Everything You Need to Know About Buying a Duplex

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Clever Real Estate

Updated 

May 19th, 2020

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Duplexes are great options for many real estate investors, but require slightly different consideration versus a traditional apartment building or single family home. Read on for duplex legality, financial opportunities, and searching tips.

Want to get into multi-unit investing but the idea of managing an apartment building sounds too stressful? Enter the Duplex. Boasting a great mix of income potential, the possibility for steady tenants, and higher than apartment rental prices, duplexes might be the perfect fit for a new investor.

What is a duplex?

Before we dive into learning about how to buy a duplex, it’s important to get clear on what they actually are. A duplex is any property where two units are attached to each other by one or more common walls.

Most commonly, duplexes are side by side units. However, they can also be stacked on top of each other (the ground floor can be one unit and the floor above can be another).

Because of this layout, most duplexes look like traditional single family homes, have amenities like backyards, and are often located in suburban settings. Because of this, they can often fetch higher rents than apartments and often attract tenants that might otherwise rent a single family home.

Not sure what type of rental you're looking for? Check out our How to Become a Landlord post for what rental might be best for you.

Are duplexes legal?

This may seem like a ridiculous question, but it’s actually an important one. Having a duplex and having two units that rent separately on a property are not the same thing -- one is legal and the other often isn’t!

In order for two units to be legally a duplex, they must, at the very least, be in an area that is zoned for multi-family development. While some old duplexes may be grandfathered in and rented out as such, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

In contrast, in-law-suites, granny flats, or ADUs are not duplexes. Because of this, the property owner often must live in one of the units if they want to rent the other out. While this seems like a silly thing to mention, there can be serious repercussions to breaking this rule.

While not all cities and counties have a requirement that the property owner must live on the property, this isn’t something to guess on. Always check with your city or county before making your investment plan. It’s better to find out what the rules are before you buy a property than get faced with serious fines down the line.

ADUs can be a great way to earn income on a property, but since they aren’t duplexes, I won’t address them in this article. (If you’re interested in ADU units as a source of additional income, this article from Bigger Pockets may be a good place to start.)

How to make money off a duplex

There are two ways that an investor can make money off a duplex: buying one and living on one side or buying one and renting both units out. While both involve duplexes, one is often better than the other depending on who you are.

However, remember that there are no rules that say if you try one strategy you are stuck with it. Duplexes are great investments because they provide this flexibility.

Buying a duplex and living in one side

While it’s not necessary, many investors serve as landlords for the property when they do this, as they are already right there.

Obviously, you need to live in your investment property for this to work, so won’t work for investors that are remote or otherwise settled into their current home.

Pros

  • Have someone else pay your mortgage: If you live in one of the units, rental income can often offset what you would otherwise pay for housing. Let’s say your monthly mortgage payment is $1,500 and your renter pays $1,000 -- congratulations, your new housing costs are $500 a month
  • Finance your duplex as a primary residence: If you are living in your duplex, you can finance it as a primary residence. This means you can qualify for low-down payment FHA loans. Read more about it here.
  • Easy access as a landlord: If your tenant needs something fixed or to get in contact, you can simply walk next door and handle the issue.

Cons

  • Living next to your tenants: Depending on who your tenants are, it might not be the most comfortable to have to share a wall. While you do have control over who moves in, you’re still living in a multi-family unit.
  • Easy access as a landlord: If your tenant needs something fixed or to get in contact, you can simply have to walk next door and handle the issue. (This goes both ways)

Buying a duplex and renting out both units

If you don’t want to move from where you live, want to invest remotely, or otherwise don’t want to be in your investment unit, this is the best strategy for you. Additionally, many investors plan on doing this with their units eventually, even if they live in one unit initially.

Pros

  • Opportunity for more liquid capital: If you already pay very little for your housing needs, you might end up with more usable money each month by renting out both units.
  • No need to move: If you’re a nester, love where you live, or just don’t want to move, you don’t need to.
  • Can buy wherever: There isn’t a need to buy property in the same area you want to live and work. While being a remote landlord does have its challenges, it might mean your money can go further.

Cons

  • Double the tenants to find: The more tenants you have the more likely you will have vacancies, trouble finding tenants, or other issues.
  • Higher rates for mortgage, insurance, and property taxes: Houses that are investment properties generally have higher costs associated with them.

Finding a duplex

Duplexes are great, but they can be tricky to find. Websites like Ziillow let potential buyers search for multi-family units, but doesn’t allow them to filter down to duplexes specifically.

To get around Zillow’s restrictions on filtering, use can google to search for duplexes in your area. For example, if you want to find duplexes in Orlando, you could type in “Duplexes in Orlando” and the top hit will likely be Zillow that is filtered by duplexes. Clicking on this link should allow you to see a Zillow list in your area that is mostly duplexes.

Unfortunately, even doing this, sites like Zillow are not the best resource to finding duplexes. This is because they often don’t list all the duplexes in an area, meaning you will be missing out on many potential units.

Ultimately, while this trick will help you find duplex listings, it shouldn’t be where you stop your search. I recommend that you check out these five tipsin order to have the best chances of finding the perfect property. (I especially recommend paying attention to tip number 2, since it’s the easiest to start with!)

Quick Tip - Buy a duplex with Clever and get up to 1% back at closing!

Clever can connect you with a great agent who will help you find a duplex that will be a great investment. Every step of the way they'll help you with negotiations, paperwork, inspections, and all you need to close. In addition to that, in states where legal, they will even rebate up to 1% of the purchase price back to you at close!

Financing a duplex

Once you’ve set your heart on the perfect place, it’s time to finance the property. Luckily, duplexes are generally more straightforward to finance than larger multi-family units.

Duplexes are eligible for both FHA (as a primary residence) and conventional mortgages, which means you can put down smaller down payments and enjoy lower interest rates. This isn’t an option on units that are 5 or larger.

In addition, when you are qualifying for your duplex purchase, you can likely count anticipated rental profit as part of your qualifying income. While there are some caveats to this, it’s a common way to get into real estate investing with little money. (Read this article for a good primer on how to do this.)

Should you buy a duplex?

If you’ve considered duplex’s legality, identified how to make the financials work (check out this calculator if you aren’t sure), and manage to find the perfect property, a duplex could be the perfect way to get into real estate investing.

Make sure that you know how to be a landlord, but otherwise, happy investing!


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