REITs Unveiled: A Comprehensive Guide for Investors

Real estate investment trusts, or REITs, are great for diversifying your portfolio and earning regular income. Explore their benefits and risks here.

REIT spelled out in wooden blocks with a pyramid of piggy banks on top.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Real estate investment trusts (REITs) have long been a popular investment vehicle, allowing individual investors to access the benefits of the real estate market without the complexities and capital requirements of direct property ownership. REITs offer a unique blend of potential capital appreciation, regular income streams and diversification, making them an attractive option for intermediate-level investors looking to expand their investment portfolio.

This in-depth article will provide a comprehensive understanding of REITs, their benefits, risks and essential factors to consider before investing.

What are REITs?

REITs own, operate or finance income-generating real estate properties. They were introduced in the United States in 1960 to provide individual investors access to the benefits of real estate investment, traditionally available only to large institutional investors. To qualify as a REIT, a company must meet specific criteria set by tax authorities, including distributing a significant portion of its taxable income as dividends to shareholders.

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Types of REITs

Equity REITs. The most common type, equity REITs own and operate income-generating properties. They generate revenue primarily from rental income and capital appreciation of their real estate holdings. Equity REITs cover a range of property types, such as commercial, residential, industrial and specialized sectors like health care and data centers.

Mortgage REITs. Unlike equity REITs, mortgage REITs invest in real estate mortgages or mortgage-backed securities. They earn income chiefly from the interest generated by the mortgage loans they hold or mortgage-backed securities they invest in. Mortgage REITs can be further divided into residential, commercial or hybrid (a combination of both).

Potential benefits of investing in REITs

There are several benefits investors can use to their advantage when it comes to investing in REITS.

Dividend income. One of the primary attractions of REITs is their ability to provide a consistent stream of dividends to shareholders. REITs are required to distribute at least 90% of their taxable income to shareholders, making them a potentially reliable income-producing investment. Dividends from REITs can be particularly appealing to income-oriented investors seeking a regular cash flow.

Diversification. Real estate as an asset class has historically exhibited a low correlation with stocks and bonds, making REITs an effective tool for reducing overall portfolio risk. By investing in REITs, investors can gain exposure to a range of real estate sectors and geographies, spreading their risk across different properties and markets.

Professional management. Investing in REITs allows individuals to benefit from professional management without the hassles of direct property ownership. A skilled management team handles property selection, acquisition, leasing, maintenance and other operational aspects of the REIT. This expertise can contribute to the efficient management of properties, aiding in potential rental income growth and property value appreciation.

Liquidity. Unlike direct property ownership, which can be illiquid and involve a lengthy process for buying or selling, REITs trade on major stock exchanges. This liquidity allows investors to easily buy or sell their REIT holdings at market prices, enhancing flexibility and providing access to their invested capital when needed.

Considerations and risks

While REITs can offer investors a passive source of income and portfolio diversification, they do come with several risks.

Interest rate sensitivity. When interest rates rise, the borrowing costs for REITs increase, potentially impacting their profitability. What’s more, higher interest rates can make these dividend-yielding investments less attractive compared to fixed-income instruments. It's important to note that certain types of REITs, such as those focused on long-term leases or those with fixed-rate mortgages, may be less sensitive to interest rate fluctuations.

Market and economic conditions. Like other investments, REITs are subject to market volatility and economic cycles. During economic downturns, property values may decline, occupancy rates may decrease, and rental income growth may slow. Conversely, during periods of economic expansion, REITs can benefit from increased property demand, rental rate growth and potential appreciation in property values.

Sector and property-specific risks. Different types of REITs are exposed to specific risks related to their property sectors. For instance, retail-focused REITs may face challenges due to the rise of e-commerce and changing consumer preferences. On the other hand, health care REITs may be influenced by regulatory changes, health care industry dynamics or shifts in demand for specific health care services.

Tax considerations. REIT dividends are generally subject to ordinary income tax rates, which may be higher than the tax rates on qualified dividends from stocks. However, certain dividends from REITs may qualify for a preferential tax rate. Investors should consult with tax advisers to understand the tax implications of investing in a REIT.

Evaluating and investing in REITs

When evaluating REITs, investors should consider a variety of factors including:

Property type and quality. Factors such as location, tenant quality, lease terms and property management can significantly impact the REIT's performance.

Occupancy rates. Higher occupancy rates indicate stronger rental income potential. Evaluate the historical and current occupancy rates of the properties within the REIT's portfolio.

Lease terms. Long-term leases with built-in rent escalations can provide stability and potential income growth. Investors should understand the terms of leases, including lease durations, escalations and tenant diversification.

Financial metric. Investors should analyze key financial metrics such as funds from operations (FFO), net operating income (NOI), debt levels and interest coverage ratio to assess the REIT's financial health and ability to generate sustainable income.

Investment strategies

REITs present intermediate-level investors with a compelling opportunity to gain exposure to the real estate market while enjoying potential capital appreciation, regular income streams and diversification benefits. There are a variety of investment strategies for those considering investing in REITs:

Direct investment. Investors can purchase shares of individual REITs directly on stock exchanges. This approach allows for more targeted exposure to specific property types, sectors or geographic locations.

REIT mutual funds or ETFs. Investors can also consider investing in REIT-focused mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs). These funds offer diversification across multiple REITs and provide a convenient way to gain exposure to the broader real estate market.

Risk and return profile. Aggressive investors may seek higher-growth REITs with potentially higher risks, while conservative investors may prefer more stable and income-focused REITs. It's important to align the chosen REIT investment strategy with personal risk tolerance, investment goals and time horizon.

By understanding the nuances of REITs, evaluating their risks and conducting a thorough analysis, investors can make informed decisions as to the benefits they might receive by incorporating REITs into their investment portfolios. As with any investment, due diligence, ongoing monitoring and understanding one's risk tolerance are essential elements of successful REIT investing.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Kris Maksimovich, AIF®, CRPC®, CPFA®, CRC®
President and Founder, Global Wealth Advisors

Kris Maksimovich, AIF®, CRPC®, CRC®, is president of Global Wealth Advisors in Lewisville, Texas. Since it was formed in 2008, GWA continues to expand with offices around the country. Securities and advisory services offered through Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. Financial planning services offered through Global Wealth Advisors are separate and unrelated to Commonwealth.