Cap Rates: Ultimate Real Estate Investing Guide

Last Updated on March 25, 2022 by Dr. Adam Gower

I’ll tell you right now cape rates are probably one of the most used terms in real estate and yet one of the most misunderstood. As much as it’s used, it always astonishes me how little cap rates are understood. If you ask 10 brokers, ” what is a cap rate?” they might give you a basic idea of what it is. But if you ask them to explain exactly how it is calculated and what goes into a cap rate calculation, you’ll get a lot of different responses.

It’s consistent throughout real estate that the terms used have a general understanding in the market, but are in many cases understood differently by different people. There’s no centralized School of Real Estate. There may be actual definitions somewhere that are definitive of a concept but there’s no requirement for everybody to read and learn those concepts or those definitions.

Consequently, people understand most concepts in real estate through the lens of their own personal experience and who it was that taught them or how they came to learn what the concept meant.

So there’s very little consistency and I would encourage you that any time you see a concept being used by a sponsor and you’re not really sure exactly what it means, don’t hesitate to ask what he or she means by the idea. In some cases, you might find the answer to be enlightening.

Background Information on Cap Rates

One of the interesting aspects of having that understanding of the concept is that if somebody doesn’t really understand what a cap rate means, it can lead to errors.

“Errors can be exploited. You might find a sponsor discovered a deal where a seller described a cap rate inaccurately and used the cap rate that the seller believed was consistent with the market.”

So, sold a property at a certain cap rate and sold it for a certain price based on the ratio that is the cap rate, assuming that the cap rate was market. If they made a mistake, they may have underpriced the asset.

The buyer, the sponsor you’re investing in, may have found a bargain because the seller miscalculated the cap rate or anything else for that matter. And as a consequence, it is able to unlock found value that the seller didn’t know exists because the seller didn’t really understand the concept of how to price the property properly.

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What is a Cap Rate?

In this case that I give you here, the bank is offering you 1% for your $100. They’re giving you $1 for $100 deposited. You can think of cap rates like the interest earned on your money, just with some nuances. It’s not the same as the return that you’re getting on your investment. The cap rate pertains to something different, but it’s like the interest rate on money.

One of the primary uses of a cap rate is because it is an equalizer, it is a metric that is used across every type of real estate investment. It is something that you can use, provided it is used consistently across all deals that you look at, to compare them against each other for the kinds of returns that they’re going to be offering you. It will help you to be able to compare deals against each other to decide what to invest in and what not to invest in.

It’s not the absolute defining difference between all types of development, but it’s a very important component to making a comparison.

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How Does a Cap Rate Work?

What does that mean to price? There’s an inverse relationship. The lower the cap rate, the higher the price.

Let’s go back to our banking example.  And let’s say that we’re going to deposit $100 and get 1%. If you want to earn $1, you have to spend $100 on a deal. This would be the same as a 1 cap investment.

Let’s say it goes to a 5 cap.  The bank is now offering you a 5% interest. You will have to put $20 into the bank to be able to get a $1 income at 5%. So if you think about that from a business perspective or from a real estate perspective, what that means is that if the cap rate is higher, the price of the property is lower.

“So let’s say you want $1 million of income a year and it’s a 5 cap market. You would need to spend $20 million to have that $1 million.”

The idea is that if the market were a 1 cap, a much lower cap rate, in order to earn that million dollars that you want a year, you would have to spend $100 million.

So the implication for you as a crowdfund real estate investor is that you can spread your investments across multiple asset classes in order to blend returns and mitigate risk. So you can choose to invest in higher cap rate asset classes and locations or lower cap rate asset classes and locations. It’s a tool that you can use to balance your portfolio.

You might see buildings in one market that are in the mid-millions. So picking apartments, for example, is an easy one to look at. You might see apartments in the mid-millions, so how do you compare those two? Is one arbitrarily 5 times as much? What you’re likely to find is that the rents are higher and the only way to really measure it is through the relationship between incomes, what people spend on housing, and the cost of buying into those markets.

One way to look at is the cap rate. That’s going to equalize and allow you to compare different markets. Using cap rates also affords you the opportunity to employ investment strategies that contrast buying low cap rate assets in high cap rate markets versus buying high cap rate assets in low cap rate markets. Or another way of saying that in plain-ish English is buying expensive properties in cheaper areas.

Expensive Property vs Cheap Property

Which is better: buying an expensive property in a cheap area or a cheap property in an expensive area? Well, it just so happens that I had a very interesting conversation with Dr. Greg McKinnon of the Pension Real Estate Association (PREA).

He’s an academic and economist at the association and he conducted some very detailed research over an extended period of time. He examined whether or not it’s better to invest in high cap versus low cap areas and low cap buildings versus high cap.

