Where We Are in the Cycle and What You Can Do About It

What goes up, must come down. 

It’s true in gravity … elevators … and the real estate market. 

The constant ups and downs can give investors anxiety. It’s hard to enjoy a boom when you’re always wondering … is it all about to come crashing back down?

The good news is that markets rise and fall in cyclical motion. 

History repeats itself … and there are signs and patterns to look for that signal when you need to move and when it is best to sit back and wait it out. 

Listen in as we discuss where we are in this infamous cycle … and what you can do about it.

In this episode of The Real Estate Guys™ show, hear from:

  • Your upstanding host, Robert Helms
  • His downright delightful co-host, Russell Gray 

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Riding and driving the cycle

Real estate markets work in cycles … we’re either at the bottom, in the middle, or at the top. 

So, where are we at? And what can investors do about it?

First off, it’s important to remember that real estate isn’t an asset class itself … there are so many different categories. 

Each of those categories operates in its own market … and the cycles don’t always align. 

Office buildings could be up while residential is down … and agricultural could be sitting right in the middle … ALL AT THE SAME TIME. 

So, when you think about where you are in a cycle, you need to think of both macro and micro levels. 

Part of what’s going on will be influenced by the macro … like interest rates, what’s going on with the Fed, tax breaks, and Opportunity Zones. 

The other part deals with the micro … what’s going on in a particular industry and the demographics it serves.

The challenge for a real estate investor is that there is no one key indicator for where the market is heading. In fact, it’s so confusing that nobody gets it completely right. 

But there are things you can look for … and things you can do … to set yourself up for the best chance of success. 

Understanding the big picture

One of the big picture items to look for, understand, and act on is interest rates. 

When we talk about real estate investing, it’s really all a derivative of income … of cash flow. 

Someone can only afford to pay a price for a house based on their income and how much income that will mortgage into the purchase price of a house. 

If you take a look at the major inputs going into a mortgage, you’ll find interest rates and tax consequences. 

So, if you can lower interest rates and lower taxes … the same amount of income will buy more houses. 

With the new tax code and incentives like Opportunity Zones, there is a good chance that the upside of the cycle will be extended for a few more years … but is it sustainable?

Understand that every day we’re closer to the next market top. 

So, what can you do as we get near the top?

Don’t sit on the sidelines

What you don’t want to do is sit on the sidelines. You do need to act. 

If you take prudent moves to protect yourself in the case of a downturn … and there isn’t one … you aren’t any worse off. 

The good news is that real estate investors and markets move slowly … we’re not flash traders. 

Your tenants don’t look at the newspaper, see a headline, and move the next day. 

As investors, it’s a balance of being aware of those macro events and keeping specific trends in mind. 

Right now, mortgage rates are low, and the dollar is relatively strong. Interest rates are dropping in treasuries … and people are buying there looking for a safe place to ride out market dips. 

This gives real estate investors the opportunity to go into the market and lock that low pricing and low interest rate long term. It’s like having a sale on money. 

And if you buy a property that has good cash flow with that low interest locked in, you’re putting yourself in a great spot to hold through any downturn in the cycle. 

People who sit on the sidelines are guaranteed to make zero return. Instead, look at the idea of recession resistant price points. 

Recession resistant means you are renting to a clientele that is likely to always be there … and the price point is typically something just below the median home price. 

Many of these recession resistant price points work great in a good economy AND they’ll also be a little more protective in a down cycle. 

This is a time to be super prudent when it comes to underwriting … both the analysis of the market and the performance of the property. 

When it comes to the performance of the property, there are a couple of big picture things to keep in mind. 

You want to live in a landlord friendly state. If there’s a problem, you want laws that favor a landlord and can help you get a tenant out quickly. 

You’ll also want to talk to your property manager about rental trends. 

What have people been paying in rent recently? How many people are applying for leases now compared to other years? Have they had to change the kind of tenant they accept?

Another way you can make the most of the market cycle is to focus on top markets. 

There are lots of investment funds and real estate investment trusts that focus only on the top 50 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). 

These are the top cities in the U.S. where there is always real estate movement and a depth of demand. 

When you go into a market that has already proven itself with solid infrastructure, there’s a greater probability that in tough times people will gravitate there. 

Changing your strategy for success

We’re certainly proponents of continuing to invest through cycles … just change your strategy a bit. 

It makes a lot of sense to have some cash when you are nearing the top of a market cycle for a lot of reasons. 

If you end up having problems with properties that perform differently than you expect during a downturn, you want to be prepared for that. 

But downturns are also often where opportunities are … opportunities to buy. 

As real estate investors, we make our money when we buy … so it is good to keep some cash in reserves if the right opportunity presents itself to invest in a property with promise.

One last idea to consider when it comes to being at the top of the market is that there are certain demographics that don’t suffer as much in a downturn. 

Generally, this is affluent groups of people. When times get bad … they get bad for the middle and bottom part of the socioeconomic ladder. 

So, it’s always an interesting strategy to market to the affluent. One of the ways we love to market to this demographic is through residential assisted living. 

