Columbus is one of the 15 fastest growing cities in the US according to the census bureau. Combined with still affordable but rapidly increasing property prices, reasonable rental yields, a world class university and a diverse and growing economy, it makes for an attractive property investment destination. But if you’re not physically there, figuring out where specifically to buy can be tricky and its easy for an out of state or out of country investor to end up losing everything. Fortunately cities are making a large amount of data publicly available which makes this process much easier and, in fact, more reliable than merely visually inspecting an area. In this post I want to show the methods anybody can use to narrow down locations in a city they don’t know and how any investor with a little patience can find their way around a new city.
Prices are a primary signal – they encode a lot of information about desirability, crime, schools, etc. and price trends over time are a good indicator of population movements, supply and quality of housing. So first I want to get the lay of the land and I do this by looking at appraised prices by zip code. The Franklin County Auditors data portal is an excellent resource – the data on land parcels includes appraised values and square footage for each house. Aggregating this by zip code, I create this map:
What stands out is that –
- The north-west is generally pricier
- Prices increase as you go away from the centre in any direction
- The centre itself is patchy – some pricey areas and some cheap
Appraised values may not always keep up with actual sales prices especially in a rapidly moving market, so using sales data for the last 180 days, I came up with this map of prices per square foot by zip code:
The sales prices show a similar geographical pattern to the appraised values, but I can see some differences, especially around the centre. So I want to focus on those with a map of the ratio of the sales price to the appraised price. The higher the ratio, the more the sales price has positively diverged from the appraised price.
This indicates that prices are moving rapidly around the centre – I’ve listed the top 5 “hot” zip codes below:
|Zip Code||Sales To Appraised Ratio||Sales $ / Sq Ft||Appraised $ / Sq Ft|
Google maps helps me put a face to these zip codes:
|43215||Downtown, Short North|
|43201||Italian Village, Milo-Grogan, University District|
|43206||German Village, Southern Orchards|
|43205||Olde Towne East, South of Main, Old Oaks|
|43203||King-Lincoln Bronzeville, Mt Vernon|
Now that I’ve narrowed down the zip codes that I’m interested in, I want to see how they’ve been doing historically so I plot the median sales prices over six month increments –
On the basis that house prices have momentum, in that an increase in prices will build on itself, I’ve now got two contenders – 43215 and 43201. 43216 is a strong candidate, but I’ll need to find out why it dipped towards the beginning on 2019. I’m going to drop the other two based on the dropping prices. Each of these zip codes covers quite a large area, so probably will be pockets within that are better than others. What I want to do next is look at more detailed price patterns
The interactive map below shows median prices per square foot by census tract – both appraised and sales. Use the layers icon in the top right corner to choose which of these two you’d like to see and mouse over the tracts to see actual values.Full page map here
What I’m looking for here is areas adjacent to expensive areas that have the potential to gentrify. There are three areas that stand out when I look at sale prices per square foot – I’ve numbered these below
The map above in table form:
|Map||Area||Sales $/sq ft||Adjacent Area||Adjacent Sales $/sq ft|
|3||Southern Orchards||63.20||German Village||252.67|
So now I’ve found a few candidates within the “hot” zip codes that are cheap, but I want to know why they’re cheap.
A Week in Crime
The first question that pops in my head is are these areas cheap because they have a high crime rate?
As a snapshot, I mapped a weeks worth of crime – I got data from the Columbus Police website and mapped approximately 850 crimes from 19 Jan to 26 Jan 2020. Click on the markers to see specifics about each crime.Full page map here
This is interesting in that it shows what you can expect in a week, but that’s not enough to decide what goes into the prices.
A Month in Crime
To get a more holistic view, I took a week of crime data from each of April, July, October 2019 and added it to the January 2020 data above, and mapped the number of crimes for each census tract. This accounts for the seasonality of crime. Mouse over the map to see the number of crimesFull page map here
Based on price appreciation, there were 5 tracts that looked attractive. Based on the number of crimes I’ve narrowed these down to 3 – these have the number of crimes labelled in red below. From top to bottom these are parts of Milo-Grogan (15), King-Lincoln Bronzeville (10) and Southern Orchards (14)
Rentals and Foreclosures
The number of rentals in an area is an interesting metric – you don’t want to invest in an area with too many rentals because that makes the area transient, but you don’t want too few either because that makes it difficult to find tenants.
The number of foreclosures is another metric that tells you a bit about the quality of the area – a lot of foreclosed homes might mean houses in disrepair, falling prices and declining tax revenues.
