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What is a 'Real Estate Investment Trust - REIT'

REITs (real estate investment trusts) were established by Congress in 1960 as an amendment to the Cigar Excise Tax Extension of 1960. They allow individual investors to buy shares in commercial real estate portfolios that receive income from a variety of properties, including apartment complexes, data centers, healthcare facilities, hotels, infrastructure (e.g., fiber cables, cell towers and energy pipelines), office buildings, retail centers, self-storage, timberland and warehouses.

BREAKING DOWN 'Real Estate Investment Trust - REIT'

Most REITs specialize in a specific real estate sector – for example, office REITs and healthcare REITs – but diversified and specialty REITs may hold various types of properties in their portfolios. For example, a diversified REIT may hold a portfolio comprising both office and retail properties. Most REITs have a straightforward business model: The REIT leases space and collects rents on the properties, then distributes that income as dividends to shareholders.

REIT Guidelines

To qualify as a REIT, a company must comply with certain provisions in the Internal Revenue Code, including requirements to primarily own income-generating real estate for the long term and distribute income to shareholders. Specifically, a company must meet the following requirements to qualify as a REIT:

  • Invest at least 75% of its total assets in real estate, cash or U.S. Treasuries
  • Receive at least 75% of its gross income from rents from real property, interest on mortgages financing real property or from sales of real estate
  • Pay a minimum of 90% percent of its taxable income in the form of shareholder dividends each year
  • Be an entity that is taxable as a corporation
  • Be managed by a board of directors or trustees
  • Have a minimum of 100 shareholders after its first year of existence 
  • Have no more than 50% of its shares held by five or fewer individuals during the last half of the taxable year

Types of REITs

There are several types of REITs, including:

  • Equity REITs – Most REITs are equity REITs, which buy, own and manage income-producing real estate. Revenues are generated primarily through rents (not by reselling properties).
  • Mortgage REITs – Mortgage REITs lend money to real estate owners and operators either directly through mortgages and loans or indirectly through the acquisition of mortgage-backed securities. Their earnings are generated primarily by the net interest margin – the spread between the interest they earn on mortgage loans and the cost of funding these loans. This model makes them potentially sensitive to interest rate increases.
  • Hybrid REITs – These REITs use the investment strategies of both equity and mortgage REITs.

Type of REIT



Own and operate income-producing real estate


Provide mortgages on real property


Own properties and make mortgages








REITs can be further classified based on how their shares are bought and held.

  • Publicly Traded REITs Shares of publicly traded REITs are listed on a national securities exchange, where they are bought and sold by individual investors. They are regulated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
  • Public Non-traded REITs – These REITs are also registered with the SEC, but don’t trade on national securities exchanges. As a result they are less liquid than publicly traded REITs, but tend to be more stable because they’re not subject to market fluctuations.
  • Private REITs – These REITs aren’t registered with the SEC and don’t trade on national securities exchanges.

Pros and Cons of Investing in REITs

REITs can be an important part of your investment portfolio. As with all investments, they have pros and cons that you should consider before making any decisions.



Liquidity – You buy and sell them like stocks.

Low growth – They pay 90% of income back to investors, so only 10% of taxable income can be reinvested.

Diversification – They have low correlation with other stocks and bonds.

Taxes – Dividends are taxed as regular income.

Transparency – They are regulated by the SEC and require audited financial reports.

Market Risk – They don’t guarantee a profit or ensure against losses.

Dividends – They provide a stable cash flow.

Fees – Some have high management and transaction fees.

Performance – They offer attractive risk-adjusted returns.


How to Invest in REITs

You can invest in publicly traded REITs – as well as REIT mutual funds and REIT exchange-traded funds (ETF) – by purchasing shares through your broker. You can buy shares of a non-traded REIT through a broker or financial advisor who participates in the non-traded REIT’s offering. REITs are also included in a growing number of defined-benefit and defined-contribution investment plans. An estimated 80 million U.S. investors own REITs through their retirement savings and other investment funds, according to Nareit, a REIT-investment research firm based in Washington, D.C. 

There are more than 225 publicly traded REITs in the U.S., which means you’ll have some homework to do before deciding which REIT to buy. Be sure to consider the REIT’s management team and track record – and find out how they’re compensated. If it’s performance-based compensation, odds are they’ll be working hard to pick the right investments and choose the best strategies. Of course, it’s also a good idea to look at the numbers, such as anticipated growth in earnings per share and current dividend yields. A particularly helpful metric is the REIT’s funds from operations (FFO), which measures the cash flow generated by a REIT.

It’s recommended that you consult with a broker, investment advisor or financial planner who can help you analyze your financial objectives and choose appropriate REIT investments.

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