Understanding the Discounted Cash Flow Model

A Guide for Commercial Real Estate Investors

In the world of commercial real estate investing, understanding the financial intricacies of your property investment portfolio is the cornerstone for strategic decision making, and maintaining long-term profitability.

Among all the real estate metrics that are useful for evaluating the performance and risk of income-producing properties, the discounted cash flow model (DCF) is particularly valuable.  

The DCF model helps investors compare different investment opportunities by providing a thorough understanding of a property’s potential risks and returns. It’s also a helpful tool for taking the opportunity cost of capital into account.  

We’ve put together this comprehensive guide, with the help of our friends at Rockport, to help you understand the importance of analyzing cash flow, learn what a discounted cash flow model is, and discover how to calculate it.

We'll also discuss the challenges and limitations of using DCF in commercial real estate and provide some insights for overcoming them.  

Why Cash Flow Analysis is Essential for Commercial Real Estate

Most commercial real estate investment portfolios include income-producing properties. These properties generate revenue from leasing or renting, and usually have the potential for capital appreciation on the eventual sale of the property.

The 3 benefits of analyzing cash flow in CRE

There are a few important reasons why investors should analyze cash flow:

To Maintain a Positive Cash Flow and Healthy Returns

Tenants that sign long-term leases on commercial properties provide a stable and predictable income over a specified period of time.

By analyzing cash flow, property investors can assess the financial stability of a property, ensuring that it generates enough revenue to cover operating expenses, service debt, and provide a healthy return on investment.

To Gauge the Level of Risk Associated with a Property

Properties with strong, consistent cash flow tend to be less risky investments, while those with volatile or uncertain cash flows tend to carry higher risks.

A thorough cash flow analysis can reveal potential issues, such as high tenant turnover or deferred maintenance, that could impact the property's future financial performance.

To Make More Informed Decisions

Understanding a property's cash flow is crucial for making informed buy, sell, or hold decisions. Investors can use cash flow analysis models to determine a property's value, set appropriate rents, and decide on the optimal time to sell or refinance.  

"Simply put, cash flow modeling helps determine how much $$$ is coming in, how much $$$ is going out and what will my investors be receiving."

Brian Mascis - Chief Operating Officer at Rockport VAL 

Furthermore, cash flow analysis helps investors compare different investment opportunities and identify those with the best risk-adjusted returns.

What is a Discounted Cash Flow Model?

A discounted cash flow model is a method of investment analysis that relies on a projection of future cash flows over a fixed holding period, and a future sale of the property at the end of the holding period.

The future cash flows, including sales proceeds, are ‘discounted’ or ‘present valued’ back to time-zero using an appropriate discount rate to determine the present value.

A DCF analysis provides a more comprehensive view of a commercial real estate asset's cash flow compared to a simple static one-year cash flow analysis.

A static analysis only considers the property's performance in the short term, while DCF accounts for the projected cash flows throughout the investment's holding period, including potential sale proceeds at the end of that period.

By incorporating future cash flows and discounting them to present value, DCF offers a more accurate estimation of a property's long-term performance and value.

"DCFs allow users to highlight and quantify short- and long-term cash flow risks such as tenant rollover and consider those factors either pre or post investment."

Brian Mascis - Chief Operating Officer at Rockport VAL 

The discount rate is most commonly viewed as the ‘investors required rate of return’ (IRR) and is therefore a measure of risk.  A higher discount rate generally means that there is more risk associated with the investment opportunity.

Future cashflows are usually discounted by a greater percentage because they are less likely to be realized. Conversely, a low-risk investment should theoretically have a lower discount rate.

Examples of How DCF is used in Commercial Real Estate

Here are some examples for how the discounted cash flow model is used in commercial real estate:

Acquisitions and Dispositions

The DCF model helps investors evaluate a property's value and projected cash flow which helps them decide whether to buy, sell or hold.

Valuation and Appraisal

Appraisers use the DCF model to estimate the market value of revenue-producing properties by considering future cash flows.

