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Understanding the Internal Rate of Return 

When diving into the world of commercial real estate investments, the term “Internal Rate of Return” (IRR) figures prominently. But what does IRR really mean in a given context, and why is it an important indicator for investors? IRR is a calculation measuring a given investment’s potential annual return. In other words, it is financial shorthand for return on investment, making it a valuable tool in decision-making. 

What is the IRR? 

Measuring return on investments made, IRR is a key indicator for many key stakeholders in the commercial real estate industry (investors, operators, and owners, alike). 

IRR is based on net present values and fundamental discounted cash flow analysis, which are necessary to determine if a project or investment’s future cash flows will be worth more than the expected capital outlay necessary to fund its completion today. Investments with relatively higher costs, revenue generation challenges or quantifiable concessions or tradeoffs will see an impact upon their discounted cash flows. 

IRR is a percentage describing an investment’s potential profitability by estimating an average annual return you might earn over the life of an investment typically based upon a combination of actual and assumed performance numbers. In the CRE context, IRR is like a financial yardstick allowing investors to compare different investment opportunities based upon this combination of figures, estimates and assumptions. 

How is IRR calculated? 

While IRR’s actual formula might seem complex, the underlying idea is simple: IRR is the discount rate (i.e., [Future Value / Present Value) ^ (1 / Number of Periods) – 1]) that makes the Net Present Value (NPV) of all cash flows from a given investment equal to zero.  

In simpler terms, it calculates the rate at which the present value of expected future cash inflows equals the present value of the investment’s costs. 

Why is IRR important in commercial real estate? 

  • Comparison: IRR allows investors to compare various investment opportunities on a relatively level playing field. A higher IRR generally means a better return potential, all else being equal. 
  • Decision-making: By assessing the IRR, investors can better determine if a particular property aligns with their financial goals and risk tolerance. 
  • Incorporating time value of money: Money today is worth more than the same amount in the future due to inflation and other factors. IRR takes this into account, attempting to provide a more accurate reflection of potential returns. 

Limitations of IRR: 

  • Over-simplification: IRR assumes that any interim cash flows are reinvested at the IRR itself. In reality, this might not always be the case. 
  • Multiple IRRs: In some cases, a project might have multiple IRR values, making it challenging to determine the true potential return. 
  • Not the sole indicator: While IRR is a valuable metric, it should be used alongside other financial measures to get a comprehensive understanding of an investment's attractiveness. 
  • Based on Estimates: At various levels, IRRs are based upon a variety of projections, assumptions, estimates and disparate methodologies; it can be difficult to determine whether you are really comparing apples to apples and it is critical to consider the source of the discretionary amounts. 


The Internal Rate of Return is a powerful tool in the commercial real estate world, intending to provide a clear picture of an investment's potential profitability. By understanding its basics and being aware of the considerable nuance involved, investors can make more informed decisions and adjust their investment strategies. As with all financial metrics, professionals should be consulted, diligence should be undertaken, and IRR should be used only in combination with other indicators to get round out the analysis. 


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