Can you invest in real estate when you have debt? The short answer is "maybe." It depends how much debt you have, how much money you have to invest, and what type of real estate investment you're trying to make. For example, if you're planning to buy shares of a real estate investment trust (REIT) or participate in a crowdfunded real estate investment opportunity, you can make your investment as long as you have the cash to buy shares or to send to the crowdfunding sponsor.
If you're trying to buy an investment property, it becomes a bit more complex. Unless you're paying for your investment property in cash, you'll need to apply for a mortgage. And if getting a loan in your own name (as opposed to through an LLC or other entity), it's likely your lender will consider your debt-to-income ratio, or DTI. Your debts must be low enough relative to your income to justify a mortgage on the investment property; otherwise, lenders are likely to say no. So, if you have too much debt, it could certainly prevent you from investing in real estate.
Not all debt is the same
With that in mind, the most important question isn't whether you can invest in real estate if you have debt but whether it's a good idea or not.
Before we get into it, I generally think of debts in three distinct categories:
- Good debts: These are debts that have low interest rates and allow you to buy assets that will increase in value. Mortgages are the main example.
- OK debts: These debts have relatively low interest rates and are used to buy things you need. Auto loans and student loans are OK debts.
- Bad debts: These debts have relatively high interest rates, like credit cards and some personal loans.
Should you invest in real estate while you have debt?
As a Certified Financial Planner, here's the advice I typically give regarding investing while in debt.
First, it's generally OK to invest while you have good debt. For example, mortgages are so cheap (interest-wise) and you can reasonably expect to earn more from investments, so it's typically a smart idea to pay what you have to, but invest the rest. In other words, if you have the choice between paying an additional $500 toward your mortgage or using it to contribute to the IRA, it's tough to make a case against investing the money -- at least from a mathematical standpoint.
When it comes to the "OK" debts, it depends on the situation and your personal comfort level with debt. As an example, if you're paying 5% interest on your car loan and have enough to pay it off in full, should you invest the money or use it to get rid of the car loan? There's a solid case to be made either way: It's nice to own your car (a depreciating asset) free and clear, but at the same time, you can reasonably expect to earn long-term annualized returns greater than 5% from investing. If paying the loan off gives you peace of mind, there's nothing wrong with it.
The last category of debt is where it's a no-brainer. Investment properties can be reasonably expected to produce yearly total returns (income plus appreciation) in the 10% to 15% ballpark. Meanwhile, the average credit card interest rate is about 16.4%. So, by investing instead of paying off that debt, you're literally setting yourself up to lose money.
In full disclosure, at the time I bought my latest investment property, I had a mortgage on my primary home, an auto loan, and a significant amount of student loan debt -- but all my credit cards had zero balances.
The Millionacres bottom line
If you have credit card or other high-interest debt, it's tough to justify investing any money until it's paid off. On the other hand, if you have mortgage, auto loan, or student loan debt, assuming you can comfortably afford your payments and aren't constantly stressed out about the amount of debt you have, it can still make good financial sense to invest in real estate.