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Comparing Capitalization Rates and Cash-on-Cash Returns

Published on: December 21, 2023

Investing in real estate involves more than just the initial purchase price. It’s crucial to assess various factors to determine the property’s true investment value. Factors like the appraised value, comparative market analysis, and price per unit play a significant role in evaluating if the property is a sound investment. These elements help understand the property’s value, but for investment purposes, its potential to generate income is also key.

To ascertain a property’s investment value, consider both the purchase price and the expected profits. Investors use different methods to estimate this value, each involving a formula that compares various investment variables. This helps in determining a property’s value through percentages, which can be compared with other investments to decide which is more valuable.

In real estate, two important metrics are Cap Rate and Cash-on-Cash Return. Understanding these is essential to grasp the investment value. We’ll explain both metrics and their formulas.

Understanding Capitalization Rate (Cap Rate)

The Capitalization Rate is a key metric used in the real estate industry to evaluate the profitability and potential return on investment (ROI) of an income-generating property. It’s calculated by dividing the Net Operating Income (NOI) of a property by its current market value.

Net Operating Income (NOI): NOI is a crucial component in calculating the Cap Rate. It represents the total income a property generates (usually annual income), minus all operating expenses. These expenses include maintenance, management fees, utilities, insurance, and property taxes, but exclude financing costs and depreciation. The NOI offers a clear picture of the property’s performance independent of financing, tax implications, and other external factors.

Formula: Capitalization Rate = Net Operating Income / Current Market Value

Usage and Interpretation of Cap Rates

  1. Investment Comparison: Investors use Cap Rates to compare the potential ROI of different properties. It’s particularly useful when assessing properties within the same region or market, as it provides a standard measure to evaluate different investments.
  2. Market Trends Analysis: Cap Rates can also indicate the overall state of the real estate market. For example, lower Cap Rates might suggest a higher valuation in the market (properties are priced higher relative to their income), which is often seen in more developed, lower-risk areas. Conversely, higher Cap Rates might be indicative of a less expensive market, possibly with higher risks or in areas with growth potential.
  3. Risk Assessment: Generally, a higher Cap Rate suggests a potentially higher return but also comes with higher risk. This could be due to various factors such as location, property condition, or market volatility. Conversely, a lower Cap Rate typically indicates a lower risk, but also a lower potential return.

Cap Rate Limitations

  1. First-Year Focus: The Cap Rate primarily considers the first year of income and does not account for future changes in income or expenses.
  2. Excludes Financing and Taxes: The calculation does not include mortgage payments or tax implications, which can significantly impact the actual returns.
  3. Market Dependency: Cap Rates can vary widely by market and property type, making direct comparisons across different markets challenging.
  4. Property Specifics: It doesn’t account for unique factors of a property that might affect its value, like unusual architectural features or historical significance.

The Cap Rate is a valuable tool in an investor’s toolkit for evaluating income-producing properties. It provides a snapshot of a property’s potential return and can be a useful gauge for comparing properties within the same market. However, it should be used in conjunction with other metrics and a thorough analysis of the property and the market conditions to make well-informed investment decisions. Understanding its limitations is crucial in ensuring it’s applied appropriately and effectively.

Understanding Cash-on-Cash Return

Cash-on-Cash Return is a metric used by real estate investors to evaluate the performance of their investment properties. It measures the rate of return on the actual cash invested in a property. This calculation is particularly important in scenarios where the property is purchased using a mortgage or other forms of leverage.

Calculation of Cash-on-Cash Return: The formula for Cash-on-Cash Return is relatively straightforward: Cash-on-Cash Return = Total Cash Invested / Annual Pre-Tax Cash Flow

  1. Annual Pre-Tax Cash Flow: This is the net income generated by the property, typically calculated on an annual basis. It includes all rental income and any other income sources related to the property, minus all operating expenses and debt service (mortgage payments).
  2. Total Cash Invested: This represents the initial investment made to acquire the property. It includes the down payment, closing costs, and any other immediate expenses like repairs or renovations required to make the property rentable.

