I was reminded by a chapter of The Money Coach’s Guide to Your First Million that my investment portfolio lacked any exposure to the real estate market. We don’t even own a house, having decided the time is not yet right to buy into the Bay Area. So, earlier this week I decided to look into real estate investment trusts (REITs).
REITs invest money in companies that build and manage real estate properties and then receive returns in the form of rents and mortgages. By returning 90% of their taxable income to shareholders and meeting some other legal requirements (partially listed in the link above), REITs receive special tax treatment by the IRS. One convenient feature of REITs is that they trade on the stock market exchange, just like other stocks, so they can be one convenient way to diversify into real estate without actually owning your own physical property.
As usual, I decided to look for an ETF that fit my needs. (I’m rapidly becoming the Queen of ETFs among personal finance bloggers I think.) Among the US-based REIT ETFs offered are RWR (streetTRACKS DJ Wilshire REIT), VNQ (Vanguard REIT), ICF (iShares Cohen & Steers Realty Majors) and IYR (iShares Dow Jones US Real Estate). Despite tracking different indices, it turns out their top 10 holdings are nearly identical, though they appear in a slightly different order and with different weightings. Their expense ratios range from 0.12% (VNQ) to 0.6% (IYR).
Here’s a key fact: all four of these ETFs invest in equity REITs involved in the ownership and operation of commercial real estate. Specifically, the companies tracked by these ETFs are involved in building and managing retail, office, storage spaces, and apartments. Finding out about these ETFs’ holdings was particularly important to me, because I initially had no idea if they were exposed to the residential real estate market, an area I wanted to avoid for now because I don’t know where it’s headed.
In the end, I chose to buy some shares of ICF, the REIT ETF that tracks the Cohen & Steers Index. This index is comprised of large and liquid real estate companies that “may benefit from future consolidation and securitization of the US real estate industry” and while its expense ratio is on the high side of the group (0.48%), it has outperformed the other ETFs to more than make up for this amount. I have to suppose this has mostly been due to its greater concentration in a smaller number of assets (ICF has 31 holdings vs. 3 or more times that amount in the other ETFs). I plan on seeing how ICF performs, and if I decide to put more money into US REITs, my next purchase will probably be into VNQ.
If you’re interested in learning more about REIT ETFs, I recommend reading the VNQ prospectus, even if you end up purchasing another fund. Vanguard really does a fine job of thoroughly explaining their ETFs so that anyone can understand them. Businessweek also has a slightly older but useful article discussing the different real-estate indices mentioned above.