Central banks like the Federal Reserve battle inflation – the general rise in prices—by boosting interest rates. In a benign environment, the rate of inflation is low, but as the economy heats up, inflation increases and robs the local currency of some of its buying power. By lifting interest rates in small increments, the Fed moderates the economy by increasing the cost of capital, that is, how much interest you have to pay to finance a project with borrowed money. Some potential projects will not go forward because they can’t generate the required rate of return necessary for investment due to the higher cost of capital. After all, the more of the project’s revenues that must be spent on interest and higher costs leaves less to compensate investors for committing their money to the investment.
As inflation and interest rates rise, what happens to multifamily real estate investment? In general, real estate values rise along with, and act as a hedge against, inflation. But the devil is in the details, and it takes the right combination of management, financing and location for a particular real-estate investment to benefit from inflation.
Make Inflation Your Friend
Inflation and its accompanying interest rate increases affect a multifamily real estate investment in several ways. Let’s break it down.
This is how stock markets sometimes operate, with seemingly endless trends suddenly interrupted and/or reversed. A long bull market tends to attract ‘’weak” investors who are not accustomed to, and can’t stomach, a sudden sell-off. Weak investors are the first to sell their stocks when prices begin declining, which can have a snowball effect that causes volatility to skyrocket.
Net Operating Income (NOI)
A property’s NOI is its revenues from rents and fees minus the costs of operating the property. For a property to benefit from inflation, its income must grow faster than its expenses. In the context of a multifamily property, this means that the rent increases must at least keep pace with the inflation rate, while costs require tight control to keep their rise below the inflation rate.
A good investment property in an inflationary environment will support sufficient rent increases with each lease renewal, which in turn depends upon the value perception of tenants, lease terms, and the availability of competing rentals. Improved property management can increase occupancy rates and rents by addressing structural and operational problems. Operating expenses can be controlled in numerous ways by better, hands-on property management, including switching to lower cost vendors and suppliers, more cost-efficient and effective marketing, and repairing costly problems. All of these are features of a value-add strategy, the hallmark of Lloyd Jones investment properties. The ideal property must pass our proprietary screening protocols that evaluate a property’s suitability for value-add. In other words, we need to make sure the value we add through rehabbing and better management will increase NOI. At Lloyd Jones, very few properties make it through our tough screening.
NOI does not include the cost to finance a property with debt – that is, the interest rate on the underlying mortgage. Net profits, on the other hand, do indeed depend on ensuring that financing is structured to provide maximum protection from the rising interest rates that accompany inflation. Here are several of the strategies we use:
1. Sensitivity analysis: Our screening protocol projects how a property’s value will fare if interest rates rise when we refinance the property (to unlock and extract equity) at the end of the value-add period, typically two to three years after purchase. We model the sensitivity of the investment’s return to a wide spectrum of interest rates so that we can quantify the risk involved in refinancing during an unfavorable borrowing environment.
2. Control leverage: Debt is indispensable to most real estate projects, but too much debt, or leverage, can swamp an investment with unsustainable interest expenses. We typically structure multifamily investments with a 70 percent cap on loan-to-value. In other words, our financing requires 30 percent equity contribution from investors to limit exposure to rising interest rates. We also observe conservative borrowing standards – we take only non-recourse loans (the property alone serves as collateral, and the lender cannot attach other investor assets), and never cross-collateralize our properties (meaning the default of one property doesn’t affect the financing of any other property).
3. Build a cash cushion: By specializing in value-add properties, we have the ability to build a cash cushion that wouldn’t be available from a stabilized property. This cushion can help protect the investment even if high interest rates negatively affect property values and cash flows.
4. Flexible debt: We often use a mix of fixed and floating-rate debt with staggered maturities. This helps keep interest costs low during the value-add period and helps us avoid overly-large refinancing tranches. We also like to structure our loans for terms of at least five years, which gives us a two-to-three-year cushion following the value-add period to refinance. This can come in handy if interest rates spike two to three years after property acquisition.
5. Reap what ye sow: We constantly evaluate whether it would benefit investors more to sell the property rather than hold it. This reduces our investment exposure during periods of rising interest rates. At the same time, we carefully manage our own cash position and debt facilities to weather rough market conditions without having to succumb to panic selling due to a cash crunch.
The total return from a real estate investment is composed of the net cash flows and capital appreciation. The value of a properly selected and managed multifamily property should appreciate with inflation. Two factors are at play:
1. Higher rents: The value of a rental property is fundamentally tied to the rents it generates. Periods of high inflation produce rising wages and profits, conditioning tenants to pay higher rents for a given space and thereby boosting property values. Consumers with a greater sense of wealth will be motivated to move to nicer apartments, creating higher demand and higher rents.
2. Restricted construction: As inflation increases, construction costs rise (due to higher material and labor costs) as does the amount of interest charged for construction loans. These factors tend to restrict new construction, helping to limit the supply of competing housing.
Increased demand and decreased supply equates to higher property values and the prospect of greater capital appreciation during times of high inflation.
In summary, multifamily real estate investments can perform well during inflationary times if the properties have the right characteristics and are managed with a strong, knowledgeable hand. We invite you to speak with us about our past performance during all types of economic environments, and the opportunities we see right now in the multifamily and senior community market segment.
About Christopher Finlay
Christopher Finlay is chairman/CEO of Lloyd Jones Capital, a private-equity real estate firm that specializes in the multifamily sector. For the past thirty-seven years, and through every economic cycle, he has owned and operated successful multifamily businesses. Predecessor companies include commercial brokerage, appraisal, property and asset management, construction, and development.
Headquartered in Miami, Lloyd Jones Capital acquires, improves, and operates multifamily real estate in growth markets throughout Texas, Florida, and the Southeast on behalf of institutional partners, private investors, and its own principals.