Real Estate Investing: 10 Ways to Build Wealth

There are numerous ways to start building wealth. Find out which real estate investing strategy is best for you.

real estate investing options.jpg

Click to enlarge

Image source: Getty Images.

According to data from Forbes, more billionaires made their wealth through real estate than any other category--by far.

The combination of a consistent cash stream, capital appreciation, and tax breaks have helped lay the foundation of great fortunes and stable retirements. But billionaires aren't the only people who know how to invest in real estate. You can do it, too.

And there are many ways you can get started. There's no best way to invest in real estate. What matters is finding the method that fits your budget and how much time you can spend managing your investment.

Let’s explore 10 investment options available to you and see which ones may be suited for your next investment. First, though, let's answer a common question:

Is real estate a good investment?

Investing is absolutely essential for anyone looking to secure their financial future. Real estate should be one of the core pillars of your investment portfolio for two crucial reasons:

  1. According to a recent research paper from the San Francisco Federal Reserve, real estate has historically generated rates of return comparable to stocks and equities with much lower volatility.
  2. Real estate returns are largely not correlated with stocks or bonds. (Hat tip to Ben Carlson over at A Wealth of Common Sense for his work on this topic).

These two points may sound a bit academic. What it means for you is high rates of return without the roller coaster ride of investing in stocks.

Investing in real estate also has a hidden benefit that we don’t normally think about: illiquidity. Some investment advisors tell you that investing in illiquid assets is bad because you might need that money quickly. Trying to unwind a real estate investment can take a lot of time and incur large financial penalties and taxes.

The hidden benefit of illiquidity is that it prevents us from becoming our own worst enemies. Great investing requires staying invested long-term without being swayed by the ups and downs of the stock or real estate markets. By putting up financial barriers that keep you from making decisions based on fear or greed, real estate investing lets you reap the benefits of the most powerful wealth-building tool ever imagined: compounded annual returns.

How to invest in real estate

There are dozens of paths you can choose in real estate investing. The nice part is that, if done well, no one path is absolutely better than the others. So instead of saying which one is best, we'll look at how to invest in real estate using 10 different methods, what makes each one unique, and how they may fit your investment style and financial standing.

1. Real estate investment trusts (REITs)

  • Low-cost starting point
  • Great for investors looking for capital appreciation and dividend growth
  • Ideally held in tax-advantaged investment accounts

Real estate investment trusts are companies where investors pool their money to invest in a portfolio of properties that they may not have access to individually.

REITs make money by leasing, renting or selling properties they own. Since they're set up as trusts, there are rules on what kind of assets they can own and how they return capital to shareholders through dividends. Most REITs specialize in a particular type of asset, such as residential properties, mortgages, healthcare facilities, or infrastructure.

According to Nareit, the aggregate returns of all real estate investment trusts over the past 20 years have been 10.26% annually. Also, there are hundreds of publicly-traded REITs with different growth rates and dividend yields, so you can invest for higher long-term growth or for more short-term income with more modest growth outlooks.

How to invest in REITs

Buying publicly-traded REITs is the same as buying stocks. You can buy them through a typical brokerage account and most tax-advantaged accounts such as IRAs, 529 college savings plans, and health savings plans.

There are also private REITs and non-publicly traded REITs. Buying these kinds of REITs isn’t as simple as hitting the buy button at an online brokerage, but they can also be held in tax-advantaged accounts like self-directed IRAs.

2. Real estate stocks, mutual funds, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs)

  • Low-cost entry point
  • Primarily for capital appreciation and growth, but some offer dividends
  • Ideally held in tax-advantaged investment accounts

This method of investing in real estate isn't as commonly discussed as the others on this list, but it's a great way to take advantage of the real estate market without having to buy property yourself. Many stocks are closely tied to real estate and give you exposure to the asset class and provide growth over time.

Real estate stocks are widely varied. You can invest in homebuilders, real estate agencies, government-supported mortgage buyers, home improvement suppliers, construction companies, and many more businesses.

Similarly, you can invest in a portfolio of these stocks through mutual funds and real estate exchange-traded funds (ETFs). While most real estate ETFs hold REIT shares, there are some real-estate-adjacent options. One such example is the SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF (NYSEMKT: XHB), which holds 34 companies spanning home improvement retail, building products, household appliances, homebuilders, and home furnishings.

