What Is The Capital Stack In Real Estate?

What Is the Capital Stack in Real Estate?

For real estate investors, grasping the concept of the capital stack is important for gauging both the potential risks and expected returns

The capital stack clarifies the sequence of who gets paid and the level of risk involved, which are vital in weighing the pros and cons of an investment.

To break it down, the capital stack is the financial blueprint of a commercial real estate transaction. It’s often visualized as a layered diagram, like a multi-tiered cake, showcasing the various capital types involved.

The capital stack is made up of two primary elements: debt and equity—each of these further branches out into various categories.

For instance, investors can choose from different kinds of debt and equity, such as preferred equity and mezzanine or senior debt, which will be discussed shortly.

Key Takeaways

  • Capital stack refers to the financial structure of an investment, consisting of senior debt, mezzanine debt, preferred equity, and common equity.
  • Repayment priority and risk level differ across the capital stack, with senior debt being the least risky and common equity being the riskiest.
  • Understanding each layer’s risk and return profiles is essential for investors when assessing opportunities and strategically allocating capital.
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What Is The Capital Stack In Real Estate?

The term capital stack refers to the organization of various layers of financing, investments, or borrowing in a company or asset. It’s imperative for investors to understand it to assess real estate risks and projected returns on their investments.

The capital stack comprises four primary components, usually arranged in ascending levels of risk and repayment priority: senior debt, mezzanine debt, preferred equity, and common equity.

Each component represents a source of funding for a particular project or asset.

  1. Senior Debt: This is the most secure and least risky part of the capital stack. It has the highest priority when it comes to repayment and receives the first claim on an investment’s cash flow or collateral.

  2. Mezzanine Debt: Mezzanine debt carries more risk than senior debt but lower risk than equity financing. It offers a higher interest rate and has a priority of repayment after addressing senior debt.

  3. Preferred Equity: Sitting above mezzanine debt, preferred equity investors receive their investment returns before those with common equity. Preferred equity financing yields higher and more predictable returns than common equity, though it still holds higher risks than mezzanine debt.

  4. Common Equity: Common equity poses the highest level of risk for investors in the capital stack, as it receives payment only after distributing the proceeds to all other layers. However, it also promises the highest potential returns once those obligations are met.

Capital Stack 1

Capital Stack Components

Senior Debt

Senior debt is the most secure part of the capital stack and holds the highest priority in terms of repayment. Banks or other financial institutions typically provide this type of debt and are backed by collateral, such as real estate or business assets.

Senior debt holders have the first claim on the borrower’s assets and cash flows in the event of default or financial distress. This makes senior debt a lower-risk investment for senior debt investors; however, with less risk comes lower potential returns.

For investors assessing the risk in commercial real estate investments, the loan-to-value ratio (LTV) is a crucial metric. It indicates the proportion of debt on a property compared to its total value.

For instance, a 65% LTV loan offers a greater safety margin than an 85% LTV loan. As a lender, if foreclosure becomes necessary, reclaiming your capital is more favorable at 65% of the property’s value than at 85%.

Mezzanine Debt

Once operating costs and the senior debt payment are covered, the remaining cash is allocated to service the mezzanine debt. This places mezzanine debt right after senior debt in terms of payment priority and its rank in the capital stack.

Commercial mezzanine debt resembles a home’s second mortgage or a HELOC. Due to its subordinate position, mezzanine debt often yields a higher return than senior debt. This is similar to why home equity loans usually carry a steeper interest rate compared to primary mortgages.

Typically a mezzanine lender provides this financing to bridge the gap between senior debt and equity. If the borrower cannot repay the loan, mezzanine lenders can convert their debt into an ownership interest, making them mezzanine debt holders.

Mezzanine debt provides investors an opportunity for higher returns than senior debt while still offering some protection in the event of default.

Equity Investment

Equity investment refers to the ownership stake in a company or project. It is the riskiest component of the capital stack, as equity investors are the last in line for repayment in the event of default.

Equity investors can be divided into two groups: 

  • common equity holders
  • preferred equity holders

Common equity holders: Lenders usually expect syndicators or sponsors to invest their personal funds into a venture through common equity, often referred to as ‘having skin in the game.’

Common equity is contributed by those who manage the property daily, such as the sponsor or operator, along with their investor partners. It represents the riskiest but potentially the most lucrative segment of the capital stack.

Related article: What Is a Syndicator In a Real Estate Syndication?

Preferred equity holders, on the other hand, have a higher priority than common equity holders in terms of repayment and often receive a fixed dividend. This makes preferred equity a more secure investment option for an equity investor.

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Positioning in Capital Stack

Here is an overview of the risk-reward profile of the 4 capital stack positions:

Position in Capital Stack Description Risk and Return
Senior Debt Occupies the bottom of the capital stack and has the highest claim on assets and cash flows in the event of a default. Lowest risk and consequently lower returns.
Mezzanine Debt A hybrid of debt and equity, subordinated to senior debt but higher than preferred and common equity. Higher risk than senior debt, requiring a higher yield to compensate.
Preferred Equity Positioned above mezzanine debt, preferred equity investors have a higher claim on assets than common equity holders. Higher risk than mezzanine debt, but comes with preferred status over common equity.
Common Equity At the top of the capital stack, common equity investors are last to be compensated and have the highest level of risk. Highest returns, contingent on the performance of the investment, but comes with the most risk.

