Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) have traditionally offered many advantages to investors looking to the real estate market for diversification and tax advantages. They generally have higher yields and lower portfolio turnover than stocks or stock funds, plus they have the potential for capital gains.

As real estate bottomed in the depths of the Great Recession, the conventional wisdom was that REITs had come and gone. But it didn't happen... In fact, the weak housing market opened the door for smaller investors to participate in the short- and long-term gains offered by REITs -- which is especially appealing to the many investors who can't afford to buy a home or who aren't interested in owning physical property.

How REITs Work

REITs are created to hold a pool of managed real estate properties or mortgages. The REIT itself is not actively managed, relying instead on a set portfolio of preselected properties that is maintained for the duration of the trust.

When the trust matures, the portfolio is reset according to the REIT's investment objectives. Each trust is considered to be a distinct security, with each unit in the REIT constituting a proportional share of ownership in each asset held within the trust.

REITs tend to focus more on value than growth. Historically, REITs have provided higher yields than other types of fixed-income securities, making them attractive holdings for moderate income investors. They tend to be more immune to market volatility than stocks or stock funds because of their correlation with the real estate sector.

Categories of REITs

There are three basic categories of REITs: equity, mortgage and hybrid.

Equity REITs receive rental income from the properties held within the trust as well as the capital gains from property sales. These three different streams of income make equity REITs the most desirable of the three.

Mortgage REITs are considered to be riskier than equity REITs because of their vulnerability to changes in interest rates. As with all other fixed-income securities, the value of mortgage REITs can drop substantially if interest rates rise.

Hybrid REITs are a combination of equity and mortgage REITs. There are several different varieties of hybrid REITs: some are open-ended securities, while others are closed-ended; some have a limited life span, while others are perpetual. They can also be invested in as little as one property, although they are usually invested in a group of properties.

Taxation of REITs At The Trust Level

The IRS requires REITs to follow specific rules of taxation. First, they are taxed as a trust, and unitholders pay tax on the income they receive. In most cases, little or no income is held at the trust level, and usually 100% of the income is passed on to investors.

The IRS requires that REITs distribute at least 90% of the income generated by the trust’s portfolio to unit holders. However, they must follow the same method of self-assessment that corporations are required to use. This means that REITs have to obey the same valuation and accounting rules as corporations, but pass cash flow (instead of profits) directly through the trust to unitholders.

In most cases, REITs are generally exempt from taxation at the trust level provided they distribute at least 90% of their income to their unitholders. Even some REITs that adhere to this rule will still face corporate taxation on any retained income, depending upon the provisions spelled out in the initial trust indenture.

The taxation of REITs differs from that of other unit-investment trusts. Because the government considers them to be the business of managing properties, rental income is treated as business income to REITs. Therefore, all expenses related to rental activities managed by the trust are deductible, just as business expenses can be written off by a corporation.

How Will You Be Taxed On Income From A REIT?

Because they are rarely taxed at the trust level, REITs usually pay larger dividends than stocks, which can only pay dividends after being taxed at the corporate level.

For the most part, REIT dividends are taxed to the unitholder as ordinary income just like stock mutual fund dividends. This means that you will pay tax on these dividends at your marginal tax rate.

However, some REIT dividends are classified as “qualified” dividends, which are a special type of dividend taxed at the more favorable capital gain rates. Some of the dividends you receive from your REIT may also be considered a non-taxable return of capital. When this happens, your taxable income from the REIT is reduced accordingly for the year. Return of capital distributions reduce your cost basis and you will not pay tax on return of capital distributions until the REIT matures or you sell it.