Cap Rate is Short for Capitalization Rate
You have probably heard the term cap rate many times, but what does it mean? Here's an easy way to understand the concept as it applies to commercial real estate. A cap rate is simply the return on your investment if you bought a commercial property for all cash.
For example, let's suppose that you buy for $1 million an office building that is leased out to an insurance broker. The insurance broker pays you $9,000 per month in rent, but there are also expenses, like real estate taxes, insurance, property management and a small reserve where you set aside money every year to eventually replace the roof and the HVAC system. Let's assume your net operating income (NOI) is $77,000 per year.
To compute the cap rate at which you bought the building, you merely divide your anticipated NOI by your purchase price. In this case, $77,000 divided by $1,000,000 is 0.077. To express this cap rate as a percentage, we merely multiply 0.077 by 100% to produce a cap rate of 7.70%.
In plain English, a 7.70% cap rate means that you - as a passive commercial real estate investor - will earn a 7.7% annual return on your $1 million investment in this commercial property. Please also remember that for the purposes of computing a cap rate that you should assume that the buyer did not use a commercial real estate loan to finance the property.
You can't use the same cap for every commercial property. Some commercial properties are far more desirable than others. For example, let's suppose that Microsoft Corporation was the tenant on this property, and they signed a lease for 20 years. Arguably Microsoft is one the strongest credit tenants in America. If you - as the owner of the commercial property - had a lease with a strong, credit tenant, other investors would be very envious of you. In fact, they would offer you a lot of money for this property, perhaps as much as $1,800,000.
Now remember, the net operating income is still just $77,000 per year. If you sold the commercial building to another commercial real estate investor, who wanted a very reliable income stream, for a whopping $1,800,000 - he would be buying this same commercial property for just a 4.3% cap rate. Would someone really buy a piece of commercial real estate with a cap rate of just 4.3%? Maybe ... if indeed the property was leased to a major credit tenant for twenty years. By the way, a credit tenant is usually publicly traded or a large private entity with a strong S&P rating.
On the other hand, suppose you owned an old industrial building in a seedy part of town that was leased to an auto parts manufacturer. Suppose this auto parts manufacturer sold its parts mainly to General Motors, and the auto parts company wasn't making a lot of money. Let's further suppose that the neighborhood immediately surrounding your property was filled with prostitutes and drug dealers.
Even if this property was generating the same $77,000 in net operating income, you might not be able to sell the property for very much money. Any potential buyer might think to himself, "Geesh, if I drive over to collect the rents or to check on the condition of my property, I'm putting my life in danger. Yuck." This investor might not be willing to buy the property for less than a 12% cap rate. Seventy-seven thousand dollars divided by 12% is just $641,000.
Remember, the more desirable the commercial property, the lower the cap rate a buyer will require before he buys it.