How Can I Get My Money Out? A guide to adding the most value to your HMO.

I speak to a lot of people investing in HMOs and one of their biggest questions at the point of buying a property is ‘How can I be sure to get all my money out?’.
Many of us have been educated to realise that the momentum of releasing money from one deal to use as capital for the next creates momentum for effective wealth-building. Changes to the marketplace, regulation and government towards investors means it is becoming increasingly difficult for investors to pull all their money out of HMO developments, especially if they are new to the market. Many lenders have tightened their criteria so that there is some ‘skin left in the game’ by the investor after the development has been completed – meaning that no matter what you do, you will NOT be able to recycle all your cash when you re-finance after the development is completed. So what can you do to avoid getting stuck with capital left in a project? And how can you best insure yourself against that happening?
Having bought, sold and refurbished nearly 35 properties worth over £5m, we have plenty of experience of developing properties that have valued up thus allowing all the money to be pulled out of the development. We have also had some developments where we have left money in the deal. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the latter were ‘worse deals’ than the former. There are ways to assess and evaluate a project which consider more than just whether you have pulled all your money out. However, there are a few key areas, that when actioned, can create a far better chance of getting all your money out.
1. You make money when you buy, not when you sell. It’s an adage that seems rather counter-intuitive, but it’s absolutely true. Buying a property at the right price is a fundamental first step to adding value. When you buy below market value, you immediately lock in value as comparative to other properties of a similar size, age and state you are already making money by buying below market value. Relying on capital gains is not a sound strategy for HMOs because it can be so volatile. There are clever ways to find properties below market value but they all depend on finding a buyer who is motivated. I suggest rather than looking for properties you look for buyers. We once bought a single buy to let at a considerably reduced price (about 24% below market value) because the tenant had moved out of the house and the landlord had no cash to bring it up to a standard whereby it would re-rent. He therefore had to sell. After we had carried out some basic renovations costing roughly £6k (new kitchen and decoration plus carpets throughout), the house valued up at over £32k more than we had paid for it, allowing us to re-mortgage and pull all our money out. During the conveyancing process on another property which we bought for development as an HMO, we discovered that the garden was hiding Japanese Knotweed! We had a full survey which estimated the cost of complete removal and destruction of the knotweed, plus remedial work on the garden, to be in the thousands of pounds. By taking this figure back to the vendor we reduced the price of the house accordingly. Once the work was completed and insured (very important if you are removing JKW) we were easily able to re-finance the HMO on a commercial basis. If you can find problems with properties, you will find deals. If you can find motivated sellers you can find deals. If you become a problem solver rather than a problem creator, you will find LOTS of deals and this is still the first and the best strategy for creating long term value.
2. Substantially alter the layout. This is a second approach which relies on heavy capital investment and thus is not always possible for investors who are starting out on their HMO investment journey. I’m referring here to putting ensuites in all of the rooms, perhaps even small kitchenettes, moving walls and re-configuring the layout so that the property is clearly only for use as an HMO and without serious work will never be used as a family house again. Getting good plans drawn up by a technically competent person (such as an architectural technician) will also allow you to explore other creative options for the property which a trained eye can spot. Larger properties would be eligible for this undertaking as you will not get the sizes required from smaller houses to make this worthwhile. There is though another risk, which is that in doing so you incur the risk of revaluation of the rooms as single buy-to-let units which in turn become eligible for council tax on their own merits. You need to know the local market sufficiently well to understand how likely this is. When HMOs have planning permission (required for properties with 7 or more bedrooms), a license (currently for properties over three storeys) and full building regulation certification, this can also help to increase the likelihood of a valuation that will recognise the value of the property as a commercial venture.
3. Extend the property. As is the case in standard residential properties, adding extra space to a house can add significant value when designed and executed well. You could add a loft extension, cellar room, or a rear extension to the property, all increasing the rental yield of the house, and adding space. Assuming your costs do not exceed more than 75% of the added value, (i.e. if the added space can add £20k in value to the property, you need to spend 75% or less of that figure to create the space or you will be leaving money in the deal). Space that is already attached to buildings such as garages, workshops or conservatory lean-tos can also be used for conversion (subject to getting the necessary consents). The use of redundant but pre-established space on the footprint of a property has been a well-used hack that developers have historically used to add many thousands of pounds of income to an HMO property. Some of our best performing HMOs are ones we have bought with additional space such as this and converted into additional living or bedroom areas.
