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This is something about this field I'm trying to understand. Whenever I talk to a regular person who managed to save up and buy an apartment building or a duplex or something like that for rental income, they always say it's a lot of trouble and isn't a reliable profit and so on.

But then you have people who just keep going after they get started, to the point that years (or decades) down the line, they own thousands of units, entire city blocks, malls, and so on. (Those people are the 1%, sometimes even billionaires.)

What is the difference? Why can some spin it into a gigantic enterprise while others buy one 3-unit building and seem to get stuck?


(I'm from the U.S. but I don't think it makes much difference, the same is true everywhere.)

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    Even successful landlords can tell you "it's not worth it" to minimize competition. And failed landlords could tell you it's the best thing ever just to see someone else enter the dumpster fire with them. – MonkeyZeus Jan 19 at 15:25
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    Do note that there is an impending eviction crisis so tread carefully if you're considering being a landlord. – MonkeyZeus Jan 19 at 15:27
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    Because of something called Price's law, which tends to crop up. Half of all productivity (e.g. success) comes from the square root of all participants (e.g. landlords). – jpaugh Jan 19 at 20:17
  • @jpaugh I'm curious how Price's law would apply to this question. If I understand your comment correctly, you're saying that the average participant has less than average productivity. Thus, wouldn't a single highly productive participant - working alone - usually be more productive than a typical larger group? – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket Jan 19 at 22:17
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    I think the title of your question is misleading. The way it's worded it sounds like "why do people who own small amounts of real estate struggle while those who own large amounts of real estate thrive". But the text of the question is asking "why do some people who own small amounts of real estate struggle while others who also own small amounts of real estate go on to later own lots of real estate". Your question would be better titled "Why do some small real estate investors succeed while others fail?" (That might also make the answer more obvious. :-) – BrenBarn Jan 20 at 5:15
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First off, I'd question the premise a bit. There are plenty of investors that have large real estate holdings and correspondingly large loan amounts and expenses that are constantly verging on bankruptcy.

Large investors have the benefit of diversification and professionalization.

Diversification If you own a single rental unit, you have a great deal of idiosyncratic risk-- you might find that you've got a great tenant that pays on time every month for a decade and leaves the place spotless or you might find that your tenant lost his job and can't pay rent for several months while you try to evict him and then find that you're on the hook for several thousand dollars in repairs. If you're a small landlord, one bad tenant can wipe out years of income. If you own a hundred rental units, you can reasonably bank on some percentage being empty, some percentage being behind in rent, etc. and end up with a much more consistent return.

Professionalization If you own a single rental unit, the tenant probably calls you directly when the water heater dies. You then have to drive out, take a look, fix it or call a plumber, etc. That's a lot of hassle to deal with in the middle of the night. If you have an apartment complex with a hundred units, on the other hand, you'll have handymen on staff to take care of most maintenance problems, management to bring in plumbers when needed, and contracts with plumbing companies that give you a discount for sending them a consistent amount of business. If you have one rental unit, you have to learn how to advertise, how to screen tenants, how to deal with maintenance issues, how to evict someone, etc. yourself and you probably won't be great at any one of them. If you have a hundred rental units, you can hire people that specialize in each aspect.

Of course, there is also the simple issue of skill. People that are good at being a landlord tend to make more money than those that aren't great at it. People that make more money as a landlord tend to buy more units than those that don't make as much money. So, over time, people that are good at being a landlord end up with more units than those that aren't so great at it.

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    That pretty much sums it up. Anything below 5 or 10 units is a serious statistical gamble - you never know what happens with the small number of tenants. – TomTom Jan 17 at 11:20
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    @TomTom Here you acknowledge it's a statistical gamble, but in my answer where I say being successful at the initial stages is luck, you say "Not sure I agree with that." What exactly is the difference between "luck" and succeeding at a "statistical gamble"? – Phil Frost Jan 17 at 18:47
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    @PhilFrost I can't speak for TomTom, but reading your answer and the comments under it and this one it seems to me that your answer says that luck is the only meaningful factor. The comment about owning more than 5 to 10 units reads to me as saying that you can mitigate the risk of bad luck by having more units and more tenants-- you can reduce the risk and impact of poor luck by following a particular strategy. That's the opposite of saying its an unpredictable gamble; it's a manageable risk. – Upper_Case Jan 17 at 19:07
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    Ah, by earning the money fo rthem? By starting with smaller units, growing them from not real estate income, as example. I find it amazingly ignorant to say "people start with 1 and then they ONLY have that income to get another one". Many people run a business and buy real estate from the profits - at SOME point it turns into a business itself, but... nothing says that you can not buy a unit per year, assuming decent income. – TomTom Jan 17 at 19:39
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    Don't forget the economics of scale when avoiding taxes and regulations. – Martin Schröder Jan 18 at 8:17
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While I think Justin Cave raises some good points about economies of scale, this isn't quite what you asked. Economies of scale are beneficial after you have a lot of capital, but you asked why some people are able to grow their real estate enterprise from an initial small investment, not why the people that have already grown it seem to do better.