An Example of a Capital Stack

Here’s an example of the capital stack for a mobile home park syndication with a purchase price of $4 million and a total cost of $5 million:

Capital Stack Mhp

Capital Stack Breakdown:

  1. Property Purchase: This represents the initial cost of the mobile home park, which is $4 million.

  2. Senior Debt (Bank Loan): This is the primary loan to purchase the property. In this example, the senior debt is $3,000,000, which is 60% of the total cost.

  3. Renovation Costs: These are the costs associated with renovating and improving the mobile home park. The renovation costs are $1,000,000, which is 20% of the total cost.

  4. Mezzanine Debt: This is the secondary financing used to bridge the gap between the senior debt, renovation costs, and equity. Here, the mezzanine debt is $750,000, 15% of the total cost.

  5. Equity Investors (LPs & GPs): This is the money invested by the syndication partners. The total equity contribution is $1,250,000, which is 25% of the total cost.

The capital stack provides a clear hierarchy of the financing sources, from the most secure (senior debt) to the riskiest (equity investors).

If you want to learn more about investing in mobile home parks (one of my favorite asset classes), check out this video:

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Involvement of Government and Regulatory Bodies

Governing entities such as federal governmental agencies, state securities commissions, regulatory authorities, and exchange commissions influence the capital stack through regulations and policies to maintain market stability and ensure investor protection.


At the federal level, regulatory bodies have oversight on various aspects of the financing sector.

For instance, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and the Federal Reserve oversees banks, while the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) supervises credit unions.

These agencies strive to ensure the financial stability of regulated institutions, with a particular focus on aspects such as capital requirements and risk management practices.

State securities commissions play a role in regulating capital markets within their jurisdictions. They implement and enforce securities regulations, monitor and license securities firms, and investigate potential fraud or abuse cases.

By maintaining a transparent and investor-friendly environment, these commissions help induce investor confidence, promote capital formation, and support economic growth.

Regulatory authorities, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States, focus on protecting investors, maintaining fair and orderly capital markets, and facilitating capital formation.

They enforce compliance with securities laws, regulate market participants through licensing and registration, and monitor and supervise trading activities, among other tasks.

Alternatives to Capital Stack

Private placements, private placement investments, and alternative investments offer a range of options for investors looking to diversify their portfolios beyond traditional real estate capital stack structures.

These investment types provide unique benefits and risk profiles, allowing investors to tailor their investment approach to their needs and preferences.

Investment Type Description Benefits Risks
Private Placements Sale of securities to a select group of investors, not publicly offered. Flexibility in structure and regulation. Varies based on the structure of the placement.
Private Placement Investments Financial instruments allowing participation in privately placed securities. Portfolio diversification, higher returns, access to niche markets. Higher risk due to exclusivity and limited disclosure.
Alternative Investments Non-traditional asset classes like commodities, collectibles, and private equity. Less market correlation, hedge against volatility, higher potential returns. Longer holding period, increased due diligence required.
Private Equity Investing directly in private companies or buyouts of public companies. Opportunities for significant returns. Illiquidity, concentration risks, requires long-term perspective.
Private Investments Direct investment into private assets or companies. High returns, ability to invest in niche assets. Lack of liquidity, limited regulatory oversight.


Investment opportunities in a capital stack provide a range of options for investors looking to diversify their portfolios. Each layer of the stack corresponds to various levels of risk and potential return on investment. Investors should analyze the long-term stability and past performance of the different layers before making any decisions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key components of a capital stack?

A capital stack typically consists of four main components: Senior Debt, Mezzanine Debt, Preferred Equity, and Common Equity. These components represent different funding sources for a project, with varying levels of risk and return.

How does the priority of repayment work in a capital stack?

The priority of repayment in a capital stack follows a hierarchical order, with Senior Debt being the least risky and holding the highest priority for repayment, followed by Mezzanine Debt, Preferred Equity, and lastly, Common Equity. In the event of a repayment, the capital sources receive their payments in the order mentioned, with common equity holders being paid last.

What is the difference between senior and subordinated debt in a capital stack?

Senior Debt is the least risky component of a capital stack and holds the highest priority for repayment. It is typically secured by assets and has lower interest rates compared to subordinated debt. Subordinated debt, which includes Mezzanine Debt, is riskier and holds a lower priority for repayment compared to senior debt. Subordinated debt usually has higher interest rates to compensate for the increased risk.

How can a capital stack affect the risk and return of an investment?

The structure of a capital stack directly affects the risk and return levels of an investment. Investments with higher exposure to riskier components, such as common equity and mezzanine debt, usually offer higher potential returns to compensate for the increased risk. Conversely, investments with a larger proportion of senior debt tend to be less risky, resulting in lower potential returns.

What role do equity and mezzanine financing play in a capital stack?

Equity, including Common and Preferred stock, represents an ownership interest in the project and is usually the riskiest component of a capital stack. Mezzanine financing, a form of subordinated debt, is a hybrid between debt and equity. It carries a higher level of risk compared to senior debt but generally offers higher returns for investors. Both equity and mezzanine financing play a crucial role in balancing risk and return within a capital stack.

How do investors use capital stack analysis to make investment decisions?

Investors analyze the capital stack of a project to understand the structure of the investment and assess the associated risks and returns. By examining the composition of senior debt, mezzanine debt, preferred equity, and common equity, investors can determine the level of risk they are exposed to in an investment and make informed decisions accordingly. Capital stack analysis helps investors identify investment opportunities that suit their risk tolerance and return expectations.