Why Physical Real Estate Isn’t For Me

I often get asked the question, “Mr. Tako why don’t you invest in physical real estate?”  Today I’m going to try to answer that question.  Real estate has long been a popular investment among those seeking financial independence, but (other than my home) I don’t own any physical real estate. However, I have made TONS of money from real estate…


What’s The Attraction?

Small investors really love real estate.  Maybe too much!  A lot of the attraction to real estate comes from the fact that it’s a physical thing.  It’s solid, it’s real, and you can touch it.  By contrast, stock ownership is merely some numbers and letters on your monthly brokerage account statement.  The average Joe has no control over that kind of investment beyond a little voting power (which some might argue is no power at all).  With physical real estate, the average Joe can use his own sweat equity to make improvements, and perhaps realize some additional return.  I can definitely see the attraction.

Residential real estate remains extremely popular with the ‘common man’, but it isn’t without its own pitfalls.  Everyone and their Grandma wants to own a rental property for the income and tax advantages.  Consequently, everyone seems to think they’re some kind of real estate investment guru these days! 

There’s also about five million of these hucksters trying to sell you their real estate investment course, seminar, or book on how to get rich quickly (with real estate).  You won’t find any of that garbage here.


Problem #0: Time

For small investors, physical real estate investment forces you to wear many hats.  Typically the owner will play the part of property owner, marketer, accountant, and repair man.  It’s a heck of a lot of work for a busy individual to take on…but many people are fine with this arrangement.  They feel sweat equity is their road to wealth.  I only wish I had that kind of time…

As a father of very young boys (ages 1 and 3), my time comes at a very large premium.  Kids take a lot of time, and I happen to have two of them.  Most of my waking hours are dedicated to their care and feeding.  This won’t last forever of course, and every day they get more and more independent.  But for now, I essentially have no leisure time to spare.

For me, a physical real estate investment that could potentially suck up all my nights and weekends with maintenance (and tenant issues) seems like a very bad idea.  Something in my life would have to give; either my relationship with my children, or my relationship with Mrs. Tako.  Neither of those is something I’m willing to compromise.


Problem #1: Leverage

One of the biggest problems with real estate is leverage.  Physical property is expensive!  To buy income producing properties, most investors need to have significant leverage.  In order to realize returns from real estate that match other asset classes (like stocks), huge amounts of leverage are usually required.  Ten to twenty percent equity (or less) is not uncommon.  This isn’t necessarily safe plan.  Leverage can work against you when business makes a turn for the worse.

Real estate is essentially a big levered bet on your local economy.  Any experienced landlord will tell you that your success as a real estate investor is entirely dependant upon what happens with your local economy.  If the local economy goes to hell, you could stand to lose a lot.  If you’re in the next Silicon Valley…well, congratulations!!

For Mr. Tako and family, we’ve got enough debt with our mortgage.  Right now, I could write a check to the bank and pay off my mortgage.  Adding more debt and diminishing this advantaged position seems like a bad idea.


Problem #2: Local Prices

In my case, I happen to live in a high cost of living (HCOL) area.  Physical property is extremely expensive here.  Property prices are often 20 to 30 times yearly rents, which I think is kind of insane.  Cap rates from such a property are tiny.  Any significant maintenance can kill your positive cash flow for the year.

If I was to invest in a physical property here, it would definitely be a “pray and hope” situation; Pray for capital appreciation and hope nothing breaks.  That’s just not how I invest….


Another Option: REITs

What if there was a way to invest in real estate without all those problems?  There is, and I’ve been investing in it for many years….Given a situation like mine, there’s no better real estate investment than a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT).  It happens to be one of my favorite investment vehicles.

I won’t pretend to try and write a complete primer on REIT’s today, but SEC.gov has a decent one.  Wikipedia gave it a decent treatment too.

The first thing we need to talk about is how cashflow is paid out.  REITs are required by law to pay out at least 90% of taxable income.  Typically this is in the form of dividends.  In many cases, they frequently pay out more than their taxable income (more about tax advantages later).

One other major advantage to owning a REIT is the ability to invest in classes of real estate that would normally not be an option for individuals:  Want to buy a skyscraper in the middle of a city?  Good luck as a individual investor.  How about a large multi-family property with thousands of units?  Yeah, again, good luck with that one!