The answer is, to a large degree, luck. No one wants to hear this answer, because:

  • if you're already successful, you might feel you didn't earn it, and
  • if you're not successful, it means there's nothing you can do about it.

And yet, research shows luck is far more significant in all kinds of success than typically acknowledged. Of course competence and determination matter -- investing requires effort and skill. But if you could look at the 1% most skilled, most determined investors, you'd find most of these will not go on to be the 1% most successful: they will be overtaken by somewhat less skilled or less determined investors that got lucky. As you look at a smaller group of most successful individuals, luck explains an increasing share of the variance.

While in many fields the nature of this luck may be obscure or surprising (for example, being born in January significantly increases your chances of playing professional hockey in the NHL) in real estate investing it's pretty obvious: you're investing all your capital in 1 or a small number of properties in a stochastic, competitive, volatile market when you start.

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    @TomTom You're entitled to an opinion of course, but unless you can provide some data to support your position, realize you are arguing against a wide and established body of research. – Phil Frost Jan 17 at 18:44
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    @TomTom I'm not suggesting you aren't successful, which certainly your accounting would show. What I am saying is that other investors have skill, determination, and perseverance too, and yet many of them are not successful. While these attributes are prerequisite to success, they do not guarantee success. Success requires those things, and more luck than people generally realize. The OP is not asking, "why do lazy and incompetent investors struggle?" but rather, "what is the secret sauce that explains why some investors all seeming do the same thing succeed while others fail?" It's luck. – Phil Frost Jan 17 at 20:31
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    @TomTom and if you don't believe me, perhaps you would be interested in attending my $5,000 real estate investing seminar. – Phil Frost Jan 17 at 20:32
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    @TomTom Luck is, far and way, the biggest factor in success in business. In particular, being born into a family that can subsidize your endeavors while you finish school, get a startup loan, co-sign for things, etc. This was true when the Coleman report was published, and it hasn't changed since. – corsiKa Jan 18 at 0:14
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    +1 the whole question basically just describes survivorship bias. – Eric Duminil Jan 18 at 7:29
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You may simply be dealing with selection bias.

Suppose there are 10,000 investors renting out one unit each. Most of them are struggling, dealing with empty units, repairs, renters that won't pay... So if you talk to most of them, they will say exactly the kind of things you are hearing.

However, a small proportion, say 100 of them, or 1%, are really on top of things. Their tenants pay on time, they leave their units spotless and in good shape, the units don't stay empty for long. These landlords are happy and will tell you so when you ask them. But because they are a tiny minority, you will likely not talk to them! Note that it's not important whether this success is due to higher competence or to luck.

Now, which part of our population will go on to invest more in real estate? It's the successful 1%, because they have (a) the optimism that comes with a good track record, and (b) the money that comes with success. So these 100 landlords will go on to own 10 or 20 units. And one of them will be wildly successful, and will start (ghost)writing books on real estate management.

And the top 1% may not differ all that much from the other 99%. Maybe they were a little smarter or more perseverant, or maybe they had a little more luck. The end result you observe is a lot of unhappy small real estate investors, and a tiny number of large and apparently successful ones, who brim with confidence.

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    +1 for survivorship bias. xkcd.com/1827 – Eric Duminil Jan 18 at 7:33
  • Nice. There's also a timing factor to the selection. I had a 5 unit rental with a strong cashflow. Then the local rental market changed, sold it at a loss that wiped out years of profits. If you looked at me before that happened I was in the group of winners, if you look at me after not so much. – Jared Smith Jan 20 at 13:00
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When people say that they’re not making a profit on rental properties, they generally mean that their short-term cash flow isn’t very strong. They ignore the capital appreciation which is the source of most rental profits, but can’t easily be realised while you still own the property. Bigger investors tend to be better capitalised and thus can more easily take the long-term view.

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    Another thing is they have the power to realize their appreciation. If you have a tenant who trashes your place before leaving, it is much harder to successfully reclaim your losses from him in court than for a real estate company with thousands of properties and a team of resident lawyers. In other words the other two answers. – mishan Jan 17 at 17:26
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    ANother point is that if you own 20 properties, you can regularly sell a property and realize the gain, giving you cashflow. If you own an apartment you likely may have a lot of "dead" capital gains, and no way to get them out easily. – TomTom Jan 17 at 17:59
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    They may also have a mortgage and be ignoring the year-on-year reduction in the size of the mortgage. Reduction of debts is proffit just as much as increase in savings is. – bdsl Jan 18 at 17:25
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Besides many good answers which describe the Survivorship Bias of successful investors, I want to highlight the lack of skills of the ones that fail.

