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So, You Wanna Buy a Duplex? 5 Things to Know About Multi-family Homes

Living in a multi-family home while renting other units is a great way to build wealth, but it’s not as simple as some make it sound. Read this before you even consider buying a duplex or other multi-family unit.

So, you want to buy a duplex? Things to know before renting out a unit in your home.One of the smartest ways to build wealth is by buying real estate (particularly rental properties); just ask Warren Buffett. He was recently quoted as saying he’d buy “a couple hundred thousand single family homes [as an investment]” right now if he could.

Buffett realizes the value that rental properties can bring not just in terms of monthly cash flow but also in appreciation and deductions.

But let’s face the facts here. Most of us can’t afford to buy a few single family homes as rentals while affording our own home, let alone buy a couple hundred single-family homes. This is why there has been a recent trend in home buyers purchasing duplexes or even multi-family units to live in one of the units while renting out the others.

From my perspective as both a Realtor and a landlord, here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Buying a multi-family home will limit your location options

If your goal is to get a duplex, triplex or quadruplex to live in one part and rent out the other or others, you may be limited in terms of the locations that you’ll get to choose from.

For example, where I work in San Diego, multi-family units really aren’t found in many of the suburban cookie-cutter type neighborhoods. To find one in San Diego, you’d have to look in the more urban/downtown type areas or expensive beach communities like Ocean Beach or Pacific Beach.

You might have an even more difficult time finding a multi-family unit that you’d be happy living in if you live in a more rural part of the United States. But if you’re not extremely picky about the neighborhood you live in now, this could be your opportunity to get in and make some good money over time.

2. Newton’s third law of multi-family real estate

“For every benefit to owning a multi-family property, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

The main benefit of owning a multi-family unit and living in one of the units is rental income. Every month you’ll get a rent check that offsets your mortgage.

One downside? Tax complexity. Just look at all the IRS rules regarding investment properties. Always consult your tax professional prior to making a large investment purchase, especially one that you expect to make deprecations and write-offs from.

Another benefit of owning a multi-family unit and living in one of the units while renting out the others is that you’ll always be close to your rental properties so that you can check on the condition frequently. If loud music is being played late at night, you’ll be the first to know about it. If a pipe bursts or a toilet is clogged and your tenants need assistance, at least you won’t have to make a long drive in order to fix the situation.

The drawback? You’re close to your tenants, so that loud music bothers you, not somebody else. And if you have a needy tenant, they’ll have easy access to you to voice their complaints.

3. Financing a multi-family home is tricky but doable

It may seem impossible to buy a duplex or multi-family unit with your budget, but the reality is it might not be as hard as you think.

According to Anthony Lococo, Vice President of Cornerstone Mortgage, “If buying an owner-occupied duplex, you would definitely be able to use [the potential] rental income from the second unit” to help you qualify for the purchase.

For example, if you will be living in one unit and renting out the second, and you anticipate the second unit to be rented out for $1,200 per month, that income will be factored in to the lender’s qualifying ratios.

How do you know what the second or additional units will rent out for? If you don’t already have a lease in place (which you probably don’t), check for average rents in the area and use craigslist to help you verify rental prices for similar units. Keep in mind, the potential rental income may help you qualify for the loan, but it’s not the only factor to be considered.

You’ll still need to have good credit, a low debt to income ratio and a large down payment, typically around 25 percent of the purchase price or more. On a $500,000 duplex, you’re looking at a down payment of $125,000, not including your closing costs such as escrow and loan fees.

Use this calculator to figure out your debt to income ratio.

4. Is it even legal?

If you can qualify, lending guidelines for multi-family units are straightforward. One thing can pose a problem, however, according to mortgage broker Anthony Lococo. “[W]hether or not the second unit is permitted. Just because it produces income doesn’t mean it’s considered a “unit”. Granny flats are a good example…”

Most real estate agents can tell you how hard it is to tell a house with an unpermitted granny flat. Financing can be even more difficult. If the property is not an actual duplex, just a single family house with a large wall partitioning areas and two separate kitchens, lenders may not be able to consider the potential rental income in your qualifying ratios, even if you can, in fact, rent it out.

5. What if you want to move out someday?

If you buy your multi-family unit with the intention of living in one of the units, the time may come when you’re ready to move out and get something bigger. In that case, you may choose to sell the multi-family unit. If you don’t absolutely have to sell it in order to qualify to buy the new house, consider getting a tenant in the unit you were living in and keeping the whole thing as a rental. Having already been a landlord for your neighbors, being a landlord for one more family won’t be too much of a shock.

When I was 21 years old (before I was a real estate agent), I bought a house with an unpermitted granny flat, lived in the house and rented the granny flat out. It did produce some nice income that made my mortgage payments a lot lower. As I started a family and wanted to live in a different area I finally sold that house and I can honestly say I’ll never buy a house with an unpermitted granny flat again! It was challenging to sell because despite having interested buyers, some lenders were not willing to finance it.

What’s your story? Have you ever owned a multi-family unit or have you considered buying one? Let us know your experience in a comment.

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Published or updated on April 16, 2014

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About Sarah Davis

Sarah Davis is a real estate broker in San Diego, Calif. She enjoys helping both buyers and sellers and was voted one of the top 10 best real estate agents in San Diego in 2013 by Union Tribune readers. In her spare time she talks about real estate on a local radio show and manages her website


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  1. anon says:

    This article shouldn’t even be searchable on the internet. Currently own a multi and this article is completely non informative

  2. Prateek says:

    Hi, off topic but will you suggest buying a property cash vs mortgage?

  3. anon says:

    Exactly how were you able to purchase your first house at 21, only being separated from high school by 3 years?

  4. Josh says:

    Shouldn’t Newton’s 3rd Law of multi-family real estate be rule no. 3?

    Otherwise, good advice, thank you.

  5. Lauryn says:

    I’m considering my first real estate investment now. I’m torn between buying a nice condo in downtown LA that I believe will appreciate in value over the long run (but cost me when I move in a year and rent it out at a rate below my mortgage costs) and buying a duplex in a less upscale part of town (that would require me to hire a property manager when I move). I’m trying to decide if I want to make the investment that will cost me a little per month, but get me a bigger payout in the end, or the investment that may pay for itself, but won’t necessarily appreciate in value. Any advice would be welcome!

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