Interpreting Cash-on-Cash Return

  1. Return on Investment: A higher Cash-on-Cash Return indicates a higher yield on the cash invested. This is particularly appealing to investors who want to gauge the efficiency of their capital usage.
  2. Effect of Leverage: Unlike other metrics, Cash-on-Cash Return takes into account the use of leverage. If a property is largely financed through a loan, the actual cash investment is lower, which can potentially lead to a higher Cash-on-Cash Return.
  3. Comparison Tool: It’s a useful metric for comparing different investment opportunities, especially when considering the amount of leverage used in each investment.

Limitations and Considerations

  1. Short-Term Focus: Similar to Cap Rates, Cash-on-Cash Returns typically consider only the first year’s cash flow. They do not account for future changes in income, expenses, or property value.
  2. Does Not Account for Appreciation: This metric focuses on cash flow and does not consider the potential appreciation of the property value over time.
  3. Tax Implications: The calculation does not include tax payments or benefits, which can significantly affect the net return.
  4. Dependent on Financing Structure: The return can be significantly influenced by the structure of the financing. Higher leverage can increase the return but also increases risk.

Cash-on-Cash Return is particularly useful for investors who rely on financing to purchase properties. It helps them understand how their cash investment is performing independently of the property’s total value. This metric is also beneficial for those comparing different investment opportunities, especially when those investments vary in terms of financing and cash requirements. Cash-on-Cash Return is a valuable metric for real estate investors, especially when assessing the efficiency and performance of their cash investment in a property. It should be used in conjunction with other financial metrics and a comprehensive understanding of the property, the market, and the impact of financing on the investment to make well-rounded investment decisions.

Choosing Between Cap Rate and Cash-on-Cash Return

Choosing between Capitalization Rate (Cap Rate) and Cash-on-Cash Return when evaluating real estate investments depends on several factors, including the investor’s goals, the property type, financing structure, and the market environment. Here’s a more detailed exploration of how and when to use each metric:

When to Use Capitalization Rate (Cap Rate)

  1. Property Comparisons: Cap Rate is ideal for comparing potential returns of different properties in the same market. It standardizes the return relative to the property’s value, allowing for a more direct comparison.
  2. Market Analysis: Investors looking to understand the general state of a real estate market or a specific segment within the market often use Cap Rates. It helps in gauging whether properties are generally overvalued or undervalued in a particular area.
  3. Risk Assessment: A higher Cap Rate typically indicates a higher potential return, but also higher risk. Investors comfortable with more risk might seek properties with higher Cap Rates.


  • Offers a quick, standardized method to evaluate the profitability of a property, independent of financing.
  • Useful in assessing the relative value of properties in a specific market.


  • Does not take into account financing (leverage), which can significantly affect the actual returns an investor receives.
  • Primarily focuses on the first year of operation, without considering future growth or changes in income and expenses.

When to Use Cash-on-Cash Return

  1. Evaluating Leveraged Investments: This metric is particularly useful when the investment property is purchased with a significant amount of debt. It provides a clearer picture of the return on the actual cash invested after accounting for financing costs.
  2. Personal Investment Performance: Investors who prioritize understanding their immediate cash flow returns, especially in relation to their out-of-pocket investment, will find Cash-on-Cash Return more informative.
  3. Comparing Different Investment Types: Since Cash-on-Cash Return is a general financial metric, it can be used to compare real estate investments with other types of investments, like stocks or bonds, based on the immediate return on cash invested.


  • Reflects the impact of leverage, offering a realistic picture of the investor’s out-of-pocket return.
  • Useful for investors focusing on annual cash flow, particularly for properties where cash flow is a significant aspect of the return.


  • Overemphasizes the impact of financing and may not accurately represent the overall profitability of a property.
  • Like Cap Rate, it generally focuses on the first year and does not account for long-term appreciation or changes in property value.

