What is Real Estate Crowdfunding?

Learn how to build wealth and earn passive income in real estate while someone else does all the work.

What is a REIT?

By Adam Gower Ph.D.

A common question that arises when investors first discover the option of investing in syndications via online crowdfunding websites is how they differ from Real Estate Investment Trusts or REITs.


One of the best comparisons to a REIT is a mutual fund; specifically, an equity mutual fund.


With an equity mutual fund, you save yourself the trouble of having to compare and pick individual stocks by paying money to a mutual fund manager to make those decisions and who will pick out a portfolio of investments for you.


REITs are similar in that they are a collection of real estate properties controlled and operated by a dedicated, professional management team into which you can invest directly.


In contrast to having to choose an individual property to invest in, by selecting a REIT investors can diversify their capital across a broad range of properties, and paying the management team a fee for their services, can realize passive income from real estate without any of the direct hand-on management responsibility.


REITs are usually structured to specialize in a particular type of real estate; from multi-family housing, to office buildings, cell-phone towers and everything in between.


All the investor does is decide what kind of real estate they have an interest in, look into their brokerage account, choose what REITs specialize in that asset class, and invest in that.


In essence, investors buy into a portfolio of office buildings, apartment buildings, or any type of commercial real estate they deem viable.

Two large real estate buildings suggesting assets in a REIT for investment

How REITs Work


In short, when someone purchases a REIT, they are buying a share of the company that owns and manages income-producing property, either a single asset or more often, a portfolio of investments. The individual investor does not hold an equity share in the property, but rather, in the company that owns the property – an important distinction to make. The REIT then uses these funds to continue to invest and grow their portfolios.


REITs will usually have predefined criteria for investing. For example, a REIT might only invest in grocery-store anchored retail centers in New York, New Jersey and the surrounding area.


Understanding the REIT’s investment parameters is important for any investor considering buying a share in the company.


Then, by law, the REIT must return 90% of its profits to shareholders in the form of dividends.


REIT shares can be easily purchased and sold, just as easily as traditional stocks. As a result, it is not uncommon for a REIT’s share price to fluctuate throughout the day as trading occurs.

What Qualifies as a REIT?


To qualify as a REIT, a company must meet the following criteria:


  • Real estate must comprise at least 75% of its total assets;
  • At least 75% of the company’s gross income must come from that rental portfolio, including both rents and sales of property;
  • Must return at least 90% of income to shareholders in the form of dividends;
  • Must have at least 100 shareholders with no more than 50% of total shares being held by five or fewer of those investors; and
  • Be structured as a taxable entity that is overseen by a board of directors or trustees.


For some real estate corporations seeking to obtain REIT status, the most significant barrier to overcome is the requirement to have at least 100 investors. As a result, many real estate companies will start as management companies that later restructure as REITs.

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REIT Comparison: Types of REIT


There are three primary types of REITs: Equity REITs, Mortgage REITs and Hybrid REITs.


Equity REITs


Equity REITs are the most common form of REITs. They purchase, own and manage income-producing property such as multifamily buildings, retail centers and office parks. Equity REITs are different from other equity investments in that the companies typically purchase and hold their assets over a long time. Equity REITs are attractive to investors who want the benefit of both long-term capital gains as well as dividends in the interim.


Retail REITs


Retail REITs manage and own retail real estate locations, and generate income by renting spaces in those properties to tenants. This real estate investment trust segment includes outlets, grocery-anchored shopping developments, large malls, and big-box-anchored retailers. In most cases, net lease REITs own individual properties and structure leases in a manner that has tenants paying both monthly rents and the majority of operating expenses for a given property.


Residential REITs


Residential REITs manage and own different types of residences and rent spaces within their properties to residential tenants. These REITs include multifamily apartment buildings, single-family homes, manufactured housing, and student housing. Within the broader context of Residential REITs, some will also focus on specific property classes or geographical locations- i.e. multifamily housing in Tampa, Florida, or Single-Family homes within the SF Bay Area. 


Office REITs


This subset of real estate investment trusts engages in the building, management, and maintenance of office buildings and leasing those spaces to firms that use the office space to engage in office-related business endeavors. While some companies outright own the office buildings in which they work, the majority lease space from office REITs and other landlords, which have a significant presence in downtown and central business areas.


Healthcare REITs


Healthcare REITs manage and own healthcare-related real estate and properties, and primarily generate income through collecting rents from medically-focused tenants. Some common examples of healthcare REIT properties include:

  • Nursing homes and senior living facilities.
  • Medical offices and medical office buildings.
  • Hospitals.
  • Physical therapy centers. 


