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What will you do if that old roof floods your top floor apartment, or if a cast iron drain pipe cracks just as you’re paying for bedbug extermination? What if the jobs cost $10,000? Do you call up your regular contractor and cut a check without batting an eyelash, or is this is a crisis necessitating soul searching, an emergency loan, or perhaps even a brave attempt at “deferred maintenance”? If you couldn’t afford a $10,000 emergency repair, you’d be in good company. Most small time property owners have a shortage of operating cash. But you can do better.
For large, established companies, there’s a test used to evaluate their ability to survive a “disaster” scenario. It’s called “the acid test.” The phrase comes from bygone days when gold was authenticated by dropping acid onto it. Gold won’t react, so if it’s “good as gold,” the acid has no effect. For businesses, “passing the acid test” usually means having enough liquid cash to cover more than an entire year’s expenses. That’s a heavy burden for a rental property, but if you manage that way, you can have some measure of peace of mind.
You can calculate the “acid test ratio” for your property by adding all your cash accounts for the business and dividing by all your liabilities for the next year. Your liabilities include the total of all interest, all insurance premiums, all real estate taxes, and all expected repairs. Suppose you have $12,000 set aside in the property’s rainy day fund. Suppose each month you pay $800 in interest, $300 in insurance, $300 in taxes, and $200 in repairs. All those expenses, times 12 months in a year, means you have liabilities of $19,200. Your $12,000 in cash divided by your $19,200 in liabilities means you have an “acid test ratio” of 0.625. A typical publicly traded manufacturing company has an acid test ratio of 1.25 to 1.5, more than double.
Now I’ve spoken with landlords about this, and most express shock and dismay that they should have to keep so much cash set aside. With monthly income guaranteed by leases, you might reasonably use another test, called “the quick ratio,” which lets you count receivables as “cash” because you’ll get them quickly. We can calculate this using the example above. If your tenants are obliged to pay $1,000/mo for the remaining nine months on their lease, you get to add another $9,000 in “cash.” Now $12,000 cash plus $9,000 receivables = $21,000. Divide this by $19,200 and your quick ratio is greater than one, just where you want to be. But be honest and don’t count month-to-month’s at face value. And if you’re dealing with tenants who might be headed for eviction or non-renewal, don’t count a full year of their lease at face value, either.
However much money you choose to set aside, the moral here is that large, established businesses set aside a lot of money for rainy days. As a small business, perhaps with limited credit, it’s important for you to do so, as well, and to keep that money allocated separately as a rainy day fund. You’ll be able to weather any storm if you do.