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Waiting For a “Great” Deal Can Be a Huge Waste of Time

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Is the BiggerPockets’ community obsession with getting a “great deal” justified? My thesis is simple: No.

I would argue that getting a great deal has essentially no impact (namely, less than 5%) in the context of a long-term investment horizon for a typical investor building a small (less than a few dozen units) portfolio over years and decades.

I believe that in all but the most incredibly rare and likely the most unrealistic deals, the spread an investor pays versus the market value of a property is likely to account for less than 5% of the total return on the deal over a 10-year hold. Over a 30-year hold, that spread on purchase price will account for less than 1% of the return profile. Again, this is in all but the most home-run scenarios.

As usual, I try to think in probabilities, so I’ll state that I am 80% convinced of the point I’m about to articulate. I hope to get feedback and/or strong opposition in the comments and look forward to your thoughts if you take the time to read and share your opinions.

Illustrative Example: My First Duplex 

In 2014, I bought a duplex. The duplex was purchased for $240,000, and each side rented for $1,100 per month. I moved into one side with a roommate who was a friend and now business partner. The other side rented for $1,150 ($1,100 for the tenants and $50 for their two cats).

The mortgage was $1,550, and the roommate paid $550, while I paid $550. The property made for a good house hack and has been a great rental—I’ve owned it for the last nine years. It’s a part of the Denver portfolio I own with that partner now.

This property was an OK deal. There were many (or at least several/some) properties like this available in 2014. It was good, but not a home run. In other words, it was a “deal that worked” rather than a “great deal.”

The duplex cash flowed a little in the first few years, but not enough for us to reliably take income from it on a continuous basis. In addition, much of that cash flow was wiped out with periodic capex, vacancies, and learning experiences with bad tenants and a disastrous property manager.

Despite my operational missteps, high house-hack leverage (using a 5% down FHA loan to purchase the property that had a high MIP payment), and the fact that this was an OK deal, this property has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in wealth.

The property is now worth $450,000-plus, easily. Each side now rents for $1,600-plus. Tens of thousands of dollars in principle has been repaid as the debt has amortized. The property has generated essentially no taxable income. It was refinanced in 2020, generating $75,000-plus in cash proceeds at a less than 4.5% interest rate on a 30-year mortgage.

Over the next 15 to 20 years, there is no reason not to expect it to double (or more) in value again as several hundred thousand dollars in debt are amortized. I believe it reasonable that this property will generate close to or more than $1 million in incremental wealth over a 30-year hold.

All this means that the initial deal I got on this property had essentially no impact on my wealth.

The Decision-Making Process 

As I see it, there are several key decisions real estate investors make:

  • What/where/when they buy, and how long they hold the property
  • How they operate the property
  • How much they pay for the property—the deal

And of all these factors, the purchase price is the least important.

The several hundred-thousand-dollar decision (and over 30 years, perhaps $1 million-plus decision) with the duplex I mentioned was the one to buy the property, ensure that it was at least minimally profitable, and just hold it, letting it slowly amortize over this past decade. A huge surge in asset values and rents over the past 10 years obviously was the main factor in driving this value creation. And that is precisely the point—this is how the vast majority of real estate wealth for most real estate investors is likely to be achieved.

A “tens of thousands of dollars” impact has come from the operational decisions and skill (or lack thereof) that I have brought to bear on this investment. I’m probably on the worse end of that, honestly, due to problems of my own making and inexperience. These include:

  • Big remodels due to failing to do more preventative maintenance 
  • Not managing rehabs myself
  • Hiring out property management to a manager who stole the security deposits and at least one month’s rent

But if I’d been more professional, systematized, skilled, and diligent, this duplex would have probably generated $30,000 to $50,000 more income over the past nine years. I hope to be on the better side of things operationally over the next 10 years.

A several thousand-dollar decision is the ultimate price I paid for the property. I modeled this out using the BP rental property calculator. And the results speak for themselves. 

