Internal Rate of Return Decoded: Smart Investing in CRE

John Ledger

8 min read

Internal Rate of Return, commonly known as IRR, is a metric used to assess the profitability of an investment over time. In the context of commercial real estate, IRR is a powerful indicator that provides investors with a dynamic perspective on the potential returns associated with a particular property. In this blog post, we will delve into the significance of IRR, its role as an estimate of return, and why it is a pivotal tool for investors navigating the intricate landscape of commercial real estate.

Understanding Internal Rate of Return:

One of the primary functions of IRR is to serve as an estimate of the return on a potential investment. By factoring in the timing and magnitude of cash flows, IRR offers a comprehensive view of the profitability profile of a commercial real estate venture. This dynamic metric considers both the initial investment and the future cash inflows, allowing investors to gauge the attractiveness of a particular property.

In the language of IRR, a higher percentage translates to a more desirable investment. Investors naturally seek opportunities that promise substantial returns, and a higher IRR reflects just that. The metric accounts for the time value of money, emphasizing the importance of receiving returns sooner rather than later.

Conversely, a lower IRR signals less attractive returns. As investors evaluate potential commercial real estate projects, a lower IRR may indicate less lucrative opportunities due to reduced execution risk. Understanding the interplay between risk and return is crucial, and IRR serves as a guide in navigating this balance.

What is IRR Used For?

Internal Rate of Returns have many uses throughout the world of commercial real estate and broader investing. Here are a few of the most applicable:

Comparing Returns between Unlevered IRR and Levered IRR

Unleveraged IRR, or the IRR without accounting for financial leverage, focuses on the equity portion of real estate investment. This metric calculates returns based on the initial equity investment and future cash flows generated by the property, providing insight into the asset’s inherent performance independently of external financing. Leveraged IRR does consider the impact of borrowed funds on the return calculation, incorporating both equity and debt. The formula involves total cash flows, acknowledging that debt financing amplifies both returns and risks.

Comparing the two IRR types is essential for investors seeking a nuanced understanding of their investment’s return profile. Unleveraged IRR offers a baseline, showcasing the standalone performance of the property, while Leveraged IRR provides a more comprehensive view, considering the effects of leverage on returns and risk. The choice between the two depends on factors such as risk tolerance, cost of debt, and overall investment strategy, enabling investors to make informed decisions aligned with their financial objectives.

Measuring Against Hurdle Rate:

IRR finds its sweet spot when measured against the hurdle rate—a predetermined threshold set by investors or companies. This rate represents the minimum acceptable return on an investment. If the calculated IRR exceeds the hurdle rate, the investment is deemed worthwhile. If not, it may signal a need for further scrutiny or the exploration of alternative opportunities.

Comparing Similar Properties:

IRR is a powerful tool for comparative analysis within the realm of commercial real estate. Investors often find themselves choosing between multiple properties, and IRR allows for a side-by-side evaluation. When dealing with Core, Core-Plus, Value-Add, or Ground Up projects, for example, investors can commensurate the risk profile with the potential return of different CRE investments, and easily compare them. This nuanced approach is essential for making informed investment decisions tailored to specific risk appetites.

Benchmarking Returns Across Asset Classes:

Beyond the realm of real estate, Internal Rate of Return becomes a powerful tool for benchmarking returns against other asset classes. In brief, investment managers overseeing large portfolios, including Pensions, Sovereign Wealth Funds, and Endowments, can use IRR to gauge the performance of CRE investments against stocks, bonds, and other real assets. This comparative analysis informs strategic asset allocation decisions.

Real-World Implications:

In the real world, IRR isn’t just a numerical output; it directly influences the financial rewards of CRE investment managers. These professionals are financially rewarded based on their ability to achieve IRR hurdle rates that outperform market returns: earning a 20% promoted interest over a 12% IRR hurdle rate as a limited investor, for example. This alignment of incentives encourages strategic decision-making that goes beyond mere numerical targets.

Internal Rate of Return Formula and Calculation

Following a similar structure to the Net Present Value (NPV) calculation, the Internal Rate of Return formula involves equating the initial cash outlay to the sum of discounted cash flows over the investment’s life. The discounted cash flows are derived by dividing each period’s cash flow by (1+IRR) raised to the corresponding period’s power, with the sum equated to zero.

