Trump’s tariffs and your real estate investing …

Let’s take off our blue, red, and orange team colors … hold hands … and take a real-world look at trade tariffs in action.

Most nose-to-the-grindstone real estate investors may not pay attention to, or understand, trade tariffs … or how they could affect real estate investors.

But, like many things we obsess about after 2008, tariffs might mean more to your real estate investing than you realize.

Consider this headline from National Real Estate Investor Online …

Construction Costs Spike for Multifamily Projects 

It’s short and you should read it, but here are some quick highlights …

  • The cost of construction is rising for apartment developers and contractors … including materials, labor, and leasing.
  • Lumber prices are “out of control” having “increased substantially” … with March prices up 25 percent over January and February.  Yikes.
  • “The U.S. has added trade tariffs to Canadian lumber of over 20 percent over the last year” and “government policy is also pushing up the price of steel”. 
  • “Prices of construction materials are outpacing consumer inflation by a factor of two”. 
  • “Contractors have been forced to offer higher wages to attract more workers.” 
  • “… apartment projects are becoming more expensive to build … ‘You can only pass so much of that on to consumer,’ says … the National Home Builders Association.” 
  • “The number of job openings in the construction industry rose to record-breaking or near-record-breaking levels in each of the last five months of 2017 …” 
  • “The number of people employed in the construction industry rose … more than twice the growth compared to … overall non-farm payroll.”

Okay, so there’s the foundation.  Now let’s unpack it …

First, a boom in apartment building has caused a glut in some markets leading to rent concessions.

If increasing leasing expenses, construction loan interest; materials, and labor costs are all increasing … builders will need to either raise rents or stop building.

Both can be good for nearby owners of existing inventory over the long term.

But in the short term, be attentive to property maintenance and customer service … or you might lose some tenants to those short-term concessions.

But beyond the impact on builders, what about the impact of tariffs on markets, labor, and industries?

If tariffs successfully reset the pricing of commodities like lumber, steel, copper and concrete, there are many potential ramifications.

The motivation behind tariffs is to wean domestic buyers off cheaper foreign goods … and make it more profitable to produce those goods domestically.

The goal is to create domestic jobs in lumber, steel, and mining.

In other words, if Chinese steel or Canadian lumber become more expensive, it could pull up domestic prices to where it’s profitable for businesses to expand domestic production … and hire more workers.

This could mean job growth and subsequent housing demand in those markets which produce these items.

So we’re watching this whole tariff tussle carefully for clues about which geographic markets might end up catching a boom … just like the energy industry markets did after 2008.

But rising commodity prices can creep into consumer goods too … making MANY things more expensive.

And if prices rise faster than wages, people will actually be poorer in terms of purchasing power … which puts downward pressure on prices … including rents.

Squeezed far enough by rising costs of living … people will move to more affordable housing … and even to more affordable areas.

So again, this is something to pay attention to.  In spite of the current economic “good times” … we’re still fans of the more affordable markets and properties.

Lastly, we’ve learned to be cautious about construction driven employment and wage booms.  We think it’s dangerous to invest long-term based on a short-term boom.

Think about it … construction is about building something.  But after it’s built, the work is done.  Then what do those workers do?

Unless there’s perpetual building, workers need to change industries or move to where there’s more building going on.

So it’s good to remember that housing is a reflection of economic growth, not a driver of it. Housing is built for and occupied by people who work at something else.

In other words, you don’t want to be buying apartments to house people who are building apartments … or anything else that will be “done” at some point.

Whereas a business is a “going concern” and generates on-going revenue, sustainable jobs, and a long-term pool of tenants.

So even if you’re a residential investor, pay attention to commercial, industrial, warehouse, and office in terms of construction, absorption, and occupancy.

These are leading indicators of where residential property demand might increase.  Because when businesses are expanding in an area, it’s a pretty safe bet residential will too.

Until next time … good investing!


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