By Ian Woychuk, CFA

One of the beneficial features of real estate is that it produces relatively consistent total returns that are a hybrid of income and capital growth. In that sense, real estate has a coupon-paying bond-like component in that it pays a regular, steady income stream, and it has a stock-like component in that its value has a propensity to fluctuate. And, like all securities that you have a long position in, you would prefer the value to go up more often than it goes down!

The income return from real estate is directly linked to the rent payments received from tenants, minus the costs of operating the property and outgoing mortgage/financing payments. So, you can understand how important it is to keep your property as full as possible. If you lose too many tenants, you won't have sufficient rents being paid by the other tenants to cover the building operating costs. Your ability to keep the building full depends on the strength of the leasing market - that is, the supply and demand for space similar to the space you are trying to lease. In weaker markets with oversupply of vacancies or poor demand, you would have to charge less rent to keep your building full than in a strong leasing market. And unfortunately, if your rents are lower, your income returns are lower.

Capital appreciation of a property is determined by having the property appraised. (We discuss the appraisal process further in chapter 7, but for now you should just know that an appraiser uses actual sale transactions that have occurred and other pieces of market data to estimate what your property would be worth if it were to be sold.) If the appraiser thinks your property would sell for more than you bought it for, then you've achieved a positive capital return. Because the appraiser uses past transactions in judging values, capital returns are directly linked to the performance of the investment sales market. The investment sales market is affected largely by the supply and demand of investment product.

The majority of the volatility in real estate returns comes from the capital appreciation component of returns. Income returns tend to be fairly stable, and capital returns fluctuate more. The volatility of total returns falls somewhere in between.

Other Characteristics
Some of the other characteristics that make real estate unique as compared to other investment alternatives are as follows:
  1. No fixed maturity
    Unlike a bond which has a fixed maturity date, an equity real estate investment does not normally mature. In Europe, it is not uncommon for investors to hold property for over 100 years. This attribute of real estate allows an owner to buy a property, execute a business plan, then dispose of the property whenever appropriate. An exception to this characteristic is an investment in fixed-term debt; by definition a mortgage would have a fixed maturity.
  2. Tangible
    Real estate is, well, real! You can visit your investment, speak with your tenants, and show it off to your family and friends. You can see it and touch it. A result of this attribute is that you have a certain degree of physical control over the investment - if something is wrong with it, you can try fixing it. You can't do that with a stock or bond.
  3. Requires Management
    Because real estate is tangible, it needs to be managed in a hands-on manner. Tenant complaints must be addressed. Landscaping must be handled. And, when the building starts to age, it needs to be renovated.
  4. Inefficient Markets
    An inefficient market is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that information asymmetry exists among participants in the market, allowing greater profits to be made by those with special information, expertise or resources. In contrast, public stock markets are much more efficient - information is efficiently disseminated among market participants, and those with material non-public information are not permitted to trade upon the information. In the real estate markets, information is king, and can allow an investor to see profit opportunities that might otherwise not have presented themselves.
  5. High Transaction Costs
    Private market real estate has high purchase costs and sale costs. On purchases, there are real-estate-agent-related commissions, lawyers' fees, engineers' fees and many other costs that can raise the effective purchase price well beyond the price the seller will actually receive. On sales, a substantial brokerage fee is usually required for the property to be properly exposed to the market. Because of the high costs of "trading" real estate, longer holding periods are common and speculative trading is rarer than for stocks.
  6. Lower Liquidity
    With the exception of real estate securities, no public exchange exists for the trading of real estate. This makes real estate more difficult to sell because deals must be privately brokered. There can be a substantial lag between the time you decide to sell a property and when it actually is sold - usually a couple months at least.
  7. Underlying Tenant Quality
    When assessing an income-producing property, an important consideration is the quality of the underlying tenancy. This is important because when you purchase the property, you're buying two things: the physical real estate, and the income stream from the tenants. If the tenants are likely to default on their monthly obligation, the risk of the investment is greater.
  8. Variability among Regions
    While it sounds cliché, location is one of the important aspects of real estate investments; a piece of real estate can perform very differently among countries, regions, cities and even within the same city. These regional differences need to be considered when making an investment, because your selection of which market to invest in has as large an impact on your eventual returns as your choice of property within the market.




Next: Exploring Real Estate Investments: Advantages And Disadvantages »



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