How does leverage increase returns?
If a new real estate investor had $50,000 to put towards the purchase of a property, they would have a number of options on how to best invest that money, starting with whether or not they wanted to use mortgage financing or pay cash. Some people may opt for the latter option, deciding that the risk of taking on mortgage payments is beyond their tolerance levels.
However, for the astute investor, using mortgage financing can provide a much higher rate of return. In the case of buying a property for $50,000 in cash, if that property nets $5,000 per year of income, then the total rate of return on capital for the property will be 10 percent. However, if that same $50,000 is used on a down payment to buy a $200,000 property with the same 10 percent return on the purchase price, the return on capital for the second deal will be 40 percent! This is because the investor is earning $20,000 per year of income but has only invested $50,000 of their own capital.
It is important to understand that leverage works best, by far, when rents and property values are rising. Using leverage can still work in other markets, but investors need to have sufficient liquidity to cover downturns, such as high vacancy rates or declining overall property values. Generally speaking, investors should stay away from using leverage in markets with a negative macroeconomic outlook for the short to medium term. While these investments can still prove to be highly profitable over the long term, the short-term capital requirements can bankrupt smaller investors.
The best way to mitigate the risks of using leverage is to perform in-depth due diligence on the local macroeconomic trends. Study trends in property values, employment quality, and quantity and net migration trends. Try to avoid entering into leveraged real estate deals near market peaks.