What Is a REIT?

May 3, 2023
Real Estate Investment Trusts, or REITs, are a type of investment vehicle that allows individuals to invest in real estate without directly owning property. REITs own and manage income-generating real estate properties such as apartment buildings, hotels, shopping centers, and office buildings. In this article, we will explore what REITs are, how they work, the different types of REITs, their benefits and risks, and how to invest in them.

What is a REIT?

A REIT is a company that owns, operates, or finances income-generating real estate properties. It is a tax-efficient structure that allows investors to pool their money together to invest in a diverse portfolio of properties. REITs are similar to mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) in that they offer investors exposure to a diversified basket of assets.

REITs were first created in the United States in 1960 to give individual investors access to the commercial real estate market. Before then, only wealthy investors could afford to invest in commercial real estate, which meant that the average person was left out. REITs democratized real estate investing, making it accessible to a broader range of investors.

How do REITs work?

REITs invest in real estate properties and generate income from rent, lease payments, and property appreciation. They must distribute at least 90% of their taxable income to shareholders in the form of dividends to maintain their tax-exempt status.

REITs can be publicly traded on a stock exchange, making them more liquid than direct real estate investments. Investors can buy and sell REIT shares like stocks, and the price of the shares is determined by supply and demand in the market.

The different types of REITs

There are several types of REITs, each with its own unique characteristics and investment strategies. Here are the most common types of REITs:

Equity REITs: Equity REITs invest in and own income-producing real estate properties such as apartment buildings, office buildings, shopping centers, and hotels. They generate income from rent payments and property appreciation.

Mortgage REITs: Mortgage REITs invest in real estate debt, such as mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. They generate income from the interest paid on the mortgages they hold.

Hybrid REITs: Hybrid REITs combine elements of both equity and mortgage REITs. They own both income-generating properties and real estate debt.

Publicly Traded REITs: These are REITs that are publicly traded on stock exchanges.

Non-Traded REITs: Non-traded REITs are not publicly traded and are not required to disclose their financial information to the public. They are usually sold through broker-dealers or financial advisors.

Private REITs: Private REITs are not publicly traded and are only available to accredited investors. They are typically structured as limited partnerships and require a minimum investment.

What qualifies as a REIT?

To qualify as a REIT, a company must meet several requirements set forth by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). These requirements are designed to ensure that REITs operate as pass-through entities, distribute most of their taxable income to shareholders, and invest primarily in income-generating real estate assets.

Here are the main requirements that a company must meet to qualify as a REIT:

Structure: The company must be structured as a corporation, trust, or association that is managed by a board of directors or trustees.

Income: The company must derive at least 75% of its gross income from real estate-related sources, such as rent, lease payments, and property sales. The remaining 25% can come from other sources, such as interest income or dividends.

Assets: The company must hold at least 75% of its assets in real estate properties, cash, or government securities. The remaining 25% can be invested in other types of assets, such as stocks or bonds.

Distribution: The company must distribute at least 90% of its taxable income to shareholders in the form of dividends. These dividends are taxed as ordinary income to shareholders.

Shareholders: The company must have at least 100 shareholders, and no more than 50% of its shares can be owned by five or fewer individuals.

Ownership: The company must be widely held, which means that no more than 50% of its shares can be owned by institutional investors.

Tax status: The company must elect to be treated as a REIT for federal income tax purposes and must meet certain tests each year to maintain its REIT status.

In addition to these requirements, there are several other rules and regulations that REITs must follow to maintain their tax-exempt status. For example, REITs must distribute at least 90% of their taxable income each year, and they must meet certain diversification requirements to ensure that they are not overly exposed to any single property or tenant.

Overall, the requirements for qualifying as a REIT are designed to ensure that these investment vehicles operate as pass-through entities that provide investors with access to income-generating real estate assets. By meeting these requirements, REITs can provide investors with a convenient and tax-efficient way to invest in the commercial real estate market.

Real-world example of a REIT

One real-world example of a REIT is Simon Property Group (NYSE:SPG), which is the largest retail REIT in the United States. SPG owns and operates over 200 shopping malls and retail properties across the country, as well as a significant number of international properties.

