With little fanfare, news surfaced yesterday that General Electric's (NYSE:GE) GE Real Estate unit is preparing to buy U.K. real estate concern Benchmark Group PLC for $824 million.

In the grand scheme of things, the acquisition is a drop in the bucket for GE. After all, the giant conglomerate boasts revenues and profits that exceed the gross domestic products (GDPs) of many countries. And real estate is hardly new to GE, which has been diversifying away from its manufacturing roots for some time now. However, for GE's real estate segment, which has assets of $28 billion and posted revenue last year of about $2.4 billion, the buy is relatively significant.

GE Real Estate has been a fairly active player in the U.K. of late. In February, the unit completed a $23 million acquisition of a shopping center in Leith, Edinburgh, from Allied London Properties. The deal followed GE Real Estate's June 2003 purchase of a majority stake in five U.K. shopping centers from Haslemere N.V. for $386 million. In April 2003, GE participated in a $40 million dollar acquisition with its partner, Chainbow, for an Essex shopping center.

Pushing into the U.K. makes good sense for a variety of reasons. In many respects, the U.K. real estate market has mirrored that of the U.S. Housing and commercial property prices have remained strong, even with weaker performance in the overall British economy.

GE's timing also seems fairly good, because U.K. real estate may be in for further appreciation in the near term. The British government is mulling over plans to allow investment structures similar to U.S. real estate investment trusts. If enacted, the new policies, which are not due to go into effect until 2005, should open up the U.K. property market to further global investment, which would be good for real estate values.

While General Electric's U.K. real estate push certainly seems wise, it's probably an exaggeration to suggest that these deals will be major drivers for such a huge and broadly diversified company. At the very least, though, GE investors can take comfort that the firm's real estate division is on the ball.

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Fool contributor Brian Gorman is a freelance writer living in Chicago, Ill. He does not own shares of any companies mentioned here.