How Long Should I Hold Onto My Real Estate Investment Property?

When it makes sense to sell investment property.

By , MBA · Babson College

If you've invested in real estate, with the idea of producing income and someday selling at a profit, it might not be long before you're asking: How long should I hold on to my investment property to maximize the return on my investment? Is now the time to sell? We'll delve into that here, including:

  • knowing what's reasonable in terms of financial returns
  • keeping your eye on what other investors usually do, and
  • coming up with a strategy that fits your own needs and situation.

What's an Acceptable Return (ROI) on an Investment Property

There's no guarantee that your property will appreciate in value, but presuming you did your research and the property is in a desirable location, you can reasonably assume the value will hold, if not increase, by at least 1% per year. Economists suggest 3% to 5% is reasonable to expect, but conservative forecasting approaches are better to avert financial concerns down the road.

Ultimately, the return on your investment (ROI) will depend on many factors, including fluctuations in the market, your costs to maintain the property (such as taxes, maintenance, and insurance), the amount of rent you receive, the interest rate you obtained on your loan, and the type of property you purchased (such as a condo instead of a single-family home).

Is Five Years the Standard "Hold" Time for a Real Estate Investment?

Real estate investment trusts (REITS) and other commercial property investment companies frequently target properties with a five-year outlook potential. Whether they are looking to develop these investments or sit and hold them, these companies are aiming to maximize the return for their investors in the shortest amount of time.

As an individual investor, however, you do not have that pressure hanging over you and can determine what's more important to your needs. Say in five years your property is worth 10% more than what it is today and you decide to hold. If the subsequent five years earn no additional appreciation on your property, certainly, the additional five years you waited to sell would result in a worse return on your investment when it comes to raw percentages. But although there was no appreciation, your property was hopefully still actively earning you cash with which to pay off your mortgage and provide you a stable income.

Devising a Personal Strategy for How Long to Hold Your Investment Property

Before buying investment property, it's wise to determine what your goal is for this particular investment and stick to that plan, pretty much regardless of where the market goes. Panicking and shifting course can be worse than riding out tough times.

Some goals to consider for yourself regarding when to sell are:

  • When you'll need to pay for something big, like college tuition. Maybe you missed a peak in the real estate market, or the peak is yet to come, but now you need the cash. Don't worry about what might have been. Sell when you need the money according to the plan you set. It's usually better to pay for the tuition debt-free than take on high-interest student loans.
  • Whether you can use real estate as a retirement annuity or source of second income. Who says you should sell anytime soon? Investment properties can give you residual, passive income for the rest of your life, and the property can be depreciated for 27.5 years on your tax returns, reducing your tax burden. Once the property's mortgage is paid off, that's considerable peace of mind for your retirement years.
  • Whether you want to maximize your return quickly. This strategy requires the most work and will likely involve more initial investment to improve the property in order to flip it. Flipping is usually considered to be a process that occurs in a few months, maybe less. But a part-time investor should be more conservative, viewing anything within five years as a short-term flipping horizon. Unless you quit your day job and the market is booming, there is usually too much effort involved (despite what you might have seen on reality TV) in improving a property to get it sold for measurable appreciation. Property investments with high short-term returns tend to be few and far between, and professional flippers with contractors at the ready often jump on them. A good strategy for maximizing value fast is to do what these pros often do: Forecast a five-year plan where, after making some considerable improvements as time and budget allows, you sell the property when the market is (hopefully) on an upswing.

Whatever your goal is for your investment property, it's important to remember that real estate is not a liquid asset. Always consider the worst-case scenario of not being able to sell your property within the time frame you want.

If your investment property is a single-family rental home, see Nolo's book First-Time Landlord for guidance on purchasing and managing residential rental property.

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