Real estate in your retirement portfolio

By Walter Updegrave, senior editor

(Money Magazine) -- Question: How do REITs work? And is it prudent to have them in a diversified retirement portfolio? --M. C., Indianapolis, Indiana

Answer: After going from rock stars of the investing world during the real estate boom to candidates for a VH1"Where Are They Now" episode the last two years, REITs are generating some interest again.

Walter Updegrave is a senior editor with Money Magazine and is the author of "How to Retire Rich in a Totally Changed World: Why You're Not in Kansas Anymore" (Three Rivers Press 2005)

Gee. Could it have anything to do with the fact that, after slumping badly in 2007 (-17.8%) and 2008 (-37.3%), REITs have been on a bit of a roll again with a year-to-date return of more than 25% through mid-December?

Well, whatever has spurred your interest, the answer to your first question is that REITs, or real estate investment trusts, are essentially companies that own and operate income-producing properties that could range from office buildings to hotels to malls to apartment buildings or a combination of these or other facilities.

Since you can buy many REITs just like stocks, investing in them allows you to gain exposure to the real estate market without the hassle of having to buy, manage and sell actual bricks and mortar. And because for tax reasons REITs must distribute 90% or more of their taxable income to shareholders annually as dividends, many investors looking for steady income from their investments also gravitate toward REITs.

As for whether it's prudent to include REITs in a diversified retirement portfolio, I'd say the answer depends on why you're buying them.

If you're considering REITs now because you think their recent gains might be a prelude to another real estate feeding frenzy, I would urge extreme caution. Much of the REIT rebound this year is what you might call a "relief" rally. Things were looking so bad both in terms of property values and availability of financing in the commercial real estate market earlier this year that many REITs were knocked down to Armageddon prices. As investors came to believe that maybe conditions weren't quite so horrendous and that the correction in REIT values had perhaps been overdone, REITs enjoyed a nice little pop.

But the residential and commercial real estate markets still face daunting challenges. That's not to say that REITs don't have the potential to deliver decent returns from here. Indeed, some have been able to raise capital that may allow them to pick up properties at bargain-basement prices. I think it would be foolish, though, to buy into REITs expecting them to retrace their recent trajectory.

But if you want to invest a portion of your retirement savings in REITs as part of a long-term strategy to improve your portfolio's performance by enhancing its diversification, then I'd say yes, it could be prudent to find a place for them. That's because research shows that adding a small helping of REITs to an already diversified portfolio may be able to slightly boost returns without increasing volatility.

Be aware, however, that this approach assumes you'll invest a modest portion of your assets in REITs and that you'll hold them during good and bad periods. And to get the full benefit of the additional diversification they offer, you must be willing to rebalance periodically so REITs continue to account for the same percentage of your portfolio that you set originally.

That means you'll probably be selling off part of your REIT stake after years in which they've soared (like 2003 and 2004), and adding to it after lousy years (like 2007 and 2008). If you don't have the discipline, or the stomach, to do this, then adding REITs probably isn't such a hot idea.

Keep in mind too that while REITs' dividends can be a plus for investors looking to draw income from their retirement portfolio, those dividends can be cut in hard times. Some REITs did exactly that during the financial crisis. What's more, a December 2008 "revenue procedure" from the IRS gave REITs the option of paying out up to 90% of their dividends in stock rather than cash this year. I think it's fair to say most income investors would prefer hard currency to more shares of stock. It's unclear whether, one way or another, REITs will have access to that option again in the coming year.

You should also know that, unlike payouts from most companies, REIT dividends do not generally qualify for the 15% maximum tax rate for qualified dividends. So if you do opt for REITs, you may want to hold them in a tax-advantaged retirement account such as an IRA or 401(k).

All things considered, though, I think REITs can still play a role in a well-rounded retirement portfolio. But unless you know how to analyze the prospects for individual REITs, I'd recommend investing in them through a mutual fund or ETF that owns a diversified portfolio of REITs. You can find both on our Money 70 list of recommended funds.

Bottom line: If you want to make REITs part of your long-term investing strategy for your retirement savings, go ahead. Just be sure to take a prudent approach, as I've outlined. To top of page

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