How to invest in real estate stocks

Just like investing in different types of stocks and REITs, you can buy real estate stocks through a brokerage account or tax-advantaged accounts like 401(k)s, traditional and Roth IRAs, and 529s.

The most important thing to remember about real estate stocks is that they're stocks. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, your ability to control your temperament when stocks are rapidly rising and falling is perhaps the most important trait you can have in investing.

Passive Real Estate Investment Strategies Active Real Estate Investment Strategies
REITs Rental properties (short- and long-term)
Mortgage debt Flipping houses
Stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs Land (developing)
Crowdfunded real estate Foreclosures and REO properties
Land (speculative buying and selling) Commercial real estate

3. Mortgage notes and debt

  • Source of reliable income or property acquisition
  • Ability to buy at a discount to the loan’s value
  • Can be held in tax-advantaged retirement accounts

Investing in mortgage notes goes like this: You buy the notes tied to a mortgage and collect the payments. In many ways, you become the bank for that particular lender.

Low mortgage rates make buying mortgage notes unappealing to many investors. The upside is that, most of the time, you can buy mortgage notes for less than the outstanding loan value. Buying mortgage notes at a discount to their par value means a higher rate of return than the interest rate tied to the mortgage.

Mortgage note investment spans a wide range of outcomes and risks. It can be as simple as buying a performing loan and collecting the interest and principal payments until it's paid off. Or you can invest in non-performing loans at steep discounts to re-negotiate payment terms or take possession of a property. As is the case with almost any investment, though, the potential for higher returns generally means more work on your end and higher potential for loss of principal.

Buying mortgage notes can be much cheaper than buying a property outright. If you're trying to figure out how to invest in real estate without having a huge amount of cash on hand, this could be a good option. That said, people looking to buy mortgage notes should be ready to make an investment of thousands of dollars in a single asset. Also, unlike investing in property, using debt to buy mortgage notes isn’t recommended; only buy notes when you have enough built-up capital to do so.

How to invest in mortgage notes

Buying mortgage notes isn't as simple as going to your brokerage and asking for them. But some websites act as clearinghouses for mortgage notes where you can acquire them. Before jumping into this market, though, be sure to know the nuances of analyzing notes to determine whether a note is investment-worthy.

Yes, you can also own mortgage notes in a tax-advantaged retirement account such as a self-directed IRA or a solo 401(k). The ability to hold less conventional investment assets is one of the most appealing aspects of these particular types of investment accounts.

4. Renting out a property for the long term

  • Recurring cash payments, capital appreciation, and multiple tax advantages
  • Ability to use leverage to acquire property and increase rate of return
  • Option to rent out on a short- or long-term basis
  • Requires more time and upfront capital, but can reward you for the extra effort

When you hear "real estate investment," the first thing that comes to mind is probably residential real estate, aka a rental property. It's one of the easier concepts in real estate investing to understand: Buy a house or apartment and rent it out to tenants.

While the theory behind it is simple, the process can be a little trickier. Between identifying a property that can generate a return, financing it, keeping it occupied with tenants, and minimizing costs, you'll spend a lot of time (or money, if someone else handles it for you).

If you can do these things well, it can pay off monumentally in the long run for several reasons:

  • Rent checks produce monthly rental income and cash flow.
  • The property will likely increase in value over time if you keep it up.
  • You can use debt* to extend your purchasing power and increase your return on investment.
  • You can defer taxes through depreciation and other special tax exemptions such as a 1031 exchange on the sale.
*Millionacres philosophy: Debt is a powerful tool in real estate and there are ways to invest in real estate with less money upfront, but always remember to use debt as a tool to enhance returns -- not to overextend your finances to make a deal happen.

How to invest in a long-term rental property

Property investing involves several steps, and it would be disingenuous to try and cover it all in a couple of paragraphs. If you want a more complete look at what it takes to be a rental property investor, this guide is a great place to start.

To buy a property, you have to work with a real estate agent. If you're looking specifically for an investment property, it’s best to work with an agent who has experience working with investors. Buying an investment property and buying a home are two different beasts.

While you can own property in a tax-advantaged account such as a self-directed IRA, it's by no means straightforward and there are some unique tax implications to consider. Also, owning property in a tax-advantaged account doesn't absolve you from state and local property taxes. If you own a property outside the jurisdiction of your personal residence, you’ll have to pay taxes in both jurisdictions.

