose a debt investment, you are essentially acting as a mortgage lender. You provide some of the deal's financing, and in return you get an agreed-upon series of interest payments. However, you won't get to share in any profits generated by the investment.

Preferred equity is something of a hybrid. It generally has some type of guaranteed return, but preferred equity holders in crowdfunding deals often get some sort of performance-based return as well.

How much debt is the project taking on?

It's important to thoroughly read any investment's prospectus, and one area that's especially important to pay attention to is the capital stack. This tells you the financial structure of a deal -- how much money is coming from which sources, and who holds the most senior claims to the deal's assets in the event that something goes wrong. This can also tell you how leveraged (debt-dependent) an investment is.

Here's a simplified example of a capital stack you might see:

Capital Type Amount Percent of Total
Sponsor Co-Investment $500,000 5%
Investor Equity $2,500,000 25%
Subordinate Debt $3,000,000 30%
Senior Debt $4,000,000 40%
Total $10,000,000 100%

There are no set guidelines for how much debt is appropriate, but I typically look for total debt that makes up less than 70% of the capital stack. And if a project's debt is relatively high, I expect that additional risk factor to be reflected in the expected return.

How much experience does the sponsor have, and how much money are they putting in?

Notice the line in the capital stack above that says "sponsor co-investment." In most deals, the sponsor will contribute some of a project's required funding, giving them skin in the game along with investors. There's no specific cutoff to look for, but all things being equal, the more money a sponsor is willing to put in, the more confident it makes me as an investor.

It's also a good idea to do your homework on the deal's sponsor. Do they have a lot of experience? Is the sponsor experienced with this particular type of deal, or at least with deals that are similar in nature?

Are the fees reasonable?

In most passive investment opportunities, the people who play an active role in making investors money get paid, and this is certainly true in crowdfunded real estate investing. So, a big part of your analysis should be to determine whether the fees are reasonable and whether the sponsor's interests are aligned with your own.

There are two main ways a deal sponsor gets paid. There is generally some sort of acquisition fee when the funds have been raised and the property is acquired. The acquisition fee is usually a percentage of the purchase price of the property, and 1% to 2% is standard.

The second way a deal sponsor can get paid is known as sponsor return, which is where the real money can be made. In most crowdfunding deals, a certain return is paid to investors before the sponsor gets a dime (known as the preferred return). Beyond the preferred return, the sponsor gets a certain percentage of the returns the investment generates. For example, a deal may pay the first 6% of annualized returns to investors, and the sponsor gets 20% above that amount.

In many cases, the sponsor return is a multi-tiered structure, designed to motivate the sponsor to produce even higher levels of return for investors than the project was targeting. My preference is to see deals with relatively low acquisition fees and generous but reasonable sponsor returns. In a nutshell, I want the sponsor to be really motivated to make me money.

What is the target return?

Crowdfunded deals will generally state a targeted internal rate of return, or IRR, for their investors. And although the mathematics of IRR are a bit complex, the thing to know is that this is a return metric that combines any expected income from the deal, as well as the expected profits from the eventual sale of the property.

One thing to keep in mind is that the target IRR should be taken into account in combination with the rest of the deal's features, and that higher IRR projections aren't inherently better than lower ones. For example, a lower-risk deal with a 14% IRR from an experienced deal sponsor can be a far better investment opportunity than a high-risk investment targeting a 20% IRR from a sponsor with less experience.

It's also worth noting that many deals have two target IRR levels listed -- the project-level IRR and the investor IRR. You want to pay attention to the investor IRR, as this is the return the deal sponsor anticipates that you will actually receive after they've collected any performance-based fees.

What is the target holding period?

With most crowdfunded real estate investment opportunities, there is some sort of target holding period, or a timeframe for the entire investment. This is because crowdfunded investments generally have some type of exit strategy -- typically a profitable sale of the property after a certain number of years.