If I had paid $220,000 instead of $240,000, I’d be 5% richer today. If I’d have way overpaid, perhaps $275,000, I’d only be 5% poorer today. Most likely, superior negotiating skills and problem-solving would have netted me a few thousand dollars in value on the buy side, not a tens-of-thousands-of-dollars swing.

Literally 95% of my returns have come from appreciation, cash flow, and amortization. Essentially, nothing has come from the deal I got or didn’t get.

This headline would have been true even if I assumed zero appreciation in property value over the hold period. Only the magnitude of the purchase price impacts changes.

I honestly could have bought any of a number of deals at that time and had a very similar outcome. There was no skill involved in this particular acquisition, and even if I had displayed an unusual amount of skill, the potential impact on my position today would be negligible. 

Caveat: This Was a ‘Deal that Worked’ 

There’s a difference between a “great deal” and a “deal that works.” A deal that works is a property that meets the investor’s goals.

For example, a small single-family home here in Denver might be worth $500,000. A buyer who nabs it at $450,000 might be getting a great deal. But at a 60/40 debt-to-equity ratio at today’s interest rates, this property might still, even at a steep discount, be deeply cash flow negative.

This might be a great deal, but not a deal that works for a long-term investor.

Similarly, I found a triplex near Colorado Springs that sold in June 2023 for $685,000 and had $5,700 in gross monthly rents leased up at the time of sale. If I had purchased this with a 60/40 debt-to-equity ratio with $285,000 down, using a $400,000 mortgage at 7.2% ($2,715 P&I, more with taxes and insurance), this property is highly likely to generate acceptable cash flow (depends, of course, on capex considerations and a slew of other factors). 

Assuming there were no gotchas in this deal, this is a deal that would work—regardless of whether I got a great deal and nabbed it at $650,000 or had overpaid at $700,000.

The single-family home purchased at a discount is a great deal. The triplex is a deal that works.

My thesis here applies to deals that work. 

Wealth Is Built Over Decades—but Only for Those Capable of Investing for Decades 

Real wealth in real estate is not made via deal flow—except for true real estate entrepreneurs who run legitimate businesses that are highly active in the flipping and/or wholesaling space.

Rather, wealth in real estate investing is built most over decades by holding on to properties, letting debt amortize, and letting long-term inflation go to work on rents and property values.

True wealth can only be built over decades if investors actually hold the real estate for decades and let compounding magic work for them.

Thus, the question investors should be asking is not, “How do I find a great deal?” but rather, “How can I find a deal that works and hold on to it for the next two to three decades?”

And I worry that many investors are not satisfactorily answering this question.

Let’s consider two investors: Investor A earns a $100,000-plus household income. This investor lives well below their means and house hacks a duplex they’ve owned for a few years. They generate a cash surplus of $3,000 to $4,000 per month because they have a paid-off economy vehicle, subsidize their housing via their house hack, and live a frugal, quiet life. This investor has accumulated $60,000 for a down payment one paycheck and monthly budget at a time over the past two years.

Investor A uses this $60,0000 to purchase and stabilize a $200,000 rental a few hours from their home (think upstate New York, for example) in a solid school district and spends the next six weeks stabilizing the asset, doing a little bit of work themselves over the weekends, interviewing property managers and contractors, and placing a tenant. They don’t overpay, but they don’t get a great deal either. They work with an agent, make a fair offer, and get to work.

Once a tenant is placed and operations are stabilized, the investor readies themselves for another two years of diligent saving in preparation for the next purchase in a year or two.

Now let’s take investor B. This investor also earns a $100,000-plus household income. They, however, never seem to accumulate a meaningful amount of money. They live in a nice home with a big mortgage, drive a nice car with a loan on it, often eat out for dinner, travel to exotic places for pleasure, and have season tickets to the Broncos.

Like investor A, they have spent several years thinking about real estate investing but have yet to get beyond the purchase of their primary home. This investor jumps from real estate investment strategy to strategy, jumping on the latest trends, from BRRRR to short-term rentals (STR) to creative finance. However, this investor has never actually had the financial means to transact on a property, and despite high excitement and enthusiasm for real estate investing, never actually execute on anything.

