What You Should Know About The Cap Rate

The capitalization rate is a fundamental concept in the commercial real estate industry. Yet, it is often misunderstood and sometimes incorrectly used. This post will take a deep dive into the concept of the cap rate, and also clear up some common misconceptions.

Cap Rate Definition

What is a cap rate? The capitalization rate, often just called the cap rate, is the ratio of Net Operating Income (NOI) to property asset value. So, for example, if a property was listed for $1,000,000 and generated an NOI of $100,000, then the cap rate would be $100,000/$1,000,000, or 10%.


Cap Rate Example

Let’s take an example of how a cap rate is commonly used. Suppose we are researching the recent sale of a Class A  office building with a stabilized Net Operating Income (NOI) of $1,000,000, and a sale price of $17,000,000. In the commercial real estate industry, it is common to say that this property sold at a 5.8% cap rate.

Intuition Behind the Cap Rate

What is the cap rate actually telling you?  One way to think about the cap rate intuitively is that it represents the percentage return an investor would receive on an all cash purchase.  In the above example, assuming the real estate proforma is accurate, an all cash investment of $17,000,000 would produce an annual return on investment of 5.8%. Another way to think about the cap rate is that it’s just the inverse of the price/earnings multiple.  Consider the following chart:


As shown above, cap rates and price/earnings multiples are inversely related.  In other words, as the cap rate goes up, the valuation multiple goes down.

When, and When Not, to Use a Cap Rate

The cap rate is a very common and useful ratio in the commercial real estate industry and it can be helpful in several scenarios.  For example, it can and often is used to quickly size up an acquisition relative to other potential investment properties.  A 5% cap rate acquisition versus a 10% cap rate acquisition for a similar property in a similar location should immediately tell you that one property has a higher risk premium than the other.

Another way cap rates can be helpful is when they form a trend.  If you’re looking at cap rate trends over the past few years in a particular sub-market then the trend can give you an indication of where that market is headed.  For instance, if cap rates are compressing that means values are being bid up and a market is heating up. Where are values likely to go next year?  Looking at historical cap rate data can quickly give you insight into the direction of valuations.

While cap rates are useful for quick back of the envelope calculations, it is important to note when cap rates should not be used. When properly applied to a stabilized Net Operating Income (NOI) projection, the simple cap rate can produce a valuation approximately equal to what could be generated using a more complex discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis. However, if the property’s net operating income stream is complex and irregular, with substantial variations in cash flow, only a full discounted cash flow analysis will yield a credible and reliable valuation.

Components of the Cap Rate

What are the components of the cap rate and how can they be determined?  One way to think about the cap rate is that it’s a function of the risk free rate of return plus some risk premium.  In finance, the risk free rate is the theoretical rate of return of an investment with no risk of financial loss.  Of course in practice all investments carry even a small amount of risk. However, because U.S. bonds are considered to be very safe, the interest rate on a U.S. treasury bond is normally used as the risk-free rate. How can we use this concept to determine cap rates?

Suppose you have $10,000,000 to invest and 10-year treasury bonds are yielding 3% annually. This means you could invest all $10,000,000 into treasuries, considered a very safe investment, and spend your days at the beach collecting checks. What if you were presented with an opportunity to sell your treasuries and instead invest in a Class A office building with multiple tenants? A quick way to evaluate this potential investment property relative to your safe treasury investment is to compare the cap rate to the yield on the treasury bonds.

Suppose the acquisition cap rate on the investment property was 5%.  This means that the risk premium over the risk free rate is 2%.  This 2% risk premium reflects all of the additional risk you assume over and above the risk free treasuries, which takes into account factors such as:

  • Age of the property.
  • Credit worthiness of the tenants.
  • Diversity of the tenants.
  • Length of tenant leases in place.
  • Broader supply and demand fundamentals in the market for this particular asset class.
  • Underlying economic fundamentals of the region including population growth, employment growth, and inventory of comparable space on the market.

When you take all of these items and break them out, it’s easy to see their relationship to the risk free rate and the overall cap rate. It’s important to note that the actual percentages of each risk factor of a cap rate and ultimately the cap rate itself are subjective and depend on your own business judgement and experience.

Is cashing in your treasuries and investing in an office building at a 5% acquisition cap rate a good decision?  This of course depends on how risk averse you are.  An extra 2% yield on your investment may or may not be worth the additional risk inherent in the property. Perhaps you are able to secure favorable financing terms and using this leverage you could increase your return from 5% to 8%.  If you a more aggressive investor this might be appealing to you.  On the other hand, you might want the safety and security that treasuries provide, and a 3% yield is adequate compensation in exchange for this downside protection.