SPG generates income primarily from leasing its properties to tenants, such as retailers, restaurants, and entertainment venues. These tenants typically sign long-term leases, which provide SPG with a steady stream of rental income. SPG also generates income from property sales and development projects.

SPG's diversified portfolio of properties includes some of the most well-known retail destinations in the country, such as The Mall of America, King of Prussia Mall, and The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. This diversification helps to spread risk across different regions, property types, and tenants.

In terms of financial performance, SPG has a strong track record of delivering consistent growth in revenue, earnings, and dividends. In 2019, SPG generated total revenue of $5.9 billion and net income of $2.1 billion. The company also paid out over $2.8 billion in dividends to its shareholders during the year.

Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the retail industry, SPG has continued to generate significant income and maintain its dividend payments. While the pandemic has led to some temporary store closures and reduced foot traffic, SPG's diversified portfolio and strong tenant relationships have helped to mitigate the impact.

Overall, SPG is a good example of a REIT that has been able to leverage its expertise in real estate investment and management to generate consistent income and returns for its shareholders.

Pros and cons of investing in REITs

Investing in real estate investment trusts can offer a range of potential benefits, as well as some drawbacks. Here are some of the main pros and cons of investing in REITs:


Diversification: REITs can offer investors access to a diversified portfolio of real estate assets. This can help spread risk across different property types, geographic regions, and tenants, reducing the impact of any one property or tenant on the overall portfolio.

Income: REITs are required to distribute at least 90% of their taxable income to shareholders in the form of dividends. This can provide investors with a regular stream of income, which may be particularly attractive for those seeking yield in a low-interest-rate environment.

Liquidity: REITs are publicly traded on stock exchanges, which makes them easy to buy and sell. This provides investors with a high level of liquidity, which can be useful for those who need to access their investment capital quickly.

Professional management: REITs are typically managed by experienced real estate professionals who have expertise in property acquisition, management, and disposal. This can provide investors with access to high-quality management teams who can help maximize the value of their investment.

Tax advantages: REITs are exempt from federal income tax at the corporate level, provided they distribute at least 90% of their taxable income to shareholders. This can result in a lower tax burden for investors compared to investing directly in real estate.


Volatility: Like all publicly traded securities, REITs can be subject to significant price volatility. This means that the value of a REIT investment can fluctuate in response to market conditions, economic trends, and other factors that are beyond the control of the investor.

Interest rate sensitivity: REITs can be sensitive to changes in interest rates, as rising rates can increase the cost of borrowing and reduce the attractiveness of real estate investments. This can lead to downward pressure on REIT prices and dividends.

Market risk: REITs can be influenced by overall market conditions, such as changes in investor sentiment or economic trends. This means that a downturn in the broader stock market can impact the value of a REIT investment, even if the underlying real estate assets remain sound.

Concentration risk: Some REITs may have significant exposure to certain property types or tenants, which can create concentration risk. For example, a REIT that specializes in retail properties may be negatively impacted if there is a broad shift towards online shopping.

Management risk: The quality of a REIT's management team can have a significant impact on the performance of the investment. Poor management decisions, such as overpaying for properties or failing to properly maintain assets, can lead to underperformance and lower returns.

Overall, investing in REITs can offer a range of potential benefits, including diversification, income, liquidity, and access to professional management. However, it is important to carefully consider the potential drawbacks, such as volatility, interest rate sensitivity, market risk, concentration risk, and management risk, before making any investment decisions.


In conclusion, REITs offer investors a unique opportunity to invest in a diversified portfolio of real estate assets without the need for direct ownership or management responsibilities. By meeting certain requirements set forth by the IRS, REITs are able to enjoy favorable tax treatment and are not subject to corporate income taxes. This translates to higher dividend yields for investors and the potential for steady income.

While there are risks associated with investing in REITs, such as market risk, management risk, dividend risk, and tax implications, these risks can be managed through careful research, due diligence, and diversification.

Overall, REITs can be a valuable addition to an investor's portfolio, providing exposure to real estate assets and the potential for steady income. As with any investment, it is important to consult with a financial advisor and carefully consider the potential benefits and risks before making an investment decision.