For example, a sponsor may plan to acquire an old apartment building, renovate all of the units over a period of two years, lease up the building at higher rents, and then sell the property after holding it for four years.

It's important to point out that these are just estimates. There's nothing that obligates the sponsor to complete the investment strategy by a certain time, nor is there anything that prevents them from selling a property sooner than expected. For instance, if the sponsor plans to sell the property after four years and there happens to be a recession going on at that time, they may decide it's in investors' best interests to wait.

The target holding period is important to include in your analysis because during this time, a crowdfunded real estate investment is extremely illiquid, even as far as real estate investments go. In other words, if you're going to need the money to fund your child's college education in seven years, you should only consider investment opportunities with target holding periods that are significantly shorter.

Does the investment have an income component?

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but it's worth pointing out. Many investors automatically assume real estate investments will pay income, but that isn't always the case with crowdfunding investments.

If you rely on your investments to generate a steady income stream, you need to carefully evaluate a deal's distribution plan. Some crowdfunding deals, for example, don't anticipate paying any distributions to shareholders for the first few years. And unlike some income-based real estate investments, like REITs, a deal's income projections are just that -- a projection. Keep this in mind when doing your investment research.

What are the requirements for investing in a crowdfunded real estate deal?

There are a few crowdfunded real estate investments that are open to all investors, but these are generally purely income-focused deals or funds that spread your money among a bunch of different investments like a mutual fund would. The majority of single-asset crowdfunding real estate deals are only open to accredited investors. This means that you have either:

  • At least $1 million in net assets, excluding the value of your primary home.
  • At least $200,000 in annual income ($300,000 when combined with a spouse’s) for each of the previous two years and an expectation of the same this year.

If you don't meet these requirements, you'll need to focus on deals that are open to all investors, not just accredited investors.

For single-asset crowdfunding deals, minimum investments are at least $25,000. Most platforms, though, require a minimum investment of $50,000.

Tax implications of real estate crowdfunding

Now for everyone's favorite part -- taxes.

If you invest in a crowdfunded real estate deal and you make a ton of money, the increased tax bill isn't necessarily a bad problem to have. However, it's better to know what to expect before you're in that situation.

With that in mind, there are four types of taxes you could potentially face as a real estate crowdfunding investor:

  • Income tax: Rental income generated by the properties you invest in can result in taxable income, which will be reported to you (and the IRS) on a K-1 tax form each year. The good news is that thanks to the magic of real estate depreciation, the taxable amounts you see are likely to be lower than the amount you actually received.
  • Capital gains tax: When a property sells for more than its purchase price, capital gains tax is owed on your share of the profits. If the investment was held for more than a year, this will be subject to long-term capital gains tax. If not, it will be considered ordinary income.
  • Depreciation recapture: For real estate investors, depreciation can lower taxable rental income each year. However, upon the sale of the property, the IRS takes that benefit back. Any cumulative depreciation benefits you receive will be taxable as ordinary income upon the property's sale. This tax is known as depreciation recapture.
  • State taxes (and not necessarily in your own): As a part owner in a property in a different state, that investment falls under its respective state jurisdiction and all property taxes apply.

As an investor in a crowdfunded real estate deal, you're considered to be a part of a partnership. Shortly after the end of each tax year, you'll receive a K-1 tax form that will report your share of income (or loss) from the partnership. If there is a loss, you can use it to reduce other forms of passive income -- say, capital gains or stock dividends -- but you generally can't use it to reduce the rest of your taxable income. Also, in most cases, you'll be required to file a state tax return for any partnership income in the state in which the partnership conducts its business.

These are general rules, of course, so be sure to consult a tax professional to help.

Is real estate crowdfunding investing right for you?

There's no perfect answer to this question, but one key takeaway is that there's a tremendous amount of variety within the crowdfunded real estate industry in terms of risk tolerance, time commitment, and other factors, so it's likely that there's some form of real estate crowdfunding that's right for you as long as you're a long-term-focused investor.

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