The Differences Between Commercial and Residential Property Investment

When you invest in residential property you are essentially dealing with people. When the rent is late, you have to deal with a person – the tenant. If you feel the property is not being looked after properly, you will have to deal with people who may have a different opinion from you.

With commercial property, you are essentially dealing with contracts. If the rent is not paid on time, then the contract (lease agreement) stipulates a series of remedies that the landlord can take. If the property is not kept up to a certain standard, then the contract may stipulate that you can send in a commercial cleaner and send the bill to the tenant.

Generally, governments around the world have countless rules governing the renting of property to residential tenants, which override anything that you may put in your rental agreement. For example, in the UK, if a tenant is behind in their rent, you cannot just evict them. There are all sort of protections in place so that the tenants will not be exploited. You have to allow them to fall behind in rent for at least 30 days before you can start eviction proceedings.

With commercial property, what is in the lease contract is generally what goes. Many commercial leases have a clause in them that stipulates that if the rent if late by more than a week, then penalty interest will be applied to the amount of rent outstanding. If the tenant still has not paid the rent a certain period of time thereafter, then you have the right not only to change the locks and take your premises back, but also to seize all the tenant’s fittings, furniture and equipment on the premises, and to sell them to recover the rent owing. Your rights as a commercial landlord are far stronger than those as a residential landlord.

With commercial property, the tenants usually derive their income at your premises. Therefore they have a vested interest in keeping your property in good condition. With residential tenants, there is not the same drive to maintain your property, let alone improve it. With my commercial property, I spent thousands of pounds changing the business from a men’s hairdressers (which it had been for the previous 30 years) – into a real estate business. In fact, for the first couple of years, we often had men coming to the property and looking inside expecting to have their haircut.

With a commercial lease, the tenants often paint their premises every couple of years so that it will be attractive to customers. In fact, in a commercial property, the tenant is responsible for whatever maintenance repairs occur. So if there is a plumbing problem in a commercial property, it is up to the tenant to bring in his own plumber and to be responsible for whatever bills are presented to him. In a residential property, the tenant is entitled to call the landlord or the management company – they are compelled by law to fix whatever repairs are necessary.

Another fundamental difference between residential and commercial property concerns the typical length of the lease. With residential properties it can be on a month-to-month basis, but is rarely longer than one year. Commercial properties, on the other hand, are generally leased for many years at a time. From the tenant’s perspective, it gives their company or business the security of the same premises to work out of. Banks like long-term leases as well: the longer and stronger the lease, the more willing they are to lend money on the property.

In some countries a tenant cannot rent the premises with a lease that is under 5 years. There is an upside to this and a downside to this. The upside is that his business is secure in that location for at least 5 years. He cannot be asked to move. The downside is that if times are bad, he might be able to pay his rent and he has no wiggle room to get out of that lease. So in the end he possibly could lose everything. He could lose whatever deposits he has put down, he could lose his furnishings, his equipment. He could theoretically lose the essence of his business.

So far, you can see there are a lot of advantages of commercial properties over residential ones.

To summarise the main categories of commercial property:

1. Retail: shops or any building where passing trade or the general public are invited
2. Office: commonly found with retail or alone, and often above the retail areas on the ground floor
3. Industrial: places where things are manufactured or services provided – but not necessarily where the general public are walking past.

Commercial property is much more specialised than residential and it may be more difficult to find a tenant in the area of specialisation catered to by your building.

Typically banks will lend you up to 80% of the value of the property on a residential investment. However, with commercial property usually the maximum is about 60%.

The biggest advantage of residential property over commercial comes when your property is empty. If you have a house where the tenants have just left, if you have bought it in a good location and the market is reasonably active, then you should be able to find tenants quite quickly. Generally even in a slow market, the only reason why a residential property sits empty for a long time is because of the rental price. If you drop your rent by 10% or more, you will usually get a tenant. However, this downturn economy has vastly affected both residential and commercial properties. Workers who have been made redundant find that they cannot pay the rent. Many commercial properties are suffering because their tenants have been forced out of business.

With residential property, if your tenant has been laid off or fired, it may take you months to be able to evict him let alone find another tenant. In a commercial property, you are entitled to keep his deposits, fittings, equipment and furnishings, but that still doesn’t give you an income for that property. And right now there are many commercial properties that are going bankrupt. So my best advice is that in this downturn economy, that while there may be numerous opportunities for investment, be aware that there are just as many situations where you could lose a great deal of money.

Let’s look at commercial property that has been empty for 3 months or 3 years, then the problem may not be because the rent is too high. Even if you were to slash it in half you still may not find a tenant.

The reason for this is simple. Just about any residential property on the market has all that is required for someone to live in it. However, when it comes to commercial property, the requirements vary hugely from tenant to tenant. For example, when a dog food cannery becomes vacant, it may not be simply a matter of reducing the rent to find a tenant. No matter how much you drop the rent, no photographer looking for a studio is likely to settle for the dog food cannery. No shoe shop that relies on passing foot trade will want the top floor in an office tower, no matter how good the view or how reasonable the rental.

To summarise the differences between residential and commercial property:

Tenants have little interest in maintaining or improving your property
Leases tend to be short
Tenants contact the landlord for minor problems
Governments tend to legislate to protect tenants rights
Banks lend up to 80% of the value
If the property is empty, it is usually easy to find a new tenant
You deal with people

Tenants have a strong vested interest in the upkeep of your property
Leases tend to be long
Tenants tend to fix minor problems
Governments tend to leave you alone
Banks will lend only 50-60%
The appraised value when tenanted may be 2 or 3 times the value when empty
If the property is empty, it may be difficult to find a new tenant
You deal with contracts, not people

If you were coming to me for property investment advice and you didn’t know which would be better for you: to buy a house or to buy a piece of commercial property. The first thing I would say to you is: research, research, research commercial property. Find out everything you possibly can about being a landlord, about tenancy agreements, about your areas of responsibility, the tenant’s areas of responsibility, and when you have spoken to a number of commercial property landlords, and gotten to understand the business really really well, then I would look for a group of investors who would go in on a building with you.

I would also look for a syndicate – you would be just a small part of that syndicate. Your financial obligation would be very small in comparison if you had just gone into it yourself or with one or two other people. A syndicate usually implies a large group of investors. The upside is that you don’t have to have much of a cash outlay if you invest with a syndicate. The downside is that you don’t make as much money if you invest with a syndicate. But your risks are greatly reduced, which is why people have a tendency to look for syndicates. When you have a syndicate investing in residential property, a lot has been written about landlords – that the la

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