What Is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT)?

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.

Key Takeaways

  • A real estate investment trust (REIT) is a company that owns, operates, or finances income-producing properties.
  • REITs generate a steady income stream for investors but offer little in the way of capital appreciation.
  • Most REITs are publicly traded like stocks, which makes them highly liquid (unlike physical real estate investments).
  • REITs invest in most real estate property types, including apartment buildings, cell towers, data centers, hotels, medical facilities, offices, retail centers, and warehouses.

How REITs Work

Congress established REITs in 1960 as an amendment to the Cigar Excise Tax Extension. The provision allows investors to buy shares in commercial real estate portfolios—something that was previously available only to wealthy individuals and through large financial intermediaries.

Properties in a REIT portfolio may include apartment complexes, data centers, healthcare facilities, hotels, infrastructure—in the form of fiber cables, cell towers, and energy pipelines—office buildings, retail centers, self-storage, timberland, and warehouses.

In general, REITs specialize in a specific real estate sector. However, diversified and specialty REITs may hold different types of properties in their portfolios, such as a REIT that consists of both office and retail properties. 

Many REITs are publicly traded on major securities exchanges, and investors can buy and sell them like stocks throughout the trading session. These REITs typically trade under substantial volume and are considered very liquid instruments. 

1:34

Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT)

What Qualifies as a REIT?

Most REITs have a straightforward business model: The REIT leases space and collects rents on the properties, then distributes that income as dividends to shareholders. Mortgage REITs don't own real estate, but finance real estate, instead. These REITs earn income from the interest on their investments.

To , a company must comply with certain provisions in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). These requirements include to primarily own income-generating real estate for the long term and distribute income to shareholders. Specifically, a company must meet the following requirements to qualify as a REIT:

  • Invest at least 75% of total assets in real estate, cash, or U.S. Treasuries
  • Derive at least 75% of gross income from rents, interest on mortgages that finance real property, or real estate sales
  • Pay a minimum of 90% of taxable income in the form of shareholder dividends each year
  • Be an entity that's taxable as a corporation
  • Be managed by a board of directors or trustees
  • Have at least 100 shareholders after its first year of existence 
  • Have no more than 50% of its shares held by five or fewer individuals

Today, it's estimated that REITs collectively own about $3 trillion in gross assets; publicly traded equity REITs account for $2 trillion.

Types of REITs

There are three types of REITs:

  • Equity REITs. Most REITs are equity REITs, which own and manage income-producing real estate. Revenues are generated primarily through rents (not by reselling properties).
  • Mortgage REITs. Mortgage REITs lend money to real estate owners and operators either directly through mortgages and loans, or indirectly through the acquisition of mortgage-backed securities. Their earnings are generated primarily by the net interest margin—the spread between the interest they earn on mortgage loans and the cost of funding these loans. This model makes them potentially sensitive to interest rate increases.
  • Hybrid REITs. These REITs use the investment strategies of both equity and mortgage REITs. 

Type of REIT

Holdings

 

Equity

 

Owns and operates income-producing real estate

 

Mortgage

 

Holds mortgages on real property

 

Hybrid

 

Owns properties and holds mortgages

REITs can be further classified based on how their shares are bought and held:

  • Publicly Traded REITs. Shares of publicly traded REITs are listed on a national securities exchange, where they are bought and sold by individual investors. They are regulated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
  • Public Non-Traded REITs. These REITs are also registered with the SEC but don’t trade on national securities exchanges. As a result, they are less liquid than publicly traded REITs. Still, they tend to be more stable because they’re not subject to market fluctuations.
  • Private REITs. These REITs aren’t registered with the SEC and don’t trade on national securities exchanges. In general, private REITs can be sold only to institutional investors.

How to Invest in REITs

You can invest in publicly traded REITs—as well as REIT mutual funds and REIT exchange-traded funds (ETFs)—by purchasing shares through a broker. You can buy shares of a non-traded REIT through a broker or financial advisor who participates in the non-traded REIT’s offering.

REITs are also included in a growing number of defined-benefit and defined-contribution investment plans. An estimated 87 million U.S. investors own REITs through their retirement savings and other investment funds, according to , a Washington, D.C.-based REIT research firm.

REIT activities resulted in the distribution of $69 billion in dividend income in 2019 (the most recent data available).

There are more than 225 publicly-traded REITs in the U.S., which means you’ll have some homework to do before you decide which REIT to buy. Be sure to consider the REIT’s management team and track record—and find out how they’re compensated. If it's performance-based compensation, odds are they’ll be working hard to pick the right investments and choose the best strategies.

Of course, it’s also a good idea to look at the numbers, such as anticipated growth in earnings per share and current dividend yields. A particularly helpful metric is the REIT’s funds from operations (FFO), which is calculated by adding depreciation and amortization to earnings, and then subtracting any gains on sales. 

Pros and Cons of Investing in REITs

REITs can play an important part in an investment portfolio because they can offer a strong, stable annual dividend and the potential for long-term capital appreciation. REIT total return performance for the last 20 years has outperformed the S&P 500 Index, other indices, and the rate of inflation. As with all investments, REITs have their advantages and disadvantages.

On the plus side, REITs are easy to buy and sell, as most trade on public exchanges—a feature that mitigates some of the traditional drawbacks of real estate. Performance-wise, REITs offer attractive risk-adjusted returns and stable cash flow. Also, a real estate presence can be good for a portfolio because it provides diversification and dividend-based income—and the dividends are often higher than you can achieve with other investments.

On the downside, REITs don't offer much in terms of capital appreciation. As part of their structure, they must pay 90% of income back to investors. So, only 10% of taxable income can be reinvested back into the REIT to buy new holdings. Other negatives are that REIT dividends are taxed as regular income, and some REITs have high management and transaction fees.

Pros
  • Liquidity

  • Diversification

  • Transparency

  • Stable cash flow through dividends

  • Attractive risk-adjusted returns

Cons
  • Low growth

  • Dividends are taxed as regular income

  • Subject to market risk

  • Potential for high management and transaction fees

REIT Fraud

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recommends that investors should be wary of anyone who tries to sell REITs that aren't registered with the SEC. It advises that "You can verify the registration of both publicly traded and non-traded REITs through the . You can also use EDGAR to review a REIT's annual and quarterly reports as well as any offering prospectus."

It's also a good idea to check out the broker or investment advisor who recommends the REIT. The SEC has a that allows you to look up if an investment professional is licensed and registered.

Real World Example of a REIT

Another consideration when choosing REITs is to look at the sectors of the real estate market that are hot. Which booming sectors of the economy, in general, can be tapped into via real estate? As an example, healthcare is one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S.—especially in the growth of medical buildings, outpatient care centers, eldercare facilities, and retirement communities.

Several REITs focus on this sector. Healthpeak Properties—formerly HCP— is one example. As of July 22, 2020, it had a market cap of nearly US$14.4 billion, with some 5 million shares traded daily. Its portfolio focuses on three core asset classes: life sciences facilities, medical offices, and senior housing.