Real Estate

What is 'Real Estate'

Real estate is property comprised of land and the buildings on it, as well as the natural resources of the land, including uncultivated flora and fauna, farmed crops and livestock, water and mineral deposits. Although media often refers to the "real estate market," from the perspective of residential living, real estate can be grouped into three broad categories based on its use: residential, commercial and industrial. Examples of residential real estate include undeveloped land, houses, condominiums and town houses; examples of commercial real estate are office buildings, warehouses and retail store buildings; and examples of industrial real estate include factories, mines and farms.

 (For more information on buying a home, see: A Guide to Buying a House in the U.S.)

BREAKING DOWN 'Real Estate'

Real Estate, Personal Property and Real Property

Real estate is a special instance of real property. Real property, a broader term, includes land, buildings and other improvements – plus the rights of use and enjoyment of that land and all its improvements. Renters and leaseholders may have rights to inhabit land or buildings that are considered a part of their personal estate, but are not considered real estate.

Personal property includes intangible assets like stocks, bonds and other investments; it also includes chattels, like computers, furniture and clothes, as well as fixtures like a dishwasher, even if you are renting a home (provided you bought and installed it with the lessor's permission).

Land that has no owner, e.g. land in certain regions Antarctica or on the moon, is not considered real estate.

For more, see: What is the difference between real estate and real property?

Home Ownership

Home ownership, also known as owner-occupancy, is the most common type of real estate investment in the United States. According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, roughly two-thirds of residents own their home. Often, they have financed the purchase by taking out a particular type of loan known as a mortgage, in which the property acts as collateral for the debt.

Individuals shopping for a mortgage to invest in real estate in the form of an owner-occupied home are faced with a variety of options. Mortgages can either be fixed-rate or variable-rate. Fixed-rate mortgages generally have higher interest rates than variable-rate mortgages, which can make them more expensive in the short run. Fixed-rate loans cost more in the short-term because they are protected from future interest rate increases (see also payment shock). 

Banks publish amortization schedules that show how much of a borrower's monthly payments go to paying off interest versus how much goes to paying off the principal of the loan. Balloon loans are mortgages that don't fully amortize over time: the borrower pays interest for a set period, five years for example, and then  must pay the remainder of the loan in a balloon payment at the end of the term.

Also, mortgages can come with heavy costs, including transaction fees and taxes, which are often rolled into the loan itself. Once potential homeowners have proven their eligibility and secured a mortgage from a bank or other lender, they must complete an additional set of steps to make sure the property is legally for sale and in good condition.

Commercial Real Estate

Buying or leasing real estate for commercial purposes is very different from buying a home or even buying residential real estate as an investment. Commercial leases are generally longer than residential leases. Commercial real estate returns are based on their profitability per square foot, unlike structures intended to be private residences. Moreover, lenders may require more money for a down payment on a mortgage for commercial real estate than for a residence.

For more, see: Commercial Real Estate Loans.

Investing in Real Estate

Unlike other investments, real estate is dramatically affected by its surroundings and immediate geographic area; hence the well-known real-estate maxim, "location, location, location." With the exception of a severe national recession or depression, residential real estate values in particular are affected primarily by local factors, such as the area's employment rate, economy, crime rates, transportation facilities, quality of schools and other municipal services, and property taxes.

There are key differences in residential and commercial real estate investments. On the one hand, residential real estate is usually less expensive and smaller than commercial real estate and so it is more affordable for the small investor.

On the other hand, commercial real estate is often more valuable per square foot and its leases are longer, which theoretically ensures a more predictable income stream. With greater revenue comes greater responsibility, however; commercial rental real estate is more heavily regulated than residential real estate and these regulations can differ not only from country to country and state by state, but also vary in each county and city. Even within cities, zoning regulations add a layer of unwanted complexity to commercial real estate investments.

There is also increased risk of tenant turnover in commercial rental agreements. If the lessee's business model is bad, their product is unattractive, or they are simply poor managers, they might declare bankruptcy, which can abruptly stop expensive real estate from generating revenue. Moreover, just as land can appreciate in value, it can also depreciate. Once-hot retail locations have been known to decay into rotten shopping centers and dead malls.

How to Invest in Real Estate

One can invest in real estate directly by buying actual properties or parcels of land; or indirectly, by buying shares in real estate investment trusts (REITs) or mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

Investing directly in real estate results in profits (or losses) through two avenues, which haven't changed in centuries:

  1. revenue from rent or leases
  2. appreciation of the real estate's value

Of the two  appreciation is the most common. It’s achieved through different means, but the increase in a property’s value isn't actually realized until the owner sells it outright, or refinances his mortgage on it. Raw and undeveloped land, like the territory right outside a city’s borders, offers the biggest potential for construction, enhancement and profit. Appreciation can also come from discovering valuable materials on a plot of land, like striking oil. Or, simply by a rise in the area around the land you own. As a neighborhood grows and develops, property values tend to climb. The gentrification of urban neighborhoods in some American cities in last few decades has often resulted in a dramatic increase in real estate prices, for example. Scarcity can play a factor, too. If a lot is the last of its size or kind in a prestigious area –  or one in which such lots rarely become available – it obviously gains in marketability.

Income from real estate comes in many forms. The biggest generator is the rent paid on land already developed into residential or commercial properties. But companies will pay royalties for discoveries on raw land, or they may pay to build structures on it, like cell towers or pipelines.

Income can also come from the indirect investments, like  REITS, which trade like stocks, with real estate their underlying security. In a REIT, the owner of multiple properties sells shares to investors, and passes along rental income in the form of distributions.