The IRR calculation method, akin to discounted cash flow analysis, solves for the discount rate where the present value of future cash flows equals the initial investment. This rate, once identified, signifies the break-even point for an investment. IRR’s power lies in leveraging cash flow predictions to gauge an investment’s attractiveness—higher IRR denotes a more lucrative venture.

0=Initial cash outlay + (Cash Flow)/(1+IRR)1+(Cash Flow)/(1+IRR)2+(Cash Flow)/(1+IRR)3+ … +(Cash Flow)/(1+IRR)t

Example calculation:

You invest $2,500,000 in a project in 2024. Your yearly cash flows after debt are as follows: $100,000 in 2024, $150,000 in 2025, $200,000 in 2026, $250,000 in 2027, and in 2028 you sell the property for $3,000,000 plus receive cash flow of $300,000 totaling $3,300,000. 

The representative IRR calculation would be as follows: 

0 = -$2,500,000 + ($100,000)/(1+IRR)1 + ($150,000)/(1+IRR)2 + ($200,000)/(1+IRR)3 + ($250,000)/(1+ IRR)4 + ($3,300,000)/(1+IRR)5

Firstly, add the initial investment to 0 to separate the constant from the rest of the equation. This becomes:

2,500,000 = (100,000)/(1+IRR)1 + (150,000)/(1+IRR)2 + (200,000)/(1+IRR)3 + (250,000)/(1+ IRR)4 + (3,300,000)/(1+IRR)5

Secondly, use a financial calculator or excel to solve:

IRR = 11%

The IRR Excel Function:

Excel can be used as a quick and easy tool to calculate and compare Internal Rates of Return. The syntax for the Excel function for IRR is…


…where “values” represents a reference to the range of cells that contain numbers for your initial investment and cash flows. These values are orders based, so enter them in the order of your respective payments and cash flows. Empty cells and references with text are ignored. “Guess” is an optional inclusion, and allows for the input of what your guess of the IRR may be. This can help reduce calculation errors, as Excel will return errors for results not reasonably close to your guess.

An alternative to the IRR function is the XIRR function, which accounts for cash flows that may not necessarily be periodic, making it more accurate than the normal IRR equation. The formula for XIRR is…


…where “dates” represents the corresponding dates to the values entries. “Values” and “guess” still represent the same data as in the normal IRR function.

This calculation transforms projected cash flows into a tangible metric, enabling investors to assess a venture’s viability and align financial expectations with risks and rewards. As a compass in financial decision-making, IRR contributes to the success and sustainability of investment portfolios.

Other Methods of Investment Measurement:

While the Internal Rate of Return (IRR) is a powerful metric for evaluating the potential return on investment, it does have limitations, primarily relying on assumptions about future cash flows. Recognizing this, investors often supplement IRR analysis with other financial metrics to gain a more comprehensive understanding of a potential investment.

Return on Investment (ROI): A straightforward and popular metric, ROI is calculated by dividing net profit by the initial investment. It provides a clear percentage that represents the profitability of an investment relative to its cost. ROI is particularly useful for quick assessments of investment efficiency.

Net Present Value (NPV): Similar to IRR in calculation, NPV differs in that it doesn’t equate to zero. Instead, it calculates the present value of all inflows and outflows, providing a net value. A positive NPV suggests a potentially profitable investment, while a negative NPV signals the opposite.

Gross Rent Multiplier (GRM): This metric compares the property’s price to its gross annual rental income. By dividing the price by gross rental income, investors can gauge the property’s affordability and potential for generating rental income.

Return on Equity (ROE): Focused on the return specifically on the equity invested in a property, ROE is calculated by dividing annual net income by the owner’s equity. This metric provides insight into how well the invested equity is generating returns.

Break-Even Ratio: This ratio indicates the level of property income required to cover both operating expenses and debt service. Calculated by dividing the property’s annual debt service by the gross operating income, the break-even ratio helps investors understand the financial sustainability of a property.

Another useful real estate investment metric is the capitalization rate.

By considering these metrics alongside IRR, investors can paint a more detailed picture of a potential investment. Each metric brings a unique perspective, allowing for a more nuanced evaluation of a property’s financial viability and risk profile. Ultimately, a holistic approach that incorporates multiple financial metrics enhances decision-making in the complex landscape of commercial real estate investments.

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