Real estate was a major cause and casualty of the Great Recession. Between foreclosures and the huge vacancy rates in many commercial buildings, real estate quickly lost its luster as an investment.
Fast-forward to 2015, and real estate is hot again. In many residential markets, homes are selling for more than the asking price. Multifamily housing is especially in demand, as the financial crisis has left many unable or unwilling to buy. Commercial real estate is healthy in many parts of the country, as well. Combine that with mortgage rates that are near historic lows, and real estate seems like a great investment play.
But are we headed for a bubble? After the last crash, can we still think of real estate as a good long-term investment?
Should You Invest in Real Estate?
Depending on who you ask, you’ll probably get conflicting answers to this question. But three real estate investment experts overall agree that real estate investments are, in fact, good investments.
Ike Devji, a Phoenix-based asset protection attorney, offered an excellent perspective for potential real estate investors:
“Real estate is still a good investment for those investors that have the right advisors, do their homework and understand the math behind it. They need to go way beyond just ‘location’ and understand all the exposures they face when financing real estate, like joint and several liability for financing and development debt, and how to hold that real estate so that it is protected both from their unrelated personal and professional liabilities, and so that they are protected from the very significant liability that commercial and residential real estate presents to its owners.”
He added, “We are hopefully past the age where investors are buying as much as the bank will let me, and into a calmer space where buyers will consider how long they’d be able to carry the debt if we had another cyclical market collapse.”
Joshua Dorkin, founder and CEO of real estate investment site BiggerPockets, believes people should take advantage of real estate investments opportunities but only if they know what they’re doing. “If not, it can be dangerous,” he said. “If you can hustle to find great deals, do the math correctly and manage the project efficiently, great wealth can still be built through real estate, regardless of the market.”
And Michael Episcope of Chicago-based real estate investment firm Origin Capital Partners said people don’t need to worry about another housing bubble. “There are certainly individual projects and segments of the market that are of concern to us, but there is no bubble,” he said. “From a price perspective, real estate has fully recovered, and it’s easy to understand why people may be concerned given that the aftershocks of the 2008 crisis are still being felt. However, from a value perspective, we are in a much different place today than we were eight years ago.”
Episcope also explained that the lending environment today is much more conservative than it was in 2007 and 2008. “Underwriting standards and appraisals are also conservative, keeping both pricing and lending in check,” he said. “Additionally, supply and demand is far different today than it was in 2007. We are now playing catch up in nearly every sector as new construction was virtually nonexistent from 2008 through 2012, while demand in every sector has come roaring back.”
How Have Real Estate Investments Performed?
This is hard to gauge, as there are so many types of real estate investments. One indicator is the following growth chart of a hypothetical investment of $10,000 made on May 31, 1996, and held until Sept. 30, 2015, in the Vanguard REIT Index (VGSIX), a mutual fund investing in public REITs.
The dip for the 2008 financial crisis is clearly shown, but so is the nice appreciation since then.
Disclosure: The portfolio-level performance shown is hypothetical and for illustrative purposes only. Investor returns will differ from the results shown.
|Months||Year||Market Value||Total Return %|
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Real Estate Investment Pros and Cons
While experts agree real estate can still be a good investment, it’s important that you understand the pros and cons of investing in real estate. First, the pros:
- You gain the ability to build wealth in a way that is largely uncorrelated from the stock market.
- The benefits of rental real estate include depreciation.
- Real estate can be an effective hedge against inflation.
And, the cons:
- Real estate is mostly illiquid.
- There are extra costs associated with holding real estate, including taxes and insurance.
- Debt may be incurred to finance purchases.
- Prices might be overvalued on some types of properties in some markets.
Alternative Ways to Invest in Real Estate
Of course, there are other ways to invest in real estate without buying and managing a rental property, an apartment building or a commercial property directly.
For accredited investors, there are private real estate funds. These funds pool investors’ money and purchase properties, manage them and ultimately liquidate the fund. While there are fees, this is an option for investors to diversify among a number of properties without the headaches of direct ownership. Like any investment, the firm sponsoring the fund needs to be checked out, and some level of due diligence is required.
Publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) can be invested indirectly or via a mutual fund like the Vanguard REIT Index fund (VGSIX). Non-traded REITs have been touted by many independent stockbrokers. But be very, very careful here — these are highly illiquid investments with no secondary market.
Tips to Remember Before Investing in Real Estate
If investors do their due diligence, understand what they’re buying, don’t overextend themselves and have a management strategy and exit plan in place, this is a decent time to invest in real estate.
Before you start looking for properties, however, you need to ask yourself some tough questions: What are your objectives for investing in real estate? Can you afford to be in a relatively illiquid investment? What is your time horizon? Will you manage the property yourself, or hire a manager? Can you get the financing needed? Are you well diversified in other investments? Moreover, do you understand the risks of investing in real estate?
If you do decide to take the plunge, Episcope said, “What investors need to understand is that institutional real estate has never lost money over any 10-year period, and timing markets never beats a disciplined buy-and-hold strategy.”
And if you’re worried about the looming interest rate hike, don’t be. “A slowdown in the economy and rising interest rates will certainly impact pricing, but high-quality cash-flowing assets will continue to do well over the long term,” said Episcope. “Projects acquired in today’s market certainly have less appreciation potential than those acquired in 2011 and 2012, but levered yields are still healthy and will make up a large part of return in this next cycle.”
Keep reading: 13 Types of Alternative Investments
Real estate can be an excellent investment for those who go in with their eyes open and understand the economics behind it. The most important question is not whether it’s a good time to invest in real estate, but rather whether real estate is a good investment for you at this time.