4. Great design. Creating beautiful, contemporary and exceptional spaces in which tenants can live is an aspiration for many HMO investors. There are many inspirational ideas you can apply to do this without spending the earth. Lighting, colour, clever use of space, creative touches and unique details can all create a ‘WOW’ factor in an HMO which even valuers are impressed by! Minor improvements such as bathrooms and kitchens of course also improve the look and feel of an HMO. However, in terms of assuring cash out of the deal, this approach is more tricky and may require you to combine this with one of the other approaches I’ve outlined above to maximise the impact that good interior design can have. We developed a small ‘mini-mo’ in Stoke-on-Trent which was bought below market value at £61,000. We spent £26,000 on the refurb which was a huge amount of money comparative to its value. However, the property valued up at £100,000 on a bricks and mortar basis. We left just £2k in the deal and it nets us a profit of £650 per month. This for a small three-bedroom house! The valuer was delighted when he turned up and said it was one of the best-looking properties in Stoke he had ever seen.
5. Experience. If you are brand new to HMOs this is the one area you won’t easily be able to demonstrate evidence of – that is, running and managing HMOs. If you don’t already have other buy-to-let properties this can also be a stumbling block, which is a reason why I advise anyone to get a couple of vanilla buy-to-lets under their belt before embarking on HMOs. Lenders like to see that you are approaching this as a business not a hobby, and have considered maintenance, repairs, voids and local market conditions in your approach to the property. Writing a business plan is becoming a necessity for many lenders to ask for to know that their money is in safe hands (as well as having first charge on the property). This document will become a selling point as you can use it to create the correct impression and build a strong relationship with the lender. It will help you to consider how you will manage the HMO in detail and analyse the risks and rewards if you haven’t already done so. When we put our first business plan in place and gave it to the lender as part of the application, we had excellent feedback which assured us that this was not the normal standard of application they received. Since then we have built a great relationship with this lender, allowing us to access lower fees, lower interest rates and better deals. This takes time and is a huge benefit of HMOs that is not often discussed. Although on your very first deal you may not find that this adds any value at all to the building, as time goes on, the leverage you create when you have a positive and reciprocally beneficial relationship with a lender is huge. Remember you can re-mortgage a property more than once. Property is a long game and having a sound perspective will mean that you can plan when the next round of re-financing can take place. This strategy has tax implications that you should understand and consider, so take tax advice for your business before implementing this approach.
6. Choose the right lender. Using an experienced and well-connected mortgage broker is crucial to get the best valuation on a property. Without experience and specialist knowledge of the marketplace you may end up with an offer and a valuation that does not fully reflect the value you’ve created. By working closely with your mortgage broker they will fully understand your business, your personal situation and agree an approach to risk (again often not discussed but vital when it comes to deciding on your HMO borrowing strategy). Some lenders are happy to value on a full commercial basis (i.e. on a net income multiplier). Others are more cautious and prefer what I call a ‘hybrid’ valuation approach – a mid-way figure that sits roughly half-way between bricks and mortar and commercial. Each lender has their own policy guidance that they use to advise valuers on their panel. While this is not something you can easily influence, you can reject a valuation of a property if you feel it is not reflective of the value you have created. If you are buying with a mortgage and then plan to re-finance after the development is completed, a good plan to make this strategy work will ensure you meet all the lender’s requirements before and afterwards (especially if there is a possibility of re-financing onto a new HMO mortgage product with a different lender).
For example, Precise mortgage’s requirements include:
a. Experience: experienced landlords only. Applicants must have held a current buy to let for at least 12 months prior to application. No first time landlords
b) Occupancy: properties with up to 8 bedrooms accepted
c) Minimum valuation: £250k in London, £100k elsewhere.
d) Rental cover – Interest Cover Ratio: Bespoke ICRs based on individual circumstances to help you to maximise the loan size.
If you don’t meet these requirements you won’t be able to access this mortgage product. Another option is a bridge to term product which allows you to buy, develop and then re-finance with an end valuation in mind. Although this is not completely reliable as a determined end value, it will give you some comfort as to a potential figure. As they say, forewarned is forearmed!
7. Finally, do the maths! Do you really want a commercial revaluation to pull out all of your money? In some areas, it would be preferable NOT to get a commercial valuation if the bricks and mortar value of the property is higher than the commercial multiplier of net rents. Also you must consider the impact on your cash flow if you gear your portfolio highly. By increasing the value of a property you may be able to pull out all of your seed capital, but does it make sense to do it? If the mortgage payments result in creating a risk for your business if your HMO is not fully occupied 100% of the time, is it really right to take out all your money? If you do get a valuation that allows you to withdraw all the added value you have created what is your plan for the money? Having a good accountant and tax specialist at this stage will be vital so that you maximise the positive result you have created. Your age, attitude to risk and overall strategy will help determine the answers to these questions.
Wendy Whittaker-Large
If you would like to find out more about how I can help you realise your HMO ambitions, why not join me on my two-day ‘Multilet Income Multiplier’ Event on 2-3rd March 2019.
At a special donation price of £400 (saving £900 on RRP), with all proceeds going to the YMCA, there is no better time to learn how to systemise your HMO business for success.

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