The interactive map below shows the percentage of properties that are rentals and the percentage that are under foreclosure for each tract. Use the layers icon on the right to switch between rentals and foreclosures.Full page map here
For the three tracts I selected based on the number of crimes, the rentals and foreclosure rates are
|Area||% Rentals||% Foreclosures|
There isn’t anything that marks out any of these as particularly out of range, but the map does show something interesting – as you go north-east from Milo-Grogan the foreclosure rate and crime both go up significantly. It’s the same going east from 22nd Street in Southern Orchards and Mt Vernon, just north of King-Lincoln Bronzeville, isn’t too good either. When looking for houses its good to know in which direction to move.
What about yield?
At this point some people might think that I should have started with rental yield and eliminated areas from there. I work the other way around because its easy to be blinded by a 20% yield and end up buying something in a war zone. Yields are important, but they don’t tell you about voids and tenant damage. Also most of the money in investing is made from price appreciation, rents just keep the business going. Having said that, I’ve narrowed down my search by enough to start looking at rental yields. This is the point where you go onto Zillow or Rentometer and see what houses are renting vs selling for, though there is some aggregated data available
The table below shows average rents from Rentometer per zip code joined with the per sq ft sales price I calculated earlier and an approximate yield based on a 1200 sq ft 2 bed. Zillow provides aggregated data by zip code so I’ve added that in as well as a comparison. There is quite a difference between the two for 43205 and 43203. A few sales may have driven down the average square foot price in the last few months in these areas.
|Zip Code||Area||Rent 1-bed||Rent 2-bed||Rent 3-bed||Sales $/sqft||2-bed (1200 sq ft) yield||Zillow Yield|
|43215||Downtown, Short North||1,328||1,781||1,912||266.83||6.1%||5.7%|
|43201||Italian Village, Milo-Grogan, University District||1,176||1,476||1,563||226.91||6.5%||4.65%|
|43206||German Village, Southern Orchards||1,143||1,393||1,386||161.95||8.6%||7.45%|
|43205||Olde Towne East, South of Main, Old Oaks||841||1,060||1,206||78.41||13.5%||5.86%|
|43203||King-Lincoln Bronzeville, Mt Vernon||739||928||1,219||64.51||14.3%||8.14%|
This is Zillow’s yield mapped by zip code. The interactive map also shows the sales and rent prices according to Zillow – use the layers icon in the top right corner to toggle the viewFull page map here
Zip codes cover relatively large areas and there are significant differences between neighborhoods in a zip code. Zillow does provide some data on rents at a neighborhood level, but its patchy.Full page map here
Fortunately at this point I’ve narrowed down the areas I’m interested in enough to start looking at individual properties. I’m particularly interested in the 43201 zip code – there is a stark difference between the Italian Village side and the Milo-Grogan side ($274 vs $72 per sq ft). A quick search on Zillow validates the prices I’ve calculated from sales. The yields are higher on the Milo-Grogan side – a 3-bed house will rent out for approximately $950 in Milo-Grogan and $1,500 in the Italian Village. Houses seem to be a bit on the smaller side in Milo-Grogan, so assuming a 1200 sq ft size, this works out to a 13.2% yield in Milo-Grogan vs 5.4% in Italian Village.
Properties in areas adjacent to rich areas tend to rapidly appreciate in price as they gentrify. I know this from my own experience and it’s been proven in a study. Milo-Grogan is a long way from being gentrified as the two Google Street View images below show, but based on its location close to several desirable areas it has a lot of potential.
So what does it have going for it?
- Walking distance from the Short North and Italian Village – both prime shopping and entertainment districts.
- A relatively low crime rate
- Public transport in the form of COTA and CMAX buses that get to downtown in 20 minutes
- New headquarters and soon to be built arena by Rogue Fitness
- Housing regeneration by Homeport
Will all this work out? Its a risk, but in the meantime rents should roll in at a decent yield. There are houses available for less than $100,000 that are ready to rent out for about $900-1000. The ones that require work sell for less than $50,000 making for an attractive BRRR (Buy, Rehab, Rent, Refinance, and Repeat) investment.
I’ve chosen my investment destination based on a lot of quantitative data and some qualitative reading. Reddit (thank you r/Columbus), Facebook and Bigger Pockets make it easier than ever to get a window into the local perspective. Google Street View and Zillow meanwhile give you view of the outside and inside of houses respectively. The interactive maps I’ve provided in this post should enable you to do some of this research and come to your own conclusions. With all the tools available today, nobody should be put off long-distance investing.