Personal Finance for the Real Estate Investor–A Primer

A real estate investor’s own personal finances can play a big role in managing profitable real estate investments. One of the biggest mistakes anxious investors make is to take on a lot of leverage and financial risk with rental properties when their own finances are in shambles. Having your own finances in order is important to your real estate investments for at least three reasons: (1) you may need cash or available credit to address a major repair to the property; (2) you need to able to weather prolonged vacancies or non-payment of rent, and (3) you want to qualify for the best available financing when you buy or refinance a property.
So here is a quick primer on sound personal finance habits every real estate investor should know.
1. Supercharge your emergency fund: Most personal finance experts recommend keeping three to six months of living expenses in a savings or money market account. For the individual real estate investor, however, this isn’t enough. You should consider how much you would need to keep your properties afloat if rental income wasn’t coming in the door. There’s no magic formula here, but some suggest keeping a year’s worth of expenses (mortgage, taxes, insurance, repairs) for each property. That’s extremely conservative, but the point is that your emergency fund should be above to cover your rental properties for at least three to six months in addition to your own household expenses.
2. Pay EVERYTHING on time: Avoiding late payments on your debts is critical to the real estate investor. Late payments can have a major impact on your credit score, which can result in raising the interest rate you’ll pay for a mortgage on a rental property. In extreme cases, it can even disqualify you for traditional financing, particularly given the tight credit market we’re in now.
3. Maintain available credit: I have available credit on both my home equity line of credit and on a number of low interest credit cards. It’s never my intention to use this credit for real estate investing (except on perhaps a very short term basis), but the available credit is important for at least two reasons. First, having unused, available credit can improve your credit score. Second, it’s nice to have the available credit in the even of an emergency. Of course, you should be relying on an emergency fund when the air conditioning unit goes out, but some extra financial cushion never hurt.
4. Diversify your investments: I know I’ll take some heat on this one, but in my opinion, real estate shouldn’t be one’s only source of investment income. I have a fair amount invested in stocks and bonds. I also invest in REITs. These investments, along with my real estate holdings, provide a nice diversification that reduces the overall risk of my investment portfolio.
5. Shun consumer debt: Many Americans are buried in consumer debt. They use credit cards and home equity lines of credit to a fund a life style they can’t afford. Before long, they are mired in debt and working harder and harder just to stay afloat. The goal of real estate investing, at least for me, is to achieve some significant degree of financial freedom for me and my family. But I’ll never achieve that if I have consumer debt that is growing each month.
6. Maintain an updated personal net worth statement: It’s a good personal finance habit to know and track your net worth. With real estate investing, it’s doubly important because you’ll need this information when you apply for financing. In addition, a net worth statement will also allow you to see how your real estate empire is growing.
7. Stick with fixed rate mortgages: Particularly if you dabble in variable rate mortgages on some or all of your rental properties, financing your own home with a fixed rate mortgage is critical. Mike and I have financed some properties with variable rate mortgages, at least for a time. These investments expose us to enough interest rate risk; we don’t need to add to it by financing our own homes with variable rate mortgages. Besides, interests are still at historic lows, so with perhaps a few exceptions, there is little reason not to lock in the low rate now.
We could add many more to these, but these are seven of the more important personal finance habits I’ve found helpful to my real estate investments. Perhaps you can add to this list. If so, by all means leave a comment. If you disagree with any of these points, email Mike.
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