How to Invest in Equity REITs


Equity REITs allow investors to access large-scale, diverse portfolios of income producing properties and assets that they would not otherwise be able to access on their own as individual investors. Listed REITs are currently included in more than 250,000 401(k) plans, and the personal holdings of roughly 145 million American investors through 401(k)s and other investment plans.


There are a multitude of mutual funds and stock exchange listed REITs, or ETFs which allow investors to access REITs with the click of a button on their Charles Schwab, Robinhood, or other brokerage account or platform.


Mortgage REITs


Meanwhile, Mortgage REITs are companies that loan money to real estate developers. Mortgage REITs do not own real estate directly. Often, mortgage REITs will purchase existing mortgage or mortgage-backed securities. Mortgage REITs generate income through the repayment of interest owed on these loans.


How to Invest in Mortgage REITs


mREITs hold mortgage-backed securities and mortgages on their company balance sheets, and fund debt and equity capital investments. Typically, their goal is to profit from their net interest margin or on the spread between their funding costs and their interest income on mortgage assets. They depend on various funding sources, including preferred and common equity, structured financing, convertible and long-term debt, repurchase agreements, and other credit avenues. 


Additionally, they raise both equity and debt in public capital markets. mREITs generally use more equity capital and less borrowing to finance mortgage and mortgage-backed security acquisitions when compared to other large investors in the space.


Hybrid REITs


The third type of REIT is a Hybrid REIT, which, as the name implies, is a combination of Equity and Mortgage REITs. Hybrid REITs will own real estate directly and make loans (or invest in loans) to third parties.


How to Invest in Hybrid REITs


As we mentioned earlier, there are three categories of REIT, equity, mortgage, and hybrid. Each segment of the REIT market is categorized based on their holdings, with hybrid being a combination of the two former, equity and mortgage. Hybrid REITs can also be subdivided into three main categories- private REITs, publicly traded REITs, and public non-traded REITs. To invest in a private REIT, one must typically be an institutional or accredited investor. 


People can purchase publicly traded REITs can be purchased through traditional brokers or via online platforms like Robinhood or Webull. Investors can access a public non-traded REIT through a broker.


Most have a minimum investment of somewhere between $1000-2500- keep in mind though, that they also offer less liquidity than publicly traded REITs.

What is a REIT: Traded vs. Untraded 


There are two kinds of REITs, traded and untraded.


Traded REIT


Publicly traded REITs are registered with the SEC and can be bought and sold on the stock market through brokers and are subject to usual brokerage fees.


Different investors can make different investments in REITs ranging from common or preferred stock, or debt.


Risks of Publicly Traded REITs


Like any other investment, REITs present some level of risk for your portfolio and these risks differ from investments in equities, or even investments in traditional real estate assets. Let’s look at a few of the most common dangers within the publicly traded REIT space.


Interest Rate Risks


High interest rates are anathema to REITs because higher interest rates will reduce demand for REITs. In most cases, when rates rise, investors look to safe(r) investment options, such as US Treasuries like bonds, treasury notes, or treasury bills.


Since these options are guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the US government, and pay a rate of fixed interest, investment capital tends to flow into bonds when rates rise and the short and long term outlook is murkier. 


While there is a case to be made for rising interest rates actually showing the economy's underlying strength, and thus reduced risk of tenant default or property depreciation, this has not historically been the case.


Choosing the Wrong REIT


Another risk, which you’ll find with almost any other investment as well, is choosing the wrong REIT- much like choosing Enron or Worldcom in the early 90s may not have been the best path to financial freedom. In much the same way that investing in long-distance service may have been a bad idea at the dawn of the cellular phone age, you can try and look forward to determining which REIT might have the best return potential down the line. 


For instance, investing in large-scale retail malls might not generate the returns you want- what with the numerous threats to malls, including a post-Covid world and heightened fear of crowded spaces, as well as the rise of eCommerce and firms like Amazon.


Tax Treatment


While less of a risk and more of a regulatory fact, the tax treatment for REIT dividends is something you should consider. Rather than being taxed as investment income, REIT dividends are taxed as ordinary income- which is the same as your income tax rate- which will likely be higher than capital gains taxes or dividend tax rates for stocks.


Untraded REITs are different from publicly traded REITs in that there is a lack of liquidity; once an investor places their capital, there may be no way to sell those shares.


That said, some non-traded REITs do have share buy-back provisions, but these programs are often offered at the discretion of the REITs management, can be rescinded at any time, and therefore cannot be counted on for liquidity.


Related: Real Estate Crowdfunding vs. REITs: Which Is Better?


