Real estate investment trusts (REITs) have established themselves as a means for the smaller investor to directly participate in the higher returns generated by real estate properties. In the past, these trusts were considered to be minor offshoots of unit investment trusts, in the same category as energy or other sector-related trusts that had been created, but when the Global Industry Classification Standard granted REITs the status of being a separate asset class the rules changed and their popularity soared.

In this article, we will explain how REITs work and then examine the unique tax implications and savings they offer to regular investors. (To begin with an overview of these assets and what they can do for your portfolio, see The REIT Way.)

Basic Characteristics of REITs
REITs are a pool of properties and mortgages bundled together and offered as a security in the form of unit investment trusts. Each unit in an REIT represents a proportionate fraction of ownership in each of the underlying properties. REITs on the NYSE possess a market cap of $423 billion. In 2011, nearly 140 REITs were traded actively on the New York Stock Exchange and other markets.

SEE: Exploring Real Estate Investments

Typically, REITs tend to be more value than growth-oriented, and are chiefly composed of small and mid cap holdings.

The IRS requires REITs to pay out at least 90% of their incomes to unitholders (the equivalent of shareholders). This is similar to corporations, and means REITs provide higher yields than those typically found in the traditional fixed-income markets. They also tend to be less volatile than traditional stocks because they swing with the real estate market. (To learn about REIT valuation, see Basic Valuation Of A Real Estate Investment Trust.)

Three Types of REITs
REITs can be broken down into three categories: equity REITs, mortgage REITs and hybrid REITs.

  • Equity REITs - These trusts own and/or rent properties and collect the rental income, dividends and capital gains from property sales. The triple source of income makes this type very popular.
  • Mortgage REITs - These trusts carry a greater risk because of their exposure to interest rates. If interest rates rise, then the value of mortgage REITs can drop substantially. (To learn more, see Behind The Scenes Of Your Mortgage.)
  • Hybrid REITs - These instruments combine the first two categories. They can be either open- or closed-ended (similar to open- and closed-ended mutual funds), have a finite or indefinite life and invest in either a single group of projects or multiple groups.

Taxation at the Trust Level
REITs must follow the same rules as all other unit investment trusts. This means that REITs must be taxed first at the trust level, then to beneficiaries. But they must follow the same method of self assessment as corporations. So, REITs have the same valuation and accounting rules as corporations, but instead of passing through profits, they pass cash flow directly to unitholders.

There are a few extra rules for REITs beyond the rules for other unit investment trusts. They are:

  1. Rental income is treated as business income to REITs because the government considers rent to be the business of REITs. This means that all expenses related to rental activities can be deducted the same as business expenses can be written off by a corporation.
  2. Furthermore, current income that is distributed to unitholders is not taxed to the REIT, but if the income is distributed to a non-resident beneficiary, then that income must be subject to a 30% withholding tax for ordinary dividends and a 35% rate for capital gains, unless the rate is lower by treaty.

For all practical purposes, REITs are generally exempt from taxation at the trust level as long they distribute at least 90% of their income to their unit holders. However, even REITs that adhere to this rule still face corporate taxation on any retained income.

Taxation to Unitholders
The dividend payments made out by the REIT are taxed to the unitholder as ordinary income - unless they are considered to be "qualified dividends", which are taxed as capital gains. Otherwise, the dividend will be taxed at the unitholder's top marginal tax rate.

Also, a portion of the dividends paid by REITs may constitute a nontaxable return of capital, which not only reduces the unit holder's taxable income in the year the dividend is received, but also defers taxes on that portion until the capital asset is sold. These payments also reduce the cost basis for the unitholder. The nontaxable portions are then taxed as either long- or short-term capital gains/losses.

Because REITs are seldom taxed at the trust level, they can offer relatively higher yields than stocks, whose issuers must pay taxes at the corporate level before computing dividend payout.

Example - Unitholder Tax Calculation
Jennifer decides to invest in an REIT that is currently trading at $20 per unit. The REIT has funds from operations of $2 per unit and distributes 90%, or $1.80, of this to the unitholders. However, $0.60 per unit of this dividend comes from depreciation and other expenses and is considered a nontaxable return of capital. Therefore, only $1.20 ($1.80 - $0.60) of this dividend comes from actual earnings.
This amount will be taxable to Jennifer as ordinary income, with her cost basis reduced by $0.60 to $19.40 per unit. As stated previously, this reduction in basis will be taxed as either a long- or short-term gain/loss when the units are sold.

The Bottom Line
The unique tax advantages offered by REITs can translate into superior yields for investors seeking higher returns with relative stability. Theoretically, it is possible for a unitholder to achieve a negative cost basis if the units are held for a long enough period of time. While this is hardly common, the potential for realizing a possible gain or loss in this manner should be clearly understood by investors.

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