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A Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) is a specialty corporate entity that owns and operates real estate to generate a profit. Several types exist. An Equity REIT typically generates income by leasing and managing income-producing property. The type of property makes no difference -- commercial, multi-family residential, retail, office, industrial, or a mix of specialty developments, including medical facilities and retirement communities.
Shares are sold to individual investors, who then receive a steady income based on operating earnings. According to some estimates, at least 225 publicly-traded REITs exist in the United States, all traded on a national securities exchange and regulated by the SEC. Public, non-traded REITs also exist, and are SEC-regulated. Private real estate investment trusts are not registered and not publicly-traded, offered instead only to a select group of investors. Picking the right type for individual investment goals can involve extensive homework.
Internal Revenue Service regulations are strictly applied. They stipulate that an REIT must be a taxable corporation, and derive at least 75% of its income from real estate sales, rents or mortgage interest. The corporation must then return at least 90% of taxable income to shareholders on an annual basis. There are additional requirements, in addition to holding at least 75% of assets in real estate, U.S. Treasury bonds or cash.
An REIT can provide important liquidity to an investment portfolio, with a typically steady annual income stream, although there may be little capital appreciation. The yield from different types of REIT can vary substantially. Equity REITs own and manage real property, while Mortgage REITs deal in financing products and mortgage-backed securities; both can be affected by the market, interest rates, the economy and consumer confidence. In addition, dividends paid to investors are treated as regular income by the IRS.
As with any form of investing, it's important to investigate the pros and cons, not only of REITs in a general sense, but the performance over time of a specific investment trust. On the plus side are the ability to diversify an investment portfolio, and the relatively secure potential of a steady return and low risk in tandem with the transparency that comes from regulatory oversight.
On the minus side are the low potential for actual growth in value, the REIT's reinvestment and expansion potential which is capped at 10% annually, and the unknown effect of real estate market volatility over the term of the investment. High management and transaction fees can also affect the financial return.
Investing in an REIT, however, is a viable way to gain knowledge and establish a presence in real estate, especially in currently hot segments of the market. Especially for a beginner, REIT investment can represent a path to future growth and security, leading to additional real estate options over the long term.