What is CapEx in Real Estate? A Guide to Smart Investing

Real estate capital expenditures like renovations and equipment upgrades are major investments that add long-term value to rental properties by attracting tenants, lowering costs, and extending building lifespans. This article explores how to treat capital expenses and incorporate them into your financial planning.

Nichole Stohler
Last Updated
January 15, 2024
What is CapEx in Real Estate? A Guide to Smart Investing

As a real estate property owner, knowing the best place to allocate your budget for profit and returns, as well as which types of property investments appreciate the most value over time, is essential to financial success. Capital expenditure, or CapEx for short, helps you determine these important pieces of information.

CapEx refers to expenses and improvements that add long-term value to a property. These strategic investments can pay off through higher rents, lower overhead, and long-term value appreciation.

In this guide, we'll provide a capital expenditure definition, how to calculate it, and tips for effectively budgeting and managing property improvements. If you're looking to enhance curb appeal, reduce maintenance costs, or simply keep one step ahead of market expectations, this article provides insights for your real estate investment strategy.

CapEx meaning

CapEx in real estate refers to expenses in investing, purchasing, renovating, and maintaining fixed assets such as buildings, technology, or equipment. Specific to real estate investing, these costs help maintain and enhance the long-term value of rental properties.

Capital expenses are different than day-to-day operational costs. They focus on longer-term investments to earn a return on the investment.

Why are capital expenditures important?

For real estate investors, capital expenditures should be a key part of your long-term planning. These expenses help keep your properties competitive, efficient, and financially healthy over time.

The big question is — are major capital expenses really worth it? Consider making capital expenditures for these benefits:

Stay ahead of the curve

Updating older properties with new fixtures, flooring, appliances, and technologies keeps you ahead of rising tenant expectations. Small touches make a big impact on perceived value and the rental rates you can charge.

Boost efficiency

Newer HVAC systems, appliances, and building materials can reduce monthly utilities and maintenance costs, improving your overall profit. Upgrading to programmable landlord thermostats, low-flow faucets, LED lighting, and other high-efficiency equipment pays dividends through direct utility savings year after year.

Extend your property's useful life

Capital expenses like adding a new roof or replacing outdated wiring can help protect your property's condition and structural integrity. These capital expenditures prevent costly emergency repairs down the road, as deferring maintenance issues for too long can lead to much larger problems.

Enhance curb appeal

Parking lot resurfacing and refreshing landscaping are capital expenditures that help make great first impressions that attract prospective tenants.

Future ROI

While capital projects require major one-time outlays, the value they add can deliver excellent returns if the improvements align with local rental market conditions.

What is useful life?

Useful life refers to the estimated time an asset will be functional and economically useful for its intended purpose. This concept applies to investment property accounting in the following ways:

Depreciation calculation

The most common application of useful life is in calculating depreciation for fixed assets. Depreciation assigns the cost of a tangible asset over its useful life. By estimating how long an asset will remain in service, you can spread out its cost over a several-year accounting period, which affects the profit and loss statements and the balance sheet.

Capital budgeting decisions

When real estate investors need to make decisions about buying new assets, they should consider the useful life of these assets. This helps in comparing the long-term value and cost-effectiveness of different investment options.

For example, fixing an aging HVAC unit may extend its functioning 5 more years, while installing a new modern unit could last you 15 years, potentially saving you money in the long run. Comparing total useful life helps you understand true cost and value tradeoffs.

Tax implications

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provides guidelines on the useful life of various asset types. These guidelines determine asset depreciation methods and rates, which impact the CapEx tax deductible amounts for your real estate business.

Types of capital expenditures

As a real estate investor, what are the typical areas you might invest in that are considered capital expenditures? A few common areas are:

  • Buildings: This includes new construction or renovation of existing property, such as installing a new HVAC, a flooring refresh, or a plumbing overhaul.
  • Land: If you buy land for development or expansion, this is also considered a capital expenditure. Real estate investors might purchase vacant land or undeveloped lots to build new buildings for expansion.
  • Technology equipment:  Technology plays an important role in real estate operations. Capital expenditures for your business might include buying laptops or other technology infrastructure to support administrative tasks.
  • Vehicles: Larger real estate companies might purchase vehicles for property management purposes.
  • Furniture:  In the short or mid-term rental space, investors buy furniture for the property. Capital expenditures can include furniture, fixtures, and fittings to create a useful and appealing environment for tenants needing furnished rentals.

Attributes of capital expenses

Some of the unique characteristics of capital expenditures to consider as you plan and budget for these large future investments are:

  • Infrequent: Capital spending costs are major property improvements that happen intermittently, as they address long-term needs.
  • Substantial investment: Capital asset costs involve sizable outlays, not just replacing broken items that are part of routine maintenance.
  • Long-term asset: Capital expenses have a higher total cost but they serve properties over many years. For instance, adding a new roof may cost $200,000 but last 25 years.
  • Value-add: These expenses help increase rental income, useful building life, operating efficiency, and property values. The returns justify the capital expenditure cost.
  • Accounting treatment: You cannot deduct capital expenses for major property upgrades on your taxes in one year. IRS rules dictate the depreciation of their costs over time.

How to calculate capital expenditures

How do you calculate capital expenditures to understand the financial impact of investments? Let's break down the formula and provide an example of capital expenditure real estate calculations to help illustrate:

CapEx = PP&E (current) - PP&E( previous) + Depreciation (current)


  • PP&E (current): This is the current value of property, plant, and equipment on the balance sheet.
  • PP&E (previous): This is the value of property, plant, and equipment from the previous accounting period.
  • Depreciation (current): This represents the depreciation expense for the current period. Since depreciation is a non-cash expense that reduces the value of PP&E, it's added back to determine the actual cash spent.

