By Ken Davidson
I was recently asked by a real estate investor group to speak at one of their meetings. The topic of real estate is a broad one, so I asked if there was something specific they were interested in learning more about.
Not surprisingly, the topic they wanted to focus on was what to look for when finding the perfect community to invest in, i.e. what are the signs that identify the communities with the best investment potential?
I don't look at major cities. These markets are watched intensely by many in the industry who buy using different parameters and who are okay with a smaller ROI. Personally, I look at regional centers -- the smaller cities that form the hub for many outlying communities.
The following are important factors in determining if an area is a regional centre:
1. It is highly accessible.
Access is key, and that usually comes along with a regional centre, but I look for good highways and airport access. How easy is it to get in and out of the community? This is important.
2. Investment from the private sector.
If newer big box retailers are entering a community, the odds are that they have access to much better research on the community than I do. They want to be in a community that is growing and vibrant, and this is the same type of community I prefer to invest in.
3. Re-development of public infrastructure.
I look for upgrades occurring in public buildings and other public assets in the community itself. If school districts are growing, hospitals are expanding and recreation centres are being constructed, the federal, provincial and municipal governments are probably investing money into the area.
4. The purchase price works.
It might be obvious, but the purchase price always has to work. I make sure that the purchase price of properties in the community is going to give me my required ROI based on normalized market finance terms and conditions. We can all negotiate low interest, short-term, vendor-take-back financing, but when you’ve overpaid and it comes time to refinance, be prepared to open your wallet. Fantastic short-term financing is a bonus, not a plan.
5. Strong employment.
I am in real estate for the long-term so I prefer middle class, working communities over boom-and-bust areas or tourist towns. I search the city’s economic page on their website and read local papers for news of new industries coming to town, transportation hubs, medical centres or other places where people are employed in large numbers.
6. Stable increase in population.
If you are looking at investing in a community and the population is declining, you really have to determine what your exit strategies will be. Who is actually going to buy your property if the population is going down? Population growth is usually linked closely to new industry employment.
7. Talk with property managers in the area.
When I go into a community I always interview local property managers. You need a great property manager on the ground to solve issues as they arise, quickly and efficiently, especially if you don’t live in that community yourself. You need a property manager who is willing to give you all the information you feel you need to be comfortable managing from afar.
During the interview ask for a list of the properties currently under their management and do a drive by. Find out what they feel about the local rental market and what they charge for rent. Inquire about what type of vacancies they have with their current projects and just get to know them in general.
8. Is the area large enough to create inventory?
As a real estate investor, the areas I look at need to be large enough that I can buy enough inventory to justify the management and travel expenses created by it.
Are there enough properties that are going to become available over the next few years that will allow me to have more than one property in the community? If you only have one property in a community, the percentage of revenue allocated to managing it is significantly increased.
9. Expanding a remote market.
When looking to expand outside of a market that is already a plane ride away from where I live, I try to stay within a one-hour drive from my hub city. This allows for ease and efficiency of business travel.
For instance, when I selected my target city in Ontario I tried to keep all properties within an hour’s drive in any direction. I then copied this model in Nova Scotia, British Columbia and parts of the US. I fly in, rent a car, drive to inspect my properties, meet with the necessary people, then return to the airport and fly on to my next hub community.
10. Speak with an advisor.
There is always the chance that a community you are considering is experiencing the downward part of a cycle. If this is the case, and it’s a good vibrant community that has come out of similar cycles in the past and you believe it will in the future, there is a potential opportunity there as well. Speak with a trusted advisor and seek sage counsel before investing in a situation like this.
Ken Davidson is an investor and partner at BDO
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