Real Estate Investing

Understanding the Differences Between Residential and Commercial Real Estate Investing

April 26, 2018

We’d love to connect with you.

What Are The Differences Between Residential and Commercial Real Estate Investing?

Real estate has always been a popular choice for investors looking to diversify their portfolio. While successful real estate i­nvesting can provide substantial rewards, the barriers to entering the market and steep learning curve can feel daunting when compared to financial securities like stocks and bonds. This problem is compounded by the wide variety of markets, types of properties available, and methods of investment and management. The two most common real estate segments for a new landlord to invest in are residential and commercial. Understanding the advantages, disadvantages, and differences between residential and commercial real estate investing is crucial when deciding what’s right for you. Here are some important distinctions to consider.

Defining Commercial and Residential Real Estate

Broadly, the main difference between residential and commercial real estate is the type of renter you choose to lease. If your tenant will be a family, a young professional, a student, or some other person looking for living space, your property is residential. If your tenant will be a business or individual using the property for some sort of commercial venture, (you guessed it), your property is commercial. Commercial real estate most commonly includes offices and retail space.* Now, there is some added nuance here for larger buildings, but this is only relevant when financing the purchase and for tax classification. We’ll get to that in a moment.

It’s also important to note that the use and purpose of a particular building is often restricted in some manner by local zoning laws. It’s critical that, before making any purchase, you ask the property’s zoning classification. You may have envisioned renting to a kind of tenant that simply is not allowed, and having a property re-zoned can be a tedious and costly process. To learn more, start with this article to better understand the different zoning types, then reach out to your local city planning office to understand which classifications and restrictions your community has implemented.

*For the purposes of this article, we will not be dealing with industrial real estate.

Costs of Making a Purchase

The above definition of residential and commercial real estate is more than adequate when marketing your property, determining best management practices, and making renovations. However, many states technically consider any building containing five or more rented units a commercial property and require that these buildings be purchased using a commercial mortgage. We won’t get into the nitty gritty of a commercial mortgages here, but the bottom line is that they are a bit more complicated and harder to obtain than their residential counterparts. Any mortgage officer you speak with should know your state’s laws, so be sure to ask them before moving forward.

In contrast to commercial properties, residential properties have much lower starting costs, and mortgages are typically much easier to obtain. Since the risk for residential lending is lower, banks will accept a wider range of credit scores, whereas higher scores will be required for commercial loans. If your credit score isn’t in at least the 700s, it will be extremely challenging to receive a favorable commercial loan. Larger down payments are also necessary due to the nature of commercial projects.

Finally, when applying for a residential mortgage, you can secure significant discounts if you qualify for owner-occupancy status, which requires that you live in one unit of your building. This discount will work out especially well if you were already planning on house hacking (living in part of your property while you rent out the rest). You’ll see lower down payments required and likely lower interest rates as well. And I know what you’re thinking, but by definition, you can only live in one single unit the majority of the time – you can’t double dip for multiple mortgages.

Leasing a Residential Property vs. a Commercial Property

Leasing a residential property is typically easier than leasing a commercial property. Firstly, there are approximately 22 million residential renters in the United States, while there are only about six million commercial renters. What’s more, residential demand has continued to outpace supply, so in the residential world, it is certainly a landlord’s market. Marketing channels for reaching prospective residential renters are more mature than commercial, and the leases and applications tend to be simpler. Office or retail units may remain vacant for months, and even after a prospective tenant is found, finalizing the lease may be more complex and time consuming than doing so for a single-family home. Coupled with easier mortgages, it’s clear why the majority of real estate investors choose to make their first purchase residential.

But commercial benefits start with the lease. If you want to learn more, we’ve put together a guide to help you compare different types of commercial leases. Commercial leases may be more complicated to understand, but they have many, significant advantages. For starters, they tend to be for much longer periods of time (typically 5-10 years as opposed to yearly residential leases). As a result, commercial property owners won’t need to fill vacancies as frequently as residential owners (and if you don’t already know, tenant turnover can be costly). Further, it is a common and widely accepted requirement that commercial residents will cover utility and maintenance costs. Landlords can recover even more expenses with a triple-net lease. And if you’re signing a lease for retail purposes and you’re confident in the opportunity in your area, you can include a percent-based rent as part of the agreement.

Maintenance & Management

A residential unit is required to have some sort of kitchen and bathroom, although the rules and regulations surrounding this vary by state. Commercial units are not quite as restrictive, but depending on the tenant you hope to acquire, may need substantial additional effort. For example, if you want to house a posh new restaurant in a sub-ground space, you may have to spend quite a bit of money ensuring its properly ventilated for commercial cooking equipment. Those costs can add up quickly. Other commercial renters may simply be looking for an open room – it just depends.