This formula allows you to calculate the net capital expenditures made on a real estate property during a given period. The key components are:

  • The change in PP&E value from the previous period, which represents new capital investments.
  • The current period's depreciation expense, which needs to be added back since it represents a non-cash expense that reduces the PP&E value.

By using this formula, you can determine how much a real estate investor or owner has spent on capital improvements, replacements, and upgrades to the property beyond just routine maintenance and repairs.

Use case example:

Imagine you own a commercial building used for office spaces.1. PP&E (Property, Plant, and Equipment)

  • PP&E (previous): The value of the property at the end of the last year was $1,000,000.
  • PP&E (current): Due to additional investments in upgrading the building's HVAC system and modernizing the elevators, the value at the end of this year is $1,100,000.

2. Depreciation

  • Depreciation (current): For the current year, the depreciation expense recorded for the building and improvements is $50,000.

Let's calculate it step-by-step:

Calculate the difference between PP&E (current) and PP&E (previous):

$1,100,000 - $1,000,000 = $100,000

Add the current period's depreciation:




This calculation indicates that the total capital expenditures for the year are $150,000. This amount reflects the net spending on capital improvements (like the HVAC system and elevators) plus the adjustment for depreciation, which is a non-cash expense reducing the book value of the PP&E but not actually reflecting a cash outflow.

The calculated CapEx helps to gauge how much was invested into the property beyond routine maintenance and repairs, providing insight into the long-term investment in maintaining or increasing the property's value and operational efficiency.

CapEx vs OpEx

It's also helpful to understand the difference between capital expenditures and operational expenses, since you'll have both types in your business.

  • Capital expenditures: These have a long-term impact on the value or functionality of the property. You budget for these expenses in advance, since they reduce short-term cash flow, and then capitalize them on your balance sheet.
  • Operational expenditures: These refer to the costs incurred for day-to-day business operations and maintenance. Examples include utilities, repairs, insurance, property taxes, and marketing. They're deducted from revenue to determine net operating income. Operating expenses help generate rental income and provide smooth operations but do not directly contribute to long-term value.

CapEx in balance sheet & cash flow statement

CapEx real estate projects can definitely put a dent in your checking account when it’s time to pay the contractors, and they also require different treatment in the accounting process. We'll examine both below.

Balance sheet

Rather than hitting the income statement as a lump sum cost, capital expenses land on your company's balance sheet as assets. A portion then gets deducted as a depreciation expense each year based on the project’s lifespan. This approach aligns the deduction with the length of time that the upgrade provides value.

So, let’s say your new roof costs $30,000. The contractor gets paid all at once, but on your balance sheet, that cost gets divided over the roof’s entire 20-year lifespan. As a result, you apply a $1,500 expense each year over the course of 20 years.

Cash flow statement

On the cash flow statement, using our roof example, this capital expenditure gets categorized under "Investing Cash Outflows" during the period you make payments to the contractors. When you pay for this expenditure, the entire $30,000 is listed as a negative investing cash flow line item.

CapEx management tips

Deciding when and how to invest huge sums of money into your properties isn't a quick decision. Understanding the best way to manage capital expenses can help to increase your financial stability and overall return on investment. Here are some of our top tips for capital expense management:

Plan thoroughly

Take the time to assess your needs and objectives before starting any projects or making major purchases. Consider factors such as market trends, the condition of your property, and the potential return on investment. 

Consider purchase options

How will you pay for the purchase? Will you buy the assets with cash, lease them, or use financing options like loans or mortgages? Consider the impact on your cash flow, long-term financial commitments, and the potential risks of each funding type.

Use the right tools

Use budgeting and accounting tools to help manage each capital expenditure. This could include specialized accounting software that helps track expenses and generates financial reports.  These tools help you make data-driven decisions and easily keep accounting records of your costs.

Real estate capital expenditures

Allocating some of your budget towards value-adding capital expenditures is fundamental to real estate investing success. Strategic CapEx projects help maintain physical assets and increase efficiency and appeal. These long-term investments lead to higher rents, lower costs, longer lifespans, and increased resale potential.

Smart capital investments can boost property value, but real estate markets change. Before investing, see if upgrades match current trends and how long they might last. Also, check the building’s age, maintenance needs, and project timelines. This information helps you determine the best timing for projects and prevents overspending.

Planning each capital expenditure helps keep your property competitive for years. With the help of our guide, you can leverage strategies that help you maximize returns. Staying ahead of what renters want pays off as tastes change, and making wise investments generates long-term gains.

Real estate capital expenditures FAQs

What is the rule of thumb for real estate CapEx?

The rule of thumb for real estate CapEx is to allocate around 1% to 2% of the property's value towards capital expenditures annually. If a property is worth $500,000, your capital expenditure budget should be between $5,000 to $10,000 per year.

What are capital expenditures in GAAP?

Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) define capital expenditures as significant, long-term investments in assets expected to bring future benefits to a company.

These costs incurred for acquiring or upgrading assets are not recorded as immediate expenditures in the income statement. Instead, the company capitalizes and records them on the balance sheet, allowing it to spread out and amortize the cost over the useful life of the asset.

Can capital expenses be deducted from taxes?

You cannot deduct capital expenses from your taxes in the same year that the expenses were incurred. Instead, they are depreciated or amortized over the asset's useful life to match the tax deduction to the economic benefits gained from capital assets.

Important Note: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be taken as legal, accounting, or tax advice, nor should it be used as a substitute for such services. Always consult your own legal, accounting, or tax counsel before taking any action based on this information.

Nichole Stohler

Nichole co-founded Gateway Private Equity Group, with a history of investments in single-family and multi-family properties, and now a specialization in hotel real estate investments. She is also the creator of NicsGuide.com, a blog dedicated to real estate investing.

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