REITs open up large swaths of real estate investments normally impossible for you to invest in:  commercial, large multi-family residential, large retail properties, industrial properties, mortgage investments, or even forest land.  

[Note:  I should also mention REITs and leverage here.  It really depends upon the individual REIT, but *usually* REITs are considerably less levered than any individual investor might be.  This is a good thing.

If you do your homework right, some real estate investments are going to generate better returns than you would realize on your own, and sometimes even better than index funds!

As I’ve done in past articles, I’m going to use my real life investments to illustrate my point.  In this case, we’ll use Mid America Apartment Communities (Stock Symbol: MAA).


REIT Dividends And Tax Advantages

Small investors often tout the tax advantages of investing in real estate:  The good news is that these same tax advantages exist for REIT’s.  Things like depreciation, and 1031 exchanges, REITs have those same advantages.

How about cash-flows from the investment?  How are they taxed?  Well, unlike a C-Corp, REIT’s don’t pay taxes on the funds they distribute to shareholders.  The shareholders themselves pay the taxes.  This makes REITs a more efficient cash machine than a C-Corp because there is no double taxation of dividends.  Win!

Typically REITs are traded on a stock exchange (much like any public C-Corp), but pay far larger dividends.  At the end of the year, the REIT will issue a press release detailing the taxable composition of these dividends.  For our MAA example, here’s the 2015 press release.

REIT Dividends can fall into several categories (and the composition varies from year-to-year):

  • Ordinary Taxable Dividends – This falls into ordinary income tax brackets.
  • Long Term Capital Gains – Subject to the same taxation rules and rates as other long term capital gains (usually 15%)
  • Unrecaptured Sec. 1250 Gains – This happens on the sale of a depreciated property that is not rolled into a 1031 exchange.  Currently depreciation recapture is taxed at 25%.
  • Return of Capital –  Return of capital is my favorite form of REIT dividend…because it isn’t taxable in a given year.  Let me quote the IRS to help you understand how this works:  “Distributions that qualify as a return of capital are not dividends. A return of capital is a return of some or all of your investment in the stock of the company. A return of capital reduces the adjusted cost basis of your stock”.  Essentially the IRS will not impose taxes until you sell your shares.  Collect now, pay later. What’s the best thing to do with Return of Capital?  Reinvest it of course!!!


Comparing To An Index Fund

Can REIT’s really provide decent returns compared to something like a S&P500 Index fund?  In my experience, they definitely can!  Here’s the performance of my MAA shares from the initial date of purchase (2/13/2002), up to today:

MAA Performance
Performance of Mid America Apartment Communities (February 13th 2002 to March 25th 2016), compared to SPY (S&P 500 ETF). Yes, I’ve really owned it for 14 years!!  Chart courtesy of Yahoo Finance

How about them apples?  As you can see, this investment has clearly trounced the S&P 500 (as represented by the SPY ETF) when looking at price appreciation alone.  Capital appreciation of 281% compared to the humble 85% of the S&P 500.  What’s missing from the chart?  Dividends of course!!

In 2002, when I invested, MAA was paying $2.34 per share in dividends.  That’s a yield of 9.2% on my purchase price of $25.32.  Today, dividends have grown to $3.28 per share, a 40% increase and yield of 12.9% on my initial purchase price.

I think this is a pretty decent return.  It also cost me $0 in fees for the 14 years that I’ve owned the investment (other than the initial $7 trade).  Anybody have an index fund that charges $0 in fees for 14 years?


REITs vs. Physical Real Estate

Like any other investment, picking and choosing your real estate is key.  Some are treasures and some are trash.

Like me, you could avoid physical real estate, and buy REITs instead.  You could also buy a REIT mutual fund if you’re into funds.  Either way, REITs are far more diversified (frequently with less leverage) than buying into a physical property.  They also take far less of your precious time

Like physical real estate, education is key.  Any investor looking to invest in REITs needs to study how they work – and they work definitely work different from a C-Corp.  Understanding terms like FFO, NAV, and AFFO are going to be key to learning about REITs.  Do your homework here folks!

