Many investors have traditionally turned to the stock market as a place to put their investing dollars. While stocks are a well-known investment option, not everyone knows that buying real estate is also considered an investment. Under the right circumstances, real estate can be an alternative to stocks, offering lower risk, yielding better returns, and providing greater diversification.

Whether it's planning for retirement, saving for a college fund, or earning residual income, individuals need an investment strategy that fits their budget and needs. Comparing an investment in real estate to buying stocks is a good place to start.

Key Takeaways

  • The decision to invest in real estate or stocks is a personal choice that depends on your financial situation, risk tolerance, goals, and investment style. 
  • Real estate and stocks have different risks and opportunities.
  • Real estate is not as liquid as stocks and tends to require more money and time. But it does provide a passive income stream and the potential for substantial appreciation.
  • Stocks are subject to market, economic, and inflationary risks, but don't require a big cash injection, and they generally can be easily bought and sold.

Overview: Real Estate vs. Stocks

Investing in real estate or stocks is a personal choice that depends on your financial situation, risk tolerance, goals, and investment style. It's safe to assume that more people invest in the stock market, perhaps because it doesn't take as much time or money to buy stocks. If you're buying real estate, you're going to have to save and put down a substantial amount of money.

When you buy stocks, you buy a tiny piece of that company. In general, you can make money two ways with stocks: value appreciation as the company's stock increases and dividends.

When you buy real estate, you acquire physical land or property. Most real estate investors make money by collecting rents (which can provide a steady income stream) and through appreciation, as the property's value goes up. Also, since real estate can be leveraged, it's possible to expand your holdings even if you can't afford to pay cash outright.

For many prospective investors, real estate is appealing because it is a tangible asset that can be controlled, with the added benefit of diversification. Real estate investors who buy property own something concrete for which they can be accountable. Note that real estate investment trusts (REITs) are a way to invest in real estate and are bought and sold like stocks.

There are a number of considerations for investors when choosing between investing in stocks or buying real estate as an investment.

Returns: Real Estate vs. Stocks

Investing in the stock market makes the most sense when paired with benefits that boost your returns, such as company matching in a 401(k). But those perks are not always available and there is a limit to how much you can benefit from them. Investing in the stock market independently can be unpredictable and the return on investment (ROI) is often lower than expected.

Comparing the returns of real estate and the stock market is an apples-to-oranges comparison—the factors that affect prices, values, and returns are very distinct. However, we can get a general idea by comparing the total returns of the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) and the Vanguard Real Estate ETF Total Return (VNQ) for the last 20 years:

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Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020 

As the chart demonstrates, both real estate and stocks can take a big hit during economic recessions. Note the big dips that occurred during the 2008 Great Recession and the 2020 COVID-19 crisis.

Risks: Real Estate vs. Stocks

The housing bubble and banking crisis of 2008 brought a decline in value for investors in the real estate and the stock markets—and the COVID-19 crisis is doing it all over again, albeit for different reasons. Still, it's important to remember that stocks and real estate have very different risks overall.

Real Estate

Here are some things to consider when it comes to real estate and the risks associated with it. The most important risk that people miss is that real estate requires a lot of research. It's not something you can go into casually and expect immediate results and returns. Real estate is not an asset that's easily liquidated, and it can't be cashed in quickly. This means you can't cash it in when you're in a bind.

For home flippers or those who own rental properties, there are risks that come with handling repairs or managing rentals. Some of the main issues you'll come across are the costs, not to mention the time and headache of having to deal with tenants. And you may not be able to put them off if there's an emergency.

As an investor, you may want and need to consider hiring a contractor to handle repairs and renovations of your flip, or a property manager to oversee the upkeep of your rental. This may cut into your bottom line, but it does reduce your time spent overseeing your investment.

Stocks

The stock market is subject to several different kinds of risk: market, economic, and inflationary risks. First, stock values can be extremely volatile with their prices subject to fluctuations in the market. Volatility can be caused by geopolitical and company-specific events. Say, for instance, a company has operations in another country, this foreign division is subject to the laws and rules of that nation.