Investment Category Recommended Minimum Investment Time Horizon
REITs, real estate stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs 2 to 3 years
Mortgage notes and debt 5 to 10 years
Rental properties (short- and long-term) 5 to 7 years
House Flipping Less than 6 months (time can be your enemy)
Land Depends on development strategy
Crowdfunded real estate and eREITs 5 years
Commercial real estate 10+ years

5. Renting out your house or a property on a short-term basis

  • Higher effort than long-term rentals, but much higher potential for returns
  • Can be implemented in your own home for a lower-cost option
  • Depending on how frequently you rent out a space or property, some returns can be tax-free

Short-term and vacation rental properties aren't new, but the rise of Airbnb, Vacasa, and other online rental platforms has added a new dimension to owning and renting a property. These tools make it easier for individuals to turn properties and underused space in their homes into sources of revenue. They can also provide potential investors with a treasure trove of information to help them better market, price, and sell their property.

If you're looking for a low-cost way of entering this real estate market, consider creating a space in your own home to rent out (a basement or an in-law suite, for example). You can also use this option to help pay for that vacation property you always wanted. Or you can get into renting out short-term rentals full-time. How you approach this market will depend on the time, effort, and capital you have at your disposal.

Investing in short-term rentals can generate much higher returns than renting out the same space on a long-term basis. The trade-off is that you'll spend more time and energy on marketing, maintaining, and preparing the place between renters. You can always hire a property manager for these sorts of things, but that will eat into your returns.

How to invest in short-term and vacation rentals

There's quite a bit of skill overlap between long-term and short-term rental properties. You have to know your market, identify properties that can generate returns, budget, manage a project, market a property, and a lot more. The difference is that some factors for long-term rentals (good schools, for example) aren’t as important for someone looking to visit an area for a long weekend.

Should you choose to invest in an entirely new property, be sure to work with a real estate agent familiar with short-term and vacation properties. The last thing you want to do is buy a property where local zoning or the homeowners association (HOA) restricts short-term rentals.

There are unique tax treatments for short-term rentals that depend largely on how many days out of the year you rent out that space. Know these rules as you build your business plan.

6. Flipping houses

  • High rates of return
  • Can make money on much shorter time horizons
  • Involves a lot of time and effort

Spend more than 20 minutes on HGTV or the DIY Network and you'll see a show about quickly transforming seemingly decrepit houses into beautiful, marketable residences. What those shows don’t show you is the monumental amount of work it takes to make flipping houses a lucrative investment.

Don’t get me wrong. If done well, flipping houses can be very lucrative. According to real estate research form Attom Data Solutions, gross returns on investment for flipping houses has been above 30% this entire decade.

What’s more, you can get these kinds of returns in a matter of months instead of over years like with most other real estate investment options. The difference is that to achieve those kinds of returns, you need (Liam Neeson voice) "a particular set of skills."

Successfully flipping houses requires a lot of things going right, but it all boils down to this. Can you:

  • assess a current property,
  • envision what it could be,
  • accurately estimate the costs for the transformation, and
  • negotiate a purchase price that ensures a profit?

There are lots of tools and calculators to help you, but on-paper returns don’t always translate to reality. That's also why it's critical to have a sufficient amount of capital to cover unforeseen issues in addition to your already committed cash.

How to flip a house

I can’t emphasize enough that you won’t be a house-flipping reality TV star on your first try. You will make mistakes and the numbers you crunched probably won’t translate into your actual return. Like any other kind of investing, though, you can learn from your mistakes and improve the next time around.

Even though you'll likely do a lot of research to identify the right property, you should still work with a real estate agent. Flippers that rehab houses frequently may also get a real estate agent license to cut down on fees and commissions.

Flipping houses might be well suited for those that have a knack for project management and the hustle gene embedded deep in their DNA. Just know that it'll likely take more time and capital than you initially planned for.