Untraded REIT


Untraded REITs are different from publicly traded REITs in that there is a lack of liquidity; once an investor places their capital, there may be no way to sell those shares.


That said, some non-traded REITs do have share buy-back provisions, but these programs are often offered at the discretion of the REITs management, can be rescinded at any time, and therefore cannot be counted on for liquidity.


Risks of Untraded REITs


Untraded REITs, or non-publicly listed REITs, do not hold the distinction of being only available to accredited or institutional investors, but with this “access for all” comes a few risks unique to this type of REIT.


Share Value


While untraded REITs are accessible to most investors, the process is not as simple as logging into your Charles Schwab account and picking up a share. For several reasons outlined below, including liquidity, fees, and other issues we’ll touch on, the share values of these REITs tend to be less transparent than traditional REITs or other real estate investments.


Lack of Liquidity


Untraded REITs are illiquid investments which means that they cannot be sold quickly in the marketplace, as opposed to many standard REITs. Instead, investors need to wait until the untraded REIT is listed on an exchange, or liquidates its assets to gain access to liquidity- which may not happen until a decade after your initial investment.


Typically, untraded REITs offer investors the opportunity to redeem shares early. Still, these share redemption options are generally subject to substantial limitations, and can be ended by the REIT without notice. They may also require that any shares redeemed early be liquidated at a discount- leading to potential losses for investors. 




In a similar vein to the lack of liquidity mentioned above, distributions for untraded REITs tend to be very rigid, and pulling out your investment early can result in a loss of investment capital.


Furthermore, untraded REITs are not required to allow you to remove your investment from the trust, which can provide investors with problems should they need to access that money in an emergency, or to get their investment capital into a more lucrative opportunity.




Untraded REITs tend to charge high upfront fees to lower their organizational and offering costs, and to compensate the firms or individuals selling the investment. These fees can reach as high as 15% of the offering price, which lowers the value and returns on your investment because it leaves less money for the REIT to invest. Untraded REITs also often hold substantial transaction costs, like asset management fees and property acquisition fees.

What is a REIT Fee?


One concern often expressed when it comes to REITs, as opposed to crowdfunding or similar options, is the extent to which they incur fees relative to each other.


For REITs the soundest comparison to make is that fees are typically going to be the same as paying a standard fee to any broker for other stock investments.


In non-traded REITs these fees can be substantial totaling 9-10% which immediately and significantly reduces the value of the investment.


It is difficult to compare fees associated with REIT versus those associated with crowdfunded real estate deals because crowdfunding is still in its infancy, making it harder to compare costs to something like REITs that are more established.


Fees in real estate crowdfunded deals can be extensive also and in both cases, investors often need to dig deep into offering documents to uncover their true extent.


How Do You Make Money on a REIT?


The best analogy for describing how you make money with a publicly owned REIT is the stock, or equities markets. Much like folks who own Coca-Cola, JP Morgan Chase, or Texas Instruments stock, holders are paid a dividend from the profits of the REIT. Additionally they benefit from any rise in value the REIT experiences while you hold it, assuming you sell.


Remember that these facts do not necessarily hold true for every REIT- just as you can buy shares in poorly managed companies, the same is true of REITs. If you’re interested in seeing a return of somewhere between 5-10%, or more, you must perform adequate due diligence before investing- both on the REITs investment strategy, as well as on the background and expertise of the team leading the endeavor.


Different types of REITs may also influence your investment volatility and profitability. For example, equity REITs tend to be less volatile than mortgage REITs, due to the outsized effect that mortgage rates can have on the performance of mortgage REITs.


Additionally, you need to be aware of each type of REIT's distinct tax rules and advantages. Keep in mind that 90% of a REITs net earnings are required to be distributed each year to shareholders- this can help defray your tax burden, resulting in a higher income from your investment.


If your investment in a REIT loses money, you have the option of deducting up to $3,000 in losses from your taxable income, potentially offsetting other gains or income. As with most investments, your ability to make money is highly dependent on market forces, your due diligence, and your ability to plan ahead when it comes to the real estate markets.


REITs’ Average Return


According to Nareit, the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, during the 20- year period which ended in December 2019, the FTSE NAREIT All Equity REITs index, which is an aggregation of all publicly traded equity REIT data, outperformed the Russell 1000, which is a stock market index of large-capitalization stocks.


The REIT indexed investments were almost double that of the Russell 1000, with an annual return of 11.6% compared to the stocks at 6.29%. In 2019, equity REITs reported total returns of 28.7%, with mortgage REITs coming in at 21.3%, again according to data collected by Nareit.


Can You Lose Money on a REIT?


