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Which is best? Single Family vs. Multi Family property investment

I loved playing Monopoly as a kid and still like playing it as an adult. I find that Monopoly brings out the best (and worst) in people! I'm super competitive at most things I do so once I roll those dice you better get ready for a challenge!

One of the interesting things in Monopoly was the concept of houses and hotels. Once you owned the land, you could purchase and place houses or if you had enough, you could place hotels on the land. Houses always paid less than hotels and the costs were fairly linear.

This brings me to the blog post today of comparing Single and Multi Family homes. I own a mixture so have a perspective on both. A Single Family home is, as the name implies, a sole structure to house one family on one lot of land. A Multi Family home houses multiple families (people) on the same lot - a duplex, triplex, fourplex and so on are considered multi family. Even a 100+ apartment building is considered multi family. For the purposes of our discussion however I will be talking about 1 - 4 units as that's what we mostly buy.

Some of the investors I work with will only buy single family and other will only buy multi family so there's no hard and fast rule about which is best. It really depends on your profile as an investor and what you are looking to achieve.

Here are, in my opinion, the pros and cons of each type of property:

Single Family homes are easier to rent. Generally, most people that will rent a Multi Family home will rent a Single Family home but not the other way around. That's because single family homes typically are larger, provide more privacy and don't have neighbors either above or to the side. They are quieter to live in.

Single Family homes tend to appreciate more (grow in value over time) because home owners will pay more for that special house or to live on a particular street. Multi Family on the other hand is purchased predominantly by investors. They are looking for the returns and are not as concerned with the way a building looks in the same way a home owner might be.

Single Family tenants tend to stay longer than Multi Family tenants. Why? Combination of factors - mostly families move into Single Family homes and singles and couples move into Multi Family. Families establish roots, their children attend school close by and develop friendships and so on. They don't want to move as it disrupts life significantly.

Multi Family renters tend to stay less and are more mobile. If you're single and have a new job opportunity in another city there's a lot less holding you back compared to having a family.

Now sometimes you will get a Multi Family tenant stay for a long time (we just purchased a 4 unit building where one tenant has been there for over 18 years!) but typically the above holds true.

Single Family cons are that if the tenant doesn't pay or you have issues, it absorbs 100% of the income of the property. Until you resolve the dispute or evict the tenant and re-let it to someone else you don't make any money.

In a 4 unit building for example, if one tenant doesn't pay it only represents 25% of your income. You could have 3 not pay and you would still be getting something each month. So the risk is lower in Multi Family that you won't receive ANY income.

But, what you will deal more with is turnover and evictions because of the reasons above. So even though you spread your risk, you increase your headaches and potential costs with vacancies.

Single Family homes tend to have lower turnover and so lower tenant vacancy costs.

Which brings me to the next point - maintenance. Typically, as a percentage of costs, Single Family homes cost more to maintain. Why? Well, if the roof needs replacing you only have one income to cover it. If the roof needs replacing on a 4 unit building it is shared and as such you can spread the cost over 4 units rather than 1. This is the same for plumbing, foundation work, siding etc.

So the maintenance cost per unit is lower on a Multi Family home than a Single Family home typically.

In summary, Single Family homes tend to be good for keeping tenants long term and getting higher price appreciation. The downsides are higher maintenance costs as a percentage of income and typically a higher purchase price.

Multi Family properties spread the risk of non payment of rent across multiple tenants. Your maintenance costs are also spread out. But, you tend to have higher vacancy rates and issues with tenants compared to a single family home.

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