But if that country's economy has problems, or any political troubles arise, that company's stock may suffer. Stocks are also subject to the economic cycle as well as monetary policy, regulations, tax revisions, or even changes in the interest rates set by a country's central bank.

Other risks may stem from the investor themselves. Investors who choose not to diversify their holdings are also exposing themselves to greater risk.

Consider this: dividend-paying stocks can generate reliable income, but it would take a considerable investment in a high-yielding dividend stock to generate enough income to sustain retirement without selling additional securities. Relying solely on high-yield dividends means an investor may miss out on opportunities for higher growth investments.

Pros and Cons: Real Estate

Real estate investors have the ability to gain leverage on their capital and take advantage of substantial tax benefits. Although real estate is not nearly as liquid as the stock market, the long-term cash flow provides passive income and the promise of appreciation.

Despite this, it's important to consider the amount of money that goes into real estate investments. You need to have the ability to secure a down payment and financing if you aren't making all-cash deals.

Since real estate isn't as liquid, you can't rely on selling your properties immediately when you may be in need. Other disadvantages include the costs associated with property management and the investment of time that goes into repairs and maintenance.

Pros
  • Passive income

  • Tax advantages

  • Hedge against inflation

  • Ability to leverage

Cons
  • More work than buying stocks

  • Expensive and illiquid

  • High transaction costs

  • Appreciation isn't guaranteed

Pros and Cons: Stocks

For most investors, it does not take a huge cash infusion to get started in the stock market, making it an appealing option. Unlike real estate, stocks are liquid and are generally easily bought and sold, so you can rely on them in case of emergencies. With so many stocks and ETFs to choose from, it can be easy to build a well-diversified portfolio.

But as noted above, stocks tend to be more volatile, leading to a more risky investment, especially if you panic sell. Selling your stocks may result in a capital gains tax, making your tax burden much heavier. And unless you have a lot of money in the market, your holdings may not be able to grow much.

Pros
  • Highly liquid

  • Easy to diversify

  • Low transaction fees

  • Easy to add to tax-advantaged retirement accounts

Cons
  • More volatile than real estate

  • Selling stocks can trigger big taxes

  • Some stocks move sideways for years

  • Potential for emotion-driven investing

Additional Factors to Consider

Buying a property requires more initial capital than investing in stocks, mutual funds, or even REITs. However, when purchasing property, investors have more leverage over their money, enabling them to buy a more valuable investment vehicle.

Putting $25,000 into securities buys $25,000 in value—assuming you're not using margin. Conversely, the same investment in real estate could buy $125,000 or so in property with a mortgage and tax-deductible interest.

Cash garnered from rent is expected to cover the mortgage, insurance, property taxes, and repairs. But a well-managed property also generates income for the owners. Additional real estate investment benefits include depreciation and other tax write-offs.

Mortgage lending discrimination is illegal. If you think you've been discriminated against based on race, religion, sex, marital status, use of public assistance, national origin, disability, or age, there are steps you can take. One such step is to file a report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Real estate that generates monthly rental income can increase with inflation even in a rent-controlled area, which offers an additional advantage. Another consideration is taxes after selling the investment. Selling stocks typically results in capital gains taxes. Real estate capital gains can be deferred if another property is purchased after the sale, called a 1031 exchange in the tax code.

The Bottom Line

Real estate and stocks both present risks and rewards. Investing in the stock market gets a lot of attention as a retirement investment vehicle, particularly for people who contribute regularly to a tax-advantaged account, such as a 401(k) or individual retirement account (IRA). However, diversification is important, especially when saving for the long term.

Investors should opt for a variety of asset classes or sectors to reduce their risk. Investing in real estate is an ideal way to diversify your investment portfolio, reduce risks, and maximize returns. Keep in mind that many investors put money into both the stock market and real estate. And if you like the idea of investing in real estate but don't want to own and manage properties, a REIT might be worth a second look.