What he concluded was that it is better to invest in higher return properties in less expensive areas than it is to invest in lower return properties in more expensive areas.

If you want to learn more about what Dr. McKinnon has to say about that, check out this article where I explain in great detail what he discovered.

The cap rate really is a simple concept but it is often misunderstood, as I mentioned. I’m going to walk you through some different perspectives so that you can have a deeper understanding of what it means by approaching it from different angles.

Cap Rates and Debt

The only way to measure the cap rate is to measure it against the unlevered cost of the building. Whether it’s the cost of building it or the cost of buying it against the projected net operating income or the actual net operating income, there’s no debt allowed in your cap rate calculation.

By using the “assuming all cash” approach and eliminating debt from the concept of the cap rate, it allows you to really compare apples to apples.

What is a Good Cap Rate or NOI for an Investment Property?

Another way you can think of the cap rate is as inferring a multiple of NOI. For example, there’s a building on the market with an NOI of $50,000 and you buy it for $1 million. What you did was paid 20 times the net operating income for that building. What it means is that for every dollar of net operating income that you add, you increase the building value by 20 times that increase in NOI, right?

Here’s another example. Let’s say you got a 10 unit apartment building and each unit pays $1,000 a month in rent. That’s $120,000 of gross income.

And so you take the gross income and you deduct costs, let’s assume 30% of costs. So your NOI, your net operating income, is that $120,000 – $36,000. So your net operating income is $84,000.

“The sponsor now increases the rents by $100 per unit. Assume that this extra money drops straight to the bottom line, meaning that is there are no additional costs associated with the price increase.”

Now your NOI, or net operating income, went up by $100 a month times 10 units times 12 months. Your NOI went up by $12,000. So what does that mean in terms of the value of the property? The value of the property just went from $1.68 million to $1.92 million. The value went up nearly a quarter of a million dollars just because the sponsor increased the rents by $100 per unit.

That’s a heck of a way of seeing the added value. And a lot of the deals that you see on crowdfunding sites are using the same kind of idea to add value.

Ways to Increase the NOI

What are the ways that a sponsor can increase rents? One idea would be to ask nicely. You never know. A more likely method would be to improve the units. You could evict tenants as well depending on morals, ethics, and if the law allows. It’s just business in many cases.

Other options would be to install recessed lights, put more lighting into a unit, brighten up the lobby area to give it a higher sense of luxury or appeal, and improve the landscaping area. On a lot of crowdfunded sites, these are the kinds of deals that you’re going to see.

Assuming that all that work costs the sponsor $10,000 a unit, or a total of $100,000, and the building goes up in value $240,000, maybe it’s worth it to increase rents.

“Build to” Cap Rates

Build to cap rates is a concept that’s just a bit more advanced. The build to cap rate example can be used to determine if a deal is a go or no-go. You have a sponsor who wants to buy a piece of land for $3 million and he wants to build apartments on it. It’s going to cost him $17 million. The total cost of the project that he is contemplating is going to be $20 million.

In scenario 1, once he’s completed and stabilized the building, he’s going to have a building that is giving off $1 million of NOI. That means that if the market in that area was a 5 cap, then the value of his building would be $20 million with a $1 million NOI.

Obviously, you don’t want to build and not make any money, as this scenario would deliver. The sponsor, in this case, is building to a 5 cap. And there’s no point building to a 5 cap if the market rate for properties in that area is also a 5 cap. If you use a build to cap rate, there’s no upside. You’re not going to make any money. It’s not worth it.

Changing the NOI stabilization to $1.4 million, the sponsor is building to a 7 cap. The cap rates are calculated as 1.4 million divided by the cost of construction equals 7%, right? If the market in this area is willing to pay a 5 cap, then the value of the building when he completes it is going to be 1.4 million divided by 5 times 100. So 28 million. He built to a 7 cap but the market is a 5 cap and therefore the value is 28 million. So this could be a “go” scenario. The two percent difference between the build to cap and the market cap makes this deal look like a “go” deal.

Cap Rate Terms You Need to Know

I’m going to tell you a few more terms that you might hear in the field from sponsors talking or the kinds of words that they may use.

Continuing with the same example, the sponsor has built to a 7 cap in a 5 cap market. What we now have is a 200 basis point spread. You might hear someone say, “I’ll never do a deal without a 200 basis point spread between market and ‘build to'”. Or they might say “200 bips”, “200 BPS”, or “2% spread between the cost and the market value.” If it has a 200 bip spread between market value and his build to rate, those are deals that he’ll start to drill down on.

What Type of Commercial Property has the Highest Cap Rate in 2020?

Because of how cap rates are calculated, certain asset classes may have inherently higher or lower cap rates based entirely on their type. This is true for any commercial property asset. Operational risks vary significantly from year to year as trends change, and tenant needs or preferences evolve.

