As the housing market recovers and real estate values increase, many people are finding themselves priced out of their local markets. Some investors don’t want to give up on real estate altogether, so they’re turning to an alternative strategy: Buying turnkey rental properties in undervalued markets. A number of third party turnkey providers have recently sprung up to meet the increased demand. However, is this really a wise investment strategy, or is it all just a cleverly marketed gimmick? Let’s take a closer look.
What Are Turnkey Rental Properties?
When we use the term “turnkey rental properties,” we are referring to the loosely defined investment strategy of buying, rehabbing, and managing a property through a third party. The process of working with a turnkey real estate provider typically looks something like this:
- Finding a property: Based on your personal investment goals, the company will help you to identify and build a portfolio of properties. Most claim to have a pre-vetted database of turnkey investment properties for you to consider. Some also have proprietary software to evaluate which properties are likely to produce the greatest returns.
- Funding the investment: Unlike experienced investors, most turnkey buyers are unfamiliar with the various ways to finance rental properties (e.g. various loan products, 401K, 1031 exchange). The turnkey provider will help you to evaluate a range of financing alternatives depending on your individual circumstances and goals.
- Acquiring the property: Once you’ve identified the property you’d like to purchase, the turnkey provider will assist you with all of the paperwork, home inspections, appraisals, loan documents, and more. They provide end-to-end service, much like a real estate agent would, but they specialize in working with long-distance buyers who want to take a hands-off approach.
- Renovating the property: Depending on the situation, some turnkey rental properties will be in need of major renovations, while others may simply need minor repairs to bring the property up to code. The turnkey provider will manage all renovations and maintenance for you.
- Managing the property: The primary reason that people buy turnkey rental properties is because someone else pledges to manage the property on a day-to-day basis. This includes finding tenants as well as responding to any tenant needs (e.g. fixing a leaky sink). It ostensibly creates a stress-free investment opportunity—all that’s left for the buyer to do is deposit those rent checks!
Generally speaking, most turnkey firms will charge around a 3% fee for property acquisition, and then anywhere from 7 to 10% for ongoing management of turnkey rental properties.
That said, it’s important to know that there are hundreds of turnkey firms across the U.S., and no two are exactly alike. Some will buy, rehab, rent, and THEN sell a property to you (the investor). Others specialize in helping you to find cheap properties (for as little as $20,000!) that need major renovations—and the turnkey company will take on all of those renovations for you. The range of services can vary greatly, so be sure to thoroughly research several turnkey providers before you commit to anything.
The Growing Popularity of Turnkey Rental Properties
Turnkey rental properties have proven a great fit for people like Yang Guo, a 30-year-old data scientist who lives and works for a tech company in San Francisco. Even though he earns a good salary, he’s been priced out of the Bay Area. Nonetheless, Guo still wanted to add real estate to his investment portfolio.
Guo ultimately purchased two properties: A small home in the suburbs of Birmingham, AL and another outside of Columbia, SC. He worked with HomeUnion, a turnkey real estate provider based in Irvine, CA. HomeUnion helped Guo to purchase the two properties for a total of $60,000—quite the bargain in comparison with the Bay Area, where the median home price is over $675,000. HomeUnion, a 3-year-old startup, handled all of the necessary renovations, and they now manage the property for Guo. He’s never actually seen the properties or met the tenants—but he collects a rent check each month from 2000 miles away.
“There’s too much risk with buying property in the Bay Area,” Guo says. “As long as the cash flow is coming and hitting my bank account, I basically don’t care about seeing them in person.”
Novice real estate investors like Guo are attracted to turnkey rental properties because they’re lower-cost and less time-intensive to manage. The average turnkey investment property sells for between $50,000 and $150,000. Most are located in markets that were hit hard by the housing crisis. For example, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Ohio have experienced an explosion of turnkey rental properties. In Florida, for instance, an estimated 12% of landlords are from out-of-state. Turnkey investors tend to come from high-priced markets and want to buy in states with low home prices and relatively strong rents.