Example Scenarios

Suppose you’re considering the purchase of an investment property. Here are the key details:

  • Purchase Price of Property: $500,000
  • Net Operating Income (NOI) Annually: $40,000
  • Down Payment (20% of Purchase Price): $100,000
  • Loan Amount: $400,000
  • Annual Mortgage Payment (Principal and Interest): $24,000
  • Additional Initial Cash Investments (Closing Costs, Repairs, etc.): $10,000

Calculating Cap Rate

The Cap Rate is calculated using the property’s NOI and its purchase price.

  1. NOI: $40,000
  2. Purchase Price: $500,000
  3. Cap Rate Formula: Cap Rate = NOI / Purchase Price
  4. Calculation: Cap Rate = $500,000 / $40,000 ​= 0.08 or 8%

Calculating Cash-on-Cash Return

Cash-on-Cash Return takes into account the actual cash invested and the cash flow after debt service.

  1. Total Cash Invested: Down Payment + Additional Initial Cash Investments = $100,000 + $10,000 = $110,000
  2. Annual Cash Flow: NOI – Annual Mortgage Payments = $40,000 – $24,000 = $16,000
  3. Cash-on-Cash Return Formula: Cash-on-Cash Return = Annual Cash Flow / Total Cash Invested
  4. Calculation: Cash-on-Cash Return = $110,000 / $16,000 ≈ 0.145 or 14.5%

Interpretation and Comparison

  • Cap Rate (8%): This indicates the property’s potential return relative to its market value, independent of how it is financed. An 8% Cap Rate is considered good in many markets, suggesting a solid return relative to the property’s value.
  • Cash-on-Cash Return (14.5%): This higher percentage reflects the efficiency of your cash investment, considering the use of leverage (mortgage). It shows a relatively high return on the actual cash you invested but also indicates the impact of the loan.

Difference Summary

  • Using Cap Rate: This metric tells you that the property itself, regardless of how it’s financed, has a decent rate of return in terms of its market value. It’s useful for comparing this property’s return to other investment opportunities on a market-value basis.
  • Using Cash-on-Cash Return: This metric is particularly relevant if you’re focused on how your cash investment is performing. The 14.5% return suggests that leveraging the property with a mortgage is working efficiently in terms of the return on your actual cash investment.

In this example, the property appears to be a good investment both in terms of its market value (Cap Rate) and the efficiency of cash used (Cash-on-Cash Return). However, the choice between these metrics and the interpretation of their values depends on your investment strategy, risk tolerance, and financial goals.

Balancing Both Metrics

  • Investment Strategy: The choice between Cap Rate and Cash-on-Cash Return often depends on the investor’s strategy. For instance, an investor primarily interested in long-term property value appreciation might prioritize Cap Rate, while another focusing on annual income might lean towards Cash-on-Cash Return.
  • Balanced Approach: Experienced investors often use both metrics in tandem. While Cap Rate can give a quick snapshot of a property’s potential, Cash-on-Cash Return can provide deeper insights into the actual cash flow performance, especially when leveraging is involved.
  • Comprehensive Analysis: It’s important to consider these metrics as part of a broader analysis. Factors like property location, market trends, maintenance costs, and potential for rent increases should also influence the investment decision.

In summary, both Cap Rate and Cash-on-Cash Return offer valuable, albeit different, perspectives on real estate investments. The choice between them should align with the investor’s goals, risk tolerance, and the specific circumstances of the investment, including how much leverage is used in the purchase.

Authored By:

1031 Exchange Advisor

Nicholas has been a dynamic figure in the 1031 exchange industry since 2007. With over two decades of experience in marketing and web development, Nicholas has demonstrated his entrepreneurial spirit by owning an INC 500 company and maintaining a multi-year presence in the INC 5000 list. He is renowned for his dedication and passion for his work. Outside of his professional endeavors, Nicholas is a devoted father to two teenage boys. Together, they share a love for mountain biking and exploring the outdoors on their ATVs every weekend. Nicholas’s commitment to excellence is evident in both his career and personal life.