August 17, 2023

By: Travis Watts, Director of Investor Development

Let’s talk about negative leverage. This is a scenario happening right now on many commercial real estate deals, and it’s critical to understand as an investor.   

Before we dive in, it’s important to understand the following terms: 

Cap rate: The amount of income a property produces without a loan (i.e. if you paid 100% cash) 

Interest rate: What you are charged to borrow money (i.e. mortgage or loan interest) 


What is negative leverage? 

Negative leverage occurs when you are buying an investment property and the interest rate is higher than the cap rate. At first glance, you might think, why buy a property that produces 5% cash flow if you have to obtain a loan and pay 7% interest? Technically, you would be losing 2% on the investment. (5% – 7% = -2%) 

Let’s examine a couple case studies to see if this scenario can make sense as an investor.  


Case Study #1: Buying a brand-new multifamily apartment building 

If you purchase a brand-new multifamily property that has all the latest and greatest, high-end finishes, amenities, and technology, then there is nothing substantial that can be done to drive the rents higher, the property is therefore reliant on whatever the market rents do.  

There are three scenarios that could unfold: 

  1. The market rents increase (there’s a chance of making money)  
  2. The market rents remain stagnant (you may or may not make money) 
  3. The market rents decline (you may lose money)  


Case Study #2: Buying a value-add multifamily apartment building  

“Value-add” refers to an older, pre-existing property that is currently outdated, but can be renovated to compete with newer-built properties that offer modern amenities, technology, security, color schemes, and renter appeal. These properties are often rented at below market rent due to their current condition.  


This makes sense if we think about it from a renter’s perspective. Many renters are willing to pay $500 more per month for a nicer, safer community that has more to offer. Unlike brand-new apartment buildings, there is an opportunity with value-add properties to make strategic improvements and renew the condition to appeal to more renters.  

Here are few examples below of modernized value-add renovations: 

Let’s assume the average market rent is $1,700 per month. Newly constructed properties are renting for $2,000 per month and older/outdated properties are renting for $1,500 per month in a particular market. The opportunity with value-add is to make improvements and lift the rent to $1,700 per month to be in alignment with market rents.  

For example, if the property had 400 units in total, and each unit could be lifted $200 per month over a 5-year timeframe, that would increase the income by $960,000 per year. While this is great for cash flow, how much “value” or equity could be created if the property was sold at that point?  


To figure this out, we can use the following formula: 

This would amount to a potential equity valuation increase of $19,200,000. Of course, this is a simplified example and there are more factors to consider, but it provides an interesting scenario to consider.  

How likely is it to lift rents by $200 x 400 units?  

If we consider this business plan in a 5-year timeframe, that would amount to a $40 increase each year, or a 3% rent increase annually. Considering the property is being improved and providing more value for the residents, this could be a reasonable expectation. For a little perspective, below is the national rent growth since 1940 in the United States.  

The chart above is not to suggest that rents always move up every year. Rent declines do occur, recent examples include 2009 and 2020 shown below. But real estate is a longer-term investment, 5 years in this example. Do you think rents will be higher or lower in 5 years?

Circling back to our example, the same three scenarios could unfold in terms of rent: 

  1. The market rents increase (there’s a chance of making money)  
  2. The market rents remain stagnant (there’s a chance at making money if you can improve the property and lift rents using a value-add business plan) 
  3. The market rents decline (you may lose money, but there’s also a chance to make money if you can outpace the market rent decline after making improvements)  


Right now, in America, there is high demand for rental housing. As shown above, the cost to own a home in 2023 is far more expensive compared to renting. Furthermore, there are added costs to home ownership: down payments, closing costs, property tax, higher insurance, ongoing maintenance, and potential HOA dues.  

These factors are resulting in millions of Americans renting by necessity; in other words, they cannot afford to be a homeowner. Additionally, many are choosing to rent by choice because it may be cheaper or more economical than owning.  

In recap, can you still make money in commercial real estate with negative leverage? The answer is likely yes, provided that the chosen business plan puts the odds in your favor. Learn more at or reach out anytime I have been investing in value-add real estate for 15+ years and I’ve made it my mission to help you and others learn the game.   

Happy investing, 

Travis Watts  

Author - Travis Watts

Ashcroft Capital is a vertically integrated multifamily investment firm comprised of industry-leading executives. The firm applies institutional policies and procedures while remaining entrepreneurial and implementing innovative solutions to each asset it acquires. We are driven by a focused mission to improve the quality of life for the residents at each community in our portfolio. Though Ashcroft is first and foremost focused on capital preservation, this approach has resulted in several outsized, full-cycle investor returns.