Real Estate Investment Trust

A real estate investment trust (REIT) is a company that owns, operates, or finances income-generating real estate. Modeled after mutual funds, REITs pool the capital of numerous investors. This makes it possible for individual investors to earn dividends from real estate investments—without having to buy, manage, or finance any properties themselves.

Types of REITs

1. Retail REITs
Approximately 24% of REIT investments are in shopping malls and freestanding retail.3 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.

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.3

Within each 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 the real estate itself.3 The best known but not necessarily the greatest investments are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-sponsored enterprises that buy mortgages on the secondary market.

But 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.

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