5 Types of REITs and How to Invest in Them:
Real estate investment trusts (REITs) are a key consideration when constructing any equity or fixed-income portfolio. They can provide added diversification, potentially higher total returns, and/or lower overall risk.
REIT investing involves real estate investment trusts. REITs own and/or manage income-producing commercial real estate, whether it’s the properties themselves or the mortgages on those properties.
Where REIT investing is concerned, you can invest in the companies individually, through an exchange-traded fund, or with a mutual fund. There are many types of REITs available.
Here we look at a few of the main categories of REITS and their historical returns. By the end of this article, you should have a better idea of REIT investing in general, as well as when and what to buy.
Historical Returns of REITs
Real estate investment trusts are historically one of the best-performing asset classes. The FTSE NAREIT Equity REIT Index is what most investors use to gauge the performance of the U.S. real estate market. As of June 2022, the index’s 10-year average annual return was 8.34%.
Over a 25-year period, the index returned 9.05% compared to 7.97% for the S&P 500 and 7.41% for the Russell 2000.
Historically, investors looking for yield have done better investing in real estate than fixed income, the traditional asset class for this purpose. A carefully constructed portfolio should consider both.
5 Types of REITs
1. Retail REITs
Approximately 24% of REIT investments are in shopping malls and freestanding retail.
This represents the single biggest investment by type in America. Whatever shopping center you frequent, it’s likely owned by a REIT.
When considering an investment in retail real estate, one first needs to examine the retail industry itself. Is it financially healthy at present and what is the outlook for the future?
It’s important to remember that retail REITs make money from the rent they charge tenants. If retailers are experiencing cash flow problems due to poor sales, it’s possible they could delay or even default on those monthly payments, eventually being forced into bankruptcy.
At that point, a new tenant needs to be found, which is never easy. Therefore, it’s crucial that you invest in REITs with the strongest anchor tenants possible. These include grocery and home improvement stores.
Once you’ve made your industry assessment, your focus should turn to the REITs themselves. Like any investment, it’s important that they have good profits, strong balance sheets, and as little debt as possible (especially the short-term kind).
In a poor economy, retail REITs with significant cash positions will be presented with opportunities to buy good real estate at distressed prices. The best-run companies will take advantage of this.
That said, there are longer-term concerns for the retail REIT space in that shopping is increasingly shifting away from the mall model to online. Owners of space have continued to innovate to fill their space with offices and other non-retail-oriented tenants, but the subsector is under pressure.
2. Residential REITs
These are REITs that own and operate multi-family rental apartment buildings as well as manufactured housing. When looking to invest in this type of REIT, one should consider several factors before jumping in.
For instance, the best apartment markets tend to be where home affordability is low relative to the rest of the country. In places like New York and Los Angeles, the high cost of single homes forces more people to rent, which drives up the price landlords can charge each month. As a result, the biggest residential REITs tend to focus on large urban centers.
Within a specific market, investors should look for population and job growth. Generally, when there is a net inflow of people to a city, it’s because jobs are readily available and the economy is growing. A falling vacancy rate coupled with rising rents is a sign that demand is improving.
As long as the apartment supply in a particular market remains low and demand continues to rise, residential REITs should do well. As with all companies, those with the strongest balance sheets and the most available capital normally do the best.
3. Healthcare REITs
Healthcare REITs will be an interesting subsector to watch as Americans age and healthcare costs continue to climb. Healthcare REITs invest in the real estate of hospitals, medical centers, nursing facilities, and retirement homes.
The success of this real estate is directly tied to the healthcare system. A majority of the operators of these facilities rely on occupancy fees, Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements as well as private pay. As long as the funding of healthcare is a question mark, so are healthcare REITs.
Things you should look for in a healthcare REIT include a diversified group of customers as well as investments in a number of different property types. Focus is good to an extent but so is spreading your risk.
Generally, an increase in the demand for healthcare services (which should happen with an aging population) is good for healthcare real estate. Therefore, in addition to customer and property-type diversification, look for companies whose healthcare experience is significant, whose balance sheets are strong, and whose access to low-cost capital is high.
4. Office REITs
Office REITs invest in office buildings. They receive rental income from tenants who have usually signed long-term leases. Four questions come to mind for anyone interested in investing in an office REIT.
- What is the state of the economy and how high is the unemployment rate?
- What are vacancy rates like?
- How is the area in which the REIT invests doing economically?
- How much capital does it have for acquisitions?
Try to find REITs that invest in economic strongholds. It’s better to own a bunch of average buildings in Washington, D.C. than it is to own prime office space in Detroit, for example.
5. Mortgage REITs
Approximately 10% of REIT investments are in mortgages as opposed to real estate itself. The best-known but not necessarily the greatest investments are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They are government-sponsored enterprises that buy mortgages on the secondary market.
Just because this type of REIT invests in mortgages instead of equity doesn’t mean it comes without risks. An increase in interest rates would translate into a decrease in mortgage REIT book values, driving stock prices lower.
In addition, mortgage REITs get a considerable amount of their capital through secured and unsecured debt offerings. Should interest rates rise, future financing will be more expensive, reducing the value of a portfolio of loans.
In a low-interest-rate environment with the prospect of rising rates, most mortgage REITs trade at a discount to net asset value per share. The trick is finding the right one.
Advantages and Disadvantages of REIT Investing
As with all investments, REITs have their advantages and disadvantages. One of the biggest benefits REITs have to offer is their high-yield dividends. REITs are required to pay out 90% of taxable income to shareholders. Thus, REIT dividends are often much higher than the average stock on the S&P 500.
Another benefit is portfolio diversification. Not too many people have the ability to go out and purchase a piece of commercial real estate in order to generate passive income. However, REITs offer the general public the capability to do exactly this.
Furthermore, buying and selling real estate often takes a while, tying up cash flow in the process. Yet REITs are highly liquid—most can be bought or sold with the click of a button.
There are some drawbacks to REITs of which investors should be aware, most notably the potential tax liability REITs can create. Most REIT dividends don’t meet the IRS definition of qualified dividends. That means that the above-average dividends offered by REITs are taxed at a higher rate than most dividends.
REITs do qualify for the 20% pass-through deduction but most investors will need to pay a large amount of taxes on REIT dividends if they hold REITs in a standard brokerage account.
Another potential issue with REITs is their sensitivity to interest rates. Generally, when the Federal Reserve raises interest rates in an attempt to tighten up spending, REIT prices fall.
Furthermore, there are property-specific risks to different types of REITs. Hotel REITs, for example, often do extremely poorly during times of economic downfall.
How to Invest in REITs
As referenced earlier, you can purchase shares in a REIT that’s listed on major stock exchanges. You can also buy shares in a REIT mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF).
To do so, you must open a brokerage account. Or, if your workplace retirement plan offers REIT investments, you might invest with that option. Check with your plan administrator to see what REIT investments are available.
If you decide to open a brokerage account (and don’t already have one), the process is straightforward. You’ll provide basic contact details and certain personal details (e.g., Social Security number and a valid ID). You’ll be asked for some additional information about your income, occupation, and investing experience.
Depending on which broker you choose, you’ll be able to sign up online at their website or mobile app, or in person at a branch location.
Once your account is open and you can access it online, use the education and research tools available to begin reviewing possible REIT investments. Your brokerage account should also have a screening tool that can assist you in fine-tuning your research and selection.
Once you’ve chosen the REIT investment that best fits your financial needs and investment goals, you can proceed to buy it online. Before you do, make sure you understand the nature of fees that your broker may charge and fees/expenses associated with the actual investment (such as fund expense ratios).
Just as with your other investments, you’ll want to monitor your REIT investment periodically.