Band of Investment Method

The above risk free rate approach is not the only way to think about cap rates.  Another popular alternative approach to calculating the cap rate is to use the band of investment method.  This approach takes into account the return to both the lender and the equity investors in a deal. The band of investment formula is simply a weighted average of the return on debt and the required return on equity.  For example, suppose we can secure a loan at an  80% Loan to Value (LTV), amortized over 20 years at 6%.  This results in a mortgage constant of 0.0859.  Further suppose that the required return on equity is 15%.  This would result in a weighted average cap rate calculation of 9.87% (80%*8.59% + 20%*15%).

The Gordon Model

One other approach to calculating the cap rate worth mentioning is the Gordon Model. If you expect NOI to grow each year at some constant rate, then the Gordon Model can turn this constantly growing stream of cash flows into a simple cap rate approximation.  The Gordon Model is a concept traditionally used in finance to value a stock with dividend growth:


This formula solves for Value, given cash flow (CF), the discount rate (k), and a constant growth rate (g).  From the definition of the cap rate we know that Value = NOI/Cap. This means that the cap rate can be broken down into two components, k-g.  That is, the cap rate is simply the discount rate minus the growth rate.

How can we use this? Suppose we are looking at a building with an NOI of $100,000 and in our analysis we expect that the NOI will increase by 1% annually.  How can we determine the appropriate cap rate to use?  Using the Gordon Model, we can simply take our discount rate and subtract out the annual growth rate.  If our discount rate (usually the investor’s required rate of return) is 10%, then the appropriate cap rate to use in this example would be 9%, resulting in a valuation of $1,111,111.

The Gordon Model is a useful concept to know when evaluating properties with growing cash flows.  However, it’s not a one-size fits all solution and has several built in limitations.  For example, what if the growth rate equals the discount rate?  This would yield an infinite value, which of course in nonsensical. Alternatively, when the growth rate exceeds the discount rate, then the Gordon Model yields a negative valuation which is also a nonsensical result.

These built-in limitations don’t render the Gordon Model useless, but you do need to be aware of them.  Always make sure you understand the assumptions you are making in an analysis and whether they are reasonable or not.

Cap Rate Cheat Sheet

Fill out the quick form below and we'll email you our free cap rate Excel cheat sheet containing helpful calculations from this article.


The Many Layers of Valuation

Commercial real estate valuation is a multi-layered process and usually begins with simpler tools than the discounted cash flow analysis. The cap rate is one of these simpler tools that should be in your toolkit.  The cap rate can communicate a lot about a property quickly, but can also leave out many important factors in a valuation, most notably the impact of irregular cash flows.

The solution is to create a multi-period cash flow projection that takes into account these changes in cash flow, and ultimately run a discounted cash flow analysis to arrive at a more accurate valuation. If you need help building a cash flow projection and running a discounted cash flow analysis, consider giving our commercial real estate analysis software a try.

  • Michael Oakes, SR/WA

    Rob, nice overview of what can be a complex and confusing topic. I hope you don’t mind some constructrive criticism from an appraiser: Your example derives “cap rates” from listing prices. Technically, a cap rate is the relationship of a cap rate to market value. Because listing prices may not be at “market value” the “cap rates” calculated for listings are hypothetical. Real cap rates come from sales. Properties are often sold for a price less than listing price which would increase the cap rate from what is shown on the listing. For example, if the office building in your example sells for $15M, then the cap rate is 6.67%.

    OTOH, if the listing price was derived by using a market based cap rate to NOI, it should be close to market. Finally, your equation for cap rate shows “cost” in the denominator. No valuation course, seminar or training I have ever taken uses the word “cost” to express a cap rate. They only use the word “value”. Most use the “IRV” formula, as in R = I/V or,
    I = R x V and I/R = V. I understand that “price” may be the buyer’s “cost” but correct terminology is important IMHO.

  • James D. Ross

    Too much blind reliance on cap rates often distorts property “values” when the expected holding period and exit strategies are not properly considered. Also, real estate should not be thought of primarily as a “financial” asset in making investment decisions. Sometimes the income stream may be at an unrealistic unsustainable level due to special circumstances and the use of cap rates distorts the real value of the property.

  • Esteban

    Good post. I believe that it is much more accurate, however, to use a 10 year treasury bond to model the risk free rate. The three month bill will carry reinvestment risk over the life of the asset we are acquiring. I would argue that most real estate where cap rates are important are value assets that owners are looking to hold for a longer period of time 5+ years. Therefore we need to look at a larger time period to determine our risk free rate. You can find more info here http://people.stern.nyu.edu/adamodar/pdfiles/papers/riskfree.pdf

    • Rob

      Thanks for the comment Esteban. This was a good catch and the post has been updated to reflect the more appropriate 10-year bond.

  • Juan Pablo

    Thank You.