There are no two ways about it- you can lose money with an investment in a REIT. This may happen due to poor management, the wrong property investment strategy, high fees, tax issues, or any number of other problems that can arise with any sort of financial investment.


Remember that “past performance is no indicator of future performance” and that as with any investment, you need to perform rigorous due diligence before taking the plunge.

REITs Advantages and Disadvantages 


While there will be unique circumstances for each investor and each REIT, there are a few everyday things to consider.


First, REITs offer the opportunity for investors to solidify their foothold in many specialized and nontraditional types of real estate.


One of the largest REITs on the market, for example, specializes in owning cell towers.


Others include billboards, prisons, senior housing, etc.; you’d be surprised by the variety of properties represented.


Many of these kinds of investments are otherwise unavailable to investors.


This also goes hand-in-hand with another advantage of REITs: helping small investors access a strong, diversified portfolio.


REITs Disadvantages


Before investing, it’s important that you not only understand the advantages and potential upside- but the disadvantages and potential downside. This will help you defend your wealth from downswings, as well as help you sleep better at night, knowing you’ve done everything in your power to protect yourself.


Let’s look at some of the disadvantages offered by REITs.




Some REITs, like untraded/non-traded REITs, or some private REITs, are illiquid investments. This means they typically can’t be sold on the open market, which could cause you issues if you need to sell quickly to drum up some cash or get into another investment. 


Heavy Debt


By nature, REITs tend to have a lot of debt- often among the most indebted companies available in the marketplace. This is somewhat defrayed by the understanding that REITs carry long-term contracts that generate steady cash flow- like tenant leases. This ensures REITs can support debt payments and still pay investor dividends. 


Low Growth


Remember that REITs pay the majority of their profits out as dividends. So, to grow their business or portfolio, they must raise cash through the issuance of new bonds or stock shares. However, investors are not always willing to buy- like during the ‘08 recession or similarly depressed economic times. This can lead to low growth, as REITs can't capitalize on low real estate prices as quickly as other sectors of the real estate markets.


Tax Burden


REITs pay no taxes, but investors in REITs are still tax-liable for any dividends they receive. One way to avoid this is to pair a REIT investment with a tax-advantaged account, like an IRA. 


Non-Traded REITs Can Be Expensive


In many cases (but not all), your initial investment in a non-traded REIT may reach $25,000 or more- and it may also be limited to institutional or accredited investors.


They also may have onerous fees which can eat up your initial capital investment, degrading your returns through the awesome power of compound interest- but in reverse. 


REITs Advantages


Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom- there are numerous advantages investors can gain from REITs.


Steady Dividends


Since REITs have to pay out 90% of their annual income as dividends to shareholders, they usually sit above the rest as the highest dividend yielding offerings in the stock market. This is great for investors looking for a regular income stream, and many of the oldest and most reliable REITs have a history of paying significant dividends over a long period of time.


High Returns


As we discussed earlier, REIT returns have the potential to outperform stock indexes, sometimes even doubling specific key trackers of stock market performance, like the Russell 1000. 


Lower Volatility


In many cases, REITs are less volatile than stocks, mainly because they have higher dividends. They also tend to provide investors with less volatility than other market sides, like the tech industry. Of course, this is no guarantee, but it is something to consider. 




Purchasing a publicly-traded REIT is as easy as doing the research, calling your broker and having them put the order in, or using an app to buy it. The process for acquiring, managing, and maintaining commercial properties on your own is considerably more intense, and often requires a level of professional knowledge that many investors cannot or do not want to learn.

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Liquidity Premium


Another factor that drives the decision to invest in a REIT is what is known as the “liquidity premium.”


The Liquidity Premium is the amount above the actual value of a non-liquid asset i.e. real estate, that the investor is willing to pay in return for converting that investment into a liquid asset.


Put another way, commercial real estate is illiquid – it can take months to sell a building – but a share of a REIT is a liquid asset that can be bought and sold instantly.  This is a great advantage of investing in real estate through a REIT.


But the liquidity premium can also be seen as a disadvantage depending on who you ask.


Why, for example, would long term investors want to pay a liquidity premium for real estate, if they don’t actually need liquidity?


This is how Ben Miller, co-founder and CEO at the marketplace Fundrise puts it:


Ben_Miller_Fundrise_Liquidity_Premium This transcript may contain errors. . .

I think it did more 50 50 100 percent but it's at least 20 30.

I mean the three simple reasons is one, in a public context, you are getting daily liquidity. Right, you get liquid assets. I can guarantee you that liquidity is not free.

The building you own is not liquid.