Financing and Lending Decisions

Lenders apply DCF analysis to assess a borrower's ability to service debt and evaluate the financial viability of a commercial real estate loan.

Portfolio Management and Asset Allocation

Investors and asset managers use DCF to optimize their portfolios. They use the analysis to compare property valuations, allocate capital strategically, and achieve maximum returns.

Lease Negotiation and Analysis

Landlords and tenants can use the DCF model to identify optimal lease terms, considering factors like duration, rental escalations, and tenant improvement allowances.

How Discounted Cash Flow is Calculated

The 4 steps to calculation discounted cash flow

To calculate discounted cash flow for a commercial real estate investment, you need to follow these four steps:

Step 1: Project Future Income and Expenses

Estimate the property's future cash flows by considering factors like rental income, operating expenses, vacancies, and rental escalations over the desired holding period.

Step 2: Calculate Net Sales Proceeds

Estimate the net sales proceeds from the eventual sale of the property at the end of a specified holding period, taking into account aspects like appreciation and the terminal capitalization rate.

Step 3: Determine the Appropriate Discount Rate

Select a suitable discount rate that reflects the investor's required rate of return and the risk associated with the investment. This rate will be used to discount future cash flows to their present value.

Step 4: Calculate the Present Value of Cash Flows

Discount the entire cash flow stream, including the net sales proceeds, at the chosen discount rate to determine the present value of the investment. The sum of these present values represents the discounted cash flow value of the property.

The Importance of Accurate Data in Cash Flow Modeling (and How Technology can Help)

A reliable discounted cash flow model relies on a combination of factual data, such as leases and contracts, and property-specific and market-based assumptions like vacancy rates, market rent growth, and inflation.

This data must be accurate in order to yield useful results. Additionally, incorporating client-specific data, including investor preferences and risk tolerance, tailors the DCF model to each investor's unique requirements. This ultimately leads to more precise and actionable insights.  

Modern technology plays a significant role in streamlining the process of building a DCF model, automating data entry, assumption building, and analyzing sensitivities. Using advanced analytics tools saves time and reduces the risk of errors, ensuring a more reliable final result.

By combining good-quality data, insights, and advanced analytic algorithms, commercial real estate investors can develop powerfully accurate discounted cash flow models that set them up for success in a competitive industry.

Challenges and Limitations of DCF in Commercial Real Estate

While not mathematically super complex, the discounted cash flow model has its challenges and limitations in commercial real estate.

The accuracy of the model heavily relies on the assumptions made, and aggressive assumptions, whether positive or negative, can have a material impact on the concluded results. It's crucial to verify factual data and find supporting justification for assumptions to ensure the model's reliability.

Building a comprehensive DCF model can also be a time-consuming process, posing challenges for investors who need to make quick decisions in fast-paced markets. Despite these limitations, the DCF model remains a critical tool for commercial real estate investors when used with caution and awareness of its potential pitfalls.

"Your cash flow and valuation system must be capable of handling complex expense recovery methods if you require that level of detail.

However, in situations where time is limited or data is sparse, you should have the option of a simplified "back-of-the-envelope" analysis."

Brian Mascis - Chief Operating Officer at Rockport VAL

Final Thoughts on the Discounted Cash Flow Model

As a commercial real estate investor, you should have a thorough understanding of the DCF model as you put it to use in optimizing your property investment portfolio.

By analyzing projected cash flows and discounting them back to present value, you can gain a thorough understanding of your property's potential risks and returns, while accounting for opportunity costs.

While the DCF model has its challenges and limitations, the use of modern technology and reliable data can help you develop accurate and actionable insights. Ultimately, DCF is a critical piece of every successful CRE investor’s toolkit!  

Written in Collaboration with Rockport

Rockport, developed by Rick Trepp, offers commercial real estate SaaS systems to top financial institutions worldwide. Their flagship product, Rockport VAL, is a cloud-based cash flow modeling and valuation platform that supports all asset classes and seamlessly integrates with other platforms.

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