The home ownership rate in the United States has been on the decline since the housing-led recession of 2007 to 2009. That means more renters, a trend that institutional-level investors such as Blackstone (NYSE:BX) and MetLife (NYSE:MET) have been taking advantage of. But you can get in on the action, too, with real estate investment trusts, or REITs.

A painful lesson
At the height of the housing boom, people were buying single-family houses as speculative investments. Even those buying a place to call home looked at their purchase as more than just a house. But the housing bust showed at least two generations of Americans that home prices can, in fact, fall.

That has pushed the homeownership rate lower every year since it peaked in 2006. Although the decline of nearly 4 percentage points may seem small, it's a big shift in psyche and puts millions more people into the rental market. Institutional investors have taken notice.

Blackstone has used the precipitous drop in single-family home prices to build a 40,000-home rental portfolio under the Invitation Homes banner. The company is also issuing bonds backed by rents and providing debt to would-be landlords.

While that's a lot to have going on, owning a portfolio of single-family homes is easier than you may think. You could, of course, just buy Blackstone stock, but the company's business is vastly larger than this one investment. American Homes 4 Rent (NYSE:AMH), American Residential Properties (UNKNOWN:ARPI.DL), and Silver Bay Realty (NYSE:SBY) all offer direct exposure.

American Homes is easily the largest of the three with more than 20,000 homes. Combined, American Residential and Silver Bay only own roughly 12,000 homes. That said, all three are solid options for getting in on the ground floor of what is an emerging REIT niche. This is an unproven sector, but it's growing quickly.

Willing to wait
MetLife has something of a different approach, focusing on the apartment arena. Robert Merck, the head of MetLife's real estate investors unit, recently told Bloomberg, "We would love to do more multifamily and we've been very active." He cited strong demographics trends for his apartment zeal.

(Source: Alec Jordan; cropped by Beyond My Ken, via Wikimedia Commons).

Note that MetLife is willing to work from the ground up and take a long-term stand. It built the New York landmarks Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in the 1940s. After owning these properties for 60 years it sold them for $5.4 billion in 2006. 

AvalonBay (NYSE:AVB) is probably the closest REIT cousin to that approach. Although it recently completed a big apartment purchase with Sam Zell's Equity Residential (NYSE:EQR), its core competency remains building new. For example, AvalonBay last year completed 12 new apartments containing more than 2,800 units. It broke ground on another 13 with more than 3,800 additional apartments. And it has a pipeline exceeding 25 other projects on the drawing board.

For comparison sake, Equity Residential built just four apartments in 2013. While AvalonBay has focused on building, Equity Residential has been a more aggressive wheeler and dealer in building itself into one of the largest apartment REITs. In other words, there's more than one way to skin a cat in the apartment space if you would prefer to limit construction risk.

Rolling with the big boys
Owning rental homes, from apartments to single-family residences, has been a hot theme among institutional investors. The move away from homeownership is just one of the trends backing such investments. If you are looking for direct exposure to the rental market, consider Silver Bay, American Residential, and American Homes on the single-family home side, while AvalonBay and Equity Residential are both worth a deep dive on the apartment side.

Reuben Brewer has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.