Remodeling in a less desirable area – how to know when it’s right for investment

by | May 27, 2014 | Article, Topics

Dear Monty answers your real estate questionsQ: A friend and I are going to buy an old home and remodel it to rent out. We have a limited budget, so we are looking in areas where prices are lower. Are there any strategies or tips for buying and renovating houses in “less than desirable” areas?  How can one tell if one area is better than another? — James H.

A: Hello James, and thanks for your questions. Every investor has to start somewhere, and every “somewhere” has opportunities. The greater risk and work involved often brings the greatest rewards. Here are some observations that may be helpful.

1. Carefully study the neighborhoods you are considering for investment. Before buying your first house, become an expert in understanding the submarket and the surrounding area. The following statistics will provide a sense for values and a baseline for future calculations: Sales rate, time on market, list to sale ratios, average sale price per square foot by style of home, percentage of listings that expire unsold and home value and rental rate trends. Next, look for signs of renovation, parents with young children and new retail outlets. Stop to speak with residents and listen to their impressions.

A good real estate agent also will recognize these terms and understand how to search the MLS for these results. If you seek the help of a Realtor, make sure he or she has experience evaluating investment properties. It may be possible to search for renovated home sales if the words “remodeled,” “renovated” or “rehab” appear in MLS data sheets. Go back and search the address history to learn the “before rehab” sale price if you can.

2. Operate under the principle that your money is made when buying the property, not when selling it. This does not mean you should try to buy a home for less than market value. It means understanding the best ways to add value to the property when remodeling it. Investors sometimes spend money on “X” when it would have been wiser to invest it on “Y.” Invest in improvements to keep tenants in place and ensure they consider themselves happy to live there.

3. Calculate the required capital investment by determining what the home will sell or rent for after renovation. Do this before buying it. Work backward by subtracting the renovation costs and soft costs from the future value to reach an offer price. Remember to include rent lost while completing the improvements. Crunching the numbers can take many forms, from something as basic as paper and pencil to a financial spreadsheet application or a sophisticated financial software program.


 Consider a written partnership agreement that contains an exit strategy. What are you and your friend individually contributing to the partnership? As an example, if one is doing the physical work, and the other is putting up the money, consider a pre-established exit plan to have ready if the deal goes sour. Ideally, both of you should be in a similar position financially, plan “comparable worth” assignments and have similar investment goals. Otherwise, as time wears on, one partner may think the other is not carrying an equal share of the load. Get it? Part of this equation depends on your life experiences to date. As an example, are you both in the trades? Have a plan in place where you will still part as friends if the deal doesn’t work out.


1. Make certain the area you choose is one that has already started a transition toward becoming a more-desirable neighborhood. Otherwise, you may find  yourself throwing good money after bad. If the prices are still deteriorating, it will be difficult to predict how long until it begins to recover. Check with the municipality, the state and federal government, as funds often exist dedicated to neighborhood improvement projects that incentivize private investment. Additionally, check out the FHA(203k) rehabilitation mortgage. It wraps the rehab construction costs into the mortgage.

2. Consider calculating a better return. Your plan is renovating to rent and hold, so there will be more work and management attention required in operating the property. Collecting the rent, evictions and added repairs are examples of conditions that may require extra time and effort. You should seriously consider using a professional property management company, as these already possess the expertise to oversee your investment for a profit, plus they will have the necessary insurance and errors & omissions coverage to reduce your risk of liability.

3. A limited budget can be a red flag. Depending on your experience levels, your backgrounds and your resources, rehabbing a building is not the easiest project to jump into on a “limited budget.” Renovation often means unexpected surprises that are expensive to fix. What if you run out of money? Unfortunately, this is often the spot where the first person to abandon ship is your banker. Be careful not to be underfunded.

4. Finally, consider enrolling in a property management course even if you’ll be using a professional property manager. Investing the time in understanding the “back room” operations of owning property and dealing with vendors, tenants and regulation can make a big difference in the success of your operations.

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  • Dear Monty

    Richard Montgomery gives no-nonsense real estate advice to readers’ most pressing questions. He is a real estate industry veteran who has championed industry reform for more than a quarter of a century. Send him questions at

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