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Managing Real Estate Risk

In the world of property investment, there are various points along the 'just looking' to 'ready to sell' spectrum. Protecting your investment takes on different hues at different points.

When first looking for property you have to consider the amount of ready cash available, the state of the current market, as well as your own level of experience with the many aspects of investing.

The first lesson of risk management is: know the law. Whether a novice or a savvy investor of long experience, few things can put your investment at greater risk than ignorance of the rights and requirements of regulations. No need to become an attorney, but a working familiarity is a must.

After investigating the current market — what's available at what price, and what's the current level of buyer interest — judging the likely future is required. Property values have been rising in most markets for several years. In a rising interest rate environment, that can't last forever. No one knows with certainty how long the trend will continue, but you can look at some signs.

Is the economy in general still on the upswing? Are employment prospects good for most individuals? What is the rate of new home construction, relative to the last five years? All these and more are good indicators of whether property values are more likely to continue to rise, level off, or even see a correction.

Once you've purchased a property there are several ways to minimize the risk of seeing your investment wind up 'under water'. At the moment of purchase, make every effort to invest in a large down payment. Seriously consider putting in at least 10%. You'll create instant equity and usually get a lower interest rate.

That level of initial outlay decreases your liquidity — you have less cash after the deal is closed — but there are few alternatives that have the return rate, low level of risk, and degree of capital appreciation of a real estate investment.

When looking at funding options, consider how long you intend to keep the property. ARMs (Adjustable Rate Mortgages) get you in with less cash and an attractively low relative rate. There are 1 year ARMs, 5 year, even 7 year — the number signifies how long the offered rate is good for, after which the lender adjusts it according to prevailing interest rates.

But if you intend to keep the property longer than the initial period, you can see that attractive rate climb several percentage points. Unless you sell, or have paid down the principle substantially within that time frame, you can see yourself saddled with much higher monthly payments.

At the same time the ARM rate is going sharply up, property values are under pressure to level off or even decrease — because of the rise in interest rates. Your investment gets hit twice. Of course, it's possible for rates to go down, but that's less common and refinance is usually toward a fixed rate, in those cases.

There are insurance options that can cover the increase in payment in such scenarios but if you pay more than a couple of years of premiums, they are usually not worth the extra outlay. Better to use the extra funds to pay down the principal by making more than twelve annual payments, or paying more per month than the minimum.

If you can't come up with a large initial down payment, weigh the value of continuing to rent versus any tax break you get from owning a property acquired with low or no down payment.

So, invest as much as you can up front, make at least one extra payment per year, lean toward fixed rate mortgages of the minimum length you can afford. A 15 year mortgage pays down the principle quicker, so you spend less on interest, increases your equity rapidly, and usually carries a lower rate.

Take a long term view; real estate is still one of the least risky, highest paying investments around.

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This information is not a substitute for professional medical, legal, or financial advice from a qualified provider.