Real Estate Investment Options Suggested Capital Needed to Invest
REITS, real estate stocks, mutual funds, ETFs, and eREITs $0 to $100,000
Mortgage notes and debt More than $10,000 per investment
Rental properties (short and long term) 25% down plus capital reserves
Flipping houses Down payment plus 20%-33% of after repair value for renovations
Land Wide range depending upon ultimate outcome
Foreclosures and REO properties 25% down and much more for contingencies
Crowdfunded real estate (for accredited investors) $25,000 minimums in a single asset
Commercial real estate hundreds of thousands into a single asset

7. Investing in land

  • Less expensive than buying developed property, but more speculative
  • A choose-your-own-path investment method with multiple outcomes
  • Requires a lot of foresight

Investing in land is a blank canvas upon which you can paint a real estate masterpiece. The trouble is that there aren’t a lot of Bob Rosses out there who can successfully translate what they see in their mind into something tangible.

What makes investing in land unique is that there's a multitude of outcomes. You can

  • sit on it,
  • cut it up into subdivisions,
  • transform it into developed or arable plots, or
  • have it re-zoned for an entirely new purpose.

At any point along the way, you can sell or continue down this path until you can collect revenue in the form of rents or whatever you can reap from the soil.

Since raw land usually requires lots of capital to develop, cultivate, or harvest, the actual cost of land is low relative to buying a developed property. It’s what comes after the initial sale that makes costs pile up. If you intend to buy land, know that you could rack up large expenses to make it a marketable product.

Another unique aspect of buying land for investment is that it can be more speculative than purchasing a finished product. It takes longer to get land properly zoned and get all the permits necessary to build -- and the market could change during that time. Taking on a land investment requires additional foresight into market trends that novice investors have yet to hone.

How to invest in land

You can buy land in the same ways you can acquire a developed property. Many raw land listings can be found on the multiple listing services (MLS) and working with a real estate agent.

Raw land can also be held in certain tax-advantaged accounts like self-directed IRAs, but the tax rules are similar to those on other property investments.

8. Buy real estate owned (REO) or foreclosed properties

  • Special situations where you can acquire properties at steep discounts
  • Can significantly boost rates of return for any kind of property investment
  • Complex legal processes and much higher risk involved; not recommended for beginners

Buying foreclosed properties is similar to buying any other property, but it's a unique strategy that can be used on all types of real estate investments. With a little extra research and due diligence, buying foreclosed or REO properties to rent out or fix and flip can boost your returns.

Foreclosed and REO properties are cut from the same cloth: They're properties where the borrower is in default and the lender has repossessed the property for sale. Foreclosed properties are sold at auction. Properties that aren't sold at auction remain the property of the lender and become REO properties. These properties can enhance a real estate investor's returns because they can typically be acquired cheaply. Lenders don’t want to hold large inventories of REO properties, so they price them to sell.

This is a gross oversimplification of the foreclosure process. It’s critical to know the ins and outs of the legal process before considering this option.

How to buy REO homes or foreclosed properties

This is where foreclosed and REO properties differ the most. Foreclosed homes are first sold at auction -- conducted by either a county sheriff’s office or by trustees -- sight unseen. You typically can’t view the interior before purchase. This means there's an immense amount of risk involved and it’s not recommended for novices. What’s more, properties sold at auction require cash on hand at the auction. If you have the cash to do the deal already, great, but if you need financing for the purchase, you’ll need to have it lined up beforehand.

Buying an REO property, on the other hand, is more like buying a conventional home. These properties can sometimes be found on the multiple listing service (MLS). You get to inspect the property and negotiate terms of sale. There are lots of real estate agents that specialize in REO properties, so find one to guide you through the process.

There's also a third option: Buying directly from a property owner in pre-foreclosure. This involves negotiating directly with the borrower in default. The gist of it is you buy the property from the seller and assume their mortgage payments as well as any back payments due to the lender. This is a complex process that involves knowing the legal process and creative financing methods.

9. Real estate crowdfunding

  • Access to commercial real estate previously available to only institutions and high-net-worth individuals
  • Mostly for accredited investors, but some lower price point options are available for non-accredited investors
  • Allows for passive ownership of a single property or a portfolio of properties

Few things have transformed investing more than the 2012 JOBS Act. This law let companies and real estate developers publicly solicit investors online. The crowdfunded real estate boom followed.

These new laws opened up the potential pool of investors for private deals like commercial real estate. According to industry group CFX Markets, the changes to crowdfunding rules expanded the pool of eligible investors from 8.5 million to the entire adult population. What’s more, investors can be solicited online. That means more potential investors can find out about these deals. It’s no surprise, then, that capital raised via equity crowdfunding grew 12-fold from 2012 to 2015.