Commercial tenants also generally take on more maintenance responsibility than residential tenants. Thus, these investments can be more hands-off from a day-to-day management perspective. That being said, commercial tenants may still have other requests or larger scale maintenance issues that need to be addressed. Hiring a good property manager is an efficient way to handle these requests quickly and effectively. While residential requests may happen more frequently, commercial issues can cost your tenants in lost revenue (and you depending on your lease structure), so it’s critical that you make sure they don’t linger. Residential investors can hire property managers as well, but if your portfolio is small enough, you can save money by making sure that you are attentive and accessible to your tenants. Investing time, effort and just a bit of money to make sure your property is durable and low-maintenance can pay off tremendously in the long run.

Managing Cash Flow

Commercial real estate is no exception to the rule “the greater the risk, the greater the reward.” The earning potential for commercial properties exceeds that of residential investments. Not only are the returns more significant, but they also occur more consistently due to the longer lease terms. Profit margins for residential properties are already tighter, and high property taxes or significant damages can trim these margins even more. Residential tenants also tend to be a little more unpredictable in terms of whether or not they will pay on time and in full every month. But it’s also important to think about your exit strategy. If you decide that you’d like to sell off a property or completely liquidate your portfolio, your residential units will almost certainly sell fastest. The same barriers to entry you faced when purchasing a commercial property now exist for any prospective buyer. But if you’re in it for the long-haul, or you’re separated from your investment by an LLC (very common in commercial real estate), commercial offers plenty of cash flow benefits.

The Bottom Line

There are many significant differences between commercial and residential real estate investments. There’s no right or wrong answer for deciding how you want to invest. It all depends on what it is that you hope to gain from your investment and how much risk you can take on. If you’re more motivated by the bottom line don’t mind navigating the complexities and challenges that come with it, commercial real estate is where you should invest your time and money. If smaller, hands-on projects are more your style, then investing in a single-family home to improve and rent out might be the best move for you.


For more interesting articles on managing your properties, be sure to subscribe to our blog and Like us on Facebook. And don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Understanding the Differences Between Residential and Commercial Real Estate Investing

  1. I really enjoyed how comprehensive this article is. I have primarily invested in residential real estate, and after several years and a little more experience under my belt, am looking to get more involved with the commercial side of things. I am curious however, to what kind of large scale maintenance issues landlords typically have to deal with in commercial real estate? And also, how can I assure that I handle these “issues” that you generalize effectively?

    1. Hey Brian, thanks for commenting! Large scale maintenance issues can range quite a bit based on the tenant you’re leasing to and the building they’re using. The actual language of your lease agreement can also impact who is responsible.

      But in general, commercial tenants are going to be a bit harder on the infrastructure of the building. In college, I lived above a bagel shop that steamed bagels. They used a startling amount of hot water and this significantly reduced the lifespan of their water heater. It may be your responsibility as a landlord to replace this. Or you may have a clause that dictates the tenant covers it. Each case is different, but just be aware of the implications of a particular tenant or business.

      And to handle these effectively, be attentive, available, and communicate quickly. A good property manager will have some maintenance and project management experience, so they can diagnose these issues, estimate costs, and set timeline expectations appropriately. If you do not have that same experience, do some research whenever a problem arises and ensure you resolve it right away.

  2. A major technical difference between residential and commercial real estate is as follows, residential real estate basically consists of all single family type homes ranging between 1 to 4 unit rental residences, while on the other hand the commercial real estate could be anything ranging between 5 or more units.

  3. It’s good to know that we will be able to harvest greater returns when it comes to commercial properties in comparison to residential investments. My husband and I are actually torn what to purchase between the two until we’ve read your article. Although it requires a lot of work to keep a commercial property, we really don’t mind as long as we get to harvest our hard work in the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get all the latest articles and information via email:

More in Learning Center


Innago Releases Return Security Deposit Online Fea...

Renting your property to a stranger is risky. Even with the best tenant screenin...

September 18, 2023

Real Estate Investing

Types of Real Estate to Invest In: Brownstones, Co...

What Is The Right Property Type For You? Are you thinking about diving into real...

April 9, 2024

Real Estate Investing

Tips and Considerations for Utilizing Bridge Loans

What To Know Before Securing A Bridge Loan Looking to navigate the world of real...

April 9, 2024

Request Access

No monthly fee. No setup fee. No contract. Start streamlining your rental management process today.