    • Rob

      Sure, glad you enjoyed it.

  • http://Serveu.ae Chris Adkins

    Hi Robert,
    Thank you for the excellent examples and break down of complex terminology. I though the article was insightful and easy to read. I have a better understanding now of Cap rate and it’s application to investment property.
    Best Regards,

  • apartment investing ecourse
  • Carrie_C

    Thank you for this! I have been looking for the ratio to find the NOI and a great explanation to go along with it and glad I found your site! All I ever come across is the ROI ratio from a site/freak estate investment podcast on jasonhartman.com. So this will really help me in the future! Thanks again!

    • Rob

      Glad you found it helpful Carrie.

  • Blake

    Great read. Very concise and informative.

    • Rob

      Glad you found it helpful!

  • http://www.slideshare.net/Brianlinnekens Brian Linnekens

    The cap rate doesn’t account for the property’s business expenses – including the purchase costs of the property, mortgage payments, fees, etc. Since these items reflect the investor’s standing with the lender and are variable in nature, they adversely affect the neutral comparison that the cap rate is meant to deliver.

    Brian Linnekens

    • Rob

      Thanks Brian. Because individual properties differ greatly in size and magnitude, it’s often helpful to talk about property prices and values in a common language. Thinking of property value per dollar of current net income achieves this objective. The cap rate is simply a measure that quantifies property value per dollar of current net income.

      But, as you point out, it doesn’t accurately measure yield for an an investor in a property. To do this you’d really need to run a discounted cash flow analysis.

  • Rhoda C. Jones

    Cap rate is a calculation performa in which you can calculate which investment property will make greater profits. So, before you start investing in properties you should have a brief knowledge of Cap rate.


  • Andrew

    Great explanation and useful. I use CAP rates often to measure and compare properties, however, beware of the NOI. Often sellers and brokers do not include many components of the expenses in the NOI and therefore inflate the CAP rate. Make sure you have the details of the NOI. Are property management fees included, true maintenance and service costs, and are the property taxes current. You may be surprised to find huge swings in CAP rates for the SAME property depending on how NOI is presented.

  • Natalya Partington

    Can anyone tell me how to calculate a cap rate when you only have NOI and no sale price figure? Thank you!

  • Jeffrey Smith

    CAP rate and gross Return on Equity (also called the Cash on Cash Return) is directly related to the cost and structure of the financing. When you know the parameters of the financing that is available to you for purchase or refinance, then you can calculate the CAP rate.


  • http://www.Eldorrado.com/ Alexis Eldorrado

    Alexis Eldorrado, Eldorrado Chicago Real Estate LLC
    What is relative to the Chicago Real Estate Market’s commercial listings at least on commercial residential and commercial mixed use, is that the taxes are exempt from the cap rate’s calculations. In the City of Chicago real estate market the taxes vary far and wide, and it must be considered in terms of the financial structure and integrity of the cap rate as a separate calculation. This is a very well-written and informative article by Robert Schmidt.
    Nicely done. http://www.Eldorrado.com

  • http://www.zonability.com/ Zonability

    Another fantastic article from the best Real Estate writer online! Great job!

    • Tony Armas

      Yeah, your husband does a great job.

  • Vincent

    excellent article. You can run 10 pro forma statements and get 10 different prices/LOL
    I purchased a building once and the owner was finding numbers that did not add up. As you read this this is Jan 2016 . I have been telling my clients since 2014 that the stock market will correct in 2016 2. Then the Real estate will crack ( unless the gov does something else stupid like pay peoples mortgages.) ZERO INTEREST and GOV EASING!!! WTF and Harp plans, shorts sales. are the THE dumbest idiotic programs ( it is a slap in the face to hard working responsible people. ) Yes real estate is not up up up. http://www.primoboston.com
    Watch it fall fall fall 2018 we could be looking global depression if it does. Am I right time will tell. Do I hope I am wrong YES. I own alot of properties but have sold 70% from 2014 to date. Would I buy today. Only on a short term great deal in out. Hey Just my thoughts and I know its a minority thinking but reality slaps you . Sorry for depressing news …….. oh Great article it really is . Rob did a great job.

    • Marko

      In keeping with the moron-misogynist Clay, you are an idiot.

  • http://cityhuntercap.com/ michaellhendersonn

    Even you may check online at http://www.cityhuntercap.com/ to get better overview about the cap rate.

  • Ernesto

    Great article. I’m wondering if it’s accurate to use area cap rates to determine the value for a newly constructed rental buildings? If I construct a new rental building would the value and long term financing/mortgage value be based on by calculating the area cap rates?

  • Denzo

    Great article.. I haven’t been to uni in a almost five years, and this was a great, easy to read refresher.. Thanks.