There are many investment options available through crowdfunding platforms. You can choose where in the capital stack you want to invest -- the debt or equity portion of a property -- as well as how much you want to invest.

Most real estate deals on crowdfunding platforms are only available to accredited investors, and the minimum investment is typically in the tens of thousands of dollars. There are, however, some deals available to non-accredited investors, as well as eREITs -- private REITs built by platforms where investors can invest as little as $500.

How to invest in real estate crowdfunding platforms

There are dozens of platforms where you can invest in real estate crowdfunding deals, and the process for each is slightly different. The general process, though, is to sign up with a crowdfunding platform, research the various offerings, and be ready to make an offer when the platform opens the deal to potential investors. If the deal in question requires you to be an accredited investor, you'll need to submit financial statements to confirm that you're eligible.

Real estate crowdfunding deals can be owned in a self-directed IRA and other various tax-advantaged accounts, but there are some added complexities.

The crowdfunding process is relatively simple -- the challenge is picking a deal that fits your investment goals. You'll need to understand the terms of the deal as well as who's sponsoring it. One thing to keep in mind is that most deals on crowdfunding platforms require you to invest for multiple years, and pulling out early can incur massive fees and penalties.

10. Buy commercial real estate

This is where the big dogs in real estate like to run. By definition, commercial real estate (CRE) is any non-residential property such as office buildings, retail centers, hotels, and warehouses. Multifamily residential properties with five or more units are also considered commercial properties. It spans a wide variety of property types with their own business drivers and economic factors.

There's a reason that commercial property tends to be reserved for only the most experienced real estate investors: It requires significantly more experience in topics like

  • zoning and building codes,
  • legal documents, and
  • unique rental contracts.

The capital required for a deal is much more than residential real estate, too.

It's for those reasons that beginners should partner with more experienced investors before venturing out on their own.

How to invest in commercial real estate

The process for purchasing commercial property is similar to buying residential property. The real difference comes in the level of complexity involved in each step of the process. Here’s a quick primer on how to invest in commercial real estate to get you started.

Which type of real estate investment is best for you?

To recap, here’s a table of the pros and cons of each investment category:

Type of Investment Pros Cons
Real estate investment trusts +Low-cost entry point +Liquid market for shorter time horizons -Modest returns  -Subject to stock market volatility
Real estate stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs +Low-cost entry point +Liquid market for shorter time horizons -Modest returns  -Subject to stock market volatility
Mortgage notes and debt +Multiple outcomes for various strategies +Modest price point for entry -Acquiring mortgage notes is challenging -Typically lower returns than an equity position
Long-term rental property +Good returns from cash flow and price appreciation +Tax-advantaged asset +Can use leverage -Active management of a property (or paying someone else) -Still requires significant upfront and contingency capital
Short-term and vacation rental property +Same as long-term rentals, but the potential for higher cash flow -Requires much more active management -Only suitable for certain locations
Flipping houses +High rates of return +No need for long-term holdings -Requires lots of upfront and contingency capital -Several things can go wrong for inexperienced flippers
Land investing +Lower upfront capital costs +Multiple exit strategies -Highly speculative -Development capital costs can be extensive
Real estate owned (REO) and foreclosures +Potential for higher returns on rental property rentals -Complex legal aspects  -High risk of things going wrong
Real estate crowdfunding +Access to institutional-quality commercial real estate at lower entry points +Best effort to rate of return ratio in real estate -Most crowdfunded deals still require accredited investor status -Can create some tax headaches
Commercial real estate +High rates of return +Multiple types of real estate to invest in -Immensely complex and shouldn't be done alone -Very high capital costs

Is real estate a good investment for you?

With so many ways to invest in real estate, almost anyone can find an investment strategy that’s a good fit. When getting started, be honest with yourself about your own abilities and how much money you have to invest at the outset. Chances are your first deal isn’t going to be a multi-million dollar commercial deal or a complex foreclosure situation.

Like every kind of investing, it’s a journey. No matter what path you choose, you'll make mistakes along the way. What matters is learning from those mistakes to improve your investing process.

Don’t let a bad REIT investment make you shy away from equities. An over-budget house-flipping project can be a valuable lesson in contingencies. As long as you leave yourself enough financial room to weather a single mistake and can learn from the process, you'll be one step closer to building real, long-term wealth.

Sign up for our free guide to real estate investing

Tyler Crowe has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.