Most landlords don't do the Math

There are many landlords who do not understand the impact of financial factors. Instead they are acting emotional, for example keeping an inherited property although selling it and reinvesting the money would create better profits.

The biggest and most common mistake I noticed is that people don't differentiate or don't decide between cashflow and wealth accumulation. If you want to secure your retirement or quit your regular job, it might make sense to fully pay down the real estate to reduce the risk of overdue loan payments. If you want to grow your wealth faster, you should keep your job and leverage the profit with a loan as much as possible.

Also you have to understand the laws and taxes in your country. It's fine to let the tax consultant do the paperwork, but your strategy must take those details into account. For example in my country it's advantageous to sell real estate after ten years, because you don't have to pay taxes on the increase of value and you can get out of any loan without penalty payment - even selling it to your spouse is better than keeping it.

Most "regular persons" focus more on housekeeping the physical object instead of managing the finances and therefore don't understand what they are doing wrong.

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    That point about law, especially the bit specific to Germany, is very interesting. – temporary_user_name Jan 18 at 21:25
  • @temporary_user_name before selling it to your spouse you should do detailed calculation. In short: you're paying the transactions now, so that you can take a new loan and pull out your earned equity to invest it somewhere else, while keeping real estate you already know instead of risking it for another one. (Be aware that I'm landlord but haven't reached the 10 years yet, so haven't done it myself.) – Chris Jan 18 at 22:52
  • I'm not in Germany, so no worries. Just think it's interesting. I'll specify my country in the question (U.S.) – temporary_user_name Jan 18 at 23:13
  • @temporary_user_name I assume the basic idea works everywhere: keep your own equity in each property low, so that you can buy more real estate which brings additional income. The best timing of the sale is country-specific. – Chris Jan 19 at 8:33
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    @EricDuminil I said "low" not "minimal". ;-p But true, in practice it's more complicated than I can describe in a short comment. Therefore: Do the Math! – Chris Jan 19 at 19:10
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I'm going to suggest your causality may be the wrong way around.

Rather than "Large operations thrive, and small operations struggle". Have you considered the following:

Operations that thrive become large, operations that struggle don't.

This intuitively makes sense. If you're thriving and making lots of profits then you probably invest that money in expanding so you can make even more money. Continuing in a virtuous cycle until either you stop thriving, or you decide you're big enough.

Whereas if you're struggling and your first property isn't even turning a profit, then adding an extra property will just compound the problem, so you probably avoid it (and likely don't have the money to buy a second one anyway).

The size isn't the cause of the success, but rather the outcome.

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  • I think that is actually the question, though: "Why can some spin it into a gigantic enterprise while others buy one 3-unit building and seem to get stuck?" So why were some of the original group able to make enough profit to reinvest, whereas others weren't? – user3067860 Jan 20 at 20:26
  • @user3067860 Ah, you know, I think you're right. I was answering the (original) title rather than actually reading the body of the question. – Kaz Jan 20 at 20:34
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Sales and Operation

Most small time real estate investors have to be part of the operation of the real estate. If you own 1 apartment and rent it out, you have to be the estate agent. You have to be the insurance provider (for lost rent or belligerent tenants) etc. You have to get new tenants when the old ones move out. It is easy to overlook that there is actually an operation part of real estate, and there is a sales part - someone has to keep tenants coming in as others leave. This part can be tricky to cover professionally by smaller players.

Big real estate players hire estate agents, or buy it as a service. And if one tenant skips pay, that doesn't "flip the kiosk" as we say where I come from. And they are big enough to do proper marketing.

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    In some (many?) countries there are letting agents who will do all the work for the landlord, of course at a substantial fee which may make it no longer profitable for the landlord. – gerrit Jan 18 at 9:57
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    Isn't the landord by definition the person who owns the real estate? As gerrit suggests the person they hire is I think an agent of some form, not a landlord. – bdsl Jan 18 at 17:27
  • @bdsl some confusion of terms might be second-language related. When I use it, I mean: You don't have to own real estate to BE a landlord - being the landlord simply means "doing the work" of owning the house. Owning the building and tending the building. If you are a small time real estate investor you usually have to tend the buildings yourself. Donald Trump doesn't go around fixing leaky radiators and collecting rent, – Stian Yttervik Jan 19 at 6:51
  • @StianYttervik Right, and I don't know if there is a good term in English for a person who does that work, that can apply whether they own the homes are do it as a paid job for someone else. – bdsl Jan 19 at 10:47
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    @awjlogan I'll update that reference into the answer. Thanks. – Stian Yttervik Jan 19 at 11:44

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