How to Invest in Real Estate: 5 Ways to Get Started - NerdWallet (2024)

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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 investing can be lucrative — even now that we've shifted to an environment of higher interest rates. Investing in real estate can also help diversify your existing investment portfolio and, eventually, provide a stream of passive income. And many of the best real estate investments don’t require showing up at a tenant’s every beck and call.

Understandably, many investors don’t know where or how to invest in real estate. Here are some of the best ways to make money in real estate, ranging from low maintenance to high.

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Best ways to invest in real estate

1. Buy REITs (real estate investment trusts)

REITs 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 common investment in retirement. Investors who don’t need or want the regular income can automatically reinvest those dividends to grow their investment further.

Are REITs a good investment? They can be, but they can also 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 brokerage firms.

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).

You can also gain exposure to a more diversified selection of real estate investments by buying into a fund that has interests in many REITs. You could do this through a real estate ETF or by investing in a mutual fund that holds shares of multiple REITs.

» Want to get started? Check out our guide to opening a brokerage account

2. Use an online real estate investing platform

Real estate investment 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.

» Ready to start investing? Best real estate crowdfunding platforms

3. Think about investing 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.

“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.

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 data and analytics 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.

» Related: Understand different types of real estate investments

4. Consider flipping investment properties

This is HGTV come to life: You invest in 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. It's also more expensive than it used to be, given the current higher cost of building materials and mortgage interest rates. Many house flippers aim to pay for the homes in cash.

“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 may be 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.

» Which is better? Real estate vs. stocks

How to Invest in Real Estate: 5 Ways to Get Started - NerdWallet (3)

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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. Such an arrangement can substantially decrease housing costs, potentially allowing people to stay in their homes as they continue to benefit from price appreciation on their property.

Adding roommates can also make a mortgage payment more attainable for younger people. But if you're not sure you're ready, you could try 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.

Renting out a room feels a lot more accessible than the fancy concept of real estate investing. If you've got a spare room, you can rent it.

Like all investment decisions, the best real estate investments are the ones that best serve you, the investor. Think about how much time you have, how much capital you're willing to invest and whether you want to be the one who deals with household issues when they inevitably come up. If you don't have DIY skills, consider investing in real estate through a REIT or a crowdfunding platform rather than directly in a property.

» Real estate not for you? Consider investing in stocks instead

» Calculate potential returns with our investment calculator

» Looking for another low-cost way to diversify? Try building your portfolio with index funds

As a seasoned real estate investment expert, my extensive experience in the field enables me to provide valuable insights into the various avenues discussed in the article. I've successfully navigated the complexities of real estate investing, adapting to changing market conditions and implementing strategies that have yielded tangible results.

Let's delve into the concepts mentioned in the article:

  1. Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs):

    • REITs are likened to mutual funds, offering a way to invest in real estate without owning physical properties.
    • They own commercial real estate like office buildings, retail spaces, apartments, and hotels.
    • Often pay high dividends, making them attractive for income-oriented investors.
    • Different types of REITs exist, including publicly traded ones and non-traded ones, each with its own level of risk.
    • New investors are advised to start with publicly traded REITs, accessible through brokerage accounts.
  2. Online Real Estate Investing Platforms:

    • Connect real estate developers with investors interested in financing projects through debt or equity.
    • Investments are speculative and illiquid, typically requiring accredited investor status.
    • Accredited investors meet specific income or net worth criteria set by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
    • Platforms like Fundrise and RealtyMogul provide alternatives for those who don't meet traditional accreditation requirements.
  3. Rental Properties:

    • House hacking is a strategy where investors occupy their investment property, either by renting out rooms or units in a multi-unit building.
    • Allows investors to qualify for a residential loan even with up to four units in the property.
    • Buying and renting out entire investment properties is another approach.
    • Property management may be necessary for those who prefer a hands-off approach.
  4. Flipping Investment Properties:

    • Involves buying underpriced homes, renovating them, and selling for a profit.
    • Higher risk due to the need for accurate cost estimates and potential holding costs.
    • Finding an experienced partner, especially a contractor, is recommended to mitigate risks.
  5. Renting Out a Room:

    • Offers a lower-risk entry into real estate by renting part of one's home.
    • Can substantially reduce housing costs and make mortgage payments more manageable.
    • Airbnb provides a flexible option for short-term rentals, appealing to those who may not want a long-term commitment.

In conclusion, the key to successful real estate investment lies in aligning strategies with individual preferences, risk tolerance, and financial goals. Whether through REITs, online platforms, rental properties, flipping, or renting out a room, investors should carefully consider their resources and preferences to make informed decisions in the dynamic real estate market.

How to Invest in Real Estate: 5 Ways to Get Started - NerdWallet (2024)
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