Traditional measures like ROE often look terrible on REITs.  Couple that with dividend payouts that exceed taxable income, and at first glance REITs might look like complete trash.

Don’t get me wrong, despite my success, I don’t believe REIT’s are a perfect investment; I let REITs consume only about 10% of my portfolio.  There’s lots of things about even MAA that I don’t like!  But no investment is ever going to be perfect.  

Remember: The road to wealth isn’t paved.  It’s a big potholed mess, and learning to navigate that road is half the fun…

[Image Credit: Flickr]

20 thoughts on “Why Physical Real Estate Isn’t For Me

  • March 25, 2016 at 7:43 PM

    Mr. Tako strikes again. Precisely the reasons why I don’t touch real estate (except through REITs). I have no desire to play landlord, and in a similarly overpriced market (Denver) in which bidding wars are common and there might be another bubble forming, I especially want to part in overleveraging my finances. I got out of grad school in 2009, and I still have traumatic memories of what a real estate bust can look like… and that was just as a job-seeker.

  • March 25, 2016 at 11:05 PM

    Hey Mr. Tako,

    This is a good write down of reasons not to own physical rentals.
    The main reason I sold mine was the need to fix it up before renting again. I did not want to spend the time myself (Kids were 1 and 3 at that time) and I did not want to spend the cash to have it done.
    Too be honest, I was fairly lucky with my tenants. Only once I had something broken and got it fixed by a plumber without major damage at all.

    I would not mind another one now, I will put my nose in it the coming weeks.

    REITs are interesting too look at. I have my eye on some Belgian REITs…

  • March 26, 2016 at 1:27 AM

    Have you looked into any real estate P2P platforms like RealtyShares, RealCrowd, iFunding, etc.? Any thoughts on how they compare to an REIT? One of them, Fundrise even has their own REIT.

    • March 26, 2016 at 8:35 PM

      I have not heard of them before. I’ll have to take a look at them.

      • April 10, 2016 at 12:26 AM

        For some people these platforms may be out of the question since you need to be accredited to participate (as an investor). But it’s not difficult to find annual returns over 9% — typically with a $5K minimum investment and 12-month term. I’d really love it if someone smarter than myself compared these to other investments (i.e. dividend paying stocks) that are typically praised on personal-finance blogs. In particular how they stand up to scrutiny after taxes are accounted for.

  • March 26, 2016 at 4:38 AM

    Spot on Tako San. Been reading your blog for sometime now, my first comment! You and I have similar investment philosophies. Though I don’t know your portfolio, I have a DGI portfolio of 35 stocks. I try to stay below max 6% in any one stock and under 15% in any one sector. As an American spending lot of time in Asia, there is no way I can maintain physical real estate in US, but I love the REIT category. Own about 12% of my portfolio in 5 REIT stocks in both triple nets and health care. They gyrate a lot but haven’t yet produced cap growth above SPY. But dividends are rock steady though. Keep up your great blog!

    • March 26, 2016 at 10:17 PM

      Thanks PMV! I really appreciate the encouragement!

  • March 26, 2016 at 1:28 PM

    I always thought I was weird since I wasn’t all gung-ho about rental real estate like a lot of this community is (at least it seems to me). I’m a “keep it simple, stupid” investor and for that reason, real estate doesn’t fit into my investment philosophy. I’ve finally come to terms that it is A.O.K. to just want to stick to my guns and not get involved. Personally, it would stress me the hell out that someone would burn down the house, get hurt in it, etc. I know there is insurance, but not for me. Even though I am extremely handy 🙂

    • March 26, 2016 at 10:33 PM

      Some asset classes are just too much work, even when you’re handy!

  • March 27, 2016 at 5:11 AM

    Hello Mr. Tako,
    Some very valid points! The time though is not always too bad, depends on the type of property and how you manage. It’s not keeping us away from our kiddo (our normal work is thou). The leverage is exactly what our latest real estate adventure is based upon. The return on investment simply can’t be beat by any other investment option. But to reduce the risks involved and to keep taxes limited, we will have a property management firm support us. Full disclosure, we also have various REIT’s, dividend stocks and ETF’s. We still like the mix, just depends on what investment opportunity come by first 😉

  • March 28, 2016 at 4:48 AM

    I’m actually in the opposite camp… I’m aiming to get more real estate! 🙂

    I have a rental house and now a duplex and I’m planning on getting 2-3 more duplexes over the next handful of years. Similar to you, time is precious (I have a 5-year old daughter). On both properties, I use a property management company to handle most everything. Although they take 10% of rent, to me that’s a bargain. That means no phone calls for clogged toilets, no worrying about collecting rent, etc.

