REITs For Dummies
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Investing in rental real estate that you’re responsible for can be a lot of work. Think about it this way: With rental properties, you have all the headaches of maintaining a property, including finding and dealing with tenants, without the benefits of living in and enjoying the property.

Unless you’re extraordinarily interested in and motivated to own investment real estate, start with and perhaps limit yourself to a couple of the much simpler yet still profitable methods discussed here.

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Find a place to call home

During your adult life, you need to put a roof over your head. You may be able to sponge off your folks or some other relative or friend for a number of years to cut costs and save money. If you’re content with this arrangement, you can minimize your housing costs and save more for a down payment and possibly toward other goals. Go for it, if your friend or relative will!

But what if neither you nor your loved ones are up for the challenge of cohabitating? For the long term, because you need a place to live, why not own real estate instead of renting it? Real estate is the only investment that you can live in or rent to produce income. You can’t live in a stock, bond, or mutual fund! Unless you expect to move within the next few years or live in an area where owning costs much more than renting, buying a place probably makes good long-term financial sense. In the long term, owning usually costs less than renting, and it allows you to build equity in an asset.

Think carefully before converting your home into a rental

If you move into another home, turning your current home into a rental property may make sense. After all, it saves you the time and cost of finding a separate rental property.

Unfortunately, many people hold on to their current home for the wrong reasons when they buy another. Homeowners often make this mistake when they must sell their homes in a depressed market (such as the one that existed in many areas in the late 2000s). Nobody likes to sell their home for less than they paid for it, so some owners hold on to their homes until prices recover.

If you plan to move and want to keep your current home as a long-term investment property, you can. But turning your home into a short-term rental is usually a bad move for the following reasons:

  • You may not want the responsibilities of a landlord, yet you force yourself into the landlord business when you convert your home into a rental.
  • If the home eventually does rebound in value, you owe tax on the profit if your property is a rental when you sell it and you don’t buy another rental property. You can purchase another rental property through a 1031 exchange to defer paying taxes on your profit.

Real estate investment trusts

Real estate investment trusts (REITs) are entities that generally invest in different types of property, such as shopping centers, apartments, and other rental buildings. For a fee, REIT managers identify and negotiate the purchase of properties that they believe are good investments, and then they manage these properties, including all tenant relations. Thus, REITs are a good way to invest in real estate if you don’t want the hassles and headaches that come with directly owning and managing rental property.

Surprisingly, most books and blogs that focus on real estate investing neglect REITs. Why? I’ve come to the conclusion that they overlook these entities for the following reasons:

  • If you invest in real estate through REITs, you don’t need to read a long, complicated book on real estate investment or keep coming back to a blog. Therefore, books often focus on more complicated direct real estate investments (where you buy and own property yourself).
  • Real estate brokers write many of these books. Not surprisingly, the real estate investment strategies touted in these books include and advocate the use of such brokers. You can buy REITs without real estate brokers. Blogs and websites aren’t much better as they are often run by folks selling something else like a high-priced seminar or other direct investment “opportunity.”
  • A certain snobbishness prevails among people who consider themselves to be “serious” real estate investors. These folks thumb their noses at the benefit of REITs in an investment portfolio. One real estate writer/investor went so far as to say that REITs aren’t “real” real estate investments.
Please. No, you can’t drive your friends by a REIT to show it off. But those who put their egos aside when making real estate investments are happy that they considered REITs, and have enjoyed annualized gains similar to stocks in general over the decades.

You can research and purchase shares in individual REITs, which trade as securities on the major stock exchanges. An even better approach is to buy a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund that invests in a diversified mixture of REITs.

In addition to providing you with a diversified, low-hassle real estate investment, REITs offer an additional advantage that traditional rental real estate doesn’t: You can easily invest in REITs through a retirement account (for example, an IRA). As with traditional real estate investments, you can even buy REITs, mutual fund REITs, and exchange-traded fund REITs with borrowed money. You can buy with 50 percent down, called buying on margin, when you purchase such investments through a non-retirement brokerage account.

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