However, long-distance real estate investors tend to lack local market knowledge. “You see these people coming from California and what I like to call ‘yuppie-ing up a place,’ but they don’t realize it’s not in the best area because they didn’t do their homework,” says Tony Kazanas, a Cleveland area real estate agent. There are all sorts of miscellaneous things that novice real estate investors don’t consider, like local vacancy rates or the need to obtain hurricane or other specialty insurance. Turnkey companies fill these important gaps by providing local market expertise.
The Dangers of Turnkey Rental Properties
Based on our overview so far, turnkey real estate investment might seem like a no-brainer! Not so fast: Turnkey providers often target uneducated buyers and sell the promise of a stress-free, cash flow-generating investment opportunity. Unfortunately, too many buyers forget to do their due diligence. They fall for a compelling pitch and slick marketing materials, only to regret the investment down the road.
See, there has been an explosion of turnkey providers since the downturn of the housing market. Many of these companies are run by young adults in their early 20s who have little experience in real estate. They bank on the fact that most out-of-state buyers won’t come to see the properties they’re selling in person, which often haven’t been upgraded to turnkey standards. Some are pitching portfolios of turnkey rental properties that look like they’re straight out of the foreclosure process, where upgrades haven’t even begun. This isn’t a red flag for someone who intends to spend money on renovating the homes; but many turnkey investment providers sell people on the fact that the homes have already been renovated when that isn’t actually the case.
As it turns out, many of these turnkey providers are expert internet marketers, not expert real estate professionals. Many are less than capable of managing the properties that they’re selling to you.
Here are some key warning signs that a turnkey real estate company may not be as legitimate as they seem on the surface:
- Inexperienced operators: Find out how long the company has been in business, where they’ve invested in real estate, and how many buyers they’ve worked with. Don’t be shy about calling references. If you’re going to be getting into business with someone, you have the right to do your due diligence before signing on the dotted line.
- Lack of direct investments: Has the company invested in its own portfolio of turnkey rental properties? If so, what types of returns are they getting? It’s a major red flag if the company doesn’t own and manage its own properties—how else will they know how to look after yours?
- Weak support structure: Is the person who’s selling you on the investment the same person responsible for property acquisition, renovation, tenanting, and maintenance? If so, that’s an indication that there’s a weak support structure in place. Legitimate turnkey firms typically have a deep bench with professionals of varying expertise. If someone promises you that they can do it all alone, how much individual attention will your properties really be getting?
- Shoddy renovations: Before going into business with a turnkey company, take the time to tour a few of the other properties that they manage. What condition is the property in, and have the renovations been done properly? If the company claims that thorough renovations have already been completed on the property you’re considering, an inspection is worth every penny. Otherwise, you could get stuck with costly repairs down the road.
- Rental guarantees: Experienced real estate investors know that there is no such thing as a “rental guarantee.” A property may be more or less likely to rent quickly, but there’s no guarantee that it will be rented at the price the turnkey operator has stated. Spend some time doing your own market research to understand what rent prices are like in the area where you’re looking to purchase.
- Overpriced properties: Similarly, spend some time researching the local market. Turnkey providers are notorious for selling overpriced homes to out-of-state investors who are used to expensive real estate markets. A home that sells for $200,000 might seem like a bargain compared to where you live—but if local comps are selling for half that, then there’s a good chance you’re being duped.
Turnkey Rental Properties: To Buy or Not to Buy
Ultimately, the decision as to whether or not you should invest in a turnkey rental property is a personal one. Your experience in the real estate industry, knowledge of local markets, and investment objectives should all influence your decision. Turnkey rental properties can be a great way to diversify your portfolio, especially if you’ve been priced out of your local market. However, it’s critical to be cautious about who you invest your money with—always, always do your due diligence before committing to a specific turnkey real estate provider.
No investment is foolproof. However, keep in mind that rental property is highly illiquid. Turnkey rental properties are often easier to buy than they are to sell, so be sure to prepare your exit strategy in the event that things don’t work out as you plan.