Whether you're curious about the investment potential of real estate or simply sick of infomercials promising millions of dollars in returns from a new and obscure way of investing in real estate, it is worth learning how wealth is created through real estate.
(For more information on buying a home, see: A Guide to Buying a House in the U.S.)
We're not looking at strategies for how to profit from real estate. Instead, this article will focus on the basic ways that money is made through real estate. And, fortunately for us, these haven't changed in centuries, no matter what kind of gloss the gurus of the moment try to put on it.
Tutorial: Exploring Real Estate Investments
The most common source for real estate profit is the appreciation - the increase in the value - of the property in question. This is achieved in different ways for different types of real estate. And, most importantly, it is only realized through selling or refinancing. (For related information, be sure to check out Avoiding A Big Tax Bill On Real Estate Gains.)
The most obvious source of appreciation for undeveloped land is, of course, developing it. As cities expand, land outside the limits becomes more and more valuable because of the potential for it to be purchased by developers. Then developers build houses that raise that value even further.
Appreciation in land can also come from discoveries of valuable minerals or materials, provided that the buyer holds the rights. An extreme example of this would be striking oil, but appreciation can also come from gravel deposits, trees and so on.
When looking at residential properties, location is often the biggest factor in appreciation. As the neighborhood around a home evolves, adding transit routes, schools, shopping centers, playgrounds and so on, the value climbs. Of course, this trend can also work in reverse, with home values falling as a neighborhood decays.
Home improvements can also spur appreciation, and this is something a property owner can directly control. Putting in a new bathroom, upgrading to a heated garage and remodeling to an open concept kitchen are just some of the ways a property owner may try to increase the value of a home. Many of these techniques have been refined to high-return fixes by property flippers who specialize in adding value to a home in a short time.
Commercial property gains value for the exact same reasons as the previous two types: location, development and improvements. The best commercial properties are in demand, and that drives the price up on them. (For related reading, see 7 Steps To A Hot Commercial Real Estate Deal.)
The Role of Inflation in Appreciation
Of course, there is one major factor we skipped in our summary - the economic impact of inflation. A 10% inflation of the dollar means that your dollar can only buy about 90% of the same good the following year, and that includes property. If a piece of land was worth $100,000 in 1970, and it sat dormant, undeveloped and unloved, it would still be worth many times more today. Because of runaway inflation throughout the '70s and a steady pace since, it would likely take over $560,000 to purchase that land today - assuming $100,000 was fair market value at the time and all other factors remained constant.
So, inflation alone can cause appreciation in real estate, but it is a bit of a Pyrrhic victory. Even though you may get five times the money due to inflation, many other goods cost five times as much to buy now. (Learn more in 5 Tales Of Out-Of-Control Inflation.)
Generally referred to as rent, income - or regular payments - from real estate can come in many forms.
Raw Land Income
Depending on your rights to the land, companies may pay you royalties for any discoveries or regular payments for any structures they add. These include pump jacks, pipelines, gravel pits, access roads, cell towers and so on. Raw land can also be rented for production, usually agricultural production.
Residential Property Income
Although it is possible that you may earn income from the installation of a cell tower or other structure, the vast majority of residential property income comes in the form of basic rent. Your tenants pay a fixed amount per month - and this will go up with inflation and demand - and you take out your costs from it and claim the remaining portion as rental income. While it is true that you will get an insurance payout if your tenants burn down the place, the payout only covers the cost of replacing what is lost and is not income in a real sense.
Commercial Property Income
Commercial properties can produce income from the aforementioned sources - with basic rent again being the most common - but can also add one more in the form of option income. Many commercial tenants will pay fees for contractual options like the right of first refusal on the office next door. These are essentially options that tenants pay a premium to hold, whether they exercise them or not. Options income is sometimes used for raw land and even residential property, but they are far from common.
What About REITs or MICs?
Real estate investment trusts (REIT) and Mortgage Investment Corporations (MIC) are generally considered to be great ways of getting income from real estate. This is true, but only in the sense that real estate is the underlying security. With a REIT, the owner of multiple commercial properties sells shares to investors - usually to fund the purchase of more properties - and then passes on the rental income in the form of distribution. The REIT is the landlord for the tenants (who pay rent), but the owners of the REIT get the income once the expenses of running the buildings and the REIT are taken out.
MICs are even a further step removed, as they invest in private mortgages rather than the underlying properties. MICs are different from MBSs in that they hold entire mortgages and pass on the interest from payments to investors, rather than securitizing the interest streams independent of the original mortgage. Still, they are not so much real estate investments as they are debt investments, and thus outside of our area of interest. (Learn more in How To Assess A REIT.)
Smoke and Mirrors
Similar to securities with real estate underlying the investment, most of the alternative "blow your mind with super fantastic return" methods are merely a layer on top of these two basic steams of income.
For example, there are informal residential real estate options where you pay a fee to have the right to buy a house at a given time, say after a month, for an agreed upon price. Then, you find investors who will pay more than your option price for the property. In this case, the premium you get is essentially a finder's fee for matching a person looking for an investment with a person looking to sell - no different than a real estate agent. Although this is income, it doesn't come from buying (i.e. holding the deed to) a piece of real estate.
Similarly, no money down or OPM deals are simply the financing aspect of the deal - it doesn't change how the buyer is planning to make money in the long run.
The Bottom Line
If someone is trying to sell you on a new way to make money in real estate other than buying low and selling high or collecting rent, they're probably trying to sell you on the process of real estate investing rather than a new mechanism for making profits. Whether the process is worth it or not is up to you, but know that it doesn't change how money will be made (or lost) in the end.
For related reading, also take a look at 5 Types Of REITS And How To Invest In Them.