Remember, your customer is not the person staying in the facility. It’s the family members who look out for them and place them there. 

Another strategic investment is hospitality. In downturns … the rich still go on vacation. 

Many times in an economic slump, entertainment does well because people are trying to get away from the doom and gloom. 

If you believe we’re at the top of the market, there are proven things to think through. 

Analyze your portfolio and ask yourself, “What happens if pricing and demand were to go down?” Take a look at your financing. Are you getting the best, lowest rates?

If you take proven steps now, when the market cycle starts heading downward … you’ll be glad you did.

Tune in over the next several weeks as we dive into more strategies you can take to thrive even when the market isn’t doing the same.


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The Mortgage Meltdown and Healthcare

What do these two topics have to do with each other?  Well, certainly after the mortgage meltdown the US economy is in need of health care.  Not reform.  Just getting healthy!  But that’s not the topic of this post.  Instead the question is: What lessons from the mortgage meltdown can be applied to the health care debate?  And, as a real estate investor, why should you care?

Without going into an extensive history lesson, here’s a quick recap of the mortgage meltdown:

  1. Government decides to “help” the free market for mortgages by establishing Fannie and Freddie to buy mortgages in the secondary market.
  2. Assured of a buyer for their mortgages, mortgage originators aggressively market them.  They sell it silly.  People buy houses. Values go up and more people buy. Equity happens and life is good.
  3. Private industry sees opportunity and wants to play, but find themselves competing against the “Government Sponsored Enterprises” (GSE’s) Fannie and Freddie.  Mortgage rates are dictated by risk and the implied government guarantee of Fannie and Freddie means mortgages that “conform) (i.e., conforming loans) are cheaper than private industry.  Of course, the consumer will buy the cheaper loan.
  4. Private industry expands into “non-conforming” (i.e. Jumbo, sub-prime, etc) in order to be in the mortgage business without having to compete directly with the GSE’s.  They make money.
  5. In 1999, the Clinton Administration says, “Fannie and Freddie, you need to make it even easier for people to get home loans”, which is code for “lower your standards”.  Fannie and Freddie comply.
  6. Home ownership surges under George W. Bush.  He’s an economic genius.  Home values soar.  Private industry says, “I want some more!” and recruits foreign investors to plow money into “super safe” mortgage backed securities.  The money is directed at sub-prime, alt-a, investors, jumbo, etc.  Now equity is REALLY happening!
  7. Reality sets in.  People who shouldn’t have gotten loans do what people who shouldn’t have gotten loans do: they default.  The sub-prime crisis sets off a chain reaction of well chronicled events that set off The Great Recession.  As a result, the private mortgage business is almost wiped out.  Fannie and Freddie survive on the backs of the taxpayers (the working private sector).

Obviously, there’s a lot more to the story, but what are the lessons?  Here are two of the most important ones:

1. In a capitalistic society, the objective of enterprise is to make a profit.    It’s what motivates the brightest people to work hard and sacrifice to create solutions to society’s problems – solutions that can be sold for a profit.  Profits are what allow people to pay taxes, give to charity, invest in product development and new enterprises that create jobs and enrich society. Profits are not evil, they are essential.

2. When the government, though well intentioned (giving it the benefit of the doubt) enters into competition with private industry, with the goal of making a product or service “more affordable”  (code for reducing or eliminating those evil profits), the result is a) private industry is crushed, taking its jobs with it; or b) private industry is forced to compromise sound business practice in order to survive (like loaning money to people who can’t afford to pay it back) and eventually those unsound business practices result in failure – and the loss of jobs.

And the correlation to healthcare?

The President of the United States has gone on record as stating that one of the “benefits” of a public option is to create a health care insurance program “without a profit motive” to compete with private industry.  When you follow that thought track to its logical conclusion, does anyone see a train wreck?

When you think about how big the health care industry is, you can imagine how many private sector jobs would be lost if it were to melt down too.  And since the private sector economy is the one that pays 100% of the taxes, the smaller it gets, the larger the tax burden will be on those who remain.

Loss of private sector jobs and higher taxes have a DIRECT impact on your real estate investments. When more private sector capital is sucked into government, there is less of it available for private purposes. And what is available becomes more expensive (higher interest rates).

So even though “homes and healthcare for all” are noble and compassionate causes that everyone can support, the methodology of undermining the private sector to accomplish them is counterproductive in the long term IF one is operating in a CAPITALISTIC society.

There is no debate about whether we all want people to have homes, healthcare and abundance.  We all want that.  The debate is whether or not we are committed to capitalism.  If we are (and you should be as a real estate investor), then the solution will be found in the private sector as entrepreneurs work every day in their “enlightened self-interest” to invent, build and sell homes, health insurance, health services and whatever other products or services enhance the human experience.

Diesel engines run great on diesel fuel. Regular gas engines run great on regular gas.  But when you put diesel fuel in a regular gas engine or vice versa, it might run for a little while, but it won’t run well.  Eventually, it will break down and not work at all.

Until someone re-writes the Constitution of the United States, the US is a capitalistic society.  Let’s be careful about injecting incompatible “fuel” no matter how noble the motive.