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A duplex is comprised of two separate units that are found within the same structure, whereas an apartment is a unit that is located in a residential complex among other units. Since there are only two units in a duplex, you only have to share a wall with one other unit, while in an apartment, you will likely have neighbors on both sides of your unit. As an investor the apartment gives you a far greater earning potential since there are more renters per building. Typically we classify anything above 4 units as an apartment building, however there is no set number that makes that determination.
For anyone that is interested in real estate investments as a long term wealth creator, multifamily real estate makes a lot of sense. Quality space to live for any tenant class will always be in demand across almost any market regardless of the economic landscape. On top of the consistent demand, the long term leverage created, the long term tax benefits and the diminishing risk across multiple units allows for long term, generational wealth creation if done correctly.
It's a good idea to consider the exit strategy that fits your ambition first, and then work your way backwards into acquisitions. Having a clear idea as to the criteria that you're confident and comfortable within- and why those boundaries were created - should give you a boost in knowing you may be ready to begin your journey into complexes. A multi-family specialist may be someone to consider chatting with in an effort to help you define those parameters for yourself.
On one hand, everything is for sale if the price is right. So keeping track of the markets you own in and what cap rates other units in your markets are selling for will keep you in the know and let you know when your property is worth what you’re willing to take for it. On a more calculated level, when the returns you are getting based off the equity you have available in the property drop below what units in the local market are selling for, that is the time to consider selling and using the funds to purchase an investment with higher returns.