Flipping: Remodeling for Resale

If you’re in the market to buy a house to rehabilitate for profit — also known as “flipping” — you’ll need to play it smart. Here are some common errors as well as the best approach.

Photo: unitedhomeinvestments.com

With a glut of distressed properties on the market now, people are eager to make deals. But there’s little room for error. You have to be smart about the houses you buy and the repairs you make. You also have to be prepared to hold your property for the long-term, or you could wind up with a house you can’t sell and a mortgage payment you can’t afford. But if you’re going to try to flip houses, here are some things you have to know.

Finding the Right House
Real estate investors live and die by the numbers. You have to fall in love with the deal, not the house. And great deals aren’t going to jump out at you. Experienced investors spend time every day looking for distressed property and have a network of people scouting deals for them.

Some investors make a point of taking a different route home from work to look for possible deals. Others, like Sid Davis, a real estate investor and the author of Home Makeovers that Sell: Quick and Easy Ways to Get the Highest Possible Price, recommend picking out a particular neighborhood and driving through it regularly. “Look for the best deal in the best neighborhood,” Davis says. “Even in the best areas, there are always people who need to sell quick. Pick a target area you want and make up flyers that say, ‘I can close in a week’ or ‘Cash up front.’ There are a lot of people in trouble. ”

Look for is a house that’s priced far below market value, experts say. That’s the only way to make money in today’s market.

Finding Financing
Even when mortgage underwriting was loose, bankers were tougher on investors than on owner occupants, requiring more money down and charging higher interest rates and fees. Today lenders are tighter than ever when it comes to lending money for real estate investment.

For rehabbers who own a home, it may be easier to get a home equity line of credit and use that money for the required down payment. But understand what you’re doing: You’re putting your own home at risk if you can’t sell the property and fall behind on the payments.

Thinking Long-Term
Many professional real estate investors view flipping as a shortsighted approach to the business. Virtually the only advantage, Jones-Cox says, is a quick profit, but the capital gains taxes eat a big chunk of that — and the current market conditions aren’t conducive to a speedy sale. Plus, rehab projects are notorious for taking longer and costing more money than anticipated. It’s far better to hold the house and enjoy the long-term benefits.

Davis, who has flipped seven houses in one year, agrees, saying, “I made $10,000 to $12,000 per house and thought I was pretty hot stuff. It was the dumbest thing I ever did. If I’d kept them as rentals, I’d have $1.5 million in equity by now.”

Perhaps the smartest way to approach flipping right now, especially for the new investor, is to buy a house as an owner occupant, live in it for two or three years while fixing it up, and then sell it for a profit. You’ll get a better interest rate on the financing, eliminate the larger down payments required of investors and the hefty capital gains tax that flippers pay on the houses that they buy and sell quickly, and give the house time to appreciate. “That’s a pretty spectacular strategy to make $50,000 or $100,000 and not pay taxes on it,” says Vena Jones-Cox, a Cincinnati -based real estate investor and past president of the National Real Estate Investors Association.

Making the Right Renovations
Once you find the house, you need to make a renovation and repair budget. The first step is establishing an approximate sale price. That’s accomplished by running a comparative market analysis of houses similar to the one you’re selling in location, age, square footage, bedroom and bathroom count, age, and features. Look at the prices of the houses that are selling — as well as those that have been sitting for months, recommends Dean Graziosi, a Tempe, AZ-based real estate investor and the author of The Real Estate Millionaire. That will give you a good idea of what to include in your rehab.

Then deduct how much you paid for the house, your other expenses (such as a real estate agent’s commission), and the profit you’d like to make. “That will tell you how much you can spend,” he says. The repair rules for rehabs are quite similar to those recommended to home buyers getting their own house ready to sell: First impressions are critical, so pay close attention to the front yard, the exterior of the house, and the entryway; kitchens and master baths sell the house; don’t impose your decorating style on the buyers; and keep colors in a neutral palette so buyers can make it their own.

The biggest mistake Jones-Cox sees investors make in their rehabs is spending money on upgrades that don’t add value and aren’t appropriate for the neighborhood. “They get into these properties, fall in love with them, and think it would be great to put a hot tub in the bathroom of a $125,000 house,” she says. “They’re not reasonable about what should be done, go way overboard, and never get their investment back.”

Diane Saatchi, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group who is based in East Hampton, NY, sees the same thing in multimillion-dollar rehabs. “Sometimes people overspend in ways that are not that important,” Saatchi says. “Someone will put in an expensive generator and not have enough closet space or storage space for the size of the house. Or they’ll do something that doesn’t suit a neighborhood. If it’s a neighborhood where all the houses have garages and you turn the garage into an exercise room, that’s stupid.”

If you think like a successful real estate investor and consider flipping or rehabbing as a longer-term investment, you’re more likely to succeed.

There are dozens of ways to botch a remodeling job done for resale. At the top of the list are:

  • Not doing your homework. There are so many houses on the market for sale today, the competition for buyers is fierce. Check out the competition before you start knocking out walls. The easiest way to do that is to visit open houses in the same price range.
  • Going overboard. You want your house to stand out but not like a sore thumb. Make yours a little better than the competition but maintain consistency with the neighborhood.
  • Ignoring the yard. Some rehabbers spend all their time on the interior and forget about the exterior. The lawn needs to be in the best possible shape.
  • Cutting corners. There’s a big difference between doing things as inexpensively as possible and turning a blind eye to major problems to save a buck. Don’t just clean and paint when something should be repaired or replaced.
  • Hiring unlicensed contractors. Problems with the structural integrity of the house or its major systems — heating and cooling, plumbing, and electricity — need to be repaired by licensed, insured professionals.
  • Trying to do it all yourself. If you haven’t done some of the trickier home improvement jobs that you have lined up for your house — such as electrical or plumbing work — now is probably not the time to attempt it. You’ll get frustrated and perhaps even injured. Hire a professional and ensure that you allocate that cost in your repair budget.
  • Underestimating the time frame. You should probably pad the time allotment for completing the job — especially if you can’t pay an extra month or two on the mortgage. If you’re holding two mortgages, establishing a realistic time line is critical.