    I look at leverage in exactly the opposite way… if you wanted $100k worth of stocks, you better come up with $100k. If you want a rental property for that price, you only need to come up with 20-25% (or much less with some creative strategies) and then a lender will give you the rest – and you get to keep all the profits of the whole investment! That’s a good deal!

    I think the big difference might be prices though. Where I’m located, I can get a nice duplex in a B class neighborhood for just over $100k and make excellent returns on the investment.

    However, not everyone wants to jump into this (like yourself) and I do agree that REITs are a good alternative. You don’t get all the advantages, but you can in ball game and it usually does give you some more diversification over physical real estate.

    — Jim

  • March 28, 2016 at 2:19 PM

    I’m still on the fence on REITs. I think they’d just complicate my portfolio, and I feel for diversity I’m fine with bonds/stocks.
    I might change my mind soon though, as I’ll have to reconsider my portfolio balance when we move back to Japan (hopefully early next year)

    • March 28, 2016 at 3:37 PM

      You are probably right. Bonds/stocks *are* probably sufficient diversification, but REIT’s are often not as correlated to market returns. When the market goes down, REIT’s often don’t go down as much. The converse can also happen (of course).

      I let each investment stand on it’s own up to the ‘measuring stick’ (regardless of asset type). If it doesn’t produce sufficient return, I’ll begin moving it out of the portfolio. REIT returns can often be ‘hidden’ though, especially when it comes to return of capital.

  • April 3, 2016 at 3:29 AM

    Hey Mr Tako,

    I love REITs as they can, within themselves, offer a wide variety of options and real estate industries. I dislike real estate for all the reasons you mention, as well as the fact that most people concentrate their wealth so intensely with their own home, then double it with a rental property. Putting your eggs in one property basket there.


  • April 11, 2016 at 4:51 PM

    very interesting. I go back and forth on real estate all the time. I have modeled that real estate will likely beat a stock index fund if you buy it with 100% financing. but that brings you back to the risk of employing leverage. in my state there is a very stable population supported by government jobs which constantly result in turnover because of the armed forces. the only difficulty is to get the 100% financing. my first rental was “accidental” as I bought in 2008 and didn’t want to take the loss. The key to making it all work is to always get a property manager so you don’t have all the hassle!

  • April 17, 2016 at 12:18 AM

    Interesting post, and coincidentally about a subject that I have been thinking a lot about recently. I live in Europe and in my area we have exactly the same problem in my area – the cost of residential property is approximately 20 times the annual rent you can make from it. The numbers do not add up!

    However there is an opportunity in commercial real estate where I come from, particularly if one takes on the development of the property himself (or herself 😉 – http://www.smellingfreedom.com/2016/04/debt-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/

    Anyway cut a long story short I did exactly that. Bought some land and built an office block. The property is now paying for itself and once the loan is paid off the rent from this one investment alone will cover a very big chunk (82% or so) of our annual costs.

    Thanks for the tip re REITs. I will look into them.

    • April 17, 2016 at 11:47 AM

      I assume you mean 82% of your personal costs, not operating costs of the property…in which case that’s pretty good.

      In most places commercial and industrial properties will out-yield residential, due to higher risk.

      I have a story about industrial property, but I’ll save that for another day.

  • September 9, 2016 at 1:30 AM

    Good summary Mr. Tako. I’m also thinking more in REITs when it comes to real estate as an investment. Could you share what kind of metrics do you typically check before jumping into a REIT? I agree that FFO and NAV should be the key here, but could you show how exactly you use them by 1-2 examples? Thanks in advance!

  • January 31, 2017 at 1:52 AM

    Very informative article. As a real estate professional I personally prefer to invest in Physical Real Estate. Investing in physical real estate is extremely expensive, but you can get tax advantages.


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