The right way to invest in real estate

Is it a good time to invest in real estate?

Great question. It reminds me of the line by Lucy in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. She complains about how she always gets stupid toys or a bicycle when all she wants is real estate.

Seriously though, buying real estate — either actual properties or publicly traded stocks that own houses, apartments or commercial buildings — may make sense as a way to diversify your portfolio.

Housing prices historically are a great long-term investment even though they could fluctuate wildly in the short-term depending on the state of the economy.

But with the Federal Reserve likely to keep interest rates on hold for the rest of the year, mortgages should remain fairly affordable for the foreseeable future. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage is 4.17%, according to Freddie Mac.

So where should you begin if you are looking at real estate as an investment and not just a place to live?

As cliché as it may sound, you need to follow the number one real estate rule.

Location, location, location

“Look at the last recession and you saw big price dips in places like Las Vegas where there was a huge runup while places like Austin, which didn’t have a big spike, were flat,” said Holly Tachovsky, co-founder and CEO of BuildFax, a company with a national database for property conditions.

Tachovsky also said that any investor looking at housing as an investment has to do their homework.

“Consider deferred maintenance and other hidden costs,” she said, noting that any damage to a roof, HVAC and electrical systems or plumbing could make the purchase of a property that initially looks like a bargain turn into a proverbial money pit.

Houses aren’t the only real estate investments

Investors thinking about real estate might want to consider commercial properties as well.

Tore Steen, CEO of CrowdStreet, an online commercial real estate investment marketplace, said that investors should look for places with good employment growth.

He said that Nashville, which is going to be the home of a new Amazon operations center that will employ more than 5,000 people as well as a brand new Virgin hotel, and Charlotte, a city that has emerged as a major banking center, are both attractive.

CrowdStreet chief marketing officer Brent Hieggelke added in an interview with CNN Business that investors should look for the types of real estate that can hold up well even in a softer economy.

“What you want is a balanced portfolio. Student housing and senior living centers are both growing demographics that are fairly recession proof,” he said.

REITs are a more affordable way to invest in property

But if you are looking to invest in real estate, you’ll need to make sure you have already saved a big chunk of cash first — whether it’s for a down payment or to invest in property funds. CrowdStreet, for example, has minimum investments of $25,000 for various funds.

Still, there are less expensive ways to invest in real estate.

Real estate investment trusts, publicly traded companies that own properties, can also be good bets for conservative investors since they pay lucrative dividends that can help provide stable income — much like bonds.

Tachovsky said companies that buy up single family homes so they can rent them out are one type of REIT that could make sense.

Investment management firm Blackstone has a separately traded REIT named Invitation Homes that does that. There’s also a company called American Homes 4 Rent.

So you don’t need to be a billionaire (or even millionaire) to become a real estate mogul.

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