Thou Shalt Not Invest in Less Than Blue Ribbon Locations

Quality as a relative term

Having spent the lion’s share of my real estate brokerage career in Southern California I learned that location quality was a relative term. If you didn’t need to shoot your way in ‘n out of a neighborhood, it probably wasn’t a bad place to invest. Now? My food dish has been moved, overturned, and smashed. The thing is, from about 1976 ’til the latest bubble burst, a Southern California real estate investor could’ve, and often did, buy income property in average to half a tick below average areas and come out 3-5 years later doin’ his best Trump impression at a neighborhood BBQ.

When in 2003 I made the decision to abandon my home market due to stoopid price/rent ratios (P/R ratio), it became quickly obvious I wasn’t in Kansas any more. Turns out when you’re not doin’ business in FantasyLand, location quality matters. Who knew?

In my defense (as weak as it is), when you experience over a quarter century of virtually guaranteed capital gains, regardless of location quality, it pretty much becomes your reality. When I left, it was akin to learning your whole career up to that point had been spent in a parallel universe where normal ‘economic physics’ were often suspended. To give perspective, I was 25 years old my first year on the investment side of the business.  In those years, you almost literally had to be dumb as wood not to make money investing in Southern California real estate.

Quality and long term investments

I’m here to tell ya — quality is still the foundation of long term investment in real estate.

Everywhere we look we’re being told about the historically stellar P/R ratios. That’s of course part of the winning equation, but it comes below location quality on the ‘must have’ checklist. I’ll go even further than that. I’m willing to pay a premium for a blue ribbon location even if another property down the road has a better P/R, but an empirically inferior location. You won’t be able to find the difference in price 10-20 years from now. However, you’ll notice the discernible difference in tenant quality. You’ll have also learned, over time, that the so-called inferior P/R ratio at acquisition is now far better than the property you turned down so long ago.

One commandment about investing

Thou shalt not invest in less than blue ribbon locations… PERIOD.

For the first time in my 42 years in the biz, superbly built income property can now be bought without sacrificing equally superb location quality. When 30 year fixed rates of 5% — or less — are added to the mix, you can easily see why lowering your location standards is nothin’ less than stoopid. (And I say that with affection.) In fact, the lesson to learn and apply is that a location ’10′ just gets better, relatively speaking, over time. So grumbling about the alleged price premium you paid, begins sounding more like braggin’ a decade later.

This is what I have come to call ‘location inertia’

Speakin’ from personal experience over much time and in several states, there’s a common denominator when it comes to the ongoing desirability of a given neighborhood. There are exceptions of course, but rare enough so as to ‘prove the rule’. An average to poor quality location tends to remain so or decline.  A high quality location tends to remain so over the long run.  For example, in Southern California, all the killer good neighborhoods for the most part are still highly sought after destinations for homebuyers. Not a one has gone bad.

However, some of the marginally acceptable neighborhoods of the 1960′s and 1970′s are now considered a couple levels downgraded by the buying public. A perception with which I heartily agree. This becomes a real mood killer when, as retirement nears, you notice the properties on which you compromised location quality for P/R ratio are now eating up your bottom line in everything from repair and maintenance to management migraines.

That’s not what you signed up for, right? Right.

When you hear/read that we’re in the new normal, what I’ve been talkin’ about here is on the A-List. The markets that lulled us the last 40+ years into thinkin’ we were investment gods aren’t granting cartoonish appreciation rates any time in the near future. It successfully covered up all those times we brazenly broke the commandment to worship blue chip location quality.

Don’t violate that commandment now or in the foreseeable future. It’ll come back to bite ya right in your retirement. (credit Jeff Brown)

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