This is a column by our resident real estate expert Rachelle.
I actually live and work in the Toronto area, in Ontario and this post is about different kinds of properties you can invest in and the benefits and pitfalls of developing a portfolio of properties that is not residential.
The law in Ontario for residential property is not kind to investors. Landlords are not protected and a lot of waiting is required before being able to get non-paying tenants out. Twice I have seen cases of non-payment that took over 9 months to resolve. Even if you are proactive, you are looking at 3 or 4 months before the process is complete.
Commercial property law can be very complex and the leases can be intimidating. The good news is that unlike residential leases, these leases are subject to contract law. This means that the lease is whatever you and the tenant agree to and it is enforceable. Absolutely everything can be stipulated in the lease and is binding on both parties. I suggest a lawyer help you with this at first until you get the hang of it.
Commercial leases can also be simple. One thing all commercial leases have in common is that they really protect the landlord. Leases are renegotiated, not automatically renewed and there is no limit to the rent increases except what you contracted to and what the tenant can pay or the market will bear.
Dealing with non-payment of rent is easy. Here I am quoting from the Commercial Tenancies Act (link).
Rights of re-entry
Re-entry on non-payment of rent
18. (1) Every demise, whether by parol or in writing and whenever made, unless it is otherwise agreed, shall be deemed to include an agreement that if the rent reserved, or any part thereof, remains unpaid for fifteen days after any of the days on which it ought to have been paid, although no formal demand thereof has been made, it is lawful for the landlord at any time thereafter to re-enter into and upon the demised premises or any part thereof in the name of the whole and to have again, repossess and enjoy the same as of the landlord’s former estate. R.S.O. 1990, c. L.7, s. 18 (1).
Commercial leases are beautiful for the landlords they protect. You can’t really appreciate this until you have had a residential tenant delay an eviction forever while you pay the mortgage and all the expenses while they live a free life. And possibly wreck your property.
Ease of Entry & Financing
Currently 20% down is required for a down payment. In the past financing has been relatively easy but with the new CMHC rules it is becoming more difficult. CMHC is requiring that only 50% of the rental income of your properties be considered when calculating your income. This becomes problematic when you have multiple properties.
Before the new CMHC rules came into play April 19th this was really the biggest factor. Commercial properties generally have higher entry requirements. Down payments are 30 to 35%. Financing is never CMHC approved so you need good credit and be willing to put personal guarantees on the building. Mortgage rates are higher. For the beginner there are tons of little industrial or office or retail condominiums available. You can also buy a mixed-use building that has a few apartments on the second floor and retail or restaurant below.
A second benefit of residential rentals is people’s familiarity with that kind of real estate. Rare is the person who has never rented or lived in a house. People are well acquainted with the processes involved in this business. They are also somewhat knowledgeable about the usual building systems of a house. Plumbing, electrical, furnaces and air conditioners are all somewhat understood by most people.
Depending on what you buy there may be lots of building elements that you are not familiar with. The other day I was checking out an industrial building full of commercial laundry equipment. One machine was the size of two pick up trucks side by side. I had never seen anything like it. Basically units you buy can be outfitted for anything from a restaurant, an office or any other type of business. There is usually no presentation involved so you have to look past the dust and debris.
A third benefit of residential is the considerable number of potential applicants. Vacancy is currently low and a property with a decent price in decent condition is not likely to stay empty for long.
This is the tricky part. These properties can be more difficult to rent. You must also evaluate the feasibility of that business at that location. I once rented a space that had been vacant for five years. The location was a pizza store but it was the stupidest location ever for pizza. Have you ever seen a pizza store on a quiet one-way street? It was also extremely disgusting with years of cooking grease on the walls. Presentation counts!!! I sold all the pizza equipment for a song, we power washed, painted and it rented in a month.
Generally these spaces stay empty longer and are more difficult to rent. Be proactive and spend some money on advertising. Consider changing the use. Clean up and present the space in good condition.
Once the space is rented though tenants will stay for a long time. It’s not like packing up a cube van for a residential tenant. Commercial tenants have clients, business cards, ads in the Yellow pages and all kinds of expensive commercial equipment. Moving is very expensive for them so you can usually look forward to long leases. Five or ten year leases with options to renew are normal. Certain businesses are more prone to failure than others so choose accordingly.
The biggest problem with new investors is that in a tight market like Toronto is that they are very vulnerable. There’s a ton of people who just don’t care about you who are willing to separate you from your dough. I would say that about 90% of the offerings in the Toronto market would not qualify for my definition of investment.
This is not a pretty house you own and rent out in hopes of the land appreciating. That is speculation and I can assure you that one day, property value will go down. If you buy for cash flow with the proper safety margins in place, it really doesn’t matter because every month that building is being paid off and, it’s paying you to own it. That is investment.
Because there is so much crap on the residential market waiting for a sucker, the smaller entry-level properties that are decent with potential go very quickly and there’s a lot of competition.
Not sexy comes to mind when talking about commercial property. I can assure you there’s a lot less competition for these properties. These properties are sold in a much different way. You get things like income statements and expense reports. In short it’s about the money. I find the “appeal to emotion” sales strategy irritating as hell when I’m looking at income property. I’m never going to live there so show me the numbers and stop wasting my time. You’ll find a lot more people who know how to do this around commercial property purchases.
Passing on costs
Another risk involved in smaller residential property is the difficulty of passing on costs. Rent increases are limited by legislation. Consider that Hydro costs alone will increase a full 25% this year. You can see how this can quickly become a problem. If your investment property is a condo you may well get very significant increases in maintenance fees. It’s easy to see how the small landlord can quickly end up subsidizing his tenants housing by several hundreds of dollars every single month. OUCH !!!
Most leases for commercial properties are Net Net Net. This means that the tenant is responsible for Taxes, Maintenance and Insurance for the property. Utilities are paid by the tenant; you never know what the space will be used for. Some businesses use lots of hydro, gas or water. In some shopping centers the landlord even gets a percentage of gross sales for the business.
You can be fully insulated against increases in your costs.
So investors I challenge you to stretch a little and really consider commercial type properties. When you’re in business there are always risks but in my opinion the legal risks of being a residential landlord are considerable compared to commercial property. The ease of entry and familiarity of residential investments is a not sufficient reason to invest in that market. For the new investor you can buy mixed-use properties and get the best of both worlds and diversification to boot. Remember; fall in love with the numbers not the properties.
About the Author: Rachelle specializes in renting property on behalf of landlords. She also works with investors to find good investments in Toronto and surrounding areas. Her passion is bringing multi res properties back from the brink and maximizing profitability.