CRE Crash Course

Welcome, aspiring CRE agents! The world of commercial real estate beckons, but before you dive headfirst into high-rises and sprawling warehouses, mastering the financial language is crucial. Fear not! This crash course will demystify three key metrics: Net Operating Income (NOI), Capitalization Rate (Cap Rate), and Cash on Cash Return (CoC Return). By understanding their practical applications, you’ll be well-equipped to evaluate deals, analyze markets, and make informed investment decisions like a seasoned pro.

Metric #1: Net Operating Income (NOI) – The Lifeblood of Your Property

Think of NOI as the property’s true earning potential. It’s calculated by subtracting operating expenses (e.g., property taxes, maintenance) from gross operating income (e.g., rent collected). In simpler terms, NOI tells you how much cash the property generates after accounting for operating expenses.

Real-World Example: A retail property has a gross operating income of $100,000 per year and operating expenses of $30,000 per year. Its NOI is $100,000 – $30,000 = $70,000. This means the property generates $70,000 per year in cash flow before any debt payments.

Why NOI Matters:

  • Valuing properties:  Initial valuation of a property is often based on capitalizing the NOI using a Cap Rate (see below).
  • Compares properties: Compare the NOI of different properties to understand their relative profitability, even if their asking prices differ.
  • Lenders: Lenders look to NOI as the money available to pay the debt service (loan payments).  They use NOI and a calculation called Debt Service Coverage Ratio to determine the size of the loan they would be willing to provide.
  • Negotiate leases: Use NOI as leverage in lease negotiations to ensure the rent reflects the property’s true earning potential.

Bonus Tip: Many online calculators can help you calculate NOI for specific properties. Practice using them to solidify your understanding.

Metric #2: Capitalization Rate (Cap Rate) – The Quick & Dirty Return on Investment

Cap Rate translates NOI into a simple one year, all cash return.  It also makes it easy to compare different investment options at a high level and determine whether the property is worthy of further investigation. It’s calculated by dividing NOI by the property’s current market value. 

Real-World Example: The retail property from the previous example has an NOI of $70,000 and a market value of $1 million. Its Cap Rate is $70,000 / $1 million = 7%. This means the property has the potential to generate a 7% annual return on your investment were you to purchase the property with all cash.  Importantly, since most investors purchase property with financing, it allows the investor to increase their return with financing called positive leverage.

Why Cap Rate Matters:

  • Quickly compare investment options: Use Cap Rate to compare properties’ potential returns without getting bogged down in complex financial details.
  • Analyze market trends: Track changes in Cap Rates across different property types or locations to identify areas with higher or lower potential returns.
  • Evaluate investment risk: Generally, higher Cap Rates indicate higher potential returns but also higher risks. Use Cap Rate as a starting point for further due diligence before investing.

Bonus Tip: Remember, Cap Rate is just a starting point. Consider other factors like property condition, tenant quality, available financing, and location before making a final investment decision.

Metric #3: Cash on Cash Return (CoC Return) – The Money in Your Pocket

While Cap Rate tells you the potential return on the total property value, CoC Return focuses on the actual cash you receive as an investor. It’s calculated by dividing annual pre-tax cash flow (NOI minus annual mortgage payments) by your total cash investment in the property. In simpler terms, CoC Return tells you the percentage of your cash investment you get back in the first year.

Real-World Example: You invest $200,000 in the retail property (let’s say a $1,000,000 property and 80% LTV financing) with an NOI of $72,000 and a mortgage payment of $55,000 per year. Your annual pre-tax cash flow is $72,000 – $55,000 = $17,000. Your CoC Return is $17,000 / $200,000 = 25%. This means you could potentially receive an 8.5% initial annual return on your cash investment.

Why CoC Return Matters:

  • Focuses on your actual cash investment: Unlike Cap Rate, CoC Return considers your debt payments, giving you a more accurate picture of your cash-based return.
  • Compares different financing options: Evaluate different loan terms and interest rates to see how they impact your CoC Return and choose the financing option that maximizes your cash flow.

Bonus Tip: CoC Return can also be used to compare your investment’s performance to alternative investments like stocks or bonds, helping you make informed decisions about your overall portfolio allocation.


Remember, mastering these three key metrics is just the first step in your CRE journey. As you gain experience, you’ll delve deeper into financial analysis, market research, and the intricacies of deal structuring. But armed with this fundamental knowledge, you’ll be well-equipped to navigate the exciting world of commercial real estate with confidence. Don’t hesitate to seek mentorship from experienced professionals, continuously expand your knowledge, and most importantly, never stop asking questions. The more you learn, the more successful you’ll be in this dynamic and rewarding field.