In a period of low interest ratesreal estate investment trusts (REITs) – a securitized portfolio of properties – offer the great income potential of real estate combined with the liquidity of stocks. A real estate exchange-traded fund (ETF), which holds baskets of these securities, offers an especially liquid, low-cost way to invest in the real estate asset class.

With a REIT, investors buy shares and get paid dividend distributions, reaping a total return based only the amount they have invested. Although the returns are less than, say, owning an entire building and reaping all the income from it, the risk is lower, too. A REIT ETF invests in several property-owning real estate companies at once, and of course this diversification further mitigates an investor's exposure (whereas the individual buying a property is betting on just that one property). Plus, it offers a chance to get into real estate without having to become a landlord or a partner in an investment group.

We chose the top five real estate exchange-traded funds (ETFs) based on assets under management (AUM) as of August 15, 2017. They are listed below from largest to smallest. We evaluated the investment approaches of each fund so that investors can make comparisons of style and results. (See also: 4 Real Estate Trends for 2017 Investors Should Be Aware Of.)

1. Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ)

The best bet for most novice investors is to stay focused on the U.S. and buy into the largest public companies. VNQ is at the top of the list for broad, diversified exposure and a very reasonable Expense Ratio. While its primary goal is high income, investors may see appreciation in the overall value, too.

The fund tracks an index that measures the performance of REITs; the specific stocks it holds are part of the MSCI US REIT Index, and they are weighted in a manner that is similar to the weightings in the index. The top-five holdings usually represent a "who’s who" of the largest REIT operators out there, including such players as Simon Property Group (SPG), Public Storage (PSA), Equity Residential (EQR), Prologis (PLD) and Ventas (VTR).

  • Avg. Volume:     3,644,438
  • Net Assets:        $64.59 billion
  • P/E Ratio (TTM): 7.52
  • Yield:     4.38%
  • YTD Return:       3.82%
  • Expense Ratio (net):       0.12%

2. iShares U.S. Real Estate ETF (IYR)

As the name implies, IYR is another domestic specialist. The fund invests mostly in REITs and attempts to keep 90% of its assets in securities that are in the Dow Jones U.S. Real Estate Index. The companies represented by those securities may be large-capmid-cap or small-cap, but the emphasis tends to be on the large-cap players.

The percentage of assets in any particular size of company is dependent on the underlying index. Its fund managers may change the mix of holdings to more closely reflect the performance of the benchmark.

  • Avg. Volume:     6,404,896
  • Net Assets:        $4.2 billion
  • P/E Ratio (TTM): 6.84
  • Yield:     4.01%
  • YTD Return:       6.79%
  • Expense Ratio (net):       0.44%

3. iShares Cohen & Steers REIT ETF (ICF)

This fund seeks results similar to the Cohen & Steers Realty Majors Index, which is composed largely of REITs.  The fund invests at least 90% of its assets in those REITs, or in depositary receipts representing the REITs. In particular, ICF looks for companies that may be acquired or that may acquire other companies as part of the consolidation of the real estate sector.

  • Avg. Volume:     158,536
  • Net Assets:        $3.27 billion
  • P/E Ratio (TTM): 12.96
  • Yield:     3.82%
  • YTD Return:       4.10%
  • Expense Ratio (net):       0.34%

4. Schwab U.S. REIT ETF (SCHH)

SCHH invests in REITs from the Dow Jones U.S. Select REIT Index, but may invest in others that are not included in the index as well. Among the REITs that are part of the index, the fund assigns weights that are similar to the weightings in the index.

  • Avg. Volume:           437,425
  • Net Assets:  $3.57 billion
  • P/E Ratio (TTM):       N/A
  • Yield:           2.61%
  • YTD Return: 2.14%
  • Expense Ratio (net): 0.07%

5. SPDR Dow Jones REIT ETF (RWR)

RWR uses the Dow Jones U.S. Select REIT Index as its benchmark. There is much overlap with VNQ, but its .25% expense ratio makes it a more liquid and lower-cost option. Its money managers attempt to invest in securities whose valuation is closely tied to each company’s actual real estate holdings, and avoid companies that are valued based on considerations other than their real estate.

  • Avg. Volume:     163,755
  • Net Assets:        $3 billion
  • P/E Ratio (TTM): N/A
  • Yield:     3.95%
  • YTD Return:       2.00%
  • Expense Ratio (net):       0.25%

Other REIT Options

Think small:  Though they offer more risk, smaller REIT firms have an opportunity to grow faster than the larger players in the industry. To that end, the PowerShares KBW Premium Yield Equity REIT (KBWY) was built to have at least 90% of its assets in small- and mid-cap holdings of the KBW Premium Yield Equty REIT Index (on Nasdaq) listed in the ETF’s name. The current yield is impressive at 7.47%, though the expense ratio is getting up there at 0.35%. Total assets are also relatively small at around $90 million, which could make liquidity a concern to some investors.

Go Global: Real estate outside the U.S. has decent growth prospects as well. And though most don't have a market as developed as the REIT market in the U.S., growth can be more robust, such as in certain emerging markets or those in Europe that are in the early stages of an economic recovery. To supplement the VNQ detailed above, Vanguard logically offers the Vanguard Global ex-U.S. Real Estate ETF (VNQI). It has over $5 billion in assets and a 3.5% yield. The Expense Ratio is 0.15%, extremely reasonable considering that international funds generally charge more than domestic ones.

An Active Alternative: Most ETFs simply mirror their underlying index, but there is one fund that looks to actively manage its REIT exposure. The PowerShares Active U.S. Real Estate Portfolio (PSR) has a solid rating, though its yield is small at 2.6%, as are the asset levels of $23.8 million. The expense ratio is more active as well at 0.80%, but investors could recoup it with a steady period of outperformance from its benchmark (the FTSE NAREIT All Equity REITs Index).

THE Bottom Line

Investors do not have to raise large down payments to get into real estate. The ETFs listed above offer investors an opportunity to participate in the real estate market without debt, down payments, rent collections, Property management or other burdens of ownership. And they are reasonably insulated from risk. REITS themselves hold numerous properties/, and REIT ETFs hold numerous REITs, so investors are well-protected from losses due to any one property failure. But just in case, you might want to also check out 3 Inverse REIT ETFs for Betting Against Real Estate.

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