For the thousands of nouveau real estate investors trying to buy property for no money down, this word of advice: It's easier to find such a deal than it is to make money on it.
You might find a seller who is willing to accept a mortgage instead of cash, just like the gurus tell you on TV. It will take a lot of looking, but it can be done.
Once done, however, you've got a tiger by the tail. It's all but impossible to buy a single-family house or apartment house for no money down, then rent the property for enough money to cover your costs.
You will, in short, have "negative cash flow" -- meaning you'll have to pay out of pocket every month for the loan, insurance, maintenance and whatever fix-up has to be done.
If the real estate market founders, the property might not rise enough in value to cover your costs. If you run out of money, you might be forced into default.
I asked John Reed -- author of the Real Estate Investor's Monthly, in Danville, Calif. -- whether there's any way nowadays to make money buying real estate for no money down.
He said yes, sometimes, but not the way the TV gurus tell you. First, he said, you use the "vulture strategy." Second, you can't vulture successfully unless you have cash -- even though you don't pay it out to the seller. And third, you have to know exactly which carcasses to pick and which to leave alone.
You start by approaching a real estate owner who's in trouble and offer to take his trouble off his hands. His trouble might be as little as being unable to get as high a price as he wants for his property, but that will do. You should be able to negotiate a low-cost, no-cash deal, with the seller taking a long-term note for the money you owe him.
Even better, he might be willing to give you a one-year holiday on interest payments. "You have to buy the property cheaply, with the price and terms so low that you'll be able to withstand the horrors of turning it around," Reed told my associate, Virginia Wilson.
Nevertheless, he said, your deal will not truly be "no cash."
Distress rental properties have negative cash flow; that's what's so distressing about them. You pay out in costs more than you collect in rents. Why would you buy it? Because you think you can turn it around and make it economically profitable. But during the time it takes you to achieve that miracle, the deal will be draining money out of your pocket.
So you need a lot of cash to avoid default. "A nothing-down deal that requires a large cash reserve is not much different from a something-down deal," Reed said. The money you lose while trying to turn the building around is, essentially, your down payment. The longer it takes to reach breakeven, the bigger involuntary down payment you're making.
Your chance of making money depends on why the property was in trouble in the first place. If it was a loser because the market is bad for real estate sales and rentals, it will go on being a loser, even though you bought it for no money down.
You only can succeed, Reed said, by buying into a good real estate market, where the building is failing because it's badly managed. (He concentrates on apartment houses because he thinks it far more profitable than buying and renting single-family houses.)
The profit comes from being a good manager -- able to improve the property, get rid of bad tenants, fill vacancies with good tenants and raise rents. You're aiming for a positive cash flow that puts money in your pocket and makes it possible to resell at a good capital gain.
Look for a well-located, well-constructed building, Reed said. You might buy from a bank after foreclosure or buy from the owner before foreclosure. If the latter, however, there may be liens on the property or other complications, so you need a lot of schooling to avoid getting burned.
A no-cash apartment house is a typical starter investment for young people willing to spend a lot of time and muscle getting the building into shape. But they have to have cash for staying power. And they must look well beyond the cheap terms of sale, to see if they're going to make a profit in the end.