In 2020, these asset classes have some of the highest cap rates:

Medical office buildings are not like regular office buildings. While they may look the same from the outside, they have a few particular factors that affect the cap rates:

  • Smaller tenant pools
  • Specific tenant requirements
  • Higher building operating costs

These factors can be balanced out by some of the main advantages of medical office spaces. Namely, that many tenants typically have good credit and long lease times. In addition to that, these tenants tend to renew their leases because of the high switching costs involved in finding a new space. A building or renovating an office space to work for medical facilities also takes a significant upfront investment, leading to generally lower competition in many areas.

In the past, medical office buildings had significantly higher cap rates than traditional office spaces. However, that has changed in recent years as cap rates for regular office space have increased. This has led to a reduction in the cap rates for medical office buildings, though they do still tend to have higher cap rates overall.

Multi-Family Cap Rates

In recent years, cap rates on multi-family properties have been going up as tenant preferences shift to more costly buildings. The increased cap rate comes from higher operational expenses in these buildings, usually in the form of more common areas or amenities.

Co-living is a growing trend in multi-family buildings. These are buildings where tenant units include only the bare bones, with most features and amenities being included in common areas shared between all tenants or clusters of units.

Buildings with larger common areas have increased operational costs. The more amenities and spaces are included outside of rented units, the higher the costs of maintaining and operating the building itself.

Hotel Cap Rates

Rising labor costs are having a noticeable impact on the cap rates in hotels and similar asset types. Not only do these buildings have large common areas and many public amenities, but they also require a large staff to operate effectively. There are bars, restaurants, game rooms, laundry rooms, pools, and other shared spaces that need faculty and general operating expenses to be fully functional.

Hotels present a unique challenge for investors. Because of the hands-on nature of the buildings, investors have to choose whether to operate more as landlords or as a business. Hotels and other high maintenance real estate assets are businesses of their own, forcing investors to both manage the building and run the company simultaneously. This increases the cap rate for hotel properties.

Retail Store Cap Rates

Similar to hotels, retail stores have the problem of higher maintenance tenants that require a balance of landlord operations and business operations. Retail tenants are experiencing difficulty in maintaining their services, leading to higher bankruptcy rates than other asset classes. Several high profile bankruptcies lately have led to landlords bailing out their tenants to keep them operating in the retail spaces – and the impact of the COVID crisis is likely to amplify this trend further.

Co-working spaces also fall into a similar category as retail stores in this case. They tend to have higher cap rates because individual tenant leases are not locked in for as long as the master tenant, the co-working operator. Lease arrangements in co-working spaces tend to be on a cash basis with short contracts, meaning there is little to no certainty of future income. Just like with retail spaces, more landlord involvement in general operations, and a high uncertainty for future income leads to increased cap rates.

Variations of Cap Rates

There are a few variations in cap rates. You’ll find that apartments are often the highest demand asset class and consequently, they have the lowest cap rate. If you’re into apartments, you’re probably going to be paying more for the income stream that comes off an apartment than you are likely to be paying for any other asset class out there. It’s generally seen to be the most secure asset class during a downturn.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t overpay for apartments. The reason it is a secure asset class is that it does have an income stream. And so to contrast that with an extreme example, it’s the exact opposite of land. You might invest in land and get a great deal on the land. But when the market turns hey, guess what?

“There’s no income from land.”

In fact, that’s the only expense. You’ve got to pay insurance and property taxes. So land is gonna suck money out of you during a downturn whereas apartments will be filled with tenants. Even if the tenants are paying less rent, there’s still income coming off of the property. Apartments are seen as being highly desirable because they are income producing properties.

Again, though, you can lose money in real estate. When I say it’s a secure asset class, take that with a grain of salt. It’s all relative.

One issue that you do see with apartments is that there is typically a lot of overbuilding, especially in the luxury end of the market. As land prices go up, sponsors have to buy land at higher prices. So the only way they can justify the underwriting is by increasing their projected rents at the other end. And so the only way they can do that is by building ever increasingly luxurious apartment buildings.

So, what’d you find is that there ends up being a glut at the high end of the apartment market during the end of a cycle, the end of the upswing of a cycle, and a lack of product at the more affordable end of the market. For whatever reason, it still remains a very popular asset class and always has been.

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What Impacts a Cap Rate?

1. Asset Location

In most of the US, average cap rates across similar classes of buildings remain relatively consistent. This allows for a simple comparison. However, different levels of buildings can have wildly different cap rates in some markets, especially growth markets. The spread in cap rates between multi-family and office space is worth noting.