There is no way people pay the same price for a building that's illiquid and a piece of paper that liquid. We just think about intuitively. How much more would you pay for something that was totally liquid.

A lot more than 1 percent, right; a lot more. What's interesting about this idea of this liquidity premium which is so, it's such a natural assumption people no longer see it, is clearly it's valuable. Clearly it's expensive.

I'm going to say I'm going to use a rule to say this and then we can talk about it, I'd say 20 20 percent minimum because you would say how much more would you pay for a building that's that's like would you say 20 percent for sure.

If you're talking about not liquid, the transaction costs on that piece of paper is almost zero.

The cost to sell a building is much much higher than the cost to sell a piece of paper.

It's a derivative of the building.

There's a lot of reasons why 20 30 percent or more but that's significant.

So the question I ask you is if you are going to buy something and hold it for retirement or for 5 7 year, if you're a buy and hold investor, why are you paying a liquidity premium?

Listen to the entire conversation with Ben Miller by clicking here.

REITs Behave Like Stocks


Another difference between investing in REITs and investing in a syndicated real estate crowdfunded deal is that REITs trade on the stock market and are subject to market volatility, whereas a direct investment in a real estate project is not.


With stocks, day by day, month by month, prices fluctuate.


In some cases, prices may increase or decrease more than the actual value of the underlying assets due to the nature of the market - something that you wouldn’t see with actual physical properties.


This could lead to a sort of “double whammy” where if the market goes down, not only does your stock go down, but your dividend goes down as well.


We saw this play out on a massive scale in the 2009 financial crisis, with the REIT index dropping over 80% at one point.


Hindsight is, of course 20:20, and a lot of what happened during the financial crisis was due to panic, which drove down the values of REITs way too far.


For investors at the time the reality of the collapse in REIT values was exacerbated by the bear on the stock market and their ability to sell their shares super quickly.


While there was a drop in the underlying values of actual properties, it wasn’t responsible for the full 80% plummet.


Since people could sell so quickly, they used that freedom to sell faster than they needed to which placed disproportionate downward pressure on publicly traded REIT pricing.


Related: Value Investing: Not Just for Stocks


How to Assess a REIT


There are several things you need to think about when you’re vetting a REIT. 


-A REIT is a total return investment and this means that they provide investors with high dividend yields, alongside moderate long term capital appreciation. Ideally, you want to invest in companies that can provide both of these benefits.


-Unlike most other real estate assets, many REITs trade on stock exchanges- this gives you a heightened level of liquidity, and in many cases, the ability to pull out your money when you need it- without facing onerous fees and holding periods.


-Property depreciation usually overstates a given investment’s decline in total property value. So instead of using a payout ratio, which is what most dividend investors use, when looking at a REIT check out its FFOs, or “funds from operations.” FFO is defined as the REITs net income, minus the sale of a property in a given year, including depreciation. Take the dividend per share, and divide it by the FFO per share- and remember that you’re looking for high yields. 


-Management matters. Seek out companies that have a good reputation, or those with teams that have a long and spotless reputation with the business.


What REITs Should I Invest In?


Much like the stock market, the REIT you choose depends on a few overarching factors, including your tolerance for risk, your desired returns, your tax situation, and your time horizon for taking out your investments for retirement, to start a business, or to deploy in other assets.


For instance, someone seeking longer term returns might seek out a medical REIT, hoping to cash in on retiring baby boomers moving into care homes, while someone with a shorter term horizon might want to invest in multifamily/single-family-focused REITs, hoping to take advantage of the bounceback from COVID-19. As always, use due diligence, tailor your investments to your individual needs, and invest in things you believe in.


Are REITs Safe During a Recession?


Yes and no- or put another way, it depends on the type of REIT. For instance, if you’re heavily invested in hospitality or restaurant properties, you might not fare well during a recession, as people have less excess money to spend on luxuries.


However, if you’ve invested in a multifamily or self-storage REIT, you might come out ahead as people downsize their homes and move into smaller properties. 


Remember that every recession is different- consider the downturn we had this past year during COVID-19, and compare that to dips in the past, such as the ‘08 crash. REITs tend to act much in the same way some stocks will rise and some will fall during a recession, emphasizing the value of planning for the future, due diligence, and ensuring you hold a diverse array of assets.




REITs offer an alternative to investing to either direct acquisition and management of real estate or investing in a syndication via a crowdfunded deal, and vary in these three distinct ways:


1. They can behave more like stocks than real estate in terms of pricing fluctuations

2. There is likely a liquidity premium for converting an inherently non-liquid asset (commercial real estate) into a liquid asset, and,

3. Especially with non-traded REITs investors should pay close attention to REIT management fees.

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