Real Estate vs. Stocks: An Overview

Over the years, we've heard the arguments as to which is the better investment: real estate or stocks. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and there are several aspects of each that make them unique investments in their own way. To make money with either investment requires that you understand the positives and negatives of both.

Real Estate

Real estate is something that you can physically touch and feel—it's a tangible good and, therefore, for many investors, feels more real. For many decades this investment has generated consistent wealth and long-term appreciation for millions of people. Depending on the location of your real estate, you can enjoy sizable returns on your investment.

There are two main types of real estate: commercial and residential. While other types exist (mobile home parks, strip malls, apartment buildings, office buildings, storefronts, and single-family homes), they generally fall into those two categories. Making money in real estate isn't cut-and-dry, though. Some people take the "home flipping" route, searching for distressed properties, refurbishing them, and selling them for a profit at a higher market value. Others look for properties that can be rented to generate a consistent income.

Generally, a down payment of up to 20 percent of the purchase price can be made, and the rest can be financed via a mortgage.

Advantages of Investing in Real Estate 

There are many positive benefits to investing in real estate, including depreciation (writing off wear and tear of a commercial property), tax deductions, and, finally, you can sell the property through what is known as a 1031 exchange, and will not have to pay capital gains taxes, as long as you invest the money into a similar property type.

Disadvantages of Investing in Real Estate 

Like all investments, real estate also has its drawbacks. Most importantly, the investment is illiquid. When you invest in a property, you usually cannot sell it right away. In many cases, you may have to hold the property for several years to realize its true profit potential. Also, the closing cost can add up to thousands of dollars, and include taxes, commissions, and fees.

Further, real estate prices tend to fluctuate. While long-term prices generally increase, there are times when prices could go down or stay flat. If you have borrowed too much against the property, you may have trouble making the payment with a property that is worth less money than the amount borrowed on it.

Finally, it's often hard to get diversified if investing in real estate. However, diversification is possible in real estate, provided that you do not concentrate on the same community and have a variety of different types of property. That being said, there is an additional way that you can be able to diversify in real estate through real estate investment trusts (REITs), under which you can purchase a trust that is invested in a large portfolio of real estate and will offer you a dividend as a shareholder. However, in general, stocks offer more diversification because you can own many different industries and areas across the entire economy.

Stocks

Using the S&P 500 as a benchmark to illustrate the performance of stocks, the stock market has had an average annual rate of return of 10.31 percent from 1970 to 2016. It's important to use this figure as just a benchmark for the performance of U.S. stocks, as there are several other major indexes globally.

With a stock, you receive ownership in a company. When times are good, you will profit. During times of economic challenges, you may see diminishing funds as the earnings of the company drop. Taking a long-term approach and being balanced in many areas can help build your net worth at a much greater rate, compared with real estate.

As with real estate, financing in stocks allows you to use margin as leverage to increase the overall amount of shares that you own. The downside is that, if the stock position falls, you could have what is known as a margin call. This is where the equity, in relation to the amount borrowed, has fallen below a certain level and money must be added to your account to bring that amount back up. If you fail to do this, the brokerage firm can sell the stock to recover the amount loaned to you.

The Advantage of Stocks

Stocks are very liquid, quick and easy to sell. They are also flexible, and can even be reallocated into a retirement account—tax-free—until you start to withdraw the money. Also, many stocks can do considerably better than real estate in one year. Due to the volatility of some stocks, it is not unusual to see companies that are averaging 20 percent or even 50 percent growth in one year.

The Disadvantages of Stocks

Stocks can be very volatile, especially when the economy or the company is facing challenges. Also, stocks are often emotional investments, and your decisions within the market can often be irrational. Finally, bankruptcy is always in the back of the active stock investor's mind, as it should be, as your investment will be dissolved in this instance.

[Important: A good compromise when deciding between investing in the stock market and investing in real estate may be to own a REIT, which combines some of the benefits of stocks with some of the benefits of real estate.]

Key Takeaways

  • For many decades real estate has generated consistent wealth and long-term appreciation for millions of people.
  • With a stock, you receive ownership in a company. When times are good, you will profit.
  • A good compromise when deciding between investing in the stock market and investing in real estate may be to own a REIT.