When people get involved in commercial real estate investments, their goal is to increase the property’s value, diversify portfolio holdings, avoid volatility while hedging against inflation, and gain some tax benefits. In short, it’s about making money.
One of the available tools to achieve that goal is leverage. Also known as debt-financing, the idea is that in some cases, assuming debt on a property may be more financially lucrative than bypassing a loan. That being said, there is a time when leverage makes sense and, more importantly, when it does not.
In the simplest of terms, positive leverage occurs when the cost of borrowing money is less than the return on that property. This results in greater profits for the investor, ROI that can then be used to upgrade the property or diversify into additional properties, especially those that are less risky.
For example, let’s say a property comes on the market for $3 million. The buyer faces two options:
Depending on economic indicators, leverage may not be in the investor’s best interest, particularly if the cost of borrowing money vastly diminishes the cash return of the investment. The closer the cash-on-cash leverage result comes to the all-cash result, the less wiggle room there is to survive any unanticipated crises, such as immediate repairs to the property or an economic slump.
When leverage makes sense, some investors can fall into the assumption trap—assuming that if some leverage on a property deal is good, then more property leverage is better. But as the saying goes, never “assume” anything, or you can make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”
To avoid the potential pitfalls of leverage, investors should wisely consider some key points:
Not surprisingly, COVID has left its imprint on leverage. And for guidance, many experts look to the Great Recession. Prior to 2008, a large number of loans were issued at peak property values and with high leverage amounts in the 85% and 90% range. When the bubble burst, investors found themselves in dire straits, with outstanding debt more elevated than the properties’ value. The solution for investors was to de-leverage, look for new, smaller mortgages, or default.
COVID is this and so much more—the fallout from the pandemic has been swift for specific sectors, and the overall impacts for CRE are still accruing and yet to come due. While interest rates are extraordinarily low, investors are also looking at a market that has resulted in higher-than-normal vacancies and tenants re-thinking space needs. And many tenants may not be able to return as Federal-relief loans are expiring in the face of surging cases. Nevertheless, there are two key developments:
The biggest takeaway is that any decision to use leverage can only be made on a case-by-case basis. Excellent financing, for example, can easily become undone with the purchase of the wrong property or by overlooking current and expected trends and comparable properties. Using leverage properly can only be achieved with sufficient due diligence.