While large metros like New York or Los Angeles may have narrow gaps in cap rates between these two asset classes, growth markets like Austin or smaller metros like Richmond, VA, may have an enormous disparity in cap rates. Multi-family tends to have lower cap rates, while office buildings in these areas will have higher cap rates because of growth expectations.

2. Capital Liquidity

The reason multi-family properties tend to have lower cap rates is based almost entirely on the source of capital. Many residential, commercial properties such as multi-family buildings are eligible for Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae loans. These are government-sponsored loans that are highly liquid, making them a lower risk overall.

3. Tenant Access/Market Size

The size of the market is a significant factor in determining the appropriate cap rate. In markets where the tenant pool is small, cap rates tend to be higher to compensate for the risk of vacancy. Smaller markets cannot handle as much development as larger markets. There may be higher competition to capture and retain tenants, a problem which larger metros don’t usually have.

The exception to this is multi-family, again. Tenants for multi-family units are considered similar to a commodity, leading to lower cap rates even in smaller markets. Office buildings, retail buildings, medical real estate, and other specialty CRE usually have higher cap rates in smaller markets.

4. Growth Expectations

Growth markets usually have higher cap rates. This is one of the main factors impacting cap rates, along with the cost of capital. Low growth may reduce cap rates while high growth increases it. It’s a natural part of the real estate life cycle.

5. Asset Stability

When markets go through a recession, stable assets are better off in the long run than unstable assets. Buildings with higher operating costs and lower NOIs tend to have higher cap rates, to begin with, but building classes that are inherently unstable in a market downturn may experience a rapid rise in cap rates during the recession. Examples include certain types of retail real estate and hotels.

How Do Cap Rates Vary Between Urban and Suburban Areas?

So many individual factors are considered in the cap rate of any property. However, the single largest set of factors relates to where the property is located. There are significant differences in cap rates between large urban metro areas and smaller suburban areas. Differences in cap rates in these areas don’t necessarily mean, however, that one area is a guaranteed better investment than another.

One of the main variations seen between different market types is the spread between cap rates in various asset classes. As mentioned above, multi-family tends to have lower cap rates across the board due to the commoditized nature of tenants and the higher availability of debt. However, other CRE assets like retail real estate, hotels, office buildings, medical real estate, and industrial real estate vary widely depending on their location.

The average cap rate trend is higher for CRE (excluding multi-family) in suburban areas and gradually lower as the population and market size increases. Although hotels, office buildings, and retail real estate can provide high yields in suburban areas, these properties are also more susceptible to volatile market conditions.

Traditionally, the larger urban metro areas tend to have more level cap rates across all asset types. However, an interesting trend has been emerging with the expansion of the tech industry.

Many tech companies opt for space further away from urban centers to save on costs, but they also tend to cluster together with other tech offices. Tech, information, and media companies are increasingly moving to growth markets rather than established urban centers, offsetting the standard cap rates in these areas.

Cap Rate Terms You Need to Know

There is a tendency in the industry to make a distinction between cap rates of yesterday versus today versus how they are going to be. Let me unpack that a little bit for you. So listing brochures that advertise apartment buildings will often talk about the distinction between the current cap rate for the building and the market cap.

Continuing with the same example, the sponsor has built to a 7 cap in a 5 cap market. What we now have is a 200 basis point spread. You might hear someone say, “I’ll never do a deal without a 200 basis point spread between market and ‘build to'”. Or they might say “200 bips”, “200 BPS”, or “2% spread between the cost and the market value.” If it has a 200 bip spread between market value and his build to rate, those are deals that he’ll start to drill down on.

Yesterday vs Today vs the Future

There is a tendency in the industry to make a distinction between cap rates of yesterday versus today versus how they are going to be. Let me unpack that a little bit for you. So listing brochures that advertise apartment buildings will often talk about the distinction between the current cap rate for the building and the market cap.

It may say that building is being sold at a 5 cap but on current income, the market rates are higher. Consequently, you’re actually buying it for a 6 cap. So you’re getting a steal. So if it’s a 5 cap market and you’re paying a 6 cap price, you’re getting a bargain.

Sponsors, similarly, may characterize returns based on projections and not actual income. This idea is sometimes referred to as trailing versus forward-looking cap rates analysis and there’s a significant difference. What is this building currently earning? What has it earned historically versus what are you projecting? This is one of the keys to the due diligence process.

The sponsor is going to be projecting some kind of return, no guarantees. They’re going to be projecting what they think they can get and that’s why you have to be so careful. The only thing you know for sure is what has happened and how the building performed historically. You don’t know how it’s going to perform in the future.

“The sponsor is explaining to you their thesis for where they think the value is going to go but they just don’t know for sure. You may see sponsors who are confident that they have uncovered a building that has untapped value in it somehow.”


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