Investor B spends a huge amount of their free time looking for opportunities to find motivated sellers. After a lot of effort, they find an off-market deal being sold by a recently divorced couple. The couple is in a hurry to sell, and the investor is able to get the property under contract for $180,000. They borrow $20,000 from Grandma and buy the deal with an existing mortgage in place at a lower interest rate using a creative finance technique. 

Spoiler Alert: My Money Is on Investor A 

While Investor B, in this illustrative example, got the great deal, it is Investor A who will go on to become a millionaire or multimillionaire

Investor A neither needed a great deal nor cared about the ultimate price paid on a “deal that works.” This investor has a strong cash position, is beholden to no one but themselves for the performance of their portfolio, and is risking only their own assets. They have an infinite time horizon and complete control over the investment, along with the reserves and financial foundation to fall back on should unexpected problems arise.

Investor B is immediately $20,000 richer on their balance sheets, but they are in a far riskier position than investor A despite getting the better deal. They have no liquidity, had to essentially 100% finance the deal, and have numerous other stakeholders they are beholden to, ethically if not by the letter of the law. They need to pay back Grandma for the down payment and operate the property to service the seller’s loan.

Investor A is likely to hold on to their asset or be able to for decades. Investor B better pray things go well these next few years and that rents rise and the market appreciates. If things go south, they won’t just put at risk everything they have but will also place the seller and Grandma at risk as well. 

The Bottom Line 

I understand that my argument is a straw man. Most of us know already that investor B really shouldn’t be investing in real estate at all, given their weak financial position.

And if I switch the deals, investor A pulling off the great deal found by investor B in the example is a perfectly rational, responsible investment that gives everyone great odds of success (and won’t involve borrowing the down payment from Grandma). They will get richer, slightly faster, with the great deal in this example.

However, I worry that there are too many investor B’s out there—investors who are not financially capable of responsibly purchasing real estate that they can afford with their own finances. And these are the investors who obsess over finding home-run deals and think that a great deal is the path to success in this business.

A great deal does not magically solve the root cause of investor B’s failure to build wealth. In fact, I worry that in many cases, a supposed great deal may even compound the problems in their life.

A 100% financed deal acquired by a new real estate investor who can’t produce a positive cash surplus in their personal life is highly unlikely to be the magical solution that brings in predictable monthly (or annual) cash flow. It’s also highly unlikely to actually be the great deal they think it is—a first-time investor is likely to get an average deal, not a great one.

Instead, the magic happens one sacrifice at a time—one patiently acquired property at a time, one rent check and mortgage payment at a time. Over years and decades of patient ownership, tens of thousands of dollars are transformed into hundreds of thousands or millions.

So, by all means, hunt for deals. A great deal reduces risk in the first few years, and real estate investors, including myself, cannot help but try to find great ones. It’s something within our control, and there’s no reason not to try. 

I’m not saying I’m above trying to save thousands or tens of thousands of dollars if I can by making a great value assessment and negotiating well. If I can get a 5% or even a 10% discount on a property I purchase, yes, I’ll take it.

But the math doesn’t lie, either. A great deal is just one small piece, and not a particularly important one, in the overall game I, for one, am trying to play. In that game, the price I pay on an investment is likely to have less than 5% influence on my 10-year outcome and a less than 1% influence on my 30-year outcome.

Try it yourself on the next deal you analyze. Look at the 10-year, 20-year, and 30-year projections with the BP calculators and move the purchase price up and down. Heck, move appreciation to zero for the next 30 years on the next deal you analyze. I think you’ll be amazed at how little the purchase price variable matters compared with your appreciation and rent/expense growth assumptions. 

What really matters, in the long run, is finding a deal that works in a market you believe will see long-term appreciation, investing when the timing is right in your personal financial situation and personal life, and executing reasonably on the investment over decades. 

In this business, you will truly make your money when you hold, over decades, largely from inflation in property prices and rents.

In the end, your personal financial position, your patience, and how you capitalize and operate that deal are way more important than the price you end up paying.  

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Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.

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