How to Invest in Real Estate: 5 Ways to Get Started

Real estate investments can add diversification to your portfolio — and getting into the market can be as easy as buying a mutual fund.
Investing, Investments
5 Ways to Invest in Real Estate

If you’ve ever had a landlord, you probably don’t dream of being one: Fielding calls about oversize bugs and overflowing toilets doesn’t seem like the most glamorous job.

But done right, real estate investment can be lucrative, if not flashy. It can help diversify your existing investment portfolio and be an additional income stream. And it doesn’t always require showing up at a tenant’s every beck and call.

The trouble is that many new investors don’t know where or how to invest in real estate. So here are five options, ranging from low maintenance to high.

1. Buy REITs

REITs, or real estate investment trusts, allow you to invest in real estate without the physical real estate. Often compared to mutual funds, they’re companies that own commercial real estate such as office buildings, retail spaces, apartments and hotels. REITs tend to pay high dividends, which makes them a good investment in retirement. Investors who don’t need or want the regular income can automatically reinvest those dividends to grow their investment further.

New investors may want to stick to publicly traded REITs, which you can purchase through an online broker.

REITs can be varied and complex. Some trade on an exchange like a stock; others aren’t publicly traded. The type of REIT you purchase can be a big factor in the amount of risk you’re taking on, as non-traded REITs aren’t easily sold and might be hard to value. New investors should generally stick to publicly traded REITs, which you can purchase through an online broker.

For that, you’ll need a brokerage account. If you don’t already have one, opening one takes less than 15 minutes and many companies require no initial investment (though the REIT itself will likely have an investment minimum).

» Want to get started? Check out our guide to opening a brokerage account and the NerdWallet analysis of the best brokers for beginners.

2. Use an online real estate platform

If you’re familiar with companies such as Prosper and LendingClub — which connect borrowers to investors willing to lend them money for various personal needs, such as a wedding or home renovation — you’ll understand online real estate investing.

These platforms connect real estate developers to investors who want to finance projects, either through debt or equity. Investors hope to receive monthly or quarterly distributions in exchange for taking on a significant amount of risk and paying a fee to the platform. Like many real estate investments, these are speculative and illiquid — you can’t easily unload them the way you can trade a stock.

The rub is that you may need money to make money. Many of these platforms are open only to accredited investors, defined by the Securities and Exchange Commission as people who’ve earned income of more than $200,000 ($300,000 with a spouse) in each of the last two years or have a net worth of $1 million or more, not including a primary residence. Alternatives for those who can’t meet that requirement include Fundrise and RealtyMogul.

3. Invest in rental properties

Tiffany Alexy didn’t intend to become a real estate investor when she bought her first rental property at age 21. Then a college senior in Raleigh, North Carolina, she planned to attend grad school locally and figured buying would be better than renting.

House hacking allows you to live in your investment property while renting out rooms or units.

“I went on Craigslist and found a four-bedroom, four-bathroom condo that was set up student-housing style. I bought it, lived in one bedroom and rented out the other three,” Alexy says.

The setup covered all of her expenses and brought in an extra $100 per month in cash — far from chump change for a grad student, and enough that Alexy caught the real estate bug. Now age 27, she has five rentals and is a broker and owner of Alexy Realty Group in Raleigh.

Alexy entered the market using a strategy sometimes called house hacking, a term coined by BiggerPockets, an online resource for real estate investors. It essentially means you’re occupying your investment property, either by renting out rooms, as Alexy did, or by renting out units in a multi-unit building. David Meyer, vice president of growth and marketing at the site, says house hacking lets investors buy a property with up to four units and still qualify for a residential loan.

Of course, you can also buy and rent out an entire investment property. Find one with combined expenses lower than the amount you can charge in rent. And if you don’t want to be the person who shows up with a toolbelt to fix a leak — or even the person who calls that person — you’ll also need to pay a property manager.

“If you manage it yourself, you’ll learn a lot about the industry, and if you buy future properties you’ll go into it with more experience,” says Meyer.

4. Fix up and resell properties

This is HGTV come to life: You purchase an underpriced home in need of a little love, renovate it as inexpensively as possible and then resell it for a profit. Called house flipping, the strategy is a wee bit harder than it looks on TV.

“There is a bigger element of risk, because so much of the math behind flipping requires a very accurate estimate of how much repairs are going to cost, which is not an easy thing to do,” says Meyer.

His suggestion: Find an experienced partner. “Maybe you have capital or time to contribute, but you find a contractor who is good at estimating expenses or managing the project,” he says.

The other risk of flipping is that the longer you hold the property, the less money you make because you’re paying a mortgage without bringing in any income. You can lower that risk by living in the house as you fix it up. This works as long as most of the updates are cosmetic and you don’t mind a little dust.

5. Rent out a room

Finally, to dip the very edge of your toe in the real estate waters, you could rent part of your home via a site like Airbnb. It’s house hacking for the commitment-phobe: You don’t have to take on a long-term tenant, potential renters are at least somewhat prescreened by Airbnb, and the company’s host guarantee provides protection against damages.

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