Four Major Valuation Methods Explained: Commercial Real Estate (CRE)

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From the perspective of investors, coming up with an accurate property valuation is the most significant factor in making investment decisions. Commercial real estate (CRE) investment has become increasingly popular in the past few decades. That’s because it’s viewed as an excellent vehicle for corporate and public wealth investors to achieve stable returns.

In this post, we’ll look at four primary valuation methods investors use when looking at CRE proposals. It should be no surprise that technology deeply impacts a potential CRE investment valuation. It’s truly astounding how powerful software solutions can support the consistency, transparency, and standardization across the valuation industry.

Cost Approach

The cost approach involves estimating a rough total budget for how much the structure would cost to build from scratch. The cost approach accounts for the original value of the land, plus the cost to build the structure from the ground up. Investors typically look at this approach to see if it’s financially more profitable to develop a new property, versus buying an existing one. The cost approach is comprised of two major methods:

  • Reproduction Method – Costs of rebuilding an exact replica of the existing structure, using the same materials, construction methods, etc.
  • Replacement Method – Costs of rebuilding a new structure with brand new materials, construction methods, designs, etc.

This logic is generally sound. However, it’s critical to note this method does not account for additional effort of development and construction involved in building a property from the ground up. Similarly, it does not account for the long-term cash flow of a given CRE project.

Sales Comparison Approach

Comparisons between key market factors are one of the most important inputs to any valuation method. Furthermore, sales comparisons are usually the source of information, such as cost of reproduction, current market capitalization rate, loan-to-value ratios, and others (Atlus Group). Prospective buyers use this approach to compare current CRE listings to recently sold projects. Though this list isn’t exhaustive, it includes major components of the sales comparison approach:

  • Price per square foot
  • Capitalization rate
  • Price per unit (multifamily CRE)
  • Price per key (hospitality CRE)
  • Physical condition
  • Location
  • Tenant profiles (income, credit quality, cash flow stability, etc.)
  • Income (financial statements)

The closer in similarity a prospective CRE property is to a comparable sale – especially a recent one – referencing the above components, the more effective this approach tends to be. Finally, once the quantitative characteristics of the perspective CRE property are compared, there is a qualitative analysis to ensure any more or less favorable attributes are accounted for. These adjustments are an essential precaution, if using this valuation method for CRE purchases.

One notable downside to this method is a lack of analysis of any long-term cash flows or property valuation.

Capitalization Rate Approach (Income Capitalization)

The “cap rate” approach is one of the most popular methods of property valuation. It’s very frequently used by analysts in both the lending world and intended acquisitions (Atlus Group). When you hear real estate professionals mention what a property “traded at”, they’re almost always citing either the cap rate, or the price per square foot, a property sold for.

The formula for calculating cap rate is simple. It’s equal to the net operating income (NOI) of the property, divided by the capitalization rate. The outcome represents the ownership’s approximate value of the property, based on the first year’s expected cash flow.

Like the Sales Comparison Approach, this tool is most valuable to estimate the current value of CRE properties. Furthermore, it’s even more useful if the property has relatively stable and easily predictable cash flow. New, complex projects that have essentially zero NOI are not good candidates for this valuation approach. In such circumstances, investors are much more likely to turn to the Discounted Cash Flow Approach.

Discounted Cash Flow Approach

While the three previously detailed CRE valuation methods are undoubtably useful under certain conditions, they share a major drawback. Each of first three valuation methods estimate the value of a CRE property at a specific point in time. This is in fact a major drawback for real estate investors, who are rarely investing primarily for short-term gains.

Suppose an example of a long-term, direct real estate investor, looking to maximize their return of a 10-year period. The below formula, taken from Investopedia shows the common formula for the Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) approach.

Source: Sabrina Jiang, Investopedia (2021)

Investors utilize this method to factor in both the delta of the initial buying price and the value of the property after ten years, in addition to the net present value (NPV) of any cash flows that come in from owning that property over 10 years. This gives real estate investors a great formula to input prognostications, then make transactions based on those forecasts.

Reverting to the drawbacks of point-in-time valuations, firstly, it’s critical to understand fundamental psychology real estate investors utilize. Typically, real estate investors have a longer-term vision, especially compared to investors who purchase various securities. This makes a point-in-time valuation much less relevant, since in the long-run real estate investors are not just looking at an easily predictably present value. As we saw in 2008 most famously and during the COVID-19 pandemic most recently, real estate prices can tank from unrelated market activities, political changes, or even a completely unexpected global health pandemic (Altus Group).


Long-term volatility concerns necessitate real estate investors to rely on more than increases in value over time. This is a primary explanation why investors generally rely on the cash flow, plus a final value increase. If an investor holds a property for ten years from purchase to sale, as an example, the overall return will be a combination of cash flow from all ten years of ownership, plus any difference between the initial purchase price and the ultimate sale price.

The cost, sales comparison, and capitalization rate approaches all fail to account for both potential changes in the cash flow, or value of the property, over the investment hold period. Hypothetically, if an investor knows that in year three of the hold period, a major tenant is going to vacate the property and cause a significant decrease in the property’s cash flow for the period, this clearly negatively impacts the overall return the investor attains. The only valuation method that takes into consideration time value of money and captures the future performance of the property is the DCF method.

The DCF method predicts future cash flows over an estimated property hold period. This includes both annual cash flow and profit at the time of sale. Many practitioners found that attempting to accurately predict revenue, expenses, and the future value of the property at the time of sale, is actually quite difficult. It essentially forces them forces them to think deeply and more critically. Long-term risk factors, management, quality of tenants, and trends in the real estate market suddenly appear on their immediate radar.

While not perfect (valuation models are not a crystal ball), the DCF method is generally preferred by real estate investors. Bluntly, the DCF approach best matches the reality of the investment, compared to the others discussed above.

The Closing Argument to Real Estate Investors (Primarily CRE Investors)

Selecting the best-fit valuation method is akin to choosing the right tool for a homeowner’s repair project. Most of the decision is decided on a case-by-case basis, based on the best information available. With the varying subjective methods and information, asset appraisal in the world of commercial is part formula, part art form.

In practicality, most appraisers don’t limit themselves to one method, instead taking an average of two or more methods. It’s hardly surprising appraisers have toned down their aggressive approach, especially compared to nearly 15 years ago. After the catastrophic downward spiral of 2008, the more analysis real estate investment projects undergo, the better. To build on the methods discussed, a well-known method rapidly gaining increasing popularity is called the stress test. Perhaps this test is more commonly referenced in the investment banking sector, namely to monitor volatility ratios of aggressive investment banks who also hold client checking and other deposit accounts, to ensure we don’t need to worry about anymore “bank runs”, but nonetheless the same logic applies to the real estate sector and it’s played an indispensable component to accurate real estate valuations

If you take nothing else away from this article, use the DCF Method whenever possible. Especially in today’s ever-changing real estate market, periodic cash flows are a must to have a successful, long-term real estate holding. As with any other investment, do your due diligence, ensure you have the right team around you, and take calculated, well-thought risks. Good luck to all continuing to navigate the post COVID-19 real estate landmine!