Real estate can be an excellent part of anyone's investment strategy. However, before you buy your first house, condo, duplex, or apartment building to rent out, you need to have a good idea of what you're getting into.
Here are three things to be aware of before jumping into real estate investing -- and an alternative investment you could use instead.
The income can be inconsistent
When you buy just one investment property, you are effectively putting all of your eggs in one basket, just as if your entire portfolio consisted of stock in one company.
While owning an investment property can certainly be lucrative, it leaves you vulnerable to certain risks.
For example, if you buy a $100,000 investment property, you should be able to earn $1,000 in rental income per month, based on the general rule that properties should rent for about 1% of their value. However, what if you need several months to find your first tenant? Or what if your tenants stop paying rent and you have to evict them (which could take quite a while)?
If such a situation occurs, not only will your investment produce no cash flow, but you're still stuck paying for things like the mortgage, property taxes, insurance, and maintenance.
Do you really want to deal with tenants and maintenance?
The first mistake I made when I bought a rental property was underestimating how much work can be involved in dealing with tenants.
Finding quality tenants can be a challenge in itself, but the real issues tend to come up after they move in. For example, if your tenant is late on rent, do you really want to chase people down to find out what's going on? Do you have the first clue of what to do if you need to evict a tenant? And what if they are making too much noise, letting other people live there, or are violating any other part of the rental agreement?
Don't forget about maintenance and repairs. If you manage your rental property, be prepared for the phone to ring in the middle of the night if the tenants have a plumbing issue.
If you don't want to handle these situations, the alternative is to hire a property manager. This should cost you about 10% of the rental income you bring in. This can be well worth it, but it will cause your profits to take a serious hit.
Make sure you account for all the costs
Speaking of the cost of a property manager, you might be surprised at how much it really costs to own a rental property.
In the example cited earlier involving a $100,000 rental property, let's say you put 20% down on the house and collect $1,000 in monthly rent. By financing the other $80,000, you can expect your monthly mortgage payments to be about $392 at today's rates, which might sound like an incredible profit margin. However, when figuring out the cash flow of your investment property, make sure to account for property taxes, insurance, maintenance costs, and property management.
These costs will vary based on your location and the condition of the property, but could easily add $500 or more to your monthly expenses. Also, bear in mind that many jurisdictions charge much higher property tax rates on investment properties, so make sure you take this into account as well.
Know what you're getting into
I'm not trying to talk you out of buying an investment property. In fact, if you do it right, buying an investment property can produce cash flow and build equity, creating wealth over time without a huge initial investment.
However, just like with any other investment, you need to make sure you know exactly what you're getting into and prepare for all the costs and the risks involved. If these seem like too much trouble, there is no